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September 2017
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Direct Instruction

An on-the-job training program that's purposefully structured will yield a wide range of benefits.

An authentic structured on-the-job training (SOJT) program can be instrumental in providing high-quality, experience-based learning in a compressed amount of time and it should benefit the company by building a pipeline of better-skilled employees. But too often the SOJT label gets applied to learning programs that lack true structure and may in fact be the more vintage style of on-the-job training that was built on the sink-or-swim approach.

It is widely accepted that much of what any of us knows about doing our jobs comes from doing the job and then learning from the experience. An SOJT program not only recognizes the importance of such on-the-job learning, but harnesses those experiences to incorporate them as intentional development opportunities equal to anything offered in a formal classroom or webinar.

Launching an SOJT program is not an easy task. But the good news for most organizations is that much of the emphasis of building the program likely will be on creating the structured part rather than the learning activities that will populate it. Odds are that a great deal of good learning is already happening in classrooms, online, via third-party suppliers, and through peer sharing of best practices and on-the-job training experience. The problem often is not a lack of developmental efforts; it is that such efforts are disconnected and siloed—to the extent that there may be little, if any, overlap or connectedness among them even when the same individual employee is the beneficiary.

Three concrete steps

The first step to building a strong SOJT program is to identify all the legitimate learning efforts currently being implemented and determine how to bridge any gaps between them.

Take, for example, Allan Myers, a company that sought to provide more effective onboarding to new employees and those moving into new roles. It recognized that many of these learners already had knowledge and skills based on their individual experiences, so a one-size-fits-all approach to training wouldn't be effective. Instead, the company focused on filling the gaps in the learners' knowledge. To do that, it identified existing training options being used, such as classroom training, online courses, and job aids, as well as subject matter experts who were recognized as go-to resources to answer questions. Learners were given access to all those resources and were empowered to select the ones that appealed to them and aligned with their personal learning plans.

After all the existing efforts have been documented, the next main step is to focus on the measurable experience-based skills or knowledge that employees need to be able to learn through on-the-job experience. There will be a temptation to make this a checklist activity; however, that would be aiming far too low for an SOJT program. Instead, the focus needs to be on the measurable skills that can be observed, monitored, documented, and assessed by a more experienced mentor. The measurable should be a list of skills and knowledge that will be developed over time.

At Allan Myers, staff identified the competencies that different job levels required and what would be the validation of proficiency in each competency. That enabled both the learner and the mentor to know exactly what was expected as part of the learning process for any individual competency. The company plans to take this a step further through the creation of guidebooks that will provide more detailed information on what should be learned, how to demonstrate proficiency, and how to get a sign-off.

A third element to keep in mind is that developing a thorough, uniform list of measurables might be the longest and most painful part of creating the SOJT program—especially if your entity is comprised of multiple locations, each having slightly unique ways of doing the same basic functions. This activity will reveal any inconsistencies in processes, and may require some decisions on the part of the business before documentation of the measurables can proceed. There must be a single focused path for measurables; they cannot be optional à la carte items.

Next, be inclusive. Involving as many people as possible in developing the list of measurables can pay off huge dividends in a variety of ways. The most immediate benefits of multiple contributors authoring the measurables include the final content being much richer through the incorporation of many different perspectives. If your company has multiple locations, this provides an opportunity for representation of each, and doing so enables you to include up front those who would have been least likely to support the program. That last item can deliver many of its own benefits, too. Initially, it might mean asking some difficult and challenging questions during development, but this allows those issues to be resolved early on. Additionally, allowing possible critics to be involved from the start means you won't have to explain it all to them when you are ready to launch—which fuels another benefit that will be discussed later.

Just identifying resources for learners to use and establishing desired competencies was not the full extent of the SOJT program at Allan Myers. The glue that held it all together was the creation of individually customizable learning plans and "onramp schedule templates." These tools provided the structure to help learners see the long-term path the program would take. But to create these different pieces was a lengthy process, with many of the elements being reviewed and revised multiple times.

Rollout

After all the investment to construct an SOJT program, expectations for its success will be high. However, one main reason that even the best intended programs fail is that great thought is given to the content in the program, but little is given to how the program will be implemented, maintained, or rolled out.

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Too often we launch new initiatives and place the burden for their success on the already overloaded shoulders of frontline or middle managers. As a result—no matter how good the program is—if that leader does not find time to do a proper job, the program will fail. One option inherent in the rollout of a development program is to shift the burden off of leaders and onto the learners.

