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Corporate Talent Management and Subject Matter Experts in the Armed Forces

Col Guriqbal Singh Gill is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • May 08, 2023

    The armed forces require a diverse range of skills and expertise to operate effectively in today's complex security environment. To meet these challenges, armed forces around the world are increasingly turning to the creation of Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) and implementing talent management practices from the corporate world.

    The term SME can comprehensively be defined as an individual with a deep understanding of a particular job, process, department, function, technology, machine, material or type of equipment.1 While many professionals are cross-trained in their particular functions, some situations call for highly specialised knowledge. Typically, developing an individual as a SME takes time, experience, intense research and study.

    Generalists vs Specialists

    Several studies have shown that the most effective ideas come from fusing knowledge from seemingly unrelated domains, thus supporting employment of Generalists over Specialists. However, other research has concluded that generalising has a price and terms Generalists as Jacks of all trades but masters of none. This body of research contends that experts can more effectively identify and seize upon emerging opportunities due to their deeper understanding of the subject area.

    Both sides have a lot of evidence to back them up. So, there must be some situations where generalists excel and others where specialists thrive. According to research, team leaders should evaluate how many specialists and generalists they need to have on hand.2

    New ideas that incorporate a combination of generalists and specialists are also starting to emerge. Generalising Specialists are those who are proficient in one trade but are open to learning skills in others and Specialising Generalists are those who are knowledgeable in numerous trades but are also open to expanding their knowledge base to a level of excellence.3

    Talent Management in Corporate World

    A vast majority of companies throughout the world are aware of the significance of talent management because human capital is considered to be the most important factor that bestows competitive advantage. According to Stephenson and Pandit, ‘Talent Management’ refers to having the appropriate number of individuals with the appropriate skill-sets and levels of motivation at the appropriate location at the appropriate time.4

    The term ‘talent’ has been defined in a variety of ways by numerous researchers. Some people describe talent as high-performing employees or potential employees in the organisation; others note that high-skill and knowledgeable people are talents; and still others think that succession planning can help an organisation develop its talented employees.

    According to Goffee and Jones, talent is defined as a small group of individuals' knowledge, abilities and philosophies that have the potential to generate unusual values for the business out of the available resources.5 According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, London, talent is specific to an organisation and is greatly influenced by elements including industry, nature, individuals and implications at a group level. As a result, talent is likely to vary throughout time.6

    Talent was defined by Ready and Conger as a set of workers who possess knowledge and skills that are above average, are prepared for leadership roles, and are therefore the best employees in a firm.7 These definitions of talents allow us to draw the conclusion that talents are the best employees for a company who would make a significant contribution to the accomplishment of its strategic objectives.

    Critical Success Factors (CSFs) for Talent Management

    One of the key components of creating organisational competences to assure ongoing competitive advantage in the business world is the attraction and retention of workforces. Consequently, spending money on tools for recruiting, utilising, retaining and developing human resources can provide a business a competitive edge. The CSFs for a TM system which would be useful in equal measure in the Armed Forces are as under:

    Attracting/Identifying Talent

    The ability to draw in outside talent depends on the organisation's ideals and how potential employees see it; it also depends on whether the company is highly regarded in the industry they compete in or if they are merely existing. As a result, one of the most vital and significant issues that might easily draw in outside personnel is employer brand. The ‘talent pool’ for attracting talent can be both internal and external to the business, and identifying the same should be the first stage in the talent management process.8

    Deploying TM

    The choice that is taken within a company regarding the hiring, placement and departure of talents is referred to as deploying talent management. The choice in these processes is crucial, and a skilled management should make those choices. Deciding how to use talent in a way that supports both individual growth and organisational strategy is crucial in any business. Researchers have propounded SMART goals, where SMART refers to a decision which is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely. It refers to specific objectives that are more attainable than generic goals; harder goals require more work than do easier goals. Locke's goal-setting theory is well-known and widely employed in studies.9

    Developing Talent

    To maximise the potential of a talented workforce, appropriate learning and development associations are required at pertinent points in a career. Talent management must continuously develop its top performers for prospective new roles, identify their knowledge gaps, and put efforts in place to increase their competences and ensure their retention.10 However, despite the organisation's development and assessment activities, the majority of genuinely talented people remain unknown.

    Therefore, organisations must implement an effective development and assessment plan that can lead to identifying opportunity as the main component of talent management for achieving their mission, as well as capitalise on great on-the-job development opportunities and provide not only effective training but also effective mentoring.11 Another strategy for development that involves putting people in positions they don't expect is extremely successful. The last but not the least amongst development strategies is coaching and feedback, which are crucial components of developing talents.12

    Retaining Talent

    Generation Y employees are less loyal to their employers, and many workers leave for headhunting opportunities with competitors. Talent retention is influenced by a variety of factors. For instance, hygiene elements like benefit, remuneration, and location have a direct impact on career success, whereas success in the workplace and intrinsic rewards indirectly prevent talent turnover.13 Employee turnover exposes an organisation to significant risk, therefore in order to retain the best personnel, businesses must develop and provide employee value propositions.

    Succession Planning

    Succession Planning is seen by some as a process of selecting the next senior team, while others see it as the provision of a sufficient pool of qualified candidates for top positions within own organisation and a third view-point sees succession planning as strategies that future-proof the business, allowing it to expand and function successfully in the future.14 Hills believed that succession strategy inexorably is a mix of buying-hire in key skills and building talents.

    Although buying talents requires high cost but its existence in a challengeable market demand is vital and it is a quick way of bringing new ideas and skills. By building talents, the organisation can save money and enhance career promotion and commitment within the existing workforce although it could result in less opportunities to bring in new ideas and knowledge into the organisation. In contrast to replacement planning, the primary goal of succession planning is predicting future organisational needs. Planning for the succession of leaders safeguards the demands of human resources and ensures the success and stability of organisations.15


    The development of SMEs involves identifying individuals with specialised knowledge and skills and providing them with additional training and support to deepen their expertise. Similarly, talent management practices in the corporate world involve identifying high-potential individuals and providing them with the opportunities and resources they need to succeed in key leadership roles. In order to create an SME cadre in the Armed Forces, studying broader Talent Management Tenets and incorporating Critical Success Factors (CSFs) already identified by the corporate world could be the starting block for the Indian Armed Forces.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.