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Kate Phelon

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Training is not enough

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Managing managersAbility is only one factor that influences performance, says Donald H Taylor. Motivation and opportunity also play their part – and that’s where decent management comes in.


Earlier this year, Andrew Mayo wrote an opinion piece on sister site TrainingZone.co.uk in which he asked for less leadership training, and more decent management. The practical business of management, he argued, was more important than the general emphasis on leadership:

“I am not saying effective leadership is not important. But what distresses me all the time in the UK is awful management,” he said. “It’s a good strategy in determining learning needs to look at everyday simple things that have gone wrong in the organisation and with its customers, and to work backwards as to what the cause or causes were. We’ll find time and time again that it was some area of poor management.”

This crucial role of managers in making an organisation effective is often overlooked. Executives naturally like to emphasise their own role as leaders pursuing a grand vision, while employees just get on with the job as best they can. In between, charged with making the vision happen, are the managers.

A large part of their role is ensuring that employees do what they should (and not by micro-managing them). Managers have to develop their line reports so that they do the right thing when the manager is not around – that means their engaging in what is called ‘effective discretionary behaviour’.

To do this, managers have to ensure that their direct reports are able to do their jobs, want to do their jobs, and work in an environment that gives them the opportunity to do their job.

Photo of Don Taylor“Train one employee and you have helped them do their job better. Train a manager well, and not only have you helped him or her do their job better; you have also helped all their direct reports do the same.”

These three factors – ability, motivation and opportunity (AMO) – are identified as core to effective working in the AMO model. The model was notably applied to the workplace by Eileen Appelbaum and others in their 2000 study Manufacturing Advantage: Why High-Performance Work Systems Pay Off’.

This methodical study examined a great deal of data from three very different industries and concluded that productivity in these industries (steel, clothing and sophisticated instrumentation) could be correlated to ability, motivation and opportunity.

Appelbaum et al found that organisations with vocational training programmes and incentive schemes in place were more productive – provided that certain organisational structures were in place (i.e. that employees had the opportunity to participate). Because the three industries studies were so different, the authors concluded that the results probably held true for other industries.

This research carries a strong double message to learning and development professionals. Clearly, it shows that an L&D focus on building employees’ abilities – their job-related knowledge and skills – can indeed have an effect on organisational performance. We know that already, of course, even if those who hold the training budget may sometimes doubt it.

But the AMO model also reminds us that training alone is not enough. An individual’s ability to do their job is only one factor influencing their final performance. The other factors (motivation and opportunity) will mostly be influenced by their managers, those managers who Andrew Mayo points out have a particular job “to achieve results and solve problems, day in and day out”.

“There is another way that the L&D department can help with building both employee motivation and opportunity: sometimes it should refuse to carry out training.”

What should L&D’s response to this be? Should it simply be to build employees’ abilities, because we know that we can? Surely it should go beyond that. Given the importance of managers, surely the L&D department should be focusing on building their ‘competence at getting the task achieved’ as Mayo puts it. After all, train one employee and you have helped them do their job better. Train a manager well, and not only have you helped him or her do their job better; you have also helped all their direct reports do the same.

This multiplier effect surely means that organisations should focus development resources on managers. Not necessarily in formal classroom sessions alone, but also by developing alternative approaches, including mentoring and the support of informal dialogues between peers, an approach that has been found effective in organisations as diverse as B&Q and the US Army.

But this is more than just a repeat of Andrew Mayo’s plea for more, better, management training. The AMO model also clarifies that a person’s motivation and opportunity to participate may be as important as their skills.

Does the L&D department have any role to play in the area of motivation and opportunity? Traditionally, no, but in practice, it does, in two ways. The first – as described above – is by working with managers to ensure that they have the skills to increase the motivation of the people who report to them. The training department can also build employees’ opportunity to participate – again, by training managers, formally or informally.

The AMO model, then, clarifies what we already know: the L&D department can help with organisational effectiveness by developing both employees’ skills and by developing their managers to use these skills better.

But the model also suggests something else. There is another way that the L&D department can help with building both employee motivation and opportunity: sometimes it should refuse to carry out training. More about that in part two of this article.

About the author: Donald H Taylor is chairman of the Learning Technologies conference. He blogs at www.donaldhtaylor.co.uk and www.learningtechnologiesconference.wordpress.com

The views expressed in the opinion column are those of the author and not of HRZone.co.uk

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Kate Phelon

Content manager

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