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Sheckley aids corporate training programs
November 2, 1998

After Patty Kelly checked into her hotel at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, she asked for directions to a store where she could buy office supplies.

The concierge, a product of extensive corporate training initiatives, made several phone calls before giving her a handwritten set of directions. The directions were accurate and easy to follow: Kelly found the store. But it was 25 miles from the hotel.

"The focus is not on training per se but on developing expertise."

Barry Sheckley
Professor, Educational Psychology

"I know there must be an office supply store closer than 25 miles," Kelly fumed. "This hotel chain has a national reputation for conducting top-level training programs. Why couldn't they teach this person how to use good judgment."

Many echo Kelly's question - especially CEOs and human resources professionals searching for ways to cultivate, among all workers, expertise and sound judgment.

Two researchers at UConn, Barry Sheckley and Marijke Kehrhahn, have spent the past decade studying aspects of this topic.

"Since the early '80s, we have conducted a focused research program on how adults learn," says Sheckley, a professor of educational leadership. "We are now extending that research base to explore how the adult learning patterns we have documented lead to the development of expertise in the workplace."

"When we go into work situations," says Sheckley, "we ask employees how they developed expertise in doing their jobs. Over and over, they cite experience as their best teacher. Classroom sessions, they report, are interesting but typically do not provide information they can use to do their jobs."

Sheckley tells of an instance when he was asked to evaluate customer service training at a bank. The participants said the program emphasized routine items, but complained that close to 80 percent of their problems on the job related to non-routine topics that were not mentioned in the training program.

Says Kehrhahn, an assistant professor of educational leadership, "Consistently we find that less than 10 percent of the information employees learn in a classroom is used to improve practice or to solve problems at the job. That means money invested by businesses on classroom training does not always bring a high return."

Sheckley and Kehrhan are using their research findings to help corporations improve their professional development programs. "The focus," says Sheckley, "Is not on training per se but on developing expertise."

He compares an adult who learned to speak Italian by memorizing a dictionary to an adult who learned it by living in an Italian village. "The person who lived in the village is more fluent, has more expertise," he says.

Sheckley says professional development must be pursued within the context of day-to-day work experiences.

"We include classroom sessions in a professional development program when we want to establish a baseline set of perspectives, guidelines, or principles about the task at hand," says Kehrhahn. "The most effective and lasting learning, however, occurs as individuals use these principles on the job to solve day-to-day business problems."

Rudy Verrilli, an assistant director for Organization and Employee Development at Hartford Life Insurance Company, found the research conducted by Sheckley and Kehrhahn provides "a very practical approach that has helped individuals become more proficient at their jobs."

With Kehrhahn's help, Hartford Life developed teams that focus on evaluating the effectiveness of specific business programs.

The company found that learning occurred as the professionals engaged in dialogue about how to conduct evaluations, tried out solutions, and received feedback from customers on the effectivenes s of the solutions. They then discussed this feedback, crafted a new set of approaches, received another round of feedback, and repeated the cycle.

Kehrhahn says, "through this approach to learning, the professionals involved are embedding principles of effective evaluation into their daily work routines."

When Anna Aramini, director of Development at CIGNA Individual Insurance, contemplated ways to make training programs more "strategic" and help CIGNA-CII achieve its business goals, she found Sheckley's ideas appealing.

Using his research, they started with three pilot projects - one in sales, one in human resources, and one in the financial area. Each of the projects was very successful, Aramini says.

In the financial area, for example, Karen Rohan, assistant vice president and chief financial officer, reports that the techniques, enabled her department to increase efficiencies in three ways.

"First, we reduced significantly the amount of overtime the unit was putting in," Rohan says. "Second, we streamlined the financial unit's work. Finally, we eliminated the time individuals would have spent away from the office attending training sessions."

Sheckley and Kehrhahn are now working with corporations around the country to refine and test further the principles they have developed.

Luis Mocete