This article, for the first time, investigates the business thought process of organizations or project leaders that drives them to actively institute projects, resources, or teams to reduce time to proficiency of the human resources, workforce, or people. This article describes four foundational business drivers or pushes towards a shorter time to proficiency.
Sometime back I delivered a talk at an international conference in which I highlighted the core business drivers that push leading organizations and project leaders to think about instituting projects, teams, and resources focused solely on accelerating speed to proficiency. In this article, I explain those drivers in detail.
Business perspective of accelerating proficiency
Organizations have witnessed tremendous turmoil and growth between 2000 and 2016, which has led executives to be concerned about the success of their business in the new world (Deloitte 2017). The foremost organizational concern is increased competition. With globalization, most organizations now have access to the same markets, similar technologies, and similar capabilities (Kraiger, Passmore & Rebelo 2014; Kraiger 2014). The relative success of organizations may ultimately depend upon the time-to-market of their products, services, or solutions they develop or offer. Capabilities, competencies, and skills of the workforce are the most critical determinants of time-to-market and hence the competitive distinction among organizations (Wright & McMahan 2011). Changing business landscapes and market dynamics bring different expectations on workforce competencies. A decade ago, the Implications for 21st Century Work report forecasted:
One expected consequence of the technological advances is a continued growth in the demand for a high-skilled workforce capable of undertaking the basic R&D to develop new technologies, developing the applications and production processes that exploit the technological advances, and bringing the resulting products to the commercial marketplace. (Karoly 2007, p. 3).
Researchers keep expressing similar views that the ability and readiness of the workforce to meet new business needs is a topic of constant concern to modern business managers (Salas et al. 2012). Thus, one of the critical business expectations is to bring the workforce up to speed on new job roles, new expectations, new standards, or new business needs in as short a time as possible.
Market business drivers
Several market forces collectively drive the need for shorter time-to-proficiency in the workplace, such as time-to-market competitiveness (Lynn, Akgün & Keskin 2003); constant obsolescence of skills (Korotov 2007); the increasing complexity of jobs and skills (Hoffman, Feltovich, et al. 2010); attrition of senior or aging workforce constantly getting replaced (Hoffman et al. 2014). The efforts to accelerate time-to-proficiency, thus lead to the faster readiness of the workforce, cost savings, and increased competitiveness in the market.
Corporations and business leaders have emphasized the need for speed to proficiency and made recurring appeals to tackle this new business metric in several white papers, blogs, business case studies, commercial conferences, and business books (Bruck 2007, 2015; Cross 2013; Harward 2017; Rosenbaum & Pollock 2015; Rosenbaum & Williams 2004). Leading workplace learning expert, Jay Cross stated that ‘the faster a worker becomes proficient, the more profitable the firm’ (Cross 2013). Similarly, leading business consultants, Rosenbaum and Williams (2004) stressed the importance of identifying the point at which desired performance is delivered: ‘You need to know the level of performance required to do the job and how long it takes to get there…. when you can get employees up-to speed in far less time, productivity rises at far less expense.’
Study of business drivers that drive time to proficiency projects
Previous studies only made the speculations regarding the retiring workforce, complexity, changing nature of work, time-to-market pressures, competitiveness, and business pressures, as the drivers for accelerating time-to-proficiency (Bruck 2015; Fred 2002; Hoffman et al. 2014; Langerak, Hultink & Griffin 2008; Lynn, Akgün & Keskin 2003). None of them specified a confirmatory relationship or model about how organizational thinking is driven on such a burning business question.
I conducted an extensive study spanning 85 project leaders, 74 in-depth interviews, 56 documents, 66 start-to-end projects, spanning 7 countries, 42 industries, and 20 businesses as well as a range of contexts in terms of job role, skills, and complexity (Attri 2018; Attri & Wu 2018, 2017, 2016a, 2016b, 2015a, 1015b, 2015c, 2014). This massive span generated some never-seen-before insights in regards to generalized observations in regards to what really drives organizations and project leaders to institute conscientious project efforts to shorten the time to proficiency of the workforce. Each project case was seen to be driven by four different business factors that drove organizations to actively think about shortening time-to-proficiency.
1. Time-related pressures
In one of the project cases, a large Semicon equipment manufacturer based in Europe had a business challenge that they had to deliver each machine to customers on the fixed agreed date, not bearing even a single day of delay. Such deadlines in time put pressure on organizations to get their employees to design, manufacture, or support such equipment at that time.
