This article reveals, for the first time, some eye-opening numbers about time to proficiency of employees in different contexts and settings. An outcome of an extensive research study conducted on speeding up time to proficiency, this article describes why organizational leaders should act upon this burning business problem of such a large magnitude and scale.
Do you even know the time to proficiency of your employees or team members in a given job role?
If not, then this article is meant for you.
In a recent conference, I presented that time to proficiency of the workforce is so large a business problem that organizational leaders, learning designers, and performance consultants need to pay absolute attention towards it. In this article, I provide some eye-opening figures from research in terms of how large is the “time to proficiency” of employees in different contexts. This is a burning business challenge of the modern accelerated world.
Previous research suggested time taken to acquire elite expertise on representative tasks in closed domains, such as chess, to be up to ten years (Ericsson & Towne 2010; Ericsson 2002, 2003). However, this time refers to altogether a different journey towards notable expertise or world-class expert performance.
However, in organizational contexts, we are not talking about making employees into a world-class expert or demonstrate expert performance. We are dealing with time to proficiency which refers to the time taken by an employee to reach the point where s/he can do his or her job reliably and can produce consistent results. By definition (i.e. proficiency is not world-class expertise), time to proficiency is expected to be much shorter than the one suggested to become an expert (i.e. ten years). However, there are not many estimates or measurements available for time to proficiency. Only some books, case studies and surveys provided some information on time to proficiency (Accenture 2013; Borton 2007; Fred 2002; Pollock, Wick & Jefferson 2015, p. 285; Thompson 2017, p. 169). One thing that stood out is that time to proficiency is indeed very long.
For introductory understanding about time to proficiency, check out my previous article defining time to proficiency.
Last year I conducted large-scale qualitative research on what it means to accelerate proficiency in organizations and why organizations would want to do so. 85 world-renowned leaders participated in this study who had proven experience in achieving a substantial reduction in time to proficiency of their employees. These experts came from 7 countries, 42 industries, 20 business sectors. I conducted over 74 in-depth interviews, 56 documents and gathered 66 start-to-end project cases. Just to give an idea of the spans of business and industries covered in this one of the largest qualitative research studies you may have known.
Table 1: Project cases included in the research study
Never before such thorough research has been conducted on time to proficiency across such a broad spectrum of industries and organizations. All project cases were compared to each other and categorized by job type, economic sector, business sector or industry group to understand how big is the problem in different contexts. An extensive analysis of these interviews and 66 project cases revealed startling facts about time to proficiency of different roles in various contexts.
What I found is that across all the project cases, the magnitude of the time to proficiency may be as large as over three years in certain job roles just to become productive to required performance metrics and go as large as several years.
Two parameters described the scary side of this burning organizational problem.
Magnitude – the absolute value of time to proficiency in a given role
Scale – spread and impact of the problem across all the employees a given job role
Variations for the time to proficiency are due to different job goals, context organizational work culture, team composition and other factors which are not necessarily the same even for the same job nature across different organizations.
The magnitude of time to proficiency is significantly large across all the job role types. The time to proficiency of most jobs across several economic sectors is not in days, rather it was as long as 3 years in some project cases.
While the sales and managerial jobs required about three months to one and a half years to reach proficiency in 11 projects, the technical or engineering jobs required two months to several years, as seen in 16 projects.
While some management related jobs take up to 14 months to become proficient, the technology-related job may be as long as 3 years.
Scientific or development jobs took six months to three years to become fully proficient, as observed in 4 projects.
Assembly and production-related jobs took lesser time from one week to five months to become proficient, as suggested by 4 projects.
Just the training programs alone typically take as low as one week to as high as 18 weeks of classroom time across different job types.
The table shows the range of time to proficiency aggregated by primary job nature.
Table 2: The magnitude of time to proficiency by job nature
When projects are arranged by economic sectors, the technology sector (13 projects) shows time to proficiency from two months to three years, while the basic materials sector (three projects) appears to have a very long cycle to proficiency.
The table shows the time to proficiency aggregated by the economic sectors of the project cases (as defined by Thomas-Reuters Business Classification System).
