As far back as the medieval era, training a new generation of workers was done via on-the-job training accompanied by some form of classroom instruction. Referred to as apprenticeships since the 1600s, this approach is primarily used for trades and hands-on skilled professions. Obviously, the corporate world is much different and the needs of knowledge workers are also different. Today’s workers need information about their job, as well as the market and organization around them. Despite the differences, the best way to learn the ins-and-outs of doing your job still comes from someone with experience.
Today’s practice of learning from an experienced worker is generally referred to as coaching or mentoring, and is considered a best practice for high-performing organizations. So much so, that many have established a culture where sharing knowledge is not just a periodic activity, it’s an ongoing part of how you do your job and how the organization transfers knowledge. The concept of knowledge transfer has been talked about for years, but coaching remains one of the most effective approaches to do just that.
Coaching and mentoring is about formalizing an informal approach to learning. From my experience, organizations that formally manage a coaching program get positive results. And those that leave learning to chance, obviously don’t. Our research has found that organizations that commit the energy and resources into making sure the program has a systematic approach and measures the performance change of those involved get exceptional results.
Starting a coaching program isn’t as simple as assigning workers to leaders and expecting them to figure out what knowledge needs to be conveyed and how they should manage their time together. It’s about implementing a structured program where the primary focus of coaching is on the performance of the coach or mentor, not the mentee. If you properly train coaches, then the probability of success goes up exponentially. This takes the informal out of the process, and converts coaching into a formalized informal approach to on-the-job training.
When to Source
Many training managers ask if they can source “professional coaches” for their workforce or if they must use internal staff for coaching. The answer is yes, but it means we need to understand what knowledge we are trying to transfer from experienced to inexperienced worker and who is best to teach or coach the inexperienced worker based on what knowledge is needed. There are some roles that require a high level of proprietary information and it makes sense to use internal staff as coaches. But, there are other roles where the knowledge the person needs can best come from someone who is an experienced professional from a similar job and can leverage the knowledge they’ve gained from other organizations.
A great example of this is the C-level executive. Oftentimes, the best coach for a CEO or CFO is an executive coach who has experience and knowledge related to their profession, but not necessarily their organization. Many corporate C-level professionals seek coaching expertise from retired or seasoned professionals who have already traveled the roads they are about to travel. These executives need a trusting person who they can seek counsel from on related activities and initiatives.
Remember, all the knowledge needed for your next generation of workers may not live within your corporate walls. From where I sit, sourcing coaches is a viable alternative. But, you must be wise to select coaches based on the skills the worker requires and who best has those skills. Then, make a specific plan as to what information must be conveyed, what experiences they need to learn about, and how best to convey that information. Begin with a baseline of data related to the learner’s proficiency, so over time you will be able to measure performance improvement. This approach will put you on your way to implementing a world-class coaching culture.