Looking for a low-cost, effective training solution that achieves reliable and predictable training outcomes? On-the-job training may be the solution.

On-the-job training (OJT) is an approach for developing skills within the normal work environment, most often involving an experienced employee who passes knowledge and skills on to a new or less skilled employee. On-the-job training is the oldest form of training, going as far back as the medieval era, when workers learned from more experienced workers through the practice of apprenticeships. OJT works in small- and large-scale situations. For example, the shipbuilding industry launched OJT programs during World War I, and the programs evolved and were used again during World War II to increase productivity.

On-the-job training has many benefits and is used in many organizations today, but too often, these organizations rely on informal approaches, where learning is left to chance and the training doesn’t achieve consistent and measurable training outcomes. Employees are told to sit with others to “learn the job,” and busy, often unprepared employees provide impromptu explanations or demonstrations, inadvertently leaving out important content or focusing on the wrong performance. Other times, employees are left to figure things out through trial and error. With some upfront design and planning, and a little thoughtful engineering, a structured on-the-job training program can achieve more reliable and predictable training outcomes – and development can often be faster and less expensive than with other training approaches.

Five Elements of Successful On-the-job Training Programs

Structured OJT succeeds when it’s built on a sound foundation. Here are five elements that will improve the odds that your structured on-the-job training will be successful:

  1. Focus on Work Outcomes

Document and analyze work requirements, including measures of effective performance, and make sure they are thoroughly understood.

  1. Clear Training Goals and Plan

Use an instructional design process to define specific, measurable learning outcomes that enable work performance. Just as importantly, thoughtfully organize the training so the coach and employee can see and understand the overall experience. Said another way, the training plan should be a road map showing the different tasks that the employee will receive training on, the ideal or recommended sequence of training, and the training timeline.

  1. Good Design Matters

The structured components of structured on-the-job training will work better when you follow research-backed instructional design practices, such as clean content, spaced practice and appropriate feedback.

  1. Materials for the Coach and the Employee

Provide the coach and employee with simple materials containing the important information about the task, such as steps, various scenarios or situations that may come up, and criteria to assess successful performance. The materials, such as such as playbooks or training cards, should be easy to locate, easy to use and easy to maintain. A best practice is to provide these materials to both the coach and employee to ensure everyone is on the same page.

  1. Select the Right Coach

Select an employee or manager coach with a high level of job expertise and coaching skills. You may need to require coaches to participate in training to understand what is required of them.

Four Examples of the Structured On-the-job Training Approach

In our experience, there are many situations where structured on-the-job training is a good solution to consider. Here are a few examples.

  1. Small Target Audience With Limited Resources to Invest in Training

A highly specialized, regional commercial insurance firm was fine-tuning its talent acquisition and development strategy to include a different type of candidate. This frugal and thoughtful organization wanted to maximize training outcomes and improve consistency of performance while keeping costs down – and take advantage of a large library of existing guides, policies, white papers and decision support tools. Managers were already providing ad-hoc coaching, but they worked in silos, which meant they were reinventing and localizing the content and process.

The firm used structured on-the-job training to establish a common reusable template, a standard coaching process, common content outlines and goals, and a consistent development process focused on achieving performance milestones. Each manager coach could follow the template while making minor adaptations to the fit the performance, knowledge and skill requirements of their employees.

  1. Performance of Work Tasks Varies Across the Target Audience

This health benefits administration company’s customer service representatives work within a complex service delivery model in which each customer is supported by a customized platform, product mix and service delivery team configuration. Given the extent of variations in work tasks across a large number of client teams, the company used traditional training methods to train a “base” of the work process, and structured on-the-job training picked up where that foundation left off to address the nuances and unique variations for each client.

  1. New Hire Training Program

This HVAC manufacturer had high turnover and faced a steady stream of new hires in key manufacturing jobs. Job tasks varied based on the product and equipment the new hire would support. The site lacked a formal training program, and building formal training to support all the variations for new employees and to cross-train current employees seemed insurmountable and costly. The solution was an engineered structured on-the-job training program, with training plans to sequence the training of all required work tasks. Corresponding task cards contained information to guide the coach and ensure a consistent, quality training experience for each employee and to track training completion.

  1. Bridging the Gap between Training and Application

A bank adopted a blended learning approach for its branch leader development program, which included structured coaching to bridge the gap between the “generic” skills learned through corporate-wide training and the unique situations branch managers would experience when applying those skills in specific situations as part of day-to-day operations of a retail banking center.

OJT has been around for a long time. In some situations, unstructured OJT is precisely the right approach. In others, like the four summarized above, a structured approach to OJT can address a variety of organizational, training and employee challenges. By focusing on work outcomes, defining training goals and a plan, sticking to research-based practices, and supporting both the coach and the employee, structured OJT can be a suitable solution – standing alone or as part of a blended solution – for most organizations.