Searching for the meaning of talent in Mykonos

By | May 24, 2016

Mykonos is the Greek party-island, famous for its night clubs and beaches. But they didn’t do much business in the third week of May this year. The boats and planes arriving at the gorgeous island didn’t disgorge hordes of trendy teens and 20-somethings intent on a good time. Instead, scores of business school academics disembarked, among them two professors from the University of Bradford School of Management, for the 11th Organization Studies Summer Workshop.

We were intent on thinking through how to understand work and organizations in what feels like an increasingly chaotic and frenetic world. It rained, gales blew and it was uncharacteristically cold for Greece in May, but the debates and discussions around the theme of ‘Spirituality, Symbolism and Story-Telling’ generated enough heat to keep us warm.

We are story-telling animals, who make sense of who we are and what we do through the stories we tell each other, and we heard lots of stories about organizations. But could we find spirituality lurking in the corners of the companies we study, and what was that about symbols and symbolism?

We all agreed that work does far more than just provide an income to pay the mortgage – we look to our jobs for fulfilment of our dreams, but for too many people hopes of finding fulfilling work are dashed by oppressive management structures and the pursuit of profit.

The workshop closed with a talk from a Greek bishop, His Eminence Gabriel, not the usual sort of speaker we see at academic events. But his ideas seemed to provide a way forward – it’s time we started caring for each other, rather than competing with each other.

Before this, in a corner of a rather large room that looked out over the blue Aegean, Prof Jackie Ford and I, together with Dr Sarah Gilmore from Portsmouth Business School, focused on talent management.

Nobody looked for talent in organizations 20 years ago, but now ‘the war for talent’ is in full flow. Managers seek ‘the talent’ here, there and everywhere. But what are they looking for? Some managers say ‘I know it when I see it’ – they are talented at spotting talent. But others are bemused: they say that the only talent possessed by some managers is their ability to convince others that they are talented. Is this the latest management fad, they ask?

For Jackie, Sarah and I, the hunt for organizational talent is like The Hunting of the Snark. Lewis Carroll’s epic poem, an ‘agony in eight fits’, describes a peculiar team who set out on a voyage to find the Snark. Nobody knows what it looks like, but they are certain it exists. But be careful – just when you think you’ve found the Snark you might instead have found a Boojum, and nobody survives a meeting with a Boojum.

We argued talent is like the Snark – something we think exists so we go hunting for it. But all that expense, all that management time, it may all be in vain, and what may be lying in wait is something we might not want to meet. At the least, it might be a huge waste of money, but at worst it may be something that destroys the organization that put so much effort into finding it. Think: Manchester United and its search for the perfect manager…

And here’s my Mykonos ‘workstation’:

Prof Nancy Harding's workstation while working at a conference on the Greek island of Mykonos

Prof Nancy Harding’s workstation while working at the Organization Studies summer workshop on the Greek island of Mykonos

About Nancy Harding

Nancy Harding enrolled for her first degree, in Management Studies at the University of Wales in Cardiff, when she was 27. Having enjoyed the experience so much, she stayed on for another three years to study for her PhD. She then held various short-term research posts, including researching and developing policies for equal opportunities for women in the National Health Service, and a series of studies of the management of home care services in Wales. In 1993 she was offered her first lectureship, at the University of Wales in Swansea, where she taught health management at master's level in Wales and in south-east Asia. That led to a lectureship at the Nuffield Institute for Health, University of Leeds, and promotion to senior lecturer. Nancy joined University of Bradford School of Management with the aim of extending her research and teaching from the public sector into private sector organisations. She became Professor of Organization Theory in 2009. She is Director of the Centre for Research in Organizations and Work (CROW) at the University of Bradford School of Management. She is Associate Editor of the peer-reviewed journal ‘Organization’. Nancy's research interests are Critical Management Studies; Working Lives; and Ethics. Nancy’s research is focused on working lives, which she studies from a broadly critical management studies perspective. She is interested in moving beyond traditional critical approaches that explore exploitation and control and resistance, and argues that we need to develop a language that allows us to be critical of the sheer tedium to which many people are subject while at work, and the effect of hierarchy (e.g. management/staff; leader/follower) on identities. Her research projects include older women’s working lives; Talent Management; Identities; Aesthetics of Leadership. Her recent empirical studies have included research into the implementation of a talent management strategy, and a study of the aesthetics of the leader’s body. She is currently exploring older women’s working lives (with Prof Jackie Ford, University of Bradford, and Prof Carol Atkinson, Manchester Metropolitan University, and plans to launch ‘Crone Theory’ in 2014. Nancy’s development of theoretical approaches include work on gendering, which she carries out with a number of academic colleagues. Her solo work is based around a trilogy of books that explore the manager (Routledge, 2003); on being at work (Routledge, 2013) and ‘the organization’ (work in progress). Nancy supervises doctoral students who explore an eclectic range of topics, but all linked by an interest in critical approaches to understanding working lives. Nancy teaches research methods to DBA and MSc students and participates in the Business Ethics module taught to MBA and third-year undergraduate students.