A few years ago the learning and development team at Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina had an awakening.
“We actually started realizing a change in the landscape,” said Adri Maisonet-Morales, vice president of enterprise learning and development at the regional insurer.
The change concerned the 70-20-10 model of learning, which says 70 percent of learning happens on the job, while 20 percent happens through informal conversations and 10 percent through formal courses and programs.
Although the framework has been in place since the 1960s, Maisonet-Morales said the learning function at Blue Cross still operated under a somewhat inverted model.
“The vast majority of where we were focusing our time and attention was on formal learning,” she said, referring to classroom and other traditional delivery models. “We found exactly what the data tells us: Most of the learning actually does not take place in the classroom.”
The issue is one many organizations have faced in recent years, as advancements in technology and how employees work have shifted the mindset regarding learning. If learning leaders are putting their efforts into areas thought to require the most legwork and planning — the 10 and 20 percent, respectively — something’s off; they should be the smallest slices of the learning pie. But what is their role in crafting the on-the-job experiences believed to account for the bulk of the outcomes they originally set out to achieve?
To some learning leaders, achieving an idealpercentage of on-the-job learning means maximizing formal programs, with the hope that daily job content acts as the necessary reinforcement to close the learning loop.
Others prefer to turn formalized content delivery into point-of-need learning tools, making formal learning and on-the-job learning one and the same. Some prefer a mix of the two, with a healthy portion of social and virtual tools thrown in to keep access to content readily available to employees as they go about their day.
In Blue Cross’ case, Maisonet-Morales said the answer wasn’t necessarily schematic. It required a rethink of learning’s place in the organization and inviting leaders and managers from every function to embrace a culture of continual development.
“We started to partner with leaders across the organization very differently,” Maisonet-Morales said. “We said, ‘You know, for the longest time organizationally, you all have regarded learning and development as the keepers of learning.’
“And we said, ‘It’s much bigger than us. It’s really not something to be owned by any particular area. This is something that we need to do together collectively.’”
Within that mindset is what many practitioners say is the cornerstone of true on-the-job development: manager engagement. Without managers committed to coordinating with learning leaders to improve individuals’ development, on-the-job learning won’t happen.
Exacerbating the challenge, managers tend to focus on the task at hand — in many cases producing short-term results — not necessarily development paths for their teams, even though learning leaders would argue the two go hand in hand.
For Kimberly Dorer, director of Spectrum Health University at Spectrum Health, a nonprofit integrated health system in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the answer is to create an environment of shared accountability between managers and employees.
To do so using on-the-job learning, Dorer said the university created Support Beyond Endorsement. The program’s philosophy says every skill taught as a learning initiative must be reinforced by the leader at the department level. Otherwise, Dorer said the learning will never be properly applied on the job.
“Support Beyond Endorsement goes well beyond, ‘I’m going to allow my employee time off to go to this training event,’” Dorer said. “No, I’m going to be actively involved in it. You [a manager] can’t outsource the development of your people. You own it.”
To engage managers more closely on this level, Dorer said the learning function has created coaching guides for them. For example, say an employee is set to participate in a learning event, either an external conference or something formal or informal within Spectrum Health University. When an employee is set to participate in that activity, his or her manager is sent a coaching guide describing the event’s objectives as well as questions for the manager to ask the employee before he or she attends.
“All they have to do is have a conversation,” Dorer said. “What are you going to get out of this event? Think about this particular topic and have the details of the curriculum in front of them. Is there anything about this particular topic that resonates more with us that we could use?”
After the event is over, the coaching guide pushes managers to have another conversation to reinforce the learning in an on-the-job context. For example, managers could ask: What was your key takeaway and how are you going to put this in play in the department? “So there’s follow-up expectations around not just going to the event, but then also bringing it back and putting it to use in the department,” Dorer said.
Aside from implementing a practice on a case-by-case basis, it’s important to put in place a broader development-focused process for managers about on-the-job learning.
Jim Rowings, vice president and chief learning officer at Omaha, Nebraska-based construction and design firm Kiewit Corp., said he holds biannual meetings with supervisors to plot employees’ on-the-job development. “The supervisor sits down and they look at the development plan for the individual, and they talk about where [the employee] may want to head.”
Depending on that employee’s next assignment, the conversation then generates a new development plan with recommended learning components, including on-the-job experiences. “As those meetings occur, they [the managers] establish what the plan is for the next six months. And then when they [employees] come back, they evaluate with their supervisor formally what they’ve completed, how they’ve applied it, what they’ve used it for and how they’ve progressed,” Rowings said.
Learning leaders also need to reinforce developmental conversations between managers and employees by encouraging informal feedback loop conversations, according to Douglas Scarboro, chief learning officer for the city of Memphis, Tennessee.
