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Lessons Learned: Assessing the Skills of 450 Research and Development Professionals


The superheated economy of the late 1990s was punctuated by a scramble for resources and market-share. Stalwart companies like IBM were waking up to the reality that they could not skate on their size and reputations -- they too had to become masters of change.

IBM's mantra, "A new shade of blue" signaled their intended transformation to become a more agile organization. To fuel this transformation, IBM needed to assess the skills, core competencies, and training needs across more than a dozen research and development centers. My assignment was to plan and obtain approval for this worldwide initiative. Then, coordinating my activities with the other labs, I'd directly manage the skills survey and analysis of 450 professionals in Austin, Texas.

The assignment seemed straightforward. I designed a prototype survey, data capture and reports. Working with other designated managers, we agreed on a common set of skills categories and established consistent definitions for the 5 skill levels. We recognized that the data and subsequent value of the skills survey would quickly go stale, so we designed an online tool which would support profile updates, the addition of new skills and the retirement of skills no longer valued. We set up and tested the completed online survey tools. Everything was good to go… or so we thought.

Our initial rollout of the survey tool to First Line Managers turned up an immediate oversight: while those on the planning team embraced the survey as a means to better utilize the skills of our professionals and offer relevant training, the #1 fear among those taking the survey was that the information would be used to eliminate their jobs. With such a concern, lack of cooperation and gaming the system become more likely. A skills survey taken under these circumstances would be useless. What followed were a series of discussions with Managers to create a skills assessment system which would satisfy the needs of all parties. This included a documented agreement to utilize aggregated data for organizational planning and limit the access to individual skills profiles.

Lessons Learned

The following lessons apply to skills assessments, performance reviews and other areas where collected data has the potential to affect compensation and job security.

1. Set clear objectives

An accurate profile of skills is an asset in capacity planning, developing the capabilities of an organization and matching employees with appropriate assignments. Clear objectives will establish the level of detail and effort needed for the assessment. If objectives and communications are unclear, you will have a difficult time enlisting others' support, expend more effort and be leaving the value to chance.

Clarity is also important in setting objective guidelines for skill levels. Such guidelines may include years of experience, levels of responsibility, completed coursework and certifications equating to a given skill level.

2. Address concerns and motivate participation

Skills assessments are best initiated during times of growth when participation can be rewarded with choice assignments and professional development. Initiating a skills assessment at any other time will be more problematic. Addressing concerns openly creates the possibility for all parties to come to common grounds even in difficult times.

3. Never compromise trust

Trust is an asset that, once lost, is difficult to regain. Using skills profiles for anything other than a mutually beneficial purpose will undermine future assessments and job performance. Likewise, you will need to consider how to handle employees who deliberately game the system.

4. No substitute for direct communications

Skills assessments are just a planning tool. For resource management, nothing takes the place of good communications, mentoring, team-building and leadership.

Last year, LinkedIn introduced skills "tags" and endorsements as a search aid to match employers with job seekers. In retrospect, this approach of having employees voluntarily identify skills at a single level would provide much of the value for planning assignments without touching off job security concerns. Skills identification is quicker to do and easier to maintain than a multi-level skills assessment -- a good start for most Enterprise Resource Management initiatives.

How do you perform skills assessments in your organization? Share your best practices and lessons learned by leaving a comment below.

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