Promoting The Teacher Within


By Oct 1, 2005

HR Magazine, October 2005

Vol. 50, No. 10

Employee-led training programs create a win-win-win situation.

Five years ago, Ed Betof, vice president of talent management and chief learning officer for Becton, Dickinson and Co. (BD), a medical technology firm headquartered in Franklin Lakes, N.J., arrived in his office with 30 boxes of training books and a charter from his CEO to create a corporate university.

Faced with the prospect of developing this learning organization from the ground up for 25,000 employees worldwide, Betof created a vision in which the bulk of the face-to-face training would be delivered by company leaders. Doing so would fill the instructor gaps quickly and cost-effectively.

“We started with a blank sheet of paper, no track record, no credibility, no momentum. We had no programming,” recalls Betof. “Inch by inch, we developed programming with powerful impact.”

Now, 10 months into the program, he not only has developed a dynamic learning organization, but also has seen the unintended benefits of having employees create and teach the curricula. Those benefits include increased employee morale, better talent identification, enhanced high-potential employee leadership development, improved companywide communication, higher employee retention and lowered costs.

It is important to become a teaching organization, not just a learning organization, asserts Noel Tichy, professor of organizational behavior and HR management and director of the Global Business Partnership at the University of Michigan Business School in Ann Arbor. Having employees teach others is nothing new, but many companies, such as BD, are formalizing the process and making it the primary way in which they deliver training and develop their employees—as both teachers and students.

On-Target Training

Not only does employee-led training save companies the cost of outside consultant trainers, it also lends itself to better content, targeted for the individual company. After all, it’s being taught by people who know the company, and its needs, intimately.

“The courses are on target since the trainer knows our business,” says spokeswoman Diane Hoey, from Chandler Chicco Agency (CCA), a health care public relations agency in New York whose employees lead most of its training efforts.

Amanda Cote, a member of the business development group for CCA, who leads training courses at the agency, agrees: “Trainees seem to have a higher level of respect for a trainer who is entrenched in what she is teaching. All participants are willing to learn because they understand how this fits into their day-to-day work.”

Hoey believes this is why employee-led training generates greater attendance than non-mandatory training taught by outsiders. Credibility is one of the reasons 90 percent of training is employee-led at J.D. Power and Associates. “Internal employees bring a high level of credibility to the subject matter, and associates know that the training was not developed in a vacuum,” says Donna Delaney, director of training and development at the marketing information services firm headquartered in Westlake Village, Calif. “This also encourages consistency in the practices used throughout the organization.”

Almost any class that can be taught in-house is suited to employee-led learning. However, the most common employee-led classes include information technology skills, finance, leadership development and performance management.

Dozens of employees at Atwell-Hicks, a land development surveyor and consultancy headquartered in Ann Arbor, Mich., teach courses on everything from leadership to poison ivy awareness. “One learns best by teaching others,” says Tim Augustine, vice president of corporate services at Atwell-Hicks. “When the class is over and a skill application question arises, the instructor is on the job with the answer.”

Adds Kelly Tapp, program leader for staff training and development at Atwell-Hicks: “We prefer employee-led training because [the trainers] make direct application of the skills much easier for the students.” Equally important is which courses employee teachers should not teach. In many cases, this decision will be based on your industry and employees’ skill sets. For instance, at J.D. Power and Associates, courses that aren’t taught by employees are “courses that are not company-specific, such as effective speaking,” says Delaney. Other classes that may not be suited to employee teachers are regulatory classes. “A lot of our legal compliance training is done by [outside] lawyers,” says Sharon Douglas, vice president of HR and chief people officer at Aflac Inc., an insurance company in Columbus, Ga., that also uses employee trainers. “With sexual harassment training, it’s better when it comes from an expert in handling those situations.”

Selecting Employee Teachers

Tichy believes the role of the HR professional in an employee-led training program is to identify employee teachers, to help them create what he calls a “teachable point of view,” and to create forums for them to present that point of view.

The first step in selecting employee teachers is to know your employees’ skill sets, areas of expertise and personalities. For instance, at CCA, employees are identified based on past job experiences. “We have a former AP [Associated Press] reporter who leads writing courses,” says Hoey. “It’s a morale booster for the individual employee asked to share their expertise.”

Other companies may find out that their employees already teach elsewhere. “Our partners are leaders in their fields, and many are already faculty at accredited law schools,” says John F. Smith III, a partner of the international law firm Reed Smith LLP in Philadelphia. “With resources like that, it would be foolish not to encourage them to educate our own people.”

Smith also serves as chancellor of the firm’s learning organization, Reed Smith University, which in January switched to using a majority of employee teachers.

Many employees “were secretly hoping to be teachers someday. They beat our door down [and said], ‘I would like to teach a course about X; is there room in your curriculum?’ ” says Smith.

Jonathan L. Levin, a partner at Reed Smith who teaches financial regulatory law, was one of those beating down Smith’s door. “I enjoy being a lawyer, but if I had my fondest wish of what to do in life, I’d be a teacher,” says Levin. “Hopefully, my enjoyment of the teaching process and subject matter blends to make me an effective presenter.”

