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Talent Management: Gestation, Birth, and Innovation Diffusion

  • Stephen SwailesEmail author
Chapter

Abstract

This chapter summarizes how the term ‘talent’ gradually became incorporated into mainstream thinking about business operations in the twentieth century leading up to the ‘birth’ of a new management meme: talent management. Socio-economic conditions prevailing at the time of the birth are summarized. Using ideas from memetics, the chapter focuses on explaining why the talent meme has been so effective (and infective). Five features of the meme are identified that explain why it has found so many hosts. These are similarities with other, related, memes; the lack of a competing meme; ambiguity in what talent and talent management mean; the appeal of celebrity in times of attention deficits; and the promise of power and status to those behind talent programmes.

Keywords

Memetics History Innovation diffusion Celebrity Talent management 

This chapter traces interest in the idea of talent, particularly in relation to business contexts, as a way of understanding the sociogenesis of talent management in the 1990s. Talent, together with talent management, is treated here as a meme and, using the idea of memes as transmitters and social replicators, the reasons for the proliferation of the talent meme are suggested. These reasons go beyond rational explanations for organizational interest in talent as a route to organizational improvement, although that doubtless plays a part, and look within the meme for explanations of its popularity.

Talent management displays some of the features of fads and fashions in management (Iles, Preece, & Chuai, 2010) and, given that some innovations spread for reasons that are not entirely rational (Scarborough, Robertson, & Swan, 2015), it is useful to look at alternative theoretical explanations for the progress of the meme. How, for instance, can the sudden rise in popularity of talent management in the twenty-first century be explained and what has sustained it so far? What is it about the idea that continues to attract attention? In exploring these questions, we move away from rational explanations for innovation diffusion and look closely at the innovation itself in order to get a more nuanced explanation of its capacity to keep attracting attention.

Using a conventional approach to understanding how memes form and proliferate (Paull, 2009), the chapter explores three distinct periods: events before the creation or birth of the meme, its creation point, and the diffusion of the meme after creation. The historical overview is provided to set the scene and is not an exhaustive treatment of how ‘talent’ has been seen by society (see Cappelli & Keller, 2017). Moreover, it is intended to give sufficient flavour here of how society has treated talent and to highlight some important moments in the history of thinking about talent. It is worth noting at this point that business organizations have a long history of showing interest in selection, training, and management development (Cappelli, 2009). For sure, managers deemed to have high potential would have been a focus for some of these activities, but seeing and talking of high potential employees as ‘talent’ is a relatively recent phenomenon in business organizations. Reasons for the rapid diffusion of this phenomenon are discussed in this chapter.

Historical Overview

People lucky enough to be deemed as talented have always attracted attention. Writing in the early twelfth century, the cleric Henry of Huntingdon tells us of ‘William, a young man of great natural talent’ and of Richard ‘whose talents we admired and of whom we expected great deeds’ (Greenway, 2002, pp. 99–101). Henry clearly saw in these individuals something different from the norm, something that marked them out from others and that credited them with the potential to achieve more than most.

There is a long tradition of thinking in terms of ‘talent’ and ‘giftedness’ in sport, art, and music and a substantial body of research as to why some people have more ability in certain fields than others (Kaufman, 2013; Sternberg & Davidson, 2005). The meanings of giftedness, talent and genius, very different things that should never be conflated,1 started to be explored in the early twentieth century (Fischer, 1904). Of particular interest were the social conditions that associated with talent development (Faris, 1936) perhaps in the hope that if associating conditions could be identified then this would enable the talents of more people to flourish. A noble aim perhaps, but more comprehensive theories of talent development began to emerge that also took account of hereditary characteristics, general intelligence, and psychological disposition (Bray, 1954).

For sure, most business organizations have always recognized the importance of developing their employees and looking out for above average people. It makes commercial sense after all, but for most of the twentieth century this was, for the most part, treated using labels such as management development, training, and retraining. One exception (Hadley, 1888: 576) noted that industrial competition would ‘guarantee’ that men with the best talent for organizing would end up running organizations as the result of a process of ‘natural selection which prevented incompetent employers from maintaining themselves long at the head of large enterprises’. But despite over 100 years of systematic study of management practices and work psychology, the term ‘talent’ was little used in business contexts until the 1990s.

