On-job training is the original and probably still the most common way of getting employees up-to-scratch in their new jobs. Because of its relative informality, it is often looked down on as an inferior option, merely ‘sitting next to Nellie’, yet it’s an enduring favourite with employees themselves. True, it does have its drawbacks:
- The quality depends a great deal on the skills of the person doing the instructing.
- There’s no guarantee that the instructor will convey the official ‘company line’.
- The learner does not get to interact with their peers.
- The instructor is unlikely to have had the time to prepare anything but the most rudimentary visual aids or handouts.
- The 1:1 teacher student ratio is expensive.
But the benefits are significant enough to be worth hanging on to:
- The instruction is highly personalised.
- The on-job setting maximises transfer of learning.
- The learner gets to practice in an authentic work setting.
- The instruction is likely to be practical, relevant and up-to-date.
And employees do like on-job training, as explained in a 2008 report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development : “Individual preferences are for social rather than solitary learning. The unequivocal preferred method is for being shown how to do things and being given the opportunity to practise. On-the-job training is the preferred method of learning for all categories of employee. This can be seen as a mismatch to the amount of classroom-based learning that is taking place.”
Employees realise that practice makes perfect, but their teachers don’t always appreciate this. As Seely Brown and Duquid make clear: “The idea of learning as the steady supply of facts and information, though parodied by Dickens 150 years ago, still prevails today. Each generation has to fight its own battle against images of learners as wax to be moulded, pitchers to be filled, and slates to be written on.” To ‘know that’ is not to ‘know how’; ‘learning about’ something does not necessarily equip you to ‘learn to be’ the person who successfully carries out a particular job role. “Information is not enough to produce actionable knowledge. Practice too is required.”
Jay Cross asks who is going to provide all this on-job training: “Now that business organizations have been de-layered, downsized, and re-engineered to the bone, how will they transfer their special ways of doing things to new employees? The answer lies in exploiting the savvy of seniors, the wise elders who have ‘been there, done that’ and can offer counsel and know-how to the newcomers.” But wise elders are in short supply, and prone to what Chip and Dan Heath call the ‘curse of knowledge’ – the tendency that most experts have to believe that others have the same knowledge and interests as they do and are therefore as fascinated by the theory, the abstractions and the detail of their jobs. The answer is to assign the task of on-job training to those qualified not only in terms of their job experience but also their ability to empathise with the learner.
Some useful tips are provided by Steve Trautman in his book Teach what you know. He recommends a sensible sequence for the instruction, starting with the ‘air, food and water’, i.e. the basics needed for survival in the job, moving on to give the big picture, then the skills. He encourages the use of questions, before, during and after the instruction, to assess needs and check understanding. He understands the problems of cognitive overload and recommends providing the “least amount of information necessary to make the employee successful at the task.” He understands the problems of transfer and knows how to overcome this through the use of worked examples and practical exercises.
Apprenticeship is a special form of on-job training. According to the Wikipedia, “apprenticeship is a system of training a new generation of practitioners of a skill.” Most of this training is conducted on-the-job while the apprentice works for an employer who helps them to learn their trade, in exchange for their continuing labour for an agreed period after they become skilled. Apprenticeships have a long tradition in the United Kingdom, dating back to around the 12th century and flourishing by the 14th century. A master craftsman was entitled to employ young people as an inexpensive form of labour in exchange for providing formal training in the craft.
Modern apprenticeships tend to include a knowledge-based element, often provided through part-time formal study, and a skills element provided on-job. The scope of apprenticeships has also widened to include occupations outside the traditional crafts. For the trainee, an apprenticeship provides the opportunity to gain skills and knowledge on-the-job and to work towards a qualification while earning. For the employer, apprenticeships help employers to develop the next generation of skilled workers in partnership with the government and the education sector.
On-job training is:
- at its best when conducted by trained instructors, highly practical, personalised to the individual learner;
- best avoided when focused on knowledge transfer, poorly structured, does no more than throw the learner in at the deep end.
Supporting, accelerating and directing learning from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), 2008
The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown and Paul Duquid, Harvard Business School Press, 2002.
Learning is strictly business by Jay Cross, 2007
Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Random House, 2007
Teach what you know by Steve Trautman, Prentice Hall, 2007