Levin teaches because he enjoys mentoring others but also because it boosts his reputation within the firm. “We have 1,000 lawyers spread across the globe. How am I supposed to become known to them? One way is to have a specialty. When they think of [banking law], I want them to think of me,” says Levin. “It builds my value to the firm. Also, it generates client business. The better known you are, the better able everybody can cross-sell what you do.”

Debra Utko, global category manager in company procurement at BD, agrees. “I have the opportunity to improve my skill set around facilitation,” says Utko, who teaches diversity awareness, negotiation and performance management. “In addition, I have met people throughout BD whom I would not normally meet in my core position.”

Approaching Potential Trainers

The key to igniting the desire to teach among employees is how you approach them. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a lawyer, butcher or baker; from a human standpoint, we all have our motivations,” says Levin. “One common motivation is most people like to be appreciated and recognized for what they do well.”

He suggests HR professionals butter up potential trainers by saying, “ ‘It appears from your reputation within the company that you are the best at what you do. We think it would be wonderful if you could share your knowledge with others.’ Few people, if approached properly, will turn aside.”

It’s also a good idea to spread out teaching opportunities among a variety of employees, says Mary Good, vice president of HR for Blackboard Inc., an educational software company headquartered in Washington, D.C. “Give different people opportunities—don’t have the same group of people give the same training” repeatedly, she says. “This eases the burden on the trainers, and keeps it new and interesting for [students].”

And when selecting teachers, don’t focus solely on expertise. “Not everybody can motivate people,” warns Douglas. Teachers, she says, “should know their subject but also know how to deliver the information.”

Preparing Employee Teachers

Knowing how to deliver the content comes down to preparation. There are four critical ways to ensure an effective employee-led training program:

Let employee teachers develop the curricula. HR professionals should not hand employee teachers off-the-shelf curricula and expect them to teach it. This defeats the purpose of having subject matter experts. Instead, says Tichy, help employee teachers develop a teachable point of view—a vision of what the company can become. Tichy asks leaders to visualize where they want the company to be in five years and how it’s going to get there, and then to articulate that. “Bring in expert content and benchmarking, but [don’t copy how others have done it]. The goal is to get [the teachers] to internalize [the content] and transfer it into their ability to teach,” says Tichy. Employee teachers’ curricula should include why the material is important, what students need to know and a plan for how to deliver it. For instance, at Aflac, employee teachers meet with the training and development staff to discuss needs assessment. “We tell them what is needed, they develop the curricula, and we review it,” explains Gladys Tillman, manager of corporate training and development. Before the employee teacher conducts a class, he will do a dry run in his own department to get feedback from others who know the subject.

Train the trainer. HR professionals should be prepared to provide coaching or train-the-trainer programs. For example, Reed Smith uses outside consultants to run train-the-trainer programs for its employee teachers, in addition to coaching from the HR department. “We have a staff member [in HR] whose principal task is working with attorney faculty to help them prepare for their classes. She starts about seven weeks out, helping them get their material together and with basic research and outlines,” says Smith. One delivery technique is to use team teaching. “We never have anybody teach alone,” says Betof, who carefully pairs leaders, often teaming a more experienced teacher with a less experienced one. “We never ask people to stretch more than an inch or two beyond their comfort zone. Our golden rule is we want our trainers to be successful every time. If it’s a miserable experience and administratively burdensome, why do that?”

Provide complete administrative support. The HR department should be prepared to manage all of the administrative details surrounding the course. This means HR should make photocopies, prepare PowerPoint presentations, order materials, schedule rooms, run audiovisual equipment, set up room configurations and so on. HR can delegate some of these tasks to administrative services, if appropriate, but it should maintain ownership over these duties. “Create conditions that leaders can enjoy what they’re doing,” advises Betof, who compares delivery of the training to putting on a play. “When one of our leaders arrives to teach a class, the room will be ready.”

Recognize the teachers. Most companies pay employees—in compensation or time off—for the time spent in teaching. For example, at CCA, after an employee leads 10 workshops, he is granted an extra vacation day. At Atwell-Hicks, instructors are compensated for both the development of the course and the actual facilitation. “We take into account the hours necessary to run a class, so their workload is not adversely affected by teaching a class,” says Augustine. However, in most cases, money isn’t the issue. More important than the financial rewards, say experts, is the recognition. For example, BD recognizes its teachers with an annual luncheon and thank-you gifts, such as BDU sweatshirts. Also, performance reviews contain a line item about whether the employee has taught a course that year, and if the employee plans to teach in the future. This skill development also helps put employees in front of people who make succession planning and promotion decisions.

Employee Satisfaction Guaranteed

Employee-led training courses improve the skills of the teacher as well as the students. “It gives the trainer a sense of accomplishment and a chance to share knowledge with others in the organization,” says Cote.

Moreover, having employee teachers boosts morale within the company. “The greatest reward as a teacher is the inner warmth and satisfaction that you get almost unexpectedly after you finish a presentation,” says Levin.

“To feel people understand me a little better, appreciate and respect what I do a little more, there isn’t any substitute for that reward. You can’t put a dollar sign on it. It’s the surprise at the end of the struggle.”

Kathryn Tyler, M.A., is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich.


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