Gap Management

Succession-planning tools let HR identify skills and training gaps before positions become vacant.

Sunday, October 16, 2005
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When Doug Bryant joined Advance Auto Parts three years ago as vice president of organizational development, he was charged with putting a succession-planning procedure in place that would help the company identify competencies needed for each position and incorporate these desired traits into the selection process as openings occurred.

To manage the incredible amount of information involved, he looked to succession-planning software, and the company has quickly seen results. Not only has Bryant been able to push participation in the succession-planning process from the CEO down to the assistant-store-manager-level, he also finds that using the software to codify desired competencies for various positions helps him focus training efforts on those current employees most likely to be tapped for promotion.

"We were focusing on underperformers, but now we realize we can get more benefit from [encouraging] top performers," he says.

The current state of succession planning is plagued by a lack of focus on the training and mentoring of the employees who are most likely to succeed in future positions, says Katherine Jones, research director for enterprise applications with Boston-based Aberdeen Group.

"Career pathing has been fragmented, where it even existed," she says. "The golden boy or golden girl stands out in an organization, but are they really [able to be] an executive? There should be a way of anticipating better, of keeping track of who can fill a position -- which of the Indians could be the chief tomorrow."

There is reason to believe that many organizations are eschewing even the most rudimentary succession-planning activities. The International Public Management Association for Human Resources conducted a survey of its members (including cities, counties, states, federal agencies and institutions of higher education) in January 2004 to determine how many had a workforce-planning process in place.

Only about a third of the respondents had such a plan, which IPMA-HR defined as "a process that includes defining staffing requirements, identifying current staff availability, projecting future staff availability, and calculating specific differences between staffing supply and demand." Because many survey respondents without such a plan declined to participate in the study, the actual numbers may be even lower.

Time is not on the side of the companies and organizations that do not have a succession plan in place. With the much-touted "graying of the workforce" in full swing, baby boomers are preparing to retire from or reduce their participation in companies in large numbers, leaving vacancies from CEO to shift supervisor waiting for a successor. To predict these future vacancies, understand the existing bench strength that could be tapped to fill them and identify where gaps exist, many companies and institutions are turning to succession-planning software.

Rising Stars Overlooked?

Finding potentially overlooked stars was a priority for Stacey McFarlane, corporate director of talent management, human resources and leadership strategy for Northrop Grumman, a defense contractor headquartered in Los Angeles with more than 125,000 employees worldwide.

The company is in the early stages of implementing succession-planning software from Wayland, Mass.-based Softscape, and McFarlane already finds the tools allow the company to "look at things more holistically."

"In talent management, people recommend people they know [for advancement]," she says. "But people socialize differently," creating the risk that a rising star may be overlooked because of a personality or position that flies under the radar. By using a software package to identify rising stars and future gaps, the company is better able to recognize and develop existing talent.

Although the Softscape application is relatively new to Northrop Grumman, having been rolled out only to vice presidents and directors, it already has allowed the company to do some initial planning for future upper-level vacancies.

"When looking for a successor [to a particular position], we went back and looked for a development plan [for the incumbents] to be sure it aligns with the time frame," McFarlane says.

She notes that, regardless of the effectiveness of the software package, its utility depends on the match between corporate culture and expectations. "Training and communication are critical. Build a system that starts with where you are and will grow to where you want to be," she says.

Throughout the Ranks

One of the major strengths of succession-planning software is its ability to manage a large amount of data concerning both the requirements of various positions and the strengths and experience of current employees (and, sometimes, past applicants and future prospects).

This makes it easy to identify possible successors to various positions, and as a result, some companies are rolling succession planning out to more levels of employees than ever before.

Such is the case with Advance Auto Parts, headquartered in Roanoke,Va. The company uses its succession-planning software, purchased from Waltham, Mass.-based Authoria, to empower increasing numbers of employees to participate in succession planning.

"[Succession planning] is the way we steer the ship," says Bryant. According to him, when a change to company direction is desired, the first step is to change the competencies that characterize a leadership position within the system, such as requiring certain experiences or certifications. When that position is next vacant, a person with the newest competencies will be selected.

