Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Thursday, August 03, 2006

People management in professional services - a training primer 3

This post completes my initial discussion on training process issues.

In my last post People management in professional services - a training primer 2 I suggested suggested that training often failed because it mixed together different things, each requiring a different training approach. I summarised those things as follows, indicating the type of training best suited to each:
  • knowledge -how & what to do
  • skills - the capacity to do
  • judgment - when to do
  • and attitude - willingness to do.

A key point I made here was that the acquisition of skills and judgment in particular required practice and that this was a core reason why so much knowledge and skills formation - more than 90 per cent - actually came from doing the job rather than formal training as such.

I then introduced the concept of competency based approaches, suggesting that they provided a critical building block in the training process by providing a bridge between the definition of the need to be met one one side, the training approach to be adopted on the other.

I also suggested that training had to meet various needs, individual as well as organisational, if it was to be successful.

I now want to focus on the on the linkages between training and work.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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 the training primer series of posts. In my next post I will continue the people management theme by looking at recruitment and induction from a people management perspective.

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