Why “Successful” Projects Fail …

[The Truth About Change Management]

The project satisfied its requirements. The project was delivered on schedule AND under budget. It was a “success”, right? … Perhaps.

The open question is: How was the project received by its stakeholders?

Some were very happy with it. Most liked it a lot, but there were a handful of stakeholders who were dissatisfied. They didn’t think that the project delivered everything it should have, but those stakeholders didn’t participate fully and had false expectations of what was within the project’s scope.”

Does that sound like the familiar lament of a “wronged” project manager?

It’s easy to blame those stakeholders for their own dissatisfaction, but is that fair or even correct?

The Project Management Institute (PMI) includes “Manage Stakeholder Expectations” as one of the five processes included in Project Communications Management. On smaller projects, managing stakeholder expectations would fall under the Project Manager’s responsibilities. On larger, more complex projects a Change Management specialist might be assigned to address that process/task group.

How Quickly They Forget …

Even though stakeholders may have participated in the requirements gathering / definition activities, they may not remember (or may have chosen not to remember) what was decided to be “in” scope or “out”. A good project management team will carefully document the project and deliverable requirements, as the requirements are used to determine product acceptance criteria and completion. As the project proceeds, additional definition might be added to the requirements (progressive elaboration), but the core requirements remain unchanged.

Both the PMI  and the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) processes include Change Management methodologies to accommodate changes in project scope (when requirements are modified). These processes / methodologies allow the change to be documented, reviewed and approved, prior to development work or implementation proceeding.

Without strict Change Management controlling of project scope, many projects have problems meeting their schedule or cost commitments. These Change Control documents are also useful in helping stakeholders understand the project scope.

Change Management: Not Just Scope Control

While PMI & ITIL focus on Change Management primarily in terms of scope control, it is actually a much larger work effort. The PMI process, Managing Stakeholder Expectations, is mostly about Change Management, in spite of not being specifically identified as such in PMBOK. (PMBOK is  PMI’s Project Management Book of Knowledge. It is a book which presents a PMI’s definitions of project management terminology and guidelines.)

Even though the project documentation may, for example, specifically describe a data input screen in terms of its fields and functions, if, after Go Live, Stakeholder B  thinks that the font size on that screen was too small to be readable, then that stakeholder will be unhappy. He might describe the project as having “failed”. So whose issue is this?

Stakeholder B might have chosen not to fully participate in the interface review or acceptance, but that doesn’t change how he feels.

Regardless of the stakeholder’s abdication of his responsibility to review the interface, it is still the project team’s responsibility to manage that stakeholder’s expectations through meetings, demonstrations and, if necessary, one-on-one discussions.

Change Management is not just about controlling scope, it’s about communications, managing expectations, education/training and it’s about helping the user community and stakeholders adjust to the changes that the new process or product might bring to their organization.

When changes occur too quickly or too dramatically, stakeholders may have problems integrating the changes into their business processes. Regardless of whether a project met its goals (definition of “success”), it could still be considered a “failure” to the user community and stakeholders if they can’t effectively integrate it into their operational processes.

“Success” may be in the eyes of a project team or project sponsor. “Failure” is commonly in the world of the end users and stakeholders. At project closure, if the users aren’t satisfied with the end product, regardless of what a contract or requirements document might say, that “successful” project might still be viewed by them as a “failure”.

That’s not fair!

The project manager and team had worked hard to deliver on scope, on time and on budget. It’s not “fair” that someone is saying that the project is a “failure”? This is one case where perception really is reality. The PM can try to convince the stakeholder that he’s wrong, but it’s very difficult to argue with a “perception”. Pushing facts toward a stakeholder with a bad perception of project delivery is generally a losing battle. Perceptions are often based more on emotion, than fact.

The best approach is one that should have been taken much earlier in the project … communicate with the stakeholders. “Communicating” means more than distributing information at a meeting or via email. “Communicating” includes the delivery of information AND the confirmation that the information has been received and understood.

Managing Stakeholder Expectations is not just sending out emails. It’s engaging the stakeholders in active discussions of the project scope and the requirements. It’s about understanding their perceptions of what the end product or service might be. It’s confirming or correcting those perceptions long before Go Live.

If, after the scope definition discussions, there is still a significant gap between the documented requirements and what the stakeholder(s) understand is to be delivered, then the Change Control Process component of Change Management should be engaged. The Change Control Process moves the project team out of the line of fire and the perceived scope gap becomes an question of money and schedule.

