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Are Your Training Interventions Biased Towards 'Talented' Employees?

Kumar Kunal Jha is an assistant professor with the School of Management and Labour Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), India.

Should an organisation focus training on its top-performing employees or spread training throughout its workforce?

Should an organisation focus training on its top-performing employees or spread training throughout its workforce?

Over the years, I have noticed that most organisations focus on holistic, proactive and evidence-based training interventions mainly for the top-performing employees at managerial levels or above. Although there are ‘general’ and ‘functional’ training interventions which are provided to most of the employees within the organisation, these traditional training programmes mainly bombard the employees with information, and their impact on the bottom-line is rarely measured and/or noticed.

Many organisations have a bias as they are willing to invest time, money and resource on their ‘talented employees’ whereas the training interventions for all other employees (most of the time forming a very large percentage of the total human resource of the organisation) largely remain a check mark for the organisational reports.

Further, most of the time these general training programmes are not evidence-based and lack focus on the KSA (Knowledge, Skill and Attitude) development that would enable the growth of the employee within the organisation, ultimately resulting in organisational sustainability and growth in this VUCA world. No wonder many empirical studies have suggested that most of the training interventions fail!

So back to the question: “Should training investment be spread over all employees or focused on talented employees alone?”

The statement given is open to various interpretations. Thus before sharing my viewpoint on the above statement, it would be imperative that I state certain assumptions on which my argument would be based.


a) Talent should not be seen in a binary: My first assumption or rather question would be ‘why would the organisation hire employees that are not talented?’. The statement questions if the training investment focus should be on talented employees. Does that mean that the organisation is aware of the competencies that help identify talented employees? If yes, then why is it that most organisations end up dividing its entire human resource on a bell curve, only to find out later that they have also hired not-so-talented employees? Wouldn’t it be wise to recruit only talented employees so that it would also save cost that would have been otherwise spent on training the ‘not-talented’ employees?

Any strategy related to training when the organisation has only talented employees would be for continuous improvement and addition of new KSAs rather than playing catch up through training for the not-talent employees. This would only be possible when organisations deconstruct the current way of dividing individuals as talented or not-talented and rather see employees as human beings capable of learning and adapting to change.

As per how talent is defined now, the performance of the employees may go below the ‘expected standards’ due to various internal and external factors thus making them ‘not so talented’ employees. At times it might even be that the organisation has misjudged the talent due to the fault in the process, structures and strategies that the employee may not also have much control on. Therefore I would assume that employees cannot be seen in the binary of being talented or not talented.

Talent should be recognised on the linear (horizontal) infinite scale of progression and not that on a vertical binary of either talented or not-talented individuals. The primary assumptions of seeing the talent on an infinite linear scale as we live in a dynamic world and that there is always scope for improvement given the ever-changing external environment to which humans have to adapt and evolve continuously. Thus the organisations should not judge their employees on the talent that they have but their ability to learn quickly and adapt to the change.

b) Talent is measured in relation to the task: My second assumption would be that talent cannot be viewed in singularity but has to be considered in relation to a task(s). For instance, an individual or an employee’s talent is measured in terms of their performance related to a specific task. As human beings, we cannot be equally ‘talented’ in all the tasks that might be given to us.

We might have heard many times the generalised statement for an individual or an employee that ‘this employee/individual is very talented’. Even though this statement is a generalisation, it is again in relation to the task or multiple tasks/roles that this individual performs. Which may mean that the individual/employee may have suitable KSAs to perform the role that they are in, but it does not imply that this individual/employee would be talented in all the tasks/roles. Further, it is not necessary that a talented person will perform in all condition which is explained in my next assumption.

c) Talented individuals may not always be motivated to perform: There is a difference between talent and performance. Talent can simply be defined as the natural aptitude and skills that an individual has whereas performance can be defined as the act of executing a task or putting the knowledge, skill and aptitude to use. Which means that an individual/employee may be talented, but it is not necessary that they will perform or use their talent to the best.

There can be various factors that may motivate or demotivate an individual to perform/complete a task. The manner in which the individual/employee may perform the task would be largely dependent on the motivation that they have towards the task. Thus it might mean that even a talented individual/employee may not be motivated to perform in a task, but a lesser talented individual/employee may be more motivated to accomplish the same task. This might even lead to the lesser talented individual/employee getting better results as compared to the individual/employee who is more talented (depending on the nature of the task).

These phenomena have been recorded in various theories related to motivation and group behaviour in psychology and organisational behaviour. Theories on motivation given by different social scientist have helped us understand this phenomenon.

d) Situated learning and self-learning are inevitable: Once an organisation employees an individual it strives to provide an environment to the individual where they learn by doing, observation and through reflections which is commonly also known as ‘learning by doing’ or even as ‘situated learning’. Even when the organisation has not consciously planned on-the-job training initiatives such as job rotation and job mentoring, it may be possible for an individual to acquire knowledge through self-learning, exploration, observations and reflection.

This ‘learning by self’ is fundamental to human beings as all of us learn from our experiences and observations. The very fact that as individuals we are part of various institutions (be it an organisation or society as an institution) will ultimately result in some or other form of learning.

When an organisation gives entry to an individual, then learning is bound to take place even when the organisation has not planned for the same. Thus we can assume that learning will take place even when the organisation does not provide planned training interventions.

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Based on these assumptions stated above, my answer to the question ‘Should training investment be spread over all employees or focused on talented employees alone?’ is as follows.

