Recruiting, Managing and Developing Doctoral Talent

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Guest post by Mark Smith, Dean of Faculty, Grenoble Ecole de Management, France

In the late 1990s the consultancy giant McKinsey coined the term the “war for talent” to describe the rising competition for talented employees at the time. While there has not been exactly been a war between business schools, there is an on-going series of battles for top talent among both emerging and experienced academics. There is in fact another series of minor battles also occurring, the annual battles for the best doctoral students. The EFMD and Grenoble Ecole de Management recently organised a conference for the community of programme directors, heads of doctoral schools and other professionals working in doctoral education in order to consider the challenges business schools face in recruiting, managing and developing doctoral talent. This short article was inspired by the speakers, participants and organisers of the EFMD Doctoral Programmes Conference in Grenoble, for which I thank them.

Why Compete for Doctoral Talent?
Doctoral programs are resource-intensive activities that are unlikely to become a source of revenue, and in fact demand considerable investment and commitment from schools. Yet, at another level, such programmes are a key activity for developing business school reputation both among stakeholders and, increasingly, for rankings. Further, among academics, doctoral work is intrinsically rewarding and a rich doctoral programme can be considered an additional lever for recruiting and retaining experienced academics.

The doctoral researchers themselves may also be a lever for business school development. The best doctoral students can provide a boost for publications, data collection and increased capacity in pedagogic and research activities. With engaged research projects among stakeholders, doctoral students can also open up new networks, creating new connections for business schools with emerging and established networks.

Attracting Doctoral Talent
Attracting talent in this competitive, hi-tech age is, however, not so easy. In addition to within-sector competition, business schools are also competing for the brightest minds against other large organisations with attractive graduate programs and more generous terms and conditions – competition for a diminishing pool of traditional talent. Schools may need to go beyond their borders and also meet the challenges of generation and technological gaps.

A coordinated social media strategy can offer new opportunities to connect with potential talent but it requires engagement from faculty who may be reluctant to contribute. Experts point out that schools need use their faculty in order to both exploit their networks and provide content (research results) to attract talent who tend to rely on new forms of media for their information and to form opinions on schools’ reputations. In this way, social media may allow schools to develop and expand their ‘communities’ from which doctoral students may emerge while exposing potential talent to the richness of their academic environments.

Managing Doctoral Talent
The development of talent is an inherent part of the good doctoral programme. The combination of courses, working with experienced researchers and developing one's own research project provide many opportunities. However, talent development is much more than the relatively narrow research skills required to become faculty. Future employers seek graduates with a range of skills, the potential to have impact and future leadership skills. Doctoral programmes thus need to integrate training plans that go beyond research methods to conduct their own research and to publish in high-ranking journals.

Programme directors in doctoral schools are key drivers for developing doctoral talent but it is at the level of supervisor where real action may be required. Just as human resource managers rely on line managers to put organisational policies into place, programme directors need to rely on supervisors in the development of doctoral talent. Such policies include respect and understanding for the diversity of doctoral students by gender, ethnicity and nationality as talent increasingly comes from a wider range of backgrounds. New methods of training and development such as serious games may provide possibilities for training supervisors and others working with doctoral students.

Developing Doctoral Talent
A revised perspective on talent at the doctoral level also opens up opportunities beyond those traditionally provided by the academic career track. Business school networks should be able to provide greater opportunities for doctoral graduates in a variety of sectors and therefore expand their own impact – addressing that perennial problem of business school relevance and impact. Doctoral students can be reconceptualised as a means to promote relevance through networks and projects engaging with a full range of stakeholders and also providing opportunities for doctoral graduates of the future. Here co-funded academic-industrial doctoral programmes provide a framework for engagement at both the institutional and individual level.

Doctoral graduates from business schools are not necessarily destined for the academic career track and their futures as business leaders, entrepreneurs or policy experts require business schools to equip them with the relevant skills, career pathways and networks. Indeed the EFMD conference heard evidence showing that academics who can integrate their experiences from other sectors can have an important impact upon business school development. Business school academics engage with the “real world” but do not necessarily value the skills required to do so – doctoral students need these skills and need to appreciate their value.

Innovation and the Future of Doctoral Talent
In order to respond to these shifting demands for talent, doctoral programmes need to innovate and adapt. Yet doctoral studies have not necessarily been at the forefront of innovations and resistance to new forms of doctorate remains. There is a tension between demands for fit-for-purpose doctoral programmes and legitimate concerns that innovations may lead to lower standards or a lack of recognition. It is up to accrediting organisations, business schools and programme directors to provide relevant programmes that develop the required competences for doctoral graduates without
diminishing the elite position of the doctorate in the educational hierarchy. In order to develop their relevance and retain their standards, developments in doctoral qualifications require the confidence of communities both inside and outside academia.

The community of professionals working with doctoral programmes should be rightly proud that their graduates learn perhaps the most valuable of all skills – they learn how to think. The next step is that graduates leave equipped and inspired to enter all sectors and organisations in order to demonstrate the potential value and impact for society at large of a doctorate in business and management. A graduate holding a doctoral degree has a passport to do anything they wish and the role of business schools and their doctoral programmes should be to open the eyes of their graduates to the potential opportunities and provide the skills and competencies for their talent to have an impact.