How Capable Are Your Employees? 4 Indicators to Get the PICK of the Litter

commodoreHave you ever been stuck using a painfully slow and inefficient computer because it still worked?

Just a few weeks ago, I emptied my garage and office of over a dozen CPUs, printers, and monitors. The cargo area, back seat, passenger seat, floors of my SUV were filled with equipment and components. During the short drive to the local computer recycling center, I was struck by a strange thought: the similarity between these still working working-but-outdated computer hardware and many employees in jobs whose best days have passed.

The simple truth is these functional, reliable, and hard-working computers were no longer able to keep up with the tasks I needed them to do — and when they did, it took too long. Booting up took 5 to 10 minutes, sometimes longer. The operating systems — you know the Windows “stuff” like Windows 98, Vista, and even XP — kept crashing. The CPUs took too long to process information. They couldn’t handle new software upgrades. The hard drives were full and the boards couldn’t support new ones. The modems needed to be replaced because good, consistent high-speed connections required new versions. And let’s not forgot the 15-inch black-and-white monitors. Need I go on?

That same resourceful philosophy for many of us, my friends, doesn’t stop with computers. Many workforces today are filled with loyal, dependable, hard-working employees whose skills don’t match the needs of the organization anymore.

It has been reported that the skills for over 60% of all jobs are held by less than 20% of the population. In 1950, 60% of jobs required unskilled labor. Today, less then 15% of these jobs are unskilled and the number is falling fast.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not promoting a wholesale liquidation of employees. In fact, many of these employees are working harder than ever and even improving their skills through training. The problem is that in today’s fast-paced, rapidly changing, no-room-for-waste environment, many of these same employees are just not keeping up with the increasing demands of the job. Why?

To function successfully in any given role, individuals need capability. Capability can be described as the ability of someone to handle particular levels of complexity and ambiguity. Predictors of employee capability can be narrowed down to four key indicators, represented by the acronym P-I-C-K.

P Stands for Performance (or Pace)

To compete now, employees need to produce more in less time with less waste. Referring back to my computer analogy, employees who run on a 386, 486, or Pentium processor can still get the work done; it just takes them longer. If time isn’t a factor, then working faster is a non issue. But few businesses can afford to ignore drags on productivity. When working harder than necessary to get less-than-optimal output, these employees, like older computers, throw off a lot of heat, too — aka “waste energy.” While the older processors were next-generation at one time, today they are relics, unable to keep up with higher expectations and more demands.

How many employees do you have who are still working with yesterday’s processors when their responsibilities require speeds only available with 3 GHz or more, possibly duo- or quad-core speed for more effective multi-tasking? (For you non-techies, that’s the equivalent of walking fast vs. driving a NASCAR!)

I Stands for Innovation

Innovation fosters growth. Innovative people do more than just throw out new ideas, the proverbial crap against the wall, and hope something sticks. Innovators identify critical constraints and find solutions to relieve bottlenecks. They see the opportunity in the “white space,” where others just see what lives in the here-and-now.

High-performing innovators are also capable of grasping how multiple outcomes might interact with each other. Innovation requires employees, primarily managers, to thrive in a constantly changing and ambiguous world. That in turn requires employees who take risks but continually exercise good judgment.

How effective are your managers at encouraging and stimulating innovation? How innovative are your employees? Do they have the ability to get beyond obstacles and grow your business?

Article Continues Below

C Stands for Complexity

History may have a habit of repeating itself, but life sure seems to get more complicated every day. Analytical and complex-problem-solving skills are critical competencies in today’s ambiguous, paradoxical, and confusing business environment. These skills are defined by cognitive capacity. Cognitive capacity is a measure of mental horsepower, the ability to unravel complex situations, extrapolate consequences, and apply the information in making effective and timely decisions.

Unfortunately, just like yesterday’s computer being incredibly inefficient at running a complex spreadsheet or watching a DVD, many employees aren’t equipped with the capacity to perform simultaneous complex tasks efficiently or effectively. The ability to multitask and work quickly are also hard-wired, intrinsic skills. Like your old computers, sometimes upgrading is just too expensive. After all is said and done, what you have is an old machine working harder and faster but still putting out mediocre performance.

