How to create the specialized workforce skills that transform Going deep

This article originally appeared
in the May 2008 issue of
The journal of
high-performance business
Talent & Organization Performance
Going deep
How to create the specialized
workforce skills that transform
talent into high performance
By Donald B. Vanthournout and Maeve Lucas
If a company is to leverage its workforce to create a distinct
competitive advantage, it must develop a strategic talentmanagement function that can advance its employees faster
and more reliably along a clearly defined path.
Around the world, senior executives in every
industry are hearing strong and consistent messages about workforce talent as a key to achieving and sustaining high performance. But what
happens when those who take the talent message to heart decide to do something about it?
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Their first stop will be their HR and learning
organizations—where they are likely to discover
a painful contradiction.
a company’s competitive position will probably come from employees with deeper and
more specialized skills, a large percentage of
enterprise learning investments are, in fact,
often directed at providing training to those
just learning a new skill or job. Imagine an
architecture firm looking to reinvent an
urban landscape but investing only in its
apprenticeship program, and you have some
idea of the problem.
Although the game-changing innovations and
transformational initiatives that can redefine
If a company is to transform its talent into
a distinctive capability—something identified
by Accenture’s ongoing research as a
building block of high performance—
it must create a strategic talent management function that can advance
its employees faster and more reliably
along a clearly defined path—from
novice-level capabilities to more
advanced levels characterized by
deeper and more specialized expertise.
have altered the relevance and applicability of the information we retain
to the work we actually perform. One
study, for example, found that 20
years ago, about 75 percent of the
knowledge needed to perform a
typical job was stored in the worker’s
mind; today, that number is less than
10 percent.
Precisely what is deep specialization?
The definition will vary according to
the job being performed or the domain
being learned. In a sales force, deep
specialization might mean the ability
to understand a customer’s industry
thoroughly enough to recommend
suites of solutions rather than just a
list of products. For a pharmaceutical
R&D function, it might mean conceiving and executing a new course of
research rather than simply performing
steps directed by another researcher.
According to another study, less than
30 percent of workplace performance
is knowledge- or skill-related—that
is, the result of applying identifiable
lessons from a formal learning experience to an actual job goal.
But regardless of its specific meaning
in terms of a particular skill domain
or job, the broader, more strategic
reason for developing specialized
skills is to create workforces more
prepared to innovate, to open new
markets, to find new ways to serve
customers better or more efficiently.
For that to happen, however, companies must bring more structure and
rigor to bear on a host of activities—
from mentoring to on-the-job experience to collaboration—that take
the organization and its people well
beyond the boundaries of traditional,
formal training.
Does all this mean your company is
currently not investing in the kinds
of training needed to transform your
most important workforces into a
distinctive talent capability?
Investments versus impact
Understanding the current disconnect
between workforce investments and
the practices that actually result in
better business performance requires
a bit of background on how the typical work environment has changed
during the past few decades. It’s also
useful to review what we know about
workforce enablers that have an
impact on performance.
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Recent research suggests that the
demands of the knowledge economy
The other approximately 70 percent
is influenced by informal learning
and by other factors in a worker’s
environment—feedback, coaching,
leadership, incentives, clear work
objectives and processes, and so forth.
Chances are it does. About 80 percent of a typical company’s people
development budget is indeed spent
on formal learning, and only 20 percent on the informal learning and
support environment that has been
shown to have greater impact on
workforce and, by extension, company performance.
Advancing toward more specialized
skills and capabilities is not the same
thing as advancing up the career
ladder. More typically, employees’
skills grow and become increasingly
specialized at one level of their careers;
when they take the next step up the
ladder, however, they may become
beginners again. Experienced workers
on an auto assembly line may become
highly adept at a specific task, but
when they get promoted to a supervisory position, suddenly they’re novices
at a new critical skill: managing
groups of employees.
The path to deep specialization
To attain specialization, workers would normally pass through five levels of development. But
the typical company’s workforce enablement budget is spent on getting employees only to Level 2.
Behavioral characteristics
Level 5
• Operates at a level of knowledge and expertise that is unique or rare in the company and/or the industry
• Creates new approaches, improves processes and seeks out new business opportunities
Level 4
• Has mastered knowledge and processes of a domain
• Is effective in complex situations and capable of innovation
• Has a broad perspective and can mentor those at lower levels
Level 3
• Initiates work and seeks input only when needed
• Requires minimal guidance and coaching
• Solves routine problems or issues that deviate from established processes
Level 2
• Can follow an established process
• Works inefficiently and with limited flexibility
• Requires frequent oversight and guidance
Level 1
• Needs help initiating work steps
• Mistakes are common, and frequent guidance is required
Source: Accenture analysis
The path to specialization
The path to deep specialization can
be defined in general terms, however.
