Don’t Let Employers Abuse DIY Training

The following article originally appeared in the Sunday Times Appointments section: 17th September 2000

covereyesSelf-managed learning programmes should not be treated as an excuse for bosses to abdicate their responsibility, writes Margaret Coles.

We were told that “self-managed learning” would give us the independence to map out our own development. In fact, many organisations have used the concept as an excuse to hive off all responsibility for developing staff.

That is the view of Ian Cunningham, chairman of Strategic Developments International, a Brighton consultancy. Cunningham rightly makes the point that if employers expect people to manage their own learning, they must support the process. He has shown how effectively it can be done with clients such as Ericsson, NOP Research Group and PPP Healthcare. “The key is personalizing learning,” says Cunningham.

He advocates a strategic approach with two components. The first is a contract for learning, created by the individual to meet his own needs and those of the business. The second is an action learning group, enabling people to help each other to meet the terms of those contracts.

Rob Shorrick, director of leadership at MacFarlane Group, based in Glasgow, worked with Cunningham while head of learning and development at PPP Group. He says: “Peter Owen, the chief executive, had decided to bring together the several companies belonging to the group and rebrand them as PPP Healthcare to increase awareness in the market. “We had to start getting people to think of themselves as part of a group. We also wanted to develop leadership and strategic thinking. “I didn’t think that traditional leadership training was working – so we decided to wrap up learning into a process to help leaders think about their own development and that of their teams. We wanted to hand over responsibility, but to do it in a tough, rigorous way, under which people would have a contractual obligation to develop themselves and others.”

Staff met monthly in groups of five or six for a year-and-a-half. Shorrick says: “We mixed people from across the business. Each person said what he wanted to learn and the others made a commit-ment to help him. Progress was reviewed regularly against their contracts.”

The plan yielded rewards. Shorrick says: “One person who was always upsetting secretaries and found it hard to retain staff identified his own poor interpersonal skills. Role-play and feedback from others in the group, along with a course in neurolinguistic programming, helped him to become a very effective leader and to take on a direct customer-facing role. If he’d just been sent on the course it wouldn’t have worked.”

PPP says the benefits have included the development of new products and a fresh approach to market research. Another is a marked increase in managers’ confidence, says Peter Owen. Learning within the company is now business-focused, flexible and geared to meet individual and organisational needs.

Giving adequate support and time to such a process is never easy. Owen says: “I think the time we put into it [the work] relative to some of the issues we were facing as a business was out of balance. It was necessary to change the culture, but there was a price to be paid. In the long term it will be for the good of the business but there were short-term costs.”

Shorrick says: “People learn to work together and identify their learning needs, both technical and behavioural. We have achieved our strategy of re-branding the business, and people are able to deal with change.”

Cunningham adds: “The group work develop people’s ability to coach and mentor each other, to share knowledge and trust one another. People learn what they want to learn when they need to learn.”

Robert Lines, manager of software design at Ericsson mobile Applications (part of the group’s British subsidiary) brought Cunningham in to work with his staff two years ago, after discovering the benefits of membership of an action learning group.

“We spent a lot of time discussing work issues. Other people come up with creative ideas to solve the problems you’re dealing with,” he says.

The motivation for the Ericsson programme was to learn from past mistakes and restore confidence in the value of training.

Lines says: “It was apparent that people did not value courses that they had simply been sent on. We wanted to provide an approach to learning that people would enjoy and to encourage them to take charge of their development, rather than wait for others to organise activities. We wanted them to get the most out of their learning and increase their employability – so that as an organisation and as individuals we would be confident of adapting to whatever future roles might be required.”

One designer, who had been sceptical of the value of the group work, said afterwards: “Sometimes people suggested something that leads you to the solution indirectly. Often, just the opportunity to discuss an issue makes you realise that you knew the answer all the time.”