Do your employees have the horsepower and capacity to decipher and unravel your business’s toughest problems at a pace equal or faster than the competition?

K Stands for Knowledge

The days of graduation signaling the end of learning are long gone. Lifelong continuous learning is more than just a buzz-phrase. It’s the catalyst for innovation and competitive advantage. Knowledge is more than information. It’s more than academic degrees, technical certifications, and years of experience. Knowledge is taking what you’ve learned and experienced and applying it in ways you never thought imaginable.

How effective is your culture at attracting and supporting employees passionate about continuous learning? How well do your best and brightest apply the knowledge in effective and productive ways?

Following the four- indicator PICK sets a strong foundation for evaluating the preparedness of your workforce, your leadership and production bench-strength, and leadership growth potential.

How prepared is your business to attract and retain employees who are the best PICK? What tools and assessment methods are you using to evaluate which employees will be able to perform and innovate, deal with complexity, and keep up with the necessary knowledge?


16 Comments on “How Capable Are Your Employees? 4 Indicators to Get the PICK of the Litter

  1. Gurufication of an incredibly complex issue rendered down to an unusable ‘framework’ in the real world.
    P: Yes, pace and productivity are important. However, your focus on unrelenting pace doesn’t work in the real world; numerous studies have shown that pushing productivity ultimately leads to tasks taking longer to complete as tasks end up ‘queuing’. (Thomke and Reinertsen (2012) have written a very accessible article explaining this). Furthermore, the higher productivity is, the more likely the employee is to suffer from burnout/stress. Figures vary, but studies I have seen suggest around 80% productivity gets the best results – the law of diminishing returns applies here; 100% productivity does not mean that you are 100% productive. It is not so much about ‘pace’ as it is about ‘pacing’; as the old adage goes, it’s not a sprint, its a marathon. In a marathon you manage your pace carefully, slowing down where necessary, even taking a break if required, and speeding up only when essential to meet a goal.

    I – Studies on innovation show us why it is hard to achieve. An organisation has two requirements; stability and continuity (which will lead to increased efficiency and productivity) and innovation (which requires freedom, creativity and instability). These are essentially mutually opposing forces and it is very difficult for firms to keep the two in balance (Burgelman, Christensen and Wheelright 2010). Most of your employees will not be able to innovate on a continual basis and should not to asked to do so, otherwise they will never be efficient and productive. Yes, employees should be given some autonomy within their jobs (i.e. to look at a process they are responsible for and say, ‘hmm, this could be done better’), but that ONLY comes after a period of stability and continuity.

    C – Complexity. Everyone loves the idea of multitasking. However, again studies have conclusively shown that multitasking is not natural for the human brain and does not lead to improved performance (Lien, RuthRuff and Johnston 2006); instead, multitasking is likely to diminish the performance of all activities involved. A simple example: imagine if you are walking, and asked to solve the sum 24×37. In experiments that have been carried out like this, people often tend to either slow down or stop walking altogether as attention is directed away from a seemingly easy, unconscious activity to focus on a hard activity that requires a lot of “cognitive capacity”. So when you state that “The ability to multitask” is a “hard-wired, intrinsic skill”, you are stating something that is completely erroneous and is not backed up in any literature. Rather, it is a myth, even if a commonly-held myth. Yes, people need lots of different skills. But, they will perform better if allowed to focus on one activity. Any software developer will tell you that – allow them to plug in their headphones and get to work, and they will be so much more productive than when constantly interrupted to deal with other issues, meetings, phone-calls etc.

    K – knowledge. Knowledge has multiple dimensions, is acquired in different ways and manifests in different ways. Furthermore, knowledge is not subject to the law of diminishing returns – in almost all cases, the more people who possess the knowledge, the more valuable it is. Therefore it is not so much about getting your employees to have knowledge, but allowing them to have easy access to the knowledge that is held within your organisation. One person with a lot of knowledge does not give your firm competitive advantage because the firm does not ‘own’ that knowledge – it stays inside his or her head and walks out the door every evening with them (and for good if they leave you). It only becomes valuable once the firm has regular, uninterrupted access to it, which means having it written down and accessible. Knowledge management is more important to a firm than knowledge itself.