Consider the chart on the opposite
page, which shows the developmental
path taken by a person who begins
a new job, takes on a new role or
learns a new work domain.
At the first, or “novice,” level, workers
begin from a position of minimal
understanding of what their performance goals are and how they are
supposed to reach those goals. Mistakes are common. Through a combination of training and practice, they
rise to the second, or “proficient,”
level. Now they understand what
they are doing and, for the most part,
why, but they still often perform
inefficiently. They require a great
deal of oversight, and generally must
follow a carefully prescribed path to
accomplish their work.
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Workers who reach the third, or
“independent,” level clear a hurdle that
means a great deal to their personal
productivity and the productivity of
their organizations: They can work
independently much more of the time.
They have a good sense of the “landscape” of their jobs, see the various
destinations that are a part of their
performance, and only occasionally
need the guidance of a supervisor to
reach those destinations.
When employees attain the higher
levels—“advanced” and then a stage
where they can truly be considered
“expert”—they are no longer simply
following set paths. They are also
occasionally reinventing those paths—
creating ideas for new products and
services; devising business strategies
with the potential to redefine their
industry; coming up with new ways
of serving customers, new markets,
new customer bases; and so forth.
At the very highest level, these experts
may have truly unique specialized
skills and a reputation—inside and/or
outside the organization—as deeply
knowledgeable practitioners and
To be sure, not every person is
going to advance inexorably upward
in this manner. Workers may lose
interest in a particular area or job,
or they may not have the ability to
learn the skill or perform at advanced
levels. (Applied to career advancement,
this is where the famous Peter Principle—the tendency of organizations
to promote people to their level of
incompetence—comes into play.)
Advancing toward
more specialized skills
and capabilities is
not the same thing
as advancing up the
career ladder.
It is nonetheless critical to make the
right kinds of enablers available to
employees so that those with the
interest in and innate capacity for a
particular skill have the best chance
possible to advance and succeed—
and so that the company as a whole
develops people with deeper skills
and, by doing so, gains a competitive advantage.
Again, most organizations are not
investing properly in those enablers.
In fact, significant percentages of
a typical company’s workforce
enablement budget are being spent
to get people only to a level of proficiency (Level 2). The enablers—all
the classroom and online learning,
the practice, the availability of
knowledge assets—get people only to
the point at which, most of the time
and given enough attention from
a supervisor, they can perform most
of their tasks correctly. That is not
a blueprint for creating a distinctive
talent capability that sustains high
The limitations of traditional learning often come as a shock to line
managers looking for a training
solution to their workforce performance challenges.
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Mary Jo Burfeind, who leads learning and development for the Subscriber Services Division of Health
Care Service Corporation, notes that
the company’s managers sometimes
expect that when their employees
come out of formal learning programs, they will be self-sufficient
and capable of independent problem
“But that is rarely the case,” says
Burfeind. “The training that our
claims and customer service people
receive, for example, is really about
getting them to a level of basic proficiency.” After that point, moving
those same employees to a level
where they are acting independently
or even coaching others requires
them to be continuously learning on
the job—getting guidance, learning
from their experiences and talking
to their peers.
Learning organizations may struggle
to figure out how to provide the
enablers for deeper specialization,
given the constraints under which
they operate. Continues Burfeind:
“As employees grow and develop,
and as their jobs become more
complex, it really is as if they’ve
graduated. We don’t see them again
except on occasion. The learning
organization is less actively involved
in their development.”
However, as Burfeind says, “It’s
really during those years when
a degree of directed development
activity could have the most effect
on their individual performance,
and on the impact they make on
the company. So we’re working to
take advantage of that dynamic by
planning more targeted learning
activities for incumbents.”
A fuller suite of enablers
The development of a distinctive
talent capability depends on two
things. First, management must
understand the different kinds of
learning opportunities that can
help workers attain deeper levels
of specialization. Second, the company must apply the same kind of
organizational and process rigor
to those opportunities as they are
accustomed to applying to their
formal training programs.
A specialization roadmap
Such a roadmap plots the progression of an employee from novice to expert in the context
of the actual programs and activities within each of the three categories of specialized learning.
Formal learning
Guided experience
Level 5
• Teach classes and identify needs
for new learning assets
• Pursue executive education courses
• Sponsor a community of practice
• Participate in an external industry
association or executive forum
• Increase personal capability by
serving as the go-to person in the
relevant subject area
• Mentor others, especially advancedlevel employees
Level 4
• Serve as a subject-matter expert
for development projects
• Volunteer to teach courses
• Host a blog or contribute to a
community of practice
• Provide guidance as a team leader
• Volunteer to be a mentor, both
formally and informally
• Spend time interacting with
employees on the front lines,
observing and sharing experiences
Level 3
• Enroll in advanced training for
this content area
• Teach colleagues informally
(brown-bag discussions, etc.)
