Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Continuing Education for Employees: Consistent Strength for Organizations

Two things never stand still in life; the first, of course, is time, and the second, less recognized, is knowledge. Knowledge gained through education is the prime ticket for career entry. Thereafter, consummate application of such formal knowledge as well as experiential knowledge gained in one’s career is the key to further progress in career. Industrial and business organizations are paradoxical. At one level, they are at the leading edge of technology. At another level, they tend to stagnate at past levels of knowledge, which is attributed mainly to employees being engaged in repetitive jobs and not being challenged to be at contemporary standards of knowledge.  A study of different companies reveals that those companies which invest in continuing education for their employees tend to be more competitive.

Continuing education even in the best of companies is a misnomer. Usually, it is limited to providing “canned programmes” to a proportion of employees, “allowing” a few employees to pursue formal part-time degree or higher degree programmes, and “sponsoring” even fewer to executive development programmes. Some companies eschew all of these on the basis that there is no substitute for on-the-job-training on a continuing basis. These policies cause a stagnation of skill levels and lead to competitive decline. In some cases, companies which are impacted by competitive decline engage external consultants at an aggressive pace and at great costs to reinvent themselves. In contrast to such uncoordinated efforts, it would be more appropriate to embed continuous learning in organisational culture, with emphasis on contemporaneity and quality rather than just coverage.

Shared responsibility

Continuing education is a shared responsibility of both the company and employees. While the company has a lead responsibility in articulating that it places a premium on knowledge, and following it up with a learning environment, employees also need to consider continuing education as their responsibility too. In fact, continuing education is a very useful platform to align the career possibilities that a company can offer and the career expectations that an employee has. Continuing education helps in that it could derive greater competitiveness through skilled-up employees and be in a position to offer them better opportunities.  For employees it is an opportunity to offer a superior or different value proposition to the company and seek career progression in the same or different track.

The extent to which responsibility for continuing education is felt by company and employees varies based on the business context. Start-ups by definition are innovative and, where required, learn by experimentation; they are likely to have little penchant for continuing education. Growing firms evidently are competitive and successful but also cost conscious; they are likely to adopt a need based approach for continuing education. Mature firms are engaged in defensive strategies and are likely to be open to a skill based approach for continuing education. Declining firms are engaged in survival strategies and are likely to have little time for continuing education. While employees may like to prefer a degree or skill based approach, the company context determines their approach.

Multiple approaches

Companies could adopt one of the three approaches in fulfilling their share of responsibility. The first is a ‘qualification gap’ based approach. In this approach, the company determines an optimal qualification for each role (as contrasted with minimal qualification required for entry) and encourages acquisition of degrees or certifications/accreditations for bridging the gap. The second is a ‘competitiveness gap’ based approach. In this approach, the company maps people competencies to company’s competitiveness and does whatever is required to make the company competitive. The third is an ‘industry leadership’ approach. In this approach, the company believes in a heady mix of superlative qualifications and competitive competencies for a differentiated performance. While most companies would follow the first or second approach, top ranking consulting firms, law firms and investment banking firms appear to be following the third approach.

Employees’ approach to continuing education, by and large, depends on the nature of the company. A technology and research intensive industry will require skills that are typically offered in leading educational institutions. Skills required for other industries may be more easily sourced in the general marketplace. Regardless, in general the approach tends to favour the acquisition of higher formal degrees. Whether employees do it through part time education or by taking a break depends on personal circumstances, company environment as well as career shift that is desired. Research indicates that employees do not consider in-house training as being supportive of career aspirations; they also consider external short term courses as little more than of marginal support for either on the job performance or career shift.

Education as mind-set

The primary objective of industries and businesses is to provide products and services, and not to educate. Similarly the primary objective of industrial and business employees is to put their knowledge to use. To conceive, therefore, of a situation where industries and businesses as well as employees focus only on education is somewhat impractical. However, the need for continuing education as brought out above is critical. The blog post suggests a few mind-set approaches to accomplish the objectives.

