Getting Better Results

In order to get better results in the workplace, managers must adopt a new perspective on learning. This means understanding the difference between "training" and "learning."

Training is a term that has been used over the years to refer to instructors teaching individuals by presenting structured content in a controlled classroom environment. Recently, with the introduction of computers and distance learning technologies to the workplace, the term has taken on a broader meaning to include on-the-job training and technology-based training.

Learning, by contrast, is a much larger umbrella that covers all our efforts to absorb, understand, and respond to the world around us. Learning is social. Learning happens on the job every day. Learning is adapting, and it is vital for the survival and well-being of individuals as well as organizations.

Traditional training has structure and boundaries. Learning can break through boundaries to expand or reconfigure knowledge in new ways. The Canadian Centre for Management Development, in a report on continuous learning, puts it this way:

    Training is something that is done to you, or that you do for someone else. Learning is something you do to and for yourself. Training implies that something already known is to be transferred to someone else. Learning, by contrast, implies a process of self-directed exploration and discovery, in search of something not yet known, something yet to be found.16   In the government, traditional training has been the function of the human resource development (HRD) practitioner in the personnel or training office. Managers have typically contributed to the training process by identifying their employees' training needs, initiating training requests, and sending employees to agency training programs.

This situation is reversed for learning. That is, managers must take the lead in setting up the environment for learning, and HRD practitioners must contribute support. The remainder of this chapter lays out a roadmap for you to:

  • eliminate the barriers to learning,

  • set up individual and organizational learning strategies,

  • get strategically aligned, and

  • make a plan.

Eliminate Barriers

Before any meaningful learning can be initiated, five principal barriers must be overcome. As identified by R.L. Dilworth, these are:17

  • treating learning as an individual phenomenon, rather than as something that can also involve groups of people;

  • focusing on formal training, rather than attending to informal workplace learning;

  • keeping business and learning processes as entirely discrete worlds;

  • tolerating "nonlistening" work environments; and

  • employing autocratic leadership styles.

These barriers exist in many government organizations, and unless they are removed, organizations cannot be designed to learn.

You have considerable power to make the necessary changes in your own organizational unit. For example, you can demonstrate new behaviors and set up new systems that encourage openness and communication. There is much to be gained by breaking down the barriers: the ability to learn is not measured by what the organization and manager know but rather by how the manager and organization learn.

Set Up Individual and Organizational Learning Strategies

There is a significant difference between individual and organizational learning. Consequently, different strategies are needed for each.

Individual learning is a familiar concept: it is the ability of individuals to experience personal growth in their exchange with the world around them. Organizational learning is perhaps less familiar. Certainly, it is a much more recent concept: it is the ability of an organization to gain insight and understanding from experience. Groups and organizations adapt, grow, and change as units to shape their future course.

The idea of organizational learning was popularized by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline: Mastering the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.18 Its publication generated a significant level of interest worldwide. Since then, organizational learning has become highly valued by corporate leaders because of the systems-level learning that occurs when entire organizations address and solve problems, build repositories of lessons learned, and create core competencies that represent the collective learning of employees, past and present.

Individual and organizational learning are distinct, but not separate. Individual learning is the foundation of organizational learning, but it does not lead automatically to learning by the organization. As Argyris and Schon put it: "Individual learning is a necessary but insufficient condition for organizational learning."19 You can use techniques and tools to promote each of these and link them together.

    Individual Learning Strategies

There are two types of individual learning: formal and informal. Formal learning encompasses all traditional training in structured courses, classrooms, and formal development programs. Informal learning is that which takes place in the informal processes of everyday work. Most individual learning occurs informally, rather than through formal training or education.

While managers can do much to influence and reinforce formal learning, you can have the greatest impact by deliberately creating a climate for informal learning. Here are some strategies for informal individual learning that, although they cost very little in time or money, have potentially big payoffs:

  • Job rotations — permanent or temporary appointments to new positions. These appointments should be planned to stretch and challenge employees, and to broaden their understanding across different business processes of the organization.

  • Special assignments — tasks or projects given as learning and development experiences. These can be specifically designed to offer opportunities to explore new areas and learn new skills.

  • Reflecting on experience — a process of integrating learning and work to give both conscious attention. Given a special assignment or period of work, an employee is asked to analyze the results achieved, lessons learned, and new opportunities for learning.

  • Coaching and counseling — learning assistance given to the employee through listening, observing, and providing feedback. Managers, team leaders, or senior colleagues are in an ideal position to provide such assistance, and can exploit everyday workplace exchanges into "teachable moments" for maximum learning benefit.

