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15 Ways To Train on the Job

In a down economy, trainers turn to homegrown help.

Jerry Gratton, director of learning and development for 1-800-Got-Junk?, a franchised junk-removal service headquartered in Vancouver, British Columbia, used to spend several weeks a year on the road bringing training to franchise employees, sometimes visiting eight cities in two weeks. He has replaced that travel-heavy schedule with frequent telephone-based training. For less money, he now reaches more employees and has wider impact throughout North America and Australia. Instead of reaching a handful of franchises, he reaches them all.

When the economy takes a downturn, training budgets often get slashed. But HR professionals such as Gratton find ways to fill the gaps with in-house initiatives that often have greater impact than more costly alternatives. Some initiatives are well-known but underutilized. Others are one of a kind.

“It has become part of our process to determine how we can deliver on our original ideas and achieve the proposed learning objectives for the lowest possible cost while upholding the integrity of our design. Out of limitations comes creativity,” says Jayme Walls, director of Corporate Gaylord University for Gaylord Entertainment Co., based in Nashville, Tenn.

To do more with less, HR professionals recommend focusing on peer teaching; keeping instructional modules simple, specific and immediately applicable; leveraging technology; and maximizing what you already have.

Peer Teaching

Instead of hiring external consultants, turn to the real experts: your own employees.

  1. Highlight internal talent. Sande Scoredos, executive director of training and artist development for Imageworks, a division of Sony Pictures, in Culver City, Calif., fosters peer review among her creative talent, reflecting, “If, after a show wraps, there was some great work done on it, then we showcase it.

    We’ll have a team or an individual do a noontime lecture. We’ll invite everyone to see the explanation of the work” that was done. Employees who attend the lectures learn techniques, and the showcased employee or team gains recognition, boosting morale.

    Gaylord Entertainment is taking a similar approach. “We have begun to seek and utilize the talents of our internal stars [high-potential employees] as additional design and development resources, in lieu of hiring external consultants,” Walls says. The stars want to be involved and “thus more committed to the final result.”

  2. Create your own live “radio shows.” Gratton creates “radio shows” using a conference call phone line. “I, or one of the other leaders, will be the host of the call, so there’s no cost for that. We schedule these calls at a few different times during the day to reach different time zones, from Boston to Sydney, Australia. Then we record the 20-minute training session, and it becomes an MP3 file.”

    During the call, Gratton will have one or two top employees answer carefully thought-out questions in talk-show format. “Have the message come from one of their own,” advises Gratton. Employees learn about best practices for closing sales, handling objections and building customer rapport, for example.

  3. Implement job shadowing. Job shadowing requires more than just following a colleague around all day. Shadowers view the company from a different perspective and learn firsthand about the challenges facing workers in other departments. This perspective helps employees realize the impact their decisions have on other groups.

    Job shadowing at Choice Hotels International in Silver Spring, Md., “has been well-received and has virtually no cost,” says Becky Wedemeyer, vice president of organizational development and learning. “We offer associates at all levels an opportunity to work for a day in one of our franchised hotels to get a true feel for what a day in the life of a hotel operator is all about.”

  4. Create or expand formal mentoring. Mentoring yields cost-effective training—and incredible results. Novice employees learn about company culture and history from senior employees, and managers gain new perspectives.

    For instance, Imageworks offers six months of formal mentoring for producers and production managers. Many graduates move into management after learning about management style, situational leadership, skills and balancing technical sides of the jobs, says Scoredos.

  5. Develop teachers throughout the organization. “We expect our people not just to learn, but to teach,” says Dennis DiMaggio, director of organizational development and change management for Charmer Sunbelt Group, a national beverage distributor headquartered in New York.

    In fact, Mike Dunbar, vice president of sales development and training, expects all managers to teach his basic sales program. Before instructors teach their first class, Dunbar has them go through his own internal certification process to ensure consistency.

    “The head HR person isn’t able to do it all himself. Find senior managers who have the desire and the ability to teach, and invest in those people,” suggests DiMaggio. Then, “you know the foundation has been laid for every associate.”

  6. Invite community leaders to give free presentations. “Our industry is very competitive,” says Scoredos, who schedules four special events a month. For instance, “We cover emerging technologies. We have a speaker coming to lecture about compositing. He wants to share and sell books. We’ll work it into a lecture on the subject, as well as a book signing.”

Practical Modules

During tough economic times, company leaders pull back and instruct managers to concentrate on what the organization does well. Training should reflect that focus. Give attention to training that is immediately applicable to every employee’s job.

  1. Focus on product knowledge. At Charmer Sunbelt Group, every employee—from administrative assistants to truck drivers—learns the basics of wine, beer and spirits.

    This cost-effective training—senior employees teach the less experienced—yields immediate results. Employees who understand their organizations’ products can discuss them articulately with suppliers, co-workers and customers. Relevance to their jobs becomes clear, so employees take the training to heart.

  2. Resurrect job aids. Simple solutions still prove best. Laminated posters and small reference cards help employees find information quickly. For instance, 1-800-Got-Junk? has the five stages of the sales call on a laminated sheet taped inside every truck. Gratton says a job aid can be as simple as enlarging a form and adding reminders, such as “Did you remember to add this information here?”

  3. Cross-train. Employees who have more than one skill become more valuable and flexible. At The Beck Group, a commercial architecture, construction and development company in Dallas, employees take 40 hours of continuing education annually.

    Eight of the 40 hours must represent cross-training, or training outside the employee’s function. “Some employees spend large amounts of time working in the ‘shoes’ of another. For example, our [chief information officer] spent over three months on a construction job site as a project engineer. Less dramatically, many of our architects take courses geared toward our construction personnel and vice versa,” says Mindy Frink, communications director for The Beck Group.

