Accelerate Competency Assurance
Tips for Faster Qualification, Expertise and Innovation
Speed = Advantage - Abundance of natural gas in the U.S., an aging workforce, increased globalization and tighter regulations have created new competitive pressures on the European chemicals industry.
Skills development, knowledge retention and innovation have been identified as solutions. All three require a deeper understanding of existing and missing workforce competencies. This article shows how to get better at mapping competencies and implementing successful competency assurance programs.
Current Competitive Landscape
In the mid- to late 1990s, the European chemicals industry began responding to a rising product demand in Asia, decreasing margins and mounting environmental pressures by restructuring, divesting and moving commodity petrochemical operations to the Middle East and Asia. As a result, the European chemicals industry retains the more knowledge-intensive parts of the chemical value chain, making it even more susceptible to the loss of know-how from the impending exodus of retiring baby boomers.
The promise of shale gas, biofuels and biotechnology has not yet blossomed in Europe. Therefore, recent investments in new large-scale ethane crackers across the pond have the potential to tip the cost advantage back to the U.S. and further catalyze brain drain from Europe. Nonetheless, Europe continues to be the center for chemicals know-how and has a large installed base for cracking naphtha, which gives higher yields of C3s and C4s. It has land connections to major markets, a reliable infrastructure and higher levels of public education. Geopolitical events and export levels of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and coal from the U.S. are the unknowns in this dynamic landscape.
Rethink Competency Mapping
Innovation, knowledge retention and skills development have been identified as possible solutions to address competitive challenges, opportunities and uncertainties. Each of these proposed solutions requires a deeper understanding of existing and required future workforce competencies. The process for competency mapping and assurance is well established.
- Define existing and future job roles
- Perform job task analyses
- Define a list of competencies for each job role
- Define performance, knowledge and skills standards for each competency
- Assess workers to discover competency gaps
- Bridge gaps with appropriate training interventions
Competitive advantage lies not in "what needs to be done" but in "how to do it?" The following tips will help organizations avoid common mistakes and navigate swiftly past critical decision points.
Get The Semantics Right
Many competency-related projects have failed because of cognitive barriers. The domain of competency mapping is complex, but it does not have to be complicated. Clarity, consistency and accuracy in labeling are important.
A job role combines disciplines, functions and assets and typically has multiple levels. For example, a mechanical engineer may support plant operations or may do research in R&D. The discipline is the same, but the functions are different. Alternatively, a technician, an operator and a process engineer may support a plant. The disciplines are different, but the function is the same.
While this article uses the word competency, the preferred term in Europe is competence. Competence is a stage in the development of a worker from a novice to an expert. Competency is knowledge, skills and other attributes (KSOA) required to execute actions in a job context that meet certain defined standards. The "other attributes" part of KSOA includes all the deeper or hidden dimensions of competency, such as attitude, values, traits, self-image and self-regulation.
A standard includes judging criteria, measures, targets and indicators. There is confusion about the use of these terms. Google any of these terms and the next phrase you are most likely to search is "remedies for headache." Criteria include elements such as safety, speed and accuracy. Measures include variables like number of accidents or near misses. Targets define what needs to be achieved to meet the different standards. Indicators can be quantitative or more behavior-based.
Fix The Foundation
Mapping and developing competencies takes time. Executive commitment is important to this phase. Subject matter expert (SME) time is important in the design phase. Do not expect the SMEs to support the project in their "spare" time. Set up program sustainability measures right at the start.
In addition, human resources and operations need to be in sync. Often HR lacks the credibility around technical competencies. On the other hand, operations teams tend to undervalue the importance of the psychosocial competencies. It is important to bridge the divide. Using a single extensible model for hiring, training and development and one that works for all job types helps in bridging the chasm.
A common question about any new system is, "Does it work with an existing ERP (enterprise resource planning) system?" Competency assurance programs facilitate the workforce planning process and sit on top of the learning management systems. The integration between the systems is important, but, unlike business transactions, workforce competency data do not change every minute and can be transferred in a batch fashion.
Accelerate Qualification and Expertise Attainment
A fine or a detailed approach to mapping competencies thrives on precision but takes time. In some cases, a detailed approach can quickly reach a point of diminishing returns. A coarse or a big-picture strategy may work faster but also has the risk of being too broad or too general. The trick is to know how and when to use the two approaches. For compliance-mandated situations and for tasks that involve high business risks, deploy the detail-oriented approach. For worker retention, planning and expertise development, the big-picture approach works better. Here a set of competencies is mapped to a range of activities performed at each job level, rather than at each task or step level of each activity.
Be creative in defining job roles. It is important to define existing as well as future job roles. Strive to depict job roles visually rather than in words to make them easy to understand and explain.
Information and communications technology (ICT) has given us more options and efficiencies in developing and presenting content. Recent discoveries in cognitive sciences, neurosciences and psychology have provided new insights on learning. Yet, even today, the chemical industry relies mainly on classroom training and unstructured on-the-job training (OJT) for workers. This is a problem.
To make training more effective for the qualification step, use a combination of the following methods: lectures, reading, demonstrations, group discussions, shadowing, case-based reasoning and simulators. For developing expertise, shift the emphasis from training to learning. Use combinations of games, project- and problem-based learning, structured coaching and mentoring, communities of practice, and self-study.
Retain More Knowledge and Innovate Faster
Compared with qualification and expertise attainment, the processes for expertise transfer and for developing innovation capability are more chaotic. Their success depends on competency assurance and other systemwide factors like organizational design, policies and culture. Here are a few recommendations specific to the training and development part of the solution:
- Coaching and mentoring are effective modes for transferring implicit knowledge. Do not assume that coaching and mentoring will happen naturally and effectively without support. Define coach and mentor as two separate job roles, and develop competency standards and training for those roles just as you would for other technical jobs.
- Future innovations needed are likely to be distributed rather than centralized, multidisciplinary, opportunistic and in nontechnical areas. Include knowledge of cognitive sciences, social psychology, crowdsourcing, ethics, IP protection, finance, contracting, supply chain, legal and customer relationship management in the underpinning knowledge standards. Include systems, statistical, creative and critical thinking in the list of skills requirements for leaders and innovation team members.
- Incorporate some levels of leadership and innovation functions in all job definitions. Meta competencies and other attributes play a significant role in the development of leaders and innovators. Meta competencies are best developed in authentic learning environments. Create multiple multidisciplinary innovation teams and ask them to work on new problems and opportunities.
By following the advice presented here, the European chemicals industry can leverage the power of competency mapping and assurance to accelerate workforce qualification and expertise attainment processes, retain more knowledge and improve its capability to innovate.
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