In the United States, a Committee for the Identification of Talent was set up in the early 1950s and the Committee recognized that talent identification was inexorably bound up in the prevailing power relationships in organizations (McClelland, Baldwin, Bronfenbrenner, & Strodtbeck, 1958). ‘Talent’, as a descriptor for above average people, started to gain traction in the 1960s. Twedt (1967) used the term ‘talent pool’ in relation to concerns about shortages of marketing managers and Patton (1967) was concerned with shortages of executive talent. Miner (1969, p. 257) devoted half a page to talent searches in a textbook on personnel relations considering them to be for ‘lower management levels…from within the firm’ and reflecting a much more parochial approach to talent management than is taken today.

Social changes at the time as evidenced through the 1960s counterculture and changing university curricula that much more openly questioned authority and the establishment were thought to be capable of discouraging young people from taking up careers in management (Miner, 1974). This shift and potential clash of attitudes is illustrated by the central character Benjamin Braddock in the 1967 film, The Graduate.
Mr McQuire [a businessman at a family party for Ben’s graduation]:

“Ben, I just wanted to say one word to you – just one word.”

Ben:

“Yes, sir.”

Mr McQuire:

“Are you listening?”

Ben:

“Yes I am.”

Mr McQuire (gravely):

“Plastics.”

Ben:

“Exactly how do you mean?”

Mr McQuire:

“There is a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?”

Ben:

“Yes, I will.”

Mr McQuire:

“Enough said. That’s a deal.”

The short piece of dialogue between the young graduate and the business executive contrasts the traditional, parental views of expectations of a career with a large corporation with a new generation’s more liberal attitude to work and employment. In case you are wondering, Ben did not pursue a career in plastics, preferring to focus his attentions on the neighbour’s daughter and, at the end of the film, drive her off into an unspecified future.

Manpower planning was popular in large corporations at the time and the importance of identifying talented employees in this process was recognized (Hinrichs, 1966; Vetter, 1967) as attention was turning to the personal characteristics that signalled all the qualities of managerial talent (Ghiselli, 1971; Siegel & Ghiselli, 1971). Both researchers and practitioners were looking at better ways of identifying managerial talent (Edwards & Bartlett, 1983; Stahl, 1983). Longitudinal studies of the relationships between individual differences, career success, and income appeared (Abrahamson, 1973; Husen, 1972). Scholars were also starting to investigate the subjectivity contained in decisions surrounding judgements of a person’s talent, for example, beauty (Kaplan, 1978; Landy & Sigall, 1974).

Alongside a growing interest in understanding the ingredients of talent in a range of domains, some important developments were occurring in how businesses thought about managing people. This is captured in the transition from personnel management to human resource management and the more widely held belief that employee performance is proportional to the ways that people are managed. From the 1970s onwards, a number of trends affecting businesses in the West can be identified (Gospel, 2010) including the rapid growth of industrial sectors such as food and consumer goods; trade liberalization; new technologies, rising competition; new ways of structuring such as multidivisional businesses; declining employee commitment to trades unions; and rising living standards enjoyed by employees. These changes to the conditions that businesses had to deal with called for new ways of managing to circumvent practices that for many firms had become centralized and paternalistic. For many firms, rigidity, formalization and hierarchy were reduced to make way for a much stronger market and profit focus, job flexibility, team working, greater autonomy and greater links between pay, promotion, and performance, to name but a few. Fuelled by concerns about inefficiencies, many of these new ways of thinking and organizing attracted political attention on the grounds that they should improve the performance of public sector organizations. These reforms, taken up in a range of countries in what has become known as New Public Management, have had a big impact on the ways that public sector employees are managed (Bach, 2010).

A specific development in the general shift from personnel management to HRM in response to declining competitiveness in U.S. firms initially was an appreciation of high performance work practices. These involve, among other things, flexible work arrangements, extensive training and development, performance-related pay, and job security (Becker & Huselid, 1998). High performance practices are often thought to work best when several practices are implemented to operate in conjunction with each other (bundling). While they remain contentious due to concerns over their possible impacts on employee wellbeing (Wood & De Menezes, 2011), it is easy to see how talent management gained favour as a way, in theory, of connecting high performing employees to improved organizational performance.

Against this background, by the late 1990s the use of ‘talent’ as a collective term to describe employees and prospective employees with above average abilities and the potential to contribute to organizations had become quite widespread.

