Thursday, October 28, 2010

Proficiency = Efficiency and Effectiveness

Dad and I worked years on a model airplane (not this one). We had fun doing this but proficiency -- that is speed, flexibility, quality and quantity were not high. As seen here, detailed attention did get us quality... but at a price -- a long time, and much painstaking rework.

As mentioned earlier, proficiency is not well understood. We tend to know it when we see it… and we know lack of proficiency when we see it.

Speed, quantity, quality, and flexibility are the hallmarks of proficiency. These we can measure, so why don’t we? Well… those who know the measures and are capable of doing the measuring are too busy doing the work. They have a personal scorecard in their head and they are constantly working to best their previous best by increasing the challenge. Everyone else is trying to catch up.

If that’s true, then only those who are proficient can actually evaluate proficiency – only a master knows another master. If only masters can define proficiency in their field and their too busy doing the work, how do we know what to train the next generation of masters?

There’s actually as simple tool, the proficiency indicator scale. This is a method for taking any complex task and defining the difference in proficiency based on experience level of the individual.

Try it for yourself. Think of a complex task where you either want to improve your performance. (Start with something you know well – it could be cooking a special dish, submitting a quarterly report, resolving a specific type of technical issue or anything that you are proud that you eventually mastered.)

Level 1: Awareness – describe the moment of awareness an individual realizes and truly internalizes the need to build skill. Educators call this “the teachable moment.” Learners at this level might say:

Level 2: Attempts– list one or two key action that exemplifies someone who is trying to do the work but is still struggling with the basics. Typically these statements will include the fact that the learner chooses the wrong tools, uses tools incorrectly, and has difficulty putting concepts to work.

Level 3: Semi-Independent – after completing a course or working with someone more experienced, we try tackling the work on our own only to find that we missed something key. Perhaps we did not really “get” the connection between basics and actions or perhaps we did not get enough practices to really integrate skills with real work. Regardless, at the semi-independent stage, we still need help, coaching, guidance, and someone to bail us out. We make mistakes and do a lot of rework. Quantity and quality are both low. Speed is still slow. We have a limited number of ways that we can work out problems (i.e., we’re not very flexible).

Notice that most training courses leave us at this level when we exit the course. In order to make our new skills work, we have to go through many days and weeks of working with limited skills. If our coaching and guidance systems are good, we move forward. If not, we stay stuck at this level and may even quit trying the new skills.

Level 4: Independent – at some point, we have done enough rounds of execution that we are comfortable with the skills in our work setting. We have acquired enough experience to need little coaching, redirection or “bailing out.” We know where to find the documentation and how to read it and apply it, but we don’t need it much. We have become independent.

Independent is the level that most employers want for all their employees. Anything beyond this level is gravy. In addition, an employee who attains this level in their specific role but shows specific skills in leadership often moves up to leadership with moving to the next there three (3) levels, which does irritate those who are not chosen for leadership roles and who do continue to hone their professional skills by moving to the next level.

Level 5: Fluent – over time and with much practice, we build add new skills, build speed, improve our quality and start increasing our output quantities. Around now, we become influential in working with others both within our work units and outside of them. We coach those coming up behind us, answer others questions, resolve problems, document work processes. If our particular work pays bonuses or commissions for quantity and quality measures, we are the top earners in our class.

People working at the Fluent level make great subject experts because they not only know what they are doing, how to do it and why they are doing or choosing to do certain steps, but they can explain it in ways that make sense to less experienced people. People at this level may become trainers or may begin making presentations at conferences about their company’s process, tools, or techniques.

Level 6: Natural – eventually, we have done the tasks so many times and in so many different situations that we do this complex work with our own artistic flair. Others say, “…but you’re a natural at this…” However, we probably still see ourselves as learners with much left to learn. We might (privately) note that many of our junior peers struggle with work that we find simple and basic. When others complement us on our work, we have difficulty accepting that complement because we see the flaws and imperfections that they do not see.

Not every makes it to the Natural level for all tasks. Nor is Natural the level that employers desire for all employees.

Note, also, that people at the Natural level are often tagged to be subject experts to develop training. However, they are not good subject experts because they simply jump to the solution for a problem and frequently are unable to explain why or how they chose that solution. Their own inability to explain it and someone else’s inability to understand frustrate them.

Level 7: Novel – Skills in one area blend with skills in other areas to create new and novel approaches, techniques, solutions to problems, innovative ideas and methods. We begin recreating the work tasks, work process, work tools… and, eventually, the field. At this level, we openly share our ideas, methods, and processes not only within our organizations but externally with our field. People at this level are writing the papers and making presentations at conferences.

Strangely, individuals at the Novel level can either become internal resources tightly focused on internal improvements or they become ambassadors for ‘new way’ (based on their improvements). In the ambassador mode, they may be great presenters and trainers.

Now, the question of mastery and proficiency becomes one of degrees of mastery or degrees of proficiency”. Since the advanced levels of proficiency require time and practice, the key performance development (training) question becomes, “what degree of performance and mastery is need and why is that level needed?”

What proficiency are you addressing today?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Retained and Sustainable Value

The colors in the picture above are surreal due to the photo enhancement software used to transform a dark photo into one that highlights the details of this art deco arch over a doorway in Vancouver Canada. There’s something about art deco and craftsman work that has retained its value over time. During that period craftsmen’s tools were limited and this kind of workmanship took time, talent and experience. Today, I have no information about whether this work of art in both wood and metals was a single person’s contribution or a team contribution. However, it is a massive installation over a huge double doorway and has withstood the test of time and weather. It has retained and even increased its value.

Our tools have changed since the days when pieces like this were created. New tools allow us to work faster. However, working fast sometimes forces the craftsman in us to skip over the details that would create art out of work… forcing us to leave out the retained value that could be demonstrated through our work.

