Lattice vs. Ladder

Some companies are finding retention and engagement benefits in encouraging employees to consider lateral career moves as new paths to success.

Monday, November 1, 2010
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Did you just hear that? And that?

That was the rumble of tiny earthquakes in the world of work.

Tremors over the last decade have yielded flattening organizations, increased globalization, evolving employee demographics and, most importantly, a shift in what it means to create a good working environment.

That's a lot of trends coming together at once, making it a challenge to attract, retain and engage the best employees.

And that was all before the biggest earthquake of all -- the recession -- hit in 2008.

Back in 2006, Deloitte had a big "aha" moment, says Molly Anderson, director of talent for Deloitte Services in San Francisco. The consulting firm was developing a new talent-management framework called Mass Career Customization for its 45,000 employees and clients.

The approach, which completed its rollout this year, maps out skills and talents needed for various job roles and allows employees to develop their own career paths by getting additional experience outside their current job titles -- without having to move to a competitor.

"What we started to recognize in ourselves," says Anderson, "was that we were responding to the trends but not necessarily stepping back and understanding the strategic implications of all the trends happening at the same time."

To deal with those trends, Deloitte, like many other organizations, began exploring the concept of a career "lattice," a three-dimensional model in which employees could move up, sideways or even back down, depending on their career or personal goals. It's all about retention and engagement. Lateral moves have become the new ladder to success.

"If you understand the underlying shift of the trends, then your processes can be directed to where they should be in the future," says Anderson, who is co-author -- with Cathleen Benko, Deloitte's vice chairman and chief talent officer -- of The Corporate Lattice: Achieving High Performance in the Changing World of Work. "It's like skating to where the puck will be before it is hit."

To meet the new challenges, it's often employees themselves who see the skills of the future. When employees customize their careers though lattice moves, companies can find and tap them when demand for the new skills increases. Now, with the aid of technology to map out career architecture and linkage to HR systems to match employees' skills to that architecture, it's possible for workers to take responsibility for their own career development, with increased flexibility on the part of employers who are now encouraging lateral moves.

"It's a perfect storm," says Stacey Harris, principal analyst for Bersin & Associates' Talent Management division, based in the Cleveland/Akron area. "Before, [lattice talent management] was a bit of lip service. You know, 'Come on in and we'll move you around.' Now, technology has moved up to finally match the hype. We have the ability to track employee profiles, what they like to do, what their backgrounds and experience are. The systems and tools are enterprisewide and companies are investing in them for specific roles -- especially leadership positions."

Harris says technology has made the tracking of skills and roles easier in recent years with the development of talent, learning and performance-management systems, such as SuccessFactors, Saba, SumTotal and Deloitte's Mass Career Customization. Meanwhile, enterprisewide HR data systems like SAP, Oracle/Peoplesoft and Workday also are starting to offer talent-management functionality.

The problem, says Harris, is that no one system does it all, and none of them can do the hard work of developing a company's career lattice architecture for various positions. That strategic work has to be done by HR and the organization's leadership.

The advantage of social-media-oriented sites such as Yammer, Sharepoint and an emerging LinkedIn offering is that they encourage organic development of not only cross-organization collaboration, but introducing people to lesser-known areas of an organization, allowing for a measure of self-directed lattice career development.

The key is to develop a strategy that helps employees plan their own careers, and lets an organization understand and accommodate the goals and needs of different employee generations.

It should also be a strategy that fundamentally changes ingrained ideas about what career success means to employees and managers, and that implements strategies that benefit both individuals and the corporate bottom line.

Lattice Advantages

Two years ago, the corporate unit of Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, based in Minneapolis and Appleton, Minn., began rolling out Deloitte's Mass Career Customization framework, branding it as Thrivent Career GPS. The initials stand for "goals" and values that people aspire to in their personal and professional lives, the "profile" of life and work, and the "sweet spot" where the person's strengths and passions intersect with the needs of the business.

Thrivent promoted the new approach by developing case studies of people who had successfully built lattice-like careers prior to the rollout. So far, about 500 of the 2,200 employees in the corporate unit have gone through the introductory workshops.

Barbara Foote, Thrivent's vice president for the Enterprise Effectiveness and Talent Office, came on board three years ago to help implement the organization's new talent-management strategy, an area in which she saw great potential.

"In order to really thrive here -- no pun intended -- you have to be passionate about our purpose," she says. "It has really been a journey here, shifting the paradigm from a career ladder, which was a cultural thing here as well as throughout the corporate world, to this idea of a lattice."