Creation

Like all innovations, talent management arose out of patterns and systems of thinking that had preceded it. It was not discovered, it had been gestating for some time. In this case, there was a long tradition of recognizing and remarking on talent, usually in complementary ways, and the second half of the twentieth century witnessed the increasing connection of ‘talent’ with descriptions of above average, high potential employees. The specific idea that organizations need to manage ‘talent’ evolved out of and in conjunction with separate but related memes that carried their own messages about, for example, the importance of good leadership and of the importance of managing performance (Cappelli, 2009). Talent management arose out of socio-cultural and economic factors and the ingredients that gave rise to the particular ‘primordial soup’ from which talent management could evolve were, primarily, accepting the idea that different positions in a society are not equally important to the survival of the same society (Davis & Moore, 1944), a strong tendency in Western societies to stratify and differentiate among people that had permeated into business organizations (see Collings, 2017; Lepak & Snell, 1999), non-uniform distributions of talents in society, and narratives surrounding increasingly difficult economic conditions and shortages of talent (Swailes, 2016).

Stratification in this case is based on a person’s perceived current and future value to an organization, namely, their economic worth. Narratives of talent shortages (e.g., see Manpower Group, 2015) and tougher business conditions served, and continue to serve, the interests of senior managers in control of organizations (Swailes, 2013). A similar background explains the emergence of the construct of the gifted child in the early twentieth century; the vested interests of those controlling schools and those of psychologists and educationalists were served by the creation of education systems for gifted children (Borland, 2005).

Although the term ‘talent management’ had appeared before the influential work by consultants McKinsey & Co. (e.g., Istvan, 1991), if we seek a distinctive moment for its birth then we would not be far wrong in considering it to be around the oft cited ‘War for Talent’ article (Chambers, Foulon, Handfield-Jones, Hankin, & Michaels, 1998). Around this time, two entities, management and talent, that had been slowly converging collided with sufficient force to create a new and stable idea. Reinforcements arrived later in the form of the influential book The War for Talent (Michaels, Handfield-Jones, & Axelrod, 2001). There was something about the idea that executives were fighting a war that attracted attention to the meme. The meme responded by getting into the minds of willing hosts and by adapting and transmitting itself.

What is clear is that the birth of the talent meme in business contexts was accompanied by some very bullish language about the righteousness of the ‘war’. The talent imperative was based on interviews with nearly 13,000 managers plus discussions with people in hundreds of companies. There could be no doubt, it was claimed, that companies with robust talent systems outperformed others and for that reason. Strong leadership was paramount and the poverty of the failing employee was scorned. No quarter should be given in the search for those with high potential or in the exposure of poor performers. The tone of the talent discourse was assertive, masculine, and individualistic. This was managerialism at its best. Yet it would be going too far to credit McKinsey with the conception of talent management since it had existed before their interventions occurred. McKinsey & Co. did not gestate or give birth to the meme, but they did act as midwife and their role in its passage into management consciousness should not be underestimated. Maybe, if most business executives at the time had been women then, perhaps, the war metaphor would not have been so catchy. We will never know.

A Meme’s Progress: The Diffusion of the Talent Meme

Richard Dawkins (1976) introduced the concept of memes in The Selfish Gene. Dawkins was interested in how, like genes, socio-cultural phenomena also change and survive across time albeit sometimes not for very long. Memes include ideas and fashions, amongst other things, and can be thought of as something that carries an idea from brain to brain. In the case of talent management, transmission occurs mostly through talk and through written communications. Internet memes, such as short videos spread by social media and which gain rapid popularity, are a type of meme but are not the same and can be disregarded for the purposes of this chapter. Of interest here is the idea of memes as transmitters of cultural information, in this case the phenomenon of talent management, that mutate as they pass from person to person.

Some memes are short-lived; others can last for a long time. Passing from mind to mind often with some modification to the meme, in this case the idea of talent and of managing it, occur each time transmission occurs. Brains become host to a meme analogous to the way in which a body plays host to the genes that have shaped it. Religions can be seen as examples of memes that have survived over a long time, albeit with modifications, because shared religions help to bind communities together and, for their followers, provide answers to some very difficult questions about the nature of human existence.

