Art and Science

In business management today, data reign supreme and science is king.

The vast amount of information available about the marketplace, our organizations, our people and their combined performance gives managers an incredibly rich set of tools for making decisions. New technology that aggregates, slices, dices and analyzes data and the continued integration of all that employee information into powerful business software suites bring us closer to talent management in real time with immediately measurable results.

The cloud makes information available at our fingertips. With the click of a mouse, we can transform how we carry out the practice of human resources.

With scientific management as king, it’s not hard to picture the talent manager as lever-puller in chief. In many ways, talent managers are becoming engineers, carefully diagramming, constructing and assembling the complicated human machinery of the organization into a well-oiled machine.

To borrow the phrase of German carmaker BMW, we’re building the ultimate driving machine for our organizations, and data are the fuel that powers it. But our focus on the inner workings of the machine and collecting and analyzing the data that powers it risks neglecting the artistry of talent management.

There’s an art to managing talent that goes beyond mere interpretation of data. Making the right decision about talent — who to hire or promote or how to identify gaps and develop heretofore unrecognized potential — is a complex, demanding task fraught with risk. Intuition and emotion play a critical role by pushing us to think differently, consider other factors and ponder additional possibilities.

Talent management is as much art as it is science, as much about intuition and experience as it is about logic and analysis. Sometimes a candidate just feels right, sometimes a manager sees a hidden talent in an employee. The risky talent decision, without the data to back it up, can often have the highest potential return. It is the blend of the art and science that sets the most successful talent managers apart.

In many ways, this is a return to our history. Ancient architects took a mathematical concept called the golden ratio and used it to build beautiful and lasting structures such as the Pyramids of Egypt, the Parthenon in Greece and the Colosseum in Rome. Artists such as Leonardo da Vinci deployed mathematical principles to create elegant, visually pleasing proportions in their paintings. Serious students of music hear the symphony of mathematics at play behind their musical scales.

The separation of science and art is a relatively modern occurrence. When scientists broke down the atom within inner space and sent probes to the far reaches of outer space, art lost much of its power to shape the narrative of our lives and lend meaning and context to events. As art became more abstract and less rule-bound, hard science and mathematical proportion became less important and featured less and less prominently in their work.

Technology is bringing them back together again. The swirling images that pop up on your computer’s screen saver are actually the visual, artistic representation of a mathematic principle called the fractal. Graphic artists and designers no longer use pencil and paper as their primary tools of the trade, but rather turn to sophisticated design software powered by mathematical algorithms.

This era of big data we find ourselves in puts renewed emphasis on the scientific and analytical method of talent management. But as we engineer and build our ultimate talent machines, we need to remember to design space and time to consider alternative approaches, weigh options and pause long enough to look around and find hidden pockets of potential in our organizations.

Science may reign right now, but let’s not lose sight of the artistry that is an essential component of talent management. It’s as much beauty as it is brains.

Mike Prokopeak
Editorial Director