Manage Portfolios of Capability – #BigLearning

In strategy, we often think of organisations as portfolios of capability. Capability creates options. The set of capabilities in an organisation enable you to do some things and not others. Managing that portfolio to allow for performance, adaptation and growth is critical to success in changing environments.

The same principles apply to learning for individuals in organisations. We can help our people see learning as a way to manage their portfolios of capability. This approach creates options and adaptability for the individual and the organisation. Individuals who manage their own portfolios of capability will have richer and more purposeful careers.

Traditional Learning

Traditional learning approaches borrow from the industrial management mindset. What matters is the role, which is an input in a production process. The role has to have certain fixed capabilities. Therefore we recruit and train our people to have those capabilities.

When something changes, we have a problem. We focused on a fixed role, not the people. We treated people as cogs in a process and hoped we could find or stuff them with the capabilities required for a role. This learning largely happens independent of the individuals purposes, hopes or dreams. Their desire to have a role requires them to learn fixed capabilities.

Managing a Portfolio is Adaptive

Nobody is in perfect identity with the capabilities listed on their role description. We all have diverse portfolios of capability. We have different education, experience and networks. We are hired because we bring more to the role than others.

How often have you seen someone with skills required elsewhere but who doesn’t get to apply them? An IT manager once challenged me to demonstrate that new employee profiles couldn’t help him with his need for a programmers in a particular language. “I know all the programmers here”, he said. The first name that came from a search of employee’s profiles highlighted a financial analyst in the same organisation who had a masters in computer science and had declared their experience in programming in that language. The analyst was unknown to the IT manager. What secret talents are hidden in your employee population?

Let’s manage people, not roles so that we can leverage our individual and collective portfolios of capability. People adapt by drawing on additional skills and capabilities. People can look ahead and learn for the next role or the next challenge. Importantly that allows our employees to manage their own portfolios of capability beyond this role and into their whole life.  

A Capability Portfolio Approach for Organisations and Employees

  • Start with your employee’s needs: Use Design thinking to understand your employee journey before, during and after their time with you. What does a new perspective do to help you change the way you enable them to learn?
  • Manage a portfolio strategy: You have business needs for certain skills. These become the priority areas for your portfolio of capabilities in the organisation. However, they will not be the only areas you have skills in the team. Re-weight the priorities of the portfolio constantly as the business needs change.
  • Encourage employees share their full set of capabilities with you. Enable them to disclose the skills and experiences that they have that can help you with your business challenges. Look for options that can be created with these additional capabilities for employees and the organisation. Make capabilities searchable, encourage collaboration and create clearing houses to enable projects to call on those skills as needed.
  • Let employees develop to their purposes and their needs: If you are clear on your business needs, employees know what skills need to be developed. If they don’t want those skills, it is better they don’t want to stay. Finding the alignment between employee purposes and your portfolio needs will strengthen the organisation
  • Hire and Encourage Diversity: Diverse people bring diverse capabilities into the organisation. Everyone of these is a future option. That’s an option that comes for free when you hire someone whose capable of doing the job.
  • Employees are accountable for their portfolios of capabilities: This has always been the case but we lost focus on development in some of the paternalistic HR models. Organisations should support and enable development, but they can’t do it to an employee. Leveraging PKM, working out loud and 70:20:10 models enables employees to take greater control of their learning.
  • Use employee’s capabilities and watch them grow: The best way for a capability to stay current and grow is to be used. How do you let employees step outside their role and use skills on a project, a secondment, helping out a peer in a collaboration, on a hobby project or volunteering externally.

When Circumstances Change, Change Your Approach


Changing circumstances demand changes in approach. Clinging to the old ways can be dangerous.

The Praying Mantis in the Schoolyard

When confronted with a threat, a praying mantis has a set program of responses to take advantage of the advantages of excellent camouflage: freeze & blend in, sway like a leaf, run to the nearest tree. All these strategies work well in the normal circumstances of a praying mantis, the leafy greenery of trees.

However when the wind is blowing strongly and a praying mantis finds itself blown to the unfamiliar circumstances of schoolyard asphalt, none of these strategies work. It can’t blend in. Freezing exposes it to risk of being stomped. What it runs towards is not a tree. It is the leg of a small curious boy. In the end, it need a generous young girl to carry it back to the bushes to escape the growing crowd.

Change Your Approach

A praying mantis can’t change its approach immediately. Evolution will take a while to catch up with asphalt. It will eventually adapt as a species, but that doesn’t help any individual insect.