Foote hopes that, within five years, the organization's culture will fully embrace lattice career planning, and she thinks that, two years into it, they are nearing the tipping point. The language of lattice is spreading among Thrivent's senior management; in fact, at a recent meeting, the group of senior leaders submitted a tiny wooden ladder and a similarly sized lattice to the organization's "cultural museum."

The career lattice of broad-based experience "really fits Thrivent, as a faith-based organization," she says. "Our culture is built on strengths and talents in serving the purpose of the organization. If you are really clear about those two things, you can bring those things to the table to get that match. You can't do that if you have one set of experiences."

Foote, for example, applied for one job in her 33-year career, and that was as an administrative clerk typist in Thrivent's marketing department. Three years ago, after a 30-year career in sales and field management, she's heading up the talent-management unit. "The common thread through all of that is that I loved helping people figure out how they could get better," she says.

She also points to Terry Timm, vice president of corporate administration and services, who has held positions in product development, marketing, finance and administration over his nearly three-decade career. "He's got this sort of wisdom about him and he's really able to put things into perspective," she says..

Another employee, Michele Durkin, joined Thrivent five years ago in research and now, harkening back to her psychology background, is manager of inclusion and diversity at Thrivent. "How do you go from research to that?" Foote asks. "It's about helping people find what the common thread in their career is.

"Our mantra is that it's all about the conversation and moving people from a once-a-year discussion of performance to an ongoing dialogue about what is important to you, what do you really care about, what are some of the things that are going on at Thrivent that you'd be interested in," says Foote.

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"It's about moving people from the notion that, 'I'm going to get tapped on the shoulder' for an opportunity to be more proactive. At the end of the day, people want to make a difference," she says.

Changing the Career Paradigm

Harris of Bersin & Associates says the more sophisticated the talent-management strategy, the lower the turnover rate, according to Bersin's 2010 Talent Management Factbook.

That can have a big impact, since the turnover rate for entry-level talent in 2009 was 15 percent and mid-level talent turnover was 7 percent. It's also a generational thing. The millennials (aka, Generation Yers) have very different work/life goals than their parents. Harris says they are more frequently asking, "What am I going to get out of that company and am I invested in the work I do?"

"That's causing a bit of backlash from hiring professionals. You can't afford to train everyone," she says. After finding the person with the right skills, background and cultural fit, the other requirement is someone who wants to move around because you can't afford to replace them in two years.

Finally, one of the major roadblocks to lattice career development is the manager factor, says Beverly Kaye, CEO of Career Systems International, based in Scranton, Pa., and author of Up is Not the Only Way (see sidebar).

She says effective lattice career-development systems will fail if managers only see the strategy as a way to pirate their people. "It's about growing the enterprise, not just my area," she says. "That's a tough mind-set to change. Organizations that do a good job of advertising and celebrating people who've moved laterally will have more success."

Where managers and employees also get caught, says Anderson, is where the choices are. "People can get overwhelmed by making choices in conditions of high uncertainty. ... It's about finding the sweet spot," she says, "where business aligns with individual needs."

For the 170 employees of the State Volunteer Mutual Insurance Co., based in Brentwood, Tenn., lattice careers are part of corporate culture, but now they're being formalized with a technology solution that shares job models and opportunities over the internal network to help employees move around.

News travels fast through e-mail and word of mouth when a newly created position or job opening comes up. "Since this rarely happens, the word spreads quickly," says Cindy Flum, director of office services and human resources. "It is part of our culture -- I just was notified of a transfer this morning that two managers had worked out between them.

"We utilize our professional staff -- attorneys, nurses, programmers, accountants, etc. -- throughout our organization, not just in those respective departments," says Flum. "We also add people who have specific areas of expertise, such as underwriting or claims, and put them in our [information technology] department to help in the business development of our proprietary programs and processes, since they were end-users prior to coming to IT."

In the case of the recent transfer negotiated between managers, this was a good example of a work/life balance lateral move. A medical-information-services employee moved to a risk evaluation services consultant position. The reason? Because her daughter went off to college and she suddenly had more flexibility, so traveling with the RES department was now a possibility. And, the new position used skills that her old job hadn't.

The overall strategy has been a success, Flum says, because it has not only helped with employee training and development, but also with succession planning. "Attorneys aren't just in claims," she says. "RNs aren't just in medical areas.

"Now we can look in the database to see where certain skills and training exist throughout the organization. We can put a people on interdepartmental teams that [call for] skills in their backgrounds that they haven't been able to use in their current jobs," she says. "It keeps them sharp."

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