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Deep end training

February 16, 2009

How do you prefer to enter a swimming pool? Is it a gradual submersion, one step at a time or are you the sort of person who likes to leap into the open air and dive deeply into the depths? What if it was the very first time – what would you prefer then?

I use this analogy for training and I always get the same results. Except for a few thrill seekers, almost everybody prefers to ease into something new to avoid being overwhelmed. Why then, when it comes to on-the-job training, do we give our students a little push into the fray without adequate preparation or assistance? It seems as if we are in a rush to get wet and get it over with quickly.

We know it will be a struggle at the beginning and that the student will be overwhelmed with the sudden rush of competing demands, time restrictions and repeated mistakes. We do it anyway.

How do we help?

How the student begins the training will have a direct bearing on the rate of progress and the level of success at the end. To say it differently, an adequately prepared student will take less time and be at a higher standard at the end of the training than one who has been thrown into it. Not only that, there is a long term effect. These better prepared students become supervisors and trainers much quicker as well. So apart for a short term benefit, we are actually handicapping ourselves.

So what can we do if thorough preparation isn’t an option? To mitigate, we can:

  • Throw a life ring
  • Extend a hand
  • Start in calm waters
  • Warn them of the dangers
  • Prepare them for survival
  • Police their un-preparedness

Throw a life ring: A flotation aid reduces the difficulty of the challenge by taking some of the workload away from the swimmer. In training, you do this by reducing the student’s the number of responsibilities or sharing their workload with other staff (or yourself).

Extend a hand: The trainer has a responsibility to control the training environment and assist the student through the process of learning. I expect that you’d be doing this anyway, but make sure that you:

  • Show them what to do, don’t just tell them to swim.
  • Pull their head out of the water when they are swamped, don’t let them drown.

Start in calm water: Start the student in a quieter period or in a less challenging area so that there is a greater opportunity for demonstration / explanation beforehand and to debrief afterward. The student also has more time to deliberate over each task and consider the results of their actions.

Warn them: Let them know what their role is going to be and what is expected from them. What are their objectives, what challenges stand in their way, what is available to help them and what are they being assessed on? Do they understand what they are about to do and where it fits in with the bigger picture? Are they overconfident or unduly unsure?

Prepare them: If it can be taught off the job, then it should be. They should already have a solid foundation of theory and be able to describe what they are about to do. It is just the practical application being introduced now. Can some of the skills be taught in isolation through simulation or part task training?

Police them: Ensure that all theory components (competencies) have been completed and that the student is ready. Do not let them commence the OJT unprepared as this could affect the student’s chance of success, the performance of the other team members or even impact on the organisation itself.

Although you must applaud the enthusiasm of the student to dive in head first, impromptu haste can lead to more errors, immediate, but slower progress and shattered student confidence if things go unexpectedly awry.


Download my free e-book NOW YOU TELL ME The seven things that I wish I’d known before I started training on the job”.

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