Your organisation isn’t programmed by genetics. When circumstances change, your organisation and its people can adopt new approaches, experiment to find new ways and learn how to succeed in the new environment. If your organisation is still responding to the new network economy with the same approaches and practices that worked in the industrial era, it can be as dangerous as outdated practices were to the mantis. Nobody will be generous enough to return your organisation to its preferred environment.

There is No Formula – Just Learning

Many managers find this discussion deeply unsettling. Advocates of the future of work are calling for change, but they are often either highly conceptual or discussing concepts that seem very alien to the circumstances in an organisation.

The abstraction has a reason. The future of work is being driven by a network economy where the right strategies are often emergent and adaptive. Adopting a new fixed formula is as dangerous as the last one. While we would like a formula (and many offer to sell one), the future strategies need to be learned for each organisation in its own circumstances in the network.  Change can’t be imposed it needs to be led one conversation at a time.

Creating a responsive organisation that can leverage the human potential to learn and experiment a way forward will take new techniques and new ways of organising.  Many of these techniques that are rising to the fore in discussion of the future of work and responsive organisations are ways to foster the emergence of a new better approaches for organisation using networks, rather than fighting them.  That’s why much of the conversation comes back to enabling people to learn and act in new ways:

  • Leadership: fostering the leadership capabilities of each person to leverage their insights and their potential to lead change from their unique position
  • Experimentation: Moving from exercising the power and expertise of a few to experimenting to learn together
  • Learning: improving the ability to understand the environment by focusing on tools to better seek out, share and make sense of information.
  • Work out Loud: aligning the organisation and bringing out latent human capabilities using techniques like ‘working out loud
  • Collaboration & Community: Networks route around barriers. Therefore you need to bring down the barriers within and around your organisation. Isolation is not a winning strategy in a period of rapid change.

The New to Social Executive: Actions to Get Ready

As a senior executive starting to use social collaboration there will be a little nervousness when you engage at first, unless you are supremely confident or incredibly extroverted. You need opportunities to practice your new mindsets and learn new skills of social collaboration before you hit the main game. Even if you are confident and extroverted, you may need practice, because you may need to learn to adjust to the expectations of others.

Here are a few actions to help the new-to-social executive to get ready for the art of social collaboration: 

  1. Start by being social: The technology is just a facilitator of conversations. Do you go out of your way to have social conversations in your organisation now? Are you mentoring and helping others across the organisation now? When did you last have a coffee meeting with no agenda? It is no good running chats on twitter or posting think pieces on Linkedin, if you don’t talk to your own employees or customers in the foyer. Start using your new social mindsets and engaging a wider audience in other ways first.
  2. Choose a purpose: When starting out in social collaboration, focus helps build reasons for connection.  Choose the one topic on which you want to start to engage purposefully with others. If you can’t think of anything else, choose one of your corporate strategy, meeting talented people or better understanding customers. Add these topics to your everyday conversations and your team. Refine your purpose as you go. Eventually this purpose will flower into a personal manifesto.
  3. Reflect & Start to share your learnings: New-to-social executives often say “But what do I have to say?”. The things that you share are going to come from the interactions in your day and responses to the activity of others. Reflect on what you experience and read each day. Start to take some notes about what these experiences mean for you and what you learn (Tools like Evernote are handy for this). Those insights are ideas that you can share. Explain to others how these ideas came about. They might seem minor to you but to others without your experience your thought process can be incredibly valuable. Over time this will become a form of Personal Knowledge Management where you constantly refine what you read, capture insights, and also learn how you share your insights with others.
  4. Test the influence of your insights: Most senior executives are used to their teams listening to their words. Social audiences are busy with many competing voices. You may need to test how influential your ideas are before you debut them to a wider and more discerning audience. You may need to adjust your style of communication. Social favours the short, sharp and punchy. Run some tests sharing your thoughts in a variety of different means through email, internal social posts, voluntary talks or blogging internally. Measure the response and seek feedback. Use that feedback to refine your style and your messaging. 
  5. Start Working Out Loud in your Enterprise Social Network:  There is no better place to practice social collaboration than in your organisation’s Enterprise Social Network.  You will be practising in front of an audience that is well aware of your fame, power and influence. They will be forgiving. Use your enterprise social network to start to practice Working Out Loud. Develop new habits that you can carry over to external social media. Make sure you get the network’s mobile applications so that you can easily access, share and respond to others as you go about your busy life. Most important of all, learn the lessen that the value of social collaboration grows with your consistency and your effort.

From that point on there are plenty of experts that tell you how to use Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and other social tools for business.

Search, experiment and keep the practices that work for you 

This is the second of two short posts on tips for the senior executive looking to move into using social collaboration tools inside and outside the enterprise. This post deals with actions to get you started. The previous post dealt with mindsets.