a remedy for change
by Randal Ford
WHEN A COMPANY COMMITS to producing the same products and services with fewer workers, change sweeps through the organization. What changes is not so much technology but how employees work together. Flattened management hierarchies represent an attempt to create organizations that are decentralized, flexible and more responsive to the market. Flattened, downsized, outsourced corporations require cross-functional teams to facilitate product-development improvements. They demand that all employees, particularly technical types, expand and extend their skill sets across the enterprise. The IT labor shortage reinforces this need for organizations and individuals alike.
Thanks to these kinds of organizational changes, we are beginning to understand just how wide the gap is that still separates learning theory and common training practice. Training will no doubt continue to play a significant role in preparing an organization's workers to face an unpredictable, rapidly changing economy. Yet training itself must keep peace to be effective; training practices, too, must evolve. The new emphasis is on creating learning communities that align the efforts of functions, departments and their people. The secret then, it seems, is for training to focus on how people really learn at work.
To that end, traditional training's design logic is fundamentally flawed. Traditional training assumes that the worker must be coerced, controlled and directed to accomplish organizational goals. It focuses on changing the employee's behavior, not on managing the environment. It approaches training from an “outside looking in” perspective and with the goal to produce a training “product.” Traditional training, simply put, fails to facilitate people and how they learn to get work done.
Randal Ford is a consultant, teacher, and graduate student who dabbles in systems thinking but specializes in applying principles of self-organization to team building, communication, and collaborative learning, working with clients who want to improve collaboration in teams and organizational performance.
Real-time training, on the other hand, emphasizes the average person's interest in his or her work, the desire to be self-directing, to seek responsibility and collaborate with co-workers in solving work-related problems. The underlying assumption is that people learn from the act of working, and they learn from working together. They achieve practical outcomes and build practical know-how in the process. Real-time training coordinates the interplay between the functional work with the social, to integrate the worker and the work environment to better realize the organization's goals.
Learning in Real-Time. How can an organization maximize innovation, creativity and learning and better manage worker knowledge to survive and thrive in today's competitive and rapidly changing market? David Nelson, supervising engineer for product/process analysis and materials application for Caterpillar Inc.‘s Track-Type Tractors Div., Peoria, Ill., recommends that “when you get into the teaming aspect … what you're really after is to get the best possible information into the entire developmental cycle as early as possible.” Translated into training terms: The goal is at the individual, team and organizational levels to encourage, maximize and coordinate shared learning. Real-time training—based on principles of self-organization, informal knowledge networks and an open work environment—fosters this kind of social learning.
Over 30 years ago, Albert Bandura, a cognitive psychologist, in his book Social Learning Theory, coined the term “social learning.” His basic premise is that humans learn through observing others and participating in group activities. And they do it in real time, simultaneously, as the event unfolds. Social learning isn't context- or content-specific. Humans can learn in any social activity, and work is only one of those activities. As people work together, they not only learn from doing a task as a social group, they also develop a shared sense of what must occur to get the job done. They develop a common way of thinking and talking about their work. Eventually they come to share a sort of mutual identity; a unified understanding of who they are and what their relationship is to the larger organization. These informal, seemingly unstructured group activities are where some of the most useful and creative work-related learning occurs.
A collaborative environment can be created that increases the odds for innovation and breakthrough thinking to occur in the workplace. We do it naturally—sometimes even consciously!
Real-Time Features. Though traditional training is designed with workday realities in mind, the object is to control the trainee's activity. The worker learns a few assigned tasks, with very limited responsibility, without interacting or sharing much information with his or her co-workers. Traditional training doesn't situate itself in the reality of the workday. According to Barry Spiker, Santa Fe, New Mexico-based vice president with Rath & Strong Inc. and an authority on organizational communication, all employees (engineers, the CEO, management) need to be “connected to the overall vision of the company.” Hence the difference in training from a systems perspective: The training “objective” isn't the primary goal, the work is. Training is just another tool to increase organizational learning and accomplish the work in better and more productive ways.
Reader Service Number 059
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Bennis, W., and Biederman, P. 1997. Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.
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If learning is a key objective, then a company should first create an environment that promotes individual learning that is continuous and tied to work—where the employee is allowed to make mistakes and challenge existing assumptions; and for design engineering this environment must become sacrosanct. Warren Bennis [Bennis and Biederman, 1997, Organizing Genius:TheSecrets of Creative Collaboration, Addison-Wesley] claims that creative groups regard failure as a learning experience, not as a pretext for punishment. Real-time training sees mistakes as unplanned-for learning opportunities and unquestioned and untested assumptions as obstacles to innovation. The training seeks to manage the environment, not the participant. It encourages information sharing, emphasizing coordination and collaboration among the workers, delegating multiple tasks and mutual responsibility in an effort to facilitate the group's decision-making and work processes. The workers learn on real projects in real time. Their strengths and knowledge are quickly leveraged and matched for optimum interaction. The difference in the design logic between traditional training and real-time practices is dramatic.
The self-organizing, ecological model of real-time training sees a company's work processes as a combination of people with functional know-how and skills within a collaborative network of social relationships. The training coordinates two significant work-life factors to create an effective learning environment: the functional and the social-relational. By teaching creative problem solving, collaborative leadership and teamwork management, the training stresses the functional. And for the social-relational, the training emphasizes interpersonal communication and conflict resolution for more effective collaboration. According to Barry Spiker, engineering teamwork that aligns sales, order fulfillment, customer support for design, product planning and project execution produces results.
Gary Wuslich, human resources vice president at AM General Corp., South Bend, Ind., contends that “teams’ effectiveness is directly related to how well informed they are and how much feedback from top management they receive.”
No doubt about it: Sound working relationships not only determine how the work gets done, they play a role in how the emerging work structures evolve. And the vast majority of corporate knowledge is the information that's shared or created in face-to-face conversations among employees.
Real-Time Benefits. Imagine now a different scenario than the traditional. Training professionals arrive on site, not to do a front-end analysis to determine what they think the training requirements are, but to observe, interview and interact with the workers and managers to learn first the needs to enhance performance. There are no requirements to hand off to designers to fabricate curriculum. Real-time training begins with the work processes around a real project to help workers solve real work problems. No training-delivery specialists arrive on site armed with a detailed curriculum to teach skills that are seldom performed. Real-time training stays in the trenches with the workers.
Work itself becomes the primary learning process. As new information is processed at each level in the work, design-based training optimizes processes that would otherwise be indeterminate. The trainers focus on finding and emphasizing the natural evolution of the work, allowing these emergent work norms and structures to surface, and then making them conscious. The training doesn't divorce itself or the worker from the work environment. The learning that occurs is directly applied. Innovative-thinking, creativity and continuous learning make up the main characteristics. Motivation becomes self-directed. The worker is empowered. Real-time training links the information it creates back to its own origin, actively engaging the participants and their ideas to solve work-related problems. Right information delivered at the right time to the right people.
IN THE WORKPLACE, systems learning comes about by way of a combination of growing levels of social relationships and information networks, coalescing around the organizational goals that drive the company. As organizations become knowledge-based, it's essential that they promote learning at the individual, team and organizational levels. Not managing the knowledge produced by work's functional and social aspects, we separate ourselves from the work and the environment in which we live. As a tool for learning in an organization, real-time training focuses on emphasizing the natural evolution of work, allowing these emergent structures to surface, and then making them conscious. The benefits for the evolving work processes increase when what is learned is captured, stored, shared and used to create better systems, desired outcomes and services. Real-time training links the participants, their social networks and their ideas to the real world to solve work-related problems, creating systems that align the efforts of functions, departments and their people.
June 1999 PM Network