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The Role of Middle Managers in Learning

The learners within the organizations supported by chief learning officers are no different. Often these learners’ visits to available learning offerings are viewed as breaks from a very busy and demanding world of “real work.” CLOs and their teams typically aren’t viewed as living there or carrying much influence. The “parent” equivalent of today’s training world is the learner’s manager. Managers dictate, control and reward the day-in and day-out activities of the students. They hold the ultimate motivation in their hands—the student’s job. If we as a learning industry want to be effective, we have to better understand how to work with this highly influential group. We need to engage them, educate them, and support them. Let’s explore the role this powerful resource can and should play in instructional programs.

The irony of this situation is that many managers don’t understand this responsibility, or if they do, they’re not sure how to honor it. A colleague of mine once said that his company did an amazing job of promoting product or process experts out of their area of expertise and into a role that manages the people who do the work. He said he thought these were two completely different skill sets, and he’s right. Many expert widget-makers are now managers of other widget-makers, and they feel ill-equipped to tackle the human-capital side of management. An employee’s learning needs are a subset of the many demands on these managers. Learning leaders need to step up and help these managers understand this important aspect of their responsibility.

This starts by helping them understanding the value of learning to their employees. Managers need to see how learning impacts outcomes. With times as they are, many organizations have matured past the point of tolerating training for training’s sake. We all agree that learning is a good thing, but unnecessary learning isn’t. Learning leaders need to work with managers to help them better relate daily projects and outcomes to learning needs and programs. To do this, it is imperative to start talking at a broader level than we have in the past.

At a recent conference I attended, a fellow attendee shared that he can’t even mention the word “training” in his company because the immediate response he receives is, “Well, we’ve cut the training budget, so I have nothing to talk to you about.” For many training professionals, this would be the end of the dialogue, and possibly their job, but to this colleague it meant that he needed to start speaking a different language. What he found was that the organizations he worked with still had a lot of mission-critical projects going that were not associated with relevant training initiatives. Instead of talking about training dates and classes, he started talking about these projects and the skills each manager’s employees would need to help complete the job effectively. We can help middle managers better understand the competencies their employees need to do their jobs and, more importantly, complete these projects.

The next step is helping managers better identify the skills gaps their employees have relative to the required competencies. “Assessment” has always been an ugly word in training, and one often left in the hands of the training department. The reality is that assessment begins at home and belongs at the employee’s desktop. Each manager needs to assess the roles each employee has and the skills each employee needs to perform those roles effectively. Once these are identified, the skills gaps can be identified and the correct training associated. Doing this will help the manager see a direct benefit from the training. The training is now linked to specific outcomes that both the manager and the employee can support. Next, the manager needs to communicate this message clearly to the learner. Research from Harvey Feldstein and Terry Boothman shows that employees who have had the reasons for training clearly communicated prior to the learning event have a much higher probability of performing better than those who haven’t and are expected to find this relationship for themselves.

Another key factor that managers need to understand is the value of the training options available to them. Most managers understand the value of the classroom, but many don’t see how it’s evolving. In many organizations today’s classroom is more highly customized and blended with alternative options, such as e-learning. This allows training departments to offer a more targeted solution. Managers need to be educated on these options and involved in their design. Who better to help ensure that the examples and scenarios used are relevant to the learners than their managers? This will help in two very important ways. First, the manager will have a higher level of buy-in to the training. Second, learners will have a higher level of motivation because they see the involvement of their manager as well as the relevance of the content.

As training consultants we need to help blend the options. For a blended approach to work, everyone involved, including the learner’s manager, needs to see learning as a process, not an event. There are several key factors needed for this process to work. The first is time. With the advent of the Internet and e-learning, we have wrongfully equated the speed at which learning can reach our learners with how quickly and easily they can master it. Learning takes time, no matter what medium is employed. There’s no way around that. Just because an e-learning account can be accessed anytime and anywhere doesn’t mean that it will be utilized.