Start Change Management processes early and continue them throughout the project. It’s always better to confront a problem head on than to allow it to grow and fester into a more significant problem that is difficult to effectively address later.

5 Steps to Becoming a Volunteneur

Entrepreneur + Volunteer = Volunteneur

There is no question that the World, the United States, your City has problems. Some are Big Problems; some are Small Problems.

So what are YOU doing about them … Today?

Complain to City Hall!

“Somebody should do something!” While being incensed about a problem  may have been enough to get some action in the past, it’s just not an effective course of action today. Tax revenues down. Public services are being cut. Finding more than a sympathetic ear might be difficult to do.

Volunteer to Help

Now you’ve got the idea! “If the City is short on resources, then I could volunteer to help. But what’s the plan? Can I realistically work as an unpaid volunteer for the City … addressing the problem that is bothering me the most today?” It’s possible, but unlikely.

Perhaps you could join others as a volunteer in their private sector initiative…

Strength in numbers! More hands make work light! Excellent!

There are numerous organizations that you could join. Perhaps one of them addresses your specific complaint/problem and you could get some muscle behind the solution.

But what if there isn’t someone or some organization that is addressing your particular issue? What if your problem is too small to be on someone else’s priority list but still too big for you to ignore?

Become a Volunteneur! 

“A what?” We all have an idea of what an “entrepreneur” is … it’s someone who sees a problem (or an opportunity), collects various resources/processes and (with a lot of hard work) creates a solution or product. Sometimes the solutions or products are a little unconventional. Sometimes they don’t work as planned. But when they work, the entrepreneur is a huge success!

As a “volunteer”, you show up somewhere and someone hands you a shovel or a paint brush or a soup ladle and you get to work. You become one of the rowers on someone else’s galley. If the planning was good (the galley is pointed the right direction) and the resources adequate (there are enough rowers), the initiative is a success.  There is nothing wrong with being a volunteer, but you rarely get to select the target problem or the solution.

Entrepreneur + Volunteer = Volunteneur

Part entrepreneur, part volunteer, a volunteneur looks at a problem from the perspective of a business owner who must solve it, given the available resources and constraints. No one else is going to step up and “fix” what’s broken, so YOU have to take charge.

Five Steps to Becoming a Successful Volunteneur

1. Identify / Define the Problem

This is also known as requirements definition. Document all of the problem components. (Write this down.) If you can’t define the problem, your success at solving it is greatly diminished.

2. Consider your Available Resources, Constraints and Problem Details

If you don’t know what you have available to you, you’re likely to overlook solution options or try to build something that can’t be completed. The “problem details” would include the “root causes” and any “triggering conditions”.

3. Look for Solution Options

This is the brainstorming session. No solution is too wild or too impractical. Don’t worry about the completeness of any single solution option. Several solution options might work better when combined.  This exercise often yields additional constraints or problem definition details.

4. Assess / Compare the Solution Options … Build a Plan

Identify the resource “costs” of each solution. Consider the pro’s and con’s, along with their potentials for success. Consider solution option combinations that might enhance each other. Select optimal solution(s), build implementation plan. Establish success metrics.

5. Execute the Solution Plan

Just because this is an unpaid effort, doesn’t mean that it will require less management. Use your business/project management skills to track work according to plan. Encourage your team along the way. Monitor success during and after implementation. Modify solution, as required, to improve the outcome. 

Volunteneurism — It’s All About Getting It Done

In business, project structure is commonplace. In civic or volunteer environments, good ideas can become lost long before the problem is properly defined. It’s so much easier to complain than to do. As a volunteneur, bring your business (get it done) expertise with you and get folks moved off that first square.

Step up, define the problem, identify your resources/constraints/details and get solution options on the table for discussion. Solution discussions can build a sense of decision ownership for volunteers, but keep them moving. Combine and eliminate options to end up with that single direction that you can all pull toward together.

People willing to help with projects that look successful. They just need a leader to get them started and a manager to help them be successful.

Don’t leave your expertise at the office. Share your coordination and management skills. You may find that the rewards from your community work far exceed those from your paycheck.

Aside

I keep hearing that employers prefer to select younger applicants over older ones because the younger generation is more “in-tune with today’s technologies.” Please excuse my personal response, but that’s such a crock that I can hardly contain myself.

It’s certainly appropriate for employers to say that they want to hire younger, inexperienced workers because they are cheaper, but PLEASE do not continue to insult my intelligence. Age-related hiring practices are not about a technology knowledge gap.

