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Is corporate America more concerned with attracting top employees than developing the ones they have? That's the contention of John Hagel III, a director at Deloitte Consulting  and co-chair of the Silicon Valley-based  Deloitte Center for the Edge, which tries to help senior executives make sense of emerging opportunities in business and technology. 

Hagel spoke at the 21st annual SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas on Friday. SXSW — which stands for South by Southwest, in case you are unfamiliar — offers a unique convergence of original music, independent films and emerging technologies. The five-day event ends tomorrow.

Fighting the Talent War on the Wrong Front

Hagel returned to SXSW for the second consecutive year to talk about Workplace Redesign: The Big Shift from Efficiencya topic he said "goes to the heart of our future as workers, creators and learners." As he explained in a blog post:

SXSW Interactive is all about 'doing creative and revolutionary things with new technologies' — as individuals and organizations experience the increasing pressures of the Big Shift, where better to do creative and revolutionary things than in our workplaces?"

I found a kindred spirit in Hagel, who asked some of the same questions I often ponder. Specifically, "Why does almost every executive everywhere define access to top talent as a business priority without giving equal importance to  workplace engagement and employee satisfaction?" 

Hagel is obsessed with paradoxes and believes conceptual conundrums are the source of new insight and knowledge. His talk Friday revolved around a paradox most corporate workers experience every day. As he noted:

We all recognize that talent is becoming central to business success. Most companies focus on talent attraction and retention. Yet, there’s a missing middle here – talent development? When the topic comes up, we tend to fall back to thinking about training programs. Yet, the most powerful learning and talent development occurs on the job. What if we reconceive our work environment to include not only our own employees, but everyone outside the organization who has relevant expertise to help us learn faster?"

What's Going On?

Let's look at the facts. Employers know that they are in a competitive war for talent. But even as employee productivity improves from advances in technology, corporate return on assets are sliding. Blame it on competitive pressures in the marketplace and the talent pool, which is often characterized by people jumping from one company to the next. What's happening?

Hagel thinks senior leaders have a skewed view of the talent problem. Business executives focus on attracting and retaining talent — without  bothering to develop a strategy for talent growth and development.  The best talent doesn’t want to be “held onto,” he said. Top employees want to be given the room to reach their full potential.