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What is your organization doing about the special challenges of recruiting, developing, and retaining technical and professional talent, such as its engineers, IT professionals, accountants, and others who rely on specialized knowledge—knowledge that may be key to your organization's strategic, competitive success? What is your organization doing to transfer the invaluable knowledge these people have to your new hires and to less experienced knowledge workers? Are you preparing for a possible future wave of retirements as the baby boomers leave your workforce? Are you preparing systematically for knowledge workers as your organization grows explosively? How well is your organization managing its knowledge transfer as part of its talent management and succession planning strategies?
Five Mini-Studies: Can You Solve These Problems?
Read the following mini-cases and describe how your organization would meet the challenges you find in each situation. If your organization has ways to solve all of these problems, then perhaps it already has an effective strategy for technical and professional talent management (abbreviated throughout this book as technical talent management, or TTM). If your organization could not solve the problems presented below, then your leaders may want to consider a technical talent management program as a means to solving them when they appear.
You analyze the retirement eligibility of your organization's engineering division. Shaking your head, you note that, in five years, about 40 percent of all the engineers in the division will be eligible for retirement. Considering the organization's recent downsizing efforts and early retirement offers, you wonder where the next generation of engineers will come from. Hiring engineers is possible if the compensation is attractive enough—although you are keenly aware that some people believe there is a global shortage of engineers (an opinion not universally shared)—but you know that new hires will not have in their heads the special knowledge of the technical decisions that have been made to reach your company's current generation of high-tech products. How, then, will the new hires be positioned to contribute to the next generation of products if these engineers have never had a chance to learn from experience?
Medical researchers in your organization have spent years pursuing various research plans to perfect new drugs and find cures for many of humankind's worst ills. But recently several of the most prominent medical researchers in your organization have given their supervisors notice that they plan to retire within one year. Your managers wonder how to retain and transfer the knowledge these researchers have before the scientists leave the organization. One idea that decision makers have offered is to keep the researchers on contract for a year or two while they train their replacements. However, the organization's HR policies do not make that easy to do, nor do the retirement plans for which these researchers are eligible. And a one-year effort seems like a Band-Aid placed on an arterial hemorrhage. Even if it is possible—and that is by no means certain—how can a lifetime of learning be transferred in only one year?
Lou Smith is one of those rare people on your company's assembly line who knows every quirk about the machine he has operated for fifteen years. It has been easy to take Lou for granted, since he rarely takes a vacation or calls in sick. In fact, he has been first in line for all the overtime the company would give him. But, overnight you receive word that Lou is in the hospital, having suffered a massive heart attack. Nobody is sure whether he will make it. The supervisor of Lou's assembly line is complaining that, while he has a backup for Lou, that person does not know as well the machine that Lou has made "sing" for years. You worry how much production might be lost while Lou is out sick.
Martha Milhouse knows every decision maker in the high-tech companies she has sold to for over five years. She has been diligent about remembering their birthdays; she knows her stuff, too, and can sit in a product meeting with engineers and understand what they are talking about, even though she is not an engineer. Her combination of good interpersonal skills and grasp of the technical side of the products has made her a top salesperson for the technical products your organization produces. But Martha's husband has just retired; he is pressuring her to do likewise. As sales manager, you wonder how you can find another person who knows the products—and customers—as well as Martha does. And you wonder how many sales will be lost if you do not find that person.
Rhonda Yeager has been a systems analyst with the company for years. People feel that she knows everything about every IT system used by the organization. But Rhonda walked into her supervisor yesterday and, without warning, turned in her resignation. The IT manager was stunned. He shook his head, then he voiced dismay at the prospect of hiring or developing anyone else who could know even a fraction of what Rhonda knows about the IT systems. Some of the systems in IT, the manager knows, are "legacy systems" that have been around so long that nobody else remembers how they work, as there is such limited documentation.
