Great Expectations

It was funny when it was just a problem for teenagers or recent college grads: looking for a job to get experience, but every job requires experience to hire you. It stopped being funny right around 2008. Today, as I drove past a newly foreclosed house not far from me, I was reminded that the joke is getting really old.

The catch-22 is alive and well. Companies expect more of  job candidates because…well…because they can. The growing expectation is that a new hire should already have the tools and competencies they need to hit the ground running. Training? That’s expensive, time intensive, and so 2002.

Candidly, I’d hoped that bridging a list of competencies to a plan for training would feel more rewarding than it did. This meant a return to the more familiar ground of writing learning objectives and deciding what can be learned verses what should be incumbent or even inherent. Because let’s face it, if you’re applying to star at a dinner theater, you know you need to be able to carry a tune.

But what about the other stuff? Maybe you can sing but you struggle a bit in the dance department. During the interview you’ll say you’re a fast learner. Don’t waste your breath. Someone else will get the job.

I take a dim view of applying competency models to training for a reason: I just don’t see it happening very much. When there is a new product or system to be learned, yes, there will be training. There will be training on company minutiae. There will be sensitivity and sexual harassment training. These things are givens like death and taxes. But increasingly, skills, knowledge and abilities are expected to be part of the new hire’s fabric. Welcome aboard. Now adapt what you already know to thrive or you will drown here.

I hoped to find something to cheer me up on the subject. Nope. These are the words of a Ph.D. who does competency model consulting:

I ask the reader how difficult it would be to make someone smarter, a better planner, more interpersonally skilled, or change their motivations. How about the last time you saw an incompetent person enter a training program and leave competent? Training can improve a skill slightly, but there is almost no published data whatsoever to support the claim that training will significantly change behavior or fix a hiring mistake.

In other words, competency models for hiring? Yes. For training? No.

I wonder how many companies have taken his advice. I wonder how many good people didn’t get the job because they lacked one competency that is supposedly untrainable.

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The Bobs

In my mind, any blog that gives you an Office Space reference two out of three weeks is one that is worthy of your time. But look past the hilarity and the scene above brings up a valid point about job analysis: sometimes it’s ugly.

A job analysis puts the employer in position to know exactly what their people do, who to hire to do it, what to pay them for it, and how to decide who is doing it the best. What it doesn’t do is give suspicious employees any reassurance. In their eyes, a job analysis can feel as though they are re-interviewing for their jobs. Even worse, let’s say an organization doesn’t have full buy in for job analysis at the onset. Then, only when things are going poorly and difficult decisions have to be made does the organization get around to job analysis. By that point, don’t employees have every right to be leery of the process?

These are very real hurdles to a very real organizational need. To get buy in from management, look for footholds of support. Put the benefits in real dollars. Bad hires are very expensive; between unemployment insurance, wasted time and productivity, and even lost clients, the cost could easily reach six figures.

Getting support from the rank and file could be even more difficult. Again, if employees feel like the process is out to get them or look for a reason to fire them, they won’t cooperate. It doesn’t matter if you have an insider run the analysis or hire a third party like the Bobs from Office Space. People have to feel comfortable that what they’re saying is confidential, and that the job analysis is designed to solve their problems, not put them out of work. The message is everything.

How would you communicate that? Would you roll it out as part of a new organizational vision? Is it as simple as a personalized letter from the CEO or similar organizational leader? And if you’ve run a job analysis, what hurdles have you encountered and how did you overcome them?

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It’s the Thought That Counts

The horse: an ideal employee because it's happy being a beast of burden.

The Horse: an ideal employee because it’s happy even when being prodded around.

Play a video game long enough and you’ll wish some of the game’s mechanics worked in real life. Reset buttons are an obvious dream item. But think of a game like The Sims where you can see exactly how someone feels based on a colored icon floating over their heads.

If it really were so easy as The Sims, a lot more organizations would be able to keep their best people. There is no denying that using competency models is a great way to look for and gauge employees. We can also weed out low performers and screen for the right skill sets. But perhaps competency models lead us into making false assumptions about culture. We have the right people, they’re meeting their goals and deadlines, and we know the areas where we need to improve. Based on this, everything’s great.

