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Leadership Lab: Management Competencies

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Measuring Employee Performance

By Stephen Northcutt

Forward looking organizations can use the IT compensation associated with quarterly performance reviews to shape the IT staff's knowledge, skills and abilities and help technical employees develop the hot skills needed to leverage technology accelerators.

Performance reviews can appear to be a waste of time for both employees and managers. Managers struggle to use the process as an effective means of holding poor performers accountable as well as give proper credit to the finest achievers. Those who measure performance well have the advantage of tuning employee development and encouraging employees by helping them understand how their contributions matter to the success of their organization. Any institution significantly impacted by technology will benefit from having the right talent to leverage technology accelerators for a business advantage. This talent is defined by knowledge skills and abilities which are, at times, measured by certifications or assessments. The performance review and future planning practice is a wonderful opportunity for documenting a dialog between employer and employee regarding the needs of the organization. The goal of the whole process is to enable better business results for the organization and all of its contributors. Anything less makes the time it requires a poor investment. The following objectives are best suited to support better business execution:

  • Identify the "A" performers, the people who have an impact on the organization and can become leaders in the future
  • Weed out poor performers
  • Establish the objectives for execution on an individual basis
  • Map out personal development in line with the organization's future needs on an ongoing basis

Performance objectives, hot skills and certifications each play a role in the review process for organizations seeking to improve. Having identified the purpose of the review, we can articulate how to use and tune the process. Please note the list breaks down into two sections. The first three seem to be "looking back", hence the title "quarterly review" or "yearly review". The last two are forward looking. Many find discussing the past and future at the same time to be disconcerting; the focus or priority tends to swing one way or another. A good tip is to organize the document such that the past, the review of work done over the stated time frame is clearly and visually separated from future objectives.

Ideally, the review process should consider achievement at three levels: the person, the group they belong to, and the organization as a whole. Individual employees need to know how they can develop into better contributors. The organization's HR group needs to understand the Hot skills (new skills needed to take advantage of technology) and critical IT certifications that demonstrate employees have mastered skills. They, in turn, can coach managers regarding future needs. The book, Execution by Bossidy and Ram, mention the turnaround at EDS by Dick Brown. He renamed HR to "Leadership and Change Management" to reflect their role in forging the future of the organization. We need to give managers an insight into the organization's future needs and encourage them to incorporate that knowledge in the review process.

What are the future trends in terms of technology in IT and IT Security, what are the decisions the organization will need to make and what are the skills needed to implement the decisions? The book Good to Great by Jim Collins, a study of the long term best performing companies in industry, found they all understood technology accelerators. When used correctly, technology becomes an accelerator of momentum.

Most organizations do not take the opportunity to give employees guidance as to their future personal development or to reward Hot skills. A study of 2376 employees show that only 5.6% receive "hot" skills pay. However, companies do commonly give premium pay for certifications.

In general what are the differences between skills, certificates/assessments and certifications? Skill is the knowledge and ability to accomplish a task. We use certificates and assessments to verify such knowledge and ability. If you have ever posted a help wanted ad that specified mastery of Microsoft Office you know the applicants often have a different definition of mastery than you do. To narrow the field, many employers ask for a certificate, achievement or turn to assessment companies. One company with assessments for a large number of IT related tasks is Brainbench.

A certification is more rigorous. It should start with a Job Task Analysis and may cover one or more skills. There are a large number of IT skills, courses and certifications, but in IT security the market leaders are the ISC2 CISSP, CompTIA Security + and the GIAC family of certifications, Certifications have been growing in importance in IT Security starting in 2006 and continuing to today. Much of this is because of DoD Instruction 8570. Various government agencies such as the state department give a bonus if you hold certifications. And the recent report Securing Cyberspace for the 44th Presidency suggests the need for many improvements and certifications are one way you can measure professionalism. Finally, the April 2009 Rockafella-Snowe legislation addresses certification.

A well known professional that is one of the leaders on the forensics blog wrote me recently and said, "The GCIH has served me very well over the years having introduced me to the proper strategy associated with incident response. Regardless, having worked both sides of the fence for most of my life in information security I do feel that the direction of needing the incident handler familiar with the bad guys tactics is entirely accurate. To be sure, there is a problem with all certifications. A certification test is still not a replacement for experience. Someone who tests through GCIH, GCFA, or any of our certs has the fundamental knowledge. However, like a soldier on a battlefield day one out of bootcamp, there is higher statistical chance that he will end up in a bad situation or even killed on the first day in the battle. Is it because that the bootcamp didn't train him properly? Nope. It is a measure of gained experience that the soldier does not have on day one. Since most organizations do not have that constant experience for folks to cut their teeth in day in and day out, it is not surprising that someone with GCFA or even GCIH moniker would not have the experience necessary to ward off a full frontal attack on their network successfully. They just know enough to hopefully not make as many mistakes as they would have if they were completely untrained." To sum it up, a certification proves you meet a minimum standard, performance reviews allow you to build on this foundation and document experience.

How often should performance reviews or future objectives meetings occur? Certainly a year is too long for either review or planning. Can you remember where you were a year ago and what you were doing? Organizations using a one year cycle are pretty much going through a paperwork exercise.

Quarterly is a better interval. It costs more in terms of management's time, but it has the possibility of meeting the goal of improved business execution. However, even a quarter is a longer period of time than a manager can accurately remember the specifics of performance. One powerful tool to enhance a review is to encourage employees to state their objectives for the coming week in their status report. It takes effort to list what you are going to do the next week and introduces accountability. Should employees backslide, they suddenly quit writing their objectives, and have to be reminded. It serves as a great tool for putting quarterly objectives together.

Everything of value takes effort. Take the time to map out future talent needs for your organization and incorporate that Hot Skills information into your quarterly objective reviews. Your employees can develop themselves to better serve the organization's needs by leveraging technology accelerators. This is a sure fire method for improving business execution and helping your organization be the best in the world at what you do.


"What's to Be Done About Performance Reviews?" Published: November 3, 2006, Harvard Business School - Working Knowledge
By Jim Heskett
Don't Redesign Your Company's Performance Appraisal System, Scrap It!
ByFred Nickols