In Real Life: Don't Forget About On-the-Job Training

Written By

JD Dillon

September 19, 2017

What was your first corporate learning job? I got into L&D as part of a hybrid operations/human resources role with AMC Theatres. I was responsible for all my location’s HR functions, including recruitment, payroll, and training.

At the same time, I was working as an attractions cast member on the weekends at the Walt Disney World Resort (+5 for nomenclature). There, a lot of my time was focused on training new cast members at Star Tours and The Great Movie Ride. While I have spent most of my career in management and individual contributor roles, my time as a frontline trainer really helped shape my perspective on L&D. Specifically, it solidified the importance of effective on-the-job training as the foundation of the workplace learning experience.

Figure 1: Receiving instruction is a very familiar experience—regardless of professional background (Pixabay)

Formal on-the-job training (not to be confused with informal learning on the job) continues to play a considerable role in many employees’ learning experiences. This is especially true in high-volume operations with large numbers of deskless workers, including retail, food and beverage, distribution, and hospitality roles. Employees who are new to the company and/or role are typically paired with a “trainer,” who is responsible for instructing them on how to do the job. This training could take place one-to-one or one-to-a-group, depending on role and staff needs. After a set period, the employee is handed off by the trainer to their team and manager, often after some form of knowledge and/or performance assessment. Does this sound like something your company does to support initial skill development?

On-the-job training (OJT) has been around … well … forever. It’s one of the most straightforward parts of workplace learning. “Bill will show you how to do it” isn’t exactly a learning strategy, but, in real life, it’s been getting the job done for a long, long time. So then why am I writing about it? Well, that’s just it. OJT isn’t “transformative” like mobile. It isn’t “sexy” like AR or VR. It isn’t “trendy” like microlearning. But that’s just it! How often do you have deep conversations about OJT strategy? How many articles or presentations do you come across on the topic? As I work with organizations across a variety of industries, I’ve noticed a few things about OJT practices today:

  • OJT hasn’t really changed in decades. Meanwhile, the rest of workplace learning strategy is rapidly evolving.
  • OJT relies heavily on tribal knowledge (aka, the way things really work here).
  • There’s almost no use of data to inform the OJT experience—before, during, or after.
  • Trainers are provided with limited instruction—and almost no continuous development on how to train.
  • Success is more often based on who you get as a trainer rather than the effective design of the OJT program.

As we continue to drive toward a modern vision for workplace learning, we can’t leave OJT behind. We also can’t just replace it with “new” concepts like digital and self-directed learning, just like we shouldn’t blindly swap classroom training for eLearning. OJT has survived because it plays a unique role in the employee learning experience. It creates a personalized, adaptive, engaging learning experience with immediate feedback in a way technology cannot. It is based on real-world experience and guided practice, which are critical for rapid skill development. It provides an immediate personal connection for the employee within the organization and team. Finally, it provides a safety net—someone to protect the employee as they develop—as a way to bolster confidence and promote learning from failure.

Yes, OJT can be awesome. But …

  • It’s expensive, as you’re paying two (or more) people to not do the real job for an extended period.
  • It’s often inconsistent. Trainers often base the experience on what they prefer rather than the established expectation.
  • It can be ineffective. Some employees are just bad at training—even if they are great at the job.
  • It can be disconnected from the larger learning strategy with no regard for long-term retention and behavior change.
  • Then there’s everything else that can go wrong, from distractions to personality conflicts.

Like any other strategy, L&D must weigh the benefits with the drawbacks to deliver the right-fit, high-value learning and support experience needed to drive performance and achieve business goals. In many cases, OJT will play an important role in helping a new employee get operational, especially in the deskless space. Therefore, L&D must evolve the OJT experience so that it better integrates into the modern learning ecosystem.

So how do we do OJT better?

Coach, don’t train

This isn’t just about language. It’s about positioning. Trainers tell people what to do to get better. Coaches focus on performance and find the right methods to help each individual become their best. Coaches are also held accountable for their team’s performance. Coaching is relational, not transactional. We should position OJT as a coaching activity that sets the tone for ongoing learning and support in the workplace.

Find the right people

Coaching won’t work without the right people in the role. Too often, managers just pick the most veteran employees to become trainers—or the role of a trainer is used as a formal stepping stone to management. In both cases, people are selected for the wrong reason. Instead, we should choose coaches based on their ability and desire to help people get better. If they happen to be senior employees and/or people with manager aspirations, that’s great too. But the ability to coach within the role should be the primary qualification. In addition, we should only leverage managers if they clearly have the time and capacity to dedicate to coaching in this context.