Except the competency model can’t ask an employee how they feel. A competency model doesn’t show whether an employee is overwhelmed or consistently having to overcome organizational obstacles. A competency model may show someone performing at a high level when in reality they are ready to quit over what they see as a toxic environment.

It is so important that more organizations start asking their people what they think and how they feel. The fact is, people want to be asked. We want to feel like our bosses are interested in our opinions and that we have a say. Some organizations even go so far as to mandate this kind of discourse. One business technology executive puts his spin on thought leadership this way: “Once you tell everybody that it’s their job to have an informed opinion…and it had better not be the same opinion as everybody else’s, then you’re sharing some of that responsibility (of leading the organization).”

The workplace characteristics profile survey developed by Prien et al. is one way to productively ask people what they think. Where forums could get out of hand and off topic, or job shadowing may be intimidating and time intensive, the survey is structured and methodical and can help reveal what people think of an organization’s culture, with a focus on that organization’s ability to communicate, adapt, and make its most important asset feel welcome.

The workplace characteristics profile isn’t the only tool for getting culture and climate insights–other tools like TINYpulse aim to give managers a visual dashboard to keep them on top of germinating problems. But perhaps more important than the tool you select is the fact that you’re asking at all. It could reveal some unforeseen perceptions, and the gesture itself could feed back into the organization’s core competencies by boosting morale and in turn performance, or perhaps making employees self-aware of things they themselves could do better. Until we start walking around with colored icons over our heads, we have little other choice than to ask.

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You Say “Toe-may-toe”, I Say “Competency”

In a tour de force of American cinema, Peter Gibbons struggles to explain how his plan to skim fractions of pennies from thousands of bank accounts isn’t actually the same as stealing. The film is called Office Space and I am pretty sure it swept the Oscars for its taught emotional diorama of our values system.

In much the same way that Peter couldn’t convince his girlfriend or himself, I am struggling so far to explain the difference between competencies and learning objectives. After defining my first set of competencies last week, my fledgling competency model graduated to the first grade with a list of behaviors that would typify those competencies. Now that I’ve revisited those behaviors I can’t help feeling like I just wrote a slightly more ambiguous version of learning objectives for higher level learning.

Am I doing it wrong? There’s a good possibility. But I can take some solace knowing that I have plenty of company. An internet cruise on the search phrase “learning objective competency confusion” led me to this gem: “The relationship between learning outcomes and competencies is a complex area – the subject of some debate and considerable confusion.” The same author believes part of the problem is that competencies and learning outcomes or objectives are used almost interchangeably. It doesn’t help matters that if you were to make a Venn diagram of the two, there would be more overlap than separation.

For now, I think it might be helpful to think of competencies in long term perspectives and learning objectives as shorter term. Or put another way, competencies might be effectively viewed as what an instructional designer would want to see happening in a Level 3 evaluation. Long after the training and the pass/fail testing, how are learners synthesizing what they’ve learned and integrating it with their existing soft skills to determine what they do on the job? In my view, for now, at least, competencies describe that answer.

That’s a bit tilted toward the instructional designer’s viewpoint. What do you think? How do you define competencies verses learning objectives, and do you think the viewpoint for HR or management would be different from an instructional designer’s?

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A Competent Traveler

Spaceballs-BH-03I struggle with packing for a trip. What if it gets unexpectedly cold? What if I get invited to a white tie dinner? What if I need a lot more underwear than ever before? I’m afraid of swimming but what if I meet a hypnotist who cures me and I decide to celebrate with a dip in the pool?

I hope I at least get better at writing competencies.

My first stab felt like packing for a trip. I am sure I over-packed. Worse yet, I may have focused so much on backup plan underwear that I left the socks out. It was tempting to plan for every eventuality even with limited space. And of course in doing so I likely overlooked something obvious.

To follow through with the metaphor, perhaps the best competency model mirrors a smart suitcase packer. Bring the essentials. Don’t fret specifics. Leave some room in there. But this seems easier said than done. Imagine the consequences of under-packing your competency model. You may not have enough specifics in place to build a framework for hiring, firing, promoting and so on. I would argue that a competency model that’s too vague is worse than one that’s too specific. And so what if you never wear the swim trunks; at least they’re there, right?