I’ve worked with and managed generations of “young folks” in IT for the past 30 years. (I was even was part of a “younger generation” once, really.) During that time, I’ve seen the advent of PCs, the Internet and, most recently, social media. OK, I’ll grant you that many of the current twenty-something group utilize Facebook and MySpace for much more than I would ever consider, but they use it for social communications, not for work.

Too Young or Just Inexperienced?

The business interactions that I’ve had with that same generational group (18-30) over simplistic forms of communication (email and SMS) have occasionally been awkward. Awkward, not because of my lack of understanding of a medium, but awkward, because they didn’t understand the importance of communication in a multi-resource setting. They required mentoring in how to use the technologies appropriately and what/when to communicate in a timely manner.

We, of the “older” generation, grew up (during our business careers) with ever more functional communications technologies. We were the ones who lived the operational needs and were often the ones who are pushing the envelope with how these technologies could effectively be employed.

When cellular phones first became available for practical use in my area, I used one in combination with a laptop and a pager to respond to critical alerts on my network. Early one morning, a primary router interface failed and the secondary had not picked up the traffic. I was riding a bicycle to the office, but was still more than an hour away. I pulled the laptop out of my bike saddlebag, balanced it on the rear rack and connected to my network. In a little less than 10 minutes after the initial alert, the network traffic was re-routed and the business functions were re-enabled. This occurred over 15 years ago!

Not “in touch” with Technology?

Try telling me that I don’t understand cellular technologies or their value to business. An integrated cell phone app can now do just what I did 15 years ago on my laptop. That’s fantastic, but where’s the knowledge gap? Just the platform has changed and hidden scripting has replaced manual configuration. I may be initially uncomfortable using an integrated app, but that’s because I don’t have direct control over the individual components or the security protocols employed. That’s a connection with the technologies.

Do you think that I or anyone else from my generation has suddenly stopped tracking technology solutions? We are the ones who have been pushing the limits of technology. We are the ones who implemented the solutions that the Gen-X and the Gen-Y users are now “discovering”. Somebody’s mother or grandfather may be struggling with email or Facebook, but that’s not us “older” technologists.

I will grant you that I had never conceived of flash mob dance events or would never have thought of using an open Facebook session to break up with a long-time girl friend while chatting online with my new “friend” at the same time. Some ways of using social media are very cool. Others, I am sorry, should be abandoned as simply improper, under any circumstances. Functionality and convenience does not necessarily mean that a particular technology should be used for everything.

Do Twitter, LinkedIn and other, yet-to-be-widely-used forms of media / communcations have places in marketing today? Most definitely. Their instantaneous nature, coverage and general use that give them opportunities that other communcations methods never had.

Too Old?

Social media played a huge role in the Arab Spring, but didn’t work quite so well in the Occupy Movement. Was that because the participants in the Occupy Movement were “too old” and unfamiliar with the technologies or was it a failure of planning and organization? (Occupy Portland is now an on-going initiative that has taken on a strong community-growth, mentoring flavor … would that be driven by “older” people or younger generations?)

I was recently reading an (online) article that included a description of how implementations of new information technologies at Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare have added value and improved organizational efficiencies. I hope that Dave Smith, the senior VP overseeing those changes, doesn’t mind me saying so, but Dave does not look like a GenX’er to me.

Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare may not have implemented Twitter or Facebook feeds into their HR system, but they did utilize key technologies to consolidate their data structures and make the appropriate data directly available to their users. They effectively used technology to provide better business solutions to their users.

GenY – Following, Not Leading

An often-quoted, 2010 Forrester Consulting/Citrix Online study claimed that use of social media to support collaborative work efforts was highest, not in the  GenY’ers but in the older GenX and younger Baby Boomer groups. That claim certainly agrees with what I’ve seen.

While some technologies are really fun to play with, their stability or features often don’t match up with what businesses need. Perhaps the divergence of technology use is less about generational “in-ness” and more about solution approaches to problems. The GenY’s have the luxury of available time to play with solutions (and look for problems they can solve), while the rest of us are driven to solve problems (and look for solutions that work). Both approaches have value and, perhaps more important to remember, they are not mutually exclusive.

Too old? Really???

