As companies continue to try to come up with a plan for remaining profitable, some are overlooking one of their best opportunities due to their short sightedness and obsession for short term gain. It is the very asset which most firms claim is their most important and the one which provides them their competitive advantage. It is also, in some companies, the asset which is most mistreated and neglected as it is the most costly. It is the company’s employees.
I don’t know of any company which would not state that employees and their knowledge of the company, its products and services, processes, policies and procedures are an important part to its competitive advantage and the reason for its success. Then the question that must be asked and answered is why then, in down economic times, is one of the first things cut in a corporate budget the training and development of this most valuable asset? The very asset which provides the company its competitive advantage. The one which, if not continually developed, will impact its growth for a considerable length of time.
Management, rightly so, wants to see the impact of any venture to the bottom line. If training is the first item cut, it must mean its impact is not benefiting the company, or at least not being seen as such. Training must be designed, implemented and assessed in such a manner to provide a positive impact on the bottom line. It is therefore the responsibility of those in charge of training to be cognizant of how and why adults learn, so that training provides a positive impact on a company’s profitability and not seen as a necessary burden which only drains the company’s coffers.
According to Stephen Lieb (1991, p. 1) “Part of being an effective instructor involves understanding how adults learn best. ” Eliminating training and only allowing for it when a company is profitable will have a significant negative impact upon the company in both the short and long term. Conducting training which is not effective and efficient nor provides a positive return on investment is not only unproductive but can create a resistance to future training and negatively impact the morale of employees.
How Adults Learn. Corporate trainers and class designers need to understand how adults gain knowledge as learning, in the Western perspective, is determined to be a cognitive function. (Merriam et. al. 2007, Wlodkowski, 2008). Neuroscience provides us with an understanding of how the adult brain operates in the process of learning. It involves the creation of neuronal networks within the brain. New information is assimilated to knowledge that already exists. “When adults learn, they build on or modify networks that have been created through previous learning and experience. ” (Wlodkowski, p. 11).
By understanding this basic biological fact, teachers and designers, must be able to connect the material that is to be learned with the existing knowledge of the learners. Corporate trainers and designers must also take into consideration cultural aspects of their learners as a person’s “…class, culture, ethnicity, personality, cognitive style, learning patterns, life experiences and gender…” (Auerbach, 1992) will impact the learner and his/her motivation. “The more we know about the identity of the learner, the context of this learning, and the learning process itself, the better able we are to design effective learning experiences. (Merriam, 2004, p. 199). This point is extremely important for companies to recognize and understand, otherwise; people only go through the motion of attending training and do not necessary come out with the knowledge necessary for performing the job. Adult Education Theory Adult education theory is only about forty years old. Malcolm Knowles’ andragogy is one of the first theories to be accepted by the field of education regarding how and why adults learn. (Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner, 2007, Lieb, 1991).
Knowles posits that adult learners are self directed and autonomous. They are goal oriented, practical and must see and understand the relevance of any training. Adults bring an abundance of experience and knowledge, experiential learning, with them. Most importantly, “…adults need to be shown respect. ” (Lieb) Many times management misunderstands these characteristics, if they are even aware of them. Self directed learning means that adults will and want to learn given the proper motivation and conducive learning environment.
As employees have a relevant reason for learning, new job or a desire for professional advancement, motivation is already established. Many times the learning environment is the issue. As payroll is a major factor for most companies, some attempt to lessen the expense by having training take place where training is least likely to be effective. For example, retail companies that have multiple locations often have training conducted in the local store. New hire training is conducted by the store manager or a designated individual.
New hire training may consist of providing a tape or disc, to be reviewed at home on the employee’s time, along with online training and on the job training. Training many times consists of the trainer setting up the new employee in the system, getting online training started and leaving the employee on his/her own so that the trainer can attend to customer service needs as the store staffing is minimalist. At other times, the training consists of the trainer standing behind the new employee and telling them what to do as in “push this button”, “now this one”, in such a fashion that no training what so ever is taking place.
This not only is demeaning to the new hire, but also shows the lack of importance to the new hire’s training and inadvertently sends the message that no one values whether or not the new person understands how to perform the tasks supposedly required for the job. High turnover, morale issues and company policy violations result from such behavior. For effective training to take place, a dedicated trainer, one who is knowledgeable of the material, is empathetic, enthusiastic, can communicate clearly, and creates a safe, inclusive and respectful environment, is required. Wlodkowski, 2008). Training needs to be conducted in an area with minimal distractions. Training in a manager’s office or on the front counter in the store, where employees or customers will continually interrupt the learner, is not an appropriate nor conducive environment to learn. Training by standing over an employee and telling them what to do each step of the way, does not allow the learner to retain the information being taught, particularly when done at such a speed that the learner is not provided the time to think the process through.
