Informal, experience-based, on-the-job training accounts for nearly three-quarters of all workplace learning. It's used to help managers master the technical dimensions of supervision as well as the fine art of leadership. It's deployed to enhance a pharmacy technician's ability to deliver appropriate medications and dosages to patients. It's designed to improve the skills of factory workers, sales professionals, and nearly everyone who works. But it doesn't work... at least not nearly as well as it could.
The way most managers currently use on-the-job "training" is little more than on-the-job "showing". You demonstrate a skill, technique, or approach - or perhaps another employee does this; then often everyone is disappointed when the ’learner' hasn't learned and doesn't perform as expected.
The problem is that although a picture (or demonstration) is worth a thousand words, it's not enough to build a new skill, change behavior, or transform performance. It's important... no doubt about that. But (leveraging the metaphor of a show or perhaps play) it's only one element of a blockbuster production. Managers must plan beyond the ’show' to also:
Set the scene
Cast the right character(s)
Invite the audience on stage
Review the performance
Set the scene. Most on-the-job learning is ad hoc, occurring organically on the spot. As a result, it frequently lacks the context required for it to be optimally effective. Work with employees to help them understand what the skill they'll be learning is all about, why it's important, and under what circumstances it should be used. Just a moment or two of framing helps the employee focus and appreciate the benefit of internalizing the information and developing the new skill.
Cast the right character(s). In many organizations, delegation lacks much intention or deliberation. The manager turns around and whoever happens to be in sight is ’it'. This doesn't always lead to be best results. Learners should be selected with care, making sure that they are well suited for the task, both able and willing to absorb the new information or acquire the new skill. It's also important to ensure that what's being taught is congruent with the individual's role and goals.
Then, select the teacher with equal care. Simply because someone is technically an expert does not mean that he or she will be able to effectively communicate and coach others to do the same. Select someone who has mastered the skill but also demonstrates excellent communication skills, is a keen observer of behavior, and can offer effective and constructive feedback.
Invite the audience on stage. Too many on-the-job trainers believe that the demonstration of the skill, behavior, process or approach is the end. Instead, it's really the beginning. Genuine learning occurs when someone must do something: talk to the customer; change out the wires; write the code; re-merchandise the sales floor. As a result, it's essential to establish the conditions that allow learners to practice in a safe and supervised environment. Getting them ’on stage' doing what's just been demonstrated is where the rubber meets the road... because practice ultimately supports performance.
Review the performance. For decades we've heard that ’practice makes perfect'. But in reality, Vince Lombardi got it right. "Only perfect practice makes perfect." Letting learners practice without supportive supervision undermines the potential learning and can lead to the development of bad habits. Observing people perform new skills and providing recognition, redirection, pointers, and tips are essential to the learning process .... and to building the confidence employees need to perform well, become more self-reliant, and approach future learning with greater self-assurance and enthusiasm.
So, the next time you have an opportunity to offer some on-the-job training, think beyond the mere ’show'. You can anticipate improved results... and a standing ovation.
Your turn: How do you ensure that on-the-job training sticks?
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