Already today innovation is seen as a must for all countries, regions and companies. Staying and being innovative is considered to be a key for strengthening international competitiveness. In Kenneth Rogoff's recent article “Innovation Crisis or Financial Crisis?”, published on Project Syndicate, the absence of radical innovations is even accepted as one of the reasons for the latest economic slump.

When dealing with incentives for innovation, the driving role of the human factor is always present. It is people, and not machines or processes, who innovate. Therefore, it is no surprise that the role of “talent” or skilled people has been discussed during the “Science Week 2012” in San Sebastian, Spain. The discussion took place in the framework of the Pintxos&Blogs’ monthly meeting. Several speakers and participants from all over the world (including James Wilson from Orkestra) talked about the status of the labour market in Gipuzkoa, with intense debates around the definition of “talent”, the general quality of people in the region, and the prime role of connections or knowledge for career growth. The discussion raised the following questions:

  1. What is “talent” or who is a talented person?
  2. Which skills makes a person attractive in the market?
  3. Does having “talent” strengthen innovation processes in the region or country?

In order to be considered as “talent” one should possess “natural aptitude or skill” (Oxford Dictionaries), which will make her/him “do something well” (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary). Herewith, natural ability is that with which the person is born and is difficult to influence. However, natural skills are always only a clause, because their existence does not imply effective usage. In the case of their non-development they will not bring any added-value to the person’s innovative abilities. Thus, in contrary "skill" is also considered as “the ability to do something well” (Oxford Dictionaries), however as a “developed talent or ability” (TheFreeDictionary). Thus while speaking about talented people or “talent” and their contribution to innovation, we really mean the natural developed and learned skills that can be used in order to upgrade knowledge, processes and/or products.

Understanding and defining the meaning of “talent” in economic terms opens a discussion about the precise skills that are needed for innovation processes. In order to answer this question I made a brief scan of the literature about necessary/needed skills. The papers and reports include information not only on innovation-orientated, but also career-orientated skills. The latter aspect was also included due to the assumption that business and public actors are innovation-orientated, and herewith employ/look for people with qualities that stimulate innovative processes.

The assembled results of this literature scan for the period 2005–2011 are presented in the diagram below. It represents skills that one talented person in our above formulated definition should have. Figures reflect number of articles in which this skill has been mentioned. If the ability was mentioned only in one source, it wasn’t included in the graph.


16 extremely relevant skills have been detected and at least 7 occur in half of the analysed sources. Moreover it c clear that person-related skills (especially: leadership, entrepreneurship, networking, communication and cultural competency) are seen as very important for the innovation process. However, one paper stands out from the others. It was focused not on the qualities that one person should have, but on the combination of people with different skills that are needed in order to create an innovative product/service. Dean Hering and Jeffrey Phillips (2005) in “Innovation Roles. The People You Need for Successful Innovation. A White Paper” list the following types of people: connectors, librarian, framer, judge, prototype, metric monitor, storyteller and scout.

Trying to group the skills that a talented person in our formulated definition should have into these types of people leads to an interesting pattern. Each type of person has not all, but only several, of the most relevant skills (see the table below).

creating Innovation table01

This comparison might lead us to question whether the critical thing for innovation is not so much talent per se, but rather the appropriate combination of skilled people. This leads to an interesting consideration for policy makers or managers. Should policy be conducted in order to attract, educate or develop as much “talent” as possible, or should it better concentrate on evolving and advancing person-based skills, and trying to provide a better mix of different types?