Interestingly, the performance improvement field is beginning to address sustainability and retained value. New work in the triple bottom line or TBL is looking at not only financial sustainability of organization but at social and ecological sustainability as well. (Check out these TBL visuals, as well... look at lots of them to get a real sense of this direction). It is an interesting way to look beyond making some individuals filthy rich to making sure that the work of an organization is sustainable.

However, on the front-line, most of us involved in performance improvement work are still tied to pettifogging tools that measure transactions rather than value. What do I mean by “measure transactions rather than value”? Well, consider the learning objective, one of the world’s most ubiquitous tools for measuring individual change (learning). Do follow that link. It’s amazing. Wikipedia, the new standard for dictionaries, does not include a definition of the term “learning objective” but references them in a dozen different ways. And, as might be expected, Blooms Taxonomy is the first one listed. There is no mention of the other taxonomies developed. Most people are unaware that there are taxonomies for the affective domain (social/emotional), fine motor and gross motor. Bloom’s taxonomy is all about knowledge and thought. In its way, it is a limiting to an organization as is the old-fashioned bottom-line accounting… and as complex. However, unlike accounting learning and performance improvement have not embraced the specialization required of complexity, we have simplified to the point of dumbing down the learning objective. Objectives have moved us into a mode where the single transaction is all that is important and any degree of integration between transactions is devalued.

Consider a very typical scenario, the service-oriented call center. Here a low-paid employee answers an incoming call. To answer the call they have to select the right combination of keys on a keyboard, listen through a headset, imagine a person on the other end of their phone line, decipher the problem the person is presenting, collect a variety of data elements such as name, address, phone number, and account number, validate that thy have understood the problem definition correctly, negotiate changes in that definition until the customer is happy that the problem is defined correctly, propose a solution or set of solutions, get the customer to agree to those solution actions and take those actions. In the case of a technical solution like a computer problem, this may also require that the call center employee walk the customer through steps to solve their own problem without being able to see the customers’ computer screen, keystrokes, or results of their actions. Whether or not the interaction resulted in a favorable outcome, the employee still has to document the end result, whether follow-up is needed, whether the event is closed or left open, the customer’s satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) with it, and then end the call on a positive note. For this complex set of tasks, the typical call center employee is allowed three minutes and the event is called a transaction.

That is a very complex set of skills that include greeting, data gathering, active listening, paraphrasing, negotiating agreements, decision-making, parsing out specific details, asking questions, visualizing a person that one can not see, visualizing the other person’s actions, acquiring verbal feedback from the other person about their actions (i.e., interviewing the caller about their actions), summarizing actions and results, and closing the call. The call center employee must then translate that information in to data that is entered into their computer system and they must complete the call within a timed period such as 3 minutes, which is also data automatically handled by the call management computer system. It is the data that lasts long after the call has ended.

When we get a call center employee who can execute this dance, we judge the company as being successful. When we get one who can not execute it, we judge the company as unsuccessful and question whether to continue our business with and through that company. Getting this dance right is or should be very important for companies using call centers. So their learning objectives and job descriptions tend to look like this:

• Demonstrate effective communications skills
• Demonstrate effective time management
• Able to describe the call response process
• Identify various classes or types of customer problems
• Demonstrate the ability to resolve customer issues to customers’ satisfaction by receiving a 4.0 or higher rating average
• Know how to handle angry or abusive callers
• Enter data accurately

These learning/work objectives leave out the complexity of the dance and narrow the work down to it lowest common denominator. It leaves out the art, artistry and sustainable value of the work. No wonder few call centers actually get the value that they need to get from this service. We can chalk it up to pay but the real culprit is work definition.

What’s the alternative?

Well, what might happen if we admitted that our work is complex enough to be an art form? If we start out to create works of art with sustainable value, might we define the work differently? Might we take a page out of the triple bottom line and define work based on finances, people and ecological impact? Might we look for integration points as the real learning issues knowing that we can build skills in any one skill set but that integrated skill sets require more sophisticated learning? Might we consider learning to be our opus work of art (or OPIS)?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Who Decides Who The “Master” Is?

Eons ago in the days of guilds and somewhat more recently in the heyday of unions, workers were identified by experience rankings such as apprentice, journeyman and master. A master artist with vision and technique created this art deco window from the 1940s that I found in Vancouver. The artists are still with us and, yes, they still become masters of their craft. How about the employee in non-artistic businesses? Is there vision, skill, technique or craft in his or her work?

We’ve done away with the apprentice/journeyman/master designations in favor competency-based job descriptions (another rant, but I’ll leave it alone today) and longevity-based wage scales. Skill designations appeared to create a kind of prejudice and, even, a kind of an entitlement viewpoint where employees feel that they are entitled to jobs and living wages in return for years of experience, increasing knowledge and expertise... and that managers who no longer do the work may be of less value (which merely about not seeing the craft inherent in management but raises hackles anyway.)

In the switch over we lost track of the master craftsman among us. Who and what constitutes a master in your field? Is this the person with a PhD and 30 years of experience but no “field” experience? Someone with 10 years of field experience but no degree? Or is there a better way to get at the underlying differences that makes someone a master of their craft.

Consider proficiency. In HR terms 'proficient' means that the person can do the job well with little supervision (i.e., with little or no intervention by a supervisor, team lead or more experienced worker). defines proficiency as: A noun -- the state of being proficient; skill; expertness: proficiency in music.

I thought that the idea of a definition was to use words OTHER THAN the one you are defining. How can we define proficiency by saying it is the state of being “proficient”. This begs the question. Skill an expertise don’t help much either.

Merriam defines proficiency as: 1: advancement in knowledge or skill: PROGRESS 2: the quality or state of being proficient.

We’re making progress here aren’t we? Does that mean we’re becoming (moving into the state of being) more proficient? I think not. ‘Advancement of knowledge and skill’ misses the point by a mile. One can be advancing their knowledge and skill and still not be proficient. One can also be proficient and continue to advance their knowledge and skill.

