Talent Management: Part 1 – Role Design and Performance and their Convergence with Uncertainty and Risk


Sometimes we get a deep insight from a single moment or event. The “aha“? A recent writeup on the tragedy of Air France Flight 447 further clarifies for me what I have been articulating in several Blog posts over the last number of months: Role performance is a function of role design. The HR fascination with personal/person centric performance management (PM) is almost a sideline issue in the matter of PM. This like having a “personal” like PM system in the game of Monopoly. The rules of the game (the role setting context) drives player behaviours and related strategies. This is what really matters in PM. The PM context is the part that is under the figurative waterline. I consider PM context the realm of role design and the connected role performance design.

This Blog will explore the lessons from the Air France tragedy and relate them dramatically to the true essence of PM and uncertainty and risk (U&R). Those of us who practice the “dark arts”PM and U&R management may find this series of posts interesting and complimentary to their practices.

The deep insight is courtesy of an article by George Jonas titled: “Once a pilot, now a computer’s sidekick“; in 18 July, 2012 National Post; page A10. Let’s outline some of the article’s key points:

  • Modern planes with their computerized systems are better fliers than the pilots in the cockpits. The caveat? While everything is working properly. When they aren’t, then the pilot goes to work.
  • Pilots don’t fly enough (consequence of the above point?)
  • It isn’t that today’s pilots train fewer hours; it’s that the study of increasingly complex systems and regulations compete for time and emphasis with flying skills.
  • Airmanship and command authority are being boxed in in by petty rules, for the comfort of lawyers and bureaucrats rather than enhance operational efficiency and flight safety.

These are remarkably scathing comments by Jonas. My purpose is not to take sides with him (I have no way of confirming or qualifying his article’s statements) but to explore the OD and related PM and U&R implications if he is right.

The contention is that the role design for pilots is being determined by people who have no competence in flying commercial aircraft (N.B. I realize that many lawyers and bureaucrats are pilots of their own aircraft as a source of recreation and even adjuncts to their professional businesses). I suspect that this is a bit of an over statement, but the thought remains: Who should determine the operational design of a critical role (critical means – failure in the role can result in significant, even catastrophic consequences, hence the logical introduction of U&R to the discussion)?

In strategy work, we OD types typically ask clients to answer two key questions in their deliberations:

  1. Why are you there? (answers the question of purpose)
  2. What is the job to be done? (answers the question of mission and strategic focus)

These two questions are absolutely critically relevant in the determination of the organization’s critical roles (adding to the definition above would also include roles that have a leveraging impact on business process performance – hence we want stars in these roles).

  1. So why is a pilot still in the aircraft? To take over and safely fly the aircraft if the computerized flight systems fail.
  2. So what is the job to be done? To ensure the attending pilot is positioned to most effectively and efficiently safely fly and land the aircraft when the computerized systems fail.

This last point operationalizes our strategy decision making:

  • Will an increase in the number of rules and regulations contribute to pilot performance during system failure circumstances? At what point do the number/diversity of regulations get in the way of pilot performance? A recent post (OD Concept of Uncertainty and Risk – the limits of human understandability) explores these issues from another angle)
  • Are we allocating pilot training to the “job to be done” effectively? This extends to simulator, inflight, and even study like learning opportunities.
  • In order to ensure that pilot skills develop and remain at high readiness to effectively intercede level is our training supporting this? Do we need to rethink how we use pilots during their time in the cockpit? How do we keep flight crews alert while they “sit there”? On this last thought I am reminded of watching a baseball game where everyone in the field except the pitcher and catcher are waiting for something to happen that involves them. So the challenge is to stay alert (so as to be able to mentally respond quickly) and to stay loose and warm (so as to be able to physically respond quickly and correctly).
  • Who should make the call (and take professional responsibility) for pilot role design and related tasks (including pilot development and readiness sustainment)? Please note: I have a deep and abiding aversion to technically incompetent players being key interlopers in this process. However, lawyers and bureaucrats are part of our lives so they have a contribution to make as we incorporate stakeholders’ perspectives and insights.

Okay, so most of our clients do not operate airlines. BUT, how many have roles that are eerily similar to piloting aircraft? Do you have an industrial base to your operations? If so, do you have system operators charged with monitoring complex safety/operational sensitive processes. these are roles that potentially have similar inherent U&R exposures.

For those of us in OD, the Air France flight 447 tragedy brings to mind the critical questions above as well as who needs to be in the room while significant potential U&R exposing decisions are being made about such roles.

For this of us in PM, this tragedy brings to mind that performance is sometimes driven by context more than person centric processes. How do we recognize these opportunities? Flag any role where dysfunctional behaviour persists over time even with changes in participants. Where we see “good” people become dysfunctional, we are seeing   an iceberg of “inimical” role performance at work.

My next post will further explore the OD related U&R aspects in Jonas’s article.

Some of my other posts that explore aspects of the issues raised in this post:

Talent Management: Role Ambiguity is a Road to TroubleTalent Management: Balancing Performance PressuresTalent Management: Where to Consider Making Performance Improving InvestmentsTalent Management: Implications on Role Design/Performance of an Older WorkforceTalent Management: Nokia, RIM & Microsoft vs. Google & AppleTalent Management: Performance Management’s Part in the System

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About 123stilllearning456

As a management consultant I am passionately interested in talent management and risk/uncertainty issues. In the area of talent management I propose that we seek strategies that look beyond the staffing/employee centric frames of reference. I have been frustrated at the "closing down on possibilities" by these more conventional staffing/employee centric approaches. I have been impressed where people have found systematic solutions to their talent management issues by going beyond the conventional approaches. In the area of risk and uncertainty, I am interested in making this topic relevant to more normal decision making situations. My conceptual foundation is to use the micro-economist's fixed/variable cost theme. I also think it is important to look at these issues for people through their emotional and psychological lens. As a premise I think risk and uncertainty only exist where there is a person who cares about possible events and its consequences. Hence, risk and uncertainty are social based concepts (no sentience, no risk and uncertainty). A major influence on my thinking in this area is Nassim Taleb of "Black Swan" fame. This BLOG provides me with an opportunity to express my thoughts on topics that interest me. As this is an online diary, content is more important to me than polish. I apologize if this distracts from readers' enjoyment and learning. Still I find this a useful way to live up to my namesake, learn more from others and hopefully provoke creative thoughts and ideas in others.
This entry was posted in Decison Making, Performance Management, Risk & Uncertainty, Strategy, Talent Manangement, Values and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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