Most people realize that a huge chunk of what we learn at work is informal – conversations with colleagues, experience handling a tough customer, asking someone to show us quickly how to send invoices with the accounting software.
This kind of training works well because we learn what we need when we need it and we’re motivated to learn by the immediate pressure of completing a task. Learning by doing has as much impact on employee satisfaction loyalty as formal training classes.
But it can be frustrating, too. We’re often groping in the dark for help, feeling stupid that we don’t already know what to do.
So what if we could take the frustration and confusion out of on-the-job learning?
What if managers could provide enough structure to make it easier to learn what we need when we need it? And what if we could track all the skills we’re acquiring over time and get recognition for what we’ve accomplished?
But on-the-job experience doesn’t lend itself to easy management. It’s hard to track what individuals are doing every day. It’s not always clear if someone has mastered a skill or is still learning it. And it’s difficult to tell if someone has picked up bad habits. And if you try to take training out of the messy work environment into a nicely controllable classroom, you lose the relevance and motivation that makes on-the-job learning so effective.
Don’t try to manage everything.
So what can you do? First of all, don’t try to manage everything. You want employees to choose their learning based on what they need to know. You want them to choose their own resources. Some will want to look at manuals; some will want to ask a colleague. And you want each team member to learn at a pace that’s most effective for him or her.
But there are a few elements of structure you can weave into your team’s everyday habits that will help you track, direct and support their informal learning so it becomes even more effective for team performance and engagement.
Create specific behaviors you want employees to adopt.
Training is all about changing behavior. And as your employees learn informally, they’ll adopt new habits and processes. But if you can communicate the essentials of those habits in terms of behavior, you’ll help them learn according to the best practices of your company.
For example, your employees may log customer calls into your CRM software, but do they always insert the time and date stamp on their entries? If that’s an important part of the process, make it clear that a successful customer call entry includes a time and date stamp.
Simply thinking about the behaviors you want to encourage and writing them down for your employees will focus their efforts on the most important habits you want them to acquire.
Give individual employees their own sets of behaviors to work on.
Just as you give employees work assignments, you can give them on-the-job training assignments or lists of the behaviors you want them to work on mastering. It only takes a quick, collaborative meeting to decide what an employee needs and then give each one a behavior-based list of items.
Everybody works on a customized learning path with the understanding that these skills will help them do their jobs today and grow their careers in the long run.
Give everyone the resources they need to train.
You’ve created specific behaviors you want the team to adopt and tasked each member with acquiring a custom subset of those behaviors. Now they need the resources to do it. They need access to manuals or videos if available. If there are no materials, then they need access to people who can show them what to do, including you.
And they need time to work on their skills.
Much of what they learn can be done along with regular work projects, but they still need enough time to work with their resources, make mistakes, get help and try again. Your job is to support that process from above.
Track the progress.
Your follow-up lets employees know that their efforts are making an impact. Check in regularly to learn what they’ve accomplished. Have them demonstrate new skills for you or have discussions about how they’re using particular skills.
Use this follow-up to learn what’s working and what’s not. Find out if you need new or updated resources. Learn who on the team is great at teaching others and who isn’t. Use this information to improve the whole process.
And loudly recognize the progress your employees make. Most of the time, we struggle to learn a new task on the job because we need it to complete our work and getting to go home at the end of the day is our only reward.
But recognizing that effort can help employees stay engaged in their work and training for the long term.
We tend to discount how much we learn at work because we don’t talk about it. It’s not organized, structured or quantified. But few would deny how crucial this learning is for our performance. With just a little effort, focus and awareness, you can turn this incredible resource into a performance powerhouse.