After all, it is their individual professional growth that is being addressed, so put learners in the driver's seat of their own development. Make them responsible for keeping track of which measurables they want to attempt and those they have achieved. Then make it learners' duty to approach their mentor to validate this competency and sign off on it accordingly. The process enables learners to feel empowered and in control of their own learning, and enables mentors to fulfill their roles without obligating them to be responsible for tracking and monitoring each mentee they are assigned.

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Another pitfall that often trips up the rollout of a new learning program is that those of us in the talent development profession mistakenly think that others value learning opportunities as much as we do. The reality is that others do indeed value learning, but only when they understand the value of that learning to their own needs. So only developing a top-quality SOJT program and then announcing its launch is not enough to ensure success.

Your new SOJT program is a product that is both similar and yet different from other learning products that your customers (business-side leaders and team members) have previously encountered. As such, the program needs to be launched with the equivalent of a PR campaign to sell it.

The success of Allan Myers's approach to individualized learning plans hinged on the engagement of the learner's leader, as well as the learner's designated buddy who would support his need for just-in-time information. To ensure both knew the value of the new program and exactly what was expected of their roles, one-on-one meetings were held with each leader looking to hire new team members, as well as with each buddy who would be assigned to coach the new team members. In these discussions they were shown how to work the learning plans and how to use the onramp schedule template, and given basic refresher tips on how to effectively mentor the new team member. To ensure that the new tools worked with their new team member target audience, Allan Myers implemented the program on a small scale with only a handful of learners and gathered feedback from the learners on ways to further enhance or improve the program before its full launch.

But the SOJT program rollout also can be assisted by those who were part of identifying the measurables. Those who were given a chance to get involved are now up to speed with what is being attempted and have a vested interest in helping it succeed. By making them part of the project team from the beginning, there is less chance that they will be an obstacle as the SOJT program is implemented. In fact, they might be advocates of the program because of their familiarity with it.

SOJT tracking

Ultimately, the true measure of success of an SOJT program rests with the mentor and mentee. Both must believe that the program has enabled them to be more efficient in their part of the process; otherwise, they will not continue to use it. Instead, they will revert to however they previously approached on-the-job training in general. That is where talent development professionals can have a tremendous impact.

Providing support resources for the mentor and mentee can be crucial to their success—and a good SOJT tracking tool can assist both of them. When treated as a true developmental tracking tool rather than a checklist, the document will enable mentors to quickly see everything their mentees already have demonstrated proficiency in (based on the sign-offs they have earned so far) and will show mentors where the mentees' remaining skills or knowledge gaps are. The tasks assigned to mentees can be focused by the mentor on those things that enable the employees to continue to acquire new skills.

From the vantage point of mentees, a good SOJT tracking tool enables them to see the big picture of all the skills and knowledge they are expected to ultimately obtain, and also helps them keep track of their accomplishments and opportunities they would like to request going forward. When used correctly, this tool will foster a robust and effective developmental dialogue between mentors and their mentees.

If practical, it is worth considering a virtual-based SOJT tracking tool that can be accessed from anywhere at any time. While producing it as a printed resource seems like an easy solution, it may appear overwhelming to program participants depending on the final size of the tracking tool, especially when participants first enter the program. Additionally, paper copies can be damaged, misplaced, or destroyed, resulting in valuable data being lost.

To help hold all these pieces together, establish a solid development planning program. Most companies create development plans for their employees (or have the employees author them with their leaders). However, they often are only considered an annually reviewed document. When bundled with SOJT efforts as described here, development planning meetings that occur every 45 or 60 days can be extremely helpful.

Such meetings provide accountability to ensure that mentees are taking their responsibility for their development seriously. The meetings also allow for identification of roadblocks that may be hindering exposure to new measurables, with a shifting to other duties as a possible outcome to help a learner continue moving forward. Lastly, planning meetings provide a regular avenue for feedback regarding the overall program, the status of the mentor/mentee relationship, and the need for any formal training to support needed skills or knowledge.

Positioned for success

An SOJT program always will be under construction. Unlike traditional classroom training that may be developed, finalized, and then used over and over for years with little change, an SOJT program must continually change. To remain relevant and effective, the program needs to be constantly curated to reflect current needs of the business as well as current procedures on the job. Each of these may be altered by any number of influences multiple times during a year.

Talent development professionals need to remain vigilant and stay on top of such changes so that relevant updates can be made as quickly as possible. But more than just the SOJT tracking tool needs to be monitored—all the support resources and training efforts also must be continually reviewed so the content remains current and relevant. Ensuring that all the resources supporting the SOJT program are kept current is yet another way of positioning the mentors and mentees, as well as the overall program, for success.

About the Author
Paul Smith is the talent development manager for the Waldinger Corporation.
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