It is a challenge to train toward future states rather than to current practices. Training efforts are being stretched in many organizations to meet the current demands of developing proficient employees in the jobs that exist today. Moreover, organizations are looking to training to prepare the next generation of leaders to replace the great number of managers who are expected to retire during the next decade. The strategic directions themselves are changing rapidly to meet new demands and cope with new challenges.
One important step is to assess the current state and the desired future state of the workforce in order to identify the organization-wide competencies that need to be developed. Another important step is to let go of the notion that staffing in the future will resemble the staffing approaches that are followed today. We have already witnessed a radical shift in the way employees approach their careers. There is a strong loyalty to one’s profession rather than to a specific organization. Employees sharpen their skills throughout their careers by accepting a wide range of opportunities within and across organizations. Because of this, employees enter a new work situation with a breadth and depth of experiences that enable them to contribute in unique ways. Rather than training new employees to rigorous processes, employees are helping to improve these processes with unique combinations of skills. Training departments that do not adapt to this trend may find themselves enforcers of strict organizational compliance rather than enablers of a dynamic workforce.
With an agile workforce that moves from project to project, training for project-specific needs is as important as training to formalized position titles. As managers create project-related opportunities to encourage the growth of their employees, they will need to partner with training departments to provide the just-in-time development that will be immediately applied on the job. This is a win-win situation: Learning is improved through immediate opportunities to practice new competencies, and the organization receives immediate value from the training.
Competency Modeling for Just-in-Time Staffing
Competencies serve as useful linchpins that enable direct comparisons between job requirements, project requirements, employee behaviors and training opportunities. Once this common metric has been applied to jobs, individuals and development programs, the identification of training gaps is a simple procedure.
For maximum practicality, it is useful to keep competency descriptions at the level of training objectives. More macro-level descriptions lack utility. For example, to indicate to an employee that he is in need of development in the area of communication is not actionable. Are we referring to written or oral communication? Are we referring to formal presentation skills or interpersonal skills? On the other hand, too much detail yields an assessment that is unwieldy in length.
A rule of thumb is to determine if an employee profiled using this competency description can be mapped against her current job, future job or special project requirements. If the answer is no, the description is not generic enough to assess the underlying competency. Try to stay away from descriptions that are tool-specific and doomed to obsolescence. “Uses available technology to track project benchmarks” is more useful and less time-vulnerable than “Has mastery of the Benchmarking module of ProjectPerfect software version 62.008.” For placement decisions as well as developmental guideposts, the training objective/training application level seems to be about right.
Many basic business acumen competencies are used throughout divisions and at all levels. What distinguishes one job requirement from the next and one employee from another is the level of proficiency. By using a scale with enough variance (I have had good success with a nine-point scale), we have enough variance to compare employees at the same organizational level with each other and with job titles. With enough variance we can compare an employee’s current performance with his earlier performance benchmark. Proficiency exams, certifications and work samples are also excellent to use for many competencies.
Ideally, we will have jobs, employees and training opportunities described at the level of learning objectives and rated using a nine-point scale. To illustrate the application of these metrics, let us use the example of a VP of marketing who is pulling together a team to launch a new product line. This VP is going to start by profiling the leadership position for this new team. This profile consists of the proficiency levels required for needed competencies plus any other selection criteria. This profile is compared with the proficiency profiles of the candidates for this position (or a database application searches profiled employees and identifies candidates). The candidate selected for this opportunity has a few performance gaps, but these gaps are mapped to available developmental opportunities, and through this training the candidate is quickly up to speed for this leadership assignment. This new leader then uses profiling to identify members for her team.
Meanwhile, a manager in the graphic arts department has an employee with tremendous potential and motivation. He is worried that this talented employee is not sufficiently challenged. To develop this employee, he compares her profile with project opportunities in the organization. There is a close mapping to the needs of a new product marketing team, but this employee falls short in group problem-solving competencies. Aside from the requirements for this project, the manager knows that these competencies will be very useful for the stated strategic direction of the whole organization. The graphics manager recommends this employee for a place on the team and works with training to fill the skill gaps. As a result, the organization has a great team as well as employees who are developing in ways that are consistent with the organization’s strategy. The graphic artist is delighted to be part of an organization that is helping build her career. The graphics manager is developing employees in ways that are meaningful for both the organization and the employee. The team leader has a talented group with which to successfully launch the new line. The VP, with a successfully created team, can move on to other important initiatives.
Competency Development ROI
How do we know that a company is receiving a return on its competency-based training investment? The success of a project team is easy to observe, but how do we know that the success isn’t due to circumstances other than the talents of the team members? What if the efforts don’t have clear, measurable outcomes? Organizations are very complex, and it is unrealistic to attribute all of their successes to their talent pools. Equipment, market conditions, compliance-bound procedures and the physical environment are just some of the factors that drive success.