    All in all, by oversimplifying and applying reductionist thinking to highly complex issues, you’ve come up with a framework that is going to alienate 99% of your workers. I’m afraid that this article may do more harm than good.

  2. A great article to reflect the challenges of our time. I like the computer analogy – more importantly learning never ends with a degree, it has to be sought after- with a drive to innovate and succeed.

  3. Nice analogy and I partly agree. However, let’s never forget that employee skills are a representation of the organization itself. In other words, the degree to which they align with employer’s PICK requirements shows how much the organization is doing to promote PICK.

    Do they provide the context for excellent PICK? Do their managers and leaders promote and enable it?

    In my study I found that leaders really, really want reliable employees. The problem often doesn’t lie within the employee but in the reciprocity of the expected outcome. More about it on my blog:

    BTW: I follow your blog and find it very informative. Thank you!

  4. @ Andrew: I wish to strongly object to your thoughtful, analytical, and cited-source-based commentary- it is “too high a bar” for many of us to reach. Furthermore, if my fellow article authors and I eliminated “oversimplifying and applying reductionist thinking to highly complex issues,” there would be very little opinion or advice content in ERE at all. For shame, sir! 😉

    Happy Friday,’Crutaz!


  5. Interesting article! The computer analogy is a good one and you’re right that it is certainly more important than ever before to make sure you have employees who can add real value to your company. Times are changing fast and you need to make sure your workforce is staffed with the best people who can innovate and adapt to change. When hiring, whether you’re talking to someone in person or through a video interview, you should make sure the candidate has the right qualifications for the job. But more importantly, you should make sure the candidate will be able to learn and grow in the position.

  6. @ Andrew Thank you for your response and comments…and challenge. But like Keith, I respectfully disagree. Your position offers excellent support for defining jobs based upon the skills of employees. But to remain competitive, it’s the job specific requirements that should dictate what skills are required. I will agree that not everyone has the capabilities required for today’s work. And I might even agree that we are reaching a point where human capability cannot keep up with expectations and requirements. But by man “integrating” with technology, not just using it, human capability expands exponentially. The pace of change is not the same as pacing. We do not directly control the pace of change. It is defined by the markets and people. By deferring to pacing, companies will fall behind. I’m sure every company would like to slow down the pace of change in order to extend the popularity of a product or service. But that isn’t going to happen. Employers need employees who can keep up and even accelerate change through innovation. The demands of many jobs does put employment out of the reach of a growing segment of the population. I might suggest you look at some of the writing and research of Edward Gordon (2010 Meltdown) and Elliot Jacques (Human Capability). While I’m not a big fan of Jacques, he does have an interesting model when it comes to evaluating the ability of people and organizations. Thanks again for joining in the discussion.

  7. I find the article very intersting and unfortunately, for our workforces today, all too true. I have to battle my own HR group here when trying to update processes, etc as I too often hear that “well, some of our folks don’t want to use a computer” or something similar. I tell them to stop enabling them as they are actually preventing these employees from progressing and getting not only work skills, but life skills. We cannot support a workforce of unskilled labor anymore – those jobs are long gone for the most part.

  8. @John Thanks for joining in. Age really had nothing to do with the criteria. PICK is written from the perspective of what is required in many jobs. In fact, older workers would get the nod in many cases when it comes to knowledge and complexity. But overall, the task at hand is accruately describing the requirements of the job and hiring employees who have the skills, regardless of age. Not only is job discrimination illegal, it’s a bad business practice for many reasons. But mostly because workers of all ages can meet the PICK requirements. I would add that each criteria might also have a different priority for different jobs and companies. Knowledge heavy requirements might favor older workers, pace of change younger workers.

