Learning at Work

How is your work day going? What have you learned from your job, from your peers? If you aren’t learning at work, how rewarding is your job, really? In addition to working to maintain a satisfactory standard of living, informal learning at work adds to an individual’s work satisfaction.

Various reports hold that informal learning in the workplace accounts for about 90 percent of everything that employees learn. This may be an accurate number if we consider Albert Bandura’s social learning theory positing that we learn through observing others’ behaviours and attitudes as well as the outcomes of those behaviours.  

In his book, Social Learning Theory (1977), Bandura explains that there are four conditions for modelling behaviour. These are: 

  • Attention. Different factors can increase or decrease the amount of attention paid to a particular behaviour. This includes the behaviour’s distinctiveness, its effect on your emotions (positive or negative emotions are more likely to be remembered than a behaviour that did not evoke an emotional response), prevalence and complexity of the behaviour, functional value (e.g., how important is the behaviour to your job?). An individual’s characteristics also affect attention to the behaviour (e.g., sensory capacities, arousal level, perceptual set, past reinforcement, etc.).

  • Retention. This refers to remembering what you observed. This is impacted by symbolic coding, mental images, cognitive organization, symbolic rehearsal, and motor rehearsal (i.e., practicing what we observed).

  • Reproduction. This is about “doing” what we observed. It includes attention to our physical capabilities to reproduce the behaviour as well as feedback mechanisms through our own self-observation of the behaviour. How well are we reproducing the observed behaviour?

  • Motivation. To imitate behaviour, we need to have a good reason to do so. This may include motivators such as history (e.g., perhaps past behaviours did not result in good outcomes, so a new behaviour is desired) or it may involve promised or imagined incentives.

Like many social and cultural theorists, Bandura believed that the world and a person’s behaviour cause each other – we behave based on our environment, but we also create an environment based on our behaviour. Either way, organizations should take heed of the role that informal and social learning have in the workplace and encourage appropriate learning to maximize efficiency and performance. Following are five ways to increase informal learning in the workplace (adapted from: Growth Engineering).  

  1. Mentoring. Coaching and mentoring help improve training and learning. Knowledge sharing is also a great way to retain knowledge in the workplace and prepare for succession.

  2. Sharing. Social learning flourishes when people get into the habit of sharing their knowledge. Having a center of learning available on the corporate intranet or some other internal forum will go a long way to help employees collaborate and boost their learning.

  3. Experts. Provide expert resources for employees – knowing who to turn to when you have a question will go a long way to helping employees learn from each other.

  4. Rewards. Some companies reward an employee’s hard work with accolades such as “Employee of the Month” or “Top Contributor,” etc. This makes learning more fun. Another way to make learning fun is through gamification – who doesn’t love a good game of Scrabble for Business?

  5. Mandatory Learning. Ensuring that employees complete one level of learning before they can advance to the next level is a good way to ensure that they are reading the corporate handbook (so to speak!). This can be done readily through an online learning platform. This ensures that collaboration and social learning become part of the employees’ learning journey.

Would you like to know how you can learn better from work? Check out the Learning Innovations Laboratory report about the “three stances that make a difference” at work.

How Great Ideas Become Game Changers

Do you have a great idea? Is your idea the proverbial “game changer?” How do you know? Here are four criteria that you can use to evaluate your ideas:

  1. What is the benefit of your idea? What is its return on investment?
  2. What is the cost of your idea? What are its risk factors?
  3. Does your idea have a strategic fit with your organization? It needs to be consistent with your organization’s practices.
  4. How easy will it be to implement your idea? This is a key criterion.

If your idea passes all of the above criteria, then you possibly do have a “game changer!”

Other things to consider in relation to innovative ideas include:

  • Most innovation is incremental. If you have 25 percent of your organization’s people making a difference every day; that will amount to huge change over time. Patience is a virtue.
  • Innovation usually surfaces on the front lines. For instance, it’s the FedEx guy who realizes things can be done better; not FedEx management.
  • Size of the organization is irrelevant when it comes to innovation. However, bureaucracy is the enemy of innovation because it only rewards conservative victories. Be bold!
  • Innovation is sensitive to both new and desired customers. For instance, I believe it was Wayne Gretzky that said, “I don’t skate after the puck, I skate to where the puck is going to be.”
  • Innovation requires champions, but it also requires other things like focus, resources and priorities. It’s about consistency. For instance, if you need a fiscally prudent environment, then it needs to be fiscally prudent every day. Through consistency, the organization can change belief systems.
  • Innovation requires patience. Sometimes results of change can take a long time to show themselves. Remember the first bullet point above: Patience is a virtue.
  • When you have a “game changer” in hand, you need to exploit it. Seek out new markets. Use social media. Get noticed.

