Recently I completed my doctorate research on accelerating speed to proficiency with over 85 leading experts and thought leaders from over 50 organizations spread in 7 countries and gathered over 66 successful projects which led to a successful reduction in time to proficiency in various contexts.
One of the things I learned during examination/evaluation of my thesis is that how poorly the term “speed to proficiency” and for that sake accelerating time to proficiency is understood by academics. Many of them equated this term to accelerating expertise while other segments equating it to shortening training duration. Some even equated this term to rapid skill acquisition. On the other hand, business leaders I interviewed provided a great account of what an effort to accelerate speed to proficiency entailed. Lately, speed to proficiency term has taken its own little life in the business world.
In this post, I will summarize some key definitions and outlines few implications these terms have suggested lately.
Business articles and academics still continue to emphasize the composition of proficiency in terms of knowledge, skills, competencies to perform a desired function. For example, Dixon (2015), in her article provided a simpler view: ‘Proficiency is the quality of having great facility and competence. Every job requires that certain job competencies be demonstrated to a certain level of proficiency. Competencies are a set of observable behaviors that provide a structured guide to help identify, evaluate and develop key knowledge, skills and attitudes to perform the job effectively’.
A highly regarded business leader, Fred Charles, considered to be the first one to coin the term “speed to proficiency” defines ‘proficiency is the use of knowledge in action for the purpose of producing value for a customer. The proficiency threshold, therefore, is the exact moment when a worker can convert knowledge through action into the promised value for the customer’ (Fred 2002, p. 43). He further qualified it by saying: ‘The proficiency threshold is reached when sales and marketing team can sell and advertise value to customers with confidence, when orders are filled on time, when services meet customer expectations, and when management team is leading as envisioned’ (Fred 2002, p. 44). As we see, he specified proficiency in terms of business metrics an organization would care about.
Leading thought leaders on Learning Paths defined proficiency as: ‘Being able to perform a given task or function up to a predetermined standard. Proficiency and independently productive are often used as synonyms (Rosenbaum & Williams 2004, p. 5). They further iterated: ‘This is the point in time when you are left totally on your own and that you can do your job without asking questions or making mistakes’ (Rosenbaum & Williams 2004, p. 13). They also specified consistency as one of the key components of proficiency i.e. achieving performance thresholds once is not proficiency. ‘Proficiency is when a new employee achieves a predetermined level of performance on a consistent basis. Proficiency can be defined in number of transactions, dollars sold, defect rates, customer satisfaction scores, or anything else that is measurable and related to results’ (Rosenbaum & Williams 2004, p. 14). Their later qualification clearly set it as a business metrics that proficiency needs to be measured in business KPIs, metrics associated with a job role.
On same lines, a white paper from Alorica (2017, p. 7) defines: ‘To be truly proficient, an agent must master not only the required skills for the position, but be able to work independently while meeting all KPIs’.
In my research study, I found that most of the business leaders thought proficiency in terms on how well someone performs a job or function as opposed to skills/knowledge, which of course are ingredients that form the proficiency but do not reflect the whole. The business leaders emphasized the business metrics as the way to define the proficiency. The research analysis identified it as ‘job-role proficiency’ to differentiate it from confusing definitions of proficiency used in task and skill domains. Job-role proficiency is state of performance at which performers produce business outcomes or deliverables consistently to the set performance thresholds expected from a given job role. It refers to achieving and maintaining one pre-established performance level and does not imply progression through different stages or levels of performance. It refers to the business performance of the job role and does not convey an individual’s performance demonstrated on a task or skill’ (Attri 2018b). This finding substantially differed from the ones presented in academic research which mostly position proficiency in terms of tasks or skills.
Among the earliest use of the term “time to proficiency”, Carpenter et al. (1989) measured time to proficiency in terms of performance in a selected set of tasks. They defined: ‘Time to proficiency as the length of time it takes to bring people with different attributes (especially mental aptitude) to targeted levels of task performance’ (Carpenter et al. 1989, p. 1). They correlated productivity, attrition, cost and aptitude in their model with the time to proficiency.