Meme theory has attracted attention in a range of management fields. Specific applications include applying memetics to large system changes where barriers to change can often arise from the ‘stubborn persistence’ of old memes (Waddock, 2015), explaining tourist destination choices (Atadil, Sirakaya-Turk, Baloglu, & Kirillova, 2017) and business process re-engineering (O’Mahoney, 2007). The progress of the talent meme into popular conscience can be tracked through citation databases. Using Scopus, a large database of peer-reviewed sources, and limiting hits to ‘talent’ occurring in the source title across the social sciences, seven citations were recorded in 1970, 16 in 1980, 31 in 1990, 62 in 2000, 365 in 2010, 347 in 2015, and 430 in 2017. Scopus demonstrates the relatively low interest in ‘talent’ by academics before 2000 and the sharp upturn of interest thereafter which has steadied since 2010. These statistics of course are measuring scholarly interest not practitioner interest. To gauge practitioner interest, the Business Source Complete database was searched for ‘talent’ in the title of articles appearing in periodicals only. Periodicals are more likely to be read by practitioners and a similar pattern emerges: 25 hits in 1995, 109 in 2000, 219 in 2010, 443 in 2015, and 364 in 2017. The chapter now turns to explore the reasons why this upturn occurred.

It is surely not because there is a solid evidence base that talent management improves organizational performance (Collings, 2015; Glaister, Karacay, Demirbag, & Tatoglu, 2018; Silzer, 2010). While there is some empirical evidence of the positive effects of management and leadership development (Mabey & Finch-Lees, 2010) and thus by implication of talent management, a specific evidence base is distinctly lacking. However, this should not be taken as too strong a criticism since the connection between any particular strategic human resource management initiative and individual or organizational performance is very hard to isolate given the wide range of alternative management practices and market changes that are usually co-occurring. Indeed, there are some fundamental methodological problems in exploring the links between HRM practices and performance including the widespread use of the same person to provide data on HRM practices and on organizational performance (single source respondents), quantifying HRM practices and measuring their effects, accounting for time lags across which effects might take place, and reverse causality (Becker & Huselid, 2006) such that it is not talent management that causes higher performance but that higher performing firms that tend to implement talent management.

This positivist approach to researching the HRM-Performance link is reinforced by copious advice to organizations regarding how to use best-practice to attract, retain, develop, and reward talent (e.g., see Lorsch & Tierney, 2002; Schweyer, 2004). Doubtless such texts are the products of experience and contain many good ideas for top managers. A fundamental problem remains, however, that, for all the generalizations of what talent is and how to leverage it, talent is idiosyncratic. All organizations employ a unique survival strategy but even organizations in the same sectors employ different, even if only slightly different, ways of surviving. What one organization prizes as talent may be less prized by a different organization serving a very similar market.

Since survival strategies differ, even if only very slightly, the specific talents needed in one place differ from those most valued elsewhere. In addition, since two management teams cannot be the same, their visions and imaginings of talent and how it reveals itself to others will also differ. Organizations can make good use of the best-practice recipes on offer, but should never lose sight of the difficulties and pitfalls of adapting recipes to the unique, distinctive, and unreproducible social structures that they rely on for survival.

Fleetwood and Hesketh (2010) provide a detailed rebuttal of ‘scientific’, deductive approaches to understanding the HRM-Performance link in which inputs and outputs are quantified and measured. Central to their argument is that workforces are open systems and thus cannot be treated as closed systems in which causal ‘event regularities’ occur of the type – if x occurs then there will be some proportionate change in y. They summarize their position observing that quantitative researchers looking to connect HRM to performance ‘turn a blind eye to the possibility that because they are naturally qualitative, inherently complex, evolving multidimensional and subjective, practices cannot be meaningfully measured’ (2010, p. 204).

It is against this background that we have to look for other reasons why interest in the idea of talented employees and in the importance of managing them gained popularity so quickly. Five explanations are suggested here, they are not mutually exclusive as all of them could have been active in the minds of senior managers over the past 20 years in particular.

The Popularity of the Talent Meme

The talent meme has a high degree of ‘stickiness’ (Barrett, 2015), and five features of the meme are proposed to explain this characteristic. Firstly, the meme relates to other closely connected memes such as the salience of performance management and the impact of good leadership on organizational success. Set in a context of narratives relating to toughening competition and business excellence, among others, the meme easily finds a home with senior managers and HR executives tasked with business improvement. It is a relatively simple idea that is easy to assimilate and which sticks in the memory. The meme is transportable and, arguably, has relevance to most medium to large business organizations. Social networks influence the rate at which innovations diffuse because networks are structures that help to transmit a particular meme (Abrahamson & Rosenkopf, 1997). As executives move between organizations, they carry the meme with them and it may find new hosts in the minds of others that are tasked with taking organizations forward. Likewise, many ambitious employees who have high opinions of their worth and potential may expect some form of talent development system in organizations that they are considering moving to. This circulation of people helps to transmit the talent meme between organizations.

