Since the dawn of mankind, people have been engaged in transferring knowledge or skills to one another. While the original need was to teach survival skills, today organizational training has become the dominant driver for skills transfer. Organizations are in a constant state of change adapting to meet the needs of an ever-evolving environment. Whether motivated by growth, market conditions or competitive pressures, companies must adapt their workforce skills to meet the changing needs.
This paper tries to bring to light the essential ingredient – the personal motivation to learn. It is this personal motivation that is under appreciated in today’s organizational learning strategies. It is a key factor that contributes to the lag time between what an organization wants to achieve and how fast employees embrace the new knowledge or skills needed to effect change.
The first form of learning was the art of survival. Whether it was the skill of hunting or making the essentials necessary for coping with the environment. Parents would teach their children how to cloth themselves, build shelters or select plants and animals which were best for eating. The student was motivated to learn knowing that they needed these skills to go out on their own. Hence they were intrinsically motivated participants in the learning process.
Age of Enlightenment
Early civilizations soon began to ponder the world around them. To seek enlightenment, small groups of students would attach themselves to wise sages who would mentor them in daily discussions about topics such as philosophy, reason and architecture. The personal quest for knowledge and the desire to attain a new level of understanding drove an intrinsic motivation to be an avid student.
The need for craftsmanship and specialization spawned the practice of apprenticeship. One expert carpenter or stonemason would take on one or more indentured apprentices who were taught their craft. Over time, a formalized structure developed whereby an apprentice would go through stages or “degrees” of certification. At the end of 7 years the apprentice was now a “Master” of his/her craft. There was both an extrinsic and intrinsic motivation to “learn your craft”. As you progressed through various certifications, compensation for your work would increase providing extrinsic rewards along the way. Intrinsically the apprentice knew that persevering would allow them to eventually “hang their own shingle”, thus rewarding them with a respected career and a prosperous income.
As societies grew and the need for specialized knowledge increased in the sciences, humanities, etc., it required a more modern form of mass-producing a qualified society and work force. The less structured form of mentorship evolved into an institutional form of training with the growth of Schools of Learning, Colleges or Universities. At this point things start to get a little bit complicated. The motivation of students starts to vary. Some may be intrinsically driven to achieve a personal mastery in a particular discipline while others see their tenure at school as a gateway to a successful career. Let’s not forget that paying tuition also contributes to a motivation to get that degree in return. Attrition rates in the first year of University are typically high compared to succeeding years. This may be a function of students discovering that their passion and motivation was misguided within the first year, so they pursue a different path.
What we have is an early form of “corporate training”, but where the benefit or reward is clearly understood by the participants. Students need very little extra motivation (i.e. extrinsic or intrinsic) to persevere towards earning their degrees, even though the work may be hard and the lectures boring. Institutional training also borrows from the apprenticeship model in that the student is tested and progresses through a series of degrees (BA, MBA, Dr.), thus offering a sense of self-satisfaction and recognition along the way.
As business evolved from “cottage industries” to the large corporations of our current world, mentorship and apprenticeship had to adapt to “mass production”. A loose form of institutional learning was employed and in some cases a few, larger organizations have created their own in-house Universities.
Large companies have a wide range of training needs from trade skills to leadership development. As you may expect, companies use a variety of learning methods that employ all forms of training as mentioned earlier.
Organizational training falls into 2 basic categories: personal development and system compliance. Personal development includes management training, leadership skills, technical and trade certifications, and so on. Inherent to these training programs are intrinsic and extrinsic rewards that employees associate with participation. Hence the program(s) have a natural motivation built-in to engage the employee. For example, if I am enrolled in management training, I know I am grooming myself for future promotions. Achieving higher certifications are often accompanied by compensation increases and accessing more challenging work.
System compliance constitutes the majority of learning needs. An employee is required to learn 5 to 10 new processes or systems in any one year. Consider all the systems or technology tools you touch on a daily basis (the average is 10) and then consider the frequent upgrades or replacements that occur. Compliance learning dwarfs Personal Development and Institutional Learning combined. Consider that for every college student there are 100’s of people in the workforce.
Here is where the gap exists. While companies and the project teams that deploy new systems see the value and benefit to the change, employees have a different perspective. They have finally “mastered” the old software, hardware or process so they can do their “job”. A new system requires that they start all over again. It becomes an obstacle and a source of frustration until they return to the level of competence they achieved on the old system (usually 6-9 months). Their view, “You’ve made it harder to do my job!”. This is an attitude that most change management professional dread.
Without an obvious or perceived benefit, the employee has difficulty understanding any intrinsic reward. The corporate world is riddled with change projects that deploy on-time, but suffer from slow user adoption. It is a problem looking for a solution.
Knowledge Creates Wisdom
So what have we learned? We know we want employees to be more responsive to the needs of organizational changes. We know that employees can be slow to adopt new things. We know that many factors like good content, good instruction and good tools will create an environment for employee learning. But without strong personal motivation to learn, your team is pushing a rock up the hill.
Every new process we introduce to the organization or every new system we deploy needs a strong adoption plan if we want to achieve our goals faster. Adoption plans must include training strategies and actions that engage intrinsic motivation. Project goals need to include more than the typical “on-time deployment, on-budget” benchmarks of the past. They need to add a new one called “on-time adoption”, it’s this progressive marker that will dictate success or failure of a project. This may require adding new skills and tools to the project team, but the reward is significant.
We are asking people to change their habits hence we need to understand how to change habits. New habits are created when the individual understands the trigger (queue) and the reward. Incorporating small improvements into our change methodology that promote the sociology of habit change, we can have a dramatic impact on employee engagement and faster outcomes.
Faster growth, market leadership and competitive advantage naturally follow, but you also get much happier and productive employees!
Author: John Breakey, CEO Fivel Systems Corporation
Want to ask the author a question about the ideas expressed in this article? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.