  • Mentoring — oversight of an employee's career development by someone senior to the employee and outside the employee's chain of supervision. Mentors help employees clarify career goals, understand the organization, analyze strengths and developmental needs, build support networks, and deal with road blocks.

  • Manager as teacher — managers acknowledge their role as teachers and facilitators of the learning process, and regard each interaction with employees as having a learning dimension. Managers consciously teach through their own model, habits, and system of values.

  • Learning teams — teams of four to five people who meet regularly to focus on individual learning to improve their own effectiveness. Teams can form around an area of interest, such as the Internet or public speaking, or around broadly defined career paths.

  • Self-development — a collection of techniques and approaches for individuals to manage their own process of learning. These include self- analysis of competencies and interests, personal development plans, learning contracts, learning logs, reading lists, involvement in professional organizations, networks, attending demonstrations at other organizations, and participating on interagency committees.

  • Individual development plan (IDP) — a plan developed jointly by the employee and manager that identifies individual goals for employee growth in the context of organizational mission. The plan lists training, education, and development activities (formal and informal) to develop the competencies needed to meet IDP goals.

    Organizational Learning Strategies

Organizational learning is still in its infancy within the government, because a history of bureaucracy, compartmentalization, and segmentation has not provided much fertile ground for openness and communication. Yet managers can design organizations that learn and that are able to transform themselves to respond rapidly to technological change, downsizing, and restructuring. And when organizations are designed to learn, the lessons are not lost when individuals leave.

Here are some strategies for organizational learning:

  • Meetings — time in regular meetings used for learning purposes:

    • Time is set aside for presentations from outside resource people giving a different perspective on agenda items. In this way, real business is used for learning and gaining new insights.

    • Periodically, a facilitator is brought in to take the group through team-building exercises to improve communication and understanding.

    • Employees who are working on special assignments or reading professional literature are asked to make reports.

    • In meetings, managers play the role of teacher by asking questions, demonstrating systems thinking, and discussing lessons learned.

  • Action learning — an actual problem in the workplace used for learning. A group of employees is formed to analyze the problem and consult with experts. The group then returns to the workplace to take action. After a period of time, the group reconvenes to discuss progress and make adjustments. This cycle of action and learning repeats itself until the problem is satisfactorily resolved. Case studies are written up as final reports and become part of organizational history—and required reading for new employees.

  • Cross-functional teams — individuals with different skills and backgrounds form a team to bring a wide range of viewpoints to accomplish some task. They collaborate on common work issues and learn from one another. Through this, they acquire greater knowledge of the complexities of business issues and decisionmaking processes.

  • Work-outs — an organizational equivalent of a town meeting. This technique has been practiced extensively at GE and is credited as a factor in transforming that company into one of the world's most successful corporations. Teams composed of a broad spectrum of employees at all levels meet — without management — to seek answers to business problems. The work-out concludes with a town hall style meeting where teams present their proposals to management. The managers must make immediate, public decisions as to whether to accept or reject the team proposals, or ask for more information by a specific date. The work-out process brings to bear all levels of the organization and encourages open and frank discussion about practical problems.

  • Strategic planning — groups working together to predict and prepare for their future. Through various planning processes, employees gain insight into the real business goals and priorities of the organization and the value of their contributions. Facilitators can lead a group through processes to develop mission statements, a strategic five-year vision, expected outcomes, and critical success indicators to measure progress. Building scenarios and analyzing the "what if's" are processes that help organizations prepare contingency plans for a wide range of possibilities in the future. Through strategic planning, organizations learn more about themselves, develop a common language, and chart a direction that is understood and "owned" by everyone.

  • Parallel learning structures — temporary study groups created to open new channels of communication outside and parallel to the normal, hierarchical structure of the organization. The study groups cut across organizational lines horizontally and vertically, define their own boundaries and strategies, and bring new thinking and creative energy to problems that have challenged normal decisionmaking processes.

  • Corporate scorecard — the business equivalent of a speedometer or temperature gauge that tracks measurements that are important to the success of the organization. The scorecard tracks both financial and nonfinancial measures, including customer service, delivery time, improved quality, and other factors that contribute to organizational performance. The scorecard is distributed across the entire organization so that everyone is reading the same score and can address any given problem from a common ground.

  • Benchmarking — continually comparing your own organization with other organizations. The procedure consists of:

      1. identifying an area of your own organization that needs improving,

      2. scanning the environment to find "model" organizations that have a recognized ability or accomplishment in that area,

      3. studying the practices of this model organization, and

      4. finding those features that can be adapted to work in your own organization.

