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Taking lessons from business and government

By Allison Rossett / April 2004

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School-based educators have much to learn from the ways that business and government conduct educational programs. Of course, schools should not heed corporate and government practices for staff development because those efforts represent perfection—they don't. The lesson comes from their urgency about development. Many companies recognize that learning for their workforce represents a competitive advantage.

Many, but certainly not all, invest accordingly. ASTD's 2002 State of the Industry study found that leading edge companies are investing $1400 per person per annum on development. Training magazine's 2003 training census (October, 2003)—reporting on a year that had the potential to be ugly—revealed an enterprise that is steady and increasingly technological.

What are the lessons to be learned?

  1. Many government and business organizations are unrelenting about learning because they depend upon the accomplishments of their people.

    An example makes the point. The horror of 9-11 gave birth to the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) and the need to stand up effective passenger and baggage screeners in just a year. It is impossible to imagine a casual or idiosyncratic approach to developing and supporting TSA screeners.

    Training, of course, was a big part of TSA's efforts in this area, through partnerships with JCS Pearson to select and assess screeners, and with Boeing and Lockheed Martin to deliver screener training at the airports where the work would be done. According to an article written by Gail Rossides in Chief Learning Officer magazine, "USA Today did a survey in March, and the traveling public basically told them that people feel more secure at airports today than they ever have before because of knowing that TSA's screeners are in the airports and responsible for the security of the aviation system."

  2. Learning assets are deployed for many audiences.

    Many are interested in creating smaller, more flexible learning objects that can be developed once and then tailored for other audiences and needs. These objects promise content currency, standard messages, and moving beyond "one size fits all" training to customized content and experiences. Consider the materials that a Home Depot produces to educate its employees about 30,000 products. Then reflect on the how useful those same objects—tweaked, of course—would be for customers. Another example is Cisco, which sells courses and programs based on a learning object model, based on the belief that this approach enables them to tailor assets to customers and to reconfigure existing resources for new situations and demands.

  3. Companies and government agencies strive to establish integrated systems, not isolated training events.

    Attention must start with questions about individual readiness and organizational alignment. That shifts focus from e-learning assets or classroom training programs to analyzing and understanding the contexts in which programs will be used.

    The word of the moment is "blends." Merely trendy or not, it represents the need to conceive the right blend, and then assure a fertile context, judicious redundancy, targeted guidance, and cross-functional collaboration. The easy thing is to schedule a workshop or purchase access to an online library. But is it sufficient? Meaningful? Professionals engaged with developing the workforce, from staff development in schools to e-learning for IT professionals, must also attend to sponsorship, strategy, supervisory involvement, and congruence with performance management and career development.

  4. Companies and government agencies are turning to performance support.

    Do you want your sales force updated on new product features? Do you want engineers to write better reports? Should hotel bartenders make their martinis in a certain way? In the good old days, the answer was to offer a class and hope that lessons transferred to the field.

    Now, many training and development professionals organize expertise into resources made accessible to the people who need them, when they need them. The resource, as much as possible, is one with the task, not distinct from it. That's called performance support. It results in technology-based assets used by employees and customers to do what they need to do, such as find a price, code, approach, or robust decision.

  5. Employees are expected to continue to learn while they earn.

    The overall trend is towards more independent, asynchronous learning. When it is time to bone up on a new product, get smarter about software, or fulfill a compliance obligation, many organizations now point their people online. The resources are there, but the momentum and self-regulation must come from the individual employee. And therein lies the rub. According to University of Iowa's Ken Brown and others, people do not make good and persistent independent learning choices in most cases. Dropouts abound. But the very technology that enables the employee to go it alone also enables convivial and pervasive approaches to development, such as e-coaching, online communities of practice, pre- and post-class listservs, and threaded discussions.

It goes both ways

Government and industry can learn from schools too. I would encourage corporate and government educators to ask people who work in schools about what keeps them in the profession and what they do especially well. They possess wisdom, especially in their link to purpose and meaning.

My friends talk about the joy derived from watching children learn something new; collaborating with families struggling on behalf of the next generation; lessons constructed to capture hearts and minds; technology links between homes and classrooms; and the thrill that comes when a passion for bugs or poetry becomes contagious. The tragedy is how rarely school-based educators talk about their own learning and development—and when they do, it's often with a cynical snort instead of a joyful chuckle.


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