Three tenets of talent development

Tim Baker provides a useful framework for understanding how we develop our talent in organisations

There are three predominant philosophical approaches to human resource development (HRD). They are: a production-centred approach; a person-centred approach and a problem-centred approach. Each method has a particular orientation and certain advantages and disadvantages and together they make up a useful framework for developing people.

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Let’s consider each of these in more detail.

Production-centred approach

The traditional tactic adopted by most organisations to build skill capability in employees is based on the production-centred approach. This school of thought emphasises the performance perspective of specific job tasks. The rationale for using this method stresses a direct link between the training and organisational performance. It focusses on the development of current (and future) job skills. So the motive here is by improving the job skills of a job-holder, it contributes to the overall production and productivity of the firm. Of the three approaches to HRD, the production-centred approach is the one most directly related to the specifics of an employee’s job performance.

For example, training programmes that improve the employee’s mastery of the use of machines, technology, or processes connected directly to the job-at- hand are production-centred. The success measure of the training is based on the production-centred approach  whether or not the learning experience translates into a more technically proficient employee.

From an employee’s point-of-view, the primary incentive for undertaking production-centred training is greater technical proficiency in their current job; to help them perform their job with greater skill. This method and its attraction to both managers and employees has been embraced and argued passionately by many authors, particularly those who extol the virtues of competency-based training. So it is little wonder that the majority of an organisation’s budget is spent on production-centred learning programmes.

The fundamental weakness of the production-centred approach is that it favours the interests of the organisation before considering the interests of the employee. A purely production-centred programme is based on the notion that the individual plays a role in the organisation and is therefore viewed as an abstract and anonymous job-holder or performer. The overriding assumption is that employees passively react to stimuli in the organisational environment. It is true that the employee can also gain career-enhancing skills from the production-centred approach. However, these job skills are based first and foremost on the needs and priorities of the employee’s current employer.

Person-centred approach

A second philosophical perspective on learning and HRD is the person-centred approach. This approach emphasises personal development. Person-centred learning stresses an indirect link between the learning experience and work performance.

The primary motive for an organisation investing in personal development learning is to build the personal attributes of employees so that they may hopefully have a positive impact on their overall work performance. Unlike production-centred training, the person-centred approach has a more tenuous link to performance. It is based on the theory that capable people make capable employees in a variety of contexts.

For example, training programmes that improve people’s mastery of themselves — such as courses on goal setting, personal motivation, time management, and emotional intelligence – can result in increased productivity. The incentive for the business to sponsor personal development programmes is based on the premise that by developing the most precious organisational resource people – the company is likely to stimulate them to be more proficient in their current and future work practices. Over the last quarter of a century, the growing popularity of this HRD approach would suggest this argument is well-founded.

From the employees’ perspective, the motivation to undertake person-centred learning is the opportunity to develop themselves and so improve and enrich their career prospects. In other words, the attraction is broadening the scope of their skills-set beyond their technical competence. Of the two approaches, the person-centred approach has traditionally been less appealing because of the weaker connection between the learning experience and current job outputs.

Problem-centred approach

I refer to the third school of HRD thinking as the problem-centred approach. The focus of this method is on improving employees’ ability to solve work-related problems. Problem-centred learning improves the employee’s aptitude to make better decisions on the job. The rationale here is the direct and indirect connection between problem-solving capability and performance. In other words, the primary motive for organisation’s to invest in problem-centred learning is to increase employees’ decision-making capabilities so they can better deal with the inevitable, unpredictable challenges in their job.

This HRD approach is based on the theory that individuals are likely to make better decisions in their everyday work if they have the necessary knowledge, skills, and mind-sets to analyse random problems. So the employee is potentially going to exercise greater autonomy in dealing with ambiguous issues affecting their work. This hopefully leads to less dependence on their supervisor.

For example, topics such as creative problem-solving techniques, research skills, or analysis of typical workplace case studies can develop problem-solving capabilities.

A manager’s motive for adopting a problem-centred perspective is based on the belief that developing employees’ problem-solving ability is likely to stimulate faster and better-quality decision-making in the organisation. Quicker and improved execution of daily challenges, problems, and predicaments can lead to improved customer service. Apart from this attraction for the business, greater employee self-sufficiency places less strain on managerial time and resources.

Employees’ motivation to learn problem-solving skills may also be to make more effective decisions at work and be less dependent on their boss. So the employee has more freedom and confidence to make choices. What’s more, they can be attracted to problem-solving learning opportunities to enhance their employability and career prospects. It is not surprising, therefore, that this HRD approach is gaining more prominence in an increasingly complex and less predictable work-setting.

The problem-solving approach should be jointly considered with the person and production-centred perspectives. Today, the ability to think laterally, creatively, and flexibly is critical to success in any field of work. The pressure of global competition means that each customer’s needs must be treated individually and standard problem-solving approaches are not always going to work, or be appropriate. Being able to take an exceptional situation and deal with it efficiently and effectively is a skill that is important to the customer, employee, and company.

To build on the relative strengths of these three approaches, a learning and development budget ought to embrace these three schools of thought.

Dr Tim Baker is the author of six books, this article is an extract from Attracting and Retaining Talent: Becoming and Employer of Choice. He can be contacted at


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