Describing "Knowledge Workers"
Let's be clear on definitions. What is a knowledge worker? And, more specifically, what is a technical or professional worker? A knowledge worker is usually understood to be those people who rely on professional judgment or specialized training to perform their work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS),
the professional, scientific, and technical services sector comprises establishments that specialize in performing professional, scientific, and technical activities for others. These activities require a high degree of expertise and training. The establishments in this sector specialize according to expertise and provide these services to clients in a variety of industries and, in some cases, to households. Activities performed include: legal advice and representation; accounting, bookkeeping, and payroll services; architectural, engineering, and specialized design services; computer services; consulting services; research services; advertising services; photographic services; translation and interpretation services; veterinary services; and other professional, scientific, and technical services.
Technical, scientific, and professional workers are, therefore, those who work in occupations that require specialized knowledge and training. For this sector, average wages are high—averaging $29.78 per hour in the United States in November 2009. According to BLS, 7,605,300 people were employed in this sector in the United States in December 2009, the most recent date for which statistics are available. The number of employers in the sector during the second quarter of 2009 was large: 1,010,967 in private industry, 906 in local government, 401 in state government, and 1,482 in the federal government in the second quarter of 2009.
Defining "Technical Talent Management"
As the mini-studies at the opening of the chapter illustrate, today's leaders need to do more than merely plan for their own replacements. While leadership succession is undoubtedly important, it is just not enough in this current age, when what people know and what they can do are as important as how people can lead or manage. Real-world cases of organizations struggling to deal with an expected "brain drain" have figured prominently in the business press (see Appendix I).
Technical talent management (TTM) is the process that focuses on attracting, developing, and retaining the most talented technical and professional workers and transferring their specialized knowledge to less proficient or less experienced workers. Its goal is not so much to ready people for promotions or vertical mobility in the way management or leadership-oriented talent management does. Instead, it aims to transfer institutional memory, defined as the collective wisdom that an organization's members have gained from their experience and that is embedded in its corporate culture.
Technical talent management also aims to transfer tacit knowledge, or what people carry around in their heads as a result of their experience and learning. TTM should not be confused with knowledge management (KM), an activity that treats knowledge as an important component of business and intellectual assets as critical to achieving business results. TTM can, however, be properly regarded as a subset of KM. Of particular importance to TTM is knowledge transfer, meaning the communication of practical business knowledge that has been learned from experience with the work, work processes, people, customers, and business challenges and problems with which the organization deals or has dealt with.
TTM at the organizational level should not stand alone. It should be combined with efforts to focus attention on daily practices by managers to attract, develop, retain, and transfer the knowledge of especially talented knowledge workers. Sophisticated IT-based knowledge management systems and software, while helpful, should not be the only means by which knowledge transfer is managed over time. TTM assumes that most "talent building" does (and should) occur in practical ways and in real time through experiences with people, work processes, customers, typical and special problems, and challenges stemming from the work, as well as any other specialized knowledge of key value to the business.
It is important to distinguish among data, knowledge, and information. As Boisot observes:
Think of data as being located in the world and of knowledge as being located in agents, with information taking on a mediating role between them. Data can be viewed as a discernible difference between different energy states only some of which have information value for agents. Where data are thus informative, it will modify an agent's expectation and dispositions to act in particular ways—that is, what we call its knowledge base.
A TTM program is, therefore, a systematic effort to attract, develop, and retain the most knowledge-proficient people while, at the same time, seeking to identify, capture, distill, and transfer specialized knowledge from those who possess that valuable knowledge to others who do not possess it. The TTM focus is not so much on management continuity as it is on ensuring the continuity of knowledge essential to business operations and competitive success and on cultivating knowledge workers and in-house experts who possess special know-how.
Knowledge workers are individuals who have undergone specialized training and who possess unique knowledge that is of value to an organization. In that sense, many people are knowledge workers because participation in organizational life gives people some memory of what happened. And the collective memory of what has happened, and what was learned from it, amounts to institutional memory. At the same time, in-house experts—also called High Professionals (HiPros)—may not necessarily be promotable up the traditional organizational hierarchy but they are the recognized "go-to" people for solving myriad technical and professional problems. A HiPro can be the one person who knows the most about any one thing of critical value to business operations.
