Monday, April 23, 2007

Truths stretched too far - Part II : Let them learn all by themselves

This is the second one in the series of blog posts that look at how some very valid research findings ('truths') tend to get misinterpreted/misused when they get 'stretched too far'. As mentioned in the first post in the series, the 'stretching' happens because of many reasons like extrapolation of the validity of the research findings to contexts other than that in which the research was conducted, using 'inferential leaps' between the actual research finding and assumption(s) underlying the HR practice in question, ignoring other factors (other than the factor covered in the research) that have an impact on the current context/ situation etc. There are also situations where these 'stretched truths' are used to rationalize/justify particular HR policies/ practices instead of using research to improve the HR policies/ practices. Sadly, this sounds similar to the saying about the 'drunkard's use of the lamp-post' , that is , 'for support and not for illumination'.

In this post let us look at the popular research finding "Less than 10% of the learning takes place through formal training". I think that this finding is very much true. Most of the learning happens through job experiences and through interactions/relationships. The problem happens when this finding is used as an excuse for 'cutting training budgets without establishing any concrete mechanism for facilitating the learning through job experiences and interactions'. Since 'job experiences and interactions' are outside the traditional domain/mandate of the training function, it is easy (and very convenient for HR) to jump to the conclusion that 'the entire responsibility for ensuring that this type of learning happens lies with the managers and the employees'.

Unfortunately, this type of learning (through job experiences and interactions) does not always happen automatically. Even when the learning does take place, it could be incomplete or too slow. There is a need to put in place a mechanism to structure, facilitate and track this type of learning. This is especially true in situations where there is rapid growth and the workforce consists of relatively inexperienced employees and first-line managers. In these 'high growth - high attrition - large span of control - inexperienced team profile', managers are under too much pressure and hence 'surviving' could take precedence over 'learning and facilitating learning'. Hence we come back to the need for institutionalizing practices that would facilitate and maximise learning through job experience and interactions.

For example, 'the way a job is structured' is a critical factor in deriving learning through on-the-job experience. This calls for an intervention at the job design level to ensure that the jobs have sufficient authority/responsibility and scope/variety. 'Job rotation' and 'special/stretch projects' also offer high learning potential. This would require that the organization puts in place policies/ practices that encourage job rotation and assigning people systematically to special/stretch projects. Similarly, to maximise the learning through interactions/relationships there is a need to institutionalize systems/practices for coaching, mentoring, 360 degree feedback etc. While the learning value of formal training programmes is limited, some times they can serve as a mechanism for creating awareness and to build very specific knowledge/s kills that could facilitate/ maximise learning through job experiences and interactions.

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