The Human Element in the Real World - Part 3

Nov 19, 2012, 3:40PM EST
The Human Element in the Real World - Part 3
In this third and final article on improving training in small maritime organizations, I am going to cover a number of lessons derived from one company’s transition to training excellence. These include training plan ownership, employee involvement, visibility, and training infrastructure. These can serve as valuable guidance to any maritime organization looking to make the transition to a high quality, professional and continuously improved training organization.

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Introduction

In the first article of this series I began a discussion on what small maritime organizations can do to improve training performance and organizational culture without having a large budget to devote to the task.  I used as an example an organization of 100 employees which felt as though their training program required attention and decided to do something about it. In the second article I listed two of the main lessons learned from their experience: formulating a simple initial plan and ensuring that continuous improvement was a central part of that plan. Yet as important as these were, the overriding lesson was that any organization, on any budget, can improve professionalism and become a top-rate training organization without any (or much) additional expense.

 

In this third and final article on the subject, I am going to cover the remaining lessons derived from this company’s transition to training excellence including plan ownership, employee involvement, visibility, and training infrastructure. These can serve as valuable guidance to any maritime organization looking to make the transition to a high quality, professional and continuously improved training organization.

 

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What Did They Do?

A description of the process undertaken by this company to transform their training can be found in the first article of this series. However, as a quick recap the company laid out the following goals at the outset:

  1. The formulation of a  “plan of attack” (to be completed within 3 months) for training in the company. The execution of the plan had to be achievable within their current training budget.
  2. Determine how the plan itself was managed, when it would be reviewed, who would own it, etc.  The purpose was to ensure that the plan had a future by being continuously reviewed and improved.
  3. Define the infrastructure required for long term success. For them, the infrastructure for success meant choosing a learning management system (LMS) which could deliver their new training initiatives.
  4. Finally, to launch their training initiative, they decided it was important that the initial plan define one short-term meaningful project that improved training outcomes and/or reduced costs. They decided this initial project must be achievable in, at most, 6 months. The goal was to test their new training infrastructure, test their plan, gain some experience, begin the process of employee engagement, and have one visible success to help develop some momentum.

The Elements of Success

It turns out that the particular plan of action initiated by the company was a highly successful one. There are many lessons to take from their experience, two of which were covered in my previous article. Those were:

  1. Create a plan, but don’t wait for it to be perfect before getting started, and
  2. Ensure that a process of continuous improvement is a central part of that plan.

The bottom line for those two lessons is that the simple act of getting started requires some inertia and effort.  If we spend too much time trying to perfect the plan first, not only will we get much of it wrong anyhow, but there is the real danger that delays, disagreements and planning fatigue will end up making it so the plan is never launched. Instead, it is often more effective to create a simple plan initially, and ensure that the plan itself has a built-in mechanism requiring refinement and improvement over time as experience is gained and informed decisions can be made. Avoid the temptation to prematurely optimize your plan.

Remember - the most effective plans are those which have been refined on the basis of years of trial and experience. The least effective plans are those that never get off the ground. This company’s decision to spend no more than three months on the initial plan design was critical to ensuring that progress would be made, and that some visible effect would be achieved in short order. It did get off the ground and it did receive attention and refinement over time.

Let’s look at some of the other useful lessons from this company's experience.

Plan Ownership

The plan itself, for this company, defined who the plan owner was. It did not name a person, but rather a position. While having an owner may seem simple and obvious, it is important as it avoids the situation that often occurs when there is a group of people who are responsible for maintaining the plan. If everyone is responsible, then no one is responsible. Ideally the plan falls to the person in charge of training and that person reports to their immediate superior whose job it is to ensure that progress is made and the plan is vetted and followed.

Interestingly, in the case of this company, the plan was actually owned by a reasonably junior person who looked after training management. Although this person did require a bit of support and guidance as to the training mission, the effect was actually very positive because of his energy and desire to make a difference. He took the role seriously and spent some time reading articles (not unlike this one) on training planning and management.  In the end, the plan owner matured in training management sophistication and did an excellent job. So while it may be the case that ideally a highly qualified and experienced training manager would be placed in charge of the plan, this is not always necessary. Formulating and executing a training plan for a small organization is not rocket science, and anyone with some enthusiasm, intelligence, support, and the ability to do a bit of reading can do it.

Have an Owner, But Involve Everyone

For the plan to be successful, it must have input from everyone affected by the plan. That generally means everyone in the company. Obviously it would not be possible (or desirable) to have all employees attend meetings and collaborate on the writing of the plan - but each person in the company can contribute at the appropriate level and in an appropriate way. Some will be closely involved and others involved only at a distance.