I’m sorry, but even the asking question, “Too old?” indicates a lack of understanding of the challenge faced by today’s technologists. This is not age-generational issue. It is  an issue of solutions-looking-for-problems vs. problems-looking-for-solutions. We need both to take the greatest advantage of the technologies available to us. Let’s focus on what’s important…

You Can’t Always Get What You Want…

While some say that Rolling Stones‘ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is a song about love, politics and drugs, I understand that it is the lyric ballad of a 1960s project manager. (Is it true that Mick Jagger is still PMI certified?)

+++++++++++++++++++

As a Project Manager, I am commonly provided a high-level project scope and expected to “flesh out” the requirements. While this is not an unreasonable request, as an IT Consultant, my role also includes a consultative / Socratic component surrounding scope definition.

You can’t always get what you want

In a time of tight budgets and low, internal resource, availability, not everything is practical, much less possible. Before heading down the road of requirements gathering, I make a point of performing a “sanity check” related to the business case behind a project initiation request.

That business case doesn’t have to be a formal, 10-page, single-spaced document, but it does need to exist in some tangible format. If the business case exists only as words spoken across a conference room table, then the first task of the PM should be to translate those words into writing. (“If you can’t print it, it isn’t true” or so my first IT manager used to say.) The business case includes functional description of the project and why its delivery is important to the business. It provides the basis for expending funds. In PMI terms, the business case becomes one of the source documents used to create the Project Charter.

Documenting the initiating business case, even if only a single page effort, solidifies the primary goals of a project and often, an initial description of they might be accomplished. It provides a project manager, who might later be “up to his elbows in alligators” a better understanding of “why we began to drain the swamp” in the first place.

But if you try sometimes you just might find

The business case documentation process may allow a review of solution options that had been previously overlooked. (This is where the “consulting” comes into play …) How many times have you looked at a problem and quickly convinced yourself of the answer, only to find out later that there had been a much better solution available to you had you just taken the time to consider the options.

Understanding (or documenting) a project’s business case may provide the PM and the requesting business unit with just such an opportunity. Instead of taking a build-it-now-and-ask-questions-later approach, ask those “Why?” and “Why not” questions before significant project funds have been spent. Even if you just hold a brainstorming session with your own team, the process may yield unexpected and positive results. Those results can then be shared with the project sponsor and the requesting business unit in a low-key manner. Remember, a project concept usually is somebody’s “child” and no one likes it when their child is called “ugly”, even in a well-intended manner.

You get what you need

The end result of this project process is that the sponsor gets what she or he needs. That might be the original scope / approach or it might an approach that delivers the same results but in a more effective manner. The important point is that the project initiation process now includes a business case that explains “Why”.

Both the project’s sponsor and the project manager “get what <they> need …

[… and, no, Sir Michael Philip “Mick” Jagger does not hold an active PMI-certification, I checked.]

+++++++++++++++++++++

The song, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, was originally performed by The Rolling Stones and released in their 1969 album Let It Bleed. It was written primarily by Mick Jagger with assistance from Keith Richards. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You_Can%27t_Always_Get_What_You_Want]

How to Make Time

If I only had 3 more hours in my day …

But a 27 hour day doesn’t help much if time isn’t utilized effectively.

One of the best lectures that I’ve heard on Time Management was given by Carnegie Mellon Professor Randy Pausch  at the University of Virginia in November 2007. [Just click on the “Time Management” link included above and you can see the lecture yourself — the lecture is a little over an hour in length but worth the “investment”.]

Among other topics, Professor Pausch stresses work/task prioritization. Task prioritization is not a new concept, but it’s one that we all seem to have problems with.

Most of you have seen a chart like this one for prioritizing work, one of the foundations to “making time”. It’s often referred to as the Covey Quadrant … that would be the Steven Covey Quadrant (of Franklin Planner &  The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People fame).

What makes this chart so significant is its simplicity. Dr. Covey uses the two terms: Important and Urgent. Both are direct and clear. All of your tasks should fall into one of the four categories … nice system but what’s so special about it? The key is how it’s applied.

Most people will rightly focus on the Important/Urgent tasks. (That’s were Put-out-House-Fire or Save-Drowning-Person tasks would fall.) After that, we often get lost, attacking a pile of Not Important/Urgent tasks (most phone calls, most meetings and other interruptions). While completing these tasks are may look like significant accomplishments, they don’t Make Time. Rarely do “Not Important” tasks become “Important”, but “Not Urgent” tasks will often become “Urgent” if not addressed.