The only thing that counts within [this company] is time-to-market for the project. Every machine is delivered at the expected date at the customer. They never put up with even 1 day delay in shipping the machine… (Project leader )
That’s what are time-related pressures where time is of the essence. In addition to time-to-market urgencies, things like data on time to proficiency or even significant training durations become such drivers.
38% of the project cases showed Time-related pressures’ as the foundational driver. This theme represented those drivers in which operational metrics were consciously measured in the unit of time. Examples were:
- Urgency on time to market
- Long time to proficiency
- Long training duration
In the words of one project leader:
People simply aren’t getting up the speed as fast they can and it’s very, very expensive when they’re not [coming up to speed quickly]… the basic business case that we’ve started with is that every minute someone isn’t fully up to speed is costing you money and it’s worth doing something about it. (Project leader)
2. Speed-related competitiveness
In another project, at a large financial services company in the US, they were on a high-speed ramp of growth of business whereby they were hiring 30-40 engineers per week. They could not potentially have lived with a large volume of employees not ready to do their job while they were adding more. So, the challenge was to get employee proficiency at the same rate as hiring.
… demand for this service was very high with investors, this online brokers firm was hiring new service and sales people every single week. Almost every single week. In some cases, you might have new 30 or 40 people per week or per month being hired in this continuous cycles of new employees to support the growth and of course to support any turnover that occurs in the normal customer service and sales business. (Project leader)
Such was the second group of drivers where speed is a competitive advantage over others. Other things like customer pressure on delivering something, speed to set up the new business, or speed to penetrate the market, among others.
38% of the project cases showed ‘Speed-related competitiveness’ as the critical driving factor which included those operational metrics in which speed was perceived as a measure of success. Examples were:
- Customer pressures to deliver
- Speed of demand
- Business ramp-up
- Launch of a new product, service, or business
- Rapid operational readiness
- Rapid hiring sprints
In the words of the project leader:
… for them to go to their other clients and tell them “We lost this contract because we’re not able to ramp up people fast enough to get to the satisfaction scores that this company is requesting of us” is going to look really bad to the rest of the clients. (Project leader)
3. Skill-related deficiencies
In a project at a utility company in the US, they faced the situation that senior staff started getting aged and retired one by one and they were being filled with new staff. Their challenge was how they could bring new staff to a similar level before they are retired and before the firm loses institutional knowledge.
People are reaching retirement age so they were going to begin losing the institutional knowledge of their senior personnel in short order, and that the time frame that it took to get people up to speed, the new engineers up to speed and learn the ins and outs of what the utility did, what each department did. The amount of time necessary to follow that path, they were going to lose people sooner than the people would get up to speed. (Project leader)
Such challenges are driven by skill deficiencies even though time plays a part in the backend. Performance issues when current people could not perform or their existing skills are obsolete also played a great push (remember when typewriters were replaced with computers in hospitals and courts?
More than half of the project cases, 53%, showed ‘Skill-related deficiencies’ as the key driver which included those needs that arise because of a lack of workforce skills or lack of qualified workforce. Examples were:
- New hires replacing the expert workforce
- Performance issues due to lack skills or obsolete skills
4. Cost or financial implications
Cost is undoubtedly a key driver. All of us think organizations exist to make money. True to a great extent. Training new people may cost something. Even someone who is not proficient yet may cost the company with his errors or mistakes. And imagine how a customer order cannot be fulfilled because the company got no one qualified to serve. Even as drastic as regulation, if someone is not proficient in observing safety it could cost the company millions in lawsuits and fines.
In a project involving benefit evaluators examining eligibility for government-run benefits for the applicants at a large federal government department in the US, the project leader expressed that:
“The real costs of achieving proficient job performance in complex jobs come after training is done. These costs are substantial, but are rarely measured. We all know they exist—and they can be huge. These costs show up as: subpar productivity, mistakes, dissatisfied customers, time spent getting help from others, manager’s time reviewing and correcting work, attrition, due to people feeling unprepared or overwhelmed by their jobs…… If we can reduce the time it takes to become expert or at least proficient performers, we can save our organisations a lot of money, increase retention rates, reduce errors, and improve customer satisfaction.” (Project leader)
33% of the project cases showed ‘Cost or financial implications’ as the main drivers. This included those factors and impacts which were measured in the unit of money. Examples were:
- Cost of training
- The cost of non-proficiency, as indicated by errors and mistakes,
- Cost of errors and mistakes
- The cost of opportunity lost while someone was not proficient,
- Regulatory pressures, such as safety, if not observed can cost the company
Which business driver is the most important
Even if we think cost drives all decisions of the company, what I found is contrary to that. It is skill-related deficiencies across all 100% of project cases were the ones that drove the programs on accelerated proficiency, followed by time-related drivers or speed-related drivers. The prevalence analysis (counting the code presence) showed that skill-related drivers were the main trigger for forcing organizations to implement initiatives/projects to accelerate proficiency. The factors like time-to-market, competitiveness, and market leadership mattered more than the money they could save. Thus, I can say, the intent of saving costs or other financial gains was not shown to be the main trigger for organizations to institute initiatives/projects to reduce time to proficiency.