Wikipedia references definitions for ‘expert’, ‘progress’, ‘skill’ and ‘proficiency testing’ but has no definition for proficient or proficiency.

It would appear that we have a real and basic human issue with defining proficiency – we don’t know how to define it.

If we don’t know how to define it how we judge whether someone is proficient or not?

What do we know about proficiency?
1. Time and experience are highly related to proficiency -- that which we do frequently and in all the possible variations in work methods, tools, designs, and artistic intents, eventually leads most of us toward some degree of proficiency (if not mastery). However, this proficiency can be lost when tools change or the culture (or business demand) around us change leaving us with a proficiency in something of lower value (a whole ‘nother issue but worth mentioning here.)
2. Repetition is highly related to proficiency – drill and practice can provide enough iterations that we can develop proficiency in a short period of time and than might have been expected without it. This is why elementary schools still use worksheets… and why physical therapist and physical trainers give us specific exercises to do in order to build our muscle capacity, balance, and agility.
3. Innate talent can speed up the process of gaining proficiency and even allow individuals to “jump” over their peers and teachers allowing them to become more proficient more quickly than others.
4. Lack of proficiency is visible. It’s always easy to see someone who is not proficient. Even if we do not know much about the field, we can look at someone who is not proficient and recognize their distress.

Okay, let’s go with that for now. Consider #4, that proficiency is visible. If it’s visible, then we should be able to agree on the characteristics of someone who is not proficient.
• Awkward movements (lacks agility)
• Signs of stress and distress (fear, pain, anxiety, tears)
• Makes mistakes
• Takes a long time to complete a relatively simple task
• Has to stop and think hard about the next step
• Frequently asks for help or bogs down (freezes) and is unable to work until help is available
• Has difficulty figuring out how to correct the problems he or she created when making a mistake
• The product that is being produced is obviously flawed both during the process of creating and at the end of the process

Why can we describe lack of proficiency but not proficiency? Is this really about a much more ancient talent that humans have – finding prey. We recognize these behaviors as being those of the inexperience (the young) or ill and either feel the need to nurture or attack based on our own pre-dispositions for such things.

So, knowing what signals lack of mastery and lack of proficiency, can we flip them around to create proficiency? Probably. Let's think about having something preying on us. What characteristics would be watching for?
I would propose that proficiency includes these characteristics:
• Agility – fluid movement between discrete parts of the task and the ability to adjust to changes in the environment
• Flexibility – being able to execute under different circumstances, with different tools and different environmental conditions and being able to change approaches and tools based on feedback from the environment.
• Speed – execution in shorter than standard periods; the ability to change directions or actions with little or no apparent thought
• Quality – produces work that has few if any flaws; produces results that are acclaimed by other experts in the field and by those receiving their work output
• Accurate problem identification – quickly and accurately defines problems with very small amounts of data indicating that a problem might exist
• Creative problem-solving – quickly reconfigures available skills and resources to solve new problems for which he or she does not yet have experience but where the problems exhibit characteristics of similar problems that he or she has experienced
• Joy and passion – loves the work getting strength and pleasure from executing it and from getting better and better at it
• Self-challenging – drives oneself for continuous life-long learning
• Confidence – willing to back their work and commit to their product’s quality

Confidence may be the one area where we can judge our own proficiency. Think about it. What work products are you willing to back with your personal commitment to their quality? Would others judge you as proficient? As a master of that field?

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Blaming the Victim

Several themes threaded their way through the discussions that surrounded this blog. Two main themes reoccurred – business has the right to make as much money as possible for their stakeholders and people who become very highly qualified (over qualified) should realize that might be becoming less relevant as they become more skillful… and that everyone needs to be ready to re-career several times in their lives. Notice that the implication is that once one is skillful in one area, it’s time to ‘give that up’ and take on a whole new career simply because others see you as being over-qualified. That, like the bell jars in photo, individuals become outmoded, useless, and, therefore, disposable.

Taken together these positions create a unique form of “blame the victim”.

Peter Senge of the Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization sets Personal Mastery as one of the key disciples of a Learning Organization. The website recaps Senge’s Personal Mastery principle as follows. I want to quote this exactly because it provides a dramatic counterpoint to the idea that anyone can be over-qualified and, in some way, reinforces the observation that people pursuing personal mastery may never see themselves as over-qualified, at all; that this perspective is uniquely the perspective of the “other” person – the leader, human resources specialist, the organizations.

Personal mastery. ‘Organizations learn only through individuals who learn. Individual learning does not guarantee organizational learning. But without it no organizational learning occurs’ (Senge 1990: 139). Personal mastery is the discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively’ (ibid.: 7). It goes beyond competence and skills, although it involves them. It goes beyond spiritual opening, although it involves spiritual growth (ibid.: 141). Mastery is seen as a special kind of proficiency. It is not about dominance, but rather about calling. Vision is vocation rather than simply just a good idea.

People with a high level of personal mastery live in a continual learning mode. They never ‘arrive’. Sometimes, language, such as the term ‘personal mastery’ creates a misleading sense of definiteness, of black and white. But personal mastery is not something you possess. It is a process. It is a lifelong discipline. People with a high level of personal mastery are acutely aware of their ignorance, their incompetence, and their growth areas. And they are deeply self-confident. Paradoxical? Only for those who do not see the ‘journey is the reward’. (Senge 1990: 142)

On the one hand we have organizations that feel the need to remove this expertise and individual driven toward continual learning from their team because individuals who pursue personal mastery have become “too expensive” to keep on hand and because, as some point, they are perceived as no longer moving up in the organization and must, therefore, be seen as moving out.