Managers need to allow learning to evolve at the appropriate time and at an appropriate pace. This is where blended learning excels. It allows organizations to mix and match the best of all their learning options. For example, classrooms can be used when learning needs to be highly interactive and supported, while e-learning can enhance this when independent work and knowledge gathering is needed.

Figure 1 outlines a proposed timeline for a blended solution. It shows how assessment, manager involvement, classrooms and e-learning can be integrated to allow learning to progress and be supported throughout the journey toward an outcome. Notice how the manager takes an active role throughout the process. The manager is constantly meeting with the learner to see how training is going, how it is being applied and where knowledge gaps may still exist. Allowing both ongoing needs and skills assessment will help the manager with evaluation. Also notice that the learning events are not just about knowledge transfer, but are also about acquiring and mastering learning strategies and skills. For instance, this is a perfect environment for introducing e-learning tools used later to reinforce and support the knowledge learned during class.

Another key factor needed for managers to support learning as a process is constant communication with the training department. Supporting learning at the desktop is a new skill for most managers, and left to their own devices, most will fail. Training departments need to proactively support learning back at the desktop. It can’t be left to happen “as needed.” Just as we used to assign classes and design learning activities around them, we now need to design learning activities for outside the class as well. Homework was a tool for learning that many of us remember (or wish we didn’t) all too well. Its intent was to extend the learning experience beyond the four walls of the classroom. The same holds true in this case.

In reinforcing learning as a process, learning leaders must understand that learners need purposeful and directed activities throughout. The best place to find these activities is from the projects driving the training in the first place. Training is becoming more project-based. It’s no longer driven by public schedules and system upgrades, but rather by specific projects with specific outcomes. We need to use those projects to drive the learning process. Map assessments and learning options to these outcomes. Assign work to be done beyond the traditional learning event. Use the classroom as a place to share ideas, progress, successes and frustrations experienced throughout journey.

A final factor to consider is the actual support systems put in place throughout the process. Obviously, the classroom is a given as far as managers and learners are concerned, and this is a domain they feel very comfortable with. E-learning, and other tools, may not be. There are several mechanisms you can put in place to help, including:


  • Supporting a help desk.
  • Offering daily, weekly or monthly office hours.
  • Participating in “rounds”—impromptu visits throughout the organization to check in and see how things are progressing.
  • Designing and maintaining a learning portal, which may include chat rooms, threaded message boards, e-mail, synchronous technology, FAQ sites, learning options and learning management capabilities.
  • Creating user groups or focus groups made up of learners, managers or both.
  • Hosting lunch-and-learns.
  • Offering manager-as-mentor programs.

Each of these forums is designed to act as a venue to support both managers and learners throughout the learning process. Because these two groups will have different needs, you may need to create a unique version of some of these options based on your audiences. For example, the focus group established for the learners may revolve around solving specific problems and issues that come up when dealing with the assigned project. The manager’s focus group, on the other hand, might deal with issues arising out of supporting the learners throughout the journey. In these instances, the learners’ dialogue would be very outcome-specific, while the managers’ dialogue might be more about dealing with learning issues and strategies.

You’ll want to establish these support systems early and proactively. It is always easier to remove support than it is to add it reactively. Typically if you’re pulling back on support, it’s because your audience is progressing independently and effectively. If you’re adding support, it may be because the group is struggling and has gotten into an area that can hurt your training initiative’s outcome and overall acceptance.

Managers have been one of the more neglected assets to any training program. Often this is due to the desire of the training organization to fulfill what it believes to be its responsibility to the organization. The reality from the learners’ perspective is that they are held accountable to their manager and therefore are motivated to learn relative to the amount of commitment and support they feel from their manager. To ignore this resource would be doing all our efforts and potential impact a disservice. We owe it to our organizations, the mangers and ultimately the learners we serve to better include, support and educate this vital resource. But their involvement and buy-in won’t happen on its own. It takes a well orchestrated effort on our part.

Bob Mosher is the executive director of education for Element K. He has been an influential leader in the IT training space for more than 15 years. For more information, e-mail Bob at bmosher@clomedia.com.

September 2003 Table of Contents

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