Training of this nature is a waste of valuable assets, time, effort, and money, and the return on investment is negative as little training is accomplished and motivation damaged by the lack of respect and consideration. Damage of this type can be so negative that it is possible to lose a new hire on his/her very first day. Along with andragogy is the theory of Margin by McClusky. This learning theory is more involved with when learning is most likely to occur as opposed to the learning process itself. (Merriam, et. al. , 2007). The environment and conditions described above, along with the stress of being new to a company, are examples.
McClusky’s theory looks at the aspects of a learner’s life which place demands upon him/her and its relationship to the learner’s resources to engage in learning. This concept of load versus power provides an indication as to the timing of whether or not learning can occur. This is not to imply that people under stress, load, can not learn. If fact, research into McClusky’s theory shows learning can take place when load is greater than power if the learner perceives the subject matter to be essential, meaningful, worthwhile and convenient. (Merriam, et. al. Knowing this information, corporate trainers and designers need to create corporate training that is easily accessible, relevant and worthwhile to the learner. Management needs to understand that even though learners, with multiple responsibilities upon them, will and can still learn; however, too much overload will decrease the effectiveness of the learning opportunity along with the motivation to do so. Monthly requirements for certain training, such as safety and loss prevention, can negatively impact employee morale when such training is no more than a rehash of previous training.
This is why proper training begins with a pre test; so that time, effort and motivation are maximized by not wasting assets in learning material employees already know. Morale is further eroded when access to online learning is made difficult due to continual connectivity issues. Learners struggle with technology while operational demands of the store compete for the limited hours an employee is at work. Frustration ensues when this happens and is compounded when employees at all levels are admonished when training statistics are not at an acceptable level.
Punitive actions as a solution to these issues only result in devising ways to increase the statistics without actual training taking place. (One employee takes the training for all). This then reinforces to the employee that their training is of no consequence or meaning. At the same time senior management cannot understand why, if training numbers are so high, can issues such as customer service, safety and violations of company policies be rampant; and a vicious culture of pencil whipped training ensues.
Self Directed, Transformational and Experiential Learning Theories The theories of self directed, transformational and experiential learning acknowledge that learning takes places outside of the realm of academia or formal corporate training. (Merriam et. al. 2007). These are areas in which companies need to pay particular attention to as it is in the realm of the individual work environment that most learning takes place; the reality of how things actually operate within a company.
It is in this environment where employees pick up bad habits, as they learn what the company actually is concerned with and what it tolerates through the actions of management. It is in this learning environment, where actions speak louder than words. All the words in a mission statement and in policies and procedures mean nothing if they are not enforced and role modeled by management at all levels. It is in the store, on the production floor and any where the actual work is performed where the values and company beliefs are either lived or are proven to be no more than empty words.
This is why employee development, particularly of a company’s managers, must be ongoing as their actions have the most impact upon employees and cause the most liability for a company. Without competent and moral role models, those who come up through the ranks, will arrive at managerial levels within an organization lacking the most basic of professional managerial skills. As discussed earlier, self directed learning happens everyday as people search for information on a subject of interest.
Their interests come about for a variety of reasons, such as an illness in the family, planning a trip, interest in car maintenance, or advancing at work; the interests of the learner will motivate him/her to learn. Transformational learning is knowledge gained by the student which in some respect changes the values or beliefs of the individual. This type of learning can take place over time as life experiences change the beliefs and values or can be as Pallof and Pratt (2007, p. 186) have described transformational learning as the “aha moment” for the learner.
Actions by all in the individual’s workplace, and management’s responses to these, will have significant influence on an employee’s learning. Experiential learning happens in life; we all learn from our everyday experiences. Unfortunately, not every thing we learn is for the best. Acknowledgement and Solutions Knowledge of adult education theory by those involved in corporate training is essential. Many times corporate actions work against the theory of andragogy and the concepts of self directed, transformational and experiential learning.
Company actions and its attitudes towards its employees work against the adult learner’s motivation to learn. Companies that truly value their employees do not accept the training of new hires as described above. They do not accept and pass off the store’s inability to access online training because the system is down or over loaded; but then admonish for not meeting the established goals. They do not placate by stating training is an “area of opportunity” and refuse to provide the basic necessities for training or have training conducted by personnel with no knowledge or experience in the subject matter.
They also do not embrace self directed training by strong arming employees to study for professional certifications and pressure them to attend employer offered training on the employee’s time. All of these actions influence the morale of the employees and impact their motivation to learn and as a result productivity can suffer. Actually, it works against the employer as employees become resistant to training and self directed learning.
The actions, or inactions, of management do influence the transformational learning of its employees, as over time, actions which do not match the company’s words or are seen as unfair and unethical, will change the values and beliefs of their employees. Understanding the how and why adults learn and in designing and implementing training in a manner which supports adult educational theory, is the first step in providing effective and efficient training which will motivate an employee to learn. The next step is for the organization to truly support and honor this learning as sacred by providing the time and resources to this endeavor.
Companies which truly care for their most important asset, the one they count on to take the company into the future, will provide proper training, that motivates and encourages the employee to learn and develop, no matter the economic environment.
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