Eight Best Practices of Change Management Part 3: Competency Development

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Eight Best Practices of Change Management Part 3: Competency Development

When embarking on any change management project an important question to ask yourself is, “What new competencies will be required to make this change successful?”  If change management is about preparing an organization to successfully change, developing new competencies must be a part of that success equation.

Competency is a combination of knowledge, skills, and abilities that enable productive behavior.  While most organizations are familiar with the idea of needing a competent workforce, not all organizations are able to effectively address the competency requirements necessary to enable new ways of working that are successful. “Training” is often acknowledged as important, but few companies take the time or have the ability to gauge how training does or does not contribute to actually building required competency in the workforce.  Here are three of the most common overlooked areas Expressworks has witnessed in competency development related to change management programs.

1. Measureable Outcomes

Competency development programs should, before any intervention, be clear about the desired outcomes.  Change management programs should focus on two levels of outcome:

  • Specific behaviors the participants will demonstrate
  • Business outcomes that the target behaviors will enable

I’ll explain.

What specific behaviors are changing and what is the behavior you want instead?

Competencies are complex combinations of knowledge, skills, and abilities that are often very difficult to “see” on the job.  For example, I often watch the Olympic Track and Field athletes compete and wish that I could perform as well as they do.  Clearly they are expert at what they do.  However, for those who do not finish in the top three, could we diagnose what they need to do better?  It would be tough because we are looking at a combination of “know what,” “know how,” and “know when” all mixed in with some context (time of day, condition of the track, elevation, sickness or health, mental state, etc.)  For the untrained eye, it is difficult to separate those elements.  We only see the end result.  We don’t train athletes by telling them to “just do better” or showing them a film of others, we get coaches and trainers who are able to be very specific about the behaviors they need to demonstrate.  They train to get their stride to the optimal length.  They work on when to sprint to the front and when to draft off of others.  Competency programs should be no different than coaching athletes.  We must have clear behaviors identified and measure those behaviors so we know how to improve and the effect that our competency program has on performance.  So, a focus on training for specific behavioral outcomes is essential for all successful change programs.

What behaviors will result in higher business performance?

The end game for competency development is to improve business performance. We want people to develop knowledge, skills, and abilities that will improve business outcomes.  Training programs should be clear about how a specific skill or a specific behavior will bring this about.  However, we overlook this goal all too often. I spent a year working with a semi-conductor equipment manufacturer who was looking to improve their manufacturing process.  The “answer” was a new technology that would streamline their operations and give them visibility into the future.  Hundreds of people went through training on how to use the new technology in their role, but not enough focus was given to the essential skills needed for the process.  As a result, small errors were made, which, when compounded across the process, resulted in a near catastrophic result.  In this case the initial assessment did not include the very important competency of problem solving within the context of the business process.  Limited visibility and lack of expertise meant that small errors and omissions were not properly diagnosed.  The critical competency error was not fully understanding behaviors that were critical to the business outcome. As a result, the company’s new tool had to be revised and their “state of the art” manufacturing process was converted to a paper format while the tool was reconfigured.  It took them the better part of a year to get their manufacturing up and running again.

Well defined, clear desired outcomes and objectives will allow you to measure the effectiveness of the training and its contribution toward achieving business results.  It is worth taking the time and energy to make sure your training programs or competency development initiatives are focused on measurable results.

2. New Skills in Context

Context is the work setting in which people must use their knowledge, skills, and abilities.  Underestimating context occurs in many different ways, but I’ll highlight two of these:

  • Training Context
  • Process Context

Training context

Training context refers to the setting in which training or competency building takes place.  Many training programs ask participants to come to a classroom-style setting where they are shown PowerPoint slides with screen shots of a tool.  In this setting discussions are often academic and proficiency testing consists of a multiple-choice test.  Employees return to their workstations and feel like they are now aware and “trained.”  However, when the system goes live and time pressures increase, the screens begin to all look the same and the employee struggles to recall what to do.  So, despite a high multiple-choice test score they have trouble performing.  This poor performance is not the result of a “dumb” employee, but the result of poor training.  People perform best when they practice. Practice that most closely mimics real life is much more likely to produce the desired behavior.

Process context

Process context is about building competency not just in a specific task, but performing that task within a business process.  Most tasks are part of a larger process in which the employee participates.  Accountants don’t just enter data at the end of the month, but they enter data as part of the month-end-close process.  Forecasters don’t just roll up numbers, but they have a complete process that produces the business forecast.  Sometimes a process is performed by one employee, other times the process may touch multiple departments and employees —some more than once.  That process has inputs and outputs, time deadlines, dependencies, and probably some discretionary judgments that the employee must make.  Training must include, to the extent possible, these elements because they are an important part of “how” and “when” the employee must perform.

Organizations must do their best to mimic working conditions when training.  While “out-of-the-box” training provides access to important expertise, forward thinking organizations must not put their hopes in training that does not address the context in which the new skills are to be applied.  This is as true for software training as it is for leadership training.  Recent trends toward business simulation or micro learning have provided some options for addressing these needs and as the learning and development fields continue to evolve, we will, no doubt, see others.

3. Competency Evaluation

After a successful project launch, performance is often not what business leaders might have had hoped.  The knee-jerk reaction may be to require more training, or to blame employees.  In fact, many organizational performance issues are not competency issues at all, but are the result of poorly managed change. Often times systems are not set up to reward the right behaviors.  Processes are sometimes not aligned with desired business outcomes.  At times employees get conflicting messages about what is desired and how to achieve it.  It may also be that employees are so busy dealing with other elements of their job that even though they know what to do they don’t “get to it” because other items take a higher priority.  The potential sources of misaligned performance can be many and not all are related to employee competency.  To help in the diagnosis, we often ask a few simple questions to illuminate the potential issues.  The answers often surprise us.  They may surprise you too.

  • Have the employees been given adequate direction to perform the task to the best of their abilities?
  • Do they have the right tools to perform the task?
  • Have they been given the opportunity to perform the task?
  • Are they motivated or provided with reinforcement to perform the task?

What, on the surface, might appear to be a competency gap, may, in fact, be something besides competency.  Make sure your company invests the time to understand what is really going on before launching an additional training program or frustrating employees by telling them to just work harder.

Competency is an enabler of performance.  We must have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to perform before we can actually excel in our jobs.  However, competence is a complex concept and it is worthwhile for those who are trying to build competence and improve business performance to take the time to understand it.  Making the time to identify goals, train with contextual sensitivity, and measure results, are the hallmark of a great competency development program.   How are you doing?  Can we help?

We’re Expressworks.  We believe that change is inevitable, but results are intentional.

Let us help and experience results.

About the Author:

John Quereto

John Quereto is a seasoned executive and veteran organizational change consultant. His 20+ years of business facing experience have been spent helping solve real world business issues at multi-national companies such as Accenture, Chevron, Cargill, Wells Fargo, Nortel Networks, Novell, Cisco Systems, Applied Materials, Robert Half International, HMS Host, as well as others. Familiar with work in the public, private, and non-profit sectors, John works to be the catalyst for strategic change and advocates for transparent, ethical and sustainable change within organizations. He has worked as a CEO, COO, Operations Manager, HR Manager, Trainer, Consultant, and Business Owner. After his 14 years with Expressworks, he believes he is just as excited about the field of change as the day he started…maybe even more excited!

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