Systems Thinking in Organizational Career Development Programs

By Maureen Nelson

Career development for employees is not new. In 1993, Shore stated, "Organizational career development" has emerged as a competitive strategy for enhancing organizational effectiveness through a well-developed workforce." What is disappointing, however, is how ineffective most programs are from the employee's perspective. BlessingWhite's State of the Career Report (2007) noted that only 29 percent of respondents agreed with the statement "My employer's approach to career development meets my personal needs." The report also hints at what is lacking: "Growth assignments and special projects were often mentioned as ways to acquire new skill sets and develop a broad network of colleagues who could provide help in the current job and support in future career moves."


Note the touch on "a network of colleagues." A system that fosters relationships among different levels and departments is the distinguishing feature of successful career development programs. It's all about people. In the first part of this two-part article, we will explore what it means to apply systems thinking to organizational career development programs; in part 2, we'll look at ways to leverage relationships within the systems approach. Understanding the integration of these two critical factors will help any career consultant who works with organizations deliver more effective services and stronger results.

When A Systems Approach is Lacking

Systems thinking has been applied in American business for nearly two decades, beginning with the seminal book The Fifth Discipline (Senge, 1990), yet not all companies have adapted it. Leibowitz et al. (1986) write that "career development programs not viewed from a systems perspective - [are not] fully integrated into the organization" and give two examples of the consequences of leaving it out [paraphrased]:

One department initiates its career development program by having employees develop profiles of their skills and experiences using self-assessment forms. At a wrap-up session, one employee brings his past performance appraisals and job descriptions, saying, "I finished my entire profile before I realized it was all here in a nutshell." Nobody had thought to include the company's performance appraisal system or job descriptions in the career program's design.

An executive assistant identifies report and proposal writing as an area of keen interest and shows some skill in the area during a career development goal-setting exercise. In recent years, several departments have posted jobs in their editorial branches. She embarks on a series of classes to polish her skills and increase her promotability. Imagine her dismay when the company newsletter reports that all editorial work is being centralized, resulting in major staff cuts. The leader of the career goal-setting exercise hadn't thought to link it with the company's ongoing forecasting program.

These scenarios happen when there is no career development program or there are no links between career development and HR information systems.

A Systems Approach

When all departments and initiatives in a company are seen as components of the same system, such disconnects are less likely to happen. The Organizational Performance Model (Slingsby, 2007) can be used to help organizations stay aware of "the big picture." The model has four components: 1) Business Environment, which affects 2) Organizational Direction, which defines 3) Behaviors and Actions, which produce 4) Business Results. While a bird's-eye view is contained in a systems approach, it is important not to get too much "altitude" and thus lose relevance. In other words, the "business environment" of a company's career development program is not the world at large, but the HR department. The following is an example of a dysfunctional system given by the company's HR manager (who asked not to be named):

  • Business Environment: Pressure for HR to be strategic, but HR culture is tactical; fire-fighting; scarcity mindset; buried under details. Too many responsibilities; not enough time; success not recognized; failures punished.
  • HR Department Direction: Mission: Cost containment, limit liability, maintain the status quo. Operating principles: Don't raise expectations; adhere to the chain of command; greater productivity. Training and vacations discouraged.
  • Behaviors and Actions: No training for managers in how to have career discussion with employees. No incentive for managers to be career coaches or allow employee mobility. Transfers discouraged. No mentoring program.
  • Organizational Results: High turnover, especially among Gen Y who value skills development. Inefficient workforce planning; high cost of talent acquisition including heavy reliance on third-party recruiters. Loss of intellectual capital as more and more employees retire.

The temptation to be penny wise and pound foolish is strong, but choosing this path is its own punishment. Such a company will not reap the rewards of a highly trained, motivated workforce harnessing both the energy, tech savvy and new ideas of younger workers and the wisdom, historical perspective and maturity of older workers. Nor will it be as nimble as a company that makes cross-training part of its strategy.

While Business Direction defines Behavior and Actions to some extent, there are six opportunities for organizational intervention that can change Behavior and Actions: Structure, Tasks/Processes, People, Rewards, Decision-Making and Information.


In part 2, we will examine ways to shift the system in each of these areas by leveraging the corporation's social capital. Career counselors, by their nature and training, are poised to join these two strategies (the systems approach and the personal aspect of a company's operations). Elsdon says it best: "Effective career counseling in organizations of the future will require that we integrate our work with individuals, with a deep understanding of the strategic, political and social frameworks of those organizations." (Elsdon, R., personal communication, May 14, 2008).


Elsdon, R. (2002). Affiliation in the workplace: Value creation in the new organization. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Leibowitz, Z. B., Farren, C. & Kaye, B. (1986). Designing career development systems. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Senge, P. M. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Currency Doubleday.

Shore, J. (1993, June 1). "A new look at organizational career development" in Human Resource Planning. Retrieved on November 24, 2007 from

Slingsby, Todd (2006). "Improving Organization Performance: A Systemic & Systematic Approach." Systems Approaches to Business Models and Management, John F. Kennedy University. Pleasant Hill, CA. 13 Nov. 2006.

State of the career report 2007. (2007). Princeton, NJ: BlessingWhite, Inc. Retrieved as PDF on November 24, 2007 from http://www.blessingwhite.com/research.asp

Maureen Nelson has an M.A. in Career Development from John F. Kennedy University, where she was named 2008 Student of the Year by the School of Management. She is also co-author of Getting Your Ideal Internship. Maureen has a private practice in Concord, CA and is currently searching for a full-time position. She can be reached at mpn@dorsey.org or visit her website at http://www.maureennelsonma.com/


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