On the other hand, we have the individual for whom personal mastery is a continual quest where the journey is reward. When they see an organization moving in a direction that they are not moving, they look elsewhere for challenges that match their personal mastery. Or, if they see alignment with their current organization, they stay put and continue their mastery journey in the context of their current organization… until that organization dumps them for lack of upward mobility.

In the end, we have leaders and organizations who blame the individual for not realizing that their continued development of advanced skills – that personal mastery –is not what the organization wanted, when what the organization wanted was younger and cheaper resources in whom it could invest in developing the same basic skills over and over again.

This brings us nicely to Senge’s archetypes for repetitive organizational issues. Two that apply here are the Shifting the Burden (i.e., blaming) archetype and the Growth and Underinvestment archetype. The second is subtle. Organizations believe that they are investing in their growth when they focus those investments of new hires and novices. This investment is necessary, valuable and important. However, by never learning how to invest in the master performer, they build in a limitation to their growth.

Senge, along with many other leaders in organizational development, is promoting organizational sustainability in the conference, Leading and Learning for Sustainability. Another view of organizational sustainability is the Triple Bottom Line (TBL), which is attempting to move organizations away from the intense focus on this quarter’s financial bottom line and the need for today’s financial investors to earn huge rewards at the expense of future investors. The new focus in on balancing financial rewards with environmental and social factors. It’s about time.

In the mean time, if you are among the highly qualified, watch your back. If your organization earns a great deal of their money on the backs of their newest hires, you may quickly be among the over-qualified (and looking for work in a new career… or just for a new employer who might value you enough to pay a wage that reflects your mastery.)

On this note, I think that I’ll move from the focus on the “over-qualified” to personal mastery and how we could be identifying mastery in meaningful ways.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Trajectories Or Where is the Over-Qualified Employee's Career Headed?

In digging around LinkedIn’s questions, I discovered a thread from 2008-2009 where people specializing in Human Resources discussed the issue of hiring the over-qualified. The long and short of the discussion boiled down to trajectories -- whether the "over-qualified" person's trajectory was good for the organization.

This was an ‘ah-ha’ moment for me. I had met the concept of career trajectories several years earlier. It looks so right – on paper – and it felt so wrong. It took me a while to discover the missing element… the fatal flaw.

As I remember it, the career trajectories model goes like this:

What’s missing?

How would you classify the person who has hit the top of their career progression and is delivering above average quality – good to superior work with speed, flexibility and quality, while also supporting the team, mentoring others, and tackling difficult problems and projects? Where is their trajectory designation?

Let's start at the beginning....

It is common wisdom that organizations spend 3 - 6 or more months bringing new employees up to speed. That plus the hiring and on-boarding processes equals the Inward Trajectory.

As the individual build skill and as time passes most individuals move up… some more quickly than others… some move higher up than others. This is the Upward Trajectory.

At some point, many individuals realize that they have developed as far as they can in their current role and seek alternatives within the organization. This is the Lateral Trajectory.

If these individuals do not find lateral alternatives, they leave and seek other career opportunities. Of course, in leaving, they take with them the knowledge and experience they gain while working for this organization. In choosing to leave, they automatically place themselves on the Moving Out Trajectory.

When an employee feels that there are no career options in-house and starts shopping around the competition or seeking new career alternatives, they have started themselves on the Moving Out Trajectory.

Another Moving Out Trajectory appears when employees are not succeeding. This might be personal or health issues that appear over time. It might be that the work changed and the employee did not. It might be that the individual’s work was never more that acceptable and, over time, has not improved and may even have declined. The ubiquitous “performance plan” is the organizational way to CYA and ensure that they demonstrate their commitment to giving this employee a helping hand before giving them the boot.

Interestingly, it is possible to start on the Inward Trajectory, discover that there is a mismatch between the person, the work and the environment/culture/team that causes the individual to just not ever succeed. Here, individuals shift quickly from an Inward Trajectory to Moving Out Trajectory. This is the classic purpose for the first 3-6 month trial period. It happens and no one involved enjoys this period whether that is employee or supervisor or HR; it’s just plain no fun. However, if it is not managed, the organization ends up with an employee who is not quite making it for years and years. While they may have gained years of longevity with the organization and may have seniority, they are not the highly-qualified senior employee. These are very different species (the classic “dead wood” that every new manager wants to remove… and seldom can).

Look at the model one more time. Do these trajectories cover all the options? If not, what is missing?

The vast majority of workers, that’s who!

To some extent we all continue with an upward trajectory as we gain experience and skill. However, at some point, we all come to the top of our field. We may never be “the top” individual acclaimed by the world as “the expert” in the field. However, at some point we are the person or one of a small group of individuals in our organization with the most experience (not the same as years) and knowledge. We have become the go-to person for solving problems, getting things done quickly and well, tackling the unusual and difficult work tasks, projects, etc. If we love this work and are not interested in moving into management, we have hit a ceiling. What trajectory is this?

One that is not shown... the Master Trajectory.

I would submit that this is the Master Trajectory… as in… this person is master in their field, loves the field and continues to learn and develop within that field. They are growing in all directions building skills that create new connections with the organization, developing new relationships inside and outside the organization, enjoying mentoring and coaching, picking up special projects and working on the most difficult problems that require a unique breadth of experience.

This trajectory has been ignored and even devalued. Yet, this is the employee that most organizations work years to develop… and then ignore, devalue, and even release from employment simply because they are the highest paid individuals in their field who are not managers.

