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Only on merit

Meritocracy & Talent Management: Is the region Ready?

by Global Expert Systems

Defining Meritocracy

As the word suggests, meritocracy is a system whereby an elite group of persons are rewarded according to their ability and talent rather than by some special kind of privilege based on class, family connections, race or gender.

The underlying belief is that this group will better manage and lead the system (especially government/public administration). In an earlier article, GES defended the idea of standardised tests for public sector jobs as a means to implementing a meritocracy. Now this is not without some degree of controversy.

In the English-speaking Caribbean, for several decades now, we have stoutly defended the Common Entrance Exam or the 11-plus as a means to determine academic merit to decide who goes to the so-called best schools within the elitist educational systems across the region. And year after year, there is a debate about the fairness of such a system. Here are some ideas to ponder on meritocracy:

1. Why is a merit-based system more controversial when we speak of academics?

2. Why do we accept such a system more readily in sports?

3. If we delayed standardised testing until age 16 or 18 or 21, will the results be different?

The key to solving such a polemic is that for a merit-based system to work, everyone must be given the same opportunity. In other words, we must all be at the same starting line. Then our ability and talents will determine how we end the race or which race we enter and complete.

This is particularly interesting especially on the heels of the just concluded London 2012 Olympics. British blogger, Neil O’Brien, who writes for the Telegraph and who is also the Director of Policy Exchange, an independent think tank working for better public services, a stronger society and a more dynamic economy, strongly defends meritocracy by drawing a similar analogy.

He states: “Everyone starts on the same starting line, but at the end some athletes are further ahead, and there are clear winners. That’s basically a description of meritocracy.”

Are talent management and meritocracy synonymous?

We have to give the “not really” type of answer because we cannot categorically yes or no. Certainly, if we are speaking of a highly professional public administration/civil service, then the most effective way to recruit would be through standardised testing. As we intimated before, this is already done in several areas of public administration, namely the security forces, nursing, doctors, prosecutors who all are subject to rigorous testing before recruited or appointed to service.

However, such a one-dimensional approach is not what is best understood to be talent management — testing is but one component of a talent management system. Talent management goes beyond recruitment and seeks to develop, retain, retool and optimise the talent within the organization.

So the real answer to this question is that meritocracy as we know it, can be taken a step further with a more comprehensive talent management system. This is particularly true and more effective if we are to avoid The Peter Principle.

What is The Peter Principle?

The Peter Principle was written by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull in their 1969 book of the same title, and in it, they demonstrate that in hierarchical systems, persons are promoted if they perform competently. However, they are eventually promoted to a point of incompetence and reach a point of stagnation because they can go no further.

How many times have we come across the excellent salesperson who got promoted to a sales management position and then failed miserably as a manager? This is a perfect example of the Peter Principle at work. That salesperson was rewarded, maybe rightly so, because of the talent, ability to sell well and real output. But was she/he the right person to manage the sales team? This is where talent management will complement a merit-based system.

With a proper talent management system in place, all the members of the sales team will be screened and tested and the most suitable one will be selected. Please note that the most suitable sales manager may not necessarily be the salesperson with the most sales. A talent management system must always seek to match attributes to the real requirements of the job.

SEnD Continued on Page 48

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