The people in your organisation are an increasingly strategic asset, and companies that can harness those assets have a significant opportunity to improve their corporate competitiveness - that is the key finding from one of our recently completed studies.
Based on interviews with 200 senior executives in the US, Europe and Australia, the study found that 74 per cent of respondents said people-related issues are more important to their organisations' success than they were only a year ago.
A separate study we conducted of nearly 500 business leaders also found that "changing organisational culture and employee attitudes" topped the list of strategic priorities.
The problem is that many companies don't recognise the strategic importance of their critical workforces, and neither do they manage them with the same rigour that they apply to their other assets or capabilities.
As a result, management is often disappointed at the skills and capabilities of its critical workforce.
Not only are they concerned at the skill set but they don't believe that the workforce fully understand the company's strategic priorities, and the role they play in achieving these goals.
Surprisingly, the study found that Australian workers rated particularly poorly in this area.
Some 21 per cent of the Australian respondents said that less than a quarter of their workforce had industry-leading skills, while 32 per cent said less than half had these skills.
It was a similar story when executives were asked if their employees fully understood the organisation's strategic goals. Of the respondents, 69 per cent said less than half were on the "same page" as the organisation.
While Australian executives were pessimistic about their workforce, there is - for example - a greater recognition that human resources and training and development budgets need to be increased.
Compared with an international average of 41 per cent, 47 per cent of Australian respondents said they had increased these budgets.
Some companies are doing it right, and the study identified 27 high-performance leaders who had implemented best-of-breed practices, and were reaping the benefits. Among them are Avaya, BP, British Telecommunications and Wyeth.
Based on the study, a three-point strategy was developed to help other companies to achieve these benefits.
Firstly, an organisation has to better understand how training and development - and investment in these programs - can drive workforce performance, and how it aligns with overall strategic goals. At American Express, for example, corporate-level goals are translated into individual goals for every employee in the company each year.
Secondly, new technologies must be leveraged to deliver improvements and efficiency in workforce development. Avaya decided to outsource its entire training function, an arrangement that featured the heavy use of e-learning, and its percentage of Internet delivered training jumped from 17 per cent to 53 per cent.
Finally, there's the crucial question of measuring the return on these investments, both in financial and non-financial terms. This last step is one that is perhaps the most difficult, because it must go beyond simply gauging operating cost reductions to measure the linkages between individual key performance indicators (KPIs) and those of the organisation.
In this area, drug manufacturer Wyeth was identified as a leader. The company developed a scorecard that laid out goals and provides a quantitative method of assessing the performance of individuals and groups.
When applied to the research and development function, Wyeth discovered that its investment had resulted in a 300 per cent increase in drug discovery output.
The good news is that some companies are doing it right and are using experienced partners to help them implement procedures that improve and maximise workforce performance.
Clearly, there is a substantial opportunity for companies to gain a competitive advantage through improving the critical workforce. It's up to companies to seize that opportunity before it's too late.
Grant Powell is partner, human performance, Accenture Australia