Many HR experts and organizational leaders say that this employee is too expensive to retain.
  • Where’s the expense?
    • In-house training? They continue to receive training as new tools and methods roll out. However, they also are often the subject experts who help build the new training, support it by delivering it, write or proof the documentation, and support the tool changes on-the-job as mentors or team leads. (Value-added services at no additional cost to the organization.)
    • External training and/or college degree program funding? To the extent that an organization provides funds for external training, these individuals are probably lined up to take advantage of these opportunities. They love their work and want to improve. To the extent that the organization does not support external learning opportunities, these individuals are funding their own. Again, they love the work and continue to want to learn and grow.
    • Professional organizations and networks? Yes, this group probably is working the professional networking opportunities, writing for professional magazines, making presentations, and asking their organization to co-fund this effort, to the extent that this possible. Typically, this cost is very small.
    • Technology? There are two paths here… two different ways that organizations fund technology for highly-experienced individuals. First is one that we have already seen, the times when the organization does provide them with the newest technologies depending on them to dive in and learn it, figure out how to apply it to their work and then support transition and training. Alternatively, these individual may be the last to get the new equipment and tools (a) because they are most experienced with that equipment and someone needs to continue to work with it, and (b) it is less expensive to train new employees directly into the newest technology rather than training them on first an older technology and then again on the new technology. (Notice that we now have an excuse for designating the experienced employee as “downward” mobile because they have not been trained in the new technology, when they have been given a role of supporting an old technology not because they can not do the new or are not willing to move to it but because someone else needs that training first.)
    • Salary and benefits? Their salaries are the highest among the “line staff” (i.e., non-management) with top-of-the line benefits that come with years of longevity and investment in the company to receive tenure or vested investment options. Yes, they are expensive… but less expensive that 80% of the organization’s management and executive staff. However, most non-management roles have a salary cap. Therefore, at some point, the highly-experienced employee’s earning potential flattens out. Therefore, they are often seen as the Dead-End Trajectory rather than as Mastery Trajectory.

Yes, that trajectory implies that once one has hit the ceiling (note that this is actually a financial ceiling rather than a skill/expertise ceiling), then one automatically bounces into the Moving Out Trajectory.

Personally, I find this a rather pessimistic view of work. It creates the assumption that once individuals can no longer earn role-level promotions (promotions from whatever the entry level role designation is to higher and higher designations), they have exceeded their capacity to grow with the organization and, therefore, need to be moved out of the organization. That it is wasteful for the organization to keep on individuals who are not changing roles (moving into management, moving laterally, or moving upward on their role career ladder).

I suspect that this Dead-End Trajectory mindset that is causing the loss of significant experience and skill from the organizations as their most highly-qualified individuals are encoruaged to leave. And, as a consequence, this trajectory makes many highly skilled individuals available on the recruiting market at a significant discount. For those organizations that can see beyond the fact that another organization “released” them and look at these resources as potential skill gains that could be bringing into their organization.

I also suspect that this loss is more expensive that just the loss of knowledge and less cost-effective than the dollar-for-dollar difference in salaries between a new hire at the entry level and retaining that experienced employee at the top of their salary scale.

This isn’t my field. Someone with experience in this area needs to do a study and define the costs… or at least create a model that helps organizations see the true financial cost of this transaction. But I may try my hand at modeling the costs here -- later.

Meanwhile, consider your own career…

What’s your trajectory? Do you define your career trajectory differently than your superiors do? Than your HR department does? If so, you may be among the “highly-qualified”, “over-qualified”, and possibly, the unemployed and unemployable.

The Performance PI

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Gift By Any Other Name Is...

Manna From Heaven... a rainbow of unexplored opportunities...

Consider this scenario: We arrive with several friends or family members at an inexpensive family restaurant that sits next door to a very expensive one. An ambulance is pulling away from the area between the two restaurants. A sad-faced, red-eyed young couple is standing arm-in-arm watching it drive away. As you approach the area, one of them turns to us saying, “My father died on the way in our birthday celebration for him. We can’t stand the thought of dinner tonight. Here’s the gift-card we were going to use to pay for the meal. Please enjoy your dinner on us.” They hand over an envelope stiff with a gift card shape.

Do we take it? Do we ask how much was on the gift card? Do we look, first, before accepting?

Let’s say that we accepted this unexpected gift, thank the couple and offer our condolences. They leave, sadly. Before approaching our original goal, we decide to open the envelope to see what actually is inside. What, we wonder, might be the value of that card? What will we do to find its value, if that's not specified on the face of the card? Does it matter?

After a dramatic moment of fiddling with the envelope and extracting the card, we find that card is for the more expensive restaurant and that there is no price on the front. Now, what? We can, of course, walk into the expensive restaurant and say, “I seem to have forgotten the value of this card, can you find out for me?” That might be embarrassing to do… and we might not be dressed appropriately, which could results in us being asked to leave… or not, as the case may be.

Having accepted the gift, will we use it in spite of embarrassment and possible glitches?


In a number of discussion groups on LinkedIn where the topic was the excess capacity inherent in the over-qualified employee, the majority of respondents promoted the viewpoint that excess capacity was an opportunity in disguise – a gift that needed to be used appropriately. Some even went so far as to point out some organizations might be missing a true blessing when they worry about potential negative impact of hiring top-notch experience in a depressed market or lay off experience employees in 2:1 moves that hire two less expensive employees while laying off one experienced one. It might be that these experienced resources represent a form of manna from heaven. They could, in fact, be that gift card beyond belief.

Yes, when hiring, there is also a potential that these highly experienced individuals will get bored or that someone will offer them a better a job (has anyone done a study to determine whether there is a greater likelihood of this with someone 40+ or 25-40?).

It’s also possible that, once inside our organization, they’ll go to the head of class and step up to a much higher job leaving us with the lower-level position to fill – again… but with an easy fill on the more difficult-to-fill position.

Or, heaven forbid, they might take our jobs. (How much do we really believe in competition? If we do, then we hire knowing we’ll compete against some very experienced talent and, win or lose, learn something.)

The discussion groups pointed out that, in the mean time, there is an opportunity to harvest some of talent. Even if we don’t know what to do with the talent, it offers an opportunity to negotiate something extra for which we had not planned on paying. Find out what these unique talents could be doing, had done somewhere else, or would have liked the opportunity to do somewhere else. Or, try offering them the chance to take some of work load off our plate for six months in return for our backing for a promotion or salary increase… or whatever incentive might be of value to them.

