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3 Big Knowledge Gaps in STEM Workforces

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Fri Dec 18 2015

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3 Big Knowledge Gaps in STEM Workforces-923c82a00bf75cd70b91dff5ceb115feb56bbf1369280bc73b44a6a2ce4e6173

When there isn’t enough scientific, technical, engineering, and math (STEM) talent to go around, where can an organization get the STEM knowledge it needs to succeed? According to APQC’s research, many companies are looking inward, leveraging the expertise that’s already inside their organizations and nurturing the new hires and mid-career employees who will become tomorrow’s thought leaders. 

For companies that run on STEM brainpower, the shortage of highly qualified talent is a true crisis. In a recent APQC survey of more than 750 technical and engineering, knowledge management, learning, and talent management professionals, more than half ranked STEM competency and expertise development as an urgent or significant priority for their leadership. 

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Expertise gaps at these STEM organizations leave them vulnerable to falling behind in their highly competitive industries. A series of interviews with technical, learning and development, and knowledge management leaders revealed three crucial knowledge gaps that organizations must overcome to meet today’s technical needs and achieve tomorrow’s growth. 

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1. Developing Experts

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At the top end of the expertise ladder, few organizations have sufficient candidates qualified to step into senior roles, whether as technical leaders or official domain experts. Midcareer employees may have 10 or even 20 years of experience in their fields, but most of these “nex’perts” aren’t quite experts yet. And in many technical industries, these gaps have been exacerbated by hiring and layoff cycles that prompted downsizing victims to create their own startups or move on to other industries.

Now that the economy is bouncing back, the experts who did stay are starting to retire, and the knowledge and experience gap often becomes apparent only after they walk out the door and the nex’perts fail to completely fill their shoes. According to APQC’s research, only 37 percent of organizations have strategic or integrated efforts in place to support learning and development for midcareer professionals. Forty-two percent report a smattering of random activity to develop nex’perts into experts, whereas the remainder say there is minimal or no energy devoted to midcareer learning.

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2. Bringing Newcomers Up to Speed

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The second gap is the need to help novices and newcomers increase their competency¾fast. Today’s organizations have more projects under way and need their people to have more skills, business acumen, and responsibility than ever before, earlier in their careers (a trend that many entry-level employees eagerly embrace).

APQC’s research shows that this knowledge gap is being addressed more comprehensively and strategically than the first, with 50 percent of organizations reporting significant or fully integrated efforts to support learning and development for novices. But many firms are still looking for ways to accelerate learning for new hires and prepare them to make increasingly complex and valuable contributions to the business.

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3. Addressing New and Emerging Knowledge

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The third, and possibly most urgent, gap is not a function of retiring employees or newcomers. In many cases, technologies and markets are changing so rapidly that new knowledge and expertise is simply in short supply.

When APQC asked organizations why they need to leverage and grow technical experts, the top two factors cited were rapidly changing knowledge and technology domains and the need for new expertise due to shifting project and product mixes. This isn’t expertise that can be captured from departing veterans, yet it must be developed and distributed quickly, sometimes by enlisting expertise and talent from other disciplines.

In my next post, I’ll share how structural and knowledge management solutions are helping organizations make the most of their internal STEM experts and accelerate learning. Until then, if you’d like to learn more about STEM knowledge gaps and what organizations are doing about them, download APQC’s whitepaper, How Smart Leaders Leverage Their Experts: Strategies to Capitalize on Internal Knowledge and Develop Science, Engineering, and Technology Expertise.

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