Stop training — start educating

Many organizational leaders struggle to find a balance between training and productivity. There was a time not long ago when many managers thought the best way to teach a new employee was to toss them in the pool and let them learn to swim, only to see them drown in failure.

The companies that invested in training often overtrained, using a classroom for too long and neglecting to allow bright people to discover their way through trial and error. In the years since, there are more resources and tools available to companies that want to educate employees.

Training seems to hit and miss too often. To keep your company moving in the right direction, start by asking the question: What is the difference between training and education?

Adult Learning Session
Educated employees should feel empowered to carry out the company’s mission.

At its simplest, training should close measurable knowledge and skill gaps. A new employee must learn the skills to operate the cash register. A manager must implement a policy for customer satisfaction surveys.

Mastery of specific skills and knowledge result in closing performance gaps. Organizations with little invested in education and development usually handle these tasks in two ways. One, by handing out a packet of policies and manuals for them to read on their own. Two, asking a more experienced co-worker or immediate supervisor to show and tell their current habits, good or bad, and hoping they reach an acceptable level of performance.

This is akin to using Facebook to “like” someone’s birthday. It’s literally the least you can do.

This is akin to using Facebook to “like” someone’s birthday. It’s literally the least you can do.

Education is an ongoing process that looks to internalize knowledge and skills to improve performance over the long-term. It creates and maintains a culture of education and learning.

Experts who get paid thousands of dollars will often tell you to make sure your employee education program is “aligned with upper management.” I’ll tell you the same thing for free. You’re welcome. For mom and pop types, this alignment is often taken for granted and assumed to be in place. Large corporations, with many layers of management, struggle greatly with alignment as well, ironically for the same reasons. Successful companies explain, consistently, how what their team does affects the bottom line. That’s the first step in creating long-term educational success.

Here’s a quick way to test your organizational alignment. Ask yourself: “My team, when faced with, should be able to…” Then ask your team the same question. If answers swing violently from one person to the next, you’ve got a problem.

A learning and development professional can recommend, design and implement a proper course of action. This includes identifying the specific skills and knowledge required to improve performance. At the same time, understand that more training may not always solve your company’s performance gaps.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever experienced poor customer service or job skills. Many managers respond to that performance gap by thinking: “They need more training.” There are many times when more training is not the solution.

For example, You’ve purchased the latest and greatest software for your business, but have computers that run Windows ‘98. Or you’ve instituted a “beatings will continue until morale improves” work environment. No amount of educational experiences will address those issues. Those types of performance gaps are not related to specific skills.

Successful learning and development are rooted in empowerment.

They are either the result of inadequate tools and resources or a symptom of larger organizational unrest. A learning culture will not solve counterproductive incentives, outdated resources, or bad hiring decisions. Organizational leaders should personally invest in educational outreach. Learn why your team does or does not accomplish a task. The best way to find out is to ask and ask often. Make it safe for employees at all levels to answer honestly. Use an intermediary if necessary. The answers will lead to a more productive process.

Adult Learning Lecture
Raising interesting question

Successful learning and development are rooted in empowerment. Have you ever aced a test because you knew the material backward and forward? How did it make you feel? Fantastic, right? That’s how your employees should feel after completing your training program, empowered to carry out your organization’s mission with confidence and enthusiasm.

Provide consistent and reinforced educational experiences and look for opportunities to let them know they’ve aced another “test.” And don’t be afraid of your educational investment leaving your company. That’s short-sighted and counterproductive. Brilliant people will leave your company better than when they entered it. Enjoy their contributions for as long as you can and continue to look for the next person you can help. How your company measures successes from employee educational programs will vary depending on the industry and size of your company. It’s important to think about specific and measurable performance. Look at whoever is already successful. What specific processes (skills) or evaluations (knowledge) do they display? Many times, companies cannot answer if an employee’s poor performance is because they don’t know how or because they just don’t want to.

As a result, they reprimand when they should educate and pay for training programs when accountability is needed instead. Many of you are thinking, “Easier said than done.” You’re right, especially if you are not in a position to institute organizational

For those in mid-management positions, focus on your circle of influence. Create a culture of learning in your department.

