Feedback: It’s all it cracked up to be!

A lot has been said on the topic of feedback. Google will give you about 2,070,000,000 results in 0.82 seconds. There are different kinds and different definitions… my interest is in the realm of workplace performance which is defined as “the transmission of evaluative or corrective information about an action, event, or process to the original or controlling source; also :  the information so transmitted.” (Thanks Merriam-Webster)

100

I have been seeing more and more of the traffic signs that provide feedback on your actual speed popping up as of late and it has definitely affected MY behaviour every time I come into my sleepy little town. When approaching these 40 km/h zones, I now set my cruise control at 42 and breeze by the local constabulary with an ear to ear smile!

sid-roadside-speed-warning-sign-M23712On a recent visit to British Columbia, I saw more of these signs, with a little twist. Instead of just the hard data (your speed), a positive or negative reinforcing stimulus was also included in the form of a happy or sad face, similar to the image to the left.  Psychologists call this “operant conditioning” and these signs are an effective application of feedback and reinforcement. This video of my mom driving into Vancouver is a great example of the application and a successful outcome!

Reflecting on my own experience with these signs, I realized that the sign positioned by our elementary school on the north side of town, has had the desired effect while the ones on the east and west sides of town, haven’t. Initially, when the eastern and western signs went up, I complied. Now I am less likely to slow down as much as I do for the sign at the school. That got me wondering why. No kids. Less hazard??

There is (thankfully) more scientific data than a video of my mom and my own reflections. If you are so inclined, I have provided some references below (Ebrahim, Z. & Nikraz, H., 2013 and Shinar, D., 2017) that show an overall positive effect in the reduction of speeding and accidents in areas that used digital signs instead of standard signs. There are many other studies (Chhokar, 1983; Goldhacker et al., 2014; Pritchard et al., 2012; Park et al., 2011) that report the positive effects of feedback on performance.

A Transportation Alberta guideline for the placement of these signs notes that “permanent installations may lead to a proliferation of Driver Feedback Signs which could lessen the visual impact of the signs when they are needed most” and recommends that the signs be used in one location for no more than 30 days. This explains my declining compliance with some of the signs. All the signs in my town appear to be permanent and the two not situated by a school zone are losing their impact on me. I am sure this article will make it top of mind again for awhile! I suspect that the combination of the sign at the school coupled with the fact that the police are often parked on a side street contributes to me slowing down there more often.

Long story short, these signs got me thinking about feedback and how important it is in the workplace and any system. In the most basic sense, when a system output is measured, the result (positive or negative) can be fed back into the system to make adjustments as required to improve performance.

BLOCK DIAGRAM

The measurement and change aspects often become the weak spots in the system, as determining what to measure isn’t always easy and, as M.W. Shelley said in Frankenstein, “Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”

When we think about performance in the workplace, it is helpful to look at it from different perspectives. I use the four listed below (Kaufman, 2006; Addison, Haig & Kearney, 2009):

  1. World (or societal impact from organizational outputs);
  2. Workplace (the organization as a whole);
  3. Work (processes and practice level); and
  4. Worker (teams and individuals).

How we measure outputs and apply changes to the system, based on the feedback received, will obviously be different depending on the perspective, the type of output and the change(s) required.

The frequency of feedback provided will also change depending on the factors involved. In an automated system such as a thermostat connected to a furnace, the frequency is almost continuous while feedback on employee performance should definitely not be continuous.

When I started out in the military, we had an annual performance feedback session which I felt wasn’t enough. Over time that changed to quarterly, which I also felt wasn’t always enough. When I was the Chief Instructor of Acoustics, our students got feedback at least weekly and more often if they had exams or had committed some horrible sin like letting their hair get too long or putting two creases in the sleeve of their shirt! For a poor performer it could be relentless. My instructors had a feedback session on a monthly basis which seemed about right.

