Training focus: Find the right path

17th June 2012


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A year after IEMA published its skills map, Sarah-Jayne Russell finds out how it is being used to direct professional development

Before the publication of IEMA’s environmental skills map last June, no competency framework existed against which all environment professionals, regardless of seniority or sector, could benchmark themselves and identify where they needed to develop their knowledge and skills base.

IEMA recognised that in such a rapidly evolving sector, and with employers increasingly demanding practitioners meet specified levels of competence, it was important to help members ensure their professional development was focused and relevant. In response, IEMA began to develop a tool to clearly identify the knowledge and skills needed at different levels of seniority across the profession.

The map

After six months’ working with employers, recruitment consultancies, universities and training organisations, IEMA launched the first layer of the map last summer. It outlines 14 competency areas, split into five broad categories:

  • Knowledge and understanding – Fundamental environmental and sustainability principles; Environmental policy issues; Environmental management and assessment tools; Environmental legislation; and Business management.
  • Analytical thinking – Analyse, interpret and report data and information; and Develop sustainable solutions.
  • Communication – Implement effective communication; and Engage stakeholders.
  • Sustainable practice – Implement sustainable thinking; Deliver environmental improvement; and Managing business resilience.
  • Leadership for change – Lead change; and Influence behaviour.

The one-page framework then sets out the types of skills and knowledge needed to demonstrate competency in different job roles, namely: non-graduate/graduate entry-level positions; operational roles; specialists; managers; and leadership roles.

It outlines, for example, that graduates should understand environmental policy issues, whereas managers are expected to be able to explain trends and developments in policy.

Similarly, leading environment professionals must be competent in creating a vision for strategic change, while those working at an operational level are able to implement changes.

One year on, and with IEMA working to complete a second layer to the map providing more detail on the skills and knowledge needed for each competency, Claire Lea, the Institute’s director of membership strategy and development, is pleased with the feedback so far.

“The reaction in our first year has been really positive,” she says. “People can see that the skills map was needed and that it clearly sets out all the different role categories that people need to know and be able to do.”

Russell Grinham, assurance adviser at Research Sites Restoration, agrees: “Before the environmental skills map came out, there was nothing that gave an idea of the skills you need in an environmental role linked with career progression, particularly anything that covers business skills as well as environmental ones.”

In launching the first layer of the map, IEMA’s main aim was to provide greater guidance for its members on what skills they needed to continue performing to the best of their ability.

“The motivation to create the map was feedback from graduates and career changers who said that after completing some initial training, for example the IEMA Associate course or an environment-related degree, it was unclear as to what their next steps should be,” confirms Lea.

“It has also become clear that the map has more uses than we originally envisaged, in a really positive way. Professionals working in organisations have taken it and used it as a more strategic tool, and that’s exactly what we wanted.”

The map offers individuals the opportunity to assess their own knowledge and skills against a sector-wide benchmark, helping them to identify areas in which they might want to consider further training or development, but also allows businesses to evaluate the competency of staff with environment responsibilities and predict future skills requirements (see panel below).

Using the map

Early adopter Grinham has been using the map to evaluate his personal professional development since it was first published and says it became particularly useful when he changed jobs from a broad environment role to one focused on assurance.

“I wanted to have a look at where I needed training and development, so I used the skills map to identify those gaps. I simply crossed out all the competencies that I thought I met, and the ones that weren’t crossed out I then knew I had to focus on,” he says.

“As a result, over the next six to 12 months, I will seek to develop my experience in auditing. In the longer term I will be looking to improve my competency in business management areas such as ‘understanding commercial tools’, to reach the higher competency levels.”

Grinham argues that this ability to plan in the long term is one of the skills map’s strengths. “If you intend to move up the career ladder towards leadership, you can plan out your training and development over a number of years. This can help you to avoid being sent on courses that you don’t actually need or which aren’t relevant to your role or future goals.”

This broader, career-long approach has also been adopted by some organisations. Jo Murphy, national technical manager at the National Environmental Assessment Service (NEAS), the development arm of the Environment Agency, has been working to incorporate the map into the organisation’s existing EMA-approved technical development framework. “My role is to support our 55 environment project managers and ensure they have the right skills, capabilities and training,” she explains.

“The skills map slots very neatly onto our framework and by incorporating the map’s competencies we are giving our staff the opportunity to benchmark themselves against people in other organisations. This encourages them to set their own development paths with consideration of that bigger picture.

“At NEAS we train people to work well for us while also having in mind their own career development, because, as much as we’d like to keep everyone, they are not always going to work for us. It’s important that professional development structures are tied to that wider context.”

One particular benefit of the IEMA skills map, according to Murphy, is its straightforward structure. “I’ve been through a number of other professional development frameworks and this is by far the most clear,” she says. “The fact that you can just print it out on an A3 piece of paper and stick it up on the wall is really helpful and I think its accessibility means its uptake will spread quickly and people will use it.”

Murphy also praises the map’s acknowledgement that different job profiles need different skills.

“It recognises that people in leadership roles don’t simply need to know more of the same things as operational staff, but that they might actually need less detail and apply it in a different way or combine it with other skills,” she says.

