People? Staff? Employees? Personnel? Human Resources? Talent? Barbra Streisand sang that ‘people who need people are the luckiest people in the world’. Well, when it comes to the world of work describing the human beings who do the work, the lexicon has developed over the past two centuries.

Probably incorrect is the idea that ‘staff’ came to be used as a result of the overseers supervision style – to keep people working by applying the staff they carried to beat and threaten. Then we spoke about ‘employees’ to describe the people in an organization paid to work in non-managerial roles. ’Personnel’ had its origin describing the people in an organization as distinct from the equipment used. ‘Human Resources’ emerged from the thinking of people as something akin to a capital asset.  The term ‘talent’, referring to people with specific skills and aptitudes, has only in recent years become fashionable. Talent is perhaps the most value-free way to describe people at work. ’Talent’ has the advantage of conveying to the talented individual that she or he is valued as a source of specialized abilities. It is a term that FRRW Consulting has decided to use to bolster its recognition of the value of the individual in the process of recruitment.

What is surprising in this game of words is that ‘talent’ has its origins over five hundred years ago, whereas the other terms mainly emerged in 19th Century France. In 21st Century South Africa the growth-limiting shortage of ‘talent’ has many ramifications. One way to increase the numbers of talented people is to ensure that the right person is recruited for the right position in an appropriate environment. This is in keeping with the very nature of the study and practice of industrial psychology and an approach which most people responsible for employing others would agree with. However, day-to-day pressures often result in less than optimal employment decisions. In the South African context there are many factors which confuse the ability to make optimal employment decisions. Key among these is the need for employment equity in an ecosystem which does little to draw out the best in many people especially at the school level. (Educate’s origin is ‘to draw out’ which has become ‘to put in’.) People are often employed not because they meet the criteria for success but because they are the best available at the time. When it comes to business decisions, success does not necessarily come to the one which employs always optimally but to the business which can do so more effectively than its competitors. It is rather like the old story of two men in the woods about to be attacked by a bear. One says that they need to run faster than the bear to survive, whilst the other says no, I only need to run faster than you!

Advice – find the best help to ensure that you run faster than the other guy. Find someone who can help you to acquire the most talented person or the employer with the most talent.

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