Tuesday, March 11, 2014

It’s About the Skills, Not Just “Training”

[Dear Readers, our good friend Pat O’Toole, CMMI expert and seasoned consultant, is collaborating with us on a new monthly series of CMMI-related posts, "Just the FAQs." Our goal with these posts is to provide answers to the most frequently asked questions about the CMMI, SCAMPI, engineering strategy and software process improvement. This month Pat talks about the importance of having the necessary skills and competencies, not just meeting a requirement for “training.” Take it away, Pat! ~ the CMMI Appraiser]

In order to address GP2.5 (Train People), we’ve developed 2 hour PowerPoint presentations for each process area and have sign‐up sheets that show we’ve trained all personnel on the processes relevant to their roles. We should be golden in an appraisal, right?

At the risk of being labeled a radical, let me suggest that we forget about the CMMI for a minute…
If I’m the current occupant of the corner office, I don’t care if my people have been “trained,” I care that they have the skills and knowledge to perform the work for which I am paying them. I recognize that in order to achieve a high degree of proficiency, my people need competencies in four skill dimensions:

1. Fundamental skills
2. Domain/product skills
3. Process/tool skills
4. Supplemental/soft skills.

When filling a project management position, the interview process will explore, among other things, the candidate’s knowledge of, and experience in project management. If the person happens to be a Project Management Professional (PMP)® this is pretty easy, as they have achieved an industry-recognized certification that attests to their fundamental skills. They have demonstrated the knowledge and ability to plan and manage projects using such foundational concepts as Work Breakdown Structures, Earned Value, risk management, etc.

OK, so the new hire has fundamental project management skills, but can they apply their skills in our little corner of the world? What do they know about banking systems, EFT, check imaging, and the associated industry standards and governmental regulations? Do they understand the products and services that we offer to meet the needs of our demanding marketplace, and how our customers use our offerings to perform their work? Do they understand the competitors’ product offerings and why we occasionally lose out in a competitive bid situation? 

Without such insight, they will not be able to employ their fundamental skills in an optimal manner on OUR projects. If there are gaps in domain/product knowledge, they need to be addressed for this new hire to become proficient.

In addition, I want to make sure that my people can use the processes and tools that our organization is providing to enable them to perform their work. If they don’t know how we move a project from Point A to Point B, they won’t be able to move their project along in an efficient manner. Such kinks in the system need to be identified and addressed to keep the products and services (and therefore the revenue) flowing seamlessly. 

Better yet, rather than “identified and addressed,” I would prefer that such kinks be “anticipated and avoided,” moving from the reactive state of problem resolution to the proactive state of problem avoidance.

Finally, various roles may require some supplemental skills, a subset of which we typically refer to as "soft skills.” My new project manager may have tremendous fundamental, domain, and process/tool skills, but if they have a cosmic meltdown and a bad case of the sweats every time they present to management or the customer, then we have a problem. Or maybe they write really badly, or they don’t delegate, or they’re not a team player, or… (BTW, an example of a supplemental skill that is NOT a “soft skill” is the ability to read and write Japanese.)

Notice that I didn’t need the CMMI to tell me that my people should have appropriate skills in each of these four dimensions – it’s simply smart, pragmatic management. When interviewing people for an open position, we are trying to match their skill profile to the position’s skill requirements – the more of the required skills they already have covered, the quicker they can contribute to our success.

Rarely do we find the ideal candidate – one that has the perfect combination of fundamental, domain, process/tool, and supplemental skills – so there is nearly always a need to address skill and knowledge gaps. We may use coaching, mentoring, and stretch assignments to address some of these needs. We may place them on a team where they will have the support of other practitioners to help them ramp up quickly. Oh, and we may provide them some formal training as well.

So if management in an organization that doesn’t use the CMMI knows this, shouldn’t management in an organization that uses the model be at least as good? Assuming the answer is “Yes,” doesn’t the 2 hour PowerPoint presentation approach seem a bit underwhelming? Such an approach appears to be much more focused on passing an appraisal than on ensuring employees have the necessary skills and knowledge to perform their work effectively and efficiently.

But let’s be realistic, as soon as you generate an appraisal finding indicating that the 2 hour PowerPoint approach is insufficiently robust, you should fully expect the CMMI Legal Lawyers (who graduated from "Certify U”) to crawl out of the woodwork and strenuously object. “Show me in the model where it says that training is required to cover fundamental skills, domain/product skills, process/tool skills, and supplemental skills!” they protest – and truth be known, given the letter of the law, they are right – the model doesn’t say that.

However, as a top notch defense attorney, you will have already had this discussion with the appraisal sponsor, asking if she is satisfied with a minimalistic approach to “training,” or if she would prefer a more comprehensive approach to competency management – an approach that would provide real value by evolving new hires from marginally adequate to demonstrably proficient. Once she nibbles on the bait, you can tell the CMMI Legal Lawyers that their objection has been overruled.

For those of you that feel more comfortable having model basis for such a finding, remember that
Organizational Process Focus specific practice 1.2 suggests, “Appraise the organization’s processes periodically and as needed to maintain an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses.” Unfortunately, most people interpret this last bit as “… an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses with respect to the CMMI.”

But it needn’t be that way! One could just as easily interpret this as “… an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses in accomplishing organizational and project objectives.” Interpreting the model in this way encourages the lead appraiser community to break free of its own compliance mindset and constraints, thereby empowering us to help our clients appreciate and exploit the value the model is truly intended to provide.

© Copyright 2014: Process Assessment, Consulting & Training and Broadsword Solutions
“Just the FAQs” is written/edited by Pat O’Toole and Jeff Dalton. Please contact the authors at

pact.otoole@att.net and jeff@broadswordsolutions.com to suggest enhancements to their answers, or to provide an alternative response to the question posed. New questions are also welcomed!

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