Prepare your coaches

There may be instances when you hire people to specifically play the role of coach as the full-time job. However, in many cases, we pull our coaches from the operation. They may have a willingness to execute the role, but they may also lack the tactical experience to do so at the desired level. Therefore, L&D should provide programs and resources to develop coaches’ skills during their transition into the role—as well as ongoing. Just because they are L&D doesn’t mean they don’t need dedicated support from L&D.

Improve support resources

When I ask about OJT processes, I’m often handed a checklist designed to guide the experience. That’s great, but how much consistency can really be driven from a single-page checklist? We should outline expectations in much greater detail to ensure consistent execution across the coaching team. While a checklist can certainly help track an employee’s progress, we should provide a more detailed program guide to clarify each topic and desired capability; and we should provide coaches with a variety of tactics to support employees with common challenges. They should also have access to clear, objective definitions and examples of “good performance” so varying opinions don’t get in the way.

Integrate the experience

Sticking an employee in the back room to complete eight hours of eLearning before OJT is not a blended learning experience. Digital content is a consistent, scalable way to provide foundational information, introductory simulation, and ongoing reinforcement. Classroom sessions provide the opportunity for group practice and discussion. We should leverage these modalities to augment the coaching experience due to its critical focus on learning by doing.

Expand the discussion

To borrow from Mark Britz of eLearning Guild fame: “Real knowledge doesn’t exist within us but between us, in our conversations.” One of the biggest benefits of this coaching experience is the ongoing interaction with a real person (as opposed to a pre-programmed screen). If the trainer is just executing the steps of the checklist, this benefit is lost and the value of OJT is reduced. We should encourage coaches to engage in open discussion with the new employee to focus on their performance, motivations, and objectives. These conversations will not only help the coach get to know the employee better, but they will also help shift the focus from knowledge delivery to ongoing application. Discussion should purposefully expand beyond the coach and include the larger peer group so the employee can gain insight from more than just one person.

Capture data

How can the coach maximize their limited time with the new employee? How will the manager know if the employee is ready to become operational? How does what’s happening during the coaching experience inform how the employee will be supported in the future? Answer: data. We should use knowledge and performance assessments throughout the coaching experience to capture hard data on the employee’s progress. By targeting measurement on specific, high-value knowledge and behavior topics, coaches can get a snapshot of where the employee needs additional focus, and they can share this data with managers to signal progress and potential for early “release” into the operation. We can also use the employee’s data profile to drive ongoing reinforcement and suggest additional development opportunities.

Measure impact

Just like any other employee, we should hold coaches accountable, specifically for the initial performance of employees they have supported. While we should establish standards of measurement based on performance expectations, we must adjust these as necessary to account for individual employee progress. After all, no two new employees will perform the same, and pass or fail on a single assessment isn’t enough. We can use the ongoing assessment data I mentioned previously to normalize these expectations and ensure optimal outcomes from the coach.

Expand the coaching experience

Employees will always leave OJT with gaps. That’s expected. But how do you facilitate closing those gaps? Ongoing reinforcement plays a part in this strategy. Management support is another important component. But L&D and managers can’t always be there. Peers are. The initial coaching experience can set the tone for ongoing peer-to-peer support. It can establish the trust and confidence necessary for employees to consistently coach one another and reduce the need for structured intervention.

On-the-job training will continue to play a critical role in a variety of organizations. When done right, it can not only enable initial performance, but it can also establish the foundation for long-term employee success. I still remember my first coach—Tommy. He found a way to make me capable and confident in my first job, even though it was a super busy summer and I had never handled cash or used a POS terminal before. He set the tone and got me through my first few days. I stayed for six years and ultimately became a very successful manager. Thanks, Tommy!

Postscript

I’d like to address Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. As a Central Florida resident, I was lucky to experience very minimal inconvenience during our recent, devastating storm. Other Floridians—as well as those who live in the Caribbean and Texas—were not as lucky. These areas need our help. Please consider donating to the Red Cross or to another organization that is providing much-needed aid to affected areas. AccuWeather has a very useful post that lists a number of reputable charities you can support, as well as providing links to tools you can use to vet any charity before you support it.

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