Chhokar (1983) notes that “more [feedback] may not always be better” and finds that “the existence of some optimum frequency of feedback (not necessarily, the most frequent)” would result in a desirable level of performance. So how do you find that sweet spot? Is it the same for every performer? Is all feedback effective feedback?

Brethower (2006) cautions that “data dumps are not feedback” and “Intelligent value-adding performance is possible only with adequate feedback; defective feedback yields defective performance, always” (pg. 126). There are lots of ideas on how often feedback is required. I can’t find a study that says “X is the optimum frequency” likely because there isn’t one.

Of course, organizations must establish a minimum to ensure that feedback is being provided. Much like trying to address every individuals learning style when designing training, creating an individualized feedback system for every employee would be impossible.

The key is (1) appropriate feedback can increase performance, (2) too much won’t have that same positive effect and (3) when you are the person providing the feedback, asking your employee how much is enough could help you find that sweet spot!

References

Addison, R., Haig, C., & Kearney, L. (2009). Performance architecture. The art and science of improving organizations. San Francisco, CA: Pfieffer

Brethower, D. M. (2006). Systemic issues. In Pershing, J.A. (Ed) Handbook of human performance technology: Principles practices potential. (pp. 111-137). San Francisco: Pfieffer.

Chhokar, J. S. “The Effect of Feedback Frequency on Performance in Applied Behavior Analysis: a Field Study.” (1983). LSU Historical Dissertations and Theses. 3920.
http://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/gradschool_disstheses/3920 

Ebrahim, Z. & Nikraz, H. (2013). Before and after studies to reduce the gap between road users and authorities. In Urban transport XIX, Volume 130 of WIT transactions on the built environment. WIT Press.

Goldhacker, M., Rosengarth, K., Plank, T., & Greenlee, M. W. (2014). The effect of feedback on performance and brain activation during perceptual learning. Vision Research, 99, 10, 99-110.

Kaufman, R. (2006). Change, Choices, and Consequences: A Guide to Mega Thinking and Planning. Amherst, MA. HRD Press Inc.

Park, J. H., Son, J. Y., Kim, S., & May, W. (2011). Effect of feedback from standardized patients on medical students’ performance and perceptions of the neurological examination. Medical Teacher, 33, 12, 1005-1010.

Pritchard, R. D. D., Weaver, S. J. J., & Ashwood, E. (2012). Evidence-Based Productivity Improvement: A Practical Guide to the Productivity Measurement and Enhancement System (ProMES). Hoboken: Taylor & Francis.

Shinar, D. (2017). Traffic safety and human behavior. Emerald Group Publishing

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Knowledge Management – or the worn path in the grass

I was walking into my current client’s building from the parking lot the other day and this path got me thinking about why everyone takes the shortcut across the grass. That got me thinking about the movie a few good men and the scene where Corporal Jeffrey Owen Barnes was cross examined by Captain Barnes… if you haven’t seen the movie or don’t recall the scene, you can watch it on YouTube.

Captain Barnes (Kevin Bacon) was trying to make a point that if something isn’t written down as policy it doesn’t exist. Lt. Daniel Kaffe (Tom Cruise) crushes the prosecution’s strategy when he asks the Corporal to show him where in the book it tells you how to get to the mess hall. I always loved that scene.

That connection made me think that knowledge management is kind of like that path and knowing where the mess hall is in ‘gitmo.” The reason this worn path exists is because parking behind the clients building is limited, but there is free parking a half block away (a rare thing in Ottawa.) Now on my first day I was there, I didn’t know about this and my client had to explain to me how to get to the free parking spot and then to the building via the worn path. It’s not written down anywhere but everyone knows – after a day or so.

As with any term these days, there are a hockey sock full of definitions. I like the one in Wikipedia because it has withstood the review of many experts.

Knowledge management (KM) is the process of creating, sharing, using and managing the knowledge and information of an organization. It refers to a multi-disciplinary approach to achieving organizational objectives by making the best use of knowledge.

