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Amid news headlines of financial crisis and unemployment rates, China is moving ahead, steadily bouncing back from any dips in the country’s growth during the last two years. Multinational companies in China are bracing for a renewed talent war of job-hopping and poaching, as economic growth accelerates. Although the talent war will likely emerge first in the East, it will spread to become global as demographic shifts become more pronounced. InnovationManagement interviewed Sam Kondo Steffensen, CEO of MillionBrains, to get his perspective on how talent should be recruited and managed.

In public presentations, on corporate websites, or in glossy company prospectuses, firms often claim that particular talents and skilled employees are essential to their success and innovation capability. Many companies expend considerable efforts and financial resources on recruiting talent, and providing special training aimed at retaining these employees. However, success rates are not convincing according to Lisa Thomas of the Financial Times, e.g. the voluntary employee turnover rate in China is predicted to be 15% in 2010, although down from 17.4% in 2008.

New innovation trends, new talent definitions, and new approaches

Princeton University’s Wordnet defines ‘a talent’ as ‘a person who possesses unusual innate ability in some field or activity’. If this definition prevails then talent cannot be defined through the use of standard metrics, but only through experience and within specific contexts. Some companies have already recognized this fact and recruit talented people, whenever such special ability is spotted – regardless of whether there is a vacancy in the company, as the following example from Google illustrates:

‘Talent’: a person who possesses unusual innate ability in some field or activity.

Most readers of InnovationManagement will know of and possibly use Google Maps and Street View as part of their application portfolios. Few will make the connection to Ed Lu, a NASA astrophysicist by profession. Google employs more than 20,000 people, but Mr Lu is the only one to have travelled in space. This background proved relevant in his contribution to developing the camera used by Street View, and the scanners used for Google Books, and work on data-gathering projects for Google Earth and Google Maps.

This example demonstrates the dangers of trying to recruit ‘talent’ using only traditional channels, methods, and procedures, e.g. IQ tests and browsing through resumes. ‘It’s hard to replicate guys like this’, says Mr Kay, partner in Heidrick & Struggles. ‘Companies hire these kinds of people because there’s no one else in the world who has this combination of skills, stylistic fit with the company, and willingness to come on with this kind of ambiguity.”

Why do you see standard methods for hiring talent as problematic?

— The recruiting business is huge, highly competitive, and yet strangely conservative. The imperative of general continuous innovation is overwhelming, and the identification of talent is challenged by two characteristics:

  1. the new breed of global talents is increasingly characterized by an ‘interactive mindset’, meaning that such people are socialized to work in open, flexibly configured networks, with their main loyalty and commitment towards meaningful projects rather than companies as formal entities;
  2. talent increasingly is a deep contextual predicate, something to be defined and identified according to circumstances and situational terms, where dynamic development and discovery processes, often in unexpected contexts, play pivotal roles.

— The impact of these trends is especially pronounced with respect to organizations’ growing desire to recruit talented people with creative and innovative mindsets, most often to work in an intercultural setting. In most instances, there is still a reliance on traditional means to describe talent, e.g. static and retrospective CVs and generic abstract personal profiling data, which are a hangover from an era of bureaucracy. As opportunities increase, and ongoing innovation becomes crucial for remaining competitive in the global race, what new types of competencies will be necessary, how can they be described, and what new tools are available to identify (or unleash) them?

How can contextual situations be recreated to identify talent?

— To respond to these challenges, MillionBrains has developed a so-called ‘Intelligent Recruiting Tool’ based on its original technology concept, but simultaneously taking account of the new trends and addressing some of the essential peculiarities of the final phases of most recruiting processes. For example:

  1. at the final interview phase organizations tend to stick to traditional tools, such as briefing candidates on real and relevant context-based tasks prior to interview in order to enable an intelligent dialogue, geared towards uncovering innovation related mindsets and capabilities;
  2. after investing a large amount of time and effort in selecting and interviewing several potential candidates, organizations produce a short list and at best usually hire one person; they do not focus on systematically extracting valuable business knowledge, smart approaches or ideas from all applicants.

— The Intelligent Recruiting Tool allows the short-listed candidates to work anonymously on an online open innovation platform, on a company relevant problem, within a strictly defined period of time prior to the decisive interview process. The set-up allows candidates to work interactively to solve real and relevant problems, and to display their competencies and work styles in an environment that as near as possible resembles the real work situation. For the company, this approach brings new meaning and value, which benefits the hiring process. First, the multi-faceted, interactive, working culture related skill-sets of every candidate are dynamically revealed prior to interview, in a really relevant context. Second, rather than filing away the applications of the highly competent candidates not finally offered the position, the company gains some input (brain value transfer) from all the short-listed candidates, to an important problem. This brings open innovation logic to the final phase of the modern hiring process.

New innovation trends, new talent definitions, and new approaches.

By Sam Kondo Steffensen, PhD, MBA, and Frode Lundsten, MBA

About the authors

Sam Kondo Steffensen has constantly been working with innovation, entrepreneurship, globalization and social effects of new technology for more than 20 years. His professional career includes more than 15 years in Japan working with leading industries, research institutions and public sector. Back in Scandinavia he has worked as Business Development Director at Orange/France Telecom, Chairman of the Danish Telecommunications Industry and setting-up an IT-Incubator centre in Örestaden, Copenhagen. Sam holds a M.A.-degree from Roskilde University, a Ph.d. from University of Copenhagen, a doctorate from Kyushu University, and a MBA from Copenhagen Business School. Currently Sam acts as professional board member and the CEO /co-founder of MillionBrains A/S, a next-stage innovation company, for more information please visit


Frode Lundsten has more than 20 years of experience in helping companies to sustain or revitalize their growth. He has worked both in national and international contexts of business development and change management, where strategy implementation and applied innovation management has been the focus. Frode also has experience from publishing and media industry, both as a publisher and a columnist. Frode holds a MBA degree from Henley Management College, UK, where his dissertation focused on the adoption of open innovation in Danish companies. Frode is also founder and partner of