Employment Today – November 2001 issue      back to articles menu

A Degree of uncertainty – Qualification or Capability?”

For many people, Academic learning stopped on the last day of their 5th Form year, and has not occurred since, unless demanded (and paid for) by an employer. With the arrival of the evil and destructive Student Debt, young people are often thinking like a shareholder – what will be the return on investment? What will I be able to DO with this qualification? With money short, employers are thinking the same thing before signing off on training budgets.

In a simplistic manner, we can view outcomes of learning in two ways – Learning Outcomes, and Action Outcomes. As an example, think of one young person who starts their first year at University thinking “In four years I will have my B Sc” versus another young person at the same point thinking “In four years I can start as a junior Vet and in another four years or so start my own practice”. The first is a Learning Outcome – what you will know – the second is an Action Outcome – what you will be able to do.

A favourite soap-box of mine is the employer who asks us to provide management training services without conducting any real analysis of where any performance gap might be – on a hunch, or with a shotgun mentality – and then wonders why managers ‘who should know better’ sometimes treat the training process with a degree of disdain. We know that the best-motivated learners are the people who know why they are commencing a programme of learning and know and agree exactly what they are supposed to do differently afterwards as a result of it.

Another interesting thought is the number of people who – at the beginning of a one-day workshop – ask “Do we get a certificate?” and the truth is that for everyone that asks that question there are several who wanted to ask it…  What does this piece of paper mean to them? What do they think it will mean to a recruiter who see it as part of their CV prior to a job interview? Maybe if we did competency testing afterwards – assessment – then maybe the certificate would mean something.

I have no proof of this next comment – it’s a feeling I’m getting – that employers are more interested in what someone has achieved in the past, can achieve now, and will achieve in the future and less interested in paper qualifications. I think this is happening as more and more employers realise that a University Degree in fact provides a limited range of certainty about a prospective employee, that:

 They can work hard in terms of self-study, and can self-discipline

They can work hard over a significant time period - focussed

They can produce to a deadline – goal oriented

They have the ability to find out information, sort it, consider it, compare it, come to conclusions and present those conclusions

These are worthy attributes, can be applied to the work situation, and are deserving of recognition.  We also know that in an exam, they can remember and can relate required facts and give their opinion, based on a limited set of questions compressed into a few hours and with Lady Luck playing a big hand in whether the questions asked ‘find favour’ with the student. A questionable method of evaluation, perhaps.

 I can feel the blades penetrating my spine already from some quarters. I am not in any way intentionally deriding academic qualifications – simply trying to ascribe truthful worth to them. Diplomas (in a range of disciplines) these days seem to be very popular, and I am wondering whether or not this is due to the fact that they tend to provide more specific, or focussed, topic areas where the academic learning can readily be transferred into workplace practical application.

As the pressure has increased on Management to ‘do more with less’, I am hearing anecdotal evidence that suggests that managers are far more circumspect in considering academic learning for themselves in terms of ‘if I give this thing time, effort, and money – what workplace or career benefit will come from it?’ A focus on Action Outcomes has helped us with many clients who have training budget to spend, have a desire to spend it on worthwhile training, but are unsure of the best way to apply it. If you start from the end – I know that sounds weird – in other words, imagine what the situation will look like when it’s finished. Let me try another way – I often say to clients who need help to focus their thinking “After you’ve done the training, how will you know it has worked?” and they will often say things like “Customer Service complaints will reduce” or “No more Personal Grievances upheld in Court” (or better yet – no more PG’s at all) or “No more inter-department Conflict”. From those starting points we can discover specific symptoms that give rise to these problems, then set about formatting interventions (only perhaps including training) that answer those specific symptoms – providing Action Outcomes. Often we find that it is not a training issue, but in fact a Resourcing, Systems & Policies, or Organisational Structure issue. We could have spent money on training and not changed anything…

 One wonders if Auckland Uni’s new battery of Short Courses (I know, other Uni’s do it too!) is a commercial realisation of the need for a shift in focus to courses of study that are aimed at mature students in the workplace, are specific in focus and bring practical, usable knowledges and skills into their work – an intentional effort to shorten the gap between Learning and Action Outcomes. For the compulsive paper-collector, you still get a Certificate! Perhaps Universities are moving to become ‘partners in performance improvement’ rather than just ‘providores of learning and qualifications’. Am I saying that Learning Outcomes have less value? Absolutely not. If you use them as waypoints on the path to identifying Action Outcomes, you may become more discerning – and definitely get more bang for your bucks.

I will now put my metal helmet on and await incoming fire.

Carpe Diem

Steve Punter ANZIM, Dip Bus (PMER), FHRINZ
Staff Training Associates Ltd, Auckland, New Zealand.
© Steve Punter 2001 All rights reserved by the author.

steve@sta.co.nz                                                                                                                       back to articles menu