In the same time frame, Pinder and Schroeder (1987) conducted time to proficiency study which involved 354 managers from eight companies in Canada who were surveyed regarding their time to proficiency after job transfers. They conceived time to proficiency as ‘the length of time that elapses between the individual’s movement into a new job and ascendancy of that individual to a level of performance at which a balance between inducements and contributions exists’ (p. 337). Inducements were the investments made in the person when s/he started a new job, while contributions were his/her productivity on the new job. This definition reveals the key implication that while someone is working towards desired proficiency and trying to be productive in a new job; his or her performance has a financial impact on the business, thus making it a compelling reason to monitor time to proficiency in a given job.
Renowned academic researchers on accelerated proficiency, Hoffman et al. (2014, p. 169) referred to time to proficiency in terms of career stages as the time taken by an individual to reach a desired level of proficiency. The career stages they most frequently referred to were a journeyman and senior journeyman. The journeyman career stage exhibited characteristics like being reliable, experienced, able to work unsupervised, and having achieved a certain level of competence.
However, the concept of time to proficiency slightly differs from research, which takes the concept from task domain or career domain to job domain. Training Industry’s glossary pitches it as: ‘Time to proficiency refers to the time needed or taken by an individual to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to reach an acceptable level of performance’ [https://trainingindustry.com/glossary/time-to-proficiency/].
Contemporary business leaders consider that it is very important to identify the point when an individual demonstrates performance that signifies his/her being operating at or above desired or target proficiency (Fred 2002). Every job role requires a certain amount of time to develop performance to the desired proficiency level. This time is referred to as time-to-proficiency (TTP). Leading Learning Paths gurus define it as: ‘The time it takes to reach a predetermined level of proficiency. In other words, the time from day one to independently productive’ (Rosenbaum & Williams 2004, p. 5). More recently, Bachlechner et al. (2010, p. 378) defined time-to-proficiency as ‘the amount of time an individual spends in a new job environment before it [sic] is able to fulfil most tasks without help from colleagues or supervisors’.
It appears that time to proficiency is not measurement of one activity, rather it involves time required for several activities such as onboarding, formal as well as informal training required to understand the basics of the job, on-the-job training and on-the-job learning to understand specifics of job tasks, and other activities to gain experience on specific tasks or skills required to do the job (Attri & Wu 2015). Time to proficiency is usually measured from the date of hiring or when someone takes up a new role or the first day of the training s/he attends. However, measurement of the starting point and end state may vary significantly based on the context and definition of desired proficiency.
Literature review suggested that the earliest usage of the term “speed to proficiency” came from book Breakaway: Deliver value to your customer – Fast!!! in which Fred (2002, p.16) defined: ‘Proficient workers speed things up: organizational change, operational improvement, problem solving, and delivery of service all happen faster. When you shorten the time it takes for workers to become proficient, the capital and resources required to introduce a new product, maintain operations and infrastructure, and perform a service are also proportionally reduced. I call this speed to proficiency’.
In last one decade the term ‘speed to proficiency’ has become a common buzzword. Cedar Interactive positioned it as: ‘“Speed to Proficiency” refers to the time required to bring a person up to a proficient level of performance at a job or task’ [http://cedarinteractive.com/serv-speedtopro.htm].
Bruck (2007) identified its value as: ‘In any business arena where the demonstrated mastery of new knowledge and skills is critical to the success of the business speed to proficiency is the name of the game’ [http://www.q2learning.com/docs/WP-S2P.pdf]. Recently, in a white paper, Alorica (2017, p. 7) defines: ‘To be truly proficient, an agent must master not only the required skills for the position, but be able to work independently while meeting all KPIs. How long an individual or team takes to reach this level of competence is the speed to proficiency’.