Knowledge Management is relatively new having only arrived on the scene in the early 1990’s. I had the opportunity to become a certified knowledge manager back in 2010. One of the things that always stuck with me from that course was when someone asked what knowledge we should focus on creating, sharing, using and managing… the response was “if you got hit by a bus today what would the person coming in behind you need to know to do your job.”

Clearly – where the free parking is doesn’t fall into that category. But it gives you and idea where your KM requirements should start!

 

Why do we obey?

It’s Saturday night movie night and I was browsing Netflix for something stimulating popcorn-clipart-15(mentally). I stumbled across “Experimenter” a biography of Stanley Milgram. If you have done any psychology courses you probably already know of him.

If you haven’t heard of him or have ever wondered why German soldiers in WWII willingly participated in the concentration camps, why US Guards at Abu Ghraib abused prisoners or why people in your workplace will turn a blind eye to practices they know are wrong – this is a great introduction – in only 98 minutes!

There has been lots of controversy of his methods and Milgram’s work, along with a few notable others (Dr. Watson and Baby Albert, Stanford Prison Experiment by Dr Zimbardo) resulted in a much more ethical approach to experiments involving humans as time has progressed. I’ll let you decide if Milgram’s methods were unethical or not.

I would be curious to hear your thoughts on obedience in the workplace! Enjoy the movie!!

 

Needs Assessment or Needs Analysis?

Words are important. I hate to admit it – but they are. There are some folks who love to sit argueand debate from dawn until dusk about the best verb to use in a performance objective statement. I am 180 degrees opposite and want to get the verb that the majority agree on and move on! In my experience, the subject matter experts are pretty good at choosing a verb that works.

There are two terms that continue to get used interchangeably, Needs Assessment and Needs Analysis. Even worse is the fact that both can get shortened to “NA” by practitioners which can lead to even more confusion. Want to get crazy? Add in Training Needs Analysis (TNA) which is also often described as the “NA.”

If you want to find “the” explanation of NA and NA, be prepared for an arduous search through the Internet and many many texts where authors have put their own spin, tweak, massage and a coat of rust-o-leum paint on the definitions. I say “the” because there is no single definitive explanation.

While analyzing a previous client’s training system, the NA and NA terms were being used in very interesting but not necessarily accurate ways. To help clarify how the terms are related (but different) I headed to NeedsAssessment.org to do my own research. Watkins, Meiers and Visser’s (2012) FREE book A guide to assessing needs: Essential tools for collecting information, making decisions and achieving development results is an exceptional resource which helped me to develop the first version of this diagram:

na v na2
Needs Assessment vs. Analysis Concept Map

With some feedback from my colleagues John Egan and Julie Maiilé (merci mes amis), the diagram was tweaked, spun and massaged into the picture above which tells this story:

A performance problem or new opportunity starts with a Needs Assessment. When you do a Needs Assessment you will (should?) use both needs analysis and performance analysis. The results of the Needs Assessment works to improve results through the implementation of non-training and/or training interventions.

If a training intervention is required, then you will have to do a Training Needs Analysis. The TNA uses task analysis to determine what has to be trained and what doesn’t.

One of the big ah-hah’s in this client’s situation was that the Needs Assessment function resides within the training system and was being done by training specialists. How many non-training interventions do you think get recommended?

This is a very macro view of Needs Assessment aimed at making us all a little wiser about when we should use NA or NA… or maybe never use the acronym at all? If you want to learn more, go get that book! Did I mention it’s free!?

References

Watkins, R., Meiers, M.W., & Visser, Y.L. (2012). A guide to assessing needs: Essential tools for collecting information, making decisions and achieving development results. Washington, DC: The World Bank.

 

Experiential Learning Vs. Learning from Experience

We are adding a garage onto the front of our house. Being a telecommuter, and with warmer weather starting to appear off and on, I have been keeping the front door open and as such, I catch the occasional discussion going on between my good friend Phil aka Da Boss and Lanny, his trusty sidekick.