Nowadays, some people would actually prefer reduced work weeks, time for personal travel, work-at-home a portion of the week, or… Well, it might surprise us all what is important to someone who has been doing the same work for awhile. They may love the work and want more or they may want a different life-balance. One never knows until they ask.

Then there are all the developmental opportunities. Many discussion group members talked about:
• Using experienced talent to grow the skills of the less experienced employees (coach and mentor front-line skills, which may be different than coaching and mentoring future leadership)
• Giving back to the profession by encouraging these people to write and present at conferences in our company’s name
• Giving back to the community by encouraging these people to take on philanthropic projects or lead corporate philanthropic drives
• Giving career talks about opportunities in their fields to schools and colleges
• Farming their services out to our customers, potential customers or others who might need those talents. This may need to be done at a rate that is not the traditional consultant rate for advanced experience ($150+ per hour) but at something more than the employee’s average hourly salary.

Other options might include:
• Putting highly experienced people through the same on-boarding training that we give our newest employees as retraining or cross-training. This might mean a significant salary reduction for these employees or it may be that the organization can justify a more modest reduction that if these experienced employees can demonstrate superior skills in the new work.
• Giving an experienced individual a complex problem and asking them to innovate new solutions or, since innovation is not in everyone’s genes, asking them to research the problem and options and report back
• Bringing together a groups of highly experienced employees (who are not in leadership roles) to brainstorm new products, services, markets, etc. Choosing one and developing it out in a special demonstration
• Find out what special projects they would like to do on behalf of the organization and fund a trial phase of that project
It’s our choice – risk the embarrassment and discomfort of working with someone whose skills probably exceed our own or… give it a go and learn something unexpected.

Any of these also provides an incentive or motivation for the less experienced to continue to grow their experience in order to get access to these opportunities.

Maybe, the individual in front of us does not represent the planned growth of your organization and should be rejected for that very reason…

… but, then, it may be that your company has no higher aspirations and no interest in growing in new ways. If so, rejecting this gift is appropriate.

If not… well….

I wonder what Aladdin would have done with the genie, if he were a corporate manager or recruiter today? So many genies are wandering around our workplaces with gifts to hand out. So many treasures are not being accepted. Such waste of beautiful rainbow and wasted rainbows mean that we never have the chance to collect that pot o' gold..

The Performance PI

Monday, June 28, 2010

Is Anyone Ever Over-Qualified?

I grew up with parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles all saying various form of, “the wise person knows what they don’t know,” and “the more you know about your field, the more you realize how much there still is to learn.” Powerful messages for continuous learning!

Imagine my surprise when someone said, “You realize, you’re over-qualified for this work.” Freakin’ freaky. How can anyone be over-qualified? There’s always more to learn.

As a learning professional, I have, at times, taught the same course content over and over and over. There were times that I taught a course so many times in a row that I lost track of whether or not I’d covered key points with my current class. Even then, every class I taught also taught me something. Each was class brought new insights on learning, on how my learners dealt with the content in relationship to their work, on how effective I was as an instructor. Each class brought challenges in physical spaces, timing, class dynamics, unique individual and group needs. With each class, I learned more and more.

After 12 years of heavy classroom training, I moved into a phase of heavy instructional design and learning project management. Every project is different. Every situation has different needs assessment processes, different sponsors, different teams, different tools and methods, different designs, different development timelines and products, different iterative testing procedures… and different results. Can one ever learn everything there is to know about design and development? About learning project management? I certainly haven’t gotten to that point. There’s so much more to learn and experience.

In the late 1970s, I started working with learning technologies. In almost thirty years, I have yet to be bored by the field. As our tools “learn” better and faster, instructional designers, developers and course facilitators must re-evaluate our own knowledge and experience about what works – why and how. As science better understands the brain and the way that both humans and electronics learn, there are new horizons for professional development.

So, I continue to struggle with the concept of being over-qualified. People who are passionate about their field continue to learn from it and from each other – always. They never see themselves as “over-qualified” but as “highly-qualified” and continuing to learn.

In the end, it may be that there are two perspectives – the individual (who is always learning) and the organization. Organizations are all about matching individual resources to a perceived need. As organizations develop new functions, their leaders define needs that they are capable of perceiving and describing. Human Resources restructures that definition as position description with minimum requirements – not maximum or even ideal… minimum. This could lead to an applicant for a position having skills that so far exceed the desired minimum they are perceived as over-qualified… which in turns leads to issues like that of Case of Sal in previous blogs.

Are you over-qualified? If not today, you soon will be. Advancing skills and knowledge change our match to the minimum requirements of posted positions… and, perhaps, to our leaders’ ability to envision new work for our ever increasing skills.

However, we all continue to grow where we're planted. So, even if you too are over-qualified for your work, show your true colors by continuing to learn and grow -- even it means learning about what it means to be "over-qualified" for the available work.

The Performance PI

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hiring Excess Capacity in an Over Qualified Employee

Should QSI hire Sal? (cont.)

Look at the pros and cons. If QSI hired Sal with experience well beyond their own and beyond their expectations a number of different outcomes might occur:
• Sal becomes frustrated by the lower level work that is requested and/or by leadership that is not looking for something larger than their current status quo. Sal keeps looking and within a few months or years moves on to a position that has a better match.
• Sal works quietly to assist other learning, quality and documentation specialists inside of QSI to build their skills.
• QSI and Sal look for projects that match Sal’s capabilities and raise the bar on their customers’ expectations.
• QSI recognizes Sal’s expertise and within a few months, provides Sal with leadership opportunities. • QSI leadership recognizes that Sal’s expertise is greater than theirs. They work with Sal to build the new methods and processes they have wanted to create as part of this new initiative and they work together to build their internal team’s skills. Sal provides weekly lunch-and-learns, brings in books and articles and mentors the less experienced learning team members (and, indirectly, the learning leadership who also need to build learning skills and knowledge.) Sal brings in peers from other organizations to demonstrate different techniques, etc. Sal’s talents bring the whole team and organize to an unexpected level.
• QSI find Sal to be a disturbing influence – always trying to exceed the reach and vision of this emerging organization – so they move into performance problem territory telling Sal that others feel “put down”, “judged as beubg inadequate” or “feeling inferior”. Sal must change these interactions or suffer the consequences. Sal starts looking for another employer. If another employer with a good match is not available, Sal is likely to be terminated with a bad rap.