Performance review

Several organisations are already using the map to incorporate the evaluation of environmental knowledge and skills into more generic, company-wide performance assessments. After seeing the skills map in the environmentalist, Matt Wisdom, environment manager at Thomas Vale Construction, used it to map his assistant’s competencies as a part of the firm’s annual review process.

“Our internal performance review includes elements of skills mapping and looking at your performance against a number of target areas, so using the map fitted into that process. We used it to chart where we thought my assistant was at the moment, where he was going and to set targets for the next year,” he explains.

“Due to the nature of our business, our development matrix has to be very broad, so it was good to be able to align the skills map with what was already in place and assess skills that were more specific to the job role.”

While offering specific guidelines for environment professionals, the map’s wide remit, including leadership and managerial skills, has also helped Wisdom.

“I don’t think if someone asked me to write down all the skills necessary for my role that I would have included everything that’s on the map. It’s definitely helped to broaden my thinking of environmental skills overall.”

For Murphy, the map’s broad scope is proving to be useful in planning for NEAS’s future. “Part of my role is identifying what skills we are going to need and ensuring we train people to meet that. The map helps me see gaps that we may not have otherwise considered.”

Meanwhile, at infrastructure firm Balfour Beatty, Bekir Andrews, group sustainability manager, says balancing the need to have generic requirements applicable to a diverse range of environmental and sustainability roles with the desire for specific competency outcomes has been the most difficult challenge he’s faced in developing a new company-wide environmental skills matrix based on IEMA’s map.

“You want to be all encompassing, but at the same time to be specific, because you want to define particular role profiles and identify the knowledge and the skills you need to meet those profiles,” he said.

Andrews has been working on Balfour Beatty’s new skills matrix since January, first working with IEMA to identify the level of membership held by its staff and then collating information on all the different environmental and sustainability job roles across the organisation’s 50,000 staff.

Andrews has taken this information and created a matrix using the skills map and amended content to align with Balfour Beatty’s specific skills requirements and broaden it in line with the firm’s 2020 vision for sustainability.

“The key thing in using the skills map is to make sure that it aligns with your overall sustainability strategy and helps to deliver that strategy,” advises Andrews.

After consulting with Balfour Beatty’s sustainability leads and refining his draft matrix, Andrews aims to share this output with the firm’s HR function so it can be properly incorporated in core processes, particularly recruitment, skills training and leadership development.

“Once it’s been approved, I can see the matrix being used for interviews, skills development, coaching and helping people move around in the organisation. I can also see it being really useful for practitioners working to upgrade their IEMA membership,” he confirms.

The next level

While each of these organisations and individuals have been using the first layer of the map, IEMA has been working to develop the next level of detail. This second layer provides a list of practical examples of what individuals should know and be capable of under each of the competencies outlined (see panel below).

“It specifically explains the kind of things that you need to know and be able to do, to fulfil each of the listed competencies,” explains Lea.

For example, under the area of “fundamental environmental and sustainability principles”, the first layer of the map states that practitioners at an operational level should be able to “understand environmental and sustainability principles and their relationship with organisations”.

In the second layer, the map states that they “would know and understand the underpinning concepts of sustainability, sustainable development and the importance of biodiversity”.

Those who are already finding the map a useful tool have warmly welcomed the development of this extra layer of detail. As Wisdom points out: “In the top layer, some of the competencies aren’t clearly distinguished across the different professional levels, so it can make it difficult to determine which level you are working to.”

Grinham agrees: “It was difficult to decide whether or not I met some of the competencies, so it will be really useful to see more detail to see whether I was benchmarking myself correctly.”

As it stands, IEMA has fully developed the second layer of detail for the operational role level of the skills map and aligned this to the new Associate standard. It is now consulting with IEMA members and other stakeholders on the practical competencies for the non-graduate/graduate entry, managerial and leadership levels – for more information on getting involved in this process, see below.

“We will have developed learning outcomes for each of these levels by the end of 2012, with work beginning on the detail behind the specialist level due to start in 2013,” confirms Lea.

While this second level of detail will be a useful addition to the map, the message from those already using the skills map is clear: environment professionals don’t need to wait to start mapping out their professional development.

Andrews says: “The map provides a step-by-step pathway, breaking down career development into bite-sized chunks. If you’re starting off as a graduate at Balfour Beatty and you want to move up to adviser level, it shows you what you need to do to progress, and then again to move up to a senior adviser. I only wish it had been around when I started my career!”

Have your say

As a part of the ongoing development of the map, IEMA is consulting members, organisations and other stakeholders on the details to be included on the second layer, which provides specific examples of the skills and areas of knowledge for each segment of the map that environment professionals need to demonstrate competence in.

Following the successful mapping of the competencies required at the operational-role level, IEMA has drafted a list of competencies for the non-graduate/graduate, managerial and leadership levels and is seeking feedback on its choices.

Any IEMA member wanting to get involved in the development of this crucial professional development tool can take part in individual interviews, surveys, webinars or group workshops. Those interested in participating should contact Tara Cox or +44 (0) 1522 540 069.

More guidance

If you want to use the environmental skills map, but would like further guidance on how to apply it to your individual professional development or how to use it in your organisation, contact Tara Cox or +44 (0) 1522 540 069.


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