Not exactly. Over-packing gets everything wrinkly and leaves no room for souvenirs. Too many competencies can leave the work force unfocused. Employees won’t bother to read through the thing. Interviewees won’t know which areas matter. Learning, HR and managers won’t know where to focus their efforts for development. For all of your work, you’re now hauling around a lot of dead weight.

How do you know when enough is enough? Do you have a magic number you try to stick to for the number of competencies? If there is a competency model Rick Steves out there, please reveal yourself.

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Rules & Tools of Engagement Part 6: Spiderscribe

Great ideas are fun. Not so fun is trying to explain your thought process and flow pattern of that idea to someone else for the first time. They look at you and almost always respond with “huh.” A question mark may or may not follow the “huh.”

capSpiderscribe is an online mind mapping tool that helps you visually express those big ideas. You start with a central idea, theme, or topic, then branch out to other areas. You can easily drag and drop links, documents, PDFs, maps, and images onto the white board and connect them with a series of arrows to show the flow and relationship.

OK, sounds great for trying to compose your own thoughts in a neat structure, and it is. But Spiderscribe can also help groups collaborating online. You can share your maps with others and give them the power to revise it. This is useful for brainstorming and thought cloud exercises, and it can also help groups map out large presentations or projects and delegate who will handle what and in what order. Instructors could use it to map out their own activities and share with peers to get their feedback. Text is searchable, meaning you can quickly get from place to place if you lose your bearings. When you’re done, you can publish your map as an image or embed it in a website. This new feature could be handy for online learners building wikis; even if learners don’t collaborate on the map itself, the map could be a powerful way to tie information together.

A few drawbacks keep Spiderscribe out of the upper echelon in my opinion. Navigation can feel a bit clumsy. If you’ve used Prezi or other presentation tools, you’re used to clicking on an object and automatically zooming or centering on it. Spiderscribe doesn’t do that, and annoyingly it doesn’t support mouse wheels for zoom features either. While everything is stored on the cloud, saves don’t happen in real time so an entire team couldn’t edit simultaneously without things getting messy. It would also be nice to see a notepad function for collaborators to share any changes they made.

Still, for asynchronous online learners just trying to help each other “get it”, Spiderscribe has a lot to offer and can help both workflows and deliverables.


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Rules & Tools of Engagement, Part Five: Socrative

socrates with phoneIf only Socrates had a smart phone.

Socrative bills itself as a “student response system.” If you were to think of your classroom as a game show, this would be the fancy buzzer. Learners and instructors log in from their online devices then meet in an online “room”. From there, instructors can use Socrative to launch and host games, quizzes and even Level 1 reaction exercises. Learners use Socrative to enter their answers. and instructors can see in real time how many learners are participating or have finished. Once the activity is done, results are e-mailed to the instructor for quick assessment.

Socrative seems geared toward an in-person learning environment, but it could work just as well in a synchronous online learning environment. All that’s needed is coordination between the instructor and the learners on where to meet inside the Socrative online platform.

Socrative gives both instructors and learners simple but powerful ways to communicate and collaborate virtually. True to its namesake, Socrative keeps learners thinking critically through a series of questions. The ability to create quizzes on the fly lets you see how your learners are negotiating the content, and the visual feedback lets you know what areas you may need to revisit. Short answer questions can start up online brainstorming sessions where learners can even “up vote” the ideas they like best. For a more formal assessment, instructors can create assessments in advance of launching them on Socrative.

Why do I like Socrative for online learning? The rapid fire nature of the activities in Socrative are a great way to keep learners on their toes and not mentally checked out just because their instructor can’t see them. The ability to use Socrative as a brainstorming tool or even some peer review goes even further in keeping learners engaged. Above all, I like the way Socrative brings learners back together on devices that are native to them. It works on iPhones, laptops, computers, and pretty much anything else that can get online, so it’s very accessible for learners. This is a great way to make a live connection with your learners no matter where they are. That kind of communication goes a long way in keeping online learners connected with you and each other.

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