20160429_112610
Phil providing some just in time training on loading a nail gun

Last week, they were starting to close in the walls and Lanny was happily tapping away with the nail gun making that shhht-thunk noise when Phil hollered “Lanny! There’s no nails in that gun!” I wondered how Phil knew that when they were working at opposite sides of the “site.” Lanny looked puzzled because he had just loaded the gun and had no idea why the nails weren’t coming out. A quick bit of troubleshooting by Phil determined that an adjustment of the thingymajiggy had to be made because he was using longer nails. Phil showed Lanny the fine art of thingymajiggy adjustments – rapidly tapped three nails into the top plate and passed the gun back (which is when I snapped the shutter.)

That brief exchange set me off thinking about experiential learning vs on-the-job training (OJT), apprenticeships and the likes and my own preference for learning by doing. If I spent a tenth of my green fees on golf lessons and half the time I spend on a course at the driving range instead of just whacking that darn ball, I could probably break 90.

Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I will learn.
~ Benjamin Franklin

Experiential Learning has been around for a long time. Kolb (1984) proposed a four stage learning cycle, shown below. Simply put, it’s learning that is designed so that students are directly involved in the learning experience. Korth & Levya-Gardner (2006) note that while the model was designed for educators (read – in the classroom), it  has also “been applied to a variety of professional, organizational and managerial situations” (pg. 1124).  These different applications are represented by the different groups in the center of the model below.

Experiential_Learning_cycle
From Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships Knowledge Portal. http://www.mspguide.org/tool/experiential-learning-cycle

When Kolb’s theory is applied, the learner starts by (1) having a concrete experience followed by (2) observation of and reflection on that experience which leads to (3) the formation of abstract concepts (analysis) and generalizations (conclusions) which are then (4) used to test hypothesis in future situations, resulting in new experiences.

So this has been a bit of an epiphany if you like big(ger) words – or an ah-hah moment if you prefer the shorter ones. I have been misusing the term experiential learning for quite awhile. My scenario with Phil and Lanny is not an example of experiential learning. Lanny did not have the opportunity to reflect on his experience with the nail gun thingymajiggy and definitely did not conduct any analysis or arrive at any conclusions to test hypothesis in the future. I have been incorrectly attributed learning from any life experience as experiential learning. My bad!

References

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs. NJ: Prentice Hall

Korth, S. J. & Levya-Gardner (2006). Rapid reflection throughout the performance-improvement process. In Pershing, J. A. (Ed.), Handbook of Human Performance Technology (1122-1146). San Francisco: Wiley.

Where is the Performance Issue?

An old shipmate of mine shared this video on Facebook due to the “wow factor.” So after I watched it – my first thought was “boy are those two in troouubblle!” Then I caught myself. That’s my OLD thinking. Take 90 seconds and watch the video (just click the image) and then lets consider a different way of viewing the issue!

 Capturehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2jAG58dnmg

The firefighters were fortunate that the car didn’t go through the guardrail or hit something else (car, house, person) and create even more damage!

As I alluded to above, the old Navy Chief and Father in me immediately thought “what were they thinking? Why didn’t they secure the scene first??” It’s hard to re-wire your brain to approach everything in a systematic fashion, but I keep trying!

When I am being analytical (vice emotional) I generally start with Chevalier’s (2003) Updated Behavior Engineering Model in Table 1 below to consider a problem.

Without having access to the performers or their organization it is still reasonable to look at the model below and consider environmental and individual factors to start looking at. This analysis often leads to other interesting things!

As noted in Expectations of the Workforce… 75-80 percent of the factors that influence performance are environmentally rather than individually based. So that is where we start and after watching the video I wondered what the National Fire Protection Association standards say about this type of situation. Given the extensive list of NFPA standards, I think I would need some help from a subject matter expert to narrow it down! That covers the Environment: Information column.

If there is a standard, next up is to check and see if it has been translated into the fire department’s procedures and there are directions to the firefighters to secure a burning vehicle before putting out the fire. Let’s assume that so far we are all good and the standards and procedures are in place.

