Friday, November 10, 2006

People Management in Professional Services - a training primer

Note to reader: This Ndarala staff paper by Jim Belshaw explores some of the issues associated with improved approaches to training within professional services firms. The paper is an edited version of comments previously made on the Ndarala blog on Managing the Professional ServicesᅠFirm. Ends

At a time of demographic change and increasing competition in professional services, improved people management is critical to improving firm performance.

This short primer focuses onᅠone element in improved people management, improved approaches to training. I have deliberately kept theᅠargument as simple as possible given that my main audience is not training professionals as such. My aim is to provide a simple primer on training from a management perspective.

The post is written against a background of major change in both education and training. Those interested in the debate on the training side can find out more from the January 2006 Ndarala staff paper Is Training Snake Oil?.

Setting a Context: Professionals vs Managers

I thought that the best way of startingᅠwas by focusing on the difference between managers and professionals because this links to one of the issues that I mull over from time to time - why do so many professionals make lousy people managers? And, more to the point, just what can be done about it.

I know that this is not a new issue. In engineering, for example, the problems involved in promoting good engineers into management positions removed from direct hands-on engineering has been a topic of discussion for years. In medicine, the sometimes inability of doctors to communicate with patients is well know. The inability of some senior partners in law firms to manage is infamous.

While the issue is not new, I was reminded of it again in a recent discussion with a senior professional on a management issue. The professional is highly intelligent, even brilliant in his field, and also has an interest in management issues. Yet he simply could not see the issue in question. He gave instructions, his staff should get on with it!

When I looked at the discussion later, I realized that the core of the problem lay in the role, training and even language of the professional as compared to the manager.

A manager's core role is to manage the resources available to him/her to achieve the objectives set for the area. Performance is always measured, or should be, by the results of the area.
In contrast, the professional's role is to carry out specific professional tasks. The core focus is on the performance of the individual professional in undertaking those tasks.

This difference in roles is reflected in training.

The professional's training dates back to the craft system of the middle ages. It focuses on the individual acquisition and application of the knowledge, skills and values associated with the profession. The core focus is individual, not collective. The subsequent rewards offered by the profession, and especially the critical recognition of peers, are all based on individual performance. It is no coincidence that the Nobel prize is awarded to individuals, not teams.

The manager's training is different.

To begin with, we have to distinguish here between the acquisition of technical skills such as financial analysis and broader management skills. Many of those coming out of business schools become technical experts and should more properly be classified as professionals rather than managers.

Beyond this, management training focuses on managing people and other resources. Further, most managers become managers by doing, by actually managing with increasing degrees of responsibility. In contrast, many professionals are suddenly thrust into management roles when they get to a certain point in their career and are then, suddenly, expected to manage.

Differences in role and training are also reflected in differences in personality. Perhaps more accurately, different personalities are attracted into the professions as compared to management. The professions tend to attract people who prefer individual endeavour, whereas managers are more collectivist.

I recognize that these are broad generalizations. Some professionals are very good managers, some managers are hopeless managers. Nevertheless, the differences are real and mark very different cultures.

The bottom line in all this is that it is not surprising that most professionals are not good managers and that professionals and managers can experience difficulty in talking to each other.

The War for Talent

There is presently a war for talent across all areas within professional services. This war can only get worseᅠgiven an aging population in developed countries. Better training is - more precisely should be given the way training is often managed in practice - a key weapon in the war for talent.

Starting with three general points.

First, at organisational level, training should be thought of as the process by which staff acquire the knowledge and skills they need as they need them. This simple definition draws out certain key points:
  • the focus is on organisational needs
  • training is defined as a process. Attendance at a few continuing professional development seminars or individual short courses is not training in the way I am defining the term, but instead should be thought of simply as training activities
  • the training process focuses on the acquisition of specific knowledge and skills as needed when needed.

Second, it seems clear that the great majority of knowledge and skills acquisition- probably well over 90 per cent in most organisations, 100 per cent in some - is informal and takes place on the job. This simple statement has significant implications:

  • From experience, most organisations define training in terms of specific defined training activities. This limits the training function to 10 per cent or less of the total knowledge and skills acquisition within the firm
  • The value of the on the job training depends upon the training and supervisory abilities of existing staff. If these are poor, then total learning across the firm will be significantly reduced
  • Firms who want to maximise returns from training need to manage both formal and informal learning.

This brings me to my third general point.

