2008 could be the year that the widespread development of talented frontline staff and the spotting of potential senior staff takes centre stage in the NHS.

In 1964 Cassius Clay, then 22 years old, knocked out Sonny Liston to become the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Harry Carpenter described this seventh-round victory as the most extraordinary and sensational moment in sporting history. Forty years later, it still influences society and sporting behaviour. Did this unexpected event result from some director of talent's succession plan?

Prime minister Gordon Brown has said repeatedly that he sees the promotion of talent as central to his plans. He has argued that the successful countries, in a global economy which will double in size over the next 25 years, will win the race in a competition to deliver higher skills, not lower pay. The UK director of talent and his chancellor's plan is to deliver an economic policy that rewards creativity, skills and talent.

The 2008-09 operating framework for the English NHS and social care system identifies the fact that ambitions can only be delivered if there is great leadership and management. The framework calls for each employer to produce a talent plan to prescribe what this could look like in practice.

The increase in education funding by 6 per cent, especially after quite a tight time for training, will provide welcome leverage for intent to be put into practice. Strategic health authorities are working on their own talent and capability plans for those within their remit. London's aspiring chief executive programme is best practice.

In modern human resources terms, the most common meaning attached to talent management appears to focus on those with potential or working in positions most critical to the organisation's success. This might be convenient for concentrating on the identification of current and future leaders as business pinch points, but it sits somewhat uncomfortably with the more egalitarian determination to escalate the skills of all staff.

The 2006 skills pledge, which all public sector employers are expected to sign up to voluntarily, commits them to train all employees to level two. This pledge, which could become statutory after 2010 if insufficient progress has been made, has been sold on the basis that it too will promote prosperity and world class skills in a global economy.

The 2007 staff survey will give further guidance for employers and trade unions on the extent to which staff admire their organisation's leadership talent and how much personal development they have benefited from over the past year. The most significant benchmarks to watch will be how they performed the year before and any internal relativity between clinical and corporate business units.

The question every HR pub quiz poses: how is it that levels of turnover, the desire to leave and the degree to which immediate managers promote team working can vary so much between otherwise similar work environments?