Focusing next on the “Important” but “Not Urgent” will not only relieve stress in your life, but allows you to plan and more efficiently use your time. You’ll also find that many of the “Not Important” but “Urgent” tasks really shouldn’t be on your task list in the first place. (Note: Dropping “Not Important” but “Urgent” tasks off your To Do list is a first step to Making Time.)

The another easy way to Make Time is to eliminate tasks from your “Not Important” / “Not Urgent” category. That’s where “Wheel of Fortune” falls. Yes, I am suggesting that you Turn—Off—the—TV!   Back away slowly and put down the remote control… It will be OK.

In 2007, according to A.J. Nielsen Company the average American watches more than 4 hours of TV each day. By the end of 2011, TV watching time increased to more than 5 hours per day, without including any computer or smartphone time. (and those readers in the over 50 age categories shouldn’t be so smug … most of those TV-watching-hours come from our age groups).

Still wondering where that additional 3 hours a day can come from? TV. Turn it off and remove the batteries from the remote. If the quiet bothers you, put on some music. Tired? Put your feet up and relax. Take a nap. You’ll be surprised at how much more you’ll accomplish.

Time management does not mean filling every minute of your day with work. It means using your time efficiently and effectively.

So prioritize your work (and turn your TV off) and you, too, will have those extra hours that you’ve been looking for.

Why Professionalism …

’Professional’ is not a label you give yourself – it’s a description you hope others will apply to you.

These are words of David H. Maister, a leading author and speaker on the management of professional services firms, as noted in his book, True Professionalism.

Too often, especially when working primarily with technical topics or inanimate objects, like keyboards and websites, we slip into a “technician” mindset, just dealing with the problem in front of us. Not that there’s anything wrong with a single-minded focus, but there can be so much more to a  job … if it is done as a “professional”.

What makes a professional? David Maister suggests that great professionals:

  • Take pride in their work, and show a personal commitment to quality;
  • Reach out for responsibility;
  • Anticipate, and don’t wait to be told what to do … show initiative;
  • Do whatever it takes to get the job done;
  • Get involved and don’t just stick to their assigned role;
  • Are always looking for ways to make things easier for those they serve;
  • Are eager to learn as much as they can about the business of those they serve;
  • Really listen to the needs of those they serve;
  • Learn to understand and think like those they serve so they can represent them when they are not there;
  • Are team players;
  • Can be trusted with confidences;
  • Are honest, trustworthy and loyal; and
  • Are open to constructive critiques on how to improve.”

Perhaps the single attribute that I see missing in many of today’s “technicians” is that they fail to “take pride in their work and show a personal commitment to quality”. While they do get the job done, that pride in doing-the-job-right (the first time) is largely absent. Their work products may include the right numbers but their sentences include misspelled words and lack references explaining the details behind the numbers. Respect for the reader (and really their own work) is just not demonstrated in its delivery.

Our educational system commonly views “C” work (a 70% score) as passing. In business, especially in consulting, anything short of 90% is looked at as being somewhat-less-than-acceptable, “un-professional”. That 100% grade is the hard target, but should never be seen as an unattainable goal to be considered later.

Think of how you view a work piece (a document) produced by someone else … Is it clean and well organized? Does it include the simple basics (headers, footers, page numbers) that makes it easier to reference? Are the fonts and styles consistent? Does it deliver the required content without distractions of misspellings or incomprehensible sentences? Does it look “professional” or does it look like it was thrown together at the last minute?

The quality of a delivered document that you produce says a lot about the importance you place on people who read it.

Similarly, the way you perform your job [paraphrasing Maister] is critical:

  • Reach out for responsibility;
  • Anticipate need … don’t wait to be told what to do … show initiative;
  • Do whatever it takes to get the job done;
  • Get involved!

A “professional” steps up and takes on problems, looking for solutions, instead of taking a not-my-job route. While issue escalation is important when working on a team, so is showing the initiative to look ahead and try to solve or avoid an issue before it happens. A professional gets involved in the solution instead of just reporting a problem.

A “professional” is focused on the client, the customer. [again paraphrasing Maister] A “professional”

  • Is always looking for ways to make things easier for those they serve;
  • Is eager to learn as much as possible about the business of those they serve;
  • Really listens to the needs of those they serve;
  • Learns to understand and think like those they serve so they can anticipate [their direction] when they are not there;

That customer-focus allows work to be done-right-the-first-time. It allows greater understanding of what is needed and desired. It provides added-value without significantly increased efforts. It shows that you really care about their business and the assigned project.