Finally, to accelerate innovation, promote its likely causes (e.g., front line workers) and exploit innovation for all its worth. After all, it’s innovation that makes the world move forward. In the words of Peter Drucker, “If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.”  

Before You Buy That New iGadget

Recent promos for the latest new technology gave me pause. And it should give you pause, too.

There is no doubt that we are a society of “must-have-the-latest-new-toy,” but have you thought about what happens to your old technology – those smartphones, laptops, printers, and other energy-emitting devices that you no longer wish to use? What is your old technology doing to Mother Earth?

You might say that you are responsible and recycle your old electronics. Good for you. And I bet many recycling depots do a decent job of ensuring safe recycling practices. But some old electronics may fall through the cracks.

In August 2009, CBS revealed some startling evidence (as only 60 Minutes can!) about old electronics being shipped illegally to countries like China where the dismantling of the equipment is hurting (understatement) the people and the environment. You can see the show here: http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/the-wasteland-50076351/.

If the 60 Minutes investigation does not give you pause, perhaps the following might.  

A report by Liam Young and Kate Davies of the Unknown Fields Division traces the supply chain of the global economy in reverse. Their research brings the point home (literally).

After the 60 Minutes expose aired, the Chinese government tried to clean-up Guiyu’s booming e-waste operation. However, Young and Davies state “that what really happened is that it went underground – or more specifically, inside.”

“Actually what happened is that the industry has moved from the street and into peoples’ houses,” he says. “So now this new form of mining is now a domestic industry, where a circuit board bubbles away to refine the copper next to a pot of noodles in someone’s kitchen.”

“It’s too easy for people to sit in an air conditioned flat in New York or London, tweeting on laptops and talking on their phones about the horrors of the rare earth mining industry or cheap production and exploitative labor in China,” Young says.

The reality is much worse.

Young and Davies collected some of the toxic mud created from recycled technology and created “lovely” toxic sludge vases. These vases are part of an exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London which opened on April 22, 2015.

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan summarizes the journey of the vases in a report titled “These Vases are Actually Made From Liquefied Smartphone ByProducts.” Here’s an excerpt:

“The mud that makes up each of these vessels was carefully drawn from a toxic lake in Inner Mongolia, where the sludge from the world’s most prolific Rare Earth Element refineries ends up. It was brought to London, where a ceramicist in a hazmat suit worked to turn it into actual pottery, representing the waste created by a smartphone, a featherweight laptop, and a car battery. Starting today at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s exhibit What Is Luxury?, you’ll be able to see each vase in person—a stark visualization of exactly what’s involved in building your electronics.”

After reading Campbell-Dollaghan’s report, I learned that our smartphones each have about 380 grams of toxic and radioactive waste. Think about that the next time you go to answer or make a call on your smartphone.

The questions before us are simple: 

  1. How much newer-better-luxury stuff do we really need?
  2. At what point will manufacturers take responsibility for killing the planet?
  3. What can be done now to reverse the damage?

The answers to the questions are probably not as simple.

The Problem with Collaboration

Why would anyone think that collaboration is a problem? After all, aren’t we all supposed to be playing nice in the sandbox? Maybe; but what most people don’t realize is that overuse of collaboration (“over-consultation”) can lead to underperformance and low productivity.

Studies show that extraverts especially tend to over-consult because they draw their energy from others—unlike introverts who draw their energy from within. Extraverts want to talk through their thoughts with whoever will listen; whereas, introverts need some alone time to work on that next big innovation.

Jake Breeden, author of Tipping Sacred Cows: Kick the Bad Work Habits that Masquerade as Virtues, says that “extraverts can become workplace vampires who suck the productivity out of their coworkers.” Having a team comprised mostly of extraverts is a danger signal for low productivity. Now imagine having an extravert for a boss (or bosses).

While collaboration can be good in some instances where consensus on decisions truly is valuable, it can also lead to decisions taking much longer because of the need for everyone to “weigh in,” even if they have nothing to contribute. In fact, people who prefer to work in isolation see collaboration as totally non-productive—participating in a collaborative exercise can be physically uncomfortable and devalues their time.

According to author Susan Cain, this “New Groupthink” called collaboration is permeating organizations. She says that offices are now comprised of people who work in teams, there are no walls in offices, and managers prize people skills above all. She says that “Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in.”

