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Back to school: Making sure your staff development isn’t upside down

I was in elementary school in the 1970s, and perhaps one of the most exciting elements of back to school preparation was selecting a new lunch box. The lunch box! A glorious piece of tin shaped in a rectangle with a colorful representation of your favorite character emblazoned on the lid. And let's not forget about the thermos neatly tucked on the inside decorated to match the lunch box theme. It almost made saying goodbye to summer bearable.

Of course, along with the lunch box came the ritual of helping my mother plan out what would be packed for lunch, the crowning achievement of which was mixing up chocolate milk to carry in my Little John adorned thermos. It was, in my household, a basic that had the added benefit of creating some valuable memories, and some of those memories included a lesson or two.

The basics of packing lunch were really not all that complicated. Select your sandwich, snack, and drink of choice. Help Mom figure out how it would all fit in the box, and scheme to see if I could get away without packing the piece of fruit she insisted I include.

But when the basics were taken for granted, there were unintended results. The worst of which for me was an unintended pool of chocolate milk beneath my feet while I waited to enter the classroom -- I had packed the Little John thermos upside down.

A small thing really, obviously the result of haste or just not enough attention paid to what I had been doing. But the results, to a young first grader, were catastrophic. (Seriously, even now as I type this, I can vividly remember the embarrassment I felt seeing this pool of chocolate milk at my feet. I think when I'm done writing I'll seek a spilled chocolate milk support group.) Results that were neither intended nor unavoidable.

You're probably wondering what this anecdote has to do with returning to the basics of planning and supporting the development of the workforce, right? Well, here it is: Which thermos in your processes is going to leak if it's stored upside down?

And here are the trickier questions: Will some liquids react differently than others? If the schoolyard bully decides to punt the thermos-containing lunch box across the playground, will it hold up? Are there extreme storage conditions that I need to be aware of? Each of these can have an impact on the liquid, so getting back to the basics really means that we take a moment to analyze the likelihood of certain conditions and evaluate our preparedness to respond.

Setting the back to school metaphor aside, it is important to understand the environmental conditions that currently exist and how those conditions are impacting your basics. For instance, how thin are the ranks of your recruiting forces? This is a question more about the nature of recruiting than it is about the force you have enabled to conduct recruiting.

If, like many firms, you responded to the recession by minimizing the recruiting force while at the same time increasing the utilization of non-employees (i.e. contractors, temporary staff, and consultants), then it is likely that the nature of recruiting talent is altogether different than it was last school year.

This means that the basics of sourcing talent are far more complex than they had been. As human resources professionals, we need to examine those changes. What we are likely to find is that we have to work to increase our knowledge of the needs of the business in a whole new way.

We must work to provide our business partners with realities of cost in a world in which we leverage non-employees with greater frequency. Developing criteria to measure the performance of such members of the workforce must be a priority.

Performance management and succession is an obvious basic, but perhaps this year that basic has to include enabling the business to apply some of those methods and practices in areas where traditionally it never had to be applied.

Temporary staff, for example, has traditionally been a commoditized necessity to augment immediate needs. That standard for the basic no longer applies. It must be expanded to include the ability to intelligently invest in temporaries where it makes sense, and to determine how to embed them more deeply in the organization so as to maximize the value received from their inclusion in the workforce. All while being mindful of land minds such as co-employment risk.

This is just one example, though I'm sure there are many others that can be discussed. It's a basic that, after proper scrutiny, would need some attention in order to make sure that we don't end up with a puddle of chocolate milk at our feet.

What are you doing in the spirit of the back to school season? What basics are you getting back to and evaluating to make sure they're not upside down? And do you know of any spilled chocolate milk support groups?


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