An interesting debate ensued the other day when an organisation was trying to cost the training needed to introduce ground-breaking computer systems in a 30-man planning and operations group. The debate centred on the training needs in computer systems use in a government department. The department’s business consultants argued that all staff should just get used to the tools provided – commenting that some staff will take significant time to master the use of the new tools and others will pick things up quickly. They argued that staff who don’t learn the new tools within the required time should be encouraged to leave or be dismissed on capability grounds.
But is this way of looking at new technology introduction correct? What happens if the staff that ‘don’t get it quickly’ have other valuable skills and knowledge? Is it a form of coercion to pressure staff to ‘learn or else…’? Surely there’s a better way to manage technology introduction that accommodates existing competency whilst learning the new?
Mastering New Tools
These are difficult questions. They demand that we define the very meaning of technology and its use by staff. They demand that we understand what it is to master a skill and how we’d go about achieving mastery whilst using what is often revolutionary new technologies, systems and tools.
The key is in the definition of competency. To be competent at a task is to have the necessary knowledge to understand what’s required to perform the task successfully. That knowledge gives staff the ability to envision what good performance is and what high quality deliverables look like. To be competent is to have the necessary skill to convert the inputs of the task to good quality outputs within a time that is reasonable for the business.
And competency is also having the motivation to exhibit the required behaviours, applying knowledge and skills together to undertake the task and create the required quality deliverables.
So what does this definition tell us about staff that might be given new tools to work with?
Staff will start with a particular competency. In order to exploit the new tools to do work faster, cheaper, with higher quality or to take on new tasks, some change in competency is needed. We generally assume that some form of training is needed to make the change from the initial ‘pre-new-tool’ state to the state that achieves mastery of the new tools. Most tool or system suppliers provide training with their products and most customers of such products would demand that training is part of the contract. But suppliers make an assumption about the readiness of the firm’s staff to receive their training. They assume that the staff are capable of learning their products. They make an assumption about staff foundation competency.
This gives us a clue as to how to determine the training needed to implement ground-breaking computer systems: we have to ensure that this foundation competency is present. To do this is simple.
First, we can define the required end state. With the supplier’s training, staff should be able to achieve the deliverables to the specified quality and in the time specified whilst using the new tools. Second, we can define the starting point: we can determine the foundation knowledge, skills and behaviours needed to benefit from the supplier’s training. So we know the expected staff competency on input to, and output from, the supplier’s training. We’ll deal with whether such input or foundation competency exists or not below. For now we need to focus on getting the best from the supplier training.
Capability to Learn
To determine how well someone will benefit from a particular training, we’ll also need to know something about their capability to learn – given by their personality and general mental ability. And we’ll need to know something about their learning motivation. So as a base for the management of the change, we need to know the competency of the staff today, without the new tools, and we need to know their ability to learn. We must measure the staff. This involves psychometrics – the measurement of intelligence, skills, knowledge and motivation either by using work psychology methods or perhaps simply by knowing the staff and their past achievements.
So those arguing that everyone should be able to master any tool and that staff that can’t make it in reasonable time are to be dismissed are looking at the problem too simplistically. It may well be that staff who can’t learn the new tools will indeed need to leave. But adoption of new technologies, new systems and new tools must not be done in such a ‘trial and error’ fashion. It’s costly to recruit someone, train them and then declare that they can’t perform. Instead management needs to understand where the staff member is in technological progression.
Leap-frogging Technology Epochs
In today’s fast-moving technological advance, firms are often faced with delaying change and then leap-frogging technology epochs: to continually evolve annually is too costly. So staff learn one system and when it comes to change, the gap in knowledge and skills between that existing and that needed is huge. Management must acknowledge this state. The result of such leap-frogging strategy may mean that the firm is further behind in knowledge and skills than assumed by suppliers and hence the necessary foundations for the new technology, system or tool are not in place. Training may be needed to build on existing foundations to achieve a new level in readiness for the change – the competency level noted above as input to the supplier’s training.
So we can measure the current staff competency. We can measure personality and general mental ability. We can estimate staff motivation. And we know the nature of the supplier training and can ask the supplier to define the assumed foundation level needed. If actual psychometric measurement can’t be done in practice, other evidence can be used to build an equivalent and no less useful picture.
We can now make the change in a planned manner by putting in place whatever training and support is needed to prepare the staff for the supplier training. We can plug the gap between the competency that exists in the organisation and that needed to benefit from supplier training. This planned approach allows due consideration of the context of the implementation rather than assuming that all staff are the same the world over.
Completing the Project
The plan would of course be incomplete without evaluation of the supplier training and the measurement of the staff competency after this – by asking if the intended business benefits from the technology, system or tools are now being realised. Further training and change may well be needed before the project ends.