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The Practice Trick: Sustaining Talent Management Programs

Rich Cober
Marriott International
One of the great challenges facing many in the practitioner community is perhaps the least flashy side of our business, that is, the sustainability of the products and programs we build. There is a rush to the cadence of project work that draws many people to both external and internal consulting jobs. I must admit to enjoying that rush. From tackling the challenges that come from realizing one’s requirements for a system cannot quite play out exactly as intended to determining how best to proceed without sacrificing time and the quality of the ultimate deliverable, the talent management projects we get to manage and participate in as I-O psychologists can be quite the good time.
Tracy Kantrowitz and Craig Dawson wrote in our last column about the adoption of technology across the products and processes that I-Os get involved in within organizations. From their “intersection,” my thoughts jump to how we live with and support the ongoing success of the programs and products that we rely so heavily on technology to deliver. One of my key lessons in practice has been that our projects really only start once they are delivered. Yet, a chronic problem I find we face in organizational life is anticipating the challenges of sustainability, the resources needed to support “business as usual,” and determining the appropriate cadence for upgrades or revisiting more fundamental course correction.
The Challenges of Sustainability
“It takes a village” to keep talent management systems running. Whether the work involves the collaboration of multiple centers of expertise (COEs) within an HR department or coordination with vendors and outsource providers, clarity of roles is critical for surviving the transition between project launch and business-as-usual mode. The problem often is the amount of time, attention, and focus that project teams spend in the period before a launch is on activities directly supporting getting a product out the door, whether that time is spent in user acceptance testing (UAT), making final tweaks to the product, articulating processes for use of the product, or finalizing training and communications to support the changes being introduced. Many project plans may include a change management section, others may even directly include “business process” mapping as part of design (a great practice). What is critical for success in major product launches is that teams get real about the ongoing maintenance required to keep systems operating effectively and what resources will be available from the time of launch to support end users.
The dark side of most project launches is that the flash and dash of the launch is often accompanied by the dregs of unintended technology glitches, data issues, or just the susceptibility of user populations being let loose on a system for the first time. Anticipating that dark period after launch, which could be days, weeks, or even months depending on the volume and frequency of end-user use, is critical for maintaining the positive perceptions and momentum of a new product or program. The key to success is proactive planning for the challenges that lay ahead. It is critical to anticipate the need for greater levels of user support, follow-up training and communications, and forums to collect user feedback that can be used to inform future product strategy or the development of short-term support mechanisms.
Depending on the talent management system you are launching, there may be some areas that you can anticipate providing more support through a launch period. For example, when implementing selection tools, being ready to answer questions that clarify the intent to use in hiring decisions, providing insight into the business case and validity of the use of the tool or tools, and providing insight into what and why you are measuring certain knowledge, skills, abilities, and other things with the tools represent big postlaunch ticket items. In the area of engagement surveys, questions tend to focus less on the survey itself and more on use of reporting systems that provide feedback to managers and the organization, enable action plans to be developed, and help users to determine the right levers to press when tying to increase engagement. If launching performance management tools, the questions may vary from basic user questions to navigate a system for setting goals and evaluating performance to how to leverage the performance management process to better promote development planning. Again, depending on the product and suite of tools you are providing, the user questions may be more system focused or more process focused. 
Business as Usual Actually Does Exist
Business as usual (BAU) represents, from my perspective, the period where we allow our products to have some run time. Because of this, a classic mistake is to underestimate the level of effort required to support BAU processes, as the consideration of how to spread resources may be somewhat more biased toward the action-oriented, project, and initiative needs of the organization. However, successful tools are ones where BAU represents true institutionalization of practice and improvement over time in the way the organization uses the tools. Some keys to BAU success include:
  1. Having a strategy for training associated with turnover and growth in your organization. As people leave or your organization grows, the user population for a hiring process, performance management system, or engagement survey is going to be affected. Too often the focus on getting users up to speed with a tool is associated with the launch of a system. Metrics and scorecards focus on getting saturation of knowledge highest in the period before a launch. Don’t sleep on the needs for the future to ensure that new incumbents to jobs and the organization understand what they are supposed to use, how to use it, and when to use it. This is where linking the implications of projects to onboarding processes is a critical indicator of long term success.
  2. Understanding your measurement and reporting strategy. In many organizations, there is more intent and great focus on measurement, particularly on capturing, using, and communicating HR measures. During most project lifecycles, a good amount of focus is on defining measures for success and creating a program evaluation approach for evaluating the impact of the project. Projects that effectively consider BAU are those that anticipate the transition from launch to normal practice and the implications for shifting from a program evaluation strategy that requires measurement definition and analytics to a reporting approach that requires systematic measurement, monitoring, and course correction. 
