Talent vs Labour

Are you talent or labour? The difference may be very important. According to a recent article in the New York Times, talent is getting into a position to be able to push capitalism around, but not labour.

Talent is extracting more of the pie and getting richer. The gulf grows between talent — the high-earning, differentiated workers — and labor, those widget makers who support them.

In the NYT article, Roger Martin, author of “Fixing the Game: Bubbles, Crashes and What Capitalism Can Learn from the NFL“, talks about basic labour getting automated and outsourced, a popular theme on this blog.

Through the 1970s, owners moved jobs to Sun Belt right-to-work states. They automated, outsourced and worked to diminish the power of unions. When Ronald Reagan crushed the air traffic controllers’ union in 1981, it was a clear signal: labor had finally been forced to capitulate entirely.

If you want to be valued (and paid) in the network era, then you need to do work with high task variety, requiring continuous informal learning, and based on mostly implicit (tacit) knowledge that cannot be easily codified or shared. This is how talent gets respect from capital. Talent is not easily replaceable.

We’ve been lulled into the notion that information processing is knowledge work. For instance, we generally assume that all lawyers are knowledge workers (it seems they are not). I like Gary Hamel’s definition of the Creative Economy, where the traditional (industrial) employee traits of Intellect, Diligence & Obedience are becoming commodities (going to the lowest bidder). This Creative Economy requires more independent workers (like musical productions) with traits that cannot be commoditized: Initiative; Creativity; Passion. So “knowledge workers” had best ensure that 1) they have more Task Variety than Standardized Work and 2) they are valued for skills that cannot be turned into commodities.

This may be the post-capitalist era, but it will only be good to those that have talent. Our education systems have to ‘up their game’ to get each person to develop his or her  unique talent. Being able to fill a job is not enough, even if it is an honest day’s labour. The capitalist system is designed to screw labour. But it’s more difficult to screw talent. If we want to help people, we need to help each person become Talent. That means emphasizing creativity, complex problem-solving, and innovation. For those of us in the learning, training, education, or human development business, we are doing a major disservice to society if we are merely preparing labour to be used by capital. OD/HR practices like performance management and competency modelling may just be hindering talent and reinforcing the capital/labour divide.

Update: Joachim Stroh has, once again, created a nice graphic to complement this post.

16 Responses to “Talent vs Labour”

  1. Nora Stewart

    Hello – finally we are having a real conversation about the complexities of what people spend most of their waking hours doing – working. Good stuff! I woudl respectfully contend that there are 5 key elements to getting talent mobilised:

    1. Abilities (inherent DNA of the person that can be developed), skills & knowledge;
    2. Personal motivations – different in everyone at different times of their lives and largely intrinsic;
    3. Personal style – how people naturally express and focus their abilities, skills, knowledge and motivation;
    4. Outlook – Natural Confidence and optimism Lacking confidence and pessimism;
    5. Functioning – High/Medium/Low functioning both physical (health, energy, physical ability), mental/emotional wellbeing, social ability.

    All these elements work together in a context of support and opportunity or lack of those things to express talent. The question is, what do we know about these? How can we measure them? How can we help people and employers properly direct and develop talent to it’s full potential? How can we involve health professionals, social workers and policy-makers in a wider discussion about how to best support these elements of everyone in our society?

    Some food for thought. Thanks for the opportunity.
    Nora Stewart

    • Harold Jarche

      Talent is a constantly shifting value, as computers get smarter and the world gets networked. So yes, it’s only a matter of time before today’s talent becomes tomorrow’s labour. It’s why we need to think of our professions in terms of perpetual Beta 😉

  2. Urs

    The foreign exchange rate for Talents is up 1.14159 points on the “AGI (Ancient Greek Index)” today.
    Experts predict the rising trend to continue (until it is going to fall …)

    I suggest to turn it around and use Talent as the main currency (1 Talent = 1.07 US$ = 0.83 EUR = 0.66 British £ = 1.05 CA$).
    So let’s continue to invest into our own talents to outperform the experts.

    Thanks, Harold for sharing your wisdom.

  3. Gordon Rae

    Thank you Harold, for pointing me to this post. What concerns me is the possibility that your argument seems to be circular. The difference between ‘Talent’ and ‘Labour’ is presented as a difference in bargaining power. But one of your examples is air traffic control. That’s definitely knowledge work: it requires integration of multiple streams of inputs, rapid decision making, and every case is different. And yet, air traffic controllers have low bargaining power, which is the thing you purport to explain.

    • Harold Jarche

      Much of knowledge work I would classify as Labour as well, hence my use of the term Talent. As I mentioned on Twitter, with its 140 character limitations, this is one of my earlier posts on the subject. Basically, I am observing that any work, including knowledge work, that can be put into a flow chart or algorithm, will be automated. Only Talent – based on passion, creativity, initiative (not just intelligence) – will find meaningful work in what is emerging as “the second machine age”. Therefore, all of our 20th century constructs around the “job” and how “Labour” is managed, should be reconsidered. Here are my latest thoughts on this topic:


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)