What has life taught you today? Maybe it’s something small like “don’t use the microwave after Joe has.” Or maybe it’s something more profound like “a few minutes of quiet in the morning helps me get more done.” Either way, if you think about it, life has taught you something today.
You and your employees learn everyday – not just from video courses, PowerPoint presentations, or white papers – but mainly from the experience of completing projects, creating products, and serving others.
That’s convenient because whenever you train employees, you probably want them to get better at completing projects, creating products, and/or serving others. Nice coincidence.
And that means your team’s every day experience can be your most powerful training platform.
Expand your options for staff training
Before you can take advantage of the random learning going on right now, you have to accept that learning doesn’t have to occur in a classroom. The idea may make you uncomfortable.
After all, we know how to handle classrooms, slide presentations, videos, and tests. What goes on outside these traditional platforms is messy, unpredictable, and hard to manage.
Incorporating learning on the job doesn’t mean you’ll never use traditional training channels. But if you’re willing to move forward, innovate, and experiment, you’ll find a powerful new tool for your learning and development program. Here’s how:
Take a look at what employees are doing on the job.
At first, take small steps. Start with a business objective that leadership has identified. For example, you may have observed that internal misunderstandings are causing mistakes in projects, so you want to improve internal communications.
Recruit a few employees who will work with you to help identify ways to improve communications. They may realize that some people write unclear emails which cause confusion. There could be any number of reasons, but these insights will drive your program.
Set a clear objective for learning on the job
Now that you know how you want people to improve, turn that into a learning objective.
For example, if you want project managers to write better focused emails, ask them to review emails for extraneous content or confusing logic before they click “send.”
You may want to do a quick workshop on how to write good emails or provide some online resources to help people assess their own work. The key is to keep focus on one important objective and weave that objective into everyday work.
But what if people forget to check their emails? Or resist doing so?
Follow up with feedback, mentoring, and accountability.
Simply asking people to work on writing clearer emails will make a difference in their work. But you want to make sure you get stellar results that you can track. That’s why you need a way to provide feedback and follow up.
Ask people to track their actions.
Once you’ve asked people to work on a learning objective, give them a way to let you know they are working on it. You can ask them to record each time they check an email in a spreadsheet and send that to you weekly. Or you can find tools that help with tracking.
Either way, you have to follow up. People aren’t lazy, they just forget or get busy. But if the learning objective is key to business objectives, it’s worth your time to ensure they’re working on it.
Use feedback to speed up learning.
Whenever we’re trying to meet an objective, we have our own sense of how well it’s going whether we should keep charging ahead or change course. But feedback from an outside source is especially useful in helping us get better faster.
In the email example, you might ask your employees to show one or two emails to a peer, manager, or instructor. This extra feedback will speed up improvement and help you ensure quality. Even if the message is already sent, the feedback from another reader will help people improve the next one.
Ideally, you should track these feedback sessions and get a simple rating on how well the employee is doing. The reviewer can “sign off” the email as meeting the learning objective. Or the email might need more work before earning approval.
How much feedback you want to incorporate in your program will depend on the learning objective, the standards, and your corporate culture. Like any learning program, on-the-job training needs regular adjustment.
Circle back and build your skills.
Once employees have tackled a skill, keep checking back every so often to make sure the habit has stuck. Sometimes people pick up a new ability quickly but then fall back into more comfortable ruts once the spotlight is off.
Also, you can build on accomplished goals. For example, once your email writers get comfortable with creating focused messages, you can ask them to work on readability techniques, such as logical organization, shorter paragraphs, or bullet lists.
With learning on the job, everyone participates.
Unlike traditional training in which most people take a passive role, learning on the job asks employees to actively work on improving. It also asks managers to pay attention to how well their teams are doing with the learning objective.
But if you think about it, even if you offered a formal email writing class, you’d want employees to put those new skills into practice. That’s what you’re asking them to do here.
And learning on the job compensates your effort with significant advantages.
- Employees are active in their learning.
- Employees are more engaged in learning. (You naturally pay more attention when you’re completing a task than listening to someone talk about it.)
- Products and services are improving as people learn.
- Learning and improving as you work becomes a habit and spills over into other areas.
Why learning on the job works
If you’re still not convinced that people learn better by doing, take a look at the science.
Neuroscience has demonstrated that our brains were built for learning through experience.
- They are designed to learn small skills and build them up into more complex abilities.
- They devote more brain cells to skills you practice over and over, especially if you’re working on improve those skills as you practice.
- They’re designed to learn from mistakes, so if you try to learn without making mistakes, you’ll slow yourself down. (Seems unintuitive, huh?)
Other studies have supported these general observations:
- When physics students experience concepts such as torque and angular momentum by manipulating real-life objects, they do better on knowledge exams, according to research in the Association for Psychological Science.
- Anesthesiologists learned how to handle rare equipment malfunctions significantly better if they practiced independently in simulations than if they practiced with supervision. The opportunity to work through a situation on their own and assess their own failures made a much greater impact on long-term learning.
- When people learn skills under varying conditions (like the changing environment of a workplace), they learn faster and better.
As they say, there’s no fighting mother nature. Your employees are learning something right now. Why not go with the flow? Take a little time and effort to focus that natural learning on key business objectives, and gain a powerful tool for your training program.
P.S. Did you know?
Around the turn of the 20th century, a philosopher and psychologist, John Dewey, advanced the idea that education should focus primarily on action and social interaction.
“He argued that “if knowledge comes from the impressions made upon us by natural objects, it is impossible to procure knowledge without the use of objects which impress the mind.”
His ideas inform today’s experiential and problem-based learning which is gaining popularity in primary and secondary education.
But for business, his crucial insight is that learning takes place through action and interaction, not just through lectures, readings, or videos. And that knowledge can give you an edge. Reframing daily actions and interactions as learning opportunities can help you get to your performance goals faster and easier.