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Human Resources

Training Ground

Exploring new ways to boost employee learning
University Business, Oct 2011

It wasn't long ago that I believed there was nothing new in employee training or professional development. My inbox was filled with emails about new employee workshops and online training programs covering the same old topics. And there were phone calls from consultants, bragging about this or that traditional training program.

I have since discovered several higher ed institutions doing amazing things with professional development. One school casts employees in targeted training videos. Another helps faculty integrate student concerns outside the classroom with work inside the classroom. Some middle managers are touring different departments to better understand their challenges and the potential impact on their own department's activities or budget.

The fact that schools are revamping their training programs is good news, especially considering a recent study found that less than 60 percent of faculty and staff were satisfied with their job training, while only 55 percent believed their school provided effective on-the-job training. The study, based on a survey of 21,000 faculty and staff at more than 35 U.S. colleges and universities, was conducted by HR Solutions and released in February.

Not all schools tolerate average satisfaction. The lesson for HR: Without introducing more effective, more engaging ways to learn, employees could be stuck in neutral. Consider the following creative training approaches.

Georgetown University (D.C.): Reflecting on Teaching

"We have long helped faculty develop their practice, but as part of that, we're now asking them to reflect on what changes they've made," says John Rakestraw, director of faculty programs at Georgetown's Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship, which supports roughly 800 faculty. Educators are encouraged to measure the effectiveness of changes and publicly share their findings with other faculty. The center co-authors articles with faculty, encourages them to write journal articles on their teaching practice, offers individual consultations or faculty workshops that help them change their pedagogical approach to courses, and invites them to participate in a variety of projects that enhance teaching practices.

Georgetown faculty training has helped them relate academic content to student mental health.

One such project requires faculty to relate academic content to student mental health and well-being. Rakestraw points to a math professor whose students examine mathematical formulas to calculate the way the human body processes alcohol. Students then listen to a health expert about drinking. In a biology class, students study the physiological foundations for depression, then listen to a mental health professional about depression.

"Students learn the disciplinary content better when they find some sort of anchor in their lives outside the classroom," Rakestraw says, adding that this approach helps students deal with real issues in creative ways. "We're trying a variety of ways to help faculty show students how the work they do in the classroom plays out in the world outside the classroom."

University of Alabama-Birmingham: Creating Faculty Celebrities

As manager of professional development training programs, Alyce Hartley discovered that employees at the school's teaching hospital were having trouble resolving patient or visitor complaints. She and her two-member staff reviewed every complaint tracked by guest services, grouping them into multiple categories. Then she scripted four short videos as part of a service recovery training program. The videos include tips on resolving issues such as patients who are angry because a meal tray was delivered late or visitors complaining about the lack of close parking spaces.
Hospital employees star in the videos and have since become local celebrities, she says. The media relations department shot, produced, and edited the videos onsite. Since July 2010, approximately 7,000 hospital employees have viewed them.

While it's too soon to tell their effectiveness, Hartley says "they've been a big hit," as has the school's task-based software training, introduced last spring. Instead of teaching an all-day session about every bell and whistle of a software program, two-hour sessions focus on accomplishing one task, such as mail merge.

Bryant University (R.I.): Improving Student Outcomes

Many universities collect assessment data. However, "most of it doesn't factor back into decisions about institutional practices, conditions, and pedagogy," says Bob Shea, director of faculty development at Bryant, which supports an estimated 150 faculty. Shea, who joined the university in February, is exploring ways to integrate student learning outcomes and assessment into faculty development.

In a previous position at another college, he says his department gathered data from multiple sources, such as the results from critical thinking tests taken by students,  or student reports of engagement and rigor, then asked a series of questions: What does it tell us about student engagement or performance? How can we utilize the data to make  changes at the classroom level? How can we measure the impact?
At Bryant, Shea is following a similar path. He recently began focusing on information literacy across the curriculum. Faculty from varous disciplines will review samples of student work, make judgments about student and teacher performance, and identify needed changes, he says.
Meanwhile, the school's library staff conducts monthly seminars that demonstrate new technology, encouraging faculty to use it for either personal efforts or in their classroom. Shea says using internal resources that help faculty better understand student learning can be an effective stepping-stone to better teaching.

"We're starting to understand that we can utilize this evidence in different ways," he says. "It can unearth some interesting questions for us and lead to opportunities for classroom-based innovations and professional development for faculty."

Texas A&M University: Supporting the Business Side

HR administrators created a new curriculum for employees in payroll, purchasing, and other business support functions, says Anne Mayer, director of HR employee and organizational development. "There was a need to develop training specifically to help people move up the career ladder on the business side of the house," she says, adding that all training is now housed under one roof, creating a one-stop shop for its 17,000 employees. So far, there are more than 12 online business courses and workshops covering topics ranging from understanding file management to accessing the payroll system. Certificate programs have moved beyond online courses and include online discussion boards, job shadowing, and classroom discussions. Participants enrolled in a new supervisory program must identify a mentor, any employee who demonstrates competencies that are essential for their career success.

At Texas A&M, monthly Coffee Conversations for employees cover hot topics in education.

The university has also launched Coffee Conversations—monthly 90-minute seminars on hot topics in education, such as the relationship between the university and state legislature. Between 50 and 90 employees typically attend, Mayer says.

University of Puget Sound (Wash.): Breaking Down Silos

Several years ago, President Ronald R. Thomas launched an initiative to help middle managers overcome the "silo effect," that all-too-common condition affecting managers who rarely glimpse over their department's walls, says Nancy Nieraeth, director of employment and people development at the school, which supports approximately 725 employees.

The program's goal is to empower middle managers to advance the university's strategic plan. As part of the 60-member group, Nieraeth and other managers recently toured the school's dining hall for a behind-the-scenes view of its operations and challenges, identified scenarios in which the challenges could impact their own department, then shared information with their departments. "People really needed to understand what was happening in the various operational units at the university," says Nieraeth. "It often alerts us to something that's going to impact our strategic function."


Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship
HR Solutions
Korn/Ferry Leadership Talent & Consulting
Texas A&M Coffee Conversations