• Contribute to a corporate
knowledge base
• Actively share experiences
with peers during the course of
performing work
• Contribute to discussions within
a community of practice
• Actively pursue a relationship with
a mentor and coach
• Work with a supervisor to pursue
stretch activities and roles to expand
basic competency
Level 2
• Enroll in beyond-the-basics
training programs
• Access relevant knowledge sources,
tools and methods
• Closely observe others while
collaborating to perform tasks
• Actively ask questions of others
• Seek assignments and project roles
to become more familiar with basic
work processes and tasks
• Seek guidance from more experienced
peers to improve the ability to address
new challenges
Level 1
• Enroll in basic-level training
• Review relevant knowledge sources
• Share experiences with other novices
• Seek out experiences of others
• Ask a coach or supervisor for
guidance on specific tasks
• Adopt the mindset that mistakes
are part of the learning experience;
apply lessons to the job
Helping myself grow
by helping others grow
Advancing my
knowledge and
basic capabilities
Source: Accenture analysis
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The full suite of enablers to advance
workers toward deep specialization
includes programs in three basic
advanced or expert status in a
particular area, companies must
also create programs in the following two areas.
1. Formal learning. This includes
traditional training programs in
a classroom or via e-learning, as
well as access to reference information and knowledge. Recall,
however, that today, such formal
learning really only supports less
than 30 percent of the performance requirements of a typical
knowledge worker’s job. To move
workers beyond proficiency to
2. Guided experience. Experience
is the best teacher, but simply
throwing workers into an experience without guidance or structure
is not an efficient way to proceed.
By analogy, flailing away at the
ball for several hours a day is
one way to “experience” playing
tennis, but one can achieve higher
levels of performance more rapidly
by working with a coach.
So organizations must put in place
the processes by which workers can
mine the lessons of actual on-thejob experience, and then use those
learning experiences to improve
subsequent performance of similar
tasks. Another essential part of onthe-job experience is the feedback
and guidance (both reinforcing and
corrective) a worker receives from
a coach and/or mentor.
Other ways of formalizing the
experiential dimension of learning
include actual apprenticeships,
which link formal learning to
experience in a phased development process. (For a related article,
see “Turning experience into leadership,” Outlook, January 2008.)
3. Collaboration. The value of collaboration is about more than simply
accomplishing a common task.
“Co-laborers” are also “co-learners.”
Individuals learn in real time as
they observe others successfully
accomplishing a task. They also
learn as they share with one
another how they met a particular
performance challenge. Creating
the “whole that is greater than
the sum of the parts” through
collaboration is part of developing
a distinctive talent capability.
Jim Demme is the program manager
for the Learning Center at Grainger,
a leading distributor of facilities and
maintenance supplies. He notes that
this combination of formal training
with other, experiential learning
opportunities is important because
it more faithfully reflects the real
work environment. In Grainger’s
case, such a combination of enablers
helps sales and service employees
develop more specialized capabilities.
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Says Demme, “We can sit our people
down in a classroom, but until they
actually go on-site to a customer’s
location and implement one of our
solutions, it’s all theoretical to them.
They have to experience it.”
That’s why Demme and his learning
colleagues try to be as direct as they
can about the on-the-job experiences
and guidance they need on top of
the formal training. Only with those
experiences, he points out, “will they
ever be able to say, ‘Now I understand the steps in solving not just
this one problem but any similar
type of problem.’ And that’s when
we can say they’ve achieved the kind
of independent and advanced performance status we need from them so
they can better serve our customers.”
Several activities and strategies are
crucial to being more purposeful and
deliberate about moving employees
forward on the path to advanced or
expert status—and, in so doing, creating a distinctive talent capability.
Create a specialization
The five-step path to specialization
is a generic one, of course, so it is
important to translate the general
“path” into what we call a specific
“roadmap.” This defines what the
various levels mean for a given job,
putting in place the enablers that can
most effectively advance workers
toward those levels, and accurately
assessing when a worker has achieved
a new level of specialization.
As shown in the chart on page 99,
such a roadmap plots the progression of an employee from novice to
expert in the context of the actual
programs and activities within each
of the three categories of specialized
learning just discussed. It makes the
steps needed to achieve deep specialization both explicit and actionable.
As an example of how such a
roadmap works in practice, consider
the actual case of a senior executive
charged with transforming the project
management capabilities for the
managers of a large multinational.
When the executive first came to
his learning organization for help,
he requested a comprehensive
training curriculum. But faced with
the growing realization that formal
learning could not, almost by definition, accomplish his goal of transforming independent and adequately
skilled workers into deeply skilled,
expert project managers, he became
Eventually, however, using a specialization roadmap, the executive
was able to work with his learning
professionals to put some compelling
plans in place for leveraging coaching, collaboration and on-the-job
experiences to advance the managers
toward deeper expertise.