Secondly, the meme’s survival is aided by the lack of a clear competitor. For sure, most medium sized and large organizations have implemented structured and perhaps very effective HRM systems, but many have not signed up to the specific idea of managing talent (Fegley, 2006). In profit seeking sectors, a ‘do nothing’ approach to talent has limited traction particularly when executives can see their competitors setting-up talent programmes. The talent meme also carries a subtle message of danger and memes that do so tend to spread quickly (Barrett, 2015; Brodie, 2009). Borrowing from Mills’ (1956 [2000:143]) observations on executive training, talent programmes address senior managers’ concerns that people in the lower levels ‘are not as broad-gauge as they themselves are’ and ‘are designed to meet the felt need for the perpetuation of the corporate hierarchy’. The meme appeals to concerns that doing nothing compromises an organization’s ability to survive as well as it could. The inherent message of danger was helped along, at least in the early years, by the ‘war for talent’ message. War is a strong word that arouses passions and fears and if McKinsey had chosen a less emotive and more benign banner headline then the meme’s progress might have been slower than it was.

Third, ambiguity. While there are accepted definitions of talent applicable to many fields, for example, that talent in a domain represents the top 10 per cent of people by systematically developed competencies (Gagne, 2013), in business contexts the term can and does mean almost anything. The term is used to describe employees in general, prospective employees, and is also used in an elitist way to describe the top few per cent of employees in terms of their performance and potential. This ambiguity surrounding what talent can mean and how it is best managed helps the meme to diffuse across sectors (Adamsen, 2016). In sport, by comparison, individuals can easily be compared in terms of times, distances, goals, or runs scored, for example, but most businesses do not have access to such singular performance measures for their employees, and innate talent is much harder to identify (Cappelli & Keller, 2014). Organizations may use performance criteria contained in competence frameworks to assess talent and rubrics such as the nine-box grid to map talent across their workforce, but it remains hard for them to separate true ability and potential from the impressions that people have created about them (Chen & Fang, 2008) and from chance events that have made them look better than others.

The ambiguity that talent carries with it means that talent management can be interpreted and adapted to fit a range of situations. It has good ‘interpretive viability’ (Benders & van Veen, 2001). Executives are in effect ‘consuming’ the idea of talent which embraces all sorts of positive connotations that they and many of their employees would reasonably be expected to identify with. The idea of searching for talent and then of managing it should reassure executives, in particular, since it places them, if not above the talented then at least, on a par with them. They can select those features of the talent meme that appeal to them the most and use them to maintain status and power over ambitious others. In structured talent programmes, line managers can use the talent criteria as a controlling mechanism over their staff, and ambitious employees can play the talent recognition game if they are smart enough to do so.

Fourth, celebrity society. The talent meme prospers in a society that values celebrity and talent searches can be interpreted as searches for minor organizational celebrities. A feature of contemporary celebrity society (van Krieken, 2012) is that people are oversupplied with information whereas their attention is in short supply. Managing large organizations is very complex and the talent meme helps to reduce this complexity. Executives attuned to the idea that some employees contribute more than others will easily play host to the meme. When attention is short, what better than to focus attention on small groups of employees that, by some process, have been labelled as talented? For managers who are comfortable with the philosophy of workforce differentiation, concentrating attention on a minority offers considerable advantages given the alternative of concentrating on everyone.

This short-cut approach, however, carries with it a potential downside. In essence, there are two competing but not mutually exclusive explanations for stardom which are applied here. Rosen (1981) theorizes that superstar earnings are a result of talent differentials with small differences in talent explaining large differences in earnings and where the talent-earnings gradient increases near the top of the scale. Adler (1985, 2006), however, suggests that superstars can emerge from pools of equally talented individuals because consumer networks need to share a common culture. Some empirical support for Adler’s hypothesis exists (Nuesch, 2008) and, using game modelling, Gergaud and Ginsberg (2010) show that stardom arising from popularity dissipates more rapidly than stardom arising from talent.

If Adler’s (1985, 2006) ideas translate to boardrooms, then executives can start to focus on an individual because they revert to consuming the same talent as others are consuming. It works like this. Suppose an employee comes to the attention of an executive who is attracted to their talent potential or perhaps just because they have created a good impression of themselves. The talented employee is discussed with other executives such that they also start to consume the same talent. Thus someone who is not normally exposed to top managers benefits from being talked about favourably and their consumption capital increases (Adler, 1985). Of course, the opposite can happen in that the ‘untalented’ could be talked about unfavourably. Employees with heightened consumption capital benefit from greater popularity and the talent consumers concentrate their limited attention on them and to the detriment of others acting under the talent radar. On the surface this is efficient; the costs of searching for information that might identify new talent are saved. The process works across many fields—if someone likes Mozart then why buy music from other composers of the period to see if they like them as well? Save the money and stick to Mozart.

