By Steve Trautman January 9, 2013

Start by Framing the Talent Problem [KT Strategy Series, 3 of 9]

Posted by Steve Trautman on Jan 9, 2013 2:22:03 AM

Last week in our Knowledge Transfer Strategy blog series, we answered the important question of why organizations need and benefit from a knowledge transfer strategy. Now, let’s look at the first step of building a knowledge transfer strategy for your organization: framing the talent problem.

To be credible and useful, any good Knowledge Transfer Strategy must clearly frame–through a talent lens–the business problems that threaten workforce readiness in the next 1 – 3 years.

Commit to the Goal of a Ready Workforce
The developers of your organization’s knowledge transfer strategy should start by agreeing that a ready workforce is not a luxury but a business necessity. Since every organization relies on people who know how to do the work the right way, the goal of maintaining a ready workforce should be fairly straightforward–but it rarely is. When faced with troubling talent challenges, normally detail-oriented and analytical leaders get fluffy in their thinking. On the one hand, executives will often say “our people are our greatest resource” and having a ready workforce is the “highest priority.” But on the other hand, when asked how much time the organization’s experts should spend transferring critical knowledge to peers each week or month (as a way of ensuring readiness), leaders will demure and say such tasks will have to fit in after all the “real” work gets done. One recent strategy session with one of our knowledge transfer consulting clients uncovered this paradox, and when it became clear, the CEO said, “Yes, I’m a hypocrite. I don’t know where my people will find the time!”

A knowledge transfer strategy can help every executive guide their employees in prioritizing the work of transferring critical knowledge relative to other work. It is every executive’s job to make hard decisions that balance short term project deadlines with long term investments in ensuring sufficiently skilled workers. When executives abdicate these decisions, the decisions don’t go away, they are just pushed down to be made by frontline employees who are often too busy or too stressed to take a long-term view. Some would call pushing these decisions down to the front line “empowerment.” I just call it sloppy, or at least ill-advised. So as a developer of your organization’s knowledge transfer strategy, first commit to the importance of a ready workforce and accept your role in making the tough decisions ahead.

Create a Concise Explanation of Your Organization’s Need for Talent and Clearly Communicate the Urgency and Financial Risks
Frame the talent problem in simple and concise language. Executives must be able to articulate their organization’s business need for talent. You already state your needs for work space, equipment, raw materials, transportation, etc. In the same way, you have to be able to talk about your need for talent. I am not talking about just the annual battle for more headcount. Nor is this about the annual battle for training dollars where your CLO comes in with benchmarking data on the % of revenue that should be spent on developing people. I am talking about stating the need for the skills required to deliver on the promise to your customers. This also includes clearly stating the level of urgency and the very real financial risks you face from a lack of needed skills or the loss of unique tribal knowledge from your organization. This is often not understood by others without a clear illustration.

This talent need and risks can be communicated in plain language, if you do some straightforward legwork first:

  • Project the output of your organization 1 – 3 years out (your products and services)
  • List areas of expertise (we call these “knowledge silos”) required to deliver your output
  • Estimate the volume of need for each knowledge silo in the next 1 – 3 years
  • Inventory the existing talent pool within the organization. How many workers are currently able to work in each knowledge silo? How many are expert?
  • Assess the possibility of “buying” additional skilled workers on the market versus building/developing/training the skills in-house
  • Set up master skill development plans that bridge the gap between your current capacity and the estimated need.
  • Prioritize the skills and expertise mapped out in the skill development plan relative to their impact on the business. What are the costs of not having enough of these skilled workers?
  • Compare the long term cost of not having enough skilled workers to the short term benefits of having everyone focus on operational output versus developing for the future. Include in this the cost of losing workers with unique and critical knowledge.
  • Prioritize the “regular work.” What is the relative importance of the work related to your output versus the work required to ensure a ready workforce? What is the relative urgency?

With this analysis in place, you will be ready to frame your talent problem (as well as develop the other parts of your knowledge transfer strategy that we’ll discuss in subsequent posts). Here’s an example of how one of our clients answered the above questions and framed their talent problem:

A Fortune 500 company that designs and builds $500+ million projects realized that they needed an additional 80+ “Level 3” project managers to be able to handle their projected workload in 2015 (three years away). Historically it has taken 7 – 10 years working on-the-job, regardless of experience upon hiring, to fully develop a Level 3 project manager because this company’s work is so specialized. This specialized need, coupled with a tight talent market, meant that these 80+ workers could not be simply hired from outside. In fact, existing qualified Level 3 project managers are at risk of being poached themselves. If the client were to leave the system alone and accept the status quo approach, this client would have had to make plans for this need ten years ago. Instead, they’re starting now—at best, four years too late to meet the substantial need. They needed a knowledge transfer strategy to help shift the thinking of their leadership from the “way we’ve always done it” to a new approach that will accelerate the training process and meet the business need.

The consequences are dire: if they don’t have enough qualified Level 3 project managers, their clients will not hire them to do these anticipated half billion dollar projects. And—make no mistake—their clients are personally meeting and interviewing the assigned project manager well in advance of making a deal. They can’t leave this to chance on such a big investment.

When stated with this clear illustration of need, urgency, and the financial risks, everybody in the client’s leadership team agreed on the problem. No one disputed that it takes 7 – 10 years with the current system, or that there are at least 80 new people needed. Getting this agreement was a good start. The trouble was that not one senior executive stepped up to pay the short term costs associated with preparing this next generation of PMs for the workforce. My company needed to provide a strategy that would help them change the way they looked at this problem so that they could figure out how to address the solution–which will be the topic of my next post.

SUMMARY: Concisely frame your business problem through a talent lens. You need to be able to plainly articulate, in a short statement, your organization’s business need for talent in the next 1 – 3 years and the real operational and financial risks if your organization fails to meet these talent requirements. Use the above analysis questions to guide you.

Topics: Workforce Risk Management, Knowledge Transfer Definition, Terms & Roles, Knowledge Transfer Strategy, Best Practices, Skill Development Plan (SDP), Skilled Worker Shortage

Steve Trautman

Steve Trautman

Steve Trautman is corporate America’s leading talent risk management and knowledge transfer expert. With two decades of application inside blue chips and Fortune 1000s, his pioneering work in the field of talent risk management and related knowledge transfer tools are now the nationally-recognized gold standard. He is known for a high energy style that combines humor, street smarts, and board room wisdom.

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