There has been much electronic comment this morning about a piece in the Guardian saying that MEN Media, which publishes the Manchester Evening News, will be using a skills matrix to decide on who to keep (or not) in a round of 150 redundancies.
What exactly are they doing? What will it mean and will it work?
A skills matrix (also called a competency framework) is a grid, with a list of skills on one side and a scale of ability on the other, for example from 1 (no skills) to 5 (expert). You might include a ”0′ grade too, to indicate that the skills is irrelevant to a person or role.
A person’s skills can be assessed using the grid, or it can be used to specify the skills required for a role. In this case, it sounds as if MEN may be doing both – assessing which people have the right skills for the remaining available roles.
According to the article, staff are scored out of 20 marks, which sounds as if the ratings against skills grades are put into a calculation to produce a score per person.
Who’s getting graded on what? The Guardian says:
Reporters, subeditors and features writers will be assessed differently. Elements will include: commitment and professionalism, design skills, judgment, speed/accuracy, multimedia skills, media law, adaptability and resilience, and story generation
In other words, this sounds like a decently thought-out skills matrix for the profession – depending, of course, on the clarity of description of the behaviours used to describe each skill.
So what are the advantages and disadvantages of using a skills matrix in this way?
The key advantage is that in a time of high emotion, a skills matrix provides some form of objectivity for deciding who stays and who doesn’t. It provides some reassurance for individuals who are not close to the decision makers that their skills will be assessed equally with others who may be chummier.
It also provides a way of balancing a team adequately – of deciding to keep a certain person because he or she will contribute vital skills in a particular area.
I have known a skills matrix used in exactly this way very effectively during the re-organisation of a large IT department. The unions felt the approach worked because it provided a level playing field for decision making; managers felt that they had a good tool to help them make difficult calls fairly, and as a result of using the matrix, a good number of staff were actually re-allocated when it was discovered that their skills could be re-used elsewhere in the business.
This skills-based approach only works, however, when the personnel systems and an understanding of skills have been in place for some time and both managers and staff are familiar with it.
I do not know the situation at MEN Media, but if they are introducing the skills matrix now, during redundancies, then it will be viewed with suspicion, and you have to ask how the data on skills will be collected. It will be in nobody’s interest to give an accurate assessment of their own skills when bumping themselves up a grade or two could save their job.
In these circumstances, the ‘skills matrix’ would become nothing more than a checklist, used by the managers to assess staff, rather than a starting point for a mature, adult conversation between managers and employees. That makes it subject to all the normal problems of employer favoritism.
Another disadvantage of beginning using a skills matrix or competency framework in this way is that it will forever be damned in the eyes of the remaining employees. It will never be possible to use it as it should be used – to help with making decisions on training, resource allocation and recruitment.
And finally, it will never, ever, be possible to base lay-offs purely on the results of a skills analysis, and it shouldn’t be portrayed that way. As paulcockerton puts it on Twitter:
Will they stick to ‘skills matrix’ if it means paying veteran staff 100k redundancy rather than more skilled newbies 2k?
We only have half the story from this article. I hope for everyone’s sake that the part of the story we don’t see includes a well-crafted skills matrix, already in situ, used as one part of a fair system for making some very difficult decisions.