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.

The Dark Side of Electronic Communication

Individuals and organizations alike still rely on electronic mail (e-mail) as a primary communication tool to conduct business. A 2003 study, still relevant by today’s standards, by associate professors Raymond Friedman and Steven Currall, caution about using e-mail to resolve conflicts. While they do not specifically mention it, using other media for the same purpose should also give one pause. 

Based on their review of sociological literature, the authors suggest that escalation of disputes is more likely during electronic communication than during face-to-face conversation. They also recommend a number of ways to ameliorate the risk of escalation, concluding with a call for additional empirical research into e-mail’s impact on conflict management.

The authors define the following properties as present in face-to-face communication:

  • Co-presence (parties are in the same surroundings)
  • Visibility (parties see one another)
  • Audibility (parties hear speech timing and intonation)
  • Cotemporality (parties receive utterances as they are produced)
  • Simultaneity (parties send and receive messages at once)
  • Sequentiality (parties take turns)

It is easy to see how each property enables communicators to “ground” the interaction. In other words, they are able to achieve a shared understanding about the encounter and a shared sense of participation. They also allow participants to time and adjust their actions and reactions so as to move toward agreement. Grounding, timing, and adjusting are all critically important tools in successful conflict resolution.

In looking at e-mail communication, the authors state that e-mail exchanges take place in an antisocial context (participants are isolated at their computers), allow new tactics (such as lengthy messages or communications that bundle multiple arguments together) and are characterized by reviewability and revisability (communicators are able to re-read received messages and extensively shape their responses).

These properties, as well as the lack of those that are unique to face-to-face conversation, engender the following effects (which Friedman and Currall claim increase the risk of escalation during conflict processing):

  • Low feedback. Electronic communication generates little feedback such as clues about how a recipient is reacting to one’s message. As a result, participants cannot fluidly adjust their comments to repair missteps or clarify misunderstandings. Inadvertent insults and loss of face become more likely, and misunderstandings accumulate. Also, recipients can often perceive communication tactics as “heavier” than intended. This causes social bonds to weaken and the involved parties find it more difficult to resolve conflicts.
  • Reduced social cues. E-mail communication lacks the emotional expression found in face-to-face conversations; therefore, the parties rely more on the messages’ cognitive content to manage conflict. In addition, although e-mail participants often include greetings and other forms of “social lubrication” in their messages, the power of such rituals to remind people of social norms and rules declines significantly the longer the delay between message exchanges. When long delays exist, message recipients may respond in socially inappropriate ways – aggressively or not empathetically.
  • Length of messages. When a sender bundles multiple arguments in a lengthy e-mail message, the recipient may forget to respond to one or more arguments in the reply. Moreover, in crafting a response, the recipient may focus only on those arguments that he or she found most upsetting. When a sender believes that the recipient has ignored parts of the message, the sender may suspect a violation of interaction norms. Misunderstandings can accumulate, and inadvertent insults can become more likely.
  • Excess attention. Thanks to the properties of reviewability and revisability, online communicators can ruminate at length about received messages. Research suggests that rumination increases both angry mood and perceptions of a problem’s magnitude. Reviewability and revisability also permit elaborate editing of messages, which increases composers’ commitment to their arguments. The parties become less willing to compromise, begin depersonalizing one another and view the conflict as unresolvable.

The conclusions? Use face-to-face conversations or phone calls to discuss disputes. If e-mail cannot be avoided, then consider that the perceived insult may have been unintentional. Finally, the authors suggest that e-mail users can and should manage risk to resolve conflicts more productively.

Drugs and Workplace Productivity

Productivity doesn’t just happen. It takes focus and sustained effort to accomplish work tasks. However, the amount of focus and effort varies, depending on the difficulty of the task.

The opposite is also true. That is, non-productivity does “just happen.” It is so easy to be non-productive – that’s why many of us can slide into a weekend of rest and relaxation without any effort!

But while at work, it is important to do our best to be as productive as possible. And in order to do that, it is equally important to respect our bodies and not use substances that can inhibit our work performance. Ever.

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, drug abuse costs employers $81 billion annually.

As well, workers who report having three or more jobs in the previous five years are about twice as likely to be current or past year users of illegal drugs as those who had two or fewer jobs.

And, an astounding 70% of the estimated 14.8 million Americans who use illegal drugs are employed.

The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse in 2003 estimated that legal substances (tobacco and alcohol) account for 79.3% of the total cost of substance abuse, while illegal drugs account for 20.7% ($8.2 billion) of costs.

With the recent explosion of “medical marijuana” retailers, these numbers are estimated to increase. Employers now find themselves in a situation where they need to consider even more so the impacts of once-illicit drugs on their workforce. The impacts on work productivity are difficult to ignore.

