Retaining, retraining employees could be key for change

By Thomas Sundgren

United Robots



A well-known axiom in company culture is that employees are a company’s most valuable assets.

A former colleague of mine from the media industry, Kristoffer Darj, who now works with skills development and change management, challenges that axiom in a recent blog post. He argues that, instead of individuals, processes for change management and competency are more valuable.

He also launched a model on how those processes can be best designed to manage transformation. This evoked my curiosity. I asked Darj what, exactly, he meant.

“Well, in a world of transformation, internal and external factors change the terms of existence for every company, and they do so at an accelerated speed,” he said. “Employees leave for other jobs, companies are reorganised, and outside circumstances like the coronavirus changes things in ways no one can foresee.

“Companies that have the best chance of surviving change have a DNA that allows their employees to adapt and evolve fast. That DNA consists of defined processes and models that make the change of competence available to all, actively challenging employees. In that way, processes should be more important than individuals even if it sounds a bit weird.”

Learning blocks: a jumble with direction

In his blog post, Kristoffer outlines possible ways to look for processes for individuals so they can move into new roles and advance within existing ones. To me, it looks a bit like “atomization,” where an organisation defines the exact skill set a position or profession encompasses. To evolve within a position or move to a completely new position means an individual goes through defined learning and training “blocks.” This is how it could look, according to Kristoffer.

To push forward, each individual needs to work through the blocks and steps within the blocks.

“So, there are a number of defined skills that an employee must have,” Darj said. “To evolve, the individual goes through the blocks upwards and forwards. Forward could mean into managerial roles but just as well into a specialist seniority within an area.”

According to the model, the path within a step will be based on the individual, and the exact order of steps taken can differ among individuals.

So, in real life, it probably looks something like this.

“Companies shouldn’t decide the exact order of things within the process,” Darj said. “Different people want to do things in a different order and at different speeds. Some are motivated to start with certain things, others with getting started with other things. It’s sort of a jumble but with a direction.”

Badges to define progress and motivate

“To make progress understandable and people motivated to go forward, the steps in the different blocks are defined by activities and ‘badges,’” Darj said.

“For instance, to earn a badge in basic presentation technique, you might have to hold a presentation for your colleagues where you nail a number of best practices and another one for a customer. And to help you get there, we provide all learning material that you might need, like a certain set of Ted Talks on the subject and questions and exercises for you to reflect upon. But most importantly you have to put effort and time into perfecting your own presentations in real life. If your colleagues think you nailed it, the badge is yours.

“I think it’s important to focus more on behaviour than on formal knowledge. The formal knowledge-only based model that we see in school systems doesn’t work in professional life. For a salesperson, for instance, customers and clients don’t care if you are best in class when it comes to formal knowledge.”

Benefit for organisations and companies

In Darj’s opinion, companies that design the right kind of processes gain a lot. Since employees become better at what they do, they will become more satisfied and motivated.

“That makes them stay and evolve, and the company becomes less and less dependent on outside recruitment,” he said. “The hiring process can focus more on finding people with the right cultural fit than specific formal knowledge since a lot of the specific skills can be learned after you are hired.

“For instance, the Swedish fintech unicorn, Klarna, has been working along these lines for the past years. It can focus on recruiting persons with the right mindset, drive, and curiosity rather than having to find people with exactly the right formal knowledge.”

Retraining instead of recruiting

As I understand it, the models Darj outlines would actually make it possible for a company to create near-complete internal retraining processes for people to move into new roles and positions. For instance, a salesperson can easily move into a role in marketing or HR and vice versa.

“Instead of firing a driven and company-loving salesperson and trying to recruit from the outside to a marketing or HR position, this would allow for a company to have people just ‘change tracks,’ carrying their perspective and knowledge of the company into the new role,” Darj said.

But can everyone learn new professions and roles? “Basically, yes. A lot of people are hampered by a fixed mindset rather than a growth mindset. They see new knowledge and changed behaviour as an unwanted challenge to their status quo rather than something to learn from and overcome.

“Fortunately, there are ways to switch mindset. But of course, there will always be some that really don’t want to change, and, in that case, there are plenty of employers that suits a mindset like that,” he said.

Retraining creates adaptability

Internal processes to retrain existing employees into new competencies rather than relying on outside recruitment will allow for organisations to have more robust chances of surviving and thriving in an accelerated digital transformation.

“What’s top recruitment in a specific area worth if the very profession isn’t even around in five years?” Darj asked. “In this perspective, one of the great advantages of well-designed internal processes is that a company can fill an empty position with internal competence fast and with agility. If a company is left to outside recruitment as the only resort, that company has failed to create processes that allow for and challenge the existing employees to evolve and change.”

Do people want to change?

Ok, let’s say this is right in theory. But as we all know, a lot of people aren’t actually interested in “evolving” and changing. It’s good enough for a lot of people to do what they do and be satisfied with just that.

Yet, others are actively opposed to change. How does that fit in with these models?

“Yes, those are the facts,” Darj said. “But the processes I outline are voluntary. and I think that if we do this the right way, people will actually want to evolve.

“There’s a lot of research on what motivates people at work. It’s quite seldom money, but rather autonomy, mastery, and purpose. To be able to control your own work, get better at what you do, and to find work meaningful. That applies to everyone. A company should start to ask itself if it is doing something worth engaging in instead of bringing in inspirational speakers to try to engage employees all the time.”

About Thomas Sundgren

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