Continuous as lifelong

The first is to consider continuous as really meaning lifelong. As a concept, continuous education has lesser emotional connectivity to an individual than lifelong education. Once an individual gets into a mind-set that education is a lifelong, value adding process, he or she will surely develop ownership. Similarly, it focusses to the company that the continuous education initiative would need to be a part of life skill development of an employee. The concept of ‘lifelong’ is humbling as well as futuristic, for both employees and companies.  

Company as campus

Companies take many structural approaches to supporting their versions of continuing education. These include setting up their own in-house technical training centres with pilot equipment for on-hands training and management development centres for development of executive and managerial skills. These, however, tend to be just a part of the company infrastructure and figure more as slots in training calendar. The compelling proposition, on the other hand, is to consider the company as a campus wherein every piece of equipment, every bit of procedure and every interaction with a person provides learning opportunities.  

Individual as learner

While the company has a lead responsibility to provide a learning ecosystem, it is for and up to the individual to mould himself or herself as a perpetual learner. Being a learner does not make one a novice; only the insecure would feel that way. Being a learner and asking questions should never be seen as infra dig by employees or management. Wise scientists learn from every reaction of an experiment, wise operators from every rhythm of their equipment, and wise executives learn from every interaction they have in the company.

Learning processes

When we think of learning processes, things like classrooms, flip boards, audio-visuals, presentations, course materials etc., come to mind usually. Some think of off-site events and programmes as great learning opportunities. However, all these are at best accessories and aids to the learning processes. The real learning, that too perpetual learning, happens through the following personal approaches.

Listen, observe, absorb

In keeping with the prime responsibility on the individual to learn, the prime responsibility for learning approach also shall be that of the individual. It is fairly simple too. For a perfect learning process, the individual must listen intently, observe closely and absorb earnestly. These processes must take place in all interactions, peer to peer or boss to subordinate. In several cases, there could be learning opportunities from the younger reporting staff too. Learning environment is usually an expressive and empowering environment.

Follow, emulate, excel

The objective of learning is to excel in performance. This is usually preceded by two fundamental stages of following and emulating. Following is the process of merely implementing the learnings as absorbed. It is task oriented learning, putting into effect the ‘know-how’ learnt. Emulation is the process of thinking and acting like the person providing learning inputs; it is mastery of both ‘know-how’ and ‘know-why’. Excelling is the process of creative thinking and execution based on the learnings imparted/ received. Excelling is the result of empowered learning.    
Teach, share, coach

Everyone has a responsibility to disseminate learnings as much as they absorb. This again occurs through a three stage process. Most people who are well-versed in their art tend to teach. Those who teach prepare their learners only for ‘know-how’. A few others not only teach but also share their thinking around the subject matter of interest. Such people help the learners absorb both the ‘know-how’ and ‘know-why’. A few go beyond both the stages and truly coach the learners overcome their issues and limitations, and become what they can truly become.

The winning twelve

This blog post has reviewed the ticker of continuing education that most organizations would like to carry, and proposed that it should be considered more as lifelong education. It has reviewed current shared responsibilities between a company and its employees, and noted that while a company has the lead responsibility to create a learning ecosystem the prime responsibility for learning must be that of an individual. It has considered the multiple approaches currently adopted and postulated that they serve to accessorize rather than elevate continuing education as a lifelong journey.

The blog post proposed twelve elements of a lifelong learning journey. On one plane is a true learning platform that embeds the concept of lifelong learning, with perpetually learning individuals considering the entire company as their learning campus. It also proposes an easy and feasible multi-step process to learn through listening, observing and absorbing to be able to follow, emulate and eventually excel. It legislates that those with superior knowledge must endeavour to teach, share and coach all the time. Lifelong learning is a humbling feeling and a rewarding experience. It is a win-win for both employees and organizations.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on May 18, 2016  


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