I continue to be in awe and amazed at the silence of the medical community about the ill effects of cannabis (usually termed “marijuana”). In terms of the workplace, however, cannabis has an immediate and ongoing effect on productivity.

It has been documented that cannabis causes the following side effects (this is not a complete list):

  • Decreased focus
  • Decreased concentration
  • Decreased alertness
  • Decreased memory and thinking capabilities
  • Decreased motivation – as such, this affects the employee’s ability to relate to their colleagues, clients and customers
  • Increased risk of developing dependence
  • Increased risk of respiratory illness
  • Increased risk of mental illness
  • Diminished relationships – think about how this impacts teamwork in the workplace with added pressure being placed on non-users including poor collaboration on projects (as an example)
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Increased risk of injury of self or others (resulting in loss of time and potential workers’ compensation)
  • Decreased driving performance

Of note is that marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in Canada, with 10.6% of Canadians reporting past-year use in 2012. As well, Canadian youth have the highest rate of past-year marijuana use (28% in 2009-2010) compared to student in other developed countries.

While governments are starting to “give in” to the demand for legalizing marijuana, this legalization has put the onus on organizations to conduct their own workplace drug testing. In addition, organizations need to ensure adequate workforce training in identifying potential drug use.

Human resource departments are now even more critical to the organizations’ functions to ensure the business’s bottom line is not being impacted by drug use.

One of the ways in which HR can help is to build relationships with managers and employees. When you know someone, it’s much easier to identify changes in behaviour and productivity and to provide proper intervention.

In addition, implementing policies and procedures will help all workers be aware of the signs and symptoms of drug use. Much like personal issues or inter-staff and management issues, keeping substance use/abuse top-of-mind helps to identify the problem, so it can be addressed quickly.

 

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 Competitive Edge

What’s your competitive edge? What makes you or your business the “one” to beat?

If you’re like most businesses, you probably say that you’re good at what you do or that you’re better than anyone else in your craft. That’s all well and good, but why should clients care?

Here’s the thing:  Clients don’t actually care about you or your business. They only care about themselves and what you or your business can do for them. This makes sense, since clients want as much value as they can get, but they don’t typically care where they get it.  

What can you or your organization do to position yourselves to be the best? Here are four considerations: 

  1. Cost. Reducing operating costs will provide you with a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Relentlessly pursue the removal of all waste in your organization to reduce operating costs. Look at the entire cost structure of your organization for all potential cost-reduction areas. And don’t forget to pursue Lean production in all you do.
  2. Speed. Make sure you are able to deliver on your promises quickly and by no later than promised due dates. You can improve speed of delivery by improving your organization’s communications capabilities (think:  Technology) and using equipment that is reliable and right for the job. Ensure you have knowledgeable workers to assist with your projects. Also, use just-in-time production to reduce inventories and reduce risk.
  3. Quality. While some companies employ quality as a reaction to the marketplace, to compete on quality means that you and your organization use it to please the customer and not just a way to avoid problems. Since quality is different for each customer, you and your organization need to understand your customers’ needs, wants and requirements, so that you can translate them into exact specifications for the customers’ desired goods and services.
  4. Flexibility. Competing on flexibility means that your organization is able to adjust to changes in the marketplace relating to its product mix, volume or design. This means being able to produce a variety of goods or services within the same facility to meet customized requests. Multi-skilled workers and excess capacity in the business can help an organization compete on flexibility. 

Most organizations should start positioning themselves in the market by focusing first on quality. Once quality is perfected, then focus on speed of delivery, then cost-cutting in operations and, finally on flexibility. 

If your organization is not as competitive as you believe it should be, improving on all of the above competitive advantages may be in order. You will find that as you become more competitive, you will reach a point where a trade-off will be required between being better in one or another area. This will ultimately set you apart from your competition.

Off Target

When Target came to Canada in 2011, not only were consumers surprised that the retailer opened up over one hundred stores across the country, but so was the business community. To do such a “big bang” approach, you either know what you’re doing or you’re taking a major risk. Unfortunately for Target, its major risk did not pay off.

Target’s biggest failing was in not piloting its entry to Canada with one or two stores before launching full scale. Any project manager worth their trade will tell you that starting small and building up when it makes sense to do so is the best guarantee of success.

In addition to missing the mark with their full-scale roll-out across Canada, Target missed out on the basics of operations management. For one thing, their demand forecasting appears to have been a dismal failure. If they had forecast properly, they would have learned that Canadians preferred the U.S.-type Target stores and not reincarnations of Zellers.

Target also missed out on strategic capacity planning as well as facility layout design. Their inventory systems management was absent, to say the least. This also speaks to their lack of adequate supply chain management. When inventory is scant (as it was at Canadian Target stores), one might reasonably presume that the retailer was using some type of customized just-in-time fulfillment. However, this, too, appears to not have been part of Target’s strategy.