The skill-related drivers were more prevalent in management, manufacturing and highly technical jobs which faced high competition required a high level of skills from people, and faced faster obsolescence of skills. Those drivers were also prevalent in jobs driven by regulatory pressures, such as oil & gas and medicine research, in which skill deficiencies were stated as damaging to the business. Time- and speed-related drivers were seen as the next most prevalent drivers, predominantly in technical, engineering, and scientific jobs due to time-to-market and competitive pressures. The cost-related drivers were more prevalent in the technical sales jobs due to the direct impact on revenue in such jobs.
Interestingly, none of the business drivers appeared in isolation; rather there was a chain connection between various business drivers. None of the observed business drivers appeared in isolation; rather there was a chain connection between various business drivers, with one impacting the other. In practice, all or several of the business drivers may drive the need for a shorter time-to-proficiency of the workforce.
A large aircraft engine manufacturer faced an unacceptably long time-to-proficiency of the computer numerical control (CNC) machinists manufacturing highly sophisticated engine parts. They were required to develop proficiency in precision manufacturing skills in a shorter time. Skill-related deficiencies were seen as ‘a severe skill shortage’ in the industry for those specific job skills. This shortage led the organization to hire people at a rapid pace to support the business. ‘Massive recruitment efforts yielded few potential employees.’ The need to bring new employees up to speed was driven by speed-related competitiveness like customer expectations and time-to-market. ‘[T]he longer that it takes somebody to learn, the more difficult it is to complete our process and ship to the customer on time.’ The skill-related drivers were amplified by the need for precision work involved in the job and the need to prepare employees for a proficiency level of error-free work. ‘The sooner people are fully competent to perform the job, the new employee becomes more safe and productive.’ Though not the primary drivers, the usual cost-related drivers of the organization came up in this project case due to the impact of non-proficiency on production and opportunity cost lost during the waiting period. ‘In addition, the company wanted to reduce costs (including recruitment costs)’.
While the magnitude and scale of the problem are the triggers for organizations to think of shortening time-to-proficiency, the real push comes from the impact of longer time-to-proficiency on the business. These four drivers primarily drove the need for shorter time-to-proficiency in organizations. However, these drivers need to be assessed in the overall organizational system and not in isolation. Shortening the time to proficiency is not a simple training problem. It is one of the complex business problems of today’s time which requires a multi-prong approach. Thus one needs to see all the driving factors in context.
Project view of the business drivers
You may want to check out my appeal on the importance of reducing time to proficiency of the workforce. Once you understand the importance, the model is pretty simple. How long is time to proficiency in a given job role? The size of the problem is described in the form of a magnitude and scale. You may refer to an earlier article How Large is the Time to Proficiency of Workforce and Why Leaders Must Worry About it which covers the magnitude and scale of time to proficiency in various contexts. This article also provides some eye-opening numbers for time to proficiency in different contexts.
That is the trigger point in organizations. With so many things to handle, the business would not react to problems that do not seem to carry a big impact. The size of the problem then manifests itself in the form of 4 business drivers that usually lead the leaders to start thinking that a long TTP is a problem.
The project leaders have to do something about it and put systems, processes, or strategies in play if they are to successfully reduce TTP. The actual strategies found in that research will be covered in later articles. But eventually, such efforts are likely to reduce time to proficiency in a given job role. What I found is that organizations typically enjoyed 4 business benefits out of a shorter time to proficiency, which are discussed in another article.
Call to action
If you are a manager, HR leader, or organization leader, have you proactively measured measure time to proficiency of your direct reports? Have you associated that time with the business drivers that influence the job role? If not, then understand what is the primary business driver in your context and how it is manifesting the need for a shorter TTP in a given job role.
For more resources on this burning business question, subscribe to my blog exclusively on the topic of speed to proficiency and stay tuned as I will share more about what you can do as a leader.
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