Boosting Employees' Skills

Viewpoint: Invest in Training to Develop Change-Management Skills

Evolving business models require leaders with skills to effectively oversee change.

IndustryWeek reported on June 18 on the skilled worker challenge facing U.S. manufacturing. 

Citing a recent ManpowerGroup survey, shortages exist across a broad spectrum of jobs -- skilled trades, engineers, IT, sales and many more. While some of the problem may be solved though recalibrating pay scales, it's clear that many companies' leadership teams will have to refocus on in-career education and training as a route to successfully filling critical jobs. 

Increasingly, the ability to grow will depend on how well a firm responds to Jack Welch's charge: "When you become a leader, success is all about growing others."

As education and training is elevated to leadership-team discussion levels, I believe that the opportunity -- and the challenge -- goes beyond addressing the basic skills that are needed by employees in job functions like those cited above. 

The business environment of the coming decade will require a much stronger and much more agile workforce than what was required in the past. Three areas stand out as ones that must be on the agenda for employee development.

Most firms can bank on having to make changes in their business models in the coming years. Whether these changes involve shifts from production-to-stock to production-to-order, even more global dimensions to operations, new service offerings or other changes, a workforce that can support change will be critical. 

Recent research has spotlighted the factors most likely to undermine successful change. 

Develop 'Implementation Skills'

By a very substantial margin, business-model failures were attributed to the implementation process being poorly managed and "internal resistance to the new business model."

The latter problem can be overcome by a committed executive team that sells the change, but the former problem requires the development of implementation skills. 

Few firms invest in developing such talents among their employees and pay the price when projects go off track. Building competencies in managing complex implementation projects must become part of the training agenda.   

The changing competitive environment defines a second area in which investment is required. More and more manufacturing sectors are seeing competition from companies in emerging markets that offer a product that is "almost as good at a great price point."

Although traditional approaches to raising the bar in terms of innovation, product development, and manufacturing technology cannot be abandoned, responding to new competitors will require new approaches to these functions, identifying ways to evolve products for middle-market customers across global markets, focusing on a reduced feature set and a more attractive price point.

These new directions will add a dimension to the skill set that companies must develop, especially among their engineers and design teams.

Grow Cross-Functional Competencies

For many firms, acquiring companies from emerging markets will be one of the paths to the goal described above, requiring that employees across virtually all business functions and departments manage the integration of these newly acquired firms in a way that doesn't destroy the competencies that they are bringing into their new company. 

Many old dogs will have to learn new tricks as part of the process of responding to the changing competitive environment and the ability of the corporation's education and training program to contribute to that learning process will be a critical success factor in the future.

Finally, in a previous IndustryWeek article, I focused on the increasingly-important mandate for firms to become customer facing, with responsibilities crossing job functions that previously didn't have a customer focus among their responsibilities. 

Just throwing employees from your plants, logistics department, product-development teams and other parts at the company into meetings with customers won't achieve the important goals underlying such strategies. 

They have to develop skills that can make such interactions successful, much like the competency development programs that are designed for account team members and those in the sales organization.

Education and training has long been a reality for manufacturing firms, with recent estimates of spending averaging more than $1,200 per employee. 

As leadership teams look to new in-career education and training programs as a route to solving skilled-worker shortages, they would be well advised to ensure that their plans also address the three challenges described above, thereby growing their employee teams in ways that will contribute to business success in the coming years.

George F. Brown, Jr. is the CEO and cofounder of Blue Canyon Partners Inc., a consulting firm working with leading business suppliers on growth strategy. Along with Atlee Valentine Pope, he is the author of "CoDestiny: Overcome Your Growth Challenges by Helping Your Customers Overcome Theirs," published by Greenleaf Book Group Press of Austin, Texas.

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