  3. Budgeting effectively for long term success. As noted earlier, a classic underestimation made by many organizations is the level of resource required to continue to support the collection of processes and tools they have. At any given time, there are likely projects that focus on continuous improvement in some area. The allure of those projects, built from fresh ideas and promising improvements over key pain points, is that they take resources from BAU processes and tools and potentially exacerbate issues associated with user error, technology glitches, lack of training, or ambiguity of process because the resources are simply not there to help. Making sure that a core team is appropriately allocated to support processes, which may include resources from across the HR discipline (e.g., communications, change management, talent management, business process and technology), will ensure that the appropriate level of support exists to keep current tools supporting the business at optimal levels. 
To Upgrade or Not
Every year the companies in our industry are coming out with new products, assessment types, assessment formats, measurement systems, and other gizmos. One of the key competencies for a consultant is to understand what a business needs and translate the offerings and technology available to meet the need. This goes for the introduction of automation and new tools to a business environment, as well as for making decisions regarding when it is time to upgrade processes and tools to meet the demands of the business.
When considering the upgrade question, there are some key considerations:
  • Cost–benefit tradeoff. Perhaps the most obvious, but for any given effort to move an organization forward there will be resources required both internal and external to the organization, as well as other costs such as licensing, that should factor into decisions. Making a good business case is something that one must hone in practice, and it is critical for being able to both determine and justify the need for work designed to improve organizational processes and tools.
  • Transformational business change. There are times when a business shifts focus to become more competitive or to adapt to changing regulatory or market requirements. Globalization requires consideration of translation and cultural use of our products and tools. The regulatory environment often requires close evaluation of the way we track the usage and results of business decisions associated with our tools. The economic climate may demand a change in the way a company uses its resources. Keeping an eye for transformational change and being able to anticipate its impact is both a critical skill for success and one that helps govern decisions regarding the evolution of processes and tools. 
  • Timing and impact of change. Some changes are big and require full-blown change management interventions. Others are more evolutionary and can basically be “snuck in” to the existing flow of work. Taking care to pick the moments for big change and adequately being able to understand what can represent such a change and resources required to make it represents the final consideration I want to touch on here. In my experience, no change ends up being as “small” as one would think going into it. Maintaining a realistic lens on what you want to accomplish, how to accomplish it, and the real impact from an end-user standpoint is critical for making the decision to introduce new processes and tools to an organization.
The science and technology that affects the ability for I-Os to deliver value to organizations has never been stronger. Our last column hit on the need to fully understand and harness this power to make businesses stronger. From my perspective, strength is not just in the features we provide but in the staying power of our processes and tools. Maintaining a realistic focus on that staying power is critical for driving longer term value and ultimately impacting the way organizations perceive HR and the work of IO that inherently plays a large part in the delivery of HR.
Practice Committee Updates
The SIOP Research Access service, which includes the EBSCO research database and the Learning Center, is live and accessible for SIOP members at a cost that can’t be beat. As you renew your membership for next year, remember that you can include this feature of membership at a bargain price.
Speed mentoring will once again be featured at this year’s SIOP conference. Samantha Ritchie and Mark Poteet have led this event for the past few SIOPs, and it seems to get better by the year. During this event, session practitioners (i.e., proteges) will have the opportunity to take part in two separate 25-minute roundtable discussions with one or two of the mentors on predetermined topics of interest. Topics from past events have included making career transitions, legal and ethical challenges in I-O practice, using data to influence organizational decisions, and global application of I-O psychology. This event is a terrific opportunity for practitioners to seek guidance, knowledge, and wisdom from mentors who have “been there and done that.” Look for more information to come soon through SIOP News, the website, and other program-related communications!
In 2011 we successfully published two articles as part of our partnership with SHRM. We are looking for authors who would like to expose their thinking and work to the broader HR and I-O communities and get involved in what we think can be a powerful collaboration between the SHRM and SIOP organizations. There will be a featured session at this year’s conference to talk about the partnership, what we are looking for from author participation, and how you can get more involved. Topics that we are looking to feature in the collaboration this year include:
  • Managing health care and broader benefits costs; 
  • Designing and delivering leadership development programs; 
  • Maintaining a highly engaged performance culture; 
  • Managing change and communications with different types of employees; and
  • Making performance management work, both for in-person and virtual managers.
We would be happy to field offers on other topics as well. Papers for this collaboration should be pretty short, focus on practitioner issues, leverage the science that we know and understand appropriately, and contain recommendations for action. Don’t miss taking advantage of this great opportunity to build your own visibility with a national and international audience.