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Making An Investment in Learning

by Paul Regan

More companies are looking to create value by their investments in the supply chain. Value and performance in a company should go beyond an analysis and measure of elements such as cash flow and take stock of one of its greatest resources, namely, its people.

The ability to define and execute a strategy that will provide real value to your clients is the key to success in logistics and most businesses that we know. The competitive nature of today’s business will not permit us to retain that advantage for long. The key to sustaining that advantage are highly trained and motivated people.

Logistics is a people business. The reason this statement so frequently needs repetition is that the state of practice, web enabled, RF systems and shiny new satellite-tracked trucks and high-cube well-designed warehouses are the strategic differentiators we always like to talk about to our clients and prospects. Unfortunately, these important assets operated by unqualified or untrained people do not work effectively.

The logistics sector has been transformed during the past 15 years by technology, yet we have not paid near enough attention to what that has meant to the workforce. The early phase of the technology revolution resulted in system implementation failures on three levels:

The advances made in software development and improved planning tools have made a material difference to software implementations generally.

I would argue that the difficult lessons learned have made business people more careful and, hence, more successful with these types of projects.

The one thing I continue to see is that the people side of the equation has not moved along at the same pace. We still underestimate the magnitude of the adjustments and frequently do not allocate sufficient time and resources to making people successful from the beginning. When ranking the corporate priorities and needs, time is often cited as the most important and typically what we have the least to give.
There has been an entire sub-industry built around the word “change.” Like many things in business, it is all about using common sense to prepare for new developments.

The need to compete by offering superior products and services should lead us to the requirement for high levels of learning throughout the business. Resources devoted to learning need to be made strategically and consistently and have to be monitored to realize the optimum ROI.

How do we achieve the essential organizational goal of having well-trained and knowledgeable people throughout our companies?

Recognize the value of learning
As managers and owners we need to give our people the environment and the motivation to consistently learn.

The business sage Tom Peters has suggested that we should pay for any course that an employee wishes to take, work related or not, because it demonstrates that their mind is active and inquisitive, and they are thinking. This is the kind of behavior that an employer wants to encourage. We need to exploit the strengths of our employees.

The skills of our employees are fundamental to creating the excellent organization that we all aspire to lead and be part of. I once watched an interview with Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes and when asked why he continues with his role on that program well into his 80s he replied “because I continue to learn new things with each passing day, if I did not I would quit”.

Make individual learning a priority
Lifelong learning is the only way to remain competitive in the job market, whatever your level. Your future ‘employability’ depends on you having a relentless drive to acquire new skills and to stay current with what’s happening in your field. Defend your career by developing a better package of knowledge and skills than the next person. It answers the ‘what’s in it for me’ question.

The achievement of individual success, the pride in being a member of a team recognized for their superior results and the personal satisfaction gained from acquiring and applying new knowledge are strong motivational factors that resonate with the entire workforce. When the leaders of the company make a commitment to a learning organization it is fair to say that almost everyone will buy in.

The workplace is the key educator
For most adults the only contact they have with formal learning, post their schooling is sponsored or mandated by their employer. That learning, as we have all observed, is frequently very task oriented and not presented with the employee in mind.

The mantra of ‘cross-training’ used
to be a hallowed phrase that meant a forward and enlightened organization. What it really meant was that you could do my job while I was on vacation. That remains the primary motivation by employers today for teaching new skills.

What leaders need to provide is a workplace that encourages employees to learn many key roles throughout the enterprise and understand how their role impacts the key outputs of the company. They need to see the entire landscape and where and how they bring value. That requires a time and resource commitment by senior management, and perseverance, particularly around budget time.

Hold employees accountable for what they learn
As every learning experience evolves, have employees write down a plan of what they will do differently when they return to the job. Part of this should be a discussion with their supervisor to enlist their support. The plan should include a commitment to at least one action that will improve the team or organization.

A popular way to evaluate learning experiences is to ask the participants to complete a checklist given a five-point scale. A better idea is to ask each person what they plan to do differently as a result of what they have learned. You can follow up in the future with questions on the success of these plans.

Perhaps the best technique is to take a before and after measure of the skills taught. This can be achieved by employing a survey to administer before and after training, to determine the skills transfer.

We often look at our businesses short–term, to the next quarter or the next month. The events of the past 15 years have conditioned that viewpoint from management. While it is important to focus on achieving near term results and making it happen every day we must invest in what makes our businesses valuable for the long term.

I submit to you that deeply embedding the principles and behaviors of a learning environment in your company will provide a continuing payback – at levels you would not have achieved otherwise. Your employees are your competitive edge, particularly in the field of logistics, and with the right skills they will win the operational execution wars.

Providing and maintaining the funding during those difficult budget cycles, even in tough times, is an essential element. Do not overlook leadership and the need to demonstrate your commitment to learning. By continually challenging everyone to improve their skills and advance their personal value the entire enterprise will prosper and enjoy much higher levels of success.