Some leaders like to refer to other terms like time to full productivity. Cornerstone places it as ‘Time to productivity is a metric that measures how long it takes a new hire to contribute to an organization’ [https://www.cornerstoneondemand.com/glossary/time-productivity]. Millington states: ‘Time-to-full productivity can mean one of two things. It can refer to the time it takes a new recruit to ably complete every aspect of their job role as measured by their manager. Or, it can refer to the time it takes a recruit to reach an equivalent level of performance as their closest colleagues. Essentially, it means how long it takes a newcomer to be proficient in their job. In a survey conducted by i4cp (2011) observed that ‘Time-to-full-productivity is a metric few organizations use, but which many acknowledge they should be tracking. Just 16% of respondents to an i4cp survey stated that they use the time-to-full-productivity metric to a high or very high extent, but 64% say they should be using it to manage talent more effectively’. KPS considered ‘Time to competency is defined as the time to achieve the target performance level’ [https://www.kpsol.com/speed-to-competency-service-agents-measurement-action/]. Nevertheless, these terms mean essentially same thing as time to proficiency.
In general, both the phrases accelerating speed to proficiency and reducing time to proficiency means the same thing. Once the desired level of proficiency is defined, the next challenge is to reach to that proficiency in a shorter time. From a practical standpoint, the business challenge is to bring people to a certain level of proficiency so that they can do their job to desired standards. Lately, there are conscientious efforts in organizations to institute focused projects to accelerate proficiency with the goal to achieve shorter time to proficiency in a given job role (or in other words accelerate speed to proficiency).
In the business and academic literature, this deliberate effort is expressed with several synonyms or variations like accelerating skill acquisition, accelerating proficiency acquisition, accelerating performance, accelerating time to proficiency, shortening time to proficiency and accelerating speed to proficiency (Bruck 2015; Fadde & Klein 2010; Fred 2002; Hoffman et al. 2014; Rosenbaum & Williams 2004). Most commonly, scholarly research calls this concept as ‘accelerated proficiency’.
Hoffman, Feltovich, et al. (2010, p. 9) defined accelerated proficiency as a ‘phenomenon of achieving higher levels of proficiency in less time’ and dealt with ‘how to train and train quickly to higher levels of proficiency’ (p. 8). Hoffman et al. (2014, p. 13) further qualified accelerated proficiency as ‘getting individuals to achieve high levels of proficiency at a rate faster than ordinary’. These research simplified the definition in terms of career stages too. Hoffman, Andrews and Feltovich (2012, p. 8) considered that accelerated proficiency deals with ‘achievement of knowledge and skill across the proficiency spectrum, all the way from apprentice to expert levels’ in a shortest possible time. They expressed accelerated proficiency in terms of time to proficiency (id. 169). Thus, accelerated proficiency is the deliberate and conscious effort of shortening time to proficiency. Acceleration of proficiency is measured in terms of reduction in the time someone takes to reach the desired proficiency.
In my recent research, analysis led to identifying core characteristics of the concept of accelerated proficiency. ‘Accelerating proficiency means shortening the time someone takes in a given job role to reach to a state of consistent performance that meets the set thresholds. This is measured in time-to-proficiency. A clearer definition of job-role proficiency and its measures are the foremost critical requirement to the acceleration of proficiency. Accelerated proficiency is not about learning a body of content faster or shortening the training duration because the solution to a shorter time-to-proficiency lies beyond training interventions’ (Attri 2018).