Part of the current debate in training deals with doubts among trainers and others as to the extent of real returns from training. These doubts are partially due to measurement difficulties, what should we be measuring, how should we measure it? But they also flow from the narrow way in which training is defined.

In my view, and this extends my second point, training can offer significant economic pay-backs if, but only if,the training process focuses on and integrates total learning within the firm, including informal learning.

An example from my own experience to amplify this last point.

The engineering profession in combination with the aerospace industry developed the concept of the learning curve, expressed as a" graph that depicts rate of learning, especially a graph of progress in the mastery of a skill against the time required for such mastery." (

Linking this across to our current discussion, in simplest terms, the shorter the learning curve with new staff or existing staff doing new things, the greater the return to the firm.

To illustrate.

Some years ago I had to establish a new section in the Australian Treasury to process applications by foreign investors wishing to invest in Australia. This was my first experience as section head. We were under delivery pressure and were carrying out a new activity in a politically sensitive environment.

Recruitment of staff was difficult and took time. There were general staff shortages compounded by the fact that my new section was in a relatively unfashionable area of the Department. However, we still had to deliver regardless.

I did have access to one staff pool, new graduate recruits. The conventional view at the time was that it took at least twelve months before such staff really became useful. I did not have this luxury, I needed them to be able to do things quickly. So I defined structured on the job training with a graduated mix of process and research tasks, combined with staff seminars, thus mixing formal and informal training.

I was not surprised to find that people improved more quickly than expected nor that I had a generally happy team. I was surprised at the extent of the improvement. I found that it took my people about three months to get to the competence point usually expected at the end of the first year, a huge performance gain. Later when I did an analysis of the 33 or so people I had working for me during this period, I also found that their later promotion patterns had been better than the Departmental average even though their qualification level on entry had been lower than the Departmental average.

Different Training Types

One core difficulty with training as a process and a key reason why training fails is that it can involve a mix of outcomes each requiring a different approach. Mix them together and you can get a mess!

I need to clarify just what I mean by the word outcomes. In the current context, I am not talking about the results from specific training activities, but am instead applying the term to broad generic training categories.

I will describe these in a moment. From a practical management perspective, the key point is that both managers and individual professionals can use them to help make judgements about training. Further, you do not need to be a training expert to do so!

The key training outcome categories I am talking about are:

  • knowledge -how & what to do
  • skills - the capacity to do
  • judgement - when to do
  • and attitude - willingness to do.

Individual elements in this mix are better suited to different training modes.

Knowledge, for example, can be acquired via self-study with the acquisition measured through oral or written test. This allows for a variety of delivery modes including eLearning.

This is also an area where the new computing and communications technologies and especially the internet are steadily undercutting training's traditional role as a supplier of knowledge by giving people the ability to access information when they need it. This makes the firm's information systems an adjunct to the training process.

By contrast, skills acquisition requires practice, practice that may need to continue after the formal training has been completed if the skill is to be really internalised. Certain types of skills may be capable of being taught, practiced and measured via simulators. Others, the softer management or communications skills are an example, require direct oversight and group interaction.

Judgement takes skills acquisition one stage further and can only be acquired through experience, including observation of others.

We can now see why on the job training is so important, why 90 per cent plus of knowledge, skills and judgement formation takes place as a natural by-product of work. Only while working can you acquire the firm and environment specific information you need and the actual practice required to build knowledge and skills. "Formal" training can supplement, not substitute.

The final training outcome category, attitude, is actually a slippery one because so many things combine to create attitude. I have no doubt that training can be valuable in giving people information on the attitude to be adopted in regard to specific clearly defined things. However, the use of training to achieve broader attitudinal change is, I think, very uncertain.

Competency Based Approaches

The terms competency and competency based approaches have become very fashionable in Commonwealth and European countries, much less so in the United States.

While we have problems with their rigid and formalised application in the vocational education and training arena, they do provide a critical building block in the training process because they provide a bridge between the definition of the need to be met one one side, the training approach to be adopted on the other.

Let's start with a very simple definition.

Competence means no more than a person has the knowledge, skills, judgement and attitude required to carry out a task or set of tasks to a required standard. So when we talk about competency based approaches we are talking about the required standard on one side, what is needed to achieve the standard on the other. Once this has been defined, then it becomes easier to identify performance gaps and to take corrective action.

In practice, the whole process can be quite hard because it may require different ways of looking at work. For example, it means putting aside activity lists - and a remarkable number of people think of a position in terms of a long list of activities that have to be carried out to do the job - to focus instead on the core features of the job. What are they, how do we measure them, what are the key inputs required for success?

