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  Strategic Learning Contracts - Maximizing Training and Learning Results

Tom Peters once spoke of a sausage company in the U.S. that determined pay scales, in part by the amount of new things that staff learned. So, when a sausage assembly line worker learned something about accounting, that was five bucks an hour more on the pay cheque. It's great to be able to have the luxury to do things like that. However, the closest we in government are going to get to such schemes is to eat the sausage made by the person who got the extra five bucks.

If you follow the trends (and fads) in the organization development field, you are probably aware of one of the newest: the learning organization, popularized by Senge. Time will tell whether this perspective "takes root" (it won't), but there is no question that learning is an important process in any organization that wants to sustain success. So putting aside the sometimes abstract philosophy of the learning organization", what can individual managers do to encourage and support learning on the part of staff?

One way is to put in place a simple, straightforward process to plan and support learning experiences. Strategic learning contracts (and their companion learning experience contracts) can be helpful in this respect.

The Strategic Learning Contract: What Is It?

We know that a good deal of learning (e.g. from training) is wasted because the goals are ill- defined, and the workplace supports to apply the learning are missing or absent. Stories abound about people who attend computer training, only to return to work and not have the hardware or software arrive until months after training. By that time, almost any benefits are lost. Stories also abound about being "sent" to training...people who have been asked by their managers to attend something, but not told why, or what they are expected to gain and contribute from the experience.

Learning contracts are designed to help develop shared expectations about the purpose, process and results that are to come from any learning experiences. They are also used to plan learning for the upcoming year for each staff member.

We define the learning contract as a strategic planning document. It is done (at minimum) once a year, preferably after each employee's responsibilities and job tasks are set for the upcoming year. Once those tasks/objectives are set, the question that follows is: What kind of learning/skills etc would help the staff member complete those responsibilities more effectively?

That yields the learning objectives or goals for the year. Once those are defined WITH the staff member, the next task is to determine what methods would be most appropriate for creating the required learning. It might be a training session, but it could be mentoring or coaching, secondment, job exchange, etc.

The contract should also contain some reference to how the learning is to be applied in the workplace, (this is actually the "why"), and any supports required by the staff member to apply the learning.

To summarize here are the key questions:

  1. What does the staff member need to learn this year that will help him/her achieve the goals negotiated for that particular year (or multiple years)?

  2. What is the best way for the staff member to acquire the skills/learning needed?

  3. How do we expect this learning to be applied in the workplace (how would we know it wants a waste of time?)

  4. What supports are needed in the workplace to ensure that the learning CAN be used in the workplace?

It's a simple but powerful process and one that can be expanded in time and scope to link up to larger personnel and career development issues, or succession and promotion planning. The resulting document could be as small as one or two pages. One thing to keep in mind: the key element here is not the document per se but the communication and clarification process that comes from the dialogue between staff person and manager.

The Learning Experience Contract

While the strategic learning contract is more long range, sometimes learning or training opportunities "come up". For example, a major seminar may be offered that might be of some use. A staff member would like to go. How do you maximize the benefits from the investment?

The learning experience contract is more specific than the strategic learning contract, and applies to a particular experience (e.g. training seminar).

The document itself can look very much like the one described above. The questions are similar.

  1. What is to be learned by being involved in the specific learning experience?

  2. How are these "learning’s" linked to the staff member's job function, organization success, career development, etc.?

  3. How is the staff member expected to apply what has been learned? (May include things like sharing information with other staff, direct job applications, producing summary of the training points, etc).

  4. How can the manager or organization support the application of the learning in the workplace?

Final Remarks:

Some estimates suggest that the majority of formal and structured learning experiences (such as training) bring virtually no practical benefit to the organization, or even those directly involved. There are many reasons for this ranging from very poorly implemented training and learning, to lack of workplace support for the application of the learning. In addition, a good amount of training and learning is not "thought-through" so experiences become "a vacation" or a "change". Given restricted budgets, there is a need to ensure that investments in learning are not wasted, and that we link them to both personal and organization effectiveness. The strategic learning contract and the more specific learning experience contract provide a simple, but formal structure for linking learning and training with real outcomes.

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