When learning at work is a chore.
Even in an office setting, demands to learn more can become unrealistic
Factors such as a thin leadership pipeline, relentless emphasis on performance improvement, increased supply chain integration, continual new product introductions and the demands of regulatory compliance make intense learning an essential task in most jobs today
Many skilled jobs require a considerable amount of learning while doing, but learning requirements have reached unrealistic levels in many roles and work situations today. This phenomenon of “too much to learn” is not only feeding the perception of critical skills shortages in many sectors, but it can also accelerate burn-out.
Even in an office setting, demands to learn more can become unrealistic. For example, young management accountants today are supposed to acquire competencies in a dizzying array of topics, such as advanced presentation skills, Six Sigma, quantitative methods and even leadership.
Is it surprising that management thinks there is a skills gap in management accounting?
It’s not just technology causing this learning overload. Other factors, such as a thin leadership pipeline, relentless emphasis on performance improvement, increased supply chain integration, continual new product introductions and the demands of regulatory compliance make intense learning an essential task in most jobs today.
Failure to anticipate and accommodate greater learning loads in many jobs produces costly turnover as employees quit in frustration or are forced out because they can’t perform at the required level.
You can reduce the risks that learning overload will increase unwanted turnover and hurt individual performance by answering three questions:
1 What is a realistic amount of learning to expect of people in this job? Of course, learning capacity depends on the individuals involved and the specific profession. Medical interns in their first year out of school, for example, are expected to learn voraciously, while you wouldn’t expect the same behaviour of risk managers in an insurance company. If it’s not already clear, management needs to set realistic expectations and make learning requirements for a particular role discussable.
Ironically, setting higher expectations for learning is likely to improve retention of younger employees, who are usually much more attracted to jobs where they are asked to learn a lot, as opposed to positions where learning is limited. Managers must keep that in mind as they’re assessing each position.
2 What are the learning priorities? Some jobs today require levels of learning that seem unsustainable. New nurses can be overwhelmed when they are hired into a complex healthcare setting, often leading to unwanted turnover. In order to be clear about what employees do and don’t need to learn, management must communicate what skills or know-how it considers most critical. This means being more specific and realistic in defining roles.
3 How can we make learning more practical/efficient? Learning overload is exacerbated when employees don’t have the infrastructure they need to improve their know-how. My colleague Steve Trautman recommends an “air, food and water” list of what’s needed to learn effectively in a particular job.
This means identifying the fundamental computer set-ups and orientation, current documentation, network passwords and introductions to key people – all that is needed to learn effectively. Without these basics, workers waste a tremendous amount of time trying to become more proficient on the job.
Probably the most important thing you can do to improve on-the-job learning is to enhance the mentoring capabilities of your most experienced employees. Just because someone is an expert in part of your business doesn’t mean they can teach others about it. – Copyright Harvard Business Review 2015
David DeLong is a speaker and consultant and co-author of The Executive Guide to High- Impact Talent Management
Previously published in The Irish Times.
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