A material requirements planning or enterprise resource planning software would have helped Target manage its stocks and stores. However, we can see that even if Target had such a system, it, too, failed them.

And what about quality? Quality and price are generally prominent factors for consumers. Integrating quality into every element of an operation allows an organization to reduce its prices while still remaining profitable. Clearly, quality does not appear to have been a high priority for Target.

While one can hypothesize about Target’s demise in Canada, it provides little comfort to Target employees. As well, the company itself is now targeted (pardon the pun) as a losing venture:  At least, in Canada.

One thing is certain, though: Target really did miss its mark!

Service – Now!

When you’re in line waiting for service, how long is too long?

Studies show that on average, waiting more than three minutes is too long. And customers that wait more than three minutes? There is a strong likelihood that they are dealing with the only available service provider. If customers have choices, they will leave.

This is not good news for providers of service.

How good is your company at providing top-notch customer service? STELLAservice, an online customer service rating company, found that DisneyStore.com ranked among the top ten for both speediest e-mail support (1 hour, 47 minutes, 40 seconds) and phone support (12 seconds). For the full survey, click here.

In addition to speed (or time), customers are also looking for the following qualities in service (source: Evans and Lindsay, The Management and Control of Quality).

  1. Timeliness. Is the service completed on time? For example, is an overnight package delivered overnight?
  2. Completeness. Is everything the customer asked for provided? For example, is a mail order from a catalog company complete when delivered?
  3. Courtesy. How are customers treated by employees? For example, are catalog phone operators at Sears nice and are their voices pleasant?
  4. Consistency. Is the same level of service provided to each customer each time? For example, is your newspaper delivered on time every morning?
  5. Accessibility and convenience. How easy is it to obtain the service? For example, when you call Sears, does the service representative answer quickly?
  6. Accuracy. Is the service preformed right every time? For example, is your bank or credit card statement correct every month?
  7. Responsiveness. How well does the company react to unusual situations (which can happen frequently in a service company)? For example, how well is a telephone operator at Sears able to respond to a customer’s questions about a catalog item not fully described in the catalog?

When working with customers, service providers are in a more precarious situation than are producers of manufactured goods. Because service can be intangible (unlike a product or good that is tangible), it is sometimes hard to know a customer’s expectations. A service’s “fitness for use” is often in the eyes of the customer.

By building quality into every dimension of service, organizations will not only attain excellence in service, but happy and loyal customers – and a healthy bottom line.

Six Steps for Achieving Quality

We all intuitively understand quality. It’s that “something” that makes us appreciates a product or service; but describing that “something” can be difficult. 

From a customer’s perspective, quality is what the customer is willing to pay for. From the organization’s perspective, quality relates to a product’s or service’s conformance to specifications. And these specifications are not only according to what the organization prescribes, but they also relate to the customer’s expectations. 

Organizations that spend money on achieving quality systems and programs are, in the end, more profitable than those that do not. This is because quality management programs not only prevent poor-quality products or services from reaching the customer, but they also continuously improve on existing quality practices to ensure that products and services are done right the first time.

Here are six steps (adapted from Operations Management by Nigel Slack, et al) to help you or your organization produce a quality product or service.

  1. Define the quality characteristics of the product or service. These characteristics will be different for every type of product or service, depending on the industry. For instance, you may be evaluating on functionality (how well the product or service does its job), appearance (sensory characteristics), reliability (consistency of performance), durability, or some other quality.
  2. Decide how to measure each quality characteristic. Depending on the quality characteristics, how will you measure functionality, for example, a restaurant, airline, bank, or computer? What characteristics of appearance are quality characteristics? What about reliability? And so on.  
  3. Set quality standards for each quality characteristic. This is the level of quality that defines the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable. This can be difficult. For example, if one restaurant customer out of every 1,000 complains about the food, does that mean the other 999 are satisfied and, therefore, quality is good? Or are there other equally unhappy customers who did not complain? If this level of complaint is similar for other restaurants, do we regard this as satisfactory quality?
  4. Control quality against those standards. When standards are set, the organization needs to check its product’s or service’s conformance to those standards. This means that product or service delivery is “done right the first time every time.” As part of this control, the organization needs to decide where in the process that checks should occur, whether every product or service should be checked (or should checking be confined to sampling), and how the checks should be performed.
  5. Find and correct causes of poor quality. Implement total quality management tools and techniques to find and correct poor quality.
  6. Continue to make improvements. As with step 5 above, total quality management tools and techniques will help the organization cut its costs of poor quality and improve overall quality.

As your organization implements quality programs, remember to include employees in all quality improvement initiatives. If your employees are not happy, there is a strong likelihood that your customers are also not happy (even if customers are not complaining – see note under Step 3 above).  

Consider this evidence compiled by the British Quality Foundation:  About 68 percent of customers will stop doing business if they perceive an attitude of indifference from your staff. However, only 14 percent will leave if they are dissatisfied with your product or service, while nine percent leave for competitive reasons.

