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PEOPLE CLOUD

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Notes From the People Cloud | What’s the Fuss About Job Titles?

The Notes From the People Cloud column is dedicated to elevating the conversation about people and work. Read on for expert perspectives on how changes in the world of work can be supported through smarter technology.


One of the first things we ask when we want to get to know somebody is, “What do you do?” Job titles give context to who we are, what we like, and how we spend our time. And yet they are now becoming one of the most confusing aspects of work today.

For some companies, using a distinct title for each hire is a way of acknowledging that every member of the talent team is unique. It also is a way to open conversations and get people curious about the work of the organization. But then you end up in a situation where trying to find people with a specific skill set is like finding a needle in a haystack. The burgeoning number of titles makes communication inside an organization challenging, let alone to the outside world.

Titles can be generic and elusive, with different meanings and functions depending on the industry and/or department. Take Project Manager, for example. A project manager in a construction company can mean something completely different than a project manager in a financial institution. Even within the same industry, the title project manager can mean completely different things depending on the team or department. Another one of my favorite vague titles is product tester. What technical or personal skills does it take to be a product tester? My 12 year old got a title as a product tester for a Trampoline Park under construction. I wonder what career path would be recommended by a system that only looks at raw titles as input.


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Even a budget needs standard occupations

In one of my previous jobs, I needed to create a budget for my department that clearly delineates revenue generating staff from cost incurring staff. Sounds simple, but it was an extremely arduous task. I had the title project manager within the same department, but the work was completely different. Some of the project managers were revenue generating because they implemented systems for clients, whereas others were cost incurring because they implemented internal systems. And then there were project managers  who managed product specific operations, so they were critical for product development, which flowed into sales.

At the same time, I wanted to understand which team member was working on product development and which was working on incoming customer requirements. There were so many variations of software development from junior Java developers to senior frontend engineers, and the simple task required building a taxonomy that takes the names of the people and their title as input for creating the functional categories I needed.


It’s not just a geeky thing 

I have spent a very significant proportion of my 25+ year career building a wide array of labor market information taxonomies and ontologies. While I might admit that I can be a little too obsessed with organizing all kinds of objects, (and reluctantly admit that my closet is color and type coded and that I insist on dishes and utensils going into the dishwasher in a specific order), the problem with title and occupation standardization is far more critical than a mere organization problem. It’s the main actionable link between people and work.

During my journey of dealing with unstandardized occupations offenders— while also building numerous occupation taxonomies and ontologies—it is fair to say, I have seen it all. Some of which include: Legal Bank Robber, Digital Overlord, Change Magician, Lab Rat, Personality Hacker, and even a Remote Massage Therapist. 

Maybe these lean towards the extreme, but perhaps not such an uncommon scenario. My friend and colleague at Visier, Ian Cook, shared with me that he worked at a 2,400 person organization that had 1,200 discrete titles. That’s a lot. A title should reflect a function, area of focus, and if there are 1200 distinct titles, it suggests either lack of focus or titles really don’t mean much. 

Consider this other scenario. Organization X is implementing a new cloud-based Enterprise Resource Planning system, and subsequently automating much of the accounting, billing, and procurement functions. All workforce in these functions will be affected. But how can an organization plan around such transformation if it has dozens of titles for Account Receivable Clerks/Specialists/Accountants, etc., and dozens more for accountants, procurement analysts, and all other related titles. I have lived this exact scenario more than once during my career, and collected more than my fair share of wounds and bruises trying to build taxonomies on the fly to help with the planning and change management aspect of this transformation process.  I spent too many years hoping and praying for someone to save me from all these relentless DIY (Do it Yourself) projects that took away so much time and focus that I critically needed to do the actual work related to business transformation. And this is coming from a taxonomist. 


No need for a title police just yet

I have worked in organizations that were able to establish and enforce a  strict taxonomy of standard titles. During my years as a government official, my department only had a handful of titles that were permitted. That was quite a challenge, as in such an environment, it becomes virtually impossible to distinguish the duties of a data scientist and a labor market analyst on my team. Managers will always need to fit the current and near future needs of their teams into the past, which stifles growth. And so having a very strict taxonomy that sterilizes all job nuances at the title level could be even more problematic than a free for all system.

