Deeper integration of mission-critical workforce performance is essential to achieving high performance. But what is a mission-critical workforce anyway? And what are the particular approaches, tactics and strategies high-performance businesses use to maximize the impact of those workforces?
Those were central questions behind a research initiative conducted by the Working Knowledge Research Center at Babson College, in collaboration with Accenture Learning. Researchers interviewed chief learning officers (or an equivalent role) by telephone at 20 U.S. organizations. The firms were selected from a list of the 100 highest-performing companies in the United States over the past three years as compiled by BusinessWeek.
The survey-based research explored one of the specific capabilities of the high-performance learning organization: a focus on developing the competencies of an organization’s most critical job families. To what extent do the most successful public and private organizations focus learning and knowledge management investments on job roles directly tied to strategy execution?
The survey results and analysis strongly support the contention that learning and knowledge management investments are becoming more focused on roles and workforces most important to an organization’s success.
Of the 20 companies surveyed, all but one reported some focus on “mission-critical” workforces or jobs at the corporate level. Eleven participants easily could point to at least one critical workforce or job. Four more could identify two target workforces, and another four identified three or four.
Most of the targeted workforces survey participants named were logical choices, based on the industries in which the companies competed.
For example, two drugstore chains predictably commented they were focused on pharmacists as a target workforce, and an electrical utility company with several nuclear power plants was focused on the learning needs of nuclear plant operators and engineers.
About half of the firms targeted jobs at the customer interface — agents in insurance, salespeople in software, contact center personnel at an IT company. These jobs, argued the CLOs, are most likely to affect the quality of the customer experience and, thus, to improve customer loyalty and revenues for their companies.
In several cases, substantial changes in the business strategy or situation drove a more focused approach to learning. For example, an insurance CLO commented that much of the company’s traditional transactional work was automated or outsourced. In response to that change, she argued, the company now needs more people with higher-order skills in areas such as conceptualization, design and empathy/understanding.
At an electrical utility, revenue and profit growth primarily come from unregulated businesses rather than the traditional utility business. As a result, the company is increasing its learning investments in that area.
Changes in job roles also affect learning investments. At a pharmacy chain, for example, a major change in the pharmacist’s role has driven a focus on pharmacist education.
“We are trying to get the pharmacists out from behind the computers,” this CLO said. “They used to do most of the data entry. Now, we are trying to make the pharmacist responsible for quality assurance and for talking to patients and physicians. We’ve reorganized the checkout so that the technicians do the data entry. This leaves the pharmacists with more time to add value to customers, and it also allows them to use their teachings from school and from our learning programs more successfully.”
Differentiated workforce investments are a sign of things to come.
“We are just beginning to introduce concepts around analyzing business unit strategies and determining who are the critical contributors to that strategy,” an insurance industry CLO said. “Where should our limited resources be applied? In the past, we have spent a lot of money on a lot of people, but we’re spending less overall. As a result, we need to spend more on some and less on others. We pay people differently, so educating them differently makes sense too.”
Subsequent phases in the development of a differentiated workforce investment strategy will involve integrating the work of these critical workforces to maximize their impact on business results.
John G. Higgins is vice president for solution strategy and innovation at Accenture Learning. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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