By Scott Withrow

This article was originally published as a Application Developer Management e-newsletter. Clicking this link will instantly subscribe you to this weekly IT management advice e-newsletter.

Many IT organizations plan on transitioning to a roles-based organizational structure. If your company is moving in that direction, you might worry about how the transition will impact your application development team. You’re not alone.

A majority of IT pros, still smarting from layoffs, budget cutbacks, and offshore outsourcing, are suspicious of any internal changes that may impact their jobs. Sensitivity can be especially high when the initiative appears to originate within the organization’s HR department. A closer look at job roles may help reduce many of these fears.

Traditional job descriptions
Traditional job descriptions tend to focus strictly on specific tasks, without giving much attention to defining the competencies required to complete the tasks. This leads to a number of issues. For example, jobs are often narrowly defined, resulting in the creation of a preponderance of similar job titles. This is an administrative headache for HR departments when they try to appropriately grade and fill positions.

Since these traditional descriptions often lack well-defined competency requirements, they impact fair performance reviews and limit vertical advancement. Most importantly, the proliferation of jobs doesn’t align well with other organizational entities or business processes. This leads to organizational structures that are usually too rigid for today’s fast-paced environment.

Roles often have broad definitions. The emphasis is on competencies and behaviors rather than detailed tasks. By clearly indicating what skills, knowledge, and behaviors are necessary to succeed within the role, this gives individuals more room to advance.

Roles also align better to organization structures, allowing for the rapid, tactical realignment of resources in response to shifts in business strategy. Further, roles can aid in tactical or strategic planning by helping organizations understand which competencies are available internally and which ones employees need to acquire.

By broadening the scope of responsibility, roles help facilitate creative or “out-of-the-box” thinking. Rather than focusing on specific tasks, the employee has some leeway to create new solutions.

Another benefit to roles is that they help change employees’ perception of the work they do, focusing on the business process instead of the specific task. The objective changes from completing the job to meeting business requirements. Finally, success is measured in terms of the value added rather than the results achieved.

Guiding employees through the transition
Organizations that want to switch to job roles have difficult hurdles to overcome. The first one is convincing employees that roles won’t negatively impact their lives but will, instead, help clarify their work and provide additional opportunities.

The way you communicate the message to employees is of utmost importance. For instance, avoid using depersonalizing terms such as human capital (which sounds like human cattle) or grandiose expressions such as “in the best interest of the organization.” Instead, scale down the message to the individual or local group level. If you can answer employees’ questions such as “How does this affect me?” early and satisfactorily, it can go a long way to gaining acceptance for the transition to roles.

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Scott Withrow has more than 20 years of IT experience, including IT management, Web development management, and internal consulting application analysis.