I would like to add here some key insights from my research that accelerated proficiency (or efforts to reduce time to proficiency) is entirely different from similarly worded topics such as accelerated learning and accelerated training and accelerated expertise. Following is an excerpt from my research (Attri 2018):
Research with over 50 organizations suggested that they appear to view accelerated proficiency and accelerated learning to mean two different things. The goal of the traditional meaning of accelerated learning is limited to speed up the learning curve of a certain individual, i.e. learning a given content in a shorter time or learning more content in the same time (Imel 2002; Patchan et al. 2015; Radler & Bocianu 2017; Trekles & Sims 2013). This intent has few implications:
Further, the concept of accelerated proficiency is different from the traditional concept of accelerated training or shortening training duration. Accelerated proficiency projects are generally not started with the intent of shortening training duration or rapidized training, i.e. ‘the idea of training individuals to achieve some minimal level of proficiency at a rate faster than usual’ (Hoffman et al. 2014, p. 13). On the contrary, attaining such initial operating readiness to put someone on-the-job to do basic duties does not serve the goal of accelerated proficiency towards reducing time to proficiency. Shortening training duration is not an explicit goal when we focus on accelerating time to proficiency in organizations, though in almost every case, it was attained as a by-product. The true goal of accelerated proficiency (or efforts towards accelerating time to proficiency and accelerating speed to proficiency) is to make someone fully productive and fully functioning on his or her job to produce outcomes designated for the job role.
Additionally, accelerating time to proficiency did not mean to develop the expertise of employees to the highest level at a faster rate. To develop employees to desired proficiency is not same as developing or accelerating expertise. Expertise is considered to be an elite status bestowed on few domain specialists and not everyone may need to be developed to that level. At ground level, proficiency and expertise are not the same thing. Hoffman, Andrews and Feltovich (2012, p. 8) supported that: ‘We do not assume that every organization needs to have every employee be expert at every task. Instead, we are recognizing that for the majority of employees achieving a degree of competence to become journeymen is just fine’. For example, for some critical functions or roles in organizations such as CEO’s position, there may be need to develop individuals to a very high level of proficiency as determined by the nature of the challenges faced, such as a CEO’s position. Such brilliant individuals may be experts in their domains. However, not everyone needs to be an expert and possibly could not be an expert.
The overall time-to-proficiency could be in months or years depending on the jobs. For example, time-to-proficiency of new bankers in a study was estimated to be between eleven and fourteen months (Thompson 2017, p. 173). According to an estimate, a pilot takes a minimum of 1500 hours (the equivalent of two years flying two hours every day) to be certified to fly a commercial plane (Government Publishing Office 2013). An air force communication specialist’s time-to-proficiency was noted in the range of 18 months to 36 months depending upon their aptitude scores (Carpenter et al. 1989). In another study involving 300 call center agents, Borton (2007) noted that time-to-proficiency of the agents was more than six months. More recently, a survey conducted with chief sales officers of 1,200 companies worldwide by Accenture (2013) indicated that time-to-proficiency of 73% of the new sales representative workforce was approximately one year or more.
Organizations do not have that much time (Fadde & Klein 2010). Market pressure, particularly over the last decade, has warranted accelerating the expertise cycle as a necessity (Clark 2013). Wray and Wallace (2011, p. 243) appealed, ‘A more realistic aspiration is to create conditions encouraging all individuals to proceed at the maximum pace possible for them, both in training settings and workplace practice’. The result of shorter time-to-proficiency leads to substantial financial and operational benefits to the organization and higher value to customers (Fred 2002). Developing employees to the desired level of proficiency is a key goal of organizations for their sustainability (Bruck 2015). ‘Proficiency is critical to performance in complex work contexts’ (Hoffman, Feltovich, et al. 2010).
Therefore, business has pressing need to accelerate speed to proficiency of their employees in almost every job. Fred (2002, p.16) makes a compelling argument: ‘Speed to proficiency is more than a theoretical advantage: It is the most devastating competitive weapon in the world where the competitive forces of scale, automation, and capital are subordinate to the power of proficient workforce’.
I wrote about the recent business trend how time to proficiency metrics are becoming key business metrics in most organizations. In my subsequent articles, I will provide a more in-depth understanding of how organizations can benefit from accelerating speed to proficiency and will share some case studies as well. In the meantime, you may explore more about my research on speed to proficiency or even register for a free research report on methods to accelerate time to proficiency at the workplace.
Image credit: Jose Francisco Jimenez Meca @123rf.com