    Benchmarking is an unending search for best practices that can help an organization improve its own performance.

  • "Flocking" — a technique derived from species of birds that "flock," or assemble together in small groups to learn collectively. These birds learn faster than other birds, and so do organizations that encourage flocking behavior.20

    Team training provides an excellent opportunity for flocking. On-site university programs allow employees to learn together, exchange information on real projects, and establish ongoing networks. Management development programs bring together leaders from various backgrounds and promote collaboration and communication across organizational boundaries.

  • Groupware — a computer-based technology that supports a team's communication and decisionmaking processes. The system replaces chalkboards and large poster pads with a projected computer screen image and a series of networked workstations, each with its own private display monitor. Participants can enter brainstorming ideas, make comments, organize ideas and concepts, make evaluations, and vote for rankings anonymously. Their input is instantly recorded on the projection screen and on the other participants' monitors. The system makes group work substantially more efficient, because less time is spent tabulating comments, rankings, and evaluations; and it gives instant access to a broad range of information about how work is progressing. At the end of any exercise, the computer will print out a series of products that capture the comments, statistics, and rankings of the group.

  • Computer conferencing — an application of computers and telecommunications for distance learning that provides an "electronic classroom" setting. Employees can interact with each other and with a leader (a coach, facilitator, or instructor) on discussion topics, problems, projects, and questions at their own convenience and at any location. Computer conferencing software can be used to conduct an actual class, complete with instructor, class assignments, and tests. It can also be used for ongoing discussions and reviews of work by project teams whose members are separated by time and space, or who simply have difficulty finding time to meet.

This list of strategies is only a starting point. As you begin to see every workplace exchange and activity as an opportunity for learning, you will generate your own ideas for organizational learning strategies. And, although you must take the lead in learning, managers should look to the HRD office for expert support in designing and implementing individual and organizational learning strategies. The HRD specialists should be able to provide more information about any of the recognized strategies described in this handbook and facilitate learning processes with employees

Get Strategically Aligned

Strategic alignment refers to the correlation between an organization's operations and its mission and goals. Ideally, operations should support and reflect mission and goals. For our purposes, we are here discussing the importance of aligning training and learning activities with the "big picture" — that is, with the organization's overall business strategy. In government, there are several important reasons for ensuring that plans for building human capital are linked to business strategy:

  • First, serious concerns have been expressed in the past that the billions of dollars spent on civilian training are not targeted wisely and do not lead to improved performance.21

  • Second, with downsizing and restrictions on hiring, new skills will have to be acquired by training as opposed to recruiting.

  • Finally, with dwindling resources, limited training dollars are not likely to be increased in the near future.

In short, more must be accomplished with today's existing workforce and today's existing resources.

You can link learning to performance and organizational results by doing the following:

1. Review your agency's strategic plans and objectives. Every agency has a strategic plan, as mandated by the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993. This five-year plan describes how the agency will use its personnel, budget, and other resources to accomplish measurable performance goals.

2. Determine how you contribute to agency plans and performance requirements. What is your core expertise? What do you do best? Draw the relationship between your group's function and the mission, goals, and core competencies of the agency. Examine the ways you are expected to perform and the outcomes you produce. Are there potential new ways you could lead, support, or participate?

3. Plan learning that supports your ability to contribute to agency objectives. Check the agency annual training plan to identify priority training programs that involve your employees. Determine if your organization has key positions in mission-critical areas that need continuing professional education. Find out if your employees can explain the organization's business strategies and specifics of their own group's performance. Identify the competencies necessary to meet performance goals and the learning activities that build and strengthen them.

4. Focus on learning that addresses areas of performance weakness. Review the results of your organization's past performance. What are the strengths and weaknesses, and where are improvements needed? Most importantly, what learning can be done that will result in the biggest payoff to the agency in measurable results?

5. Create learning objectives that tie into business outcomes. Whenever possible, set up learning that directly relates to your organization's critical success indicators. For example, if the organization is measuring cycle time, or output, or customer satisfaction, try to build learning activities or select training courses with related objectives. This helps ensure that the changes in your employees' performance are the ones desired and the ones measured.

6. Support the transfer of learning into performance and results. On average, less than half of what is learned is actually applied on the job. There is no automatic transfer of new skills into new job behavior. You, as a manager, can influence such a transfer by fostering an environment that gives employees a chance to practice new skills, values innovation, and rewards improved performance.