But the problem of collaboration, besides its contribution to lowered productivity, is its role in stifling creativity.

Those lone geniuses that are about to discover the newest innovation can be continuously shutdown by those that need to discuss everything.

How does one undertake collaboration productively? Breeden suggests the following:

  • Collaborate only with intention, clear boundaries, and expectations
  • Understand individual responsibilities
  • Leave plenty of time for unplugged, independent thought

Following the above guidelines, collaborators will inspire each other to be creative and, ultimately, more productive. And that is the desired effect.

Mastering Productivity

Productive organizations share a common trait—highly productive leaders.

Highly productive leaders create a climate in which people go the extra mile to perform at remarkably high levels. This is because when leaders set the example, staff willingly put extraordinary discretionary effort into their work.

It’s true that not everyone is born a great or productive leader. But it’s also true that everyone can grow their leadership skills to those of greatness and productivity.

The following well-researched traits paint a picture of productive leadership.

  1. Accountability. Productive leaders hold staff accountable for outcomes. The Best Buy organization, for example, reported a 35% increase in productivity when they factored accountability for results into their staff’s work.
  2. Clear objectives. Staff is empowered to reach the organization’s goals when they understand the goals. Leaders that can explain clearly the objectives of each and every project are facilitating the organization’s attainment of goals.
  3. Continuous improvement. By proactively engaging their organization in continuous improvement, leaders also proactively encourage higher productivity. Ensuring systems and processes are up-to-date and continuously looking for ways to improve both enables higher productivity.
  4. Enthusiasm. Emotions are highly contagious. By expressing enthusiasm for a project, for the organization, and for work (in general), leaders inspire staff to radiate the same enthusiasm. The result is that enthusiastic people are more energized and willing to put in the necessary effort to achieve goals.
  5. Respect. Proactively soliciting staff’s advice not only engages staff, but also encourages respect. And where there is respect, there is also higher productivity.
  6. Recognition. Nothing creates a positive work environment like a display of sincere appreciation for a job well done. Studies show a direct link between a positive working environment and greater productivity.

Productivity is essential to organizational (and individual) success. It is the core factor that dictates not only an organization’s standard of living, but each individual’s standard of living, as well. And organizations that master the art of productivity are ahead of their competition and can, therefore, boast a healthy standard of living.

As evident in the above list of productive leadership traits, being productive does not require complexity. A culture of straightforward, common sense behaviours that are within the grasp of every leader is the key to enhancing organizational productivity.

Letting Go

When was the last time you tried something new? How did it make you feel? If you’re adventurous, you probably felt thrilled. If you’re fearful, you are probably still wondering if the experience was worth the risk. So it is with organizations. Adventurous (or proactive) organizations thrive; the fearful (or reactive) survive—just barely.

Organizations (and individuals) that cannot let go of “dead ideas” are doomed to failure. Think about how many processes your organization manages every day. How many of these processes are preventing you and your staff from being maximally productive? Why aren’t the processes updated? Is it because everyone is so overworked that there is no time to address the issue?

If there is no time now to address the issue, then when? Constantly relegating issues to the backburner is like clinging to the old ways in the hope that the old ways will somehow magically reinvent themselves. These old ways are nothing more than dead ideas. And there is no place for dead ideas in productive organizations.

The sad news is that this way of thinking is not confined to individuals or the executive boardroom. Governments also think this way. This inability to let go of tired thinking is decaying everyone and everything.

Much has been written about change management because change is difficult to accomplish (think about changing just one of your habits—it takes at least three months of solid effort to build a new habit). But what seems to be coming through in organizations is that for change to occur, all employees need to be onboard. This requires changing old ways of thinking.

So how do we let go of old ways of thinking, of dead ideas? According to Matt Miller, there are three steps.

  1. Identify the ideas that matter. Since we can’t boil the ocean, pick the projects or ideas that will really make a profoundly positive impact on your organization or your life. These ideas will typically be strategic—those “sacred cow” ideas that no one has dared question until now.
  2. Understand each dead idea’s “story.” This comes down to identifying the root cause. How did this process become so entrenched with sub-processes? Why did this process seem to make sense in the first place? By understanding the root of the idea, it’s much easier to discern an action for change.
  3. Reach for new ways of thinking. Don’t dismiss ideas because they seem counterintuitive. If they seem counterintuitive, this may be a sign of how skewed our thinking has become; entrenched with only one way of doing things. Brainstorm. Look at possibilities. By reaching for new ways of thinking, we expand our minds.