The Four Groups of Training Interventions

One of the most critical factors that determine if a training investment is to be spread over all employees or focused on some would be depended on the objective, nature and type of training interventions. Broadly we can categories training interventions in four groups which are as follows:

1. Orientation and On-Boarding Training

Most organisations which want to communicate their vision, mission, objective, formal structure or even their identity conduct orientation training for all their employees. Orientation training for all the employees helps the organisation to set standard rules and expectations across the organisation. Onboarding can be a little different from orientation as in the process of on-boarding the employee receives department specific training that would help maximise individual contribution in their department and eventually for the organisation.

An organisation should provide orientation and on-boarding training to all its employees and this investment cannot be done only for few employees that the organisations think is talented. The nature and time of these training may differ from the level and department that an individual is employed. If this training is not provided to all individuals at the same level/function/department as compared to perceived talented ones, then it might even lead to an overall unhealthy environment within the organisation where all individuals may not feel welcome.

2. Technical Skill Development Training

This type of training would be required depending on the level of technical skills needed to perform a job. Broadly the organisations define jobs in the category of primary functions and supporting/auxiliary functions. Employees working in the primary functions need to continue developing these skills at the same time individuals at auxiliary roles should be made aware of these primary functions so that they optimise their productivity which can facilitate their colleges in a better fashion. Here the organisations can be selective of the intensity and the individuals that they need to focus their training interventions on.

3. Soft Skill Development Training

It is crucial for any organisations to focus on the soft skills of their employees as it helps them to maintain harmony within the workplace with colleagues and across departments but also the other relevant stakeholders such as customers and suppliers. Many organisations give a lot of emphasis on soft skill development training for employees who are in direct contact with customers. Organisations forget that every employee, even when they are not working in the organisation and even those who do not work in front desk represent their organisation to the larger society and people outside the organisation, can form perceptions of the organisations through the displayed behaviour of the employee.

A lesson can be learned from the recent incidences that have taken place in the airline’s industry of airline companies mistreating and at times even physically assaulted the customers. Thus soft skill development training is required for all employees and not just the talented employees or those in direct contact with the customers.

4. Mandatory Training

Mandatory training is provided as per the statute of the law and is mostly mandatory to all employees depending on the industry, task or the work condition that individuals are employed in. These are largely provided to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the employees and thus are compulsory by law for all. One of the examples of mandatory training can be employees who are working with hazardous goods or in dangerous conditions.

Another example can be providing training for prevention, protection and redressal of sexual harassment of women at the workplace as per the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act 2013, as a mandate for organisations operating in India. In such cases again the organisations can not assume that a talented worker is not capable of sexual harassment and even when an organisation assumes that their employees will not do sexual harassment, it is still essential for all to undergo training as we will get the knowledge of what consists as sexual harassment so that we can play a role in prevention of such instances.

Equal opportunity provider and facilitator: These days many organisations take pride in stating that they are equal opportunity provider and they celebrate diversity and inclusion of employees but are these organisation really equal opportunity provider? For instance, we can see that even in various organisations women may be represented at the operational level but they still have to struggle with glass ceiling thus making them not truly representative at all levels especially higher levels of the organisation.

More and more organisations should undertake training with people from diverse backgrounds and abilities so that they can genuinely be organisations which are not only equal opportunity providers but also facilitators of inclusive environment and infrastructure once individuals become part of the organisation. To facilitate this, the organisations would have to broaden their definition of ‘good talent’ and re-define roles and individuals that fit these roles.

Goal Congruency and Involvement of Employees in Training Need Assessment

The goal of the organisation and the employee, in the long run, should be congruent with each other. The organisation also needs to see that their employees are satisfied with their learning curve and progress in the organisation. If this does not happen then, the employee will leave the organisation for another organisation which will enable the employee also to fulfil their goals while striving for the mission of the organisation.

One of the strategies that organisations can adopt is that it can include employees in training needs assessment activities. Further, this assessment is to be done with all employees and not just a few employees who are excelling at their assigned role.

Conclusion: Training Investment Should Be Spread Out

To conclude, the training investment should be spread across for all employees and not just be pooled for talented employees. Further training investment should not only be seen as an investment in terms of cost but also an investment in terms of time, energy and intent to achieve goal congruency and continuous development for organisations as well as the employees. Even when the organisation sets a standard for performance the employees should be seen as humans and not machines who are valued just as one of the means of productions.

Learning should be seen as a right for every employee in the organisation, and it is also essential for organisations to focus on the unique talent that each employee bring. Thus the allocation of investment not should be based on the distribution of talent curve that divides employees within an organisation but as an attempt to bring the feeling of ‘equity’ amongst each employee so that each one can contribute to their fullest.

© 2019 Kumar Kunal Jha


Kunal (Author) on March 18, 2020:

Yes, I would still say that training should be given to all! However, if you read the article carefully, you would understand that different individuals/employees will have different training needs as all of us have different KSAs. These needs should be identified at an organisational level for all employees (and not just a few selected performers) through training need analysis and then training should be provided to employees for overall organisational development.

Neethu on March 18, 2020:

Suppose you were an entrepreneur of a company would you still stick on to this same answer that training should be given to all?

For example: a training session was happening for the accounts department, but only certain employees were called for it, it may be due to cost constraint or according to better performance (in terms of talent) , like, A performs better than B so as an entrepreneur he/she thought A should be send for the training though B also should have been given with an equal opportunity. Is this a good strategy?

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