Finally, a “professional”

  • Is a team player;
  • Can be trusted with confidences;
  • Is honest, trustworthy and loyal; and
  • Is open to constructive critiques on how to improve.

The end result of the team is what is important to a professional, not the delivery or “success” of one individual. That is reflected in conversations and reviews, as well as in work tasks. If the team is successful, then the individuals on that team were all successful. The professional looks to continually improve and to help others in their efforts to improve. The professional looks at “our” instead of “mine”.

Can a given job be done effectively by either a technician or a professional? Sure … but doing a job well, THAT is what a professional does.

Professionals do their “best” as a matter of self-respect. Having self respect is the key to earning respect and trust from others.

Especially for people starting out in a career, Maister stresses,

If you want to be trusted and respected you have to earn it. These behaviors lead to job fulfillment. … If someone takes a job, or starts a career worrying about what’s in it for them, looking to do just enough to get by, or being purely self-serving in their performance, they will go nowhere. Even if they manage to excel through the ranks as good technicians, they will not be happy in what they are doing. The work will be boring, aggravating, tiresome and a drag.

So step up. Being a professional may look like more work, but the outcomes make the “extra” work well worth the efforts.

++++++++++++++++++++

Material included in this blog was reprinted from davidmaister.com
© Copyright 2001-2012 by David Maister

[David Maister has written on a wide range of management and personal excellence topics. I strongly recommend visiting his site and reading some of his books.]

Goodbye “Boomers” … Hello ???

Gen-X, Gen-Y, Baby Boomers … What do they have to do with business?

According to national labor statistics, a significant portion of the US skilled workforce (manufacturing and professional) is approaching or has already reached traditional “retirement age”, 65 years old. When they retire, will the next generation be ready to take over?

This is not a statistical anomaly. It is a consequential impact of the Baby Boomers (born in the 1950s) reaching retirement age. Considering just the work segments involved in Professional, Scientific and Technical Services, the share of the workers aged 55-64 has increased by 45% over the period of 2000-2007. This statistic was one of several highlighted in a July 2010 Industry Sector Report published by The Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. That report points not only to the problem, but also discusses some of the “organizational responses” (mitigation efforts) currently being undertaken.

The 2010 Sloan Center report described changes that have occurred from the height of the dot-com era (2000) to just prior to the current recession (2007). While the economy has shifted since 2007, the relevant workforce statistics have remained relatively constant … we are all still getting older.

Projecting the key age-shift trend from workforce distribution graph above, it is easy to infer that it is likely to continue for at least another decade. The retirement-ready workforce will continue to grow relative to its current levels and relative to other segments of the workforce.

This generalized increase in the “senior” population has an obvious cost impact on our social support and health systems. It additionally has significant potential for an impact on business. Included in this work resource population are the managers and the subject matter experts that many businesses depend on. Who will fill their positions?

In the Portland, Oregon, metropolitan area, specifically Multnomah and Washington Counties, the workforce distribution appears to be shifted even more than the national average (toward that pre-retiree group).

Worksource Oregon, in their 2008 Employer Survey for Region 2 (Multnomah & Washington counties), highlighted that more than 40% of local businesses surveyed are already responding to this shift and are planning to take (or have already taken) steps to guard against the ensuing knowledge / skill losses. Many are attempting to retain these “senior” workers with flexible working arrangements and other accommodations to encourage their retention. Several businesses are instituting in-house mentoring programs to raise the skills and subject matter knowledge of mid-level employees.

These are admirable steps taken to mitigate this population shift issue. Luckily, most businesses do have the raw (mid-level) talent who can step up to fill these gaps that would be left by the over-55 age group as they leave the workforce.

The next question is: Do these companies also have the resource pool available to backfill those mid-level positions? Unfortunately, this answer is not as encouraging.

In Multnomah and Washington counties, there are already significant skill gaps between the abilities of available workforce and the skills that employers are looking for. Job-specific experience is a requirement for more than 80% of the professional/technical job openings in this area. At this time, there is not a new population of skilled local workers ready to step up to fill the next wave of mid- and entry-level positions.

It is time for local companies to accept that this is a resource crisis that looms at the horizon. The available resource pools are small today and they will only get smaller as the years progress.

As they are doing with the impending impacts of their aging workforce, companies should also address their downstream needs for additional entry-level, skilled workers. On-the-job training programs, mentoring initiatives and apprenticeships are all steps that can have a positive impact on this resource need. The longer companies wait to start their mitigation steps, the greater the impacts can be.