For example, those workers performing at a proficient level (Level 2),
were encouraged to tap into the
experience of others by participating in
“communities of practice”—informal
groups meeting monthly by phone to
exchange best practices and lessons
learned. Employees who had already
achieved the independent level (Level
3) were provided with specific stretch
goals (leading a new project or
process, for example) to expand the
scope and responsibility they would
typically take on in this area.
Those who had reached advanced
status (Level 4) were asked to serve
as mentors to others. This not only
helped less experienced colleagues,
it also helped advance these Level 4
employees toward expert status—
since research has shown that
teaching others is a critical part of
achieving expertise in any field.
Create rigor and structure
around what experience and
collaboration really mean
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It is certainly true that the skills
needed to perform at an advanced
or expert level become more difficult
to define. But they do not become
totally mysterious or magical either.
Organizations that are serious about
creating a distinctive talent capability
need to provide as much structure as
they can around the activities beyond
formal learning, including coaching,
collaboration and mentoring.
As Health Care Service Corporation’s
Mary Jo Burfeind puts it, an effective
mentoring program depends on
specific definitions of the competencies and skills required. “And then
we have to find out who’s good at it
already and who needs help, which
means we also need the means to
perform accurate assessments of our
mentors’ current performance. As
we move forward, we will be looking
to use tools such as leadership surveys
or 360-degree feedback tools to
make our mentoring program more
structured and data-driven.”
It’s also important to be as specific
as possible about what “expertise”
means, even for very complex skills.
For example, Talethea Best, director
of US talent development for Aon
Corporation, has been involved in
the creation of several new executive
development programs for her company. “We’re at the point,” she says,
“where we need to take to the next
level our ability to specify exactly
what it means to say that someone
is ‘better’ than someone else at a
complex activity, such as crafting
business strategy. To me that means
identifying the executives who have
demonstrated their effectiveness
at being global strategists, tapping
into what’s in their heads and
exposing others to that knowledge
and that approach.”
What you end up with is some-thing
that at least approaches what Best
calls a “curriculum for on-the-job
experience.” “It’s not formal training,”
she says, “but it’s extremely active
and hands on. A less experienced
person brings their draft business
plan or strategy to the conference
table and gets feedback from more
experienced executives. Ultimately
this is about forging ‘thinking part-
nerships’ with experienced executives
so others can benefit.”
goals. A realistic assessment of the
employees’ critical skills must be
made, and those assessments must
be matched against management’s
Coordinate action
among all the important
This communication about
expectations is often overlooked.
When more specifics are provided,
employees frequently respond
positively. It’s as if they are saying,
“No one ever told me before what
I needed to do to improve my
performance or reputation in this
area.” Career counselors play an
important role in providing feedback on the self-assessment and
setting the right expectations.
For individuals to build deeply
specialized skills, they need clarity,
direction and support from several
Organization leadership must
define the body of knowledge that
underpins and guides a specialty
area (found in books, specific
research, best practices) and then—
as alluded to in Best’s example of
crafting business strategy—define
and communicate expectations
about the necessary skills and
Then leadership must work with
learning professionals to devise
strategies for developing deep
skills in the target group. Tracking
mechanisms also need to be put
in place to measure the program’s
Career counselors should assist in
setting employees’ development
Supervisors must actively look
to give individuals on their teams
the opportunity to deepen their
proficiencies through on-the-job
learning and “stretch” assignments.
They must also provide regular
performance feedback, optimally in
real time rather than waiting for an
annual performance review. Perhaps
most important, supervisors need to
allot sufficient time and resources
for their employees to engage in
the new kinds of learning required
to become deeply skilled.
The key stakeholders, of course, are the employees themselves. A distinctive
talent capability must now be seen as an outcome of that “thinking partnership”
between an organization and its people. Executive leadership, for its part,
must become much more purposeful and structured about what the path to deep
specialization looks like for critical jobs and roles, and about how to move
people along that path.
At the same time, successful employees will be those who proactively and
independently seek out new experiences and learning opportunities, new
relationships with mentors and coaches, and new kinds of collaborations with
colleagues. The willingness to learn new things and to take on new experiences
can now be seen as something critical to the success of employees and the
organizations they work for.
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About the authors
Donald B. Vanthournout is Accenture’s
chief learning officer and the head of
Accenture Education, the company’s
capability development organization.
He is the author of Return on Learning:
Training for High Performance
at Accenture (Agate, 2006). Mr.
Vanthournout is based in Chicago.
[email protected]
Maeve Lucas is a Chicago-based senior
manager with Accenture Education,
where she oversees the development and
implementation of learning strategies
across Accenture’s consulting, enterprise
and outsourcing practices.
[email protected]
Outlook is published by Accenture.
© 2008 Accenture.
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