Chances are, you know more about high school classmates you haven’t seen in 20 years than you do about the colleagues and coworkers spread across your company. People will lovingly craft elaborate profiles on Facebook, detailing out their every interest and activity for the past decade, but have a difficult time writing a one paragraph skills summary for their job. This is especially true if that skills summary is going to be shared with coworkers, say in a searchable directory. Such directories can be invaluable to an organization that wants to “know what they know” but getting them built and then maintained is a tremendous challenge. Most such initiatives ultimately fail due to this reticence of staffers to “let their light shine.” The problem isn’t laziness, writers block or professional humility. It is the fear of being exposed as a fraud.
If you are good at what you do, those you work with will know. If you’re not so good at what you do, well, they’ll know that to and some will delight in pointing it out. Declaring yourself an expert or even just “advanced”on a topic can feel like painting a large target on one’s forehead in some corporate cultures. Another source of self-doubt arises when your profile is exposed across the organization. You know how your knowledge and skills compare to those of your team members, but what about someone elsewhere in the organization that lists the same skill. How does your skill level and knowledge stack up against them? Some people will declare themselves “expert” after reading one article in Wired while another still thinks she’s a novice after leading two major projects on the same topic.
These are some of the challenges of explicit skills profiling. Employees are the best source of information for cataloging what they know, what they can do and where their interests lie. Pulling this information into a consistently structured, searchable system is the best way to expose that information to the organization as a whole. Doing so can unearth opportunities for collaboration, cross-training and overall organizational capacities that were previously unknown and untapped. Collaboration platforms have largely eliminated technical barriers to creating these profiles, (SharePoint My Sites and People Search are nice examples) but the cultural hurdles still must be overcome.
First, staff must see the benefits of promoting their skills within the organization. The notion of “personal branding” has gained acceptance over the past several years, but mostly in terms of promoting yourself outside of the organization. The ethic put forth in a now famous Fast Company article from 1997, “The Brand Called You”, is just as applicable within the organization as it is without. The upshot, according to the article, is “You’re every bit as much a brand as Nike, Coke, Pepsi, or the Body Shop.” A good solid brand is clear, concise, recognizable and well known. Most of them also have product sheets, readily available, convenient summaries of what a company has to offer and what the benefits are. For the individual, this is the skills profile. Potential colleagues, customers and collaborators need a ready reference for what the organization, team and individual have to offer.
As the notion of personal branding gains currency, resistance to explicit profiling may disappear, but the challenge of consistent assessment remains. This is the ‘how do I stack up” problem. To address this, the organization needs to develop criteria for each skill rank. These are often couched in terms of years of experience in a particular area, but this can still lead to inconsistencies. Is five years as a Content Management team lead really equivalent to five years of reading magazine articles on ECM? A better metric is an accounting of projects and daily duties. This will also help fill out the profile. A list of past projects and roles, along with a summary of the time and tenure they represent, is a much more accurate measure of expertise than an arbitrary self-evaluation of “beginner”, “intermediate” or “expert”.
A bit more controversial but ultimately very effective technique is to allow user ratings of profiles or even specific sections of profiles. Most knowledge-base and web content management platforms facilitate content rating. This can be a simple, anonymous way to provide a reality check on a skills profile. An experience history of two projects with five stars is going to be viewed very differently from a five project history with two stars. This can be ego-bruising or ego-building but it provides valuable feedback to the users. The searcher can get a sense of the trustworthiness of the profile and the profile owner can monitor the health of their personal brand.
Even if employees understand the benefit of a well crafted, easily discoverable, personal profile it is still one more thing for them to get done in the day. Unless it is made a priority, (dare I say, a requirement) only a small minority of the staff will actually do it. Creating and populating the directory needs to be a formal initiative with management backing. You can make it easier by creating stub profiles for every employee consisting of the absolute basics that can be pulled from the HR system. Usually, with a little upfront effort on the part of the administrator, much this can be automated. Then with the stubs in place, make populating it to a certain baseline level a project with the usual milestones, deliverables and accountability. If you recognize those who go the extra-mile and show them as examples of what is possible, the repository will tend to take on a life of its own.
The ultimate motivation comes when the repository actually gets used. Management can and should take the lead in this. Include links to profiles in communications that mention an individual or team. When selecting employees for opportunities, say attending an attractive conference or training, pull your selections from the profiles. Matching opportunities to profiles can be a wonderful motivator. The skills profile can also be a centerpiece of annual reviews. Not so much in terms of did the employee create one for themselves but in terms of how has it changed since the last review. If properly maintained, it will show how their skills and knowledge have grown over the course of the year. Cumulatively, the explicit skills profiles of all employees will reflect how the organization is progressing in knowledge, expertise and capability.