= + = + = + = + = + = + = + = + = + = + = +

Additional information related to this topic can be found in:

Talent Pressures and the Aging Workforce: Responsive Action Steps for the Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services Sector”, a report written by Stephen Sweet, PhD and Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, PhD with Elyssa Besen, Shoghik Hovhannisyan, MA, and Farooq Pasha, MA. Published by The Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College, July 2010.

Writing Skills REQUIRED !!!

Some children learn to read from an early age and develop a love for written language. I did not.

“English” class was something I endured and participated in only under duress. Of course I learned grammatical structure … but in Latin class. I wanted to be a scientist or an engineer. I “knew” I wouldn’t have to do much writing there.

Jump forward a decade …

Unexpectedly, I became the editor of a corporate IT newsletter. (Whose sick joke was that?) Time to hunt for my copy of The Elements of Style (Strunk and White), from freshman English. I have to admit that my initial articles were struggles and poorly written, at best. With practice, I did gain in confidence and some readers commented that my articles were actually making sense. In the end, I ended up with LOTS of writing practice … none of my fellow network engineers were willing to submit articles. (I still had to produce a monthly newsletter.)

My third edition copy of Strunk still holds a place of honor on my office bookshelf, but the pages are yellowed and brittle, its paperback binding unbroken. I bought it after my second edition was “borrowed” by a coworker. I probably didn’t need a replacement, but it just felt better having my old friend watching over me. There would be no split infinitives (without emphasis) in my writings!

I recently read a criticism of The Elements of Style by Goeffrey Pullum, a professor of linguistics at Edinburgh University in Wikipedia. “The book’s toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar.” While tempted to disregard such heresy as an errant rant of a confused Scottish professor, I have to agree with many of his complaints. Apparently, even an editor at the Boston Globe agreed when she wrote a review of the 2005 edition. Still, having a “bible” is helpful to those of us who daydreamed their way through English 1A.

As readers of this blog can probably attest, my personal writing style still borders on a schizophrenic mix of Strunk and common usage. (“Common usage” is my excuse for I-don’t-know-why-but-it-sounds-better-but-it-does.) It’s readable, but often awkwardly written.

So where does an engineer-techie turn now that the Strunk and White has been discredited?

Book cover (Dust jacket) for the 15th edition ...

The Chicago Manual of Style has been often recommended as THE style guide … what I should have been using all these years. But at 1,026 pages (hardcover, 16th ed.), it is intimidating. My Elements of Style edition required only 90 pages to provide a similar religious experience.

To a new initiate, who wants to follow that straight and narrow path of good grammar and sold copy, I suggest that you

  • Assume a regime of daily writing. Your sentences may be fragmented and your infinitives split, but your writing will get better over time.
  • Read the blogs of copy editors. These are often very funny and a great way to reinforce good style.
  • Read good books. Go back and read the classics from high school / college, this time for YOUR enjoyment.
  • Volunteer to act as a proofreader or  copy editor for draft documentation at work. Catching the mistakes of others will make you more aware of your own issues.
  • Write a blog or a newsletter. Writing for yourself is a great way to start, but writing for others forces better editing and attention to detail.

When you are looking for the bottom line … look toward the 4 Rules from an Expert

  1. Use short sentences.
  2. Use short first paragraphs.
  3. Use vigorous English.
  4. Be positive, not negative.

Don’t just sit there … Write Something!

Why Companies Aren’t Getting the Employees They Need

In October, Dr. Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, wrote an interesting article for the Wall Street Journal, “Why Companies Aren’t Getting the Employees They Need”. In it, Dr. Cappelli noted,

With an abundance of workers to choose from, employers are demanding more of job candidates than ever before. They want prospective workers to be able to fill a role right away, without any training or ramp-up time. In other words, to get a job, you have to have that job already. It’s a Catch-22 situation for workers–and it’s hurting companies and the economy.

In a previous posting, I highlighted that same conundrum … you have to have job experience to get a job … there’s no starting point. The article generated such a strong reader response, particularly because he identified the business community as being at fault, not the educational system. He followed up with another article, further explaining how corporations use “automated screening” of job applicants and how they need to accept responsibility for the lack of planning (for lead times) in obtaining skilled workers. With regard to lead times, he commented,

Silicon Valley pretty much invented the “free agent” model of hiring for new skills rather than training and letting workers go once those skills aren’t needed.

