A Predictably Irrational Way to Lose Our Best Employees

July 29, 2010

There is thought-provoking news to be drawn from the latest quarterly “Employee Outlook” survey report published by the London-based Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD): short-sighted cuts in training budgets may be laying the groundwork for an exodus of our best employees.

Here’s what the report shows: Job satisfaction levels in the United Kingdom are, as we might suspect in the current recession, very low (approximately 35% of the more than 2,000 public, private, and nonprofit sector employees surveyed—p. 2 of the report). More than a third of the respondents said they would change jobs within the next year if they could (p. 3). Nearly one-fourth of those who would like to change jobs would “be looking in a different sector” (p. 3). More than a third of all surveyed said they would seek a different type of work if they decided to switch jobs (p. 15). And approximately 40 percent of the respondents said one of the main reasons they would attempt to switch jobs is “to learn new things.”

That level of movement is consistent with what I have seen and read about in organizations here in the United States whenever there is an economic downturn. The latest report suggests that there remains a tremendous need and interest in effective training-learning opportunities out there at a time when there are clear signs that spending on workplace learning and performance programs has fallen. Younger employees currently entering the workplace, furthermore, are also continuing a related trend documented earlier: the Pew Research Center’s recent report on Millennials suggests that these incoming employees will be the best educated we’ve ever seen, and they expect to engage in lifelong learning to remain competitive.

Someone, we might conclude, is clearly not reading between the lines here or seeing the possibilities inherent in this situation.

Less than half of those responding to the CIPD survey said that their managers and supervisors discuss their workplace learning and performance needs. Slightly more than one-fourth of the employees said “their manager always/usually coaches them on the job” (p. 2). While cutbacks in training programs appear to be slowing down, more than 20 percent of the respondents said those sorts of cutbacks have occurred during the past year (p. 10).

Training, as numerous reports have shown and as Deena Sami noted in the Orange County Register earlier this month, is a critically important element contributing to employees’ workplace satisfaction and success. Yet we seem to fall into the trap of making what Dan Ariely calls “predictably irrational” decisions in his book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions; we engage in predictably irrational behavior every time we reduce workplace learning and performance programs rather than increasing them when employee morale is already sinking.

The situation documented by the CIPD report becomes even more predictably irrational when we listen to presentations like the one given by American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) CEO Tony Bingham at the organization’s annual Chapter Leaders Conference in Arlington, VA last autumn. Bingham, addressing workplace learning and performance professionals from across the country, warned that those waiting for training programs to return to companies which had eliminated them were counting on “a dream, a fantasy.” Company executives who had made those cuts told Bingham they were satisfied with the reductions and don’t intend to bring back the programs they have eliminated.

Our challenge in workplace learning and performance, then, is straightforward. If we see the possibility of a huge exodus looming for our organizations when the global economy improves, and if we know that the exodus will be fueled by a desire for first-rate learning opportunities which we are not providing, we clearly need to be creating and supporting new learning opportunities for those treasured employees we currently have—before we lose them to smarter and more innovative employers.

Internships That Work

January 7, 2010

A new report from the London-based Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), “Internships that Work—A Guide for Employers”—reminds us of how much we all gain from well run internship programs in our workplaces.

“There are clear business benefits to running a good internship scheme, such as gaining a new and motivated member of staff, bringing new skills and perspectives to your organisation and potentially improving productivity,” the report’s authors note (p. 3).

As is the case with effective mentoring or volunteer programs, success rests on the adoption and implementation of straightforward policies and procedures. Recruitment is done openly and in a way which matches interns’ skills and qualifications with what an organization needs (p. 4). Well designed orientation sessions should be offered to interns to “make an intern’s transition into the world of work a smooth and enjoyable experience,” and the sessions can include everything from an introduction to your organization’s history, policies, and achievements to a tour of the facilities where interns will work (p. 6). Interns should be treated in the same positive way that paid staff are treated and their responsibilities should be clearly outlined before they begin their internships (p. 7). Good supervision and effective performance reviews add to the potential for success for both the organizations and the interns (p. 8). A final review meeting which includes an exit interview and provides the intern with a letter of recommendation can be effective both for the organization and the intern so that all parties benefit from the time they have spent together (p. 9).

