Bill Rothwell has been a training and development professional for more than 30 years and is one of the field’s most prolific writers with more than 70 books to his credit. In 2011, he received the Distinguished Contribution in Workplace Learning and Performance Award from ASTD. He is well-known for his significant contributions to ASTD’s competency studies, and was also one of the main thought leaders and architects behind ASTD’s CPLP credential.
Rothwell is Professor of Workforce Education and Development in the Department of Learning and Performance Systems on the University Park campus of The Pennsylvania State University. He is also President of Rothwell & Associates Inc., a private consulting firm specializing in succession planning, talent management, and organization development.
Question: You first heard about corporate training while working as a teaching assistant many years ago. You noted that most of the students never received career guidance of any kind and you felt there was a definite need for career planning and so you decided to look for a job in training. Do you think the situation is true today for career planning as it was many years ago? If the situation has changed, how and in what ways?
I believe it would be different now because ASTD has published several competency models and started the CPLP program, which would give a new entrant to the learning and development field guidance on how to prepare to enter it. However, high school students are still not served well by guidance counselors. Neither are many college students. Cutbacks in secondary education have fallen hard on career counseling. And career counseling has never been a great strength of colleges. It is a great pity, since many young people have no way to sort out what they wish to do with their lives. That leads to many ill-advised and costly decisions (including costly mistakes) made by students in choosing college majors or careers.
Question: You have consulted with 40 multinational corporations and are very familiar with the Middle East and Asia—especially China. Do you find that “spreading the gospel of training” varies from country to country and if so in what ways?
I believe that people, as a human resource, remain the focus of much lip service rather than real support by business and government leaders. They say that "people are our greatest asset" even as they downsize with no view in mind to the havoc that will be caused by pending retirements in many business, government, and charitable organizations. I don't believe that business schools have adequately served HR practice and are instead focused on mindless analysis without the ethics or values behind them. That has led to Enron, Global Crossing, and more recently the Wall Street scandals. Business schools do NOT serve HR practices adequately ― including people development ― and never have. Unfortunately, too many other governments around the world foolishly follow the U.S. business school model.
In China, the government determines what occupations deserve the focus of a college major. Learning and development is foolishly classified with HR and is not the focus of its own specialized undergraduate or graduate program. That is ridiculous in a nation like China with the most people, and thus the nation with the greatest gain to be achieved by developing its human resources. That ill-advised and reckless policy is what happens when you allow Ivy League economists to set government policy. The same is also true in many nations around the world.
Even in the U.S., where HRD programs first had their start at George Washington University under Leonard Nadler, programs serving workforce development
are under attack by shortsighted deans who want to save money by cutting programs in workforce education and development at the very time that the U.S. has record unemployment. Unenlightened citizens and government policymakers at the federal and state levels allow this to happen.
Question: During the past two decades, you have implemented a highly competitive program that—since 2003—has consistently ranked in the top three Workforce Development graduate programs in the United States. In 2012 it is ranked #1 in the US News and World Report rankings. What are some of the hallmarks of your program that has set it apart and above others?
First, we have professors who have practical work experience. Rather than fostering useless academic studies, our program at Penn State encourages students to do their homework on career goals before they enter the graduate program and then to seek practical experience that can enhance their academic credentials. The faculty members want to hear well-researched efforts by students, before they enter, to determine what they want to do with a Ph.D. in the field.
Some of our students become college professors. But most seek careers in consulting, business, or government. Unlike MBA programs that encourage inexperienced students to pursue a degree, we demand a minimum amount of work experience before we permit the student to enter the graduate program. That leads to seasoned students who know what they want and have done the hard work of figuring out what they want to do with their lives before they enter our graduate program. Forty percent of our students are from outside the U.S.
We encourage students to develop work sample portfolios because we believe employers do not know what degrees (or grades for that matter) mean but they can judge the quality of work products. And, of course, work products required for employment will differ, depending on whether the student wishes to become a professor, a consultant, a practitioner in a business, government, or charitable institution, or a continuing education professional who sells learning and development services to businesses.
Question: Social media is fast becoming a key learning and development tool. How do you see its role in the context of workforce education, organizational development, and succession planning?
Social media are about using technology to encourage connectedness among people to share what they know and to share their expertise with others. I believe that social media have the power to be transformative in societies (witness the Arab Spring) or in organizational settings. Social media (such as Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, Plaxo and similar venues) can link people, and that can be powerful indeed in building competence for individuals, prompting social change in organization development, or giving more responsibility to employees for succession planning.
Question: You have written more than 70 books including the popular
Effective Succession Planning, and
The ASTD Reference Guides, Mastering the Instructional Design Process, and Practicing Organization Development. Tell us some of the major changes you’ve seen, during your 30-year career, in succession planning, instructional design, and organizational development.
I believe that the greatest transformation has been to break down boundaries across and within organizations for succession planning, training, and OD. Today, forward-thinking leaders are creating boundary-less organizations that allow easier entry, throughput, and output of people. A major goal is to find talent fast, develop it fast, take advantage of it fast, and then allow talented individuals to pursue their dreams inside or outside organizational settings.
Question: One of your most recent books is
Lean But Agile: Rethink Workforce Planning to Gain a True Competitive Advantage (2012). How does it address the increasingly global nature of organizations and the workforce?
The premise of this book is that the old labor supply and demand model for workforce planning is dead. Today's leaders know that really talented people can be as much as 20 times more productive than average performers in the same organization. That blows apart the old industrial view of work.
At the same time, employers are no longer thinking in terms of full-time employees (nine to five, five days per week, 50 weeks per year) and are becoming very innovative in getting more work done without hiring more full-time workers. The issue in the future will be planning for work rather than planning for a workforce. How can work be accomplished?
My book describes over 50 ways that employers can get work done without hiring or developing more full-time people. Examples include work process improvement, automation, skillful use of contingent workers, skillful use of consultants, hiring back retirees on short-term bases, and many other innovative and short-term approaches to getting work done while saving money on expensive healthcare and other benefits for full-time workers. That is a trend that will continue in the foreseeable future because it is driven not just by high benefit costs in the U.S. but also by highly variable wage rates globally.