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Transform Talent With Deeper Skill Specialization

A workforce with deeper skills in critical domain areas can drive high performance by innovating, improving processes and finding new ways to serve customers.

May 1, 2008
Related Topics: Mentoring, Learning and Development
KEYWORDS mentoring
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Most companies want one thing more than any other: to be a market leader. This can be achieved in several ways — being a low-cost provider, delivering a distinctive customer experience or through superior technologies, processes and products. But executives increasingly see workforce talent as the distinctive capability underpinning any winning corporate strategy.

A workforce with deeper skills in critical domain areas can drive high performance by innovating, improving processes and finding new ways to serve customers. But the HR and learning functions often are ill equipped to recruit or develop workforces with truly differentiated skills. To achieve that winning market differentiation, talent managers must mine and develop the distinctive knowledge and skills of their people and help them advance rapidly to higher levels of expertise.

Focus Learning Investments


The innovations and transformational initiatives that can redefine a company’s competitive position likely will come from employees with deeper and more specialized skills. But a large percentage of learning investments often is directed at providing training to those learning a new skill or job. A disconnect exists between where learning investments are made and the types of learning that can produce a differentiated workforce capability.

Less than 30 percent of workplace performance is the result of applying lessons from a formal learning experience to a job goal, while some 70 percent is influenced by informal learning and factors in a worker’s environment: feedback, coaching, leadership, incentives, clear work objectives and processes. Now, consider some 80 percent of a typical company’s talent development budget is spent on formal learning, and only 20 percent on the informal learning that has been shown to have greater impact on workforce — and by extension — company performance.

This disconnect between programs and impact often is a shock to line managers looking for a training solution to workforce performance challenges. Mary Jo Burfeind, who leads learning and development for the subscriber services division of Health Care Service Corp., said her company’s managers sometimes expect employees to come out of formal learning programs acting as self-sufficient and independent problem solvers, but that is rarely the case.

“The training that our claims and customer service people receive, for example, is really about getting them to a level of basic proficiency,” Burfeind said.

Moving those same employees from the basics to a level where they act independently or coach others requires that they continuously learn on the job, receive coaching, learn from their experiences and talk to their peers. Unfortunately, given the constraints under which many operate, learning organizations may struggle to figure out how to encourage deeper specialization. However, it can be worth it to explore potential solutions.

“As employees grow and develop, and as their jobs become more complex, it really is as if they’ve graduated,” Burfeind said. “We don’t see them again except on occasion. The learning organization is less actively involved in their development. It’s really during those years when a degree of directed development activity can have the most effect on their individual performance and on the impact they make on the company. So we’re working to take advantage of that dynamic by planning more targeted learning activities for incumbents.”

The Path to Specialization

Health Care Service Corp. devised a new approach to workforce enablement — beyond formal learning — that could advance people more quickly on a path to specialization. First, the organization had to think more rigorously about skills progression for a given job or role. Specifically, what does it mean to achieve deeper skills, and how do you know when a person has attained new levels of capability?

The specifics will vary. Some business skills will be nearly universal across workforces, while others will vary depending on whether the person is managing an ERP systems integration project, a complex HR outsourcing deal or a consulting program in CRM or sales. However, it is possible to construct a general, consistent viewpoint of the progression people make as their skills in an area deepen and become more specialized.

When a person begins a new job, takes on a new role or learns a new work domain, he or she may go through numerous levels on the developmental path. At the novice stage, employees begin with minimal understanding of their performance goals or how they are supposed to reach them. Mistakes are common. Through a combination of training and practice, they rise to a level of proficiency. At that point, they understand what they are doing and, for the most part, why — but often their performance is inefficient and may require a great deal of oversight. Workers who advance to the independent stage can be productive with minimal guidance from a supervisor.

When employees attain the advanced and expert levels, they are no longer simply following set paths. Further, they may occasionally reinvent those paths, creating ideas for new products and services and devising business strategies with the potential to redefine an industry along the way.

The Right Kinds of Enablers

Formal learning is an important piece on the development path toward specialization and deeper expertise, but it is limited in its ability to create experts. To advance workers beyond proficiency to advanced or expert status in a particular domain, companies should consider creating programs in two additional areas:

Guided experience: Feedback and guidance, both reinforcing and corrective, that one receives from a coach and/or mentor, or in other ways in the course of performing job tasks.
Collaboration: Learning that occurs in the process of completing tasks as part of a team.

Jim Demme, program manager for the Learning Center at Grainger, a leading distributor of facilities and maintenance supplies, said both formal and experiential learning opportunities are important because, taken together, they more faithfully reflect the real work environment. In Grainger’s case, a combination of enablers helped sales and service employees develop more specialized capabilities.

“We can sit our people down in a classroom, but until they actually go on-site to a customer’s location and implement one of our solutions, it’s all theoretical to them,” Demme said. “When we teach employees in the classroom about inventory management systems, for example, we can tell them they’ll be going into the customer’s tool crib to help get things organized. But the employee’s visualization of what that tool crib looks like will be quite different from the real environment at the customer’s location. They have to experience it.”

That’s why Demme and his learning colleagues are direct and purposeful about the on-the-job experiences and guidance employees need on top of formal training.

“(Only with those experiences) will they ever be able to say, ‘Now I understand the steps in solving not just this one problem but any similar type of problem,’” he explained. “And that’s when we can say they’ve achieved the kind of independent and advanced performance status we need from them so they can better serve our customers.”

Creating a Specialization Road Map

With a stronger sense of what skill specialization means for any given domain and how one can accurately judge if and when someone has attained the various levels, learning can design specific activities and programs within three enablers: formal learning, guided experience and collaboration. That detailed design becomes a specialization road map for a particular job, skill or domain.

This road map is a real, working document. It’s a matrix plotting the multiple levels of the development path to specialization against the three types of enablers, with specific examples of what is to happen at each stage to advance an employee to the next level.

For example, if sponsoring executives want to help experienced manager-level employees who already possess strong project management skills, deepen those skills to cope with today’s complex work environment, a development project may bring workforces in different geographies together to work with complex handoffs in multiple phases.

The specialization road map in this case would include details such as having proficient project managers participate in community-of-practice meetings each month or asking those at an advanced level to serve as mentors to their less experienced colleagues. The ultimate road map might include a chart of 40 to 50 specific activities plotted against the path to specialization.

Specificity is critical. In general, the effectiveness of a specialization road map — or any program that seeks to create a more specialized, deeply skilled workforce — is dependent on how precise and purposeful it is.

But a distinctive talent capability is easier to conceptualize than it is to operationalize. Many learning organizations tie roles, job definitions and metrics primarily to formal training. When today’s business executives look for help creating competitive differentiation in workforce talent, however, HR and learning executives need to be ready with a rigorous set of programs and processes to create more advanced-level employees, capable of game-changing innovations that can achieve and sustain high performance.

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