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Establish a learning culture to help employees and business grow

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One of my roles is interim president of a family-owned manufacturing business. In that role, I've tried to avoid making the kind of pronouncements from on high that I couldn't stand when I was on the receiving end in a large corporation.

However, I did make one pronouncement: I expected everyone in the company to learn at least one new thing in 2012.

I made that pronouncement because I believe if a business is to be sustainable, it cannot stand still and neither can its employees. They must be growing and learning all the time.

Developing people in a rapidly changing global economy is a necessity, not a luxury. I think an important part of any leader's job is helping to establish a culture where continuous learning is the norm.

A culture of continuous learning can differentiate a business in the eyes of employees and help it retain its best. If all other things are equal, wouldn't you rather work for an employer who insisted on broadening your knowledge and keeping your skill set current? Would you rather work for the company down the road that couldn't care less about your personal growth? I think not.

Continuous learning on the part of employees is a win for the business. In my experience, well-trained people can work circles around people who simply do the same job over and over. Well-trained people make more improvement suggestions; they are far more impatient with outmoded methods and inefficiency than their status quo counterparts.

A win-win proposition like this seems like it should be simple to implement, but it is more complicated than it seems. There are issues to overcome.

The first issue is the need for detailed planning. Getting everyone in a business to learn something new doesn't happen by fiat. It is important to determine what employees need to learn, how and where the training can be delivered and when it will take place.

This first issue leads to the second. In most businesses, the actual competences needed to do a job have not been clearly defined. Job descriptions typically include required education, such as a high school diploma or college degree, and required experience.

Taking a machinist as an example, the requirement might be a high school diploma and several years of experience setting up and running different kinds of machines.

Education and experience requirements are important, but they don't define mastery or competence. Having a diploma and lots of experience machining does not necessarily make one a fully competent machinist. Therefore the first step in deciding what training people need is getting a firm handle on what their current position requires them to know to achieve true mastery.

Mastery as a machinist requires mastery of a number of subjects, including blueprint reading, shop math, properties of materials, CNC programming, work-holding methods and use of measuring devices. I've spoken to business owners who think a single blueprint reading class is a major investment in education. In the spectrum of what a competent machinist must know, it is kindergarten.

The same is true for most positions. There are large gaps between mastery of almost any job and what most people have learned through formal education, experience and training.

The first step in establishing a learning culture is defining those required competences, then working with each employee to determine where the gaps are and how they can be closed. The salesperson who doesn't understand basic accounting, the administrative assistant who can't create a simple spreadsheet and the engineer who can't write a coherent business letter all have plenty of room for development before they achieve mastery of their positions.

For people who have achieved mastery, planning should center on what they need to know to advance to a higher position or on cross-training to make the organization more flexible and nimble.

Cross-training can be especially important in the case of employees who have mastered a job and don't want to take on the responsibilities of a higher level. A higher wage or salary can be justified as an incentive and reward for those who learn to handle more than one job competently.

One issue that arises when establishing a continuous learning culture based on job competence is that there are always a few employees whose supervisors can't come up with a training plan. The reason typically given is not that they have already achieved mastery, but that training won't do these employees any good.

That is a profoundly negative evaluation of those employees. The unstated problem is that they lack the capability, desire or attitudes to achieve an acceptable competence.

A culture of continuous learning will not solve those problems, but it will highlight them and eventually the culture will force resolution. Apathy and incompetence won't survive in a culture of continuous learning.

Richard Randall is founder and president of management-consulting firm New Level Advisors in Springettsbury Township, York County. Email him at info@newlevel

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