Any and all of these are possible; it all depends on the individuals involved and how they deal with the imbalance of knowledge, skill and organizational power. However, an organization that avoids hiring excess capacity misses the opportunity to grow exponentially by managing their excess capacity. This could be the shot of hot-air that get their balloon aloft.

Think of a consulting organization that suddenly finds themselves with 20% of their consulting staff “on the bench” (not assigned to client work and not earning revenue for the company). This is excess capacity. They are “over-qualified” for the work that is currently booked.

There may be many reasons for the excess. The reasons are worth exploring. The root cause of a problem is always worth considering and is the most common of all performance improvement efforts. However, for our purposes, let’s say that there is a team assigned to solving the cause of the excess capacity. In the mean time, the organization needs to put these employees to work on something or lay off the “excess talent” in order to save money.

What might be possible uses of this talent that will build the organization’s capabilities? These individuals might be assigned alternative opportunities such as:
• Filling empty positions while the hiring process is being executed – a useful way to provide extra work in divisions of the organization that may be experiencing difficulty in hiring qualified talent while also identifying development and work process issues within that division (e.g., call centers often experience significant turn-over, placing consultants on phones and debriefing them about that experience will provide information about what is not working well in the call center processes)
• Internal consulting aimed at improving processes and quality for internal divisions that could use some process improvement, quality assurance or needs assessments – accounting, property management, IT, marketing, sales, training all experience the need for consulting services but often can not afford the cost of external consultants
• Training and/or coaching other consultants (assuming, of course, that those “on the bench” have a history of top quality work).
• Shadowing more expert consultants, leaders, sales or marketing could provide consultants with extended skills that would pay off in the future
• Community outreach to schools and non-profits as speakers and/or short-term consultants focused on those organization’s needs
• Put them together on a special project as an innovation team(s) charged with re-visioning an aging product or service line.

Excess capacity is an opportunity in disguise; it takes great leadership to see beyond the excess and the potential for a problem. It takes greatness to use the tools at hand to create a new world that they themselves have not envisioned – to allow others to use their talents to identify issues and opportunities and open doors for innovations and a future that is different from those in which leadership has personal investment.

The Performance PI

Monday, June 21, 2010

Excess Capacilty and the Over Qualified

The normal position for performance consultants is one where the capacity is not yet high enough. But what do we do when there is excess capacity? What performance issues might we find in organizations that have excess capacity and how would we recommend that they deal with this.

How each of us defines that “excess capacity” may depend on perspective. Consider these symbols of “excess capacity”.

Images compliments of Microsoft Clipart

The “Fat Cat” viewpoint focuses on trimming the excess. Here we have organizations that lay-off their experienced employees in favor of new graduations with less experience (and less salary). This viewpoint sees increasing experience equal to increasing salary and believes that results diminish over time, since fat cats get lazy. In spite of a vision and mission that says the company believes in building knowledge capital and values its employees, the bottom line is that experienced employees cost more. Therefore, these companies do not hire experienced employees and they try to encourage experienced employees to move on. For example, they might be giving a senior employee more travel, less visibility, the smaller and less influential accounts, providing less support, or just plain laying them off (or re-deploying them… or whatever the term of the day is for giving an employee who is doing good work the boot because you want to free up their salary.)

The “Building Muscle” viewpoint focuses on putting excess capacity to work building innovations, improving processes and tools, mentoring less experienced associates, building an external credibility through professional writing and speaking. This viewpoint believes that muscle needs to continue to be flexed and tested in order to create strong muscles and retain that power for a day when it is really needed. Here the experienced employee is given ways to contribute that can only be done by someone with experience and someone who is not tied down by management responsibilities. (Note: Moving an experienced person into management does not retain muscle because managers lose a certain amount of their professional poweress in return for building their leadership muscles.) Instead, this viewpoint keeps the experienced employee working at their top skill level and challenges them to add on skills such as mentoring, training, special projects, professional writing, community projects, philanthropic works, etc.

The third viewpoint that I see is the “superhero”. Here the excess capacity, like Clark Kent, is hidden behind mundane work behaviors but comes out under times of duress. Here the superpower isn’t something to be built or maintained, it’s an endowed attributes that only a very few possess. As such the superhero must be lauded (he leaps tall buildings in a single bound) and feed crisis situations in which to demonstrate his or her capabilities. This means that only a few people have the right to be considered as a superhero. Therefore, all contenders (including those who can do the work without creating a crisis) are not needed.
There may be more such categories. Feel free to share your suggestions in the comments.

Let’s look at a common scenario – hiring new talent. Let’s try a case study.

A fictitious company, Qwerty Systems Inc. (QSI), wants to merge their small training function with their quality control function and their document writers from several different product teams. Their objective is to build a performance improvement function which encompasses training, quality and product documentation. The new division manager will be the Head of Corporate Learning and will report to the Chief People Officer (CPO). The new Head of Corporate Learning is a Human Resources Manager who has led a team of recruiters to success and now has been given the chance to build a new function. As the current employees come together in the new team, they discover some overlapping skills, some specialties and some gaps.

