Career paths – not worth designing?

I'm wondering if there is any reliable information that assesses whether time spent developing organizational career ladders and lattices is worth the organizational investment. Do we really know that people's careers follow a plan along a path or is the reality much more chaotic? Would a free internal labor market work just as well and be much more cost/time/resource effective than having countless hours spent on succession planning, career/talent management discussions, and so on?

The last time I developed a fully-fledged career paths system was in 2002. I know it was that year as this week I looked at the employee guide we produced as part of the implementation because I was being interviewed by someone in an organization that is 'launching research into developing common career path frameworks (lateral and vertical) within organizations'. In return for giving my views I will be provided with 'a full copy of our research report'.

Looking at this 11 year old document it struck me as being hopelessly old-fashioned for now, even though it contains many of the design features of what is currently known as a 'lattice careers paths' that are individually determined. For example, in guide we said that career development is:

'About opening up options which enable you to progress in the business. Ultimately it will be about deciding and agreeing the path your career will take. It is a partnership between you and your line manager in which you have personal responsibility for driving your career and your personal development.

You will be supported with honest, realistic feedback on your performance and capability from your line manager and will be given access to relevant development opportunities. To career plan effectively you need to understand the potential career paths available.'

The guide then outlines 8 possible career paths:

  • Moving up in the same area e.g. category merchandiser to category manager
  • Moving across in the same area and then up in the same area
  • Staying in current role for enrichment/development
  • Moving across into a different area
  • Moving across in the same area e.g. buyer to supply chain project manager
  • Moving down into a different area and then up
  • Moving upwards into a different area
  • Moving to an external opportunity

This seems remarkably similar to the 'model of career progression [that] allows for multiple paths upward taking into account the changing needs of both the individual and the organization across various intervals of time' as described in a Deloitte document on mass career customization and lattice career paths that I've just read and which were the same topics that the interviewer was interested in.

The telling word in this Deloitte description is 'upward'. I don't think that fits with what many people are now looking for. Room at the top is limited and many people don't want it anyway. As an example I was talking with a lawyer in a large partnership. He is surprised by the number of high performing employees who turn down the partnership route because they don't want the risk and responsibility. And think of the numbers of people who give up on corporate life to move into something entirely different. You may have done it yourself, or look for stories of people who have – they're often illuminating on the restrictions of corporate 'careers', or read Po Bronson's book 'What Shall I do with my life?'

It is possible that lattice career paths may be better than the more traditional route that – often in the absence of technical career progression routes – take people into management and the climb up the corporate ladder but even so lattices have limitations. Could they work or am I mistaken in thinking that the evidence that they add organizational value is flimsy at best? Is it better that we imagine and then create a world with development opportunities but not career paths – ladder or lattice?

What would that world look like? Here are some things we could be designing in that have the potential to be more valuable than designing career paths.

  • Building generic skills for future jobs so that people can take on new roles. Look at the list of 25 jobs people will have in 2025 according to Fast Company. How many organizations are developing digital detox specialists, or urban shepherds both require ability to make sense of mountains of data and solve highly complex problems.
  • Linking to ideas that 'everyone is self-employed' or 'portfolio careers' – both of which may be suspect terms, but they recognize the reality of a trend to shorter times in roles and a lot more job hopping from organization to organization, as the Deloitte paper notes: 'While not visible to most managers, much of the challenge they face today likely comes from the fact that knowledge workers are already building lattice like careers by moving in and out of organizations and up and down hierarchies, albeit often without support or structure from their organizations'
  • Developing opportunities around skills not roles and then helping people develop the 'portable skills' that they can take from role to role. Portable hard and soft skills are things like – Building relationships/networking, technology skills, influencing, information analysis, inspiring others, openness to change, people management, planning and organizing, project management, resource management, strategic thinking, supplier management, and competitor and market scanning.
  • Recognizing that people have commitments and needs that conflict with traditional ideas of employment – one of the students I mentor asked for 6-weeks unpaid leave to conduct his research interviews and was refused. He decided to leave the company (after 7 years and several promotions there). Conversely in another company an employee wanted leave to sail around the world and was welcomed back to the organization on her return. Far better to reap the investment of goodwill and a sound employee than lose the investment for holding out on unpaid leave.
  • Staying at least abreast or, even better, ahead of changes in the nature of work, our competitive market, and the unexpected nature of things – who of Cisco's about to be laid off 4000 employees have had solemn discussions on their Cisco careers in the last few months? Similarly those at the now sold to Jeff Bezos Washington Post? I bet a lot of them. Let's forget the idea that we can predict with certainty what specific jobs/roles we'll be trying to fill within a time period beyond one year max – and maybe not even that – and that we can put people on a path to filling them.
  • Considering different types of reward and recognition frameworks that reflect stops and starts in work, don't penalize breaks in service, give credit for various types of learning and development and enable people to appropriately grow their jobs (and be rewarded/recognized for this) without having to move to a different job within or without the organization.
  • Accepting that the organization cannot hold onto people who don't want to stay, no matter how much has been invested in career routes. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in January 2012 'The median number of years that wage and salary workers had been with their current employer was 4.6' and for workers in the 25 to 34 it was 3.2 years.
  • Considering whether career path planning and implementation is worth investing in.

And thus back to my original question: would the money be better spent in developing skills and enabling a free movement of labor within the organization without trying to manipulate it via career lattices and 'talent management'?

What's your view?