Dr Cappelli feels that it is the responsibility of the companies and corporations to build the skills of their employees. Several business bloggers took exception to Dr. Cappelli’s statements. One of whom, Cheryl Oldham, Vice President, U.S. Forum for Policy Innovation, US Chamber of Commerce (USCOC) and Board Member of the USCOC’s Institute for a Competitive Workforce, felt that the problem did not belong to the companies, but to the American educational system:

If the problem were as simple as tweaking some hiring practices and increasing workplace training, it would be done by now. … Too many of our children are leaving high school without the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in college or the workforce.

For those of us who benefited from the consulting/technology apprenticeship programs of the 1980’s and 90’s, a response to her statement might be, “It was simple and it was effective.”

This discussion progressed into a radio broadcast discussion between Ms. Oldham and Dr. Cappelli, hosted by Minnesota Public Radio and reported on by Susan Seitel, in the Huffington Post. If you haven’t hear the discussion, “Why companies aren’t getting the employees they need?”, I suggest that you follow the links below and spend 45 minutes reflecting on this issue. While both participants and callers made their points, Dr. Cappelli’s conclusion was perhaps the most on target,

What employers say the want, uniformly, in the surveys for at least 25 years, is they want work-based skills. They don’t want theoretical stuff. They want work-based skills.  The best way to do that, to learn that material, is on-the-job, in an apprentice-like arrangement. … The problem that most of the workers now are having, especially [new graduates], is the application wants work experience already. In an apprenticeship-like program, the economics of this basically says what you pay people less while they get the training. That’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do. You see this also with tuition reimbursement programs. The employer pays the tuition. The student-employee goes to school on their own time, nights and weekends, and they’re co-investing.

Without focusing on the fault, he highlighted the need for a “co-investing” that needs to occur between the employee and the employer. They need to work together to develop the skills the company looks for, even if it requires unpaid or reduced pay time during that training period.

The co-investment of workers and employers is clearly defined in a mentor-apprentice program. The company provides the mentor and the apprentices provide work-products while they learn. Both groups invest time/effort. Both gain benefit.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Dr Peter Cappelli, “Why Companies Aren’t Getting the Employees They Need”, WSJ, 24 October 2011

Dr Peter Cappelli, “’Why Companies Aren’t Getting the Employees They Need’: The Author Follows Up”, WSJ 26 October 2011

Mrs. Cheryl Oldham “Why Companies REALLY Can’t Find the Employees They Need” 3 Part blog entry, 3, 4 & 7 November 2011 [Part 2] [Part 3]

Ms. Susan Seitel, “A Skills Shortage Or Unrealistic Expectations?”, The Huffington Post, 2 December 2011

The discussion on Minnesota Public Radio, “Why companies aren’t getting the employees they need” Broadcast: Midmorning, 11/30/2011, 9:06 a.m.

Doing Well While Doing Good

“Can companies do well by doing good?” That was the question posed by Harvard Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, in her September 2010 MIT Sloan Management Review article. She highlighted that just donating money may be good, but should not be expected to provide a company strategic advantage. She went on to say,

But if a company can integrate the benefits that it offers society more closely into its existing business, that integration can be very sensible and beneficial for the business.

This societal benefit can be related to a “green” design or the quality of the goods produced. It can also be related to the support of the local community through jobs and wages.

We’ve all seen job-creating efforts come-and-go, as they’ve been built around artificial needs. They provided temporary benefit, but returned the workers to their initial no-job state at their conclusion. Such work is provides temporary money to the community, but doesn’t address underlying unemployment / under-employment issues.

An alternative is to identify structured, well-defined jobs within companies that would normally require special training and experience levels of one or two years. These would not be new, temporary jobs, but jobs that are part of the regular business operations. Such jobs could be assigned to teams of apprentices, each guided by a mentor. Unlike make-work job efforts, these initiatives would provide hands-on training to those motivated, inexperienced workers and would lift them into a productive work “experienced” status. More than 84% of the job openings for 2- and 4-year college grads in the Portland Tri-County area require experience.

Apprenticeship-mentorship programs would provide that badly needed experience for these resource groups.

The host/sponsor companies could also realize reduced labor costs by utilizing apprentice-mentor teams instead of the traditional temp-workers while providing an opportunity for experience and on-the-job training to the local, entry-level IT labor force. These companies would be “doing well” for their stakeholders “while doing good” for their communities.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

How to Do Well and Do Good” by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor of Business Administration. MIT Sloan Management Review 51, no. 2 (September 2010).