If executives do operate in this way, then through genuine talent or perhaps through luck or good impression management, an employee can spiral upwards to celebrity status. Where attention is predicated more on popularity than on real differences in talent, the success of an employee is more closely linked to the influencing abilities of their line manager. Employees will engage in upwards influence and impression management—if they are motivated to do so—to the extent that being in a talent pool has a payoff. The processes of talent recognition can be said to be efficient if employees earmarked as talented are truly more talented than those who are overlooked (see Rosen, 1981). However, if talent recognition is largely proportional to popularity, ingratiation, and impression, then any gains must be set against the cumulative effects of the psychological deficits and downsides experienced by those who go unrecognized. These could include disaffection, withdrawal of goodwill, and increased turnover cognitions (De Boeck, Meyers, & Dries, 2018; Swailes & Blackburn, 2016).

Fifth, power and status. Despite the limited evidence that talent programmes actually produce net business benefits, the meme’s spread is helped along because the people who are making talent decisions—effectively acting as talent show judges—boost their power over the people they are evaluating (van den Brink, Fruytier, & Thunnissen, 2013). Managing talent is reassuring to those in the higher managerial elite who have risen to the top of the corporate world and who sit in judgement over the merits of others. They are too far above the cut and thrust of the talent review meetings to get caught up in the emotional fallout from those processes. That is left to line managers and executives below them.

Some elevation of status will also accrue to those who are credited with talent status, particularly where the selection processes are supposedly open, competitive, and rigorous. Enhanced status carries with it certain advantages such as more profitable interactions with other high status people and greater psychological rewards (Nippa, 2011). For instance, higher status improves the chances of getting favourable outcomes (Washington & Zajac, 2005) and reduces the likelihood of receiving negative behaviour from others (Lamertz & Aquino, 2004). Enhanced status, for some, is a motivator and provides another reason for the spread of the meme.

By way of an analogy, parallels can be drawn between elitist talent programmes and how court societies operated in past time. In particular, court societies were used to keep order among ambitious courtiers vying for the attention of the nobility (see Elias, 1983) and elitist talent programmes mirror the social processes that occurred. Elite talent programmes create a hierarchy—at least among those excluded, included, and their seniors—by reinforcing distinctions between the majority of employees, the select few enjoying talent status, line managers, and top managers. In the courts of old, courtiers had to discipline themselves or face falling out of favour or worse. It follows that talent pool members submit to a self-imposed discipline and etiquette that imposes order on themselves and which mitigates their ability to threaten the safety of people above them (see Chap.  3).

Conclusions

The talent meme that is now hosted by many organizations was a long time in the making. It has mutated and prospered because of its intrinsic features, namely, stickiness, the lack of a competitor, ambiguity, the celebrity nature of contemporary society, and the promise of power and control. There is little evidence that it benefits organizations directly, but the weight of interest in it suggests that many executives have little doubt that it does, although there are other reasons for playing host to it. Indeed, it would be hard to isolate the benefits of talent management due to methodological problems; it must be left to individual organizations to decide if and how to use it. Furthermore, benefitting a host is not a necessary condition for a meme to spread; their trick is, like genes, to replicate. The more this particular meme finds new hosts, the more variations there are in how it manifests itself in organizations. It is a product of the society that created it and arose out of discourses around how organizations should be managed, particularly in Western capitalist economies. It is part of the current ‘rhetorical wave’ (Barley & Kunda, 1992) affecting business leadership that emphasizes, among other things, leadership, performance, and governance.

To complement mainstream research in how organizations run talent programmes and their effects, memetics suggests that it would also be useful to look more closely at the meme itself and the social networks that have transmitted it to understand more about why it has been such an effective management innovation. Alongside this, it would also be useful to understand more about organizational conditions that give immunity to the talent meme. Many organizations have not played host to it particularly in the public sector. The answer may lie in understanding more about how memes compete with each other. The public sector, for example, has stronger traditions of collectivism, unionization, and non-differentiation that might explain why the talent meme has had less impact.

Footnotes

  1. 1.

    ‘Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognises genius’, Arthur Conan Doyle.

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© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Huddersfield Business SchoolUniversity of HuddersfieldHuddersfieldUK

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