As always, managers should look to the HRD office for expert support in aligning learning to business strategy. HRD specialists should be able to advise you on how to perform the steps above and to provide you with tools to make assessments and decisions about learning.

For its part, the HRD office should be taking steps of its own to integrate training and development with all the other human resource functions — recruitment; retention; creation of new positions, work systems, and performance management systems — to align total performance requirements with the agency's mission and goals. When all human resource requirements and priorities have been integrated — when it is known what level of effort will be needed to move the agency forward for each career area, for retraining efforts, for introducing new systems, for reorganization and reinvention, for leadership — managers gain valuable information and insight on the kinds of learning that are strategic. This in turn promotes consistency across all managers striving to link learning to performance and results.

Make a Plan

Recently, an office in a federal agency used its training funds to send several employees to expensive conferences and two executives to long-term executive development programs. Later in the year, when it came time to implement the agency's new automated procurement system, the office didn't have enough funds left in its budget to cover basic training. The office had to delay the use of the system until the next fiscal year, when it could afford to get its employees trained.

Situations like this occur across the government.

There's a straightforward way to avoid the "first-come-first-served" mentality that plagues many government organizations in allocating their training dollars: make a training plan. Such a plan is extremely useful for organizing thinking about investments in formal training. With limited dollars to go around, managers need an aggregate perspective to find balance, establish priorities, and separate merely good ideas from business imperatives.

When you plan for learning and training as an organizational unit, you gain powerful advantages and get results. With an annual training plan, you can:

  • make a connection to the organization's strategic objectives upfront,

  • target training areas of greatest need and biggest payoff, and

  • find the best and most cost-effective ways to get training.

Here are basic steps for you to develop a training plan for your organizational unit.

1. Define learning needs linked to strategic plans.

  • Identify your contribution to your agency's mission, strategic goals, and objectives (see the strategic alignment steps discussed above).

  • Check into the introduction of new technology and new ways of doing business, both internally and externally.

2. Review other information to identify needs.

  • Review reports, agency "scorecards," etc.

  • Check the learning needs identified by employees, customers, and other sources.

  • Identify continuing professional education requirements for career programs.

  • Determine if your group is fully oriented to the agency's business strategy.

3. Validate your list of needs.

  • Ensure that all the needs are learning needs.

  • Determine if training is an appropriate intervention.

  • Figure out how it contributes to the overall solution.

  • Rank the requirements in order of importance to the strategic plan.

4. Determine the best strategies.

  • Make "business case" decisions based on your resources (time, money, and agency programs and assistance available to you) and potential payoff.

  • Consider formal learning options:

    • classroom vs. on-the-job,

    • on-site vs. off-site,

    • customized vs. off-the-shelf (the latter can be acquired and used as is);

    • contractor vs. in-house instructor; and

    • technology-based delivery (computer-based training, satellite broadcasts) vs. classroom instructor delivery.

  • Consider informal learning strategies for:

    • individual learning, and

    • organizational learning.

5. Identify potential sources for learning.

  • Obtain information from the HRD office on:

    • recognized vendors,

    • partnerships with other organizations, and

    • colleges and universities.

  • Check into possible collaborations with other managers.

6. Estimate costs.

  • Include tuition, travel, per diem, facilities, contracts, and special equipment.

  • Weigh projected costs for different strategies and sources.

7. Set priorities.

  • Select the critical areas that most need addressing.

  • Identify the potential payoffs.

  • Determine your funding level, and where must you draw the line.

8. Determine how to evaluate results.

  • Identify the measurable outcomes you expect to have.

  • Make the link between outcomes and business strategy.

  • Find a simple way to track progress.

9. Share your plan with employees, customers, and other managers in your organization.

  • Generate understanding and promote "buy-in" of the plan.

  • Lead by example; demonstrate your commitment to learning for results.

10. Execute and monitor.

  • Assign responsibility to implement the plan.

  • Collect evaluation data, including data for baseline measures.

    • Track your group's contribution to the agency's strategic goals.

    • Document success stories.

    • Make additions and adjustments to the plan as necessary.

  • Continuously provide opportunities for employees to apply their learning on the job.

The HRD office can advise managers on developing annual training plans. The HRD staff can provide valuable information on the best resources for training, how to estimate the actual costs of training, and how to evaluate the value of training.

The best HRD offices make organizationwide master training plans — these can be a significant help and resource to managers in making their own plans. HRD master plans link learning and organization strategic plans at the highest level, and describe large-scale training initiatives that contribute to agency goals and performance requirements. You can then build on the platform of these master training plans and fill in the blanks for your own unit.

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