BEM

Table 1: The Updated BEM (Chevalier, 2003). Reprinted with Permission

Now I would be asking to see the truck and have one of the firefighters show me where the equipment is that could be used to secure that car. There should be a few different options. Two that spring to mind are steel chocks or a steel cable with a “come-along” that could be attached to the truck and the car. Maybe attaching a burning car to a fire truck is bad juju… I’m not sure – but the experts would be quick to tell me if I am thinking crazy!

That takes care of the Environment: Resources column. If we are still ticking the YES Box at this point and have discovered nothing else in the workers environment, it is time to start looking at the firefighters.

The first place to look is at the training program. If the training program has the required procedure included, then we want to see if the firefighters on scene actually received that training. That is the Individual: Knowledge/Skills column. Really – this is still an organizational factor as it is up to the organization to provide the training and assign qualified people to work in certain positions. If this is all still correct – it might be time for someone to put the “Chief” hat on and kick some heiny!

Okay – not really. It has also been proven that generally – heiny kicking isn’t helpful. At this point we need to look at the capacity and motives of the individuals involved.

It is more than likely (75-80% chance?) that there is an information or resource issue at the root of this video. Rectifying that would probably lead to some changes to standards, policies, procedures, equipment fit on the trucks and maybe even some training.

Learning Organizations have a process for capturing these types of scenarios so that they don’t happen again… sounds like a great topic for down the road!

References

Chevalier, R. (2003). Updating the behavior engineering model. Performance Improvement, 42(5). Silver Spring, MD: International Society for Performance Improvement.

A Rusty Navy

Headache-photo-259x300Note – I started writing this two weeks before the Government tabled it’s new budget and the story has continued to evolve…

One of the courses I have taught at Boise State’s Organizational Performance and Workplace Learning Program is Thinking in Systems. Looking at the world with a systems perspective gives me a migraine sometimes. Other times I want to poke my head in the sand because systems are messy. Yet other times I get fired up and want to figure out why a certain system is functioning (or not) they way it is intended to.

I came across this article “A conversation with the commander of the navy” about ten days before the Liberal Government announced it’s budget. I have been pondering Vice-Admiral Norman’s comments on procurement, particularly as I have sailed on three classes of Canadian Warships that were purchased (time for fun with my thesaurus… appropriated, wrangled, secured, prevailed upon) at three different times in the history of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN). Since retiring from the Navy, working from the inside of the military industrial complex gives me a new perspective on the procurement system too!

In the article, Admiral Norman said “I think in terms of the relative priority of the big-ticket items, that’s a tough space and ultimately the armed forces recommends large or major capital programs to government based on how we interpret the equipment needs to deliver on what it is we think government wants us to do.” (My emphasis)

The orange text is what really caught my eye and it had me reflecting back on an excellent movie from 1998 called The Pentagon Wars, starring Kelsey Grammer. If you haven’t seen it, Matthew Gault provides a great synopsis of the movie, a story of scope creep of magnificent proportions. The ability of personalities to influence major decisions (procurement in this case) regardless of facts and common sense is something that has always astounded me.

So what does this all have to do with performance improvement? Based on the ISPI HPT Model one of the first things we check is the organization vision mission and values. What is it that the Government of Canada wants the Canadian Forces and then the Navy to do? Well, that is spelled out in the Canada First Defence Strategy which was published in 2008 (Berthiaume, 2015) Check! But wait…

“Defence officials quietly declared [the Canada First Defence Strategy] unaffordable in 2011, only three years into what was supposed to be a 20-year run. Troublesome procurement projects have also largely hollowed it out, with plans to purchase new planes and other equipment postponed or cancelled” (Berthiaume, 2015).

So it would appear while there was a plan and some goals, the “gizintas” (you know.. 2 gzinta 4 two times) weren’t done very well. The mission goals are now eight years old and in desperate need of a refresh.

