I recently completed one of the most comprehensive work-learning audits I’ve ever been asked to do for a major U. S. retailer. The goal of the audit was to find out how their learning programs AND work-learning environment were supporting the stores in being successful. The audit involved (1) structured and unstructured interviewing with all levels of the organization, especially with store personnel, (2) focus groups held across the country with specific groups of store personnel (e.g., clerk, store managers, assistant managers, etc.), (3) task force meetings with senior line managers and representatives throughout the company, (4) learning audits of e-learning courses, (5) learning audits of a mission-critical classroom course, (6) review of company artifacts (CEO messages, publications, databases, intranet, etc.), (7) interviews with learning-and-performance professionals, (8) discussions of business strategy, (9) discussions regarding corporate information and data-gathering capabilities, (10) job shadowing, (11) store observations, etc.

Who/What Do Workers Learn From?

One of the most intriguing results came out of a relatively simple exercise I did with focus-group participants. The following is a rough approximation of those results.

What I did was ask focus-group participants who they learned from. I would hold up a large 6 x 8 index card with a position label on it, for example, "District Manager," "Clerks," or "Corporate." The group would shout out where they thought that card should go on a large diagram I had created on the wall. I would place it on the wall in a particular category based on the verbal responses and then we would negotiate as a group to determine it’s final positioning. So for example, participants could say that they learned the following amounts from that person/position, and we often compromised using in-between placement:

  • Learned Most
  • Learned a Lot
  • Learned Some
  • Learned a Little
  • Learned Least
  • Had Little/No Contact with

See the diagram below for a rough example. This one is actually a composite based on several focus groups and more than one position. It gives a fair representation for how frontline retail clerks responded. Note that the orange boxes represent fellow employees, while the blue boxes represent other groups of people or things that they learned from.

Whowhatdopeoplelearnfrom

There are several key insights from these results:

  • People learn the most from those who they work closely with.
  • People learn the most from their experience doing the job.
  • People learn the most from their self-initiated efforts at learning.
  • The more contact, the more learning (for the most part), however there are benefits from learning from experts (e.g., store managers, head clerks), though the worker has to have at least some signicant contact with them to create this benefit. You’ll notice that district staff have only a little impact and regional and corporate staff have none.
  • E-learning is seen as somewhat facilitative but not a place where workers learn the most. This result may be organization specific as different e-learning designs and implementations might easily move this result higher or lower.

Frontline clerks didn’t get much from company magazines and the like, but managers (not represented in the results above) did find value in these. Store managers also reported that networking with other store managers was on of the "Learn Most" entries for them. For this company, this network was even more important than learning from their district managers (their direct bosses). This makes sense because their network is more accessible throughout the heat of the daily grind.

These results were eye-opening for my client, and they are still wrangling with the implications. For example, district managers and district training staff seemed to produce very little learning benefits. So, should their roles for learning be de-emphasized or re-emphasized?

These types of result have to be understood in the larger data-gathering effort of course. Analyzed alone, they suffer from the problem of de-contextualized self-report data. Combined with multiple other data sources, they paint a really robust picture of an organization’s learning environment.

Informal Learning, Social Networks, etc.

Vendors are out and about in our field now selling the benefits of complicated and expensive analysis tools for looking at how people learn through so-called informal on-the-job mechanisms. The example above shows that if you don’t have the big bucks, there are simpler ways to get good data as well.