  9. Thank you, Ira. I didn’t “respectfuly disagree” with Andrew, I AGREE with him; I jokingly suggested that the high quality of his response makes our fellow authors and me look bad in comparison.

    ISTM that one of the reasons so many people in the workforce oppose “change” or “innovation” is that it is defined and forced upon them without their input or consent, either directly from management or through the workings of business consultants hired to advise.

    Also,”innovation” usually means something like “you all need to learn version 6.5 of the new SW tool by Monday” as opposed to “we’ve listened to what you’ve all said, and have decided to fire your manipulative, micromanaging, idiot of a boss, and had the security guards escort him right out the door. We don’t care what kind of numbers he produced- that type of management is NO LONGER ACCEPTABLE HERE.”

    Finally:”Not only is job discrimination illegal, it’s a bad business practice for many reasons.” I agree with you. However, many “employers of choice” and an overwhelming majority of startups I’ve seen practice it. As John said, these same firms may use many of the PICK criteria (perhaps quite unintentionally and unconsciously) as reasons to do so.



  10. @ John. Thanks for reply and info about Times article. Got your point about age discrimination. But I’d hope that managers will begin to discriminate more on job fit than age fit.

  11. @ Ira: “But I’d hope that managers will begin to discriminate more on job fit than age fit.” I wouldn’t hold my breath that many will unless they’re dragged into it “kicking and screaming” or until they start facing age discrimination themselves.



  12. @Keith: Hah, I feel like I’ve been handed a report card – under Commenting on Blogs, “Must try less hard!”. Thanks for support, and I do agree that in this kind of blogging, simplification is often a matter of necessity – I blog myself for the Undercover Recruiter so I appreciate the process. Simplification is fine, it’s just oversimplification that becomes an issue.

    @Ira: first of all, thanks for responding – I love it when authors are willing to engage in debate. Firstly, I think some confusion might have crept in at some point, possibly because we each (inevitably) have a different perspective. My comment about productivity was a somewhat resource-based view of people and work; people are capable of carrying out a certain amount of work in a certain time. In allocating that work you should avoid overcommitting resources – as a simple example, someone works 40 hours a week. 36 hours of their time is currently being allocated to three ongoing projects. A manager may well then think, ‘hmm, there’s four hours unallocated there, so I’ll give him another project”. However, that does not make the employee’s time more productive – in fact, I’d argue that it would impact negatively on all the projects he is involved with (and various studies support this). So your comment about man ‘integrating’ with technology to expand capability is valid, but the same restraints still apply. Unless a process is completely automated (which by definition means it needs almost zero human involvement), then the allocation of the employee’s time to the process means it cannot be applied elsewhere. As a simple analogy, say you have a task where you want three employees to travel as many miles as possible in as short a time. One opts to walk, one to bicycle, one to drive. Obviously the one driving will travel the furthest in the shortest time. However, if you then ask them to complete another task at the same time – say, juggling – then resources will have to be reallocated. The walker probably won’t have to slow down to as he juggles. The bicyclist will slow down quite a bit, and the car driver will have to slow down a lot to accomplish both. So whilst I accept that technology improves human capability, and that humans should be multi-skilled, productivity is not as simple as integrate technology into people’s work as much as possible. It also then depends on how they are able to allocate their time, and so thinking about productivity from a ‘pace’ perspective only tells part of the story. Your analogy of comparing people to processors isn’t really apt because as I argued above, people are not naturally suited to multitasking, whilst dual, or quad-core, processors are. Yes, we want people to be able to complete a task in a productive manner, but only part of the answer to that is giving them the technology to speed up the process. The other part is giving them the time to get it done.