Another contributing factor might be that the Canadian Forces isn’t the master of it’s own destiny when it comes to buying stuff. Well, not exactly true.. if they are buying pens, or toilet paper they are masters. Ships? Forget about it. Enter Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC). If the military wants to buy anything over a certain dollar figure (depending on if it is a good or a service being purchased and what the current rules are) they have to go through PWGSC. It gets worse of course as the $$$ figure goes up.

Prior to the release of the budget, this article from the Globe shows how complicated “financial planning” for purchasing big ticket items is. The long lead times in planning and procurement enmeshed with the lightning fast changes in technology and shifting political landscape inside and outside of the military make it very chaotic.

Now that the budget is out Global and CTV reported that the government will “delay $3.7 billion in planned defence purchases – ships, planes and vehicles – indefinitely.” There was quite an uproar within my circle of friends that are retired and/or still in the military.

What got my attention in the CTV article was Morneau’s comment that the Liberals need a year to figure out Canada’s defence priorities. If we consider that the Canada First Defence Strategy is in need of review, wouldn’t it make sense to take a deep breath – pause – and craft a new plan before finalizing plans for major equipment?

 

Admiral Norman said in his article “We have a structure today that we have inherited over time. More by default than by design. That structure allows us to do a whole bunch of really important things…We can change that structure if need be, but we need to know what we’re changing it for.”

It sounds to me like the Government might be doing just that

References

Berthiaume, L. (2015). No new defence strategy, four years after original declared unaffordable. Ottawa Citizen.

Learning Anytime Anywhere

ADHDA while back I said that my next musings would be around Dr. Tom Gilbert and the Behaviour Engineering Model (B.E.M). but I keep running into other things that catch my attention! I will  tie the BEM into the story at the end.

Last weekend we hosted a friend of my daughter’s who recently arrived at CFB Kingston to start his training as an Intelligence Operator (INT OP) in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). One of my first two projects as a Training Development Officer (TDO) was to convert the first forty hours of training for this course from Face-to-Face (F2F) to self-directed online learning. That was ten years ago… wow time flies!

2006 was “the year of the social network” (R. Macnus, 2006). Phones were getting smarter and the 3G network was here! Important to the CAF was the increased stability of its Learning Management System (LMS) “DNDLearn” which at the time was provided by Desire2Learn or D2L. Since then, the CAF has moved onto SABA and D2L created Brightspace. My point here is that with respect to Distance Learning (DL), the CAF was really at the beginning of a major shift when I was assigned the project.

When I took over the DL project, the school had already thought through a lot of the logistics and access issues. There was real (valid) concern that the learners might not have a computer, reliable Internet access or the support of their supervisors to commit the time required to complete the DL portion of the training. To address these issues, laptops, headsets and hard shipping cases were purchased to send to each student so everyone started at the same level with respect to technology. An instructor was available every day to support the learners. Learning contracts were developed that the instructor, the learner and the learner’s supervisor at the “home unit” had to sign.

This learning contract is really key to the story. The CAF is – understanding its culture – pretty particular about where it’s people are and what they are doing. The more junior you are, the more this applies! The staff at CFSMI were not about to let these new INT OPs run willy nilly all over the country unsupervised while they did this training! The instructional staff and I had some passionate debates about learner centricity and giving the learner responsibility. A tall order for an organization that is so control oriented.

Fast forward to last weekend. Matt and I were talking about his upcoming training and given my history with the initial attempt, I was naturally curious about what had changed! I wasn’t disappointed. The DL curriculum has expanded from 40 to 72 hours (9 training days) which is a pretty solid demonstration of success, but the change that really got me was that Matt has already headed back to Victoria while he completes his DL phase of training. The Chief Instructor’s directions were (in Matt’s words) “I don’t care where you do it, as long as you get it done on time and you don’t get hurt.” Quite a different contract from 2006.

