Building Workforce Strength
By Ron Elsdon
[Editor's Note: This book related article originally appeared in Career Convergence Web Magazine in August 2010. It is being reprinted as part of our Special Book Review issue now.]
Workforce strength benefits individuals by providing meaningful and rewarding work; it benefits organizations by building a solid foundation for creating value; and it benefits communities through fulfilling, shared experience and financial prosperity. While workforce strength is observed at the system or institutional level, it is created at the individual level. So it is necessary to look through both organizational and individual lenses to understand how to build and sustain workforce strength. Relationships of people with each other and with organizations are at the core of workforce strength. It is here that, as career professionals, we can bring special insight to bridge the needs and strengths of individuals with those of the organization. This means linking the disciplines of workforce planning and development to that of career development; for ongoing development, whether at the organizational level or the individual level, is a connecting theme.
What does this mean in practice? First, it is important to understand that workforce strength is the combination of knowledge, skills, practices, and shared values, embedded in the workforce, which enable an organization to deliver exceptional performance while adapting to constantly changing needs. We can consider workforce strength as a combination of capability and flexibility. Capability means having the skills needed to deliver valued and meaningful services or products. It means embedding these skills in systems that focus on providing exceptional outcomes for customers, whether internal or external, while creating an environment that affirms contributions from all in the organization. Flexibility, on the other hand, is the capacity of an organization to adjust capabilities and systems to changing needs. For example, in healthcare flexibility means adjusting to using electronic medical records for rapidly sharing patient information anywhere in the system by equipping doctors, nurses, and other primary healthcare providers with the ability to enter medical data directly, rather than having handwritten medical records transcribed. Providing needed flexibility may include blending permanent and contingent staff to handle shifts in demand, or working hand in hand with educational institutions to address emerging skill needs.
How can we strengthen workforce capability and flexibility? Here is where workforce planning and development and career development come into play. Workforce planning is a systematic approach to understanding future needs so that steps taken now, through workforce development, ensure that capabilities are there when needed in the future. Workforce planning includes profiling the current workforce to identify its strengths, understanding future needs and understanding the gaps that need to be filled. Workforce development is the response to filling those gaps through taking key steps to secure the needed workforce. It includes the career development of individuals as a key bridge between meeting the needs of the individual and the needs of the organization. Here are some factors we need to consider as career professionals in integrating career development practices into organizations:
Tailoring to organizational culture - for example, understanding the balance between central direction and local autonomy as it affects system-wide or local implementation of career development initiatives
Building sponsorship and partnerships - this includes both internal and external relationships to build support for career development initiatives and sustain momentum once the initiatives have been launched
Acquiring the needed skills to design and implement career development initiatives - skills include content knowledge of the career and workforce fields, and capabilities in project management, analysis and metrics, relationship building, and business and strategic understanding
Creating effective communication - communication includes first listening to people in the organization (Praeger, 2003), to build clarity about the purpose of the services and the primary messages, as a foundation for outreach individually and in group settings (for example, introductory sessions, brown bag briefings), recognizing that word-of-mouth will likely be of most significance over time
Measuring progress - measurement includes blending quantitative and qualitative perspectives about career development initiatives to inform decisions about ways to continually improve the programs
Guiding change - this means using proven frameworks to address key steps that are central to effective organizational change, for example the eight stages grouped in three primary categories - creating a climate for change, engaging and enabling the whole organization, and implementing and sustaining - presented by Cohen (The Heart of Change Field Guide, Harvard Business School Press, 2005) and described in our recent book “Building Workforce Strength”
Addressing practical implementation issues - these issues include: blending individual and group delivery, integrating in-person and virtual delivery, building a repository of career related knowledge, and linking to educational institutions
These aspects are addressed in greater depth in Building Workforce Strength, which includes an example of a healthcare organization, Kaiser Permanente, which implemented a broad based workforce and career development initiative, and a discussion of a pilot career development initiative in a high technology setting. Here are comments from one Kaiser Permanente employee, responding to the question, how has this (career development support) changed your life? “Oh gosh. I’m a single mother . . . and . . . It’s helped me so much . . . when I didn’t think I could get help. I got help. . . . Once you put your feet forward then you start running.”
To support people and organizations in their path forward, consider the following questions as you interface with organizations which are thinking about implementing a career development initiative to build workforce strength:
How ready are these organizations to embrace career and workforce development?
What may need to be put in place?
How will the organization define success?
What is your role, as a career development professional interfacing with the organization?
In bringing your career development expertise to address workforce strength you can help create better environments for clients, enhance organizational success and contribute to community prosperity, certainly worthy goals for our profession.
Parts of this article are extracted from Building Workforce Strength: Creating Value through Workforce and Career Development, Edited by Ron Elsdon, Praeger, 2010. It is available in the NCDA Career Resource Store.
Ron Elsdon, Ph.D., is founder and President of Elsdon, Inc. in California. Ron specializes in the workforce and career development fields, providing organizational consulting, individual career counseling and coaching, public speaking, publishing and lecturing. Ron has more than 25 years of leadership experience at diverse organizations in a broad range of sectors, and has been an adjunct faculty member at, or affiliated with, several universities. He has authored numerous publications and has spoken regularly at national and regional events in the career and workforce development fields. He is author of Affiliation in the Workplace (Praeger, 2003) and editor of Building Workforce Strength (Praeger, 2010). With his co-author, Ron was awarded the Walker Prize by the Human Resource Planning Society for the paper that best advances state-of-the-art thinking or practices in human resources. He holds a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Cambridge University and a Master’s degree in Career Development from John F. Kennedy University. Ron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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