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Productivity: the importance of improving.... ability

Published 20th December 2017 by Investors in People
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Productivity in advanced economies is stalling, with the UK faring particularly badly. Why? There are many plausible economic explanations that we as a country are grappling with. But what can organisations themselves do in order to drive productivity? In a new article series, Investors in People will look at what makes human-driven organisations productive: this article, the second, looks at ability.

What do we mean by ability?

If an employee has the resources necessary to complete their job, we can say they have the ability to complete their job. Different jobs require different resources from different domains: physical resources, emotional resources, mental resources and technical resources.

Physical resources include equipment, clothing and a suitable workspace. Emotional resources include emotional intelligence and resilience, while cognitive resources include reasoning, tacit knowledge and abstract thinking. Soft skills, such as relationship-building and communication, require resources from both the emotional and cognitive domains.

Finally, there’s technical skills, which are often industry-specific, such as knowing how to use software packages and tools, or specific frameworks or ways of interpreting information that are common to that industry.

What drives ability?

If we consider ability to be driven by the acquisition of important resources in these domains, we see that many things drive ability both from the individual side and the organisational side, including:

  • Growth mindset: growth mindsets are grounded in a belief that talent and success come from hard work rather than innate ability and, therefore, that we can improve our ability through practice and learning. It’s important for individuals to have a growth mindset, but also for the organisation to believe in growth mindsets collectively, because this influences learning provision available to employees
  • Formal education/training: some jobs have specific education paths that, when completed, signify a basic or advanced ability to do the job. These often couple together both technical resources and cognitive resources and may also include soft skills. Think degree and higher degrees, for example, or specific professional tracks for accountants
  • On-the-job learning: the 70/20/10 model of learning suggests that 70% of learning should come from on-the-job experiences in order to drive optimal outcomes. Environments that encourage experimentation and provide space for individuals to innovate, improve ability because they encourage self-development around existing job tasks and responsibilities
  • Domain knowledge: it’s difficult to know what resources drive ability if we don’t understand the domain we are working in. What software packages are important? Is the market changing what services customers want? Keeping abreast of domain developments allows organisations and individuals to better understand where learning and development efforts need to focus
  • Learning ability: for organisations, this involves creating the right environment for effective learning. For individuals, this refers to the knowledge and skills needed to learn efficiently, for example knowing how to make the most of online content and how to put learning into action to avoid the forgetting curve. Motivation to learn is also important
  • Two-way employee voice channels: if employees aren’t honest about existing abilities, it’s hard for organisations to develop effective L&D provisions. Employees that are honest about their ability gaps will find it easier to get the support they need to improve. On the organisational side, developing strong employee voice channels is a core task for HR so that employees feel like they will be heard
  • Work-life balance: effective recuperation and time spent away from work re-energises the brain and provides the capacity needed to focus sustainably in the workforce, which is crucial for ability. Work-life balance is essentially a way to shore up our emotional resources

It’s important, particularly for HR, to remember that ability can also be temporarily limited due to environmental factors, such as a noisy office, or more chronically limited, such as through poor chair choice that causes back pain. We so often think of ability as driven by skills, which of course it is, but we must also remember that it can get taken away if we pay insufficient attention to the working environment.

Emotional resources include emotional intelligence and resilience, while cognitive resources include reasoning, tacit knowledge and abstract thinking.

Why is ability important for productivity?

As we highlighted in our last article in this series, productivity is defined as the amount of value added per employee in a specific amount of time. When we have the ability to do something, we are able to do it in an optimal way, with fewer errors. This allows us to drive greater value, leading to higher productivity. Ability also drives productivity in more specific ways, including:

It reduces the cost and obstacles to agility

Organisational agility is built on the ability of individuals to change what they do. The smaller the change feels, and the more confident employees feel in making the change, the smoother and more frictionless it will be. When employees are more able to do the job, the change doesn’t feel so scary and so they can more easily respond to shifts in market demand or consumer behaviour. This is important in an age when organisational learning is considered crucial to success in a fast-changing world.

It ensures self-doubt and uncertainty don’t weaken decision-making

The HR commentator Josh Bersin has said that for organisations to be effective, employees must feel like they are doing a good job. If employees feel they aren’t doing a good job, and that others think the same about them, it can encourage self-protective behaviours, such as avoiding making optimal decisions if they aren’t in the employee’s comfort zone. By enhancing employee ability to cope with the demands of the job, organisations help ensure decisions are made in line with organisational need, rather than self-interest or fear.

It aids retention of talent and succession planning

When organisations focus on developing employee ability, they also aid retention and succession planning. Data suggests that L&D opportunities are as important as, if not more important than, salary when it comes to choosing whether to move to another job.

Developing employee ability stops talent flight, saves money on recruiting new staff which can be ploughed back into increasing performance, eliminates the time-to-effectiveness gap that always occurs when new starters join, and improves engagement of existing staff.

Keeping abreast of domain developments allows organisations and individuals to better understand where learning and development efforts need to focus

And if L&D activities are aligned with organisational strategy, succession planning becomes easier because the organisation has a greater number of high-performing staff with the right abilities to drive the strategy forwards.

5 ways for HR to ramp up ability in organisations

  1. Help managers understand why ability is not just about skills: line managers must understand all the different types of resources employees need in order to be able to do something, including emotional and cognitive resources. Educating them on a less well-known area, such as energy management, is a good first step
  2. Encourage the organisation to define ‘what good looks like:’ when organisations are clear on expectations, employees can more easily map their existing abilities against these expectations and develop greater self-awareness of what they need to change in order to meet them
  3. Provide experiential learning opportunities: experiential learning opportunities are good environments to help employees see how lacking one particular resource can scupper their ability to perform effectively. When employees view ability as holistic - to include all different types of resources - they are less likely to ignore abstract areas, such as soft skills
  4. Improve employee voice channels: employees aren’t always confident telling line managers where their ability gaps are, so it’s important organisations create strong employee voice channels to facilitate honest feedback. Ability gaps around core resources, such as interpersonal skills, should be a focus for HR because these can be detrimental to effectiveness in multiple areas
  5. Focus on leadership resources at managerial levels: as already stated, line managers are crucial when it comes to helping employees develop their own abilities and applying these abilities to be more productive. This requires strong leadership ability, which is of course also dependent on having specific resources. HR should therefore focus on strong leadership development and ongoing support

Want to read more about how HR can ramp up productivity in the modern UK workplace? Take a look at our article on Focus.