Some firms have already adopted this approach. For those that haven't, getting started need not be too complex. You can look at the problem in terms of specific positions. Alternatively, you can focus on classes of activities. You won't get it right the first time. Rather, we are talking about a process that can be refined over time.

Individual vs Organisational Needs

An interesting thread in the current global debate on the future of training relevant to our current discussion is the potential conflict between individual and organisational needs. Many training and development professionals in particular argue that much training failed because it failed to meet the needs of individual participants in the training.

The real position is far more complex since, from our experience, there are three sets of needs that have to be taken into account if corporate training is to be effective:

  • theᅠneeds (objectives) of the organisation
  • the needs of the trainees' work area or areas
  • individual trainee needs.

The problem is that these needs can conflict. For example, an organisation wide program to upgrade general management or marketing skills may fail because of resistances at workplace and individual level. These conflicts need to be identified and managed as part of the overall training activity.

Of importance here is what we see as fundamental shift in developed countries in people's attitudes to work itself, a shift that has had a direct impact on individual approaches to training.
The end of life long employment together with constant corporate restructuring has forced individuals to change their attitudes to work. Whereas they were previously prepared to consider things that would aid their career within the individual organisation, people's focus has now shifted to things that will assist their career beyond the organisation.

This has had a significant impact on individual attitudes to training. People are simply less willing to do training unless there is a definable individual payback. Will it give me a marketable skill? How will it look on my CV? Will it build my network, give me new contacts? These changing attitudes need to be taken into account in the design of training activities.

Need for Realism

I suppose my starting point here has to be the need for realism. You are suddenly not going to turn all your professional staff including partners into effective on-the-job trainers. It's just not going to happen.

But you can aim to improve performance. Starting from the premise that a lot of professionals are just plain bad at the training element in jobs, a small absolute improvement may in fact represent a very large percentage increase! So how to do it?

Immediate Steps

Recognising that performance improvement takes time, I think that there are a few immediate things that you can do:

  • Start by looking at the existing skills and approaches of your more senior people. Do this along two dimensions, their existing approach to people management and development, their technical skills. From experience you are likely to find a range all the way from people who are keen on training and people management (some of these may well be hopeless at it) through to people with great professional competence but with poor people and communication skills.
  • Then look at existing staff demands for training. What does this tell you? Interestingly, my experience has been that there is a direct but inverse correlation between staff demand for training and the standard of management. That is, the worse the manager the more likely there is to be a staff demand for training!
  • Then think about where you think from a firm perspective the greatest needs are.

All this gives you a rough framework. Now at this point I would focus on those people who who have most to offer from your perspective if only you could tap and transfer their knowledge and skills more effectively. How might you do this?

This may sound paradoxical, but one simple device that I have found that works well with the highly competent but busy professional with poor people communications skills is the internal seminar on a topic of relevance to the firm and the professional.

Often these people have thought deeply about what they do at a professional level. Getting them to share some of this through short internal professional development seminars can be a very effective device. It can also build linkages between that professional and other firm members.

The second thing that I would look at is some form of structured but not necessarily formal mentoring program. Again, this has the advantage of establishing links between staff. The program needs to be structured so that those participating know clearly what is expected on both sides. At the same time, there can be real advantages in keeping it relatively informal.

With some firms, this type of program can be a way of tapping knowledge and expertise from senior people who are close to retirement or who may even have retired. This can have advantages on both sides. The senior person feels valued, the firm and the more junior staff member gains.

Integrating Appraisal Systems

In the longer term, training approaches need to be integrated with staff appraisal systems.
This is a large topic in its own right. At this stage, I would only make the point that one measure of an effective appraisal system should be its linkage with and input to the development of training approaches. If there is no linkage, I would query the value in that firm of both training and appraisal.

Performance Measurement

One common problem in professional services firms is the way in which performance measurement systems work against people management.

Yield on time is obviously critical in any professional services business. At the same time, you cannot expect people to put time into training - doing it or participating in it - if the only real perfuming measurement is billable hours. So if you are serious about training, you have to find some way of recognising it.

This finishes this shortᅠtraining primer. Comments are welcome.

Note on Copyright

The paper is copyright Ndarala 2006. However, it can be quoted, copied or reproduced with due acknowledgement. The following should be included for citation purposes. Jim Belshaw, "People Management in Professional Services, Ndarala Staff Paper, August 2006.

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