Every organisation is in possession of highly valuable procedural knowledge that lets it do what it does best in a unique way. An organisation is after all the sum of the knowledge and skill contained in the persons that make up its numbers.
Consider what happens when someone is lost due to attrition, illness or the unfortunate event of death? What happens when we want to expand the business and need more people with those unique forms of knowledge? This is one area where buddy training can make an important difference in the success you have transferring knowledge to new employees. In the buddy system a new employee (or an employee who must adopt a new role) is paired up with an experienced person who has already mastered that role.
The idea is that, rather than being trained by dedicated trainers, the new person will learn from their buddy. Why would learning from another regular employee be any better than learning from a professional trainer? The answer lies in two simple concepts: explicit and implicit knowledge.
Explicit knowledge is the stuff that we all know best. We find it on the pages of textbooks. These are the facts and stepwise instructions that are easy to learn from simple sitting in a classroom or reading on your own. Implicit knowledge is a little harder to define. These are things that we learn from our teachers and mentors that we can’t really articulate. In fact, the people that we learn from implicitly aren’t able to articulate the implicit aspects of their knowledge. Implicit knowledge includes things that people do as part of their job that are essential to replicating what they do well, but can’t be written down easily.
The ways that people who are good at their jobs think, how they make decisions and how they handle things when they go off script are crucial forms of knowledge for a new employee. Just as important is that a new employee gets a good feeling for the cultural values and general way of life in their new office, department or organization. By pairing up with a buddy you allow a process of enculturation to occur. The end result of this is that the new person receives both practical, explicit knowledge and implicit knowledge. Quite an efficient deal, wouldn’t you say?
So if learning directly from another person who has the skills and knowledge you want the other person to have is so effective, why do we bother with conventional training? There are a number of reasons, but the most important reason in this context is that most people, even highly skilled experts, are not good teachers. Being a good teacher is not something that comes naturally to everyone and without some sort of formal training, people are not necessarily good at transferring explicit knowledge. They don’t need any special attributes to give someone implicit knowledge, since all they have to do is be themselves.
It represents a bit of a puzzle. We really do want someone to get implicit knowledge from another employee who is fully encultured and has productive habits and practices. At the same time we want them to receive high quality explicit knowledge, so that they learn standard operating procedures properly. If we just let people buddy up and learn organically, the chances are good that your organisation’s standard operating procedures will be transferred in a way that is garbled or mutated.
Think of it as a game of “Chinese whispers” (also known as “telephone” in the US) where your well-codified standard processes and procedures are distorted a little every time they are passed on. When someone goes for formal training from quality controlled and tested materials they receive a fresh, unadulterated version of the explicit knowledge you want to impart. Inevitably distortion happens even here thanks to various factors relating to memory and concentration, but it is still the best-case starting point.
Explicit knowledge transfer in a buddy learning happens in an informal way from a source that is likely to have been distorted by time, experiences and initial learning errors. This implies that those very errors will be transferred to the new employee, propagating errors in operating procedures through your organisation by a type of genetic inheritance. Clearly, despite all the advantages of buddy training, it is not a great idea to let it happen without any sort of oversight.
Formalizing your buddy training with a more structured approach provides a way to have it both ways. You get the transfer of subtle, implicit knowledge and rapid acculturation while making sure that the processes and procedures your new employee learns are correct and up to standard.
The way to do this is by charging the buddy to keep a record of the number of training sessions, their length and how well they went. Create checklists of specific goals or outcomes that are meant to be achieved through the buddy training. This allows the buddy to be consciously aware of what is expected from him or her. This also has the dual function of forcing the more senior employee to brush up or refresh their own knowledge in order to meet the training goals that have been set.
While the responsibility to monitor the trainee’s progress and to decide when the trainee is ready for final assessment should be with the buddy who is doing the training, actual competence assessment for purposes of finalizing the training should be done by a third party. The reason for this is simple. The competence level of the newly trained employee is also a reflection on the person who did the training. So this person has a vested interest in a favourable result and just can’t be seen as neutral.Do these things and you can maximize the returns of buddy training while removing some substantial risks from this approach.
To sum it all up, buddy training is a wonderful way to get new people up to speed and working well within the culture of the company, but when it comes to crucial things such as standard operating procedures (especially as it relates to safety) having a hands-off approach to this training can be a disastrous mistake.
By taking the best parts of formal and buddy training and combining them we can have the best benefits of both approaches and a workforce that sticks more closely to standard procedures as they have been designed, rather than slowly drifting further and further away from them
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