In the end, we owe it to ourselves and our organizations to continuously improve and grow. By shedding old ways of doing things and inventing and implementing new concepts, we all thrive. Don’t get stuck in an outdated paradigm just because it’s been there all along.

The leader’s role in productivity

An organization’s performance is directly linked to its leader’s effectiveness. In fact, extraordinary leaders can make extraordinary employees out of average employees while poor leaders can turn extraordinary employees into poor performers. And it has nothing to do with the organization’s systems, processes, policies, or procedures.

Employees are impacted by their leader’s behavior. In a McKinsey Global Survey published in October 2009, nine critical leadership skills were identified. Inspiring employees ranked number one (Leadership through the crisis and after: McKinsey Global Survey Results, October 2009).

Inspiring employees is crucial if they are to serve customers in the best possible way, all the time. Since they are the organization’s front line to customer service, employees are the organization’s key to success. Empowered employees will perform their best to achieve their organization’s goals. The leader’s role in positively influencing this behavior cannot be overstated.

To sustain inspiration and empowerment, employees need recognition and reward. Both monetary and non-monetary reward can be used. Some employees may need a bonus to settle personal debts, while others may appreciate a more flexible working schedule. Ask your employees how they want to be rewarded and act accordingly.

While difficult to measure, strong leaders can impact the work environment by contributing to improved employee morale through a “snowball effect” of positive outcomes. It takes just one employee to hinder change, but it also takes just one employee to create positive effects. It starts with leaders.

There are five areas that every leader should consider to better influence productivity in their organizations. These areas are:

  1. Defining goals and objectives. Clarity around organizational goals and objectives and how projects fit within them needs to be provided. When employees understand the projects on which they are working, they are better able to identify and close gaps between the projects and the organizational goals.
  2. Assigning ownership. For any work undertaken in the organization, there should only be one owner of the work. When one owner-employee takes responsibility for the project, there is a greater chance of project success. If there are multiple owners or if ownership is not clear, efficiency and productivity suffers.
  3. Managing employee expectations. This includes ensuring employee job satisfaction and providing incentives and rewards. If employees are empowered and receive appropriate support (e.g., training, resources, etc.) to complete their work, their job satisfaction increases. In addition, recognizing and rewarding employees helps increase their self-esteem and further strengthens their resolve to continue working hard on behalf of the organization.
  4. Communicating. This is a two-way experience. Leaders need to be clear in their communications with employees, but they also need to listen to their employees and act on what their employees are telling them. By engaging in open communication, leaders build trust with their teams, further empowering productivity.
  5. Innovating. Without innovation, organizations will not grow. Leaders need to embrace innovation and encourage innovation and creativity in the workplace. Same old, same old has no place in organizations that want to be successful. Creating or inventing/re-inventing new markets, products and services—this is how successful organizations thrive.

Leadership competency models provide boundless traits and behaviors that differentiate between good and great leaders; they are all useful. But when higher levels of productivity are desired, straightforward behaviors—defining goals and objectives, assigning ownership, managing employee expectations, communicating, and innovating—can be achieved by every leader.

A core business goal, productivity is under the direction of leaders. Leaders who are able to motivate and inspire their employees will be the leaders of successful organizations. Those who do not may soon find themselves out of work.

 

35 Ways to Kill Ideas

I do not know the author of this list, but I found it to be a concise expose on how leaders (or anyone) can stifle innovation. It bears heeding that all ideas are valid ideas and some, if percolated sufficiently, may even lead to ingenious breakthroughs. Some of the world’s greatest inventors started out with ideas that at first bombed. Never underestimate or dismiss an idea, no matter how ridiculous it may seem at first. Here are ”35 Ways to Kill Ideas.” Use these statements only if you wish to remain status quo.

  1. Don’t be ridiculous
  2. We tried that before.
  3. It costs too much.
  4. It can’t be done.
  5. That’s beyond our/your responsibility.
  6. It’s too radical a change.
  7. We don’t have the time.
  8. That will make other equipment obsolete.
  9. We’re too small/big for it.
  10. That’s not our problem.
  11. We’ve never done it before.
  12. Let’s get back to reality.
  13. Why change it; it’s still working OK.
  14. You’re two years ahead of your time.
  15. We’re not ready for that.
  16. It isn’t in the budget.
  17. Can’t teach old dogs new tricks.
  18. Do the best you can with what you’ve got.
  19. Too hard to sell.
  20. Top management would never go for it.
  21. We’ll be the laughing stock.
  22. Let’s shelve it for the time being.
  23. We did all right without it.
  24. Has anyone else ever tried it?
  25. It won’t work in our industry.
  26. Will you guarantee it will work?
  27. That’s the way we’ve always done it.
  28. What we have is good enough.
  29. But we would also have to change the …
  30. It’s in our future plans.
  31. We’ll have somebody study that problem.
  32. It’s against our policy.
  33. The supplier would never do that.
  34. The customer wouldn’t accept that.
  35. When did you become the expert?

