Rethinking workplace training

2009

In the micro-blogging world of Twitter, where one must be clear and coherent in 140 characters or less, I recently goofed by misquoting some statistics. When I should have recited that "78 percent of learning is informal," I ended up writing "78 percent of training is informal."

Unfortunately, my linguistic confusion caught the attention of a few who believed my error to be quite ghastly, and they made little attempt at hiding their disapproval. As a training and development professional, I acknowledge the distinction, and I thanked my colleagues for catching my error.

Nevertheless, my hiccup raised some good issues - some of which have been percolating in the back of my mind - and now is a good time to bring a few to the forefront.

The first point is this: Informal learning happens, but I believe each employee has a responsibly to serve as a role model (an informal trainer) for new employees. In other words, we might learn informally that if we turn a door handle all the way it jams, but if we turn it only three quarters of the way it works fine.

But informal learning and informal training occur if you're a new employee on break with an experienced worker who is telling you how he repaired his kid's bicycle over the weekend, and he suddenly launches into a 20-second explanation on how to fix the copy machine when it jams up.

Informal training also occurs if a new employee watches someone from across the room and sees how something is done. In an age where people often shirk personal responsibility some might think I'm being a little radical, but I say the person being watched is serving as a trainer, albeit informally.

It's not unlike what happens in a home with little kids around. Children are like sponges. They mimic what they see other people doing. It's certainly not formalized training, but the actions of parents are often replicated in a child's behavior. It's training by example.

In the same way, behaviors at work - and even attitudes - can be taught to others simply by their mere existence. It doesn't matter what size number we assign it, both informal learning and informal training happen a lot.

The second point bouncing around in my brain is this: Informal training happens even when people are not around. For example, most types of workplace reading is tied to learning (the acquisition of knowledge). Therefore, the author of the writing cannot and should not relinquish his or her responsibility as a trainer.

Writing needs purpose, or objectives. For example, the purpose of my original Tweet was to draw attention to how much information passes between people informally that really could be called "training," or "learning," or "education," or whatever other word you might choose to describe a "transfer of knowledge."

Thirdly, with all semantics aside, I want to challenge each of us to rethink the effectiveness of our workplace training efforts. In other words, how much more effective could our employees be if we put more effort into aligning more of their learning with our company vision and mission?

Think about that 78 percent number. From a training and development perspective, that's a lot of learning (and training) that occurs haphazardly. Don't misunderstand. I'm not advocating perpetual classroom instruction. It's just that in 20+ years of consulting, I've seen too many leaders ignore the importance of a balanced approach to learning and development.

For example, time and again I get asked to deliver an eight-hour training session in two hours. As a training and development professional, I'd like to make some comparisons:

  • A chef tells me his award-winning barbeque ribs need to be in the oven eight hours at 250 degrees. If I told him to fix them in two hours, do you think the end product would be as good?
  • A nutritionist tells me it's best to eat five 400-calorie meals spread throughout the day. If I ignore that advice and stuff 2,000 calories into my mouth within two hours, do you think my body will get the same benefit?
  • An auto mechanic tells me it's going to take eight hours to repair my car. If I tell him to get the work done in two hours, do you think the quality will be as good?

The idea is that for things to work well, time and attention are needed. The same holds true for workplace learning and training. If we want successful companies, we shouldn't be conducting just enough training to get by. We should be doing the type and quantity of training needed to be successful.

The bottom line is this: Both formal and informal training are important to corporate success. If we ignore either or both, we may end up in places we don't want to be.

We can improve our efforts (and our results) if we think more like trainers throughout the day and if we take time periodically to review and align the purpose of our training efforts.

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About The Author

Dan Bobinski
Dan Bobinski

Dan Bobinski is a training specialist, author, and an accomplished keynote speaker. He's been providing management and leadership training to Fortune 500 companies as well as smaller, regional concerns for more than 20 years.

Older Comments

It appears that the message we have been shouting for so many years now has finally reached receptive ears. Unfortunately, lilke most messages, a fair amount has been lost in translation.

Workplace training - whether it be formal or informal - although very important is not as critical as workplace learning. We can train until we are blue in the face but if the workplace environment is not such that everyone, at all levels of the organisation, can learn then we are wasting our time and energy.

A bit like the message in this post. For nearly 20 years I have been active around the world creating training systems (organisational and national) which support lifelong learning in and out of the workplace. Such systems intertwine with workplace practices and policies and external training and learning institutions providing opportunities for individuals, teams and organisations to learn and grow. And at every turn I have been preaching the message that such an approach is not only simple to adopt it is critical to the longevity of workplaces and in some cases whole industries, but has anyone been learning this message? Very few. The trouble is that they've been too busy being 'trained' to stop and learn exactly what is being taught.

If only one person reads this article and both learns what it is attempting to say and more importantly applies it, then both I and the author won't have been wasting our time.

Dr Phil Rutherford www.3gpm.com/drphilrutherford

Dr Phil Rutherford Australia