Include your employees in all quality programs for a healthy work environment and bottom line.

Types of Clients

Let’s face it. There are clients and then there are clients. The great clients (or customers) are those that are ready, willing, and able to work with experts to achieve organizational efficiencies.

And then there are clients who fall short on anything from initial meeting to following through with an expert’s recommendations – these latter clients are wasting not only the expert’s time, but their own, as well.

As experts in our various fields of work, we have all run into a variety of clients. Here are some of the more common types – if you’re a client, maybe you see yourself in one or more of these descriptions: 

Bargainers. These clients want everything you’re proposing, but they can’t pay for it. Or maybe they’re doing the project “under the table,” and don’t want to ask the “real boss” to pay for it. Solution: If the client does not have the money for the full project scope, downgrade the scope – phase the project into manageable chunks.

Naysayers. These clients just can’t believe the project will take six months to complete. Certainly they can do it in a fraction of the time. Solution: Explain why the project will take as long as it will (perhaps a timeline depicting steps is helpful here); if the client does not believe you, suggest a mix of internal and external resources to complete the project faster. Client is still a non-believer? Walk away.

Stealth Implementers. They insist that no one else from their organization needs to be involved in the project. Just do it. Solution: Stress (and demonstrate with examples) how involving others in the organization will greatly enhance the success of this project as well as change management when implementation occurs. 

Self-Made Experts. These clients believe they can do exactly what you’re proposing without you, so why are you charging them so much? Why don’t you just tell them the steps that you would take and then leave them to it? Solution: Walk away.

Call 9-1-1. These clients think everything is an emergency. They need your proposal “yesterday” and the work is required within the next month. However, when you give them your proposal, you don’t hear from them for six weeks. Solution: Develop a project timetable and meet each deadline. Build in “slack” time for all steps involving client input.

Weekend Schmeekend. This is the client that sends you e-mail at all hours of the day and night. Weekends are for working. There is no such thing as work-life balance. Solution: Say no when appropriate. Just because the client works all hours does not mean everyone else needs to, as well!

Committee Monger. The client who believes everything needs to be decided by committee. The end result? Everything gets decided by committee, no one takes responsibility for decisions, and decisions take much longer. Solution: Ensure that there is one “point” person (typically a Project Champion) that will sign-off on all deliverables.

Wordsmithers. You know the ones that review your work and almost re-write the entire content? Solution: Set a time limit for review and stress that only key content requires review. Provide an example. Or hand out the report ahead of time and then convene as a group to review the feedback.

In the end, it’s up to the expert to determine whether they are able to work with the client. If the decision is to fire the client, provide them with the name of another expert – even if it is a competitor. You’ll be glad you did!

Government Spending: A Cause of Inefficiency

We often hear that government is inefficient:  They spend too much, they take too much time to provide services, they do not provide quality services, they have too many checkpoints, and so on. But who or what is government? Are employees not the heart of any organization?

Contrary to popular belief, employee performance is not the problem when it comes to efficiency. There are many very industrious and efficient employees in any industry, including government.

The root of inefficiency in government relates to money. More specifically, because governments do not spend their own money, inefficiency can be a serious problem.

To put this into perspective, think about these four possible scenarios relating to spending money (source: Milton Friedman, Free to Choose) (a matrix is also provided):

  1. You spend your own money on yourself. When you spend your own money on yourself, you take care with your money, trying to get the best deal (best quality for least cost).
  2. You spend your own money on somebody else. When you spend your money on somebody else, you still take care to spend the least amount of money, but you are not as concerned about the quality of the product or service. For example: buying gifts for someone else.
  3. You spend somebody else’s money on yourself. When you spend somebody else’s money on yourself, your primary concern is to get the best quality. Money really is no object. For example: buying yourself a gift or enjoying dinner on “somebody else’s dime.”
  4. You spend somebody else’s money on somebody else. When you have somebody else’s money to spend on others, concern for quantity of spending and quality of product and service is not a high consideration. This is the situation with government spending.

Now put yourself in government’s shoes. If you have an almost unlimited supply of someone else’s (i.e., taxpayer) money each year, how will you spend it? Will you really give your systems and processes the due care that you would if you were spending your own money?

Unlike private organizations that spend money on goods and services that the market values, government spending has no information value. That is, organizations that spend to meet market demand will create a profit – this is the value that the organization generates. If it stops generating value for its customers, it stops making money.

In government, no matter how much money is spent and no matter how much output is produced, government does not know the value of its output. This contributes to a cycle of inefficiency in spending and outputs.

When was the last time your government told you how well they spent your money?

While pockets of government departments do forge ahead with implementing efficiency measures, there is generally no check on government efficiency. Governments are inefficient because they can be.