In workplace learning and performance improvement, determining the strategy and direction for individual employee development is a critical task. Ideally, the process begins before the employee enters the workplace—with the development of a competency-based development structure—and extends throughout their tenure with that organization. Once within an organization, individual development should include components designed to aid in acculturation, to enhance self-awareness and lay the groundwork for further learning, and to maximize both formal and informal learning methods to facilitate both informational and transformative learning.
Competency-Based Development Structure
Beginning in the 1990s, many organizations learned that to compete in a global marketplace, it was critical to capitalize on the core competencies that differentiate the services and products they offer (Prahald & Hamel, 1990). Based my observations as a workplace learning and performance improvement professional, the predominant approach has been to define leadership competencies that are common for all positions in the organization and then to define functional competencies specific to particular job clusters. This approach helps to not only ensure consistency in the organizational culture, but also ensures that “individuals… efforts are not so narrowly focused that they cannot recognize the opportunities for blending their functional expertise with those of others in new and interesting ways” (Prahald & Hamel, 1990, p. 5). As such, the beginning of any employee development plan should begin with the definition of core leadership and functional competencies. These competencies can then be used as criteria for recruiting, whether external hires or internal transfers and promotions. Competencies can be used to help identify the learning and knowledge needs of both incumbents and new employees. Competencies should also be used as criteria for performance assessments and each employee’s development planning.
Acculturation and Self-Awareness
Once hired, new employees need to be acculturated to the organization. Klein & Weaver’s (2000) research “revealed that employees attending…orientation training were significantly more socialized on 3 of the 6 socialization content dimensions (goals/values, history, and people) than employees who did not attend the training. Employees attending the orientation training also had significantly higher levels of affective organizational commitment than nonattendees” (Abstract). Additionally, new employee orientation has been shown to have a positive impact on employee retention, with employees “69% more likely to remain with the company after three years if they completed a full orientation program” (as cited in Sims, 2002, p. 6). This is an important argument for conducting new employee orientation when considering the thousands spent on recruiting and hiring a new employee, as well as the cost to the organization of recruiting and training new employees if turnover is high.
New hire orientation can be an important opportunity not only for acculturation, but also to lay the groundwork for future work and learning during employment with that organization. For example, learning and personality instruments such as the Strengths Finder and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (Buckingham & Clifton, 2001; Kroeger & Thuesen, 1992; Lawrence, 1979/1982) can be effective tools to enhance self-awareness and thus improve team and learning results (Lankard, 1996). Experience has shown how having the work force complete the same instrument creates a common language and understanding that employees can use when resolving conflicts, deciding how best to approach others with ideas, and ensuring balanced team composition so that multiple perspectives and abilities are represented.
With core leadership and functional competencies defined and employees acculturated and self-aware, it is time for on-the-job work experience and workplace learning to play their role. Curriculums should be designed to support the organization’s competency model, and employees need to have different development opportunities available for them should they find themselves deficient in a particular competency area. Deficiencies may be identified through self-assessment or assessment of the employees’ work (Lankard, 1996).
Formal learning programs need to be designed with respect to Knowles’ concepts of andragogy, in particular addressing learners’ need to know the rationale/why of what they are learning, supporting the self-concept of the learner, and providing opportunities for learners to share their prior experiences and relate new learning to current challenges (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 1973/2005). To ensure workplace learning is transformational as well as informational, it is critical to incorporate action learning, hands-on experience, feedback, and reflection (Burton, 2006; Imel, 1998; Pedler, 1983/1987). Incorporating problem solving on actual work problems or using case studies that simulate common work problems will have the greatest impact and retention of new knowledge and skills (Lankard, 1996; Pedler, 1983/1987). Additionally, performance support such as job aids and access to online resources (e.g., Help systems and knowledge bases) can provide formal support and reinforcement after the learning program.
Supporting formal learning, informal learning can have additional informational and transformational learning benefits. Informal learning can be defined as the individually driven lifelong learning that occurs outside training or a classroom. Lifelong learning, in turn, encompasses many of the meta-learning skills that can be applied to everything that one learns over a lifetime including an individual’s ability to “take responsibility for learning, learn through research, reflect and evaluate, [and] use information and communications technology” (Kerka, 2001). Progressive companies that strive to be knowledge-enabled learning organizations need to pay attention to these transformative elements of learning as well as the more common human capital and information learning elements.
Some important methods supporting informal learning include communities of practice and the growing number of Web 2.0 collaboration and social software tools. As Rozwell (2008) shared in a presentation earlier this week, social networks are self-forming communities and groups that often form knowledge collectives. These communities and collectives can be an unlimited source of knowledge sharing and creation that make up an organization’s ‘learning ecosystem.’ Some of the most common tools for informal learning include mentoring, coaching, internships, offering access to experts, and providing virtual meeting and collaboration space for communities (e.g., via web conferencing and discussion boards). The benefits of investing in these informal as well as formal methods of learning are to create channels for collaboration, do more with existing resources, and improve communication, teamwork, problem solving, and learning (Rozwell, 2008).
Mentoring in particular can have many positive benefits for employee development—for both the mentor and the one being mentored. As Hansman (2000) argues, mentoring is “integral to learning in the workplace, to receiving career help, and for developmental and psychosocial support” (p. 494). In addition to employee development, mentoring can also further support efforts to transfer knowledge, bridge gap between different work groups, and develop high potential employees (Hansman, 2000). To structure a mentoring program for employee development, it would be important to provide the opportunity for mentors and protégés to be able to select one another; in lieu of that, group mentoring may be an attractive option. Additionally, executive coaching using external professionals would be the most effective approach for ensuring that high-level employees in the organization are also receiving the feedback and guidance they need to improve their individual (and therefore the organization’s) performance.
To develop an effective employee development program, it is important to think holistically and act systematically. Aim for development of the whole employee—as not just a receptacle for important informational learning that will enable them to contribute to the organization, but also as a lifelong learner with important underlying core competencies and intelligences that can equally benefit the organization by improving how work gets done. In implementing the employee development program, act systematically so that there are clear links between hiring criteria, performance expectations, workplace learning opportunities, and job responsibilities. Making the growth of employees a priority and showing them a clear path with options customized to meet their needs can help organizations reap the benefit of having a workforce that is more innovative, engaged, and loyal.
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Rozwell, C. (2008, May). Web 2.0 in the learning ecosystme: Challenges and benefits of adoption. Poster session presented at Saba and Gartner's Web 2.0 in the Learning Ecosystem, Webinar.
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Copyright Robin Donnan 2008. All Rights Reserved.