    Secondly, I think there is a little bit of creep in your reply when you talk about the ‘pace of change not being the same as pacing’. I don’t deny that change happens within an organisation, nor that it is driven by macro, meso and micro factors. My argument with regards to pace was to do with how employees carry out processes, not the long-term viability of products and/or services. If you give employees the best tools in the world, but give them more work than they can realistically complete in a given time frame, then productivity will be poor. That is what I meant by pacing; giving employees the time they need to do tasks. This is not to suggest that you allow employees to be lazy, but is a simple recognition of fact – if a task takes a certain amount of time to complete with the tools available, then maximum productivity = time available / time per task. Incremental innovation can help reduce the time a task takes, but that doesn’t happen by magic – it requires in-depth knowledge of the processes of that task to identify where improvements can be made. Studies suggest that it is the employees themselves that are best able to drive these kinds of innovations as they have the most familiarity with the tasks; however, that requires the employer to ’empower’ (a word I don’t like but never mind) the employees to make those changes. That is at the heart of many ‘Japanese’ styles of OM, including High Performance Work Systems (HPWS) which are being increasingly used in Western firms. Therefore when you say that employers ‘need’ employees who can drive innovation, I would actually redefine that – employers need to let employees drive innovation. Unfortunately, this is something that Western (in particular US/UK) businesses struggle with – the cult of the “Manager”, which posits a highly controllable and understandable workforce, assumes that management is the driver behind change, when really it isn’t. Managers all too often get in the way of innovative activities and this has been shown in case study after case study (and is something I have experienced myself).

    Your PICK framework seems to assume that really, it is the employees’ faults if a business isn’t performing well, because they aren’t productive enough, innovative enough, unable to multitask, and don’t have sufficient knowledge. I disagree. It is far more likely to be the organisation’s fault, if it is not allowing the employees to be productive (e.g. by assuming that multi-tasking is more efficient when it isn’t), not letting the employees engage in incremental innovation, and failing to manage the organisation’s knowledge resources correctly. It is easier to foist this on the employee, rather than looking at the structural issues within the organisation that need to be fixed.

  13. @ Andrew, you’re very welcome. I’ll check out your Undercover Recruiter blog for “inspiration”, aka, “ideas to steal”.

    Besides the Anglo-American “Cult of the Manager,” (in contrast to European Co-determination []) I think we also operate under a belief that productivity equates to doing more in the same time, rather than doing the same in less time. This also equates to valuing quantity of work over quality and assumes that because something CAN now be done, it SHOULD be done. As a viable alternative: “Simplicity — the art of maximizing the amount of work not done — is essential” which I describe in the “The Agile Recruiting Manifesto”.

    I also agree that management is likely to blame the employees rather than to carefully and thoughtfully examine how the business is organized, because that might require them to admit they have been very WRONG for quite a long time.



  14. @Keith – I think that’s a great point and a key distinction with regards to productivity; more in the same time is not the same as the same in less time. I often think that when discussing productivity, people often fail to make a distinction between ‘work’ and ‘useful’ work. You are only more productive if the useful work takes less time to complete than it did before. However, something a number of researchers have come across is what Baxter and MacLeod (2008) identify as a ‘pink factory’ – the case study in question was of a German automobile manufacture who had frequently been cited for their use of innovative productivity improvement programmes. However, a deeper and more rigorous study found that although these programmes had been put in place in theory, in practice they were largely being ignored, or performance measurements were being cheated. For example, they put in place a metal scrap waste reduction target, and to meet it the workers simply started chucking scrap metal in other bins – rather than dealing with the fundamental issue that caused the scrap metal to be produced, they simply made sure that the target was met by not putting it in the right bin.

    This is something many companies have to deal with where productivity programmes are put into place so that the company can be seen to be putting them into place, and to make the manager responsible look good. If you’re only painting over the cracks in your processes, rather than addressing the underlying issues, performance won’t improve as the same unproductive processes will keep being replicated.

  15. Thank you, Andrew. ISTM that the German company is a far too-common example of superficial compliance without buy-in. The workers were clearly complying with the “letter” of the program- reducing the amount of scrap in the bin, without buying-in to the “spirit” of the program- reducing the amount of scrap.Often programs are designed to make the implementing mangers “get caught while appearing to make a difference” and little of use gets done. I’m no Organizational Development expert, but ISTM that before some significant change is attempted, there should a careful study of who are the involved stakeholders and what they will gain and lose in the process of making the change to maximize their support and minimize their resistance (both active and passive). Ignore that at your peril!



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