Professional career paths and career ladders are an instrument of modern personnel development

The professional career path is a personnel management instrument for the widespread distribution of tasks and responsibilities within an organization and for showing employees development perspectives alongside the management career path. Technical and/or process responsibility is systematically transferred from managers to specialists. Synonyms for career path (most common term) are career ladder (rare) or career lattice (very rare).

The professional career path may also be called (with decreasing frequency) as follows:

  • expert career path
  • specialist career path
  • technical career path

Ideally, an executive should focus on disciplinary and organizational leadership of employees and organizational units, while the professional should contribute mainly through the application and development of specific, technical expertise.

In the operational reality of many organisations, however, managers are often regarded as the highest clerks or experts and take on technical tasks, which may hinder the actual management tasks.

Acceptance and success of the introduction of a professional career thus depend strongly on previous practices and the willingness of people and the organisation to change.

The Problem of Status Symbols or "Insignia of Power"

Often, certain changes (improvements) are made to an employee's status by assuming management responsibility. These include, for example::

  • A change in the job title.

  • Moving into a single office.

  • The choice of a particularly fancy smartphone, tablet or laptop.

  • The change from a non-exempt to an exempt compensation plan.

  • Granting or increasing a target bonus.

  • Granting or increasing a company car or a car allowance.

  • The offer of additional benefits such as special insurances, medical check-ups etc..

These classic status symbols are intended to make the office / role of the bearer visible to the outside world and thus become insignia of claims to leadership.

How does a professional career become equivalent to a management career?

Equivalence of the profesesional career can only be given if

  • outstanding specialist positions and experts gain access to the same or equivalent benefits,

  • the assignment of status symbols is no longer linked to the perceived status but to the value of a job,

  • or, in general, the most obvious (and classic) status symbols are dispensed with in favour of an egalitarian form of organisation.

A system such as gradar, which enables modern job evaluation in individual contributor and management careers as well as in project management, is suitable for analysing and evaluating work.

There are power relations everywhere, in every social structure. However, the specialist career path can contribute to a more balanced distribution of power in an organisation and counteract the concentration and abuse of power.

The introduction of a specialist career is accompanied not only by changes in the organisation of work, but also by cultural changes. This change will be all the more painful the more hierarchically the organisation has been shaped to date.

Example of career paths in human resources

In this example, the Vice President Human Resources is responsible for the entire human resources function. This role focuses on the disciplinary management of employees and the strategic management of the organizational unit.

Administrative and conceptual tasks are therefore consistently delegated to employees.

  • Directors who are responsible for operational teams and experts with specialized tasks are managed directly.

  • The technical responsibility as product owner for the sub-disciplines lies with the senior experts.

  • HR Scrum Masters lead the sprints and ensure the flow of information between product owners and development teams.

The development teams are interdisciplinary and have the goal to develop new processes, to evaluate them and to implement them in systems. Depending on the Sprint, they may also contribute to the development of new products.

Every employee can participate in sprints, if day-to-day business permits.


Example of career paths in human resources

This schematic representation shows no detailed tasks or the value (grade) of the individual positions. This information is reserved for a separate overview (Excel export) as well as a cross comparison. You can download these documents here.

Success criteria for the introduction of a professional career path

The following points are indispensable for the successful introduction of a professional career framework, which we point out here without claiming to be exhaustive:

  • Ensure that the professional career path is equivalent to the management career path. A modern job evaluation system can help here.

  • Experts in the professional career path lead technically.

  • Managers in the management career path are suitable and willing to lead as managers, to guide employees and to develop them.

  • Project managers have the competence to lead projects and are responsible for budgets and implementation.

  • Individual Contributors are given the task and the responsibility by decision-making bodies to develop new processes and products, to report on progress themselves and to accompany the introduction / implementation also communicatively. The communication aspect is particularly important in order to make the expert role in the organization visible. If necessary, experts are used as product owners.

  • Scrum Masters work in departments / companies with established Scrum processes. They mediate between the roles and ensure that team members are adequately relieved of operational tasks and have the freedom to organize themselves as a development team. In this scenario, the role of project managers must be questioned.

See also:

The Organisational Theoretical Perspective in Job Evaluation

A job as an organisational entity is usually assessed according to three aspects:

  1. Input: What the job holder must "bring along", or the requirements for knowledge and skills, acquired through qualification and experience.
  2. Throughput: What the job (holder) does or can influence in terms of procedures and processes.
  3. Output: Which results are developed or answered for by the entity?

The consideration of a position from these three directions is not new and has long been established in organizational theory and labor sciences. In recent times, another aspect has gained more importance

  1. The communicative and social interaction of a job holder.

This broadening of the perspective is probably due to the change in the world of work, as many repetitive activities in production and administration have been automated or digitalized and the type of knowledge worker is more prominent nowadays than before. At the same time, a growing service sector requires the increased consideration of social interaction, since this is a core of the services tasks, besides the professional / technical work. Finally, the change in the way of working also requires a change in the understanding of leadership, which changes from a mere issuing of instructions to a managing through motivation, communication, conflict resolution and coordination.


Determination of the equivalence of work

In order to take account of these new developments in the consideration and evaluation of work in the 21st century and to meet today's demands for fairness, non-discrimination and transparency, we have selected the factors for our job evaluation system in such a way that all four aspects are taken into account in the evaluation of the job and thus a comprehensive classification of the value of the job can take place and double weightings can be avoided.

On the input side we find the factors expertise and experience. The problem solving factor radiates into the areas of input and throughput. This aspect is also covered by the factors functional responsibility for employees (IC) project team (PM), or leadership span (MM) and the influence on processes.

The output area is also evaluated with the processes factor, especially in higher levels of jobs, and has the greatest impact on functional, organizational or project-related (budget) responsibility.

The organizational knowledge factor was included in order to reflect a modern and expanded organizational concept. In the classic divisional or regional organizational structures, where decision-making competencies are primarily located with executives, a position can be assessed appropriately with the first three aspects.

Modern structures with flat hierarchies or "agile" environments require a higher degree of personal responsibility, flexibility and knowledge of the internal connections from the positions and their owners. This factor selection is based on the work of Prof. Mc Farlane, Stanford University, who uses another organizational concept in his work on organizational analysis. His definition also includes informal or non-codified structures, so that a group of people who come together for a common purpose with a set of practices and knowledge can be seen as an organization.

Indirectly, this also has an influence on the factor processes, since organizations with a minimum of hierarchical depth often work strongly process-oriented.

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