Table 3: The magnitude of time to proficiency by economic sectors
Time to proficiency segregated by business sectors, industries, job role and nature of skills is being published in an upcoming book tentatively titled “At the Speed of Business”. Stay tuned for pre-copy.
The time to proficiency problem may become much larger in scale because a given role may be served by hundreds or thousands of people globally based on the size of the organization.
In several of the project cases, the magnitude of time to proficiency in a given job role when multiplied over the entire target group of employees in that job role led to hundreds of person-years.
For instance, in a project at a large business process outsourcing company noticed that for a job role comprised of 600 people, the magnitude of time to proficiency was one year. Scaled to the entire group of people led to 600 person-years worth of time, indicating compelling reasons to address this problem. The project leader commented:
“It was probably about close to three months of training before they were able to get on the phone… Three months is a long, long time … So there were three months in sort of training and then it was taking them an additional nine months to reach that score … So then, it would take them about another year to basically start reaching those high scores. So it was too long. So what would happen was the financial institution would grade the business process outsourcer, would grade them on those scores. If in two-quarters you are below these numbers, we have the right to cancel the contract” (Project leader).
In another project at a large semiconductor equipment company, almost 20 engineers were required to undergo a certification program every year in which the magnitude of time-to-certification was a minimum of 53 weeks. Scaled to the total number of engineers per year, it amounted to 20 person-years worth of time, or 100 person-years in five years. The magnitude of the problem sounds scary just for one product in the company. Imagine how many products and how many engineers a company might have overall. The project leader commented:
“So in my current program, training takes 13 weeks [total] for five different modules [courses] and then each module has 10 weeks of an average waiting time [in-between each module]. I have five modules, so it totals around 53 weeks or basically a year for the engineer to get certified” (Project leader).
The point here is that it is not one person’s time to proficiency, rather it multiplies across a job role and hence, it is a significantly sized business problem.
Magnitude (how long is the time to proficiency of one person in a given job role) and scale (how much is time to proficiency of overall staff serving the same job role) in a given context collectively describe the impact of the business problem. For example, the magnitude of 16 weeks of time to proficiency is far less in scale for a given job role with 10 people compared to the same 16 weeks of magnitude for 100 people performing the same job role. Collectively, the magnitude and scale of the problem make a compelling reason for organizations to work on this problem. One project leader commented:
“They [the organization] have something like 3,000 people in development and engineering, and they knew they had to grow with 1,200 more within a year. And they knew that it took approximately 3 years before people were up to speed and it should go back to approximately 1 year …” (Project leader).
Such a large-scale problem is not only impactful for an organization but also impacts the individual in terms of self-worth, confidence and career progression. For instance, when the time to proficiency is significant in a given job role, employees might feel disengaged or feeling as if they are not contributing much to the organization, they may well leave the organization even before reaching the target proficiency.
Nevertheless, the time to proficiency is so long in magnitude and far out in most of the jobs that it is worth doing something about it.
“There is a universal problem all businesses have and if they work on their problem, they can make significant gains, … people simply aren’t getting up the speed as fast they can and it’s very, very expensive when they’re not. … every minute someone isn’t fully up to speed is costing you money and it’s worth doing something about it. It’s probably the most significant issue”. (Project leader).
The question is:
Are you doing something about it?
You may want to check out my appeal on the importance of reducing time to proficiency of the workforce.
If you are a manager, do you measure time to proficiency of your direct reports?
If you are an HR professional, do you know what is time to proficiency of each role in your organization?
If you are an organizational leader, do you have a specific target for time to proficiency in every role?
If not, then you better subscribe to my blog on exclusively on the topic of speed to proficiency and stay tuned as I will share more about what you can do as a leader.
Watch this short video on how long is time to proficiency where I presented a brief snippet of the results in a conference.
Attri, RK 2020, “What is the meaning of Accelerating Speed To Proficiency or Accelerating Time to Proficiency?’, [Blog post], Speed To Proficiency Research: S2PRo©, Available online at <https://www.speedtoproficiency.com/blog/how-large-scale-magnitude-time-to-proficiency/>.
Header image credits: Pixabay CC0 attribution