Remaining Highly Marketable in Any Economy
Knowledge has been described as the only source of sustainable competitive advantage in an information economy. Since knowledge is the primary product of knowledge workers, it is also the primary source of their employability.
Our research has uncovered five different ways that one can add value to an organization and thereby become an employee of choice in any economy:
Stage One—Acquiring Knowledge. People in this stage learn how to access and use the existing knowledge of the organization in order to complete their assigned work. They acquire the knowledge (i.e., theories, models, rules, principles, policies, processes and information) necessary to make effective decisions and take appropriate action.
Stage Two—Applying Knowledge. People in this stage use the knowledge of the company (i.e., theories, models, rules, principles, policies, processes and information) to independently plan and complete important tasks — without having to defer decisions about their work to others.
Stage Three—Creating Knowledge. People in this stage identify gaps in the organization’s existing knowledge base and create new knowledge to address both new and old challenges. They find creative new ways to solve previously unsolved problems and invent potential new products, work processes, tools, technologies, etc.
Stage Four— Sharing Knowledge. By sharing their knowledge and experience, Stage Four contributors help others acquire and apply knowledge toward making effective decisions and taking appropriate action. They also help ensure that the work of the group is integrated so the value of the whole exceeds the sum of its parts.
Stage Five—Leveraging Knowledge. Stage Five contributors create a cultural and strategic context that shapes the minute-by-minute decisions and actions of people throughout the organization. They exert significant influence on the decisions that define what the organization does, how the organization does its work, and how it competes in the marketplace. One task of this stage is to make knowledge more widely accessible by transforming personal knowledge into expert systems, structures, processes, policies, norms and strategies.
Assessing Knowledge Worker Employability
One critical element of our research involved asking managers to force-rank their knowledge workers based on “the value of each worker’s contribution to the organization over the past 12 months.” We then asked managers to identify the stages in which each employee was consistently contributing and correlated these stages with the ranking data. Exhibit 1 summarizes the results and shows the strong connection between the five stages of the knowledge worker and perceived contribution.
The three most important patterns that can be identified in Exhibit 1 are:
- The increase in perceived value as people master additional stages. (Only 15 percent of those identified as making primarily Stage One contributions were ranked above the 50th percentile. Ninety-four percent of those identified as contributing primarily in Stage Five were ranked above the 50th percentile.)
- The small difference in the average age of people contributing in the different stages.
- The large jump in perceived value between Applying (Stage Two) and Creating (Stage Three).
Furthermore, we learned that while some knowledge workers focus on contributing only in one or two of these stages, the most highly valued knowledge workers usually perform in several of the stages simultaneously. To remain highly marketable, one has to move beyond the Applying Stage on the continuum. Only Creating, Sharing or Leveraging Knowledge consistently deliver competitive advantage for the individual.
We also found people performing in each of the five stages regardless of position. In other words, we found managers who were heavily focused on Applying Knowledge and technical professionals who were Leveraging Knowledge. Based on our findings, it appears that the tasks of the knowledge worker and the learning organization are one and the same: to become adept at acquiring, applying, creating, sharing and leveraging knowledge in ways that will enhance the organization’s competitiveness.
In our research we also asked managers to answer two questions about their team members:
- Who on your team would you least want to lose? and,
- Who on your team would you have the most difficulty replacing?
These two questions usually elicited the same list of names. The people identified were those who, in addition to fulfilling their Stage One and Two responsibilities (Acquiring and Applying Knowledge), were finding ways to contribute in Stages Three, Four or Five (Creating, Sharing or Leveraging Knowledge).
Some engineers, when first introduced to the model, question whether managers really do value Stages Three, Four and Five more than Stage Two. They ask, “Do managers put their money where their mouths are?” Our research confirms that they do. When we controlled for factors such as education, age and tenure, we found that each stage was associated with a 10 percent increment in pay. That means that a 30 year-old Stage Three (Creating Knowledge) electrical engineer with a BS degree and 7 years’ company experience will earn an average of 10% more than an electrical engineer with the same education and experience who has not expanded beyond Stages One and Two (Acquiring and Applying Knowledge). Similarly, a Stage Five (Leveraging Knowledge) electrical engineer will earn 30 to 35 percent more than an equally educated and experienced engineer in Stage Two (Applying Knowledge).
In order to thrive in an information economy, organizations need contributions in all five of the stages. And as competition intensifies, Stages Three, Four and Five become increasingly important. The five stages model, called the Contribution Continuum, provides a framework for analyzing and building one’s personal employability. One does not have to contribute in all fives stages to be highly employable, but remember: Although Stages One and Two are essential to your employability, they are not sufficient. Since almost everyone will in due course learn to contribute in Stages One and Two, these first two stages do not usually differentiate top performers. Stages Three, Four and Five are the differentiators and therefore the path to maximum employability.
Authors: Nigel Bristow—President, Targeted Learning and Michael-John Bristow—Associate, Targeted Learning
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