Managing Overnight Success

I recently worked with a client organization that became successful, seemingly overnight. Their dilemma was about how to manage their instant success and continue down a road of high efficiency and productivity. While instant success is a dilemma that many organizations would love to experience, one of the things that struck me about my client was that they recognized very early the need for effective systems for continuous improvement. This recognition alone speaks volumes about how they will continue to be successful.

But how do successful organizations remain or become more successful? In my experience, there are three areas of focus for success. They are: executive engagement, communications, and project management.

  1. Executive engagement. When an organization is successful, its executive must continue to be engaged within the organization. This includes setting clear priorities that align with the organization’s initiatives and programs, using facts and data to support actions at all levels of decision-making, creating accountabilities, expectations, roles and responsibilities for the organization, and conducting and attending regular audits/reviews to assure and verify progress.
  2. Communications. This is very important to ensure that both executives and staff are aware of what is going on within the organization, especially in terms of support for the organization’s mission. All staff, but especially executives, should be active communicators. There is nothing worse than working in an organization and not knowing what the organization’s plans are or how those plans are being achieved. Provide regular written communications through newsletters, Intranet postings, or other means. Develop and disseminate communication aids to management. Organizations who are in the “know” are also in the “lead.”
  3. Project management. Ensure that your projects are well documented and that they meet your organization’s priorities. Establish a one-year project inventory and update it regularly. Projects must meet critical business and customer needs. If they don’t, they’re not worth doing. Projects should also be of appropriate scope and size such that the projects can provide your organization with significant savings and be achievable. Above all, ensure that each project has a Champion and a Project Manager and that both are held accountable for project results. Use project management concepts to ensure that your projects are on track.

With these three elements working constantly within the organization, success is inevitable. But there is one more thing that I’d like to mention here – creativity. Through executive engagement, communications and project management, include creativity and innovation to improve your organization’s performance. Don’t be complacent with your success. You need to work hard to ensure continuing success. Successful organizations and successful people may not always meet their goals 100 percent of the time, but they certainly strive for 100 percent in all that they do.

Productivity or Greece?

Productivity is a very complex topic and even among experts it is difficult to exact a prescription to improve productivity. In its simplest form, productivity measures the efficiency of production. It is the ratio of production output to what is required (inputs) to produce the output. In terms of economic growth, governments look at productivity as the product of labour based on the average number of hours each employed person works and the proportion of the entire population that is employed. Labour productivity drives living standards. However, just because a person is employed does not mean that they are productive.

At the macro level, investments in physical capital, human capital and innovation drive productivity. At the micro level, productivity depends on the individual and their ability to improve their relative standard of living as a direct result of their ability to improve their personal productivity. While investment in productivity at the macro level is necessary and important, investment at the micro level is even more important. Can you imagine productivity without the individual?

Investing money to hire more people, to improve business infrastructure, and to fund more innovation won’t help if the issues directly impacting human capital, physical capital, and innovation aren’t managed first. Consider the following. An organization’s current workforce is not producing at expected levels, so the organization hires more people to improve its productivity. Is this the solution? Not necessarily. To improve productivity, first review the process to understand the contributing factors to lack of productivity. Employees are one part of the overall process, so adding more people to the process without knowing the cause of low productivity won’t solve the problem. Other factors impacting productivity may include the equipment that is being used (and how it is used), steps in the process, how steps are executed, waiting time, information management, etc.

Consider another example. British Columbia’s productivity performance is consistently below the Canadian average. One issue for this is that driver-specific issues of productivity performance within areas such as human capital are not being addressed. To improve productivity and performance, the elements that contribute to improved human capital (for example) need to be improved. This includes such things as the quality of the educational system, on-the-job training, skills shortages, capacity of workers to serve stakeholders, etc. These are all important determinants of success for overall economic growth.

British Columbia is lacking a “culture of productivity.” This is based on a report from the BC Progress Board in 2008. In recent years, other jurisdictions lacking a culture of productivity saw their economies stumble. Paying attention now to the details of productivity at the lowest level will ensure a vibrant and sustainable future. All the policies in the world won’t help improve productivity if the workers themselves are not productive. Greece learned the hard way. The rest of the world can learn from Greece.