Don’t forget about your individual contributors

More attention needed to unique training and development needs of specialists – including HR

By Claudine Kapel

Ensuring employees in leadership or managerial roles receive the training and development they need is often top of mind in organizations.

But what about the development needs of employees in technical or specialist positions who don’t manage people but make vital contributions to the business? These individuals may have technical expertise in an area such as information technology, finance, risk management, legal, research and development or human resources.

And while managing people is not a central function of their roles, they can make significant contributions to the business through their knowledge and thought leadership.

But new research by AMA Enterprise, a division of American Management Association, suggests organizations are only now starting to consider the unique development needs of this cohort of talent. The research reflected responses from 721 senior-level business, human resource and management professionals.

Only 9.7 per cent of respondents indicated their organization has long had a special focus on developing individual contributors. A further 37.2 per cent indicated that in recent years, their organization has become more supportive of developing individual contributors.

It appears many companies are “stepping up” training and development for individual contributors, notes AMA Enterprise. “These are the key people who get things done but may not be part of a team or have any direct management authority.”

Yet 22.5 per cent of respondents indicated that in their organization, individual contributors are still “generally overlooked.”

When asked whether their organization makes any effort to develop individual contributors, only 22.3 per cent indicated they have a formal program to meet their needs. Some 50.8 per cent said they make some efforts, but only on an ad hoc basis.

A further 9.9 per cent indicated they don’t currently have a program for individual contributors, but were planning to have a program in place in the near future. But 10.8 per cent indicated they don’t have a program and don’t expect to implement one.

The most prevalent types of training provided to individual contributors include:

  • Communication skills (65.4 per cent).
  • Skills/competencies specific to individual’s role (59.8 per cent).
  • Leadership development (52.5 per cent).
  • Project management (49.0 per cent).
  • Interpersonal skills (48.2 per cent).

The areas of focus for development aren’t really surprising. Individual contributors often play key roles in managing projects, including cross-functional initiatives, and the nature of their work often calls for them to work collaboratively with others and to provide advice and influence organizational decision-making.

Although the rise of the knowledge worker has been evident in organizations for decades, the increasingly complex nature of business in today’s global environment is making individual contributors increasingly vital to organizations. And at the same time, the need for specialized skills is not only growing – in some cases demand for particular skill sets is outpacing supply.

That’s why development is only one of the considerations when it comes to the care and feeding of individual contributors. Some other key questions that need to be addressed include:

  • What types of career paths can the organization offer an individual contributor?
  • What organizational level can an individual contributor reach without having to migrate into a more traditional management role? For example, can there be individual contributors at the executive level?
  • How should individual contributors be compensated relative to management roles at the same organizational level?

When addressing factors such as career development and pay, be on the lookout for potential unintended consequences. You can create unnecessary staffing and management challenges if you set up a structure in which the only way for an individual contributor to progress or earn more is by moving into a more traditional management role.

Businesses must evolve in the face of changing market and regulatory realities. And new thinking around how talent is managed and developed will be a key success factor for that evolution.

Claudine Kapel

Claudine Kapel is principal of Kapel and Associates Inc., a human resources consulting firm specializing in compensation design, performance management, and employee communications. Claudine is also the co-author of The HR Manager’s Guide to Total Rewards and Straight Talk on Managing Human Resources.
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