The concept of talent is exposed as an empty signifier, by way of Matthew and Merton

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Inge Kryger Pedersen
Department of Sociology, University of Copenhagen


Billy Adamsen Demystifying Talent Management: A Critical Approach to the Realities of Talent 149 pages, hardcover. Basingstoke, Hamps.: Palgrave Macmillan 2016 ISBN 978-1-137-50865-2

Billy Adamsen
Demystifying Talent Management: A Critical Approach to the Realities of Talent
149 pages, hardcover.
Basingstoke, Hamps.: Palgrave Macmillan 2016
ISBN 978-1-137-50865-2

We see talents everywhere: in the media, talent shows, schools, at workplaces and sports games. But what do we mean by the term ‘talent’? In current debates about talent or in talent development, management and research this is mostly not quite clear. Doubtless, the meaning of the term talent is blurry. Billy Adamsen’s book, Demystifying Talent Management is an important contribution to critical debates and reflections of the role of talent in modern management thinking, for example in sport and business. I very much enjoyed reading this book and seeing how the author seeks to demonstrate how ‘talent’ is an empty signifier. His work is done with “the intention of eliminating, or at least ameliorating, the subjective bias in talent management, and thereby decreasing its failures and improving its reliability in actual practice” (p. 2). Although I am not convinced about his semiotic approach, herein epistemology, this book’s ambitions are worth following throughout all the chapters. In particular, I can recommend the first six chapters – more exploring, discussing and interpreting than deductive.

The book consists of a preface, introduction and eleven relatively short and well-structured chapters as well as an epilogue. Adamsen’s focus is on business and sport. He is an assistant professor at the University of Southern Denmark, and he has worked “many years as an advisor and manager” (p. ix) within those spheres in which talent development and management appear. Thus, Adamsen draws mostly on cases from sport and business, but many of his findings, examples and arguments might be generalizable for other fields as well, such as for example science and music. The first and very interesting chapter lays out Adamsen’s critical discussion of ‘The Matthew Effect’ and the Parable of the Talents, which are re-interpreted in a way that is useful for a general view on talent and talent management. Adamsen’s proposed alternative to Merton’s theory of the Matthew effect is recognizable throughout the whole book. Therefore, I will present his point in what follows.

The American sociologist Robert K. Merton developed his theory of the Matthew effect from the Gospel of Matthew. The Matthew effect seen as a social mechanism explains why individuals who have more – here, in the sense of “having talents” – continually receive more resources, opportunities, and recognition, while individuals “not having talents” receive less. Adamsen proposes changing the defining feature of the Matthew effect to: “Everyone who have, shall not necessarily receive more (because they do not necessarily have talents/are not necessarily talented)” (p. 21). We can never be sure that having ‘more’ or seeming to have ‘more’ will mean that ‘more will come’. Adamsen argues, referring to the Parable of Talent, that the talent manager plays an important role in establishing the conditions necessary to trigger the Matthew effect’s underlying social mechanism, but that “in so doing, the manager has no choice but to operate primarily on the basis of faith rather than evidence of achievement” (p. 21). Thus, Adamsen criticizes the assumption that what goes on in the Parable of the Talent has anything to do with the Matthew effect construed as a social mechanism. Instead “disjunctive variables such as faith, favouritism and discrimination influence a manager in the process of identifying, recruiting, and developing employees with talents” (p. 23-24).

Indeed, Adamsen adds some important nuances to the widespread and oversimplified understanding of the Matthew effect, where it is seen as the visible result of an omnipotent social mechanism whose operation is triggered by the possession of talent. He tells stories (in chapter 2) of individuals from the worlds of sports and business who were not considered to be talented but were able later on to strengthen the competiveness of an organization or a team. Adamsen moves the old Parable of the Talents to a contemporary management setting reading the parable as a ‘case’ rather than a (universal) parable. In a sociological way, he emphasizes that modern social systems such as systems for scientific reward, achievement in sports, and success in business are unlike each other. Appearance of the Matthew effect in different cases does not justify the assumption that the effect was subserved by identical mechanism in each case. This means we cannot assume that the mechanisms were triggered by a universally applicable notion of ‘talent’. Whether ‘more will come’ requires the appropriately timed conjunction of a set of additional variables, Adamsen states. So far so good.

