Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Learning on the job (flipside)

Scene from a recent shopping experience at a sports shop:

(Backdrop: There’s a sale at a particular sports shop. My wife went there in the morning and picked a t-shirt for me, which ended not being the right fit. During the purchase the sales guy at that time/shift had assured my wife that she could exchange it later if I didn’t like the fit/color. And off course only on terms that there was no damage caused to the goods purchased. Understandable. Later in the afternoon we tread our way back to the store to exchange the Tee and we end up meeting the sales guy from the next shift. Here’s what happens next…)

My wife: Hi Joe (sales rep), I picked this t-shirt this morning, for my husband. The fit isn’t right for him and so I would like to exchange it for another one.

Joe (thinks for a minute): Was this bought from the sale?

Wife: Off course, that’s what I told you. Here’s the bill for reference.

Joe: Ok, let me check.

(Runs to his pal in the store to check and then returns)

Joe: Sorry, that was the last one and we don’t have another one to exchange it against. You’ll have to keep it (offers no other solution, lost his chance to ‘WOW’).

Me: (!!!! Momentarily dumbfounded): Ok. Since it doesn’t fit me well, I cannot wear it. So could I buy another t-shirt not from the sale but at retail price and I’ll pay you the difference?

Joe (thinks again): Sorry. No. You can’t do that! Since your wife bought this at the sale, not from the retail section. You’ll have to keep it (Second chance, to give an alternate solution. Lost.)

Me (slightly agitated): Why can’t I exchange it for another one that costs more? You’ll stand to gain more money. (Makes sense, right?)

Joe: Sorry. I was informed (by his colleague) that the system doesn’t allow us to do that.

Me: So you telling me you can’t exchange it because a system that you are in control, doesn’t let you do it! Ridiculous. Can you please check with your manager?

Joe: (Again runs off to check with his manager & returns. Smiling.): Yes, he says you can exchange it. Sorry for the trouble, I’m new here and learning on the job.

Result: T-shirt exchanged for another one from a retail section and difference amount is paid. The store stood to make more money and we got a better Tee.

I’m a big fan of learning on the job. Don’t get me wrong when I tell you that learning on the job is dangerous. There’s a powerful downside to learning on-the-job.

- You really learn to approach things in a way your job-mentor would. No? That’s at least until you start thinking about the process or procedure to do certain things.
- Most often there’s no written document to refer too. So you are called upon to use your judgment/discretion in handling queries.
- There’s no budget allotted for employee training and development. So your sources of learning are colleagues, books (self-funded), networking sites or blogs. Sources that are FREE. The challenge is in identifying who is authentic and worth your time.

So if you are an employee asked to learn on the job:
Here's a few things that you might want to watch out for:

- Ask questions. Listen. Ask questions. Listen…continue the learning process.

- Understand the escalation hierarchy. If your colleague (peer) is your max ceiling. It’s trouble. Get access to leads/managers.

- USE your discretion. The Company either tested you for it or knows you are good with using discretion. Don’t stop that.

- Are you allowed to make mistakes? Or do you get pulled up for each one you make? Helps you understand the Company’s stand.

- Go ahead and network furiously. It's the best way to help you learn on the job. Are you on FaceBook, Orkut, Twitter, LinkedIn? No? Start now.

- If you are uncomfortable/don’t like roles that require you to learn on the job. DO NOT accept the job offer. You'll end up doing a big disservice to yourself.

- Last, don’t forget to use Common Sense. It’s a powerful tool. (Sorry, that was sarcastic) But far too many of us tend to ignore it.

If you are an Employer promoting learning on the job: A few pointers that you could take into consideration.

- First, hire right. Many people like documentation at work that they could follow during their initial days. And if you don't have any, then maybe such people will have difficulty with the learn-on-the-job working style. You are better off hiring people who have had prior learning-on-the-job experience.

- There will be mistakes. Don’t get too critical. Better off giving constructive feedback. It’s part of an employee’s learning curve.

- Allow them to question. It will help tweak/build your processes and also understand their thinking methodology.

- While hiring, tell candidates that the role requires them to learn on the job. And dig deep during interviews to know their comfort with such an approach at work. Interviews that are situation-based would help immensely.

- If you have hired right, you’ll have employees who know to use discretion. A powerful skill-set. Especially when it’s learning on the job. Allow them to use it.

I’ve been a one-man HR team for long enough and have mostly learnt on the job. I’ve noticed that people are either comfortable or they are not, when it comes to learning on the job. It’s best to decide whether you want to take up a role that requires it.

I would love to hear thoughts from readers who have built their careers in similar fashion. Do share them.