Making On-Job-Training Work
Many organisations rely on on-the-job training (OJT) without any effort to ensure it is effective in providing the skills and knowledge required for superior performance. This article discusses ways in which OJT can be managed to ensure employees learn the skills desired and perform at an acceptable level.
On-the-job training is often seen as a way to ensure employees are trained without hughe expense or with minimal disruption to productivity. Surprisingly, many organisations simply don't make any allowance for training; OJT happens by default rather than design. This laissez faire approach to OJT is a recipe for substandard performance and differing standards of performance. New starters simply stumble along asking colleagues how to do tasks and perhaps reading procedures manuals or learning from trial and error.
Occasionally, new staff learn bad habits, poor, or incorrect procedures from experienced staff who have shown them inappropriate shortcuts, unauthorised or incorrect procedures. At worst, they will have learnt different approaches from different staff and be confused about which method is appropriate.
While OJT is a useful training medium in many workplaces and often the best way for someone to learn the ropes of their new job, it achieves better outcomes when professionally managed. How to manage it is the key to successful learning and high performance, but the degree of management depends on the level of difficulty (or danger) inherent in the job.
If a job is inherently dangerous eg, mining, tree-felling, construction, electrical installation etc, there are laws requiring certain standards of safety and associated training. Irrespective of the size of an organisation, the safety standards need to be met and if they aren't, firms can be held liable for injuries or deaths that occur. This usually means that firms needing to meet safety standards have suitable induction or post-employment OJT.
Simple tasks that do not have a critical safety element may be handled by telling a new staff member what is required and if necessary demonstrating. (The instructional method Explain - Demonstrate - Practice where a task is explained to learners, demonstrated to learners, and then practised by learners while being observed by the demonstrator, is useful here). Such a simple task may involve something like registering a guest in a motel or change a spark plug in a motor vehicle.
Jobs with multiple, disparate tasks, lengthy procedures or tasks with higher levels of difficulty need to be taught in stages. In fact, employers whose processes are both lengthy and difficult, need to decide whether all staff complete all processes, or whether it is more efficient and effective to specialise staff within stages of the processes. For example, a financial institution establishing, servicing and completing mortgages may allocate different work groups to the different stages. This approach would recognise that expecting new starters to learn 500 steps from start to finish of the process is too great an expectation. We learn better in small chunks moving from simple to complex and known to unknown.
Bearing in mind the level of difficulty, we can choose somewhere between a highly structured approach, or a loosely structured approach to OJT that involves some, or all of the following features.
Ideally, a structured approach should include learning guides, coaches, procedures manuals, a form of assessment (formal or informal), and be integrated into the organisation's performance and probation programs. The whole process needs to be monitored by the organisation's learning and development department or, if there isn't one, an appropriate supervisor who is an exemplar of the processes and procedures being learnt.
Initially, new starters need to have a learning plan as part of their probation or performance agreement. The learning plan details the what, how, when and where of the structured training program. It's not sufficient to simply have a learning plan and show the trainee the start line; there needs to be ongoing, preferably daily task negotiation, goal setting and performance follow-up. If there isn't, the direction taken may be too 'loose' to gain the high performance outcomes expected ... or indeed any outcomes ... it may simply fade out.
The learning plan will, preferably, have a checklist or diary in which the activities to be learnt are listed and may be endorsed when each step is mastered. This lends a sense of achievement for trainees and also provides evidence to managers and supervisors that trainees have mastered their work.
Any procedures manuals or learning guides used should be up-to-date and produced in such a way that they are easily accessed and understood. (The Information Mapping methodology, based on sound instructional design technology is excellent for this type of documentation - see http://www.infomap.com to learn more).
Some organisations allocate one or more of their top performers as full-time or part-time coaches. These people are then available to coach new starters as and when required. One advantage of this approach is that you can up-skill a subject matter expert in training and coaching and have some assurance that what the coach teaches is quality practice. This is a sounder approach than just nominating someone on the line to do the coaching.
By using a structured approach to OJT you should be transferring known skills and knowledge from people who are recognised as high performers to others who inculcate the same on-job practices. From one performer you get another. It's far better for the organisation's good health and productivity to replicate good practices than to just let everything flow and hope for the best which is akin to crossing your fingers as a method of contraception!
The time to teach new staff how you want them to do your work, is as early as possible after they commence work.
Gain the Psychological Advantage
When new employees commence there is a 'honeymoon period' in which they are very enthusiastic, keen to impress and ever so willing to learn. It's all new and exciting, and perhaps a pleasant change from the monotony of their last job.
When you include them in a structured OJT program, not only do they learn what they need to produce good work for you, but they also gain an impression of your organisation as being 'on the ball'. Doubtless they will have worked for others who have simply dumped them in the deep water and let them sink and swim. But not you. This is an encouraging experience for them that sets their motivation and direction for the rest of their time with you.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robin Henry is a human resources and development specialist and Internet marketer whose firm, Desert Wave Enterprises, helps individuals and businesses improve their performance by personal development, smart technology and smart processes.
Visit DWAVE at http://www.dwave.com.au