  4. Host interdepartmental conferences. Many times in companies, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand does. Work gets duplicated or takes longer because employees are unaware of knowledge existing elsewhere. Introducing members of one department to another builds networks to share information.

    At Choice Hotels International, “Each month, two featured departments hold ‘Link & Learns’ to inform associates about what their department does and how they collaborate across the organization. Each department also holds an open house. This is a chance to connect people, departments and skills in a low-commitment and low-cost forum,” says Wedemeyer.

  5. Give job rotation assignments. Job rotation has long been popular among interns, but longtime employees can gain from them as well. Such assignments boost engagement and knowledge transfer.

    For instance, at Choice Hotels International, select employees work part time in other departments.

    Associates learn skills and expand their understanding of the business and peer networks. Project managers benefit from gaining resources. “This program has been overwhelmingly successful, resulting in additional resources for strained departments, associate promotions and building associate skill levels—all at a very minimal cost,” says Wedemeyer.

  6. Develop training projects. On-the-job training projects and “stretch assignments” give employees a chance to learn while doing real work, not just hypothetical classroom exercises.

    Sony Pictures’ Imageworks creates digital visual effects and animations. Employees are retrained before beginning a new project. “Every project we do has a different ‘look,’ ” explains Scoredos. For example, the animated family movie “Surf’s Up” looks much different than “Spider-Man 3.” “When you go onto a new film, you need to learn about the aesthetics of that [movie]. More than likely, they have new methods and technology.”

    To update employees’ technical and artistic skills, the company takes a blended training approach. Employees take classes for a couple of hours a day.

    “Then, they’ll get a ‘shot’ [a frame of animation from a completed film] we have developed. In ‘Surf’s Up,’ we would have a shot with a couple of characters in it, and then you [the employee] would do the environment, lighting, the hair, or the animation of the character, depending on what discipline you are [learning],” explains Scoredos. Upon completion, a supervisor assesses the work.

    “Once you finish, you get assigned a shot on the [current] show. It eases people onto their new show. It’s a big leap to go from a classroom exercise to a production shot, so we have steps in between,” says Scoredos.

    The entire process takes one to four weeks, depending on the complexity of the project and the employee’s previous experience.

Leverage Technology

Some technology is costly. However, many company trainers have already invested in the computer hardware and other technology required for e-learning; now they must use it to reach the most employees with little additional cost.

  1. Create and deliver e-learning content in-house. While content creation takes time, custom content proves more effective.

    For example, at Imageworks, says Scoredos, “The biggest shift we’ve had is to our suite of online tutorials we created. People can easily learn other disciplines. For instance, we have a tutorial module on lighting. So if you’re not in lighting, you can still learn the terminology and workflow—the basics—so that you can have an intelligent conversation with somebody from another discipline. It’s been a really good return on investment. It’s one of those projects where everybody wanted to contribute. There’s been no additional cost in doing it. We’re using resources we already had.”

    Carol Willett, chief learning officer for the U.S. Government Accountability Office in Washington, D.C., sees advantages to designing content in-house: “The staff finds immediate application and familiarity in scenarios, challenges and problems that are drawn from our day-to-day experience.”

  2. Create an online bulletin board, e-mail discussion list, blog or other intranet forum for employees to share best practices and ask for help.

    Adding a bulletin board feature to your intranet is a simple matter and requires little moderating. For example, 1-800-Got-Junk? has an active discussion bulletin board. “We host and monitor the forum, but the discussions are between the franchise owners,” says Gratton. “Someone might post, ‘Has anyone had success using a direct mailer?’ and someone else will pick up the thread. The franchise owners love it.”


In boom times, HR professionals can be so eager to obtain the latest training materials that they might buy more than they can use. Lean times provide opportunities to exploit inventory.

  1. Market the training materials you have. HR professionals may “find and build some cool resources, but we’re not the best marketers of them. We launch them with a little fanfare, but we don’t keep promoting them,” says Gratton. For instance, at 1-800-Got-Junk?, “we put a lot of investment in our e-learning site, and it is only a partially tapped resource. My leader said to me, ‘This year, it’s not about building new things, it’s about getting the most out of the great work you’ve already done. You need to get more people using it to the max—every single franchise in the system using all of the resources.’ ”

    Choice Hotels International’s Wedemeyer adds, “Being 100 percent sure you can teach a chunk of something is better than being 50 percent sure you can teach an entire curriculum. Starting small also allows you to be scalable during different economic times and organizational needs. Simply put, an organizational appetite for formal training will fluctuate with business demands.”

Capitalize on Opportunity

“The impact internal talent and untapped creativity have had on our training organization is astounding. We are able to do more, utilizing less,” reflects Corporate Gaylord University’s Walls. “Never underestimate the ability of internal teams within the organization. Should you need to utilize outside vendors, take a long look at the parts or pieces that can be developed internally and outsource just the tasks that absolutely cannot be completed with excellence.” 

Scoredos adds, “I’m always looking for outside sources, internal sources, anything that can be inspirational.”

Willett concludes, “Engage your workforce in helping find answers. There is no silver bullet one-size-fits-all program, design or delivery system. By working closely and collaboratively with the people who have the learning needs, and the supervisors who are deeply vested in helping [workers] become proficient as quickly as possible, you can accomplish a great deal. Our mentoring groups, communities of practice and team-led learning initiatives are the products of these partnerships. They all take time, effort, imagination and commitment, but they do not require great amounts of money.”

The author is a Wixom, Mich.-based freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer.

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