So how do we assess the impact of competency on the bottom line? It is possible to back into ROI figures using information that is readily available. In addition to profiling employee competencies, employees can be profiled on performance objectives that are strategically meaningful. Examples might include developing others, bringing in new business, employee retention, etc. Organizations already have their own metrics regarding the costs involved when not delivering on these objectives. When we correlate competencies with these performance outcomes, we can demonstrate the impact of developing these skills. For example, we might find that managers engaging in competencies X, Y and Z have less turnover and save the company 21 percent of their compensation budget compared with managers who are not proficient in these competencies.
Developing Leadership to Meet Succession-Planning Objectives
Leadership and succession planning bring together the worlds of individual and organizational assessment. Ideally, leaders will inspire an organizational culture that will move employees toward successfully accomplishing organizational goals without sacrificing a healthy climate.
Organizational and market surveys often contribute substantially to strategic planning discussions. Mapping your organization’s culture and performance against market trends will enable you to determine your strengths and identify your organizational weaknesses. Additional information about the contributions of large groups of employees can also identify obstacles to success. When a performance gap is found for large groups, it is important to uncover the source of the weakness. Is it a problem with talent, process or culture? Talented leaders can address any of these problems.
How do we identify and develop these leaders? We can use competency profiles to identify individuals with prerequisite abilities and values. Traditional training and coaching can assist them in their first supervisory positions. Beyond traditional training, a very useful way to develop future generations of leaders is to engage existing leaders in the development of their potential replacements. This process benefits both the mentor and the protégé. By thinking about the important aspects of their jobs and working with training to develop tools for middle and entry-level management, leaders will further develop their own competencies as well as the competencies of the next generation. Anyone who has engaged in training activities recognizes that the way to learn something well is to teach it to others. In so doing, one is forced to understand and organize all the relevant concepts.
From the organizational culture perspective, this sets up an expectation that leadership positions are temporary and that the way to move into more challenging leadership roles is to set up your own succession plan. The turf wars and power that stem from keeping others ignorant will backfire in such a culture, giving way to adaptability and generosity, the new traits that lead to upward mobility
Non-Management Career Paths for Niche Mentoring
Not everyone is suited to a management position. Employees with exemplary technical skills who are neither interested in nor suited to management jobs can be rewarded for developing others. These technical experts can provide traditional coaching, and they can become role models by placing them strategically on project teams with more junior employees. Often, high-profile projects are staffed with star players. Low-profile projects are staffed with less experienced employees. In the interest of development, it is beneficial to staff projects with individuals with different levels of complementary skills. In some IT departments, I have successfully created a technical wizard career path, which served multiple purposes. It offered recognition and status to talented individuals without retiring their skill sets, as well as enabling them to sit on many project teams in an advisory capacity. The wizards learned additional techniques from exposure to many teams and served to share the wealth of information across teams (e.g., The Tiger Team already built a module that is 80 percent of what you need. I’ll ask them to show it to you). Finally, these senior technicians were a valuable source of competency rating information.
Mapping Organizational Culture to Your Strategic Direction
Determining your strategic direction is an iterative process, hovering between vision and feasibility. Organizational surveys can tell you which processes are working well and which are not. Aggregate competency profiles can describe your current workforce foundation. Profiling future job states can tell you where you need to develop.
A change in strategic direction usually means a change in culture as well. Training and culture change are so intertwined that it is difficult to separate them in practice. It is useful to borrow from traditional OD techniques and involve employees in the design and implementation of development plans. Heavy reliance on instructor-facilitated training has limited utility in this process. I have heard heavy-handed, top-down attempts at training for culture change referred to as “executive charm school” and “vision of the month training.” Enabling culture change means enabling employees to take responsibility for planning much of their own development.
Ambitious employees will happily volunteer to participate in activities designed to determine the battery of development activities that will be most readily accepted by their peers. These champions of change can act as focus group facilitators, content experts, designers of job aids and ambassadors for training. Not only will they develop their own skills, they will inspire other employees to do the same.
You Can Learn from Everyone and Anyone
I once met an executive who insisted that the 500 employees in his division lacked creativity. Rather than set up creativity classes for 500 individuals, I asked the executive to invite a few of his entry-level employees to join him for a cup of coffee and some conversation. After hearing the employees discuss various aspects of their jobs and the many suggestions they offered, the executive changed his mind about their lack of creativity. He discovered in one coffee break that the missing competency was the ability of leadership in his division to ask questions and involve employees in developing strategic solutions. After that, he regularly walked through the operations area at break time and randomly invited a few employees to join him. He incorporated their ideas into his planning. His employees admired him for his sincere interest in their opinions. The employee involvement enabled the executive to make better decisions. He was one of the wisest executives I have been privileged to work with.
Barbara O. Lewis, Ph.D. is an industrial organizational psychologist. She has been both an internal and external consultant to organizations of all sizes for more than 20 years. She is currently the director of Organizational Assessments at Pearson Reid London House. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at www.reidlondonhouse.com.