Of course, logistics and access have changed quite a bit in the past ten years and the Defence Learning Network (DLN) has matured. More importantly, connectivity is not the issue it was and we are almost all connected. Internet access by individuals jumped from 67.9% in 2005 to 80.3% in 2009 (Statistics Canada, 2010). I couldn’t find more recent stats, but I think it is safe to say that access has surpassed 2009 levels and mobile technology keeps getting better.

So how does this story about learning relate to workplace performance? As  noted in Expectations of the Workforce, there is a consensus amongst  research and experts in the field of performance improvement that around 75-80 percent of the factors that influence performance are environmentally rather than individually based. The top row of Chevalier’s Improved Behaviour Engineering Model in Table 1 below helps focus the analyst’s attention here first.

 

BEM

Table 1: Updated BEM (Chevalier, 2003). Reprinted with permission.

The expectations “I don’t care where you do it, as long as you get it done on time and you don’t get hurt” are pretty clear! The maturity of the DNDLearn system ensures that guides, materials and tools are in place and support performance. The biggest change to me in this environment is the level of trust displayed by the leadership in allowing young Matt to really learn anywhere anytime, within the allotted timeframe of course. A truly incentivized environment!

My hat is off to the School of Military Intelligence and I trust Matt is enjoying being at home with friends and family while taking this first step in his journey to becoming an Intelligence Operator.

References

Macnus, R. (2006). 2006 Web Technology Trends. readwrite. Retrieved from http://readwrite.com/2006/12/11/2006_web_technology_trends, 09 Mar 2016.

Statistics Canada (2010). Internet use by individuals, by location of access, by province. Retrieved from http://www.statcan.gc.ca/tables-tableaux/sum-som/l01/cst01/comm36a-eng.htm 09 Mar 2016.

Chevalier, R. (2003). Updating the Behavior Engineering Model, Performance Improvement, 42(4), 8-13. Retrieved from www.aboutiwp.com

Those Darn Job Descriptions

Job DescIn my last entry “What do you really want me to do!?” the focus was on how a job description is used to inform the employee about the manager or organization’s expectations. After reading that post, a colleague of my loverly wife, I will call him Mr. J. Hunter, shared a recent experience where the job description was being used for recruitment and selection purposes. Same tool, different application.

So… have you ever read a job description in a job posting and thought “What is this job – really!?” Mr. J. Hunter works in the IT industry and he’s a pretty sharp guy with loads of experience working in the upper levels of the field. His experience in this situation raised some potential things to consider in writing job descriptions for a job offering.

If you are only going to offer the first level in a salary range, why dangle the upper end of range? I had the same experience with a local University. The salary range was (let’s say) $65-$70K and seemed like a bargaining point until we all sat down. The HR folks said there were Union rules and the likes that would necessitate starting at the bottom and in 5 years I could be at the top range. That was some bad juju for both Mr. J. Hunter and I.

Make sure the the tasks you are describing are aligned with the level of the job. In Mr. J. Hunter’s case, the job was a “first level support technician.” However! The employer wanted this first level techie to also:

  • Ensure data integrity through backups for client data (daily and weekly) and monthly verification of the backup media integrity; 
  • Maintain daily virus detection and inoculation procedures on the network; and
  • Provide computer consulting services to clients on a project or enquire basis according to IT standards and procedures.

Mr. J. Hunter pointed out some serious questions he had about the above wording, specifically the bold words, which made me think back on some job descriptions I have read (or maybe wrote – oh my goodness).

Backup media integrity relates to Business continuity/Disaster recovery planning which is way beyond 1st level support. Client or Desktop Support is related to personal computers while network support has to do with servers, switches, routers etc and belongs in a different job description all together.

The last point on consulting services, projects and standards is very vague and the questions raised by the previous two points compound the uncertainty. Would the consulting services and projects be related to PCs or networks? What are the size and scope chickenof the projects? Finally, the standards and procedures could be better explained. Are they the standards of the organization? Provincial? National? International?

