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Transforming Training – Learning at the Point of Doing


m-learningThe challenges facing new managers are many and complex. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the way we expect our people to operate in the future will have to be completely different from the way they have managed in the past. Simon Derry looks at how just-in-time learning can meet the development needs of hard-pressed managers.

Rapid technological change, constantly rising customer expectations and global competition are radically changing our business environment, yet we rarely allow the necessary time or budget for training – new managers struggle to find time for a three-day training programme let alone a 12-month MBA. When organisations do gain and develop experienced and knowledgeable staff, how do they deal with the increasing mobility of today’s workforce? An organisation’s value lies in the collective knowledge of their staff (intellectual capital) however this is diminished every time a key member of staff leaves. Lack of agreed ‘best practice‘ techniques and high variability in operating principles across organisations restrict effective knowledge sharing and team working.

Learning decay
Research indicates that even if a training budget was extended, it is unlikely that training alone would be enough for our future staff. The research found that the majority of staff quickly forgot what they had learned, and the performance they had reached during training also diminished. This recognised ‘learning-decay’ fundamentally questions the value of conducting any training or consulting that will not be supported within an operational setting.

A more integrated approach reflects a three step process:
1) Develop targeted competencies as and when required, not as and when convenient.
2) Develop support mechanisms to sustain ‘best practice’ levels of performance.
3) Create an environment where people can quickly and easily learn from each other.

To achieve this new approach, it is vital that HR/ development and IT functions work together. The ultimate objective will no longer be training and development per se (transferring information to people’s long-term memory for future use), but rather knowledge management (providing the right people with the right information in the right format at the right time).

Focus will not be on learning as the desired outcome, but on successful repeated application of concepts – this requires an integrated approach that must focus on the real needs of operational staff. If knowledge sharing really is the lifeblood of modern businesses then the future role of HR/ development and IT functions must be central.

The traditional approach to transferring knowledge has been through formal training programmes. Such highly focused learning environments may continue, but if the pressures for ‘just-in-time’ transfer of competencies increase then a more integrated approach is required.

Once the management curriculum has been ‘overhauled’ then:
* Training programmes are broken down into discrete modules and translated into software tools which combine structured templates and conceptual support. For example, rather than training people in project management (as a complete concept), competencies can be acquired in the composite elements such as ‘objective setting’, ‘stakeholder analysis’, or ‘risk management’. Acquiring targeted competencies in this way can be achieved in a much shorter time period, and through the use of technology the learning can be output-focused at the time and place of need.

* The conceptual support and examples of internal best practice are built into the software tools to aid learning. In each targeted competency area, one or more expert must accept and be rewarded for ensuring that the concepts and method of application reflect current best practice.

* Provision of an internal Help Desk facility where a single telephone number, email or web page will guide the employee to the most appropriate type and level of support. This facility should be placed at the core of the organisation’s knowledge management process.

This new approach effectively provides three levels of support depending on the level of need and available time:

  • If managers need to resolve a critical business problem then they can speak directly to an expert.

  • If they have a few days to analyse and resolve a non-critical situation themselves but don’t know how, they can call up and use selected software tools.

  • If they need to gain a high level of expertise for their next position, they can be scheduled onto the next formal training programme.

Mobile learning
Software tools are more than the electronic blank pieces of paper provided by word processing or spreadsheet applications. They must support individual and organisational thinking and learning as well as enable the task in hand to be completed efficiently.

Tools must allow the user to select increasing levels of conceptual support according to their individual needs. This is applicable whether we are talking about a Blackberry-type handheld or a PC on a network. The major difference it seems is that mobile technology is still not universally accepted as an effective training medium – people still prefer to read from paper than small screens.

The transition to technology-enabled businesses is inevitable, and the recognition of the value of knowledge is virtually complete in all sectors. The following steps present a process for implementing a new approach:

* Revisit the training needs: As ever the starting point has to be to focus on need. What are we are asking managers to achieve and only then look inwards at the competencies necessary for success. Future skills will need to balance technical or product related knowledge with process skills such as ‘strategic thinking’, ‘risk management’ and ‘decision making’, and people skills such as ‘coaching’, ‘communicating’ and ‘relationship building’. It should also be recognised that not everyone requires the same level of competence. For each role the profile will change – some will need an awareness whilst others will need to build expertise – the preferred approach to development in each case will differ enormously.

* Engage the experts: Managers must understand what they need to know in order to survive and grow, and then identify the natural owners of such knowledge. However, identification is not enough - if we truly believe in the value of knowledge and wish to protect the business in the event of staff turn-over, reward mechanisms must support effective knowledge sharing.

* Build technology tools: Technology provides the link between HR and IT, and between training and experts. For software tools to be effective, they must be user-friendly and focus on the outputs to be achieved. In this way, each tool will not only transfer and reinforce an understanding of best practice techniques, but the job-in-hand will have been completed to standard. As well as supporting individual learning, the tools should also provide the mechanism for organisational learning. By searching and retrieving historical information, people can learn from each other and from the past without losing valuable time or face.

* Develop a help desk capability: Managing the integrated approach is simplified through the creation of an internal help desk where people can go to seek advice and direction. This is not an administrative role - rather the position should be viewed in a similar way to that of an internal consultant or change manager. The help desk will determine the success of the approach, and an early task must be to internally market the service effectively, and build up a critical mass of users.

* Embed a new way of thinking: The changes are as much cultural and behavioural as they are technological. A self-development environment should be encouraged where it is acceptable to admit “I don’t know how to do this task”. This open blame-free climate should also support a culture of continuous improvement and organisational learning where people learn from each other and learn from the past. It should no longer be appropriate or acceptable to take a guess when it comes to areas critical to business survival.

* Simon Derry is a consultant and director of Project Leaders International Ltd. Following completion of a practical MBA programme, he has spent the last four years in partnership with Andy Bruce of technology company SofTools Ltd developing e-learning solutions for business.


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