He said informal feedback conversations about development material can be as simple as lunch-and-learn sessions, where employees and managers have lunch and talk about how formal learning content is being applied on the job, or on-the-job challenges employees may be facing. “It helps facilitate conversations around press points that we’ve seen. That way it becomes more of an on-the-job exchange of information.”
Stitching It Together
Still, just because managers are engaged in an on-the-job learning experience doesn’t necessarily mean employees will be.
Some learning practitioners have put in place mechanisms to ensure employees are aware when on-the-job learning is happening. Many of those mechanisms are simply formal learning activities injected on the job at a point of need.
David Voorhees, director of learning and development at Waste Management Inc., has taken this strategy. Voorhees is in charge of training the company’s more than 3,000 sales professionals. Because the company’s training and development staff is a sliver of the size of its sales force, Voorhees said much of the sales training happens over virtual and distance-learning sessions.
To reinforce that learning on the job, the learning function created a strategy of delivering short PowerPoint decks to managers with a step-by-step “Training in a Box” reinforcement learning program.
“We give managers directions, and then we give them some activities built in that they could send their folks ahead of time,” Voorhees said. “That may be a video, may include a white paper, it may include a pre-test, depending on what it is they’re trying to accomplish. Then, when our sales managers get all of their folks together for their biweekly sales meetings, they’re able to conduct that follow-up training session.”
Voorhees said the reinforcement, on-the-job training sessions held during regular biweekly meetings, are designed to take no longer than 20 or 30 minutes, but some managers extend them to as long as an hour.
Other companies are launching efforts to put record-keeping of on-the-job learning experiences in employees’ hands. This, practitioners say, forces them to recognize what constitutes an on-the-job learning experience.
Sam Hammock, vice president and chief learning officer at American Express Banking, said her department is in the process of rolling out functionality that would enable little bits of learning — such as short videos — to be pushed out via Microsoft Outlook meeting invitations. Those same Outlook invitations are also going to be used to record on-the-job learning experiences via the company’s learning management system.
As the learning leader in charge of overseeing mostly compliance training, Hammock said she has to keep a strict record of her learning interventions. However, she said even learning leaders without compliance-oriented training would find value in being able to track and measure on-the-job learning — especially as senior leaders increasingly look for justification when evaluating the learning and development function.
Say an employee attends a town hall meeting or staff meeting that includes something that employee considered an on-the-job learning experience. Under American Express Banking’s Outlook model, that employee could then go into that Outlook invitation for that event and check a box linking to the company’s LMS recognizing it as a learning activity.
“I keep making the joke that we’re putting a formal spin on informal training,” Hammock said. “We’re trying to formalize informal training.”
This isn’t all bad. In many cases, building structure — or formalizing certain processes — is necessary to ensure on-the-job learning stays top of mind, according to Gary Whitney, vice president of learning and brand service consulting at hospitality firm InterContinental Hotels Group Inc.
Though Whitney said IHG isn’t quite there yet, finding ways to build awareness around when learning is happening on the job is something learning leaders should strive toward. In his case, he said he’s trying to build this awareness through the company’s general manager training program, with the idea that those general managers will then take those lessons and apply them in hotels.
For example, most times pre-shift staff meetings at hotels happen without a thought to learning, even though they’re ripe for on-the-job engagement. As a result, Whitney said something as simple as training managers to put together line-item lists of learning objectives for pre-shift meetings could be beneficial to promote on-the-job learning.
“It makes it more turnkey as a line-level manager to use that with their team, and it creates a moment of learning for them in what was typically thought of as just a meeting,” Whitney said.
He said boosting on-the-job learning requires a shift in learning leader thinking. Designing formal learning tools and putting them in place on the job is one thing. For on-the-job learning to really permeate throughout an organization, learning leaders have to forge relationships with other functional leaders early so learning isn’t brought in at the end; it’s collectively woven into everything.
“It’s much more subtle in influencing all elements of the systems, tools and processes they use to do their jobs,” Whitney said. “So coming in at the beginning and not the end, and thinking about the needs of those people. How do they do this on the job? How will they practice this on the job? What can we embed with this within the system or the technology or the process? … It’s getting further ahead in the strategic conversation and thinking about people and what they want and need sooner.”
Sometimes getting ahead in such conversations comes with less visible rewards. “A CLO needs to be prepared to not get credit for it,” Whitney said of creating experiential, on-the-job learning infrastructures.
When a learning leader creates a new sales training course, the results are usually pretty visible, with clear credit typically given to the learning leader or instructional designer. On-the-job learning is different.
“The key to the experiential is it’s about relationships — with the function, with the brand, with the region that you work with, to think about people and their learning needs throughout the life cycle,” Whitney said. “That’s the piece that some might be missing.”