Into 2019: supporting employee development in the workplace
How can HR and L&D professionals better align development objectives for 2019? Charles Jennings, Director of Duntroon Consultants and Co-founder of the 70:20:10 Institute, provides insight on why we must focus more on opportunities to learn from working.
The festivities and holidays are all over and we’re back at work. Memories of both Christmas puddings and of 2018 performance reviews are fading fast.
Over the next few weeks many of us will be scheduling meetings with our managers to discuss and agree development objectives for 2019.
So, what are we thinking about embarking on? Another Advanced Excel course to relearn all those difficult steps we need to know to create a pivot table? or some conditional formatting tricks we learned three years ago but have forgotten? Maybe some personal development through an online Laughter Yoga programme (don’t laugh, it’s available, and if you want it you can earn your Official Laughter Yoga Facilitator certificate to pin on the wall). What about a professional development course to improve your capabilities in workforce planning or interviewing skills?
The opportunities for classroom-based and online training are endless.
Learning from working
While courses and other formal activities may help with individual and team development over the coming 12 months, it will be far more beneficial if we expand our horizons beyond the mindset that assumes ‘development’ requires formal training.
From the perspective of HR and L&D professionals, we need to be proactive in helping others (and ourselves) appreciate that there are lots of ways to address the development needs identified in development objective meetings than by providing formal training.
A painful truth for many L&D professionals is that the learning is more effective the closer to the point of use it occurs (see figure 1). This should influence everyone when they make decisions in their annual development objective setting sessions.
Figure 1. Realised value increases as learning is integrated with working (copyright 70:20:10 Institute)
If learning is likely to be more effective the closer to the point of use, then it follows that learning is likely to be more effective when it occurs within the daily flow of work than away from it. Context is king. Content is just sometimes a means of getting there.
Of course, most of us are aware of this, but many continue to agree development objectives that take no account of aligning contexts. So many objectives are simply designed to be ineffective or fail.
As English author and philosopher Aldous Huxley famously said, ‘you could sum up the history of every man and woman who has ever lived with the following words, “I see the better and approve it, the worse is what I pursue”’.
If we think for a moment about a situation when we have observed a child learn something new, or if we think back to when we were children ourselves, the answer immediately becomes clear. I doubt anyone of us has seen parents sitting their child down and explaining Newton’s First Law of Motion before they let the child get onto a bicycle for the first time. If we did witness this, we would have considered it a very strange way to support that child’s learning!
Most parents would simply have helped the child onto the bicycle, provided a steadying hand, and instructed or cajoled the child to ‘keep pedalling!’. The end result, no doubt after a few tumbles and crashes, is that the child understands not only how to stay upright on a bicycle, but also Newton’s First Law (inertia: an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.)
So, why do the majority of development objectives and plans still contain at least as many formal learning courses and programmes and ‘push’ learning solutions as opportunities to learn from work, and usually more?
Getting to grips with learning from work
The first challenge we face in exploiting the opportunities for learning in the workplace through our annual development objectives is that ‘learning’ is widely misunderstood by many workers and their managers, and even many HR and L&D people.
Not only do many find it difficult to separate ‘learning’ from ‘schooling’ (as my friend and colleague Jay Cross often explained), but the understanding of the fundamentals of learning as behaviour change is often lacking. Therefore, many development discussions at this time of the year are focused entirely on the availability and cost of formal training and development courses and events.
If we remind ourselves that ‘learning’ occurs only when our behaviour changes and, hopefully, our performance improves, we can step out of this training mindset and into one where we can find lots of other better ways to help improve performance.
Managers who focus on developing their people deliver better results.
Most learning occurs through experience, exposure to others and reflection
We can distil the ways the majority of learning occurs into four or five basic categories: through experience and practice; through conversations; through observing and getting help from others; and through reflection.
Eric Kandel, the distinguished medical researcher and Nobel laureate for his work on learning and memory, describes learning as ‘the ability to acquire new ideas from experience and retain them as memories’. Every L&D professional could do well by retaining that definition in their own memories and adapting their development efforts to incorporate ‘experiences’ into everything they do. Managers need to understand this, too.
Setting workplace learning development objectives
A common barrier to setting workplace development objectives is the design of the forms many HR departments provide to support development objective setting.
These tend to be focused around ‘training and development’ rather than performance improvement and are focused on inputs rather than outputs. Poor HR template design immediately gives managers a ‘get-out’ for thinking more widely about opportunities for development as part of daily work.
One way to overcome this obstacle is to ignore your standard development template (unless it’s in the minority that have been adapted to encourage workplace development). Alternatively, influence your HR department to produce a template that encourages managers to look for development opportunities in the daily flow of work.
Some organisations have modified templates that do encourage and drive workplace development activities. Figure 2 below is an example.
Simple changes to development objective templates, such as in this example where two boxes are provided for the ‘workplace experiences’ and only one for ‘formal education’, can help drive new behaviours towards supporting development as part of the daily workflow rather than relying on formal learning interventions.
Some managers approach development objective setting as an HR process and form-filling exercise. In these cases, they ‘just want to get the forms completed and get on with the job’. Revised templates such as this one can make their work easier and produce more effective development outcomes.
Figure 2. Sample Development Plan to help focus on workplace development activities (copyright Charles Jennings)
Why setting development objectives matters for managers
Managers who focus on developing their people deliver better results.
Recent research by Gartner found that managers who ‘provide targeted coaching and feedback in their own areas of expertise [or] connect employees with others in their team or within the organization who are better suited to the task’ had employees who are three times as likely to be high performers than those that didn’t.
Earlier research by the Corporate Executive Board (now part of Gartner) in its Annual Employee Development Survey (published for CEB membership as ‘Engaging Managers as Agents of Employee Development: Maximizing the Impact of Manager-Led development’), found that people reporting to managers who are generally focused and effective at developing their teams outperformed their ineffective counterparts by 27%.
Once people have developed a new capability, they will continue to deliver greater value year after year.
Not only is performance significantly raised (in effect, people working for managers who are effective at developing their teams produce more than an extra day’s work every week), but retention is significantly higher (an increase of almost 40% was reported in the Corporate Executive Board study).
Furthermore, employee satisfaction and commitment/engagement is greater (up 37% in the same study) and even employee adaptability (ability to continue productive work during times of change) is significantly increased.
So, there is significant imperative to focus on helping managers do a better job with setting and agreeing development objectives for their employees.
Employee development is a strategic imperative
One responsibility HR and L&D professionals need to take on is to work with managers and help them understand that they simply cannot think there is a trade-off between operational excellence and developing their people.
Many managers are wholly focused on delivering their operational objectives. While operational excellence is self-evidently important, if a manager neglects responsibility for development of their team there will be significant long-term consequences.
Operational excellence can be seen as a tactic. Operational objectives are usually set on an annual cycle. Developing people is a strategy. Once people have developed a new capability, they will continue to deliver greater value year after year. Successful managers focus on both.
This article has been written by Charles Jennings, Director of Duntroon Consultants and Co-founder of the 70:20:10 Institute. If you would like to engage Charles or the 70:20:10 Institute, please get in contact with him via LinkedIn.