Caught vs. Taught

According to Bersin and Associates, companies and organizations are spending well over $50 billion per year on formalized professional development programs for employees. These programs are designed to teach everything from basic computer skills to nuanced leadership strategies.

Why do organizations make such huge investments in their employees? In large measure it is because they believe that enhancing skills, attitudes, and aptitudes of individual employees will translate into a more productive and capable organization. That’s simple enough to understand.

But is the formal “teaching paradigm” really the best way to enhance organizational behavior and productivity?  It may be if you are teaching skills and transferring static knowledge.  For instance, if someone needs to know how to utilize Microsoft Excel more efficiently, than an online or in-person class may be the best approach.

Teaching skills sets is one thing.  But, what about the big issues facing organizations?  What are the best possible approaches to “teaching” people how to strengthen a workplace culture so that teams truly become more effective, so that individuals think of others first, so that organizational frugality is prized, or that productivity over the long-term is valued as highly as short-term results?  Are formalized training programs the best method?  I’m not so sure.

To truly strengthen organizations in these ways, I suggest that learning is “caught” and not “taught.”  In other words, culture is created in large measure by people watching people.  And it is typically the staff watching the leaders that counts most and has the biggest impact.

Is the leader of the department, division, or organization frugal in her travel?  Chances are awfully good that those under her care will travel on a dime as well.  Conversely, is the leader imperial in his approach?  If so, a productive team environment among those under him most likely will not thrive.

I’m all for formalized training and education investments for employees. However, I think it is shortsighted to believe that such investments, by themselves, will profoundly impact the productivity and effectiveness of an organization.   To make substantive advances in the effectiveness of your organization, you must first analyze and understand what is being “caught” by your employees, as well as what is being “taught.”

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