How much time and money we invest in education and development depends on our specific organizational goals. At a minimum, create a system to educate, test, observe and measure. To build that system, an organizational toolkit for learning and development will include:

  • Written company principles to serve as a foundation. Not a “training manual,” more of a moral compass.
  • Specific performance metrics with steps on how to attain them.
  • A well-thought-out method, delivered by a dedicated instructor, at least for the duration of the training period and available for standardized follow-up.
  • A verification system to confirm the desired skills and knowledge. This can include written tests, role-playing specific scenarios, and actual job performance
  • A way to measure results or impact. From a simple spreadsheet of performance results to a large investment in learning software, how you measure is up to your individual tastes and budget. The “how you do” matters less than the “you do.”
  • Periodically reevaluate your systems. Never assume what’s done is done. Don’t wait until performance suffers.

It’s important to note this is a process, not a project. Education does not have an endpoint. The goal is to provide a learning experience for extended long-term growth, not just a packet of guidelines that are often quickly forgotten.

What other areas of life do we want inadequately prepared people working with us?

Unfortunately, the cost of building an education process scares off many well-meaning organizations. It is seen as a luxury, something “we’ll do when we can afford it.” The irony is the price of maintaining an educational system pales in comparison to the cost of ignorance.

Think about it. What other areas of life do we want inadequately prepared people working with us? Our doctor? Our accountant? Our favorite restaurant? As a consumer, when we encounter poor performance, is our first thought: “I can’t wait to work with this company again?”

No. We leave, often never to return, telling as many people as possible about the experience. Yet, with our own teams, we treat educational investment as a luxury item we may want, but not necessarily need. The math always favors investing a dollar to earn (or save) 10. The key is to make our learning process stick.

Many of us have heard of the island of misfit toys, blissfully ignoring their less popular and more destructive sibling, the island of wasted tech. Just like when parents watch in disbelief when their 4-year-old opens an expensive gift, touches it for 20 minutes and then plays with the box it came in for the rest of the day, business owners and executives struggle to answer why their employees don’t utilize the latest and greatest technology.

This is particularly true with learning technologies. Adults bring a mixed bag of experiences and motivation. They all learn and retain in different ways. Reaching them requires learning tools flexible enough to adapt. Many people fail to recognize there is rarely a one-size-fits-all solution.

Learning technology is like a NASCAR car, only as useful as the person who drives it. Who drives the learning culture in your organization?

Advances in online systems, game technology, and mobile learning have been tremendous. They may help many companies become more efficient. I love new software and tech. Just do not rely on them as the only solution.

Learning technology is like a NASCAR car, only as useful as the person who drives it. Who drives the learning culture in your organization?

Thinking about your company, who has the greatest effect on front-line employees? Do they encourage additional educational opportunities? Do they practice the organizational learning objective? Organizational alignment is the best way to make sure employees do not quickly forget what was told to them when hired.

Generally speaking, people have progressive levels of retention. Memorization is when an employee can remember information soon after learning it. That’s usually verified by some sort of test. Next is the ability to apply the knowledge to the job. A direct supervisor may verify that level by watching an employee perform a task.

If we stop there, many employees soon forget what they’ve learned. To reach a deeper understanding, an employee should internalize both the “Why?” and the “How?” Why is this important? How do I benefit directly?

The product of a strong learning session or workshop will be engaged employees ready to apply the lessons on the job. Retention three months later is a product of how consistent we reinforce those lessons after the session ends.

I like a TV show called “Restaurant Stakeout.” The premise is a restaurant owner installs hidden video and audio equipment. They then monitor their staff to see how they perform while unsupervised. Episode after episode, astonished owners gasp at the behavior onscreen and then proclaim some variation of, “I don’t understand. I went over this with them!”

Although that show is made for TV, many real-life owners and executives utter similar statements after seeing performance reports. Successful companies have staff at all levels that reinforce behavior and reward performance from Day One. Something as simple as a random “Knowledge Check,” asking an employee to do a certain task or explain a certain process on demand, can yield benefits.

Creating a learning culture is a top- down endeavor.

Creating a learning culture is a top-down endeavor. It need not be a complicated one. Although we cannot make other people do things they do not want to. We can encourage them to achieve on their own.

A good method is to recognize the behavior, but reward performance. Encourage employees to pursue educational opportunities. Take some classes yourself and brag about the experience. Choose technology wisely and verify alignment periodically. Commit to developing a learning culture.

To provide long-term growth, both personally and professionally, stop simply training and start educating your team.

This article originally appeared in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, September 2013.

Christopher Gray Writing Sample


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