But there is another standardization problem that plagues operations inside organizations that opted for a highly standardized taxonomy. Consider this other scenario of a company trying to assess its compensation and benefits packages. This company cannot do such analysis without looking at the packages offered in the market today. How would this organization know if the packages it offers are competitive? The only way to do that is to have a way to translate their own standard occupations to other ones in the market.

And that’s exactly what Visier offers through its global occupation standardization. Yes, I have been cheering quite loudly about this.

We give organizations and managers the flexibility to pick the titles that work for their immediate needs, while offering a seamless translation between their titles and any other title system in the market, and that’s the power of occupation standardization. 


Most one sizes fit no one

To be sure, it is completely counterproductive to mandate all departments to just stick with a list of titles handed over from above. Any such attempt greatly prohibits the ability to adapt. However, too much variation in job titles makes it impossible to do planning or competitiveness analysis, which makes it impossible to connect the dots. But as explained above, there are opposite extremes as well, where organizations opt for very generic titles like analyst, engineer, or developer. 


And/or: You can have it all

Titles can be a very effective way for detecting emerging trends, and they do matter for many people eager to communicate their unique talent. At the same time, sometimes overly generalized titles can be very helpful in higher level planning. Both are needed. So the solution is not to pick one or another, but to offer all these options through what we call a standard occupation hierarchy. You can start at a very high level grouping of roles, or extremely detailed level depending on the business problem. And that’s exactly what Visier offers.


Visier’s secret sauce: More than just a taxonomy

For me, the most frustrating thing about any taxonomy is that it is fixed in time. You always have to use retrospective trends to define future trends and you get stuck with it until the next taxonomy update, which normally takes years. And most taxonomies were built with overly manual processes, and that’s why they are always out of date. But that’s not the case with Visier occupation standardization. Through our partnership with Emsi Burning Glass, we use machine learning techniques to send signals regarding new trends in titles, that we then quickly add to our taxonomy. These algorithms also detect titles that are becoming obsolete that get dropped from the taxonomy. Machine learning techniques are also used to detect similar titles that cluster together that should be grouped as one, and also the attributes of the title, such as the associated skills. In this way, our occupation hierarchy acts as an effective conduit between people and work. 

That last point is extremely critical for any organization re/design. If an organization experiences a resignation wave that affects one raw title more than others, we can use this occupation hierarchy to find people who can fill in those roles even if they appear to have very different job titles. For example, business analysts in product departments can easily transfer to product managers if that becomes a need. Similarly, organizations might need to grow their capacity vis-a-vis a particular talent—say cyber security—and having distinct titles grouped together can help them see that many of their network engineers may become the best talent to reskill into those roles. 


Plumbing ain’t sexy but is indispensable

Talking about occupation and title taxonomy, or any taxonomy for that matter, may sound very boring and too abstract. But no organization can do any effective workforce strategy without a title taxonomy. Be it career planning, equity, up/re-skilling, resignation management, you name it, nothing can be done effectively if titles do not reflect work efficiency and effectively. Visier can help you with this journey by helping you build the right infrastructure and tools,  developing a people strategy that truly connects people, work, and outcomes. But we need to have a reliable plumbing system that is flexible, dynamic, and adaptable, and that’s exactly what Visier’s approach does. 

About the author: Yustina Saleh Ph.D.

Yustina has been on a quest for connecting people and value for over 20 years. Her life goal is to help people and organizations unlock their unique niches and then find and be found by their perfect matches. Yustina formerly led skill-based analytics at Emsi, The Analytics Center of Excellence at Rutgers, real-time labor analytics at Burning Glass, and labor market and demographic research for the State of New Jersey. As Visier's VP, Research and Value, she's building a platform that connects people and work data with business outcomes to maximize people impact. When she is not optimizing talent capabilities, she enjoys spinning, running, and ballroom dancing.

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