One aim of TTM is to transmit the institutional memory so that mistakes made in the past are not repeated. Without institutional memory, members of an organization would have to keep reinventing the wheel, doing what seems essential to the organization's mission and strategy. As poet and philosopher George Santayana once said, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." And without memory of the past, future workers will not know what to do or how to do it.
Another aim of TTM is to retain and transmit tacit knowledge. Experience is valued precisely because people learn from it. But most practical learning is not taught in school, though education does provide an important basic, theoretical foundation for practical learning on the job. (It would be difficult to imagine doing a job without the abilities to read, write, or work mathematical problems.) Some of what people learn can be easily transmitted—this is called explicit knowledge; some learning is not so easily transmitted because it is embedded in the process of gaining the experience—what is called tacit knowledge. Without tacit knowledge, people could not have learned from their experiences or their mistakes. Likewise, people can learn formally (through planned educational events), informally (based on experience), or incidentally (based on accidental learning that results serendipitously from experience).
Distinguishing Technical Talent Management from Related Topics
Specialized terms can lead to confusion. For that reason, it just makes sense to begin with some definitions so as to distinguish TTM from other topics with which it may be easily confused.
TTM vs. Replacement Planning
Replacement planning is a form of disaster planning or risk management. To conduct traditional replacement planning, managers are usually tasked to identify emergency backups for themselves in case they are unexpectedly (and disastrously) lost through sudden resignation, disability, sickness, or death. Managers also may be asked to identify possible backups for their immediate reports. The results of traditional replacement planning are usually reviewed by higher levels of management, and perhaps by peers of the manager as well, as a reality check on how likely individuals are to be selected as replacements in an emergency. The final outcome of the process is a replacement chart that identifies who the backups are, how ready they are for emergency promotion, and in what order they should be chosen. If fewer than three backups are identified for each key position, the organization is said to "have holes." A hole is an area in which the organization is exposed if something should happen to the present job occupant. When no backups are identified, the organization's leaders may take steps to "fill the hole" by finding understudies.
It is important to emphasize that, in replacement planning, people are not guaranteed promotions simply if they appear on a replacement chart. When their names are listed, it merely means that they can serve as temporary backups until there is time for a proper job search to find a suitable replacement. That may, or may not, result in choosing the person who fills in during the emergency.
According to available research, fewer than 40 percent of U.S. companies have identified emergency backups in case of the sudden loss of key people. That places their organizations at extraordinary risk. If the plane crashes carrying the CEO, or even the entire senior management team, the event can be devastating to the organization. Since passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, enacted by Congress following the Enron scandal to make boards of directors accountable for more than their organizations' financial results, corporate boards have become more aware of the risks posed when an organization does not have replacement plans or succession plans.
Replacement planning charts can be adapted for use in recording the special knowledge, skills, attitudes, or other competencies possessed by workers. Unlike traditional replacement charts, however, competency-based replacement charting does not automatically regard managers as special-knowledge workers. Instead, the key criterion is special expertise that would pose a hardship if its owner is suddenly lost. See Exhibit 1-1 for an example of a replacement chart with slots to note individuals' talents and strengths. Note the assumption here that some people possess knowledge that may be absolutely critical to continued business survival or continuity, and that some provision must be made for their sudden loss.
TTM, therefore, focuses on special knowledge, while replacement planning focuses on backups for people. TTM thus emphasizes the collective knowledge of the organization that is needed to achieve strategic objectives over time. Replacement planning is a crude substitute, but TTM requires a more sophisticated view of what kind of knowledge the organization requires for achieving and sustaining competitive success.
Excerpted from INVALUABLE KNOWLEDGE by William J. Rothwell Copyright © 2011 by William J. Rothwell. Excerpted by permission of AMACOM. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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