A Human Inventory

New software can help companies map their corporate DNA.

In some cases, knowledge mapping can have a direct impact on corporate goals. Take Dow, for example. Executives at the Midland, Michigan-based company are currently assessing what skills the company needs to execute its broad business strategy. Toward that goal, the $40 billion (in revenues) manufacturer of chemicals, plastics, and agro-products is undergoing a global exercise in building competency models for jobs in each geographic location and function. Explains Walker: “We’re taking a supply-chain
approach to talent management.”

The models, which represent an ideal set of skills and expertise for each position, go well beyond job descriptions. For example, a model doesn’t just indicate that an employee in a certain post should be a team player. Rather, the model describes what it means for the person to be a team player and the behaviors he or she should exhibit. Essentially, these job models are overlaid on a skills inventory. “We benchmark the models against the actuals to identify gaps,” notes Walker.

The company then designs its training and development program around moving people through the models. The job models are also used for performance reviews, along with compensation, hiring, and succession planning. The key, Walker believes, is slotting workers into positions that not only match their abilities, but also their career goals. Argues Walker: “It is the only way that huge organizations can be entrepreneurial.”

Of course, companies don’t need to create competency models—a big task—to benefit from a skills inventory. Many companies already conduct limited reviews of employee skills, usually compiling a simple company directory or organizational chart with low-level information like education, title, and number of direct reports.

Experts say these efforts often fail to capture useful information about the real capabilities of a worker, however. And while that gap can be narrowed by examining performance reviews, the information usually isn’t tied together in any meaningful way. “Until recently, quite a bit of this information was kept in various places,” says Brad Smith, a talent-staffing and workforce-planning expert at Hewitt Associates LLC, a human-resources services firm. “And the different technologies that stored it didn’t necessarily talk to each other.”

Compounding the problem: performance reviews and statistics are generally kept by a company’s HR department. Unless this information is being used to promote or hire from within, HR is often stingy about sharing it. This stinginess is understandable. Raw performance-review data is highly sensitive material. “There are moral and legal concerns about how that information is shared,” says Kate Ehrlich, senior technical staff member at IBM Research.

Creepy Crawlers

Nevertheless, some companies are capturing employee data, bringing it together in one place, and pushing the process out to other departments and functions. “More and more companies are trying to move this away from HR and into the business units,” says Smith. Performance reviews, peer reviews, so-called 360-degree reviews (where subordinates rate their superiors) can be distilled into profiles of what employees know and what skills they use in their jobs, removing the sensitive information about how well they do their jobs.

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