But casting a wider net in the search for merit — or even expanding the definition of it — is a different thing than discarding it altogether.
Andrew Coyne makes some fair points about best person for the job, etc. He also wisely points out the unconscious biases that, far more than actual "merit", determine hires.
I've responded to the uproar about a commitment to more women in Cabinet elsewhere; it's this concept of merit that will be my focus here.
What is merit? Is merit the proven ability to do a job? By and large, that seems to be the definition being used in the modern labour market. The expectation is that employers will hire the person with the best demonstrated ability to do the job in question. How have they demonstrated this ability? Through having done it before, naturally.
It's a message I have heard time and time again - find the one thing you're great at, then just keep doing it. The emphasis in this frame is the ability to sell to land the job or get the contract, then do it again, then do it again.
You eat what you kill, the saying goes. People hire based on your number of kills. This, too, I've seen again and again - experts who move from contract to contract, essentially repeating what's worked elsewhere, like a Sparky Polastri (or a Lynton Crosby).
Imagine school worked that way - to get in, you have to prove you can pass all the tests on day one. Or how about sports? Imagine talent scouts went from game to game, rejecting out of hand young talent because they weren't able to compete with the pros right out of the starting gate.
How exactly does one become an expert without experience?
The counter-argument is that the gaining of expertise isn't the employer's problem - that's all on the prospect. They can get schooling, volunteer, whatever it takes to build their portfolio and demonstrate their merit.
After all, that's WHY we have school - for kids to learn before entering the workforce. Right?
Employers spend their own money - it's entirely reasonable for them to want to reduce risk and only invest in sure things. Especially with the economy as uncertain as it is and all kinds of system shifts to worry about.
Therein lies the problem with "merit"-based hiring. You, as an employer, can rely on your own experience to determine what will and won't work for your company - but if things are changing, how well do you know what skills the future will require? If you're in competition - is more of the same in your best interest, or might you need to up your game with a bit of innovation? If you hire people who are done learning and selling established expertise, do you run the risk of falling behind?
We've gotten used to thinking that survival and success are based on strength - the toughest guy gets the best deal, etc. On a transactional basis, this has merit; thing is, transactions are one-offs, tactics over strategy. Harper was a tactician, look where that landed him.
In evolutionary terms - the long game - it isn't strength that determines fitness, but adaptability. Individuals don't evolve, which is why organisms adapt by adding diversity to their mix - through different genes (sex), or new technologies and systems (civilization) to new talent (Orgs like Google, for instance).
New talent isn't a proven commodity - but it might provide the right adaptations for success in a changing world.
All that before you get to value-add and loyalty. When you hire a know commodity for what everyone already knows they can do, you're decreasing your odds of extra value being generated. You get what you pay for.
When you hire emerging talent, you can nurture loyalty and create opportunities for unexpected gains, fresh approaches, new ideas - value-add.
You can stick with the abilities you think you know you want - or, you can take a chance and nurture some new talent. It's impossible to know what all you might get, but you don't always know what you need, either.
At the very least, nurturing talent is an idea with merit.