For example, this company created a core team, chaired by the plan owner, to contribute ideas for the initial plan, and to meet regularly to facilitate continuous improvement. The core team included people from each major company function and level including administrative, managerial and operational. The plan owner was also careful to include both new and long-time employees, as well as enthusiasts and skeptics. This ensured that progress was never hampered by having to await an opinion or approval (other than final approval). All of the necessary information was around the table. It also ensured that all points of view were considered and that most concerns were heard and addressed during planning rather than afterward, during rollout.

The company also involved each and every employee by disseminating questionnaires to collect opinions and information and by circulating periodic updates on progress. In this way, each employee in the organization was aware of what was happening and had a hand in driving it. This visibility and participation created a sense of ownership and anticipation. By the time the plan was released and put into action, the entire company was aware of it and had a good understating of the goals, the process, and how to provide feedback.

Visibility

The previous point of involving everyone (to an appropriate degree) achieved the side effect of making the project very visible in the company even before it was put into place. This is an important aspect of change management. Change affects how employees do their work. As such, any change can cause apprehension and can therefore be met with resistance. By ensuring that the project has a high degree of visibility even before it is rolled out, employees at the company were able to gain an understanding of (and provide suggestions on) what the effects would be on them. This, combined with an understanding of why the project was important made the change management process quite smooth in this case.

This is an important point that is difficult to over stress. Moving to blended or e-learning creates a lot of unknowns in the minds of employees and I have seen both smooth and difficult transitions. This company’s implementation was among the smoothest I’ve ever seen and I believe this was largely due to the great visibility all employees had into the the project’s importance, goals, process and implementation. Transparency and involvement are key not only for achieving buy-in, but also to ensure that we are not inadvertently making the lives of any of our employees more difficult as a result of some oversight.

Modest Beginnings

Recall that the plan adopted by this company called for one initial training project to be completed within 6 months. In choosing this first project they made a wise decision to keep the project meaningful, yet modest and highly predictable (the project had very little risk in it). It is not always the case that meaningful projects are low risk. However, keeping the risk in the initial project as low risk as possible avoids the possibility of an early and visible failure. Early failures are much harder to overcome than failures which occur after a small string of steady successes. Therefore, leave the high risk projects for later - keep to the easy stuff first.

In this case, the company choose to implement a learning management system or LMS (which was the reason for my involvement) and then create just one single course on the LMS - their new hire orientation course. This was low risk because the technology was easy to test ahead of time, and because they already had most of the material needed for new hire orientation. All that was required was that it be put on-line using the new LMS. Even though the project was modest and predictable, it:

  1. Provided some visible benefits to new employees in terms of flexible training before arriving for their first day of work
  2. It generated some useful training metrics which helped inform management where the course could be improved
  3. It allowed the company to get accustomed to and test their new training infrastructure (our LMS)
  4. It took them to a point where they now had implemented a scalable e-learning infrastructure (the LMS) and had gained experience implementing and delivering e-learning.

Taken together this was a significant accomplishment in only 9 months of planning and implementation. And because of the way they went about it, the employees were almost universally positive about the new training direction. Even the skeptics (and there were very few) appreciated the desire to take a much more professional and measured approach to training within the organization.

Conclusion

This company made a significant transition from a more-or-less ad-hoc training approach to one which was highly professional, predictable, and very well structured. In addition, the use of technology provided metrics which allowed them to put a process of continuous improvement in place. This guaranteed that both the training plan and the training itself would continue to improve, year over year. All that was required was a will to make a change, a few good common-sense decisions, and enthusiasm from the management. Notice that “big budget” was not one of the requirements.

I’ll close by quoting a line from my first article in this series. “...  if you want to succeed, you need to start sometime. All it takes is a decision to begin. If not now, then when”?

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About The Author:

Murray Goldberg is the founder and President of Marine Learning Systems (www.marinels.com), the creator of MarineLMS - the learning management system designed specifically for maritime industry training. Murray began research in eLearning in 1995 as a faculty member of Computer Science at the University of British Columbia. He went on to create WebCT, the world’s first commercially successful LMS for higher education; serving 14 million students in 80 countries. Murray has won over a dozen University, National and International awards for teaching excellence and his pioneering contributions to the field of educational technology. Now, in Marine Learning Systems, Murray is hoping to play a part in advancing the art and science of learning in the maritime industry.

 

Blog Notifications: For notifications of new maritime training articles, please Follow this blog.

Maritime Mentoring: International Maritime Mentoring Community - Find a Mentor, Be a Mentor

 
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