Employee Personal Development Assignments

December 14, 1991

Releasing a member of staff to undertake work in the community has long been seen as offering benefits to the individual as well as to the community. That is the basis of secondment. However one national charity (Action Resource Centre) has taken this principle, learnt some lessons from America, and developed it into a whole new concept, which they have called Development Assignments. These involve the short term, part time, release of an employee in paid time to undertake specific assignments in the voluntary sector with two objectives:

1) to assist the management development of an individual as part of a structured training programme, and

2) to implement the company’s community investment commitment.

Case study

Nationwide Anglia Building Society in Northampton released a Customer Services Manager on part-time assignment totalling 100 hours over several months, to examine the office procedures of a local charity which had grown quickly from a two-person organisation to one with a staff of twelve. In addition to learning about the voluntary sector, this Manager designed and researched the project herself, improved her report writing skills and gained experience in liaising with staff and volunteers. It gave her a challenge and an experience not available within the company. The charity benefited by having a professional examine their systems and making recommendations for improved efficiency. The arrangement was set up and managed by ARC.

Trial programme

ARC recommends that before incorporating development assignments into the training programme of each and every young manager, it is best to test the practicalities first through a trial. Here is a five point step-by-step guide, based on early experience in this country at Nationwide Anglia and Marks and Spencer:

1. Clarify your objectives: how do you hope to benefit the individual, the company and the charity? Clarification at the outset will help you structure your trial programme and enable you to evaluate it at the end. Be realistic. It will be easy to assess new skills gained by the assignee and practical benefits to the community group, but much harder to judge the long terms gains from better business/community links in the locality.

2. Assign responsibilities: who is going to be responsible day-to-day for internal co-ordination? Which operational managers need to authorise the release of staff? Do you have the support of a senior manager (such as the Chief Executive or Director of Personnel) to help convince sceptical colleagues? Clearing these internal responsibilities at the outset will avoid dissipation of energy in resolving conflicts during the programme. Do you have good links with suitable community groups or would an external broker be best placed to put you in touch and research possible assignments?

3. Decide on the practicalities: how big should the test be? Which staff should be selected – for example, only graduate trainees already in a highly structured development programme, or a wider range of staff from different grades and ages? Is it more practical to restrict the test to just one operational location, or should several sites be included? Generally a small number of staff – say 5 to 15 – has been found to work best. Should staff be asked to volunteer or be selected by line managers? How is their performance to be integrated into internal appraisal systems, if at all? When is a good time to start? For example, retailers may prefer the post-Christmas lull.

4. Implement the test programme: by now the assignees should be enthusiastic about the scheme. If they have worries, deal with them and establish mechanisms to resolve problems as they arise. Enthusiastic and confident assignees create a good impression in the voluntary organisation and enhance the prospects of success for the trial as a whole. Are the operational managers still supportive? Were they involved in the selection of assignees, for example? How are you publicising the initiative, internally and externally? Good communications help to boost the confidence of those involved, as well as creating a positive climate for success.

5. Evaluate the outcome: having set the objectives at the outset, you can now assess the success of the trial for the individuals, the company and the voluntary body. Ask each party to document the positive gains, as well as the areas where improvements could have been made. Thus you can learn the lessons for the future. Consider holding an event, with presentations by those involved. Invite senior manager who gave you support at the outset, and consider including sceptical colleagues too! Now decide whether the success warrants wider implementation and if so, move quickly to make the most of the enthusiasm generated by the trial.

Action Resource Centre is a national charity which provides a brokerage and management service for development assignments and other forms of secondment. It has a network of regional offices and can be contacted at 102 Park Village East, London NW1 3SP, phone 071-383 2200.