Intern program checklists included in the final pages of the CIPD report provide additional useful resources for those managing or considering the possibility of managing internship programs that work for all involved, and a one-page internship agreement outlining the organization’s and the intern’s responsibilities is a wonderful, easy-to-adapt tool for those seeking to create an effective program.

Personal experience with internship programs confirms, for me, that the writers of the report are right on target. The internship program drawing Master of Library and Information Science students from San Jose State University into the San Francisco Public Library system used each of these elements and benefitted tremendously from collaboration with a responsive campus liaison, Jane Fisher (Assistant Director for Research & Professional Practice). She worked closely with those of us on library staff to develop effective job descriptions for the prospective interns, attract first-rate candidates, and match them with great staff supervisors. The result was that students earned credit while completing projects which benefitted the library and gave the students experience they might not otherwise have acquired before entering the job market. And it wasn’t unusual for the students to parlay that experience into paid positions within the San Francisco Public Library system or other library systems in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Internships are an essential part of the career ladder in many professions,” the report’s authors note. “They are part and parcel of a modern, flexible economy and they are useful both for the interns and for employers…”

If we, as trainer-teacher-learners, can facilitate the development of successful internship programs, we once again not only prove the value of what we do but make a major contribution to the success of the organizations and customers we ultimately serve.

For assistance with creating, implementing, and improving internship or mentoring programs, please contact Paul Signorelli (paul@paulsignorelli.com).

Training, Learning, and Context

January 7, 2010

Sometimes we need to go to London to be reminded of what is here at home.

A virtual trip to the London-based Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) via the organization’s website reveals that a first-rate online report remains available to offer more support to trainer-teacher-learners who believe that effective learning must be integrated into a learner’s workplace.

There’s nothing revolutionary here, but the report does offer a useful summary of what an effective learning program should include. At the heart of “How People Learn Systems,”  written for CIPD by Stephen Gourlay and Carol Baily from Kingston University, is the idea that learning includes a social component and is more effective if it involves colleague-to-colleague assistance in the workplace rather than being treated “primarily as something that happened away from where the learning was to be applied.”

It’s all about context, which “(a)dult learning theory typically overlooks,” Gourlay and Baily contend. Since “professionals…are more likely to learn from their peers (as co-workers or as mentors), effective training programs include workshops away from the worksite, but must also include connections to onsite co-workers/mentors who are trained and formally designated to provide learning assistance when and where the learners need it.

This is not a ground-breaking concept in libraries, but it is not extremely common, either.  The Newport Beach Public Library in Southern California, for example, has a “Geek Squad” of employees who are well versed in the Library’s technological tools; staff is encouraged to seek help with tech questions by calling Geek Squad members whenever the need arises. The Contra Costa County Library system in the San Francisco Bay Area also provides a great example of how training continues beyond a one-time workshop: after Infopeople trainer Cheryl Gould reached every member of the Library’s staff with a basic one-day computer-proficiency workshop, she also worked with Contra Costa County Library staff to train a group of Library employees who would serve the Geek Squad function long after Cheryl’s initial workshops ended.

Infopeople itself is continuing to experiment with ways of assuring that lessons learned will carry over into libraries after workshop participants complete their coursework. Recent online courses have included opportunities for students to have telephone conferences with instructors—which helps to build a lasting relationship between instructors and students, and perhaps even among the students themselves. Infopeople Director Holly Hinman takes this a step further: before her online grant-writing workshops begin, she conducts a brief survey to better understand the needs of each student. She uses that information to guide participants through the lessons and sometimes works with them on grants which they are preparing for their own library systems. The fact that some students remain in contact with Holly for a year or two after a workshop ends provides a here-at-home example of what Gourlay and Baily propose, and reminds us that it sometimes is not all that hard to give our trainings life.

N.B.: An earlier version of this article was originally posted on Infoblog.

Strategy, Alignment, and Training (Part 2 of 2)

January 7, 2010

Readers of the London-based Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s online factsheet “Aligning learning to the needs of the organization,” written by Valerie Anderson, will miss plenty of training gems if they don’t follow some of the links to earlier papers on related themes.

One, for example, leads to an earlier report, “Learning and the line: the role of line managers in training, learning and development.” It offers intriguing ideas for front-line managers who are thrust into the role of trainer without any formal preparation for that role.

