SUMS Consultant Emma Ogden reflects on how talent management in professional sports can offer HR in Higher Education a winning approach.

As indicated in my SUMS bio, I take great pride in my role as an HR professional in tackling organisational and personnel challenges. However, beyond the workplace, my other interest is a deep passion for sports, albeit more in the realm of armchair participation.

Recently, my two interests collided when I was given the opportunity to undertake a research study outside of work. This study focused on talent identification and development within sport, exploring how these principles could be applied to the professional arena. Talent management is a significant trend in HR, focusing on operational practices, technology adoption and resource allocation.

This thought piece shares some of the findings from this research and provides insight into how organisations might want to look into the influences of sport in identifying and building talent, developing individuals and the importance of character.

My sincere thanks must be passed to Steve Clagett, Ben Lindbergh, and Steve Hagen who so kindly gave me their time, perspectives, and valuable insights to this study.


As the legendary American basketball coach John Wooden aptly said, “Winning takes talent; to repeat takes character.”

An effective talent management process not only enhances organisational flexibility and performance but also provides the tools for growth, change, acquisitions, and the development of new services.

A holistic approach to talent management

Reflecting on the insights from sport, I have developed the following model which outlines a comprehensive approach to talent management, including scouting and recruitment, positive candidate experiences, pipeline management, and development. This cyclical process, supported by workforce planning (data analysis and insight), talent attraction (defined roles and a strong employer brand), and performance development (competency and feedback), ensures key inputs are continually and proactively managed, particularly in data, succession planning, and employee value proposition (EVP).

Figure 1: Talent Management Process

Talent Management Process

1. Workforce Planning

Workforce planning is a critical component of talent management, but one which is frequently overlooked. Understanding the current workforce, through using data, analytics, potential succession and potential pipelines, enables organisations to identify and develop strategies for gaps and to focus on developing existing staff. I have written a detailed thought piece about the benefits and considerations of workforce planning.

2. Attracting Talent

Organisations typically discover new talent through recruitment, selection, and performance evaluation. An engaged line manager plays a crucial role in recognising potential for further development of existing staff through performance discussions and succession planning.

Steve Clagett, Director of Learning and Development at the Baltimore Ravens, shared insights on strategies in American Football. The NFL uses a comprehensive approach that combines traditional scouting with advanced data analytics to evaluate player performance and potential. Algorithms compare statistical profiles of potential talent against successful players, assessing physical traits and performance data to forecast future success.

While quantitative data provides insights, talent identification is coupled with, arguably, a more subjective assessment of temperament and team fit. The Ravens’ strong culture and character assessment ethos guide talent identification, focusing on physical skills, resilience, and adversity management. By aligning organisational culture with these assessments, they develop objective insights into potential. They also advocate the importance of talent attraction. Robust development pathways, including support from pastors, clinicians, dietitians, and psychologists along with best-in-class facilities and a strong employee value proposition enhance their appeal.

Each year, rising college stars are recruited into the NFL. This multi-faceted talent identification strategy informs decisions such as:

  1. Predictive analysis of future performance.
  2. Customised training and development plans based on identified strengths and weaknesses.
  3. Risk assessment and mitigation strategies.
  4. Building balanced teams by identifying complementary skills.

Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) can adopt similar strategies, using a balanced approach of data (performance metrics, feedback, engagement, and attrition data)[1] and comprehensive assessments of fit and character (assessment centres, psychometric assessments, and competency-based interviews). This enables enhanced succession planning, tailored development opportunities, and a strategic approach to hiring.

3. Developing Performance

As reported in the Labour Market Outlook[2], the proportion of employees with a tenure of less than 12 months is around 16%. Within ‘Education’ (Standard Industrial Classification), average turnover is 28%, with 27% of staff staying in role for less than 2 years[3]. This represents a significant missed opportunity – a waste of time, effort and good will on both sides of the table. As a sector, it is clear that we both can and must do better. We can look to professional sports to learn how.

The NFL Academy, based in the UK and aligned with Loughborough University, develops potential football talent for US colleges. Emphasising character development, it prepares players not only for the NFL but for life beyond sports. Alumni have pursued careers as coaches, commentators, and professionals in various industries, highlighting the importance of developing pipeline talent.

Following the popularity of Moneyball, baseball has increasingly used data-driven approaches for player development. Enhanced video analysis and real-time tracking allow for ongoing performance assessments, enabling players to take ownership of their data and collaborate with coaches to identify improvement areas.

Ensuring data quality by verifying accuracy and completeness is crucial, as is balancing data insights with human judgement. Concentrated development activities, such as specialised coaching and training camps, alongside support for mental health and leadership, result in multifaceted and tailored development plans.

Institutions could consider the following for enhanced talent development:

  1. Internships, apprenticeships or job shadowing for diverse experience and skills development from a grass-roots level.
  2. Tailored training programmes.
  3. Continuous feedback and coaching.
  4. Performance metrics and analysis.

Just like in the world of sport, HEIs are ‘people businesses’. With many of us ‘right-sizing’ our organisations, ensuring the best people are in place to help us thrive is more important than ever. Recruiting the right talent – through better informed decision making, making the most of data and ensuring a strong cultural fit – is a great starting point. Developing that talent through performance enhancement and succession planning, along with ongoing gap analysis to spot hiring needs, will enable us to create better balanced, high performing workforces over the long term: in essence, winning teams!

If you wish to discuss further, please contact us at sums@reading.ac.uk or visit our website for more information about our Human Resources support.


[1] A case study example of enhanced people analytics within business is available here.

[2] Labour Market Outlook – Spring 2024

[3] Annual Population Survey (Jan-Dec 2023)

 

 

 

Other News