What should be a manager’s role in employee learning? Thisis the question I will be answering in an ASTD-sponsored webcast on September 24, 2013 from 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. Eastern Time.  

In answering this question, the first thing managers have to understand is that continuous learning is MP900448478 the modus operandi for all high performance organizations. Individual, team, and enterprise performance can’t improve without learning. Learning isn’t in addition to a manager’s job; it IS a manager’s job.

By “learning” I mean acquiring the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs that help individuals, teams, and whole organizations improve performance. An engineer in a prototype department of a manufacturer learns how to operate a 3D printer.  Cross-functional team members in a marketing firm learn how to run their project meetings more effectively. A hospital learns how to put the “wow” in customer service.

Learning breeds learning and success breeds success. Marshall and Kelly Goldsmith make that point in this comment about the importance of employee development (i.e., learning):

Developing people is a strategic process that adds value to both the employees and the bottom line of the organization. Highly committed, highly competent people create financial rewards for the organization; organizations that develop their people and provide opportunities for growth are sought-after by high-impact performers. Great leaders know this simple formula. They understand it and strive to create an environment that supports it. And the result is success!

Google did a study of its employees and found that managers are successful in Google, not because of their technical expertise, although that’s important, but because of what they do to help team members learn and develop and achieve success.

Four trends are making continuous learning an essential part of doing business today.

  • Computer technology has made the access to and management of new information easy and timely. Learning can occur at your desk or on-the-go, synchronously or asynchronously, individually or in groups.
  • Individuals want personalization of their own learning. They can find instructional material and tools when and where they need them and at little cost in money and time.
  • Competition is cheap and can come from anywhere in the world. To stay competitive, you have to be more knowledgeable, more skilled, and better able to apply that knowledge and skill effectively.
  • Employees need agility when it comes to information. They need to be able to search, locate, evaluate, select, and apply information. They need to take information from a wide variety of sources, not only from trainers and educators, and translate that information into knowledge and wisdom. They need to be curators of information. 

These trends impact everyone in a company, not only HR and trainers. These trends disrupt the status quo constantly. Annual planning is too late. Waiting for the next budget is too late. Signing up for the next available class is too late. Managers must support and facilitate just-in-time learning that is responsive to emerging needs. A hospital, wishing to become more efficient and effective, has implemented “lean” by inviting the staff of departments to workshops on the application of “lean” in healthcare. That’s admirable and maybe some employees will enjoy learning about lean healthcare, but this approach is unlikely to make a significant change in how the hospital as a whole does things or in the results it gets.

In contrast, Zaxby’s, a franchisor of gourmet chicken restaurants with 20,000 employees, has made training and development part of every manager’s job. Managers have control of their own learning, not corporate trainers, HR, or a CLO. And, because of this, store managers have embraced continuous learning for themselves and for their employees.

However, all managers face organizational barriers to making learning part of everyone’s job. I have described these barriers in a previous post. One of the major barriers to learning is a culture that does not value learning. Producing and selling things is valued, but not learning. Supervisors don’t release direct reports from their workplace to attend workshops and other learning events. Managers don’t recognize and reward employees for learning new skills. Creativity and innovation are discouraged; leaders cling to the status quo.

The 5As Framework offers managers a model for overcoming these barriers. According to this framework, any learning intervention, whether it is a workshop, a course, a DVD or online video, a game or simulation, coaching, mentoring, action-learning, job-rotation, internship, or any of a dozen other ways to structure learning experiences, should be designed with five factors in mind:

  1. Alignment: Align learning with strategic business goals
  2. Anticipation: Set an expectation for performance improvement
  3. Alliance: Create a learning alliance between learner and manager
  4. Application: Apply new learning immediately
  5. Accountability: Hold learner and organization accountable for business results; measure impact

Zingerman’s, the internationally famous deli and gourmet food retailer in Ann Arbor, Michigan, applies the 5As to the development of their employees. All managers are expected to 1) provide context for the training, 2) reinforce how the training can help the employee/trainee to be successful and 3) help the trainee put the learnings from the training to good use. 

So back to the question: “What should be a manager’s role in employee learning?” The answer is that managers have an essential role. Given the times we live in, managers must make ongoing learning and performance improvement part of what they do on a day-to-day basis for themselves and for the people they supervise.  We have models and tools for making this happen.

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