“Learning and the line,” written for the Chartered Institute by Susan Hutchinson from Bristol Business School at the University of the West of England and John Purcell from the Warwick Business School, documents what they call “the critical role of line managers as facilitators and providers of learning” and moves right to the point: “(e)nsuring that line managers have the skills for and are committed to support learning and development is essential” (p. 3).

This, of course, is something which rarely receives attention within libraries. It’s enough of a challenge for most of us to organize or participate in train-the-trainer offerings when we are formally responsible for staff training programs. The front-line manager and supervisor who is running a facility or department is rarely acknowledged as a trainer, and probably sees little reason to participate in train-the-trainer workshops which would benefit staff and the institutions and customers they serve.

The problem is obvious and documented by Hutchinson and Purcell: far too few employees receive much needed one-on-one coaching or training from supervisors because many supervisors and managers are not comfortable placing themselves in the role of trainer (p. 4). Furthermore, managers and supervisors who are uncomfortable in a training role provide little more than “short-term learning related to a current job…at the expense of longer-term career development” (p. 5).

Within organizations where training is effective, the writers note, several things are in place (p. 8): new staff shadows or works alongside more experienced staff to gain the skills they need; “good performers go the cutting-edge work that provided the best route for learning new things by doing”; line managers provide coaching and guidance; informal training activities, often over lunch, are part of the mix; and staff are encouraged to attend conferences and formal training sessions.

“Line managers always have conflicting priorities and role overload,” Hutchinson and Purcell acknowledge (p. 14). The best organizations, they add, provide managers and supervisors with the skills they need to provide “short-term job-relevant learning and development” and “longer-term career development.”

Perhaps one major shift we all have to make is to broaden the formal definition of trainer-educator so that it extends far beyond the walls of administrative and staff-training offices.

N.B.: An earlier version of this article was originally posted on Infoblog.

Strategy, Alignment, and Training (Part 1 of 2)

January 7, 2010

It’s no surprise to trainers that aligning strategic plans with training plans makes sense; the real news is that the London-based Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) released nearly two years ago remains as fresh today as when it was written. It includes a detailed factsheet which, through a series of links imbedded in the text, serves as an easy-to-read primer useful to trainers, learners, and anyone else interested in effectively linking strategic planning with training.

Among the key elements in “Aligning learning to the needs of the organization,” written by Valerie Anderson (Principal Lecturer in Human Resource Management at the University of Portsmouth Business School) and released in January 2008, is the reminder that “(l)earning, training and development professionals…need to work in partnership with senior managers, line managers and learners” to provide learning opportunities which are aligned with business needs as well as with individual learners’ career development needs. It’s a simple concept with little room for argument—so simple, in fact, that it often is forgotten as we all concentrate on resolving the short-term crisis du jour. Long-range planning, unfortunately, remains a sporadic-at-best process for many and results in strategic plans which sit, unused, on shelves or intranet sites—until they are retrieved as templates for the next strategic plan.

There’s a roadmap here. Anderson, in a section entitled “Implication for learning and development professionals,” offers a list of skills needed by training and learning professionals interested in long-term impacts: “developing a strategic understanding of the organization”; “clarifying the operational priorities that are important to line mangers in different parts of the organization”; “working effectively as part of a management team”; and “assessing the extent to which ‘year-on-year’ learning and training processes maintain a close fit with organizational strategic priorities”—items usually left to managers, supervisors, and other administrators rather than to the trainer-learners who implement staff training programs.

The beauty of Anderson’s CIPD report is that it offers ammunition for trainers and administrators supportive of all-inclusive, consistent, long-term training programs to meet their organization’s interrelated business and staff career-development needs. The essential corollary is that training is planned and implemented at all levels within an organization, not just by training directors or a small group of administrators—a tall order for contemporary libraries and nonprofits, where it is all too common for everyone to have multiple responsibilities and too little time to do more than respond to each in all but the most cursory way.

“Alignment,” Anderson concludes, “is a process rather than a singular outcome,” and the training which leads to alignment has to come from line managers as well as from those with overall responsibility for managing staff training.

N.B.: An earlier version of this article was originally posted on Infoblog.

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