Now – this last point, “other duties as required,” was also in the description and I am definitely guilty of using this. It seems to be a pretty common add on at the end of many job descriptions.  Doug Savage calls it “the slavery clause,” Mr. J. Hunter called it “the big catch all for doing other people’s jobs” while on further reflection, it appears to me as an easy way to cover one’s backside in case you forget to include a task.

In Mentors, Managers and Metrics we looked at the need for alignment between organizational goals, metrics and the expectations of your workforce – which was the spark that started this whole train of thought. Mr. J. Hunter’s situation shows us another place where alignment is key! The tasks in the job description must be aligned to the correct job level in order to ensure that the correct pay and benefits are being offered for the work being done. This misalignment is what ultimately convinced Mr. J. Hunter not to proceed further with the application. I don’t blame him!

Get to know the job intimately that you’re applying for. Don’t just read the job description – study it and picture yourself performing every task required of you. When you interview, framing your responses so that you reveal your significant knowledge about the job gives you a massive advantage
~Travis Bradberry

Clearly, Mr. J. Hunter was applying the advice of Travis Bradberry above and really thought about the job he was applying for. Another expert whose wisdom I cherish is Dr. Allison Rossett who shared an article today that relates to this topic… “The gig economy: Distraction or Disruption.” The authors ask “How can a business manage talent effectively when many, or even most, of its people are not actually its employees? Networks of people who work without any formal employment agreement—as well as the growing use of machines as talent—are reshaping the talent management equation.”

That has me wondering how relevant job descriptions will be at all in another ten years. Food for thought! Speaking of food… it’s supper time! Later ‘gater!

 

 

Expectations of the Workforce…

Expectations of the Workforce or “What do you really want me to do!?”

Have you ever started a new job or moved into a new position and thought “I don’t have a clue what I am supposed to be doing!?” How about the frazzled manager who gets the new hire and says “Here’s your desk… don’t worry – you’ll pick it up as you go.”

More than once in my career I have been transferred into a position where my “job Capture
description” consisted of a file folder full of printed e-mails, post-it notes and hand scratches on the back of a beer coaster. Frustrating when there are Human Resource (HR) policies and procedures that clearly outline requirements for job descriptions and performance reviews leading up to the annual performance assessment.

After becoming exposed to Performance Improvement and understanding the importance of the job description for setting expectations and the performance reviews as a feedback loop – in each successive position where I wasn’t provided a job description – I wrote my own – and presented it to my supervisor and asked “Is that what you want me to do?” It worked as a way to at least start a dialogue about expectations.

Feedback is the breakfast of champions.
~Ken Blanchard

In my most recent position where I had to manage others, I had one fella who had been bounced from job to job in the unit and didn’t seem to be getting a fair shake. When I took up the job, we sat down and reviewed my first attempt at his job description and made some tweaks, added some of his professional aspirations and away we went. We sat down twice in the year reviewing his progress, as well as at other intervals when more immediate feedback was needed. At the end of the year, I was able to base his performance assessment on all this and substantiate his higher than average rating amongst his peers. Easy when you use the system as it was designed.

A lot of people seemed to have “written off” this young man as needing too much care and supervision. I wondered – as we often do in our field – is it the performer or the work environment (which is the responsibility of management)?

Back in 2012, Guy Wallace (another one of my mentors and friends) and I wrote an article for eLearn Magazine that attempted to answer the question:

Where did the statement “80% of performance gaps are caused by other than Knowledge/skill deficits” come from?

To make a long story short, there was a consensus amongst the research and experts in the field that around 75-80 percent of the factors that influence performance are environmentally rather than individually based.

Now there are many (many many) environmental factors that can negatively impact performance. Some we can influence, some we can’t. In this case, simply setting clear expectations and providing regular feedback to show him how he was progressing created a real turn around.

One of the foundational models in Performance Improvement is Tom Gilbert’s Behaviour Engineering Model. Gilbert helps us see performance from both environmental and individual perspectives. A good topic to delve into next…