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Sep 23, 2020

HR encourages managers to have career conversations with their direct reports. This is a nice idea. Unfortunately, when an employee asks, “What’s next in my career?”, the manager may answer, “I have no clue!”

Of course, the manager would probably hedge that a bit in the actual discussion. Still, the point remains that managers are often ill-equipped to have useful career discussions.

Yes, in a few cases, there is a simple job ladder (e.g., junior analyst to analyst to senior analyst), and the manager can discuss what’s involved in moving up. But more commonly, the manager doesn’t have enough information about different jobs in the organization to provide helpful advice.

There is a potential solution for large organizations: use technology to record the abilities required for various jobs in the organization, compare them to the abilities employees have, and then suggest which career options are within reach. Once there is better access to information about jobs, our understanding of the career-planning process flips. Why would we ask the employee to ask the manager to ask the system? It makes sense to let employees drive their own career planning.

One company that’s been at this for a long time is Fuel50. They go so far as to look a few career steps ahead. If an employee is in Job A and they want to be Job Z, then the system can map out potential intermediate jobs that would take the person there. It will also identify which abilities the employee needs to take each step.

In an earlier article, I mentioned internal labor markets and how they could include short-term/part-time gigs people could do while retaining their current jobs. Fuel50 sees these gigs specifically in terms developing the abilities people need to take the next step in their careers. This means that an internal gig labor market can be an important new element in career development, and again, it’s something that employees can drive on their own — once HR has put the right systems in place.

Career development that improves internal mobility helps the company fill job vacancies with proven talent. However, I think the real payoff is in employee motivation. Employees who can envisage a future career are more likely to be engaged and are more likely to work on developing new skills. Even people who are happy in their current jobs will be energized by knowing that they could move if they wanted.

There are some general takeaways from this:

  • Something we always wanted to do, career planning, couldn’t be done well because we didn’t have enough information. Now we do. Let’s seize the opportunity.
  • Historically we’ve thought of managers as having a paternalistic relationship with their direct reports. Some of that remains true. However, in many cases, there is no longer a need to have a lot of managerial involvement in career planning. Given access to the right tools, employees can do things themselves.
  • HR is in a phase where it can reinvent many processes. Moving career planning from a once-a-year, manager-led process to an employee-led, on-demand process is just one example of how technology is changing HR.
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