How does Adamsen know it is true that we can make our use of language answerable to independently existing facts?

However, Adamsen aims to uncover all kinds of resources/variables needed to explain ‘talent’, if the term should not remain an empty signifier. This is a very ambitious project, and it is not evident that his proposed alternative idea of Individual Qualification Competence Management (Chapter 11) is more directly linked to what he terms “the actual world”. First and foremost, this idea draws on a disputable epistemology. Adamsen often refers to “the actual world” and it is not clear what that is. The semiotic approach outlined in the last chapters but also the epilogue reminded me of the story of Baron Munchausen’s trilemma – where he is pulling himself and the horse on which he is sitting out of a mire by his own hair. How does Adamsen know it is true that we can make our use of language answerable to independently existing facts? Then he may provide proof; yet that same question can be asked of the proof – and any subsequent proof. In the epilogue, it appears as if the Danish philosopher David Favrholdt’s ideas about “the fundamental language” also would be the ideas of the world famous Danish physicist Niels Bohr who died in 1962. Thus, it says on the very last page: “In the words of Niels Bohr and David Favrholdt, what talent management needs is a basic or fundamental language, one that isn’t open to free interpretation, one whose use is tightly constrained by causal links to processes, events, and practices” (p. 123).

If Bohr was still alive, he might have objected or added important nuances to this epistemological statement. Modern and theoretical physics would have been in trouble when making their foundational contributions to explain atomic structure and quantum theory if they were not more open, creative and drawing on intersubjective communication spheres in their understanding and producing their terminology than what “the fundamental language” deduces. Bohr had a horseshoe above a door in his home, he compared the language about atoms with poetry, and he referred to that kind of epistemological problems which thinkers like Buddha have been confronted. So would Bohr agree in drawing on an epistemology where language is a ‘causal link’ from an isolated ‘reality’ when trying to explain such a complicated phenomenon as ‘talent’? The language about ‘black holes’, not to mention ‘talent’ might be different from the language about whether it rains or not. The language of talent might be familiar to the language of creativity, thinking, embodiment, new ideas, exploring. Are these phenomena included in “the actual world”?

In spite of presenting epistemological statements rather than arguments, Adamsen’s book is a very well written and important piece of work. Its theoretical discussions of the talent term is appreciated seen in the perspective of an unreflective use of this term in many contexts of talent management and development. Noteworthy, Kenneth Aggerholm’s Talent Development, Existential Philosophy and Sport also came out recently (Routledge 2015; reviewed by Gunnar Breivik in idrottsforum.org). Aggerholm’s focus on creativity using a phenomenological, existential approach is quite different from Adamsen’s analytic philosophical approach and the reading of these two recent books will offer a wide spectrum of how to reflect on talent development. To keep, or rather to develop a wide spectrum of interpreting and analysing what is a ‘talent’ and how ‘talent’ is managed and developed might be fruitful to give us more insights in (potential and realised) excellence achievements in different social spheres.

These books are sophisticated contributions and we can only hope that the primitive form of a Matthew effect will be activated – also on the (research) institutional level: that more (within research of sport, see also for example Peterson’s work on talent development 2011, Pedersen’s work on the excellence achievement in sport 1998, 1999 and 2001, and Schoug’s sublime book Intima samhällsvisoner. Sporten mellan minimalism och gigantism, 1997) means that ‘more will come’. As Adamsen argues: human resources are not the only relevant resources to develop more ‘talent’. Whether ‘more will come’ depends on more than “the positive feed back loop”. The widespread establishment of talent management as a discipline “concerned exclusively with identifying, recruiting, and developing talent (rather than understanding and knowing about talent itself)” (p. 72) is a ‘call’ for more insights in this field – and more engaged books like Aggerholm’s and Adamsen’s. For example a debate book where these two Danish authors discuss how their different epistemological approaches (i.e. ‘the lived world’ versus ‘the actual world’) influence not only the understandings of the term ‘talent’ but also the concrete work with talent management and development. Adamsen’s epilogue should not go unchallenged.

Copyright © Inge Kryger Pedersen 2016

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