A once small task turned into a big lesson

One of my first work experiences in a People and Culture (P&C) environment was working in HR on a change project. Having studied Organisational Psychology, I knew I could contribute useful knowledge about using reliable and valid assessment tools to predict future performance for recruitment and selection. I had learned about the most reputable and established organisational behaviour theories surrounding leadership development and employee motivation. However, it didn’t take long for me to learn that all my new knowledge wasn’t actually very useful, particularly for my new HR manager who was extremely experienced, competent and strategically minded.

One of my first tasks was looking for a method to define the organisation’s critical roles for my HR manager who was also new to the business. Looking back, I didn’t know where the exercise would lead. Ultimately this task helped me to understand that an Organisational Effectiveness (OE) model, or part thereof, isn’t so much a luxury but has a direct positive impact on organisational performance – including the bottom line.

My first search for the organisation’s critical roles was a failure; presuming it pre-existed I asked around and was handed an excel spreadsheet by a colleague. The roles listed seemed fairly ‘critical’, however, my manager quickly scanned it and said “nope”. She pointed out that the critical roles should not be defined by hierarchy or the perception of role importance. Where were the IT systems woman and the legal guy who both had such crucial knowledge of their areas of the business? If they resigned, we would be in big trouble.

Starting from scratch I did what I knew best; I referred to the literature and found a practical model – Lepak & Snell’s Advanced Workforce Strategies Skills-Based Workforce Segmentation Model – now that’s a mouthful!. It defined roles into 4 quadrants based on two dimensions of skills – skills value, and skills uniqueness. Roles that were high in both dimensions were deemed ‘critical’ and should attract the highest investment. Those low in both dimensions were deemed ‘transactional’, usually requiring a lower investment and easier to fill when required. This notion completely reframed my outlook on skills. Now I saw them as being both inhibitors and direct drivers of revenue and sales; stakeholder relations; the quality, effectiveness and efficiency of products & services and, systems and process improvements…. the list goes on and on.

After further research, the interesting part wasn’t defining the dimensions of each role and determining which employees occupied them but rather integrating this with the organisation’s talent management program and P&C strategy. The outcomes would open up a business case for optimising where resources are being invested versus where they should be invested.
Questions that we asked ourselves?

  • What’s the foreseeable risk of critical role incumbents – their level of engagement, performance, and attrition? What’s being done to address those at high risk and what preventative measures can be put in place?
  • Is succession planning in place for critical roles and highly unique roles? If not, which roles are a priority?
  • Is career planning for high potential candidates aligned with critical roles? If not, can these be re-directed? if they can, are we investing sufficient resources into their development?
  • Is the correct distribution of investment going into learning and development (L&D) for all roles? Are the L&D options being used to develop the right skills for the right people?
  • Is the correct distribution of investment going into recruitment and selection for all roles? Are evidence-based assessment methods being used to predict future performance? How many resources are put into recruitment, versus correcting recruitment failures?

The importance of why, when, and how organisations buy or build skills become much clearer for me. The importance of using knowledge and models in a pragmatic way became clear for the first time. And of course, the value of having a clear line of sight from all People and Culture activity to the overarching strategy is something I have never forgotten.