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Close your training departments - Empower your employees to learn

Indian Management, July 2002, Business Standard 9 July 2004
"I'm not afraid of storms, for I'm learning to sail my ship”

An infant falls nearly one thousand times before learning to walk. Adults give up after only one or two failures. Why? How is it that growing up, obtaining sound education followed by increasingly complex experience in corporate world, we are nowhere near a child in learning abilities. Instead of gaining we have lost something.

Learning has been part of our lives since the days of hunter-gatherers and continued through Greek "corporations” and medieval guilds. The coming of industrial age put a stop to self learning & discovery due to its emphasis on imparting rote skills, perfecting the performance of same tasks every day, which is reflected in our assembly-line education system.

Further, the cultural degeneration of organizations robbed an individual of his skills in self & group learning. The world has moved ahead but learning environment and methodology has remained rooted to industrial mindset.

What are the learning disconnects in organizations today:

What organizations do

What employees want

Teach people how to do things

Give people advise on how to learn, find, sift through and evaluate information on their own


Thoroughly researched and carefully develop courses

Fast, current information bites with little or no development time needed

Provide polished speakers and stunning presentation materials

Credible subject matter experts and on-the-job coaches

Find and disseminate "one best way” to do something

Provide divergent ways of thinking about problems

Create materials and courses, and the appetite for more training

Reduce information overload and the need for externally provided training rather than individually motivated learning

Provide "edutainment”

Improved performance

Learning is complete only when the learner has internalised the concepts and can apply it to a situation. Present training methods create an atmosphere of "entitlement” and passivity where the training resources are largely wasted.

Employees in a knowledge society need more interpretive abilities, they have to draw on a variety of skills to adapt to unpredictable changes and to do that need more support from leadership.

A Xerox Inc. study showed trainees retained a paltry 13 percent of skills six months after training if managers failed to provide coaching and support as the skills were being applied.

The actual learning objectives are to master soft skills like awareness of oneself and of others, and acquire communication and leadership skills. The learning experience becomes more effective when elements of self-analysis, reflection and support are added.

Within next 10 years the knowledge base of technologies will increase by 100%. 50% of what we know of medicine will also be proved wrong in the next 10 years. In such an uncertain and fast changing, globally interdependent business environment we need a manager & leader who can quickly let go of the past and adapt to changing circumstances. Learning styles & methods must allow this capacity to develop.

No one person, including a highly charismatic CEO, can train or command someone else to alter their attitudes, beliefs, skills, capabilities, perceptions, or level of commitment. Instead, the practice of organizational learning which involves developing and taking part in tangible activities that will change the way people conduct their work. Through these new governing ideas, innovations in infrastructure, and new management methods and tools people will develop an enduring capability for change.

Concepts like TQM, Kaizan, Process Re-engineering and large scale information management tools like ERP, CRM etc. which rely heavily on change management have either failed to take roots or performance have been sub-optimised due to learning disabilities (Senge: The Learning Organisation) which have not been eliminated or reduced. Once behavioural changes have taken place, any type of new initiatives can be introduced.

This mindset change is brought about by a process of learning ,consists of typically three steps – acquiring, interpreting & applying knowledge. To move towards a learning organization, we have to implement three principal types of learning ( Gavin: Learning in Action,HBS Press ) . These are: ? Learn from present - Intelligence ? Learn from past - Experience ? Learn from Future - Experimentation

Intelligence gathering is focused on the present and relies on developing skills in uncovering and using the data and information that is available and relevant today. Over 70% information in databases is unutilized due to lack information handling skills. Employees who are aware of their business environment and possess analytical skills to interpret this knowledge can provide innovative solutions and roadmaps for their organisation's growth.

Experiential learning is aimed at the learning from our past experiences, whether they be successes or failures. Corporate success produces strong cultural norms, based on the belief in the correctness of one's actions. Such strong cultures, however, are also resistant to change, and reduce the flexibility of organisational responses. On the other hand learning from past failures ensures that these failures are not repeated. Boeing Co. studied two of their most successful product development projects, 707 & 737 and two of their less successful ones, 727 & 747 and the combined learning was brought into developing 757, cutting down development time by 10 months. US Army has a 10 minute learning program where after any military engagement, the platoon documents the lessons learnt from this engagement. This becomes part of Pentagon Archives and used to improve training methods, self learning and development of better processes & equipment.

Experimental learning emphasises the active rather than the passive. Increasingly, past knowledge is proving to be inadequate to be prepared for the future. Therefore, experimentation, piloting (Porter-Thriving in Chaos) under constraints of time, knowledge & resources, followed by observation & reflection allow new concepts to be introduced & get embedded. As people practice the skills they learn, the chances of behavioural change is far greater.

What to learn is followed by how to learn. The following seven principles of learning (Institute of Research in learning promoted by Xerox) povides the framework for creating a learning environment in the organization.

1. Learning is a social activity – Learning is not an individual activity. Social dynamics of relationships in an organisation allow work to be accomplished. Learning is faster in an organisation, which ensures that social fabric, especially related to peer relationship is strengthened.

2. Knowledge is integrated into the lives of the community – Knowledge, activity, and social relations are closely intertwined. A group of knowledgable persons would collectively have far greater knowledge than the most experienced expert. Strengthening peer and cross-functional exchanges allow people to learn from each other.

3. Learning is an act of membership – Learning is not just the activity of a sole individual, but the primary vehicle for engagement with others. Senior management is especially prone to learning disabilities as they increasingly get isolated from large parts of the organisation which possess knowledge, ideas, insights, to guide them.

4. Knowing is engagement in practice - Acquiring information in training sessions without a clear roadmap of bringing the learnings into the workplace allow the gains to be dissipated fast. Only at workplace knowledge can be tested and mindsets changed.

5. Engagement is inseparable from empowerment - Empowered employees can take charge of their learning and applying these in workplace.

6. Failure to learn is the normal result of exclusion from participation - Learning requires access and opportunity. The greater the number of employees taking part in group or team activities, more the benefits from learning to the organization.

7. We already have a society of lifelong learners - People are learning all the time, but what they are learning is not necessarily what organizations want Realignment of personal & organizational learning objectives would allow both to gain.

The emphasis in this new learning process is on worker employability rather than job security. Employers provide the opportunities, tools, and support to help employees develop their skills and maintain their employability; the employees have the responsibility of managing their careers, taking advantage of the opportunities they are given. Thus, the employees must be career self-reliant. They must continually update their skills, looking ahead to the future and to market trends as well as to the current demands of the workplace. They must have a plan for "enhancing their performance and long-term employability" . The new relationship between employee and employer is described as a contract through which individual needs and those of the organization are balanced.

The role of leadership is to create an environment where employees take responsibility for their own learning. They offer opportunities for professional growth and engage their employees in challenging work. They foster open communication, including the transfer of both good and bad news. Employees are made aware of problems up front in the hope they will be part of the solution.

The use of technology optimizes the lifelong learning process by allowing employees to participate in learning crossing time & space, from one another-through storytelling, informal apprenticeship, and mentoring relationships, all aspects of effective learning that are as old as human civilization.

Regarding closing down your training departments, Imperial Bank of Canada did just that. One can start by eliminating or reducing elaborate induction programs. Shocking