Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Course as a training tool

Woody Allan is quoted as saying "I took a speed reading course and read 'War and Peace' in twenty minutes. It involves Russia". This joke, apart from being just funny, reveals a lot of skepticism about the value of courses as a learning mechanism.
It is clear to all of us that we need training in every line of work. When we hire new employees, we must not assume that they have knowledge sufficient to perform their duties. Two reasons for that:
The first has to do with the organization and its environment. Even if the knowledge worker had a similar position in a different organization, we must assume that in our organization the job will have different characteristics and will require different skills.
The second is continuity. Knowledge related jobs evolve over time. Training is required in order to continue and meet tomorrow's knowledge challenges.
But, as Woody Allan hinted, there are two main challenges related to courses:
The first is unrealistically high expectations. We expect to read "War and Peace" in twenty minutes; we expect students to be more skilled coming out of courses.
The second is the question of answering a real need. Is speed reading the requirement or is it the assimilation of new knowledge? Are we sending our employees to have their minds filled with procedures, while forgetting the essence?
I would like to concentrate on the first challenge of this post. Not on the subjects of training but on methods to achieve effective training. How can we touch each and every student, ensure that they absorb, understand and assimilate the training material, and improve the chance that they will have better performance coming back to the organization. After all, this is the purpose of all training, as Peter Jarvis defined as early as 1958: "Learning is an improvement in performance when the stimulation, the situation and the motivation remains unchanged".
I'll start by saying that courses are complementary tools for training, learning and knowledge management. If sharing and developing knowledge, the building blocks of knowledge management, are daily events, then courses are the peaks whose aim is to boost employees' knowledge and performance.
How can we get effective training through courses? I think the key lies in understanding the four learning styles defined by David Kolb:
1. Concrete experience – A chemistry teacher illustrating an idea by a lab experiment.
2. Active Experimentation – An athlete improving his performance thorough many running practices.
3. Abstract conceptualization – Reading an article on prisoners' rehabilitation.
4. Reflective Observation – Listening to a case study analysis of a certain organization.
It is interesting to note that we, as humans, learn through a combination of the four styles. Even more interesting is the fact that some of us prefer certain styles and find those easier to learn by. In other words, the mix of learning styles is individual.
What can we learn from this?
Let's go back to the course and its' instructor. It is reasonable that this instructor prepared to course combining his preferred learning style, his preferred teaching style and his understanding of management expectation from the course.
It might be that this three are actually one style.
If we want effective training, we must demand that instructors equally combine the four training styles in their lessons. They must acknowledge that the students in the class have different learning styles.
And on a practical note:
Training by abstract conceptualization: In explaining concepts and grand ideas;
Training by concrete experience: By going into details and explaining how these details implement the grand idea;
Training by reflective observation: Including in the training a lot of stories and case studies;
And last-
Training by active experimentation as much as possible.

Seemingly, this is nothing new. I attended a training conference this week and heard there that we should change from lectures to active, "hands on" experience (Active Experimentation). It was said that this could be proved by looking at babies who are learning by doing, not by sitting in the classroom.
No friends! Do not follow this, or any other, trend. It is not wise to choose one style and rule out the others. Combine. And remember that each one of the students has a different learning style, and we need to create the best combination, one that will enable every student to match his personality.
In this way, I believe we can improve students' understanding and produce effective training aimed at meaningful learning. I do not believe we will read "War and Peace" in twenty minutes following a speed reading course. I do believe we will read it faster than before and we are sure to remember more than it involving Russia…


Friday, June 12, 2009

Setting an Example

"Practice what you preach", is a common saying.
In the twentieth century, people worked all their lives in the same place. You could have hated your manager; you could have considered him a tyrant or a lazy slob. You could have attributed any negative characteristics to your manager. None these were reason enough to leave your work place. Some would even say that these were the roots of employee common culture.
I would not say that everyone today loves his or her managers. Nevertheless, a manager's behaviour is important, very important. It is claimed that people join organizations for the promise of an interesting job, but they leave because of managers. We expect, and rightly so, that our managers will set an example for us to follow. As managers, it is important for us to set such an example.
How to set an example and in what area? An organization is a complex system, and it takes different people working together to create the engine that drives it forward. Even in my line of work (managing a consulting firm) I soon learned that employees of different expertise are required in order to enable progress. The conclusion of all this is that setting an example is different than expecting everyone to duplicate your actions or your results. Such an imitation is not necessarily the correct way to a positive example.
So what needs to be done? In a post I wrote about measurements, I presented an idea that is suitable for this side of the equation as well, for setting an example: Measure values as you measure results, I wrote. Values represent the strategy by which we wish to act. If those are correct, and people are following them, we are on the right path.
It should be the same for setting an example. I think the key to good example is values and hard work. It is important that we set an example by getting results, but the lesson to be learned is the road to those results rather than the specific results. We set an example by demonstrating correct values.
I try to work a lot. I believe that luck and talent are components of success but hard work is not less important. I work in the early hours of the morning and I work at night. I find time to rest but my work takes most of my time, even during weekends. I don't expect my employees to work as hard, but it is important for me to set such an example.
I follow our company values. I try to project professionalism, innovation, humanity and collaboration in my actions. I admit it is not always easy. I am, for example, individualist by nature, and it took me years (actually, it is taking me years; I haven't completed the mission yet) to learn how to share. I put a lot of effort into it. I do it because it is right to share but also because it important to set an example. As I wrote in the beginning, to practice what I preach.
There is another aspect of setting an example. David, King of Israel, committed one of the most horrible sins: He took another man's wife, and then had her husband abandoned to his death on the battlefield. We could have asked why God gave us such an imperfect king. Why didn't we get a perfect king, one that it will be easy for us to take his example?
Those who thing King David is not a positive example, misreads the Bible. Ours is a complex world, and nobody can be perfect. Giving us a perfect king, or writing only of his good qualities, would set to high standards, standards that we would find hard to relate to. If this were the case, we would have no standard at all because of the major gap, because of the thought that we can never be as perfect so why bother.
A manager setting an example can and should expose his weaknesses as well. He does not have to be proud of his shortcomings, but he should not hide them. We all make mistakes. All of us, as employees, even the very professional ones, occasionally take wrong decisions. Setting a positive example includes, in my opinion, showing the less positive aspects as well. It is not that we are proud of these aspects. We are not happy with them. It's just that, like King David who sinned and repented, we admit our mistakes and try to learn from them. This is a positive example in my mind.
It is also important that we remember, as managers and as parents, that setting an example does not always result in your employees following your exact footsteps. Remember that values are the important issue. If we plot the correct values, and to set an example by following those values, there is a good chance that out employees, even if their professional decisions differ from ours, will take our example.
And as Albert Einstein said: “Setting an example is not the main means of influencing another, it is the only means.”
Setting an example is important. We should do so.