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Training the veterans


Dr Jorgen Thorsell suggests making L&D relevant to each individual to keep the 'greyer heads' engaged.

Recent research has shown that the number of professionals participating in organised development and training dips noticeably in those over the age of 45. An initial deduction could be that older executives are being subjected to a type of furtive age discrimination and that the recent and extensive legislation brought in to curb ageism in the workplace has failed.

However, Mannaz, the international leadership development institute that carried out the study, says that upon closer inspection this is an over-simplified reaction to the headline facts and that the lack of involvement in training is less the will of employers, and more of the employees themselves.
In many cases it seems that, although the ageing process clearly leads to the positive development of maturity and wisdom, amongst a significant proportion of managers and professionals it also leads to 'training fatigue'. Traditional training programmes or courses appear often to be regarded as a repetition of previous lessons learned by this age group, leading the office's older hands to excuse themselves.
Despite this, it is not suggested that the greyer heads have lost interest altogether in their own development - much of the evidence shows that they may actually be more active in this area than earlier in their careers. However, what has changed is their approach. The over 45s tend to be amongst the leading demographics when you look at readership figures for business books and periodicals. They also appear to make extensive use of peer-group networks, either face to face or, increasingly, through internet communities and social networking sites.

Worth the resources?

So, if this group are effectively ‘self-teaching’ do corporate trainers actually have a problem to overcome? Would it not be best to focus valuable training resources on the rest of the workforce and leave this group to progress with their own personal training and development?
The issue with going down this road lies in the risk of disconnection and isolation amongst a key group of workers. There is always the possibility that they may become demotivated or disillusioned if they are not kept positively engaged with the parent organisation. This can have potentially damaging results for both parties.
The other problem with this option is that without  mature, experienced and senior participants, training programmes can become devalued, making the overall development process less productive. As is often stated, learning from peers is often as effective, if not more so, than learning from professional trainers - take the veterans, with all the knowledge they carry around in their heads and the influence they hold within the company, out of the picture and a great deal of value is lost.
So how can we get these ‘grey panthers’ into training courses and development programmes? Forcing them against their will patently won’t work. But what may work is making the learning and development more relevant to each individual, whether young or older, by ensuring it is more tuned-in to an individual’s aims and circumstances.
One way to achieve this goal is to make training and development less about theory and more reflective of everyday life in the office. This would mean getting away from using the case studies that are used by so many business schools and replacing them with a process of creating new concepts and methodologies around what actually happens daily, within the organisation on a case-by-case and tailored basis. This can help create an environment of continuous learning and development where employees can immediately put the findings to work in a way that can create an instant impact.
The other route to bringing the more mature employee back to the training room is by meeting them halfway and giving them greater responsibility for how their own development progresses. At Mannaz we have recently put this 'flexible learning' approach to the test with an international client. We started by creating a profile of various roles within the company in conjunction with existing job holders to get an outline of what the ideal financial analyst, project manager, etc. would look like. The next step was to get individuals to examine where they were when measured against this ideal and asking them to come up with a development map of what they need to achieve it. The crucial point to all of this is then to establish a wide range of training activities from which participants can choose to turn their aspirations into reality. And with the development of Web 2.0 technology we have been able to utilise things such as virtual coaching, chat rooms, online courses and the like to aid this. These activities are then backed up with face-to-face peer group events where participants can benchmark their progress. The results so far have been encouraging, and crucially, particularly popular amongst more senior participants.
This approach to 'flexible learning' is just one way to keep more experienced members of staff as engaged in training and development as possible. But whatever approach an organisation takes, with an ageing population across much of the Western world and many pushing back retirement into their 70s, this is a challenge that needs to be met.
Dr Jorgen Thorsell is executive vice president of the international leadership development institute, Mannaz –

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