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Building People-Centric Competency Management In Construction. Q&A With Sysmax Knowledge Partner Debbie Carlton

Here at Sysmax, our business is to make sure that competency of individuals and teams matches the skills and competencies that employers need for their work. In construction, this is all the more important given challenges in the sector. On the one hand, there’s a digitisation agenda, as more companies try to do more tasks online and offsite. On the other hand, companies need to address sustainability, from using lower-carbon materials through to creating a more energy-efficient built environment.

But the structure of the industry is a complex one. In the UK, there’s a proliferation of professional and trade institutions working in the built environment whose core remit is ensuring and delivering competence. There’s a bewildering array of different professional and trade competence frameworks. They often overlap different work activities and disciplines, and they’re designed for the analogue world. At a time when construction needs transferable skills, it can be difficult to recognise who has the skills and experience that are actually needed on the ground. In this blog, our Knowledge Partner Debbie Carlton discusses how people-centric competency management can help the sector and put the human element back into construction.

An approach to human resources in construction focusing on competency management

Debbie started her career in civil engineering, working on water resourcing in the UK and Hong Kong. Having joined Henley Business School and run their Asia-Pacific operation for a time, she went on to co-found successful e-learning companies in Malaysia and back in the UK. She now focuses on consultancy work in the field of training transformation, knowledge and competency management. She recently became a Sysmax Knowledge Partner. Debbie’s LinkedIn profile is here>

Q: Is there a structural problem for human resources in construction?

Many of the issues in the sector centre on losing sight of the human dimension, both in terms of inputs and outputs. Individual workers and end-users of buildings are often not seen as primary stakeholders. The digitalisation agenda has emphasised process and technology at the expense of people and their needs to adapt to new ways of working.

For instance, many companies think in terms of labour resourcing and their immediate needs, rather than strategic work and workforce planning so the organisation can sustain a competent workforce. Of course, that’s in part due to the fact that many companies in the sector are small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in complex supply chains. In those cases, human resources management often falls by default into the lap of the chief executive or head of operations, rather than specialists. But without more structure for human resources, there can be a risk of not being flexible enough. The Covid pandemic has shown that people can be trusted to work in new ways, such as switching to remote working.

Q: How successful is the construction sector at understanding competency demand and supply?

As in many other sectors, construction continues to use proxies when it comes to the demand and supply of competency. For the individual, formal qualifications or cards are a proxy for whether they actually have the skill, knowledge, behaviours or worked experience. From the company’s side, the proxy they use is the jobs or roles they need based on titles, neither of which is necessarily descriptive of the competencies needed in day-to-day work.

The 70:20:10 principle has shown us that formal training usually accounts for only about 10% of the learning that’s useful for doing the work. And at a time when workers are expected to be increasingly flexible, we should be focusing on how individuals’ competency profiles match the needs of construction sector companies (i.e., competency demand profiles).

Q: How can the construction sector better adopt people-centric competency management?

While there are plenty of compliance platforms in the sector, there has been a widespread neglect of competency management platforms and associated system standards (e.g., UKAS TPS 69 CMS). Post-Grenfell, the emphasis has been on individual competency rather than organisational competency, when both are needed.

Sysmax is very good at focusing on the knowledge and the data that are needed for individuals to be able to gauge and manage their competencies. There are no hang-ups on whether the competency system fits the traditional distinctions of blue or white collar, or small or large organisations. Rather, Sysmax products focus firmly on how an individual’s skills and experience equip them for the tasks at hand, in accordance with relevant specifications, standards, and quality management approaches. Sysmax’s experience in other sectors has ensured a pragmatic approach to competency and its management from the individual worker to the board.

Q: How can competency management help people develop?

It’s also important to remember there is an element of depreciation of skills over time. When regulations or products change, or new digital ways of working are adopted, individuals and companies must adjust their competency profile to match this. This requires real and relevant training and on-the-job performance support to close any competency gaps. It’s not enough to focus on number of hours of CPD which an individual may have logged with an institution. Similarly, it’s great to have apprenticeship schemes, but there needs to be an ongoing element of support throughout an individual’s career. Ultimately, it’s about supporting human performance, and sometimes people need an element of guiding to enhance their performance at the point of need.

Q: There’s a lot of talk about place-based skills matching. How do you see that working?

There’s a great deal of talk about skills shortages in the UK at the moment, but the focus should be more on a skills mismatch. Indeed, there are many types of mismatch (place, pay, time, interest, data, abilities etc.). People often define themselves by their job title, and they don’t take a step back to recognise where they could deploy all their combined skills and experience in other areas and in new contexts. Even within a sector such as construction, that’s a limitation. It also serves to restrict diversity within the sector, and it’s important to promote that in order to remain dynamic. There’s some great work being done at the moment by Building People in this regard.

Q: So how do you enable competency management adoption in the sector?

It’s probably best to start with the most innovative parts of the industry. Indeed, I’m currently working on setting up a competency data working group with one of the construction sector professional institutes. It’s similar to the work done on product data, and it will enable the adoption of competency frameworks and platforms. And there’s already an appetite for working differently.

There’s been a huge rise of MMC (modern methods of construction) and offsite development work before a spade goes into the ground. In this case products often provide the key contextualising factor for competency requirements. The ability to make competency framework machine-readable is also big step forward.

These trends mean that there is more scope for forward-thinking construction sector companies to improve their competency management modelling and understanding across supply chains, and aiding SMEs. Potentially this means that companies will be better able to bring conformance and competency activities together to better focus on performance and quality management. Sysmax can be part of the solution achieve this. And that’s got to be good for the sector and the individuals involved in it.

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To find out more about how Sysmax can promote competency management in the construction sector, contact one of the team today.
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Post by Peter McAteer

Peter is the founder and CEO of Sysmax, a market-leader in the areas of compliance, performance improvement and competency management. He has more than 35 years’ experience working with global leaders in high-risk industries such and oil and gas extraction. Peter’s focus is on driving performance Improvement through analysis of business compliance and staff competency, including risk analysis, high technology engineering, and value optimisation. He works with clients to ensure they make the most of the opportunities inherent with the Sysmax suite of products.



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