Advance Auto Parts began its new succession-planning process three years ago with a manual process designed to teach employees about the new system. Human resource managers interviewed district managers to create profiles of employees and gather data about the workforce for succession-planning activities.

Although the process was time-consuming, this was an opportunity to pilot-test the system before going electronic in order to "avoid automating a system that didn't work," Bryant says.

The software enables the company to manage succession in more positions, because the employees themselves are responsible for updating their own information. "We launched the Web-based system, and employees could go in on their own," says Bryant, explaining that each person can use the Web interface to enter data about education, experience and interests.

Regional vice presidents and the company's field team were the first to embrace the system, which is now used to manage the succession plans for more than 6,500 employees.

"We're now doing succession planning from the CEO through assistant manager [level]," says Bryant, adding that plans are in the works to extend succession planning to all of the company's 40,000 employees.

For Medica, a health-care provider network based in Minneapolis with approximately 1,000 employees, the recent introduction of Softscape's succession-planning software has given the company the ability to see where gaps exist and estimate the time required to bring existing employees up to speed.

Medica's gap-analysis process provides it with "a picture of the organization now. We see where there are gaps in training and where we have no successors," says Nora Compton, the company's project manager for HR strategy and metrics.

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The company is still in the early stages of implementing the software, with managers at the director level and above working on building personal profiles. Nonetheless, Compton is already impressed with the flexibility of the "plain vanilla version of the program."

For example, simple tailoring of the software allowed Medica to make adjustments to reflect its own bench-strength needs, such as changing the pre-set definition of bench strength from four viable successors for certain positions to a more manageable two.

Effective use of succession-planning software also requires HR to do some planning and research prior to making a purchase. ADVO, a print media company headquartered in Windsor, Conn., is using the tools to better manage the career paths of its 3,800 associates.

Kathy Green, director of leadership development for ADVO, recommends that companies looking to purchase such software be clear about their own needs instead of being swayed by seductive sales pitches.

"Have a clear understanding of what your process is and what you do," she says, explaining that ADVO selected SuccessFactors' Performance Management and Succession Planning modules after meeting with potential vendors and presenting to them ADVO's own assessment of its needs for data tracking, report creation and other functionality.

"A lot of vendors try to sell you on what their product does," she says. "Know what is truly important to you -- is this critical, or is it nice to have?"

For example, Green says, a relatively minor but important feature is the software's ability to use drop-down menus to characterize data items such as education, in which an M.S., M.A., and M.B.A. degree should all be categorized initially as a "master's degree" for sorting purposes.

Another function, the ability for employees to update their own profiles, has already yielded results for ADVO when a search for a leader with a CPA certification turned up a vice president who holds the certification but does not use it in his current position and had not made this competency widely known.

Looking Ahead

Succession-planning software is "still very much in turmoil," says Steve Larsen, an analyst with international consulting firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide, based in Washington. 

He explains that companies are finally beginning to "connect the dots," joining succession-planning components with other ERP modules to make truly integrated systems, thus allowing firms to holistically manage governance, people, processes and technology.

Larsen believes succession-planning software is most effective for companies that have reached a certain size. "Organizations greater than 5,000 to 10,000 employees are viable candidates," he says. "It's difficult for smaller organizations to attain the critical mass."

Jim Holincheck, vice president for research and senior analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Group, sees the software facilitating better talent-development processes for the companies that use it.

By helping companies gain a better perspective on existing talent and potentially problematic gaps, human resource executives can better target mentoring, coaching and training efforts, he says.

Succession-planning systems can also integrate with applicant-tracking systems, allowing companies to recruit and hire with future as well as current needs in mind. Holincheck says this integration allows companies to maintain lists of successors that are not current employees, "getting more external candidates in the mix instead of paying search firms."

Overall, HR practitioners and analysts agree that succession-planning software is still in its early stages, with much growth potential for integration with compensation, training and applicant-tracking systems. "There is still evolution with these applications. It is intelligent access to data," Holincheck says.

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