America has always been a land of hope. As we plunge headlong into a recession, it is becoming harder to hold on to that hope. With the Obama inauguration tomorrow, we have an opportunity to define a public policy agenda that translates hope into action. Rather than a “New New Deal”, perhaps what we need is a “Different Deal.”
One theme could shape a broad public policy agenda: the opportunity and imperative to develop everyone’s talent more rapidly. At first glance “talent development” smacks of corporate lingo better suited for the executive suite than the assembly line. But surveys show workers of all ranks and vocations share similar worries about keeping pace with intensifying global competition.
Talent development reframes a broad range of hotly debated public policy issues. Of course, educational policy directly impacts talent development. But we need to move beyond just fixing schools or designing new retraining programs.
We need to foster work environments that create the opportunity, incentives and capabilities to discover one’s passions and to learn throughout our lives as we pursue these passions. Indeed, we need to re-conceive the work place as a “learningscape.”
We also need to harness the forces enabling Silicon Valley and Manhattan to become global talent spikes, attracting talent from around the world. Rather than confining this success to elite knowledge workers, we need public policies that provide opportunities for everyone, whether a machine tool worker in Cincinnati or a farmer in Nebraska, to get better faster and thrive in our global economy. Within this perspective, we might think twice about policies that preserve jobs but lock people and firms into increasingly obsolete skills and management practices.
This talent development lens could lead to unexpected and exciting solutions to hotly debated issues including immigration, telecommunications policy, intellectual property protection and trade policy. For example, in trade policy why not define policies that harness the benefits of free trade while at the same time developing talent more rapidly so that workers can continue to find productive roles?
Free trade policies force U.S. companies to compete with innovative products from many different parts of the world. They provide these companies with access to innovative components and suppliers as well access to diverse markets with unmet needs. As an example, companies from the U.S., Canada, Finland and Korea are all pushed to innovate more rapidly in high end mobile handsets because of the need to compete in global markets.
Providing freer access to investment funds for entrepreneurial ventures ensures that domestic talent with creative ideas can learn faster by participating in these global markets, even if larger companies may be less innovative. Providing portability in benefits programs enhances the mobility of domestic talented workers as they seek out the companies that are most effective in developing their talent.
In telecommunications consider how an ambitious broadband and open spectrum policy might transform learning-on-demand. Such an infrastructure could provide people in all jobs with access to a powerful medium to expand their social networks in unexpected directions and collaborate with other distributed participants to create and learn from each other.
On immigration, we can learn from the Silicon Valley model where talented immigrants from around the world help domestic engineers to learn faster by engaging with others who see the world quite differently. Few people outside Silicon Valley realize that about half of the entrepreneurial talent fueling the success of Silicon Valley came from outside the United States. Perhaps we should offer a green card to every non-U.S. citizen who receives an academic degree from a U.S. university. We can deepen the talent of all by working with talented individuals from elsewhere. Inclusiveness fosters the diversity that drives creativity and talent development.
Even more promising, a focus on talent development can transcend parochial or national interests. After all, if we are serious about developing the talent of our own people, we must find creative ways to access and connect with talent wherever it resides around the world. We will all develop our talent even more rapidly if provided with the opportunity to interact with other equally talented people outside our country. This is not a call for building walls and sheltering our talent from the challenges of others.
More substantively, our public diplomacy place more emphasis on assessing talent development trajectories of countries around the world. We might become much more focused on building deeper relationships with the countries that are most successful in developing the talent of their people, so that the talent of our respective countries can get better faster by working with each other. At the same, we might provide a more compelling role model for governments, and perhaps more importantly the populations, of countries that are lagging in talent development.
Accelerating talent development could help to re-conceive both domestic and foreign policies. Indeed, the theme will lack credibility and power unless applied consistently and continuously in both domains. For more details regarding what such a public policy agenda might look like, the epilogue of The Only Sustainable Edge develops this perspective more fully.
A world increasingly dominated by catchy sound bites and charismatic personalities will doubtless provide challenges to developing a narrative around helping people get better at what they do. It requires sustained effort and a respect for the texture of complex issues and diverse perspectives. But the rewards are worth the effort.
By systematically pursuing public policies helping people get better at what they do, we will move from the zero-sum mindsets dominating our current political debates to a positive sum outlook, where overall rewards increase at an accelerating rate, allowing everyone to share more fully in an expanding pie.
Now, that would be a change worth celebrating. After all, this is not really about something so sterile as talent development. It is ultimately about creating environments where we are all much freer to achieve our true potential.