Thursday, August 20, 2009

Different maps

As we have remarked on this blog, paths that might lead us out of the dead ends we find ourselves trapped in can go undiscovered because we don’t employ the right maps. We search and search the maps we have available to us, within our own narrow professions or disciplines, and find no direction. We remain unaware that colleagues working in adjacent professions or disciplines – perhaps several floors away within the same organization – could help us. They map the world differently, because their profession or field cares about different things, values different outcomes, measures success differently.

Sharing knowledge – initiating the right conversations – is the most difficult task many of us face in the workplace. A recent article in HR Magazine, “Managing the People Who Manage Projects,” (membership required) draws attention to the point of intersection between those who manage talent and those who manage projects, and the implication of the article is clear. HR managers – who have a key role to play in assessing talent, in managing the training and development of employees, and in shaping compensation packages – and project managers – who mainly focus their energies on project outcomes – need to work together more closely.

Firms aren’t going to stop using project teams to accomplish important tasks within their organizations or to accomplish the work firms do for their clients. In many ways, this is the new model for organizing work; it offers flexibility, efficiencies, and scalability. Project managers are everywhere, as shown by the membership growth of organizations designed to serve the professional needs of project managers. The Project Management Institute has doubled its membership in the past five years.

What type of challenges do project-oriented work processes present to HR managers? The article unpacks three concerns worth focusing on: 1. Developing employees, through training and organizational immersion, who can adapt quickly to new work environments, swiftly climb learning curves, and collaborate productively. 2. Managing reassignments efficiently so talent doesn’t sit on the bench unused. 3. Compensating employees – and engaging their loyalty – so they remain committed to the firm’s goals.

In reality, these challenges aren’t so exotic. HR managers have always needed to think about how they train, employ and compensate their employees. What the article opens our eyes to is this: all of these concerns take on a heightened relevance in a project-oriented workplace. First of all, training in emotional intelligence and programs that help employees walk in colleagues’ shoes give employees the tools to read co-workers on their team more quickly, and facilitates better working relationships. So the types of training HR managers in project-oriented workplaces provide may extend being technical job requirements. Inescapably, employees in project-oriented workplaces will be teamed with many different co-workers, sometimes colleagues from within the firm, sometimes clients’ employees. Quickly understanding everyone’s incentives, work culture, and objectives will help teams coalesce more quickly.

Second, HR managers need to follow project timelines, so they can know, for example, if a project scheduled to run for three months is on schedule, so they can have plans to transition team members to new assignments. Or, if it is delayed, they need to be prepared to recruit new talent (perhaps on a temporary basis) to fill out new teams beginning new projects. Under old staffing models, staff were recruited with an expectation that they would be in their positions indefinitely, and any change in that assignment would be signaled well in advance. Now, HR managers need to remain engaged, helping transition employers out of one project into another, keeping an eye on project deadlines, juggling team members.

Third, especially where employers are spending months at a time working under clients’ roofs, HR managers need to be attentive to the competitiveness of their compensation and benefits packages, in particular in relation to what clients might offer if they choose to lure away a top employee with whom they have worked closely. The goal is make sure that employees working outside the firm’s walls remember that they owe their principal loyalty to the employer signing their paycheck.

What’s the bottom line here? Conversations that bring in multiple perspectives are going to offer a broader field of vision. Reach out beyond your professional or occupational specialty, talk to people who map out the world – or more to the point, your workplace – in ways different than you. You’ll be more successful in navigating your responsibilities, and your organization will be much more likely to reach its destination.

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