The biggest staffing gap is a skilled learning specialist who can provide everything from needs assessment to design to materials development to facilitation and evaluation. Since this team has never had anyone with that skill set, they do not realize that they could have someone who can manage complex learning projects, provide train-the-trainer, and mentor the incumbent team members into a more consultative approach. Therefore, the team builds a job description as follows:

Instructional Designer – 3 to 5 years experience and a high school diploma... Must be familiar with adult learning theory and must follow the ADDIE methodology. Should be a team player who can develop paper-based learning, blended learning and e-learning modules. Should be able to work with subject-matter experts and various levels of management. Should have experience with QSI LMS, Articulate, Captivate, XML, HTML, Dreamweaver, Visio, Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. Must be able to present to groups of 5 or more.

Along comes Sal Superhero with 15 years of experience, an ABD (All But Dissertation Ph.D. candidate) in Performance Improvement who has developed learning solutions, managed learning projects, led strategic change projects, written articles and acquired field certifications in performance improvement, learning, and project management. However, Sal’s company just redeployed a number of people with 10 or more years of experience in their company. Sal is now looking for an opportunity that will allow growth as the company grows and changes. Sal is interested in QSI’s new Instructional Designer position because it is an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a developing organization function and grow with it. That might mean growing into leadership or it might mean creating innovative products and solutions for QSI and its customers. Sal is open to those opportunities.

Should QSI hire Sal? If they did, what concerns might they have about hiring this much excess capacity at time when they are just beginning to build a new function? What concerns might they have about being able to use Sal’s expertise effectively and/or about retaining Sal? Are those concerns legitimate?

Until next time…

The Performance PI

Friday, June 18, 2010

Of Pandemic Epidemic Portions

Performance improvement is about gathering facts, identifying problems, creating solutions and measuring change. Sometimes the "facts" come is piecemeal. Piecemeal data is still data though finding the connections can be harder than it would be given a complete data set.

Consider these statements and their sources. What is your diagnosis? Is there a performance issue?

Recruiter to friend: "You might want to reorganize your resume so that it shows only 10 years of experience rather than 25."
Ex-executive to friend: "I am getting rave reviews in my new job. Even though it is called a Director position, I don't supervise anyone. I'm really doing production work, again. I don't think they realize how over qualified I am for this position."
One laid-off employee to another: "Welcome to the world of consulting, we're never unemployed; we just become independent consultants... while we keep looking for full-employment and try to find consulting contracts. It's really depressing the way {our previous employer} is able to consistently lay off... er, re-deploy 70-80% of their employees with more than 10 years experience all the while promoting the importance of building a knowledgeable and skills workforce and retaining the best of the best… and still not be taken to court for age discrimination. Weird! Really weird. "
Recruiter to candidate: "With all your experience, why are you applying for this job? Would you be happy doing work that is not very challenging any more? What guarantees to we have that
Recruiter to candidate: “Thanks for the great interviews. We have decided to go with someone else. By the way, you are really overqualified for this position.”
Jobseeker to Jobseeker: “Are you getting any interviews off your job applications? I’m sure not. I’d go with the advice to only emphasize my last 10 years of work but all these websites require the date of your college degrees, which gives away the fact that I’m over 50 and got a masters twenty years ago. Have you found any way around it?”
Jobseeker to Jobseeker: “You realize that all these web applications are reviewed by a 20-something who is trying to get a perfect match to the job description… and maybe a little bit more. They don’t understand what they’re reading when they read an application and resume with 20 some years of experience; it’s outside their frame of reference.”
Recruiter to job-seeking friend: “Well, you are overqualified. Employers don’t want to hire the overqualified because they think you’ll jump ship when a better job comes along.”
News article headlines: “Employers finding it difficult to hire qualified employees even in hard times.”
Newly unemployed to long-unemployed friend: “Yeah, they gave me 30 days to find an internal job and the quote-unquote help of a recruiter before being redeployed. Since they’re going through downsizing again, there weren’t very many jobs and everyone want someone with 3-5 years experience in that position title. It was impossible. Meanwhile, my old manager is hiring two-dozen college grads to the work that I and the rest of laid-off ‘senior’ employees had been doing. Admittedly, they are adding new technology skills to those new hires. However, if they’d put even have of their training money into us, we’d have been able to add in the new skills in less time. I just don’t get it. Well, of course, I do get the money part. They can hire three 20-year olds for what they’re paying me. But those three 20-years require a lot more supervision and management than I do… well, maybe that’s part of the problem, as well. I’m fairly independent…”
Recruiter interviewer to interviewee: “I need to go through this list of skills. Please rate your experience from 1 to 5 with 5 as ‘expert’ and 1 as ‘no experience”. Needs assessments? ADDIE? Captivate? Flash? Articulate? PowerPoint? Word? Excel?....”

We have issues, folks. This represents a nationwide performance problem of unimaginable proportions. The inability to use available resources and the constant desire to throw out skilled resources without retooling them is an issue of waste management. It’s a quality control issue of the Human Resources kind.

We are experiencing the Epidemic of the Over Qualified Employee.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Calling All Mystery Buffs

What's the first thing a detective (amatuer or otherwise) does at a crime scene?

The same thing that performance consulants do -- gather information.

Remember the mantra for crossing the street when we were six? Stop, look, listen. It still works well. When we find ourselves starting a performance consultation, that old mantra still works. After all, our clients want to tell us something. In order to hear them: stop your story about the match of their needs to our skills; look at the environment, the people, the tools, the work, the interactions of people we meet as well as those you see peripherally; listen on many level to gather factual data, feelings, and undercurrents about things not said.

Do detectives do this? You betcha'. This is why they block off crime scenes and separate the witnesses. Because the scene is so fraught with emotion and detail, they can't take it all in at once so they need to slow down the timeframe. Stop the action. Look at the environment and the known interactions. Listen to each person.

So what does an organizational detective next? Exactly, what police detectives do.

Until next time. Stop, look and listen