Why on-the-job training is failing to prepare public service leaders, and how to fix it

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday November 13, 2018

Key points:

  • Pioneering study reveals gaps in public sector capability development approaches
  • Call for senior managers to “get out from behind the email” and be role models
  • Mentoring needs more active leader participation

All over Australia, public servants are expected to pick up leadership skills on the way to the top jobs, but new research finds senior leaders are rarely good role models and middle managers are often thrown in the deep end.

A better approach would involve more structured and supported opportunities to learn on the job, along with more organised coaching or mentoring from senior leaders with good management skills, according to a pioneering study examining the influence of the 70:20:10 learning model in the Australian public sector.

The well-known ratio is 70% of professional learning through challenging experiences at work, 20% through relationships with colleagues or superiors and observing role models, with 10% from formal training.

Many variations exist and there’s little evidence to support any exact ratio. The study focused on how the different modes of learning are linked together and integrated, and is relevant even where 70:20:10 does not hold sway.

“The way it is now, it’s almost fingers-crossed, get on with the job, do your work and then while you’re there, try to learn.”

The idea that formal courses should be the smallest element is hugely popular with public servants, and in the human resources field more generally. “However, despite acceptance of the significance of informal learning in the workplace, empirical evidence supporting its effectiveness is lacking,” notes the new research paper, which was recently published in the journal Human Resource Development Quarterly after over two years of research.

The study does not exactly challenge the 70:20:10 ratio, the focus on informal learning, or the importance of having some of each mode reflected in management development programs.

Instead, as one of the only examples of empirical research on the application of the model, it finds senior public servants who are guided by it tend to rely on optimistic but ultimately unrealistic assumptions that informal learning just happens mostly by itself without them having to do much themselves.

“The way it is now, it’s almost fingers-crossed, get on with the job, do your work and then while you’re there, try to learn,” says lead author Dr Samantha Johnson.

“And if you look at the way feedback is given in the public service, it’s almost entirely critical and that is problematic in itself as well, so people do things to avoid negative consequences … as opposed to using that feedback to build capability.”

Looking at agencies in the Commonwealth, Queensland, Northern Territory and Victorian governments, the study found “learning transfer and managerial capability development was hindered through four misconceptions” around the three modes of professional development:

  • an overconfident assumption that unstructured experiential learning automatically results in capability development
  • a narrow interpretation of social learning;
  • the expectation that managerial behaviour would automatically change following formal training and development activities without the need to actively support the process; and
  • a lack of recognition of the requirement of a planned and integrated relationship of all three aspects of the framework.

Leadership development programs should call on senior managers to “get out from behind the email” and take a more active role in ensuring informal learning actually takes place, says Johnson, a lecturer in public sector leadership at UNSW Canberra who co-authored the paper with Professor Deborah Blackman and Dr Fiona Buick.

The study found public sector development programs do not typically integrate the three modes of learning into a cohesive experience. Just combining them in specific proportions is not enough.

“That’s quite an interesting thing to get your head around – the difference between combining and integrating,” Johnson told The Mandarin. “It’s not about the time you spend in each form of learning, it’s about the fact that we spend time in each form of learning, and the transfer is difficult.”

She said the 70:20:10 framework encouraged a focus on meeting the ratio for time allocated to each mode of learning – sometimes called “the three Es” for experience, engagement with colleagues, and formal education – rather than how they link together. “We don’t think that’s going to be as effective as finding a way to integrate them,”

The research is also the basis for a new one-day formal training course “for people who play a role in management and leadership development in the public sector” that can be delivered in-house for large organisations.

The study finds social learning – through mentoring, coaching and other direct relationships – is an area of particular weakness in the public sector, but it is vital to reinforce theories taught in training courses.

“Whatever they see in the workplace is what they’re going to copy,” Johnson explained. “So if they’re different, what we preach in a training program and what we see on the ground, the training program’s going to have minimal impact.”

Sink or swim

“It’s not about the time you spend in each form of learning, it’s about the fact that we spend time in each form of learning, and the transfer is difficult.”

The researchers interviewed senior managers in agencies that had recently adopted the framework, and middle managers who had experienced leadership development programs based around it.

Senior staff commonly said they supported the 70:20:10 model because it “reflected their expectation that employees should learn on the job” above all else, but to middle managers trying to rise up through the ranks, the typical approach seems more like the sink-or-swim method of swimming lessons.

Acting in a more senior role is seen as the main vehicle for learning prior to permanent promotion even though the primary purpose is to fill a gap, but the study revealed “serious doubts” that valuable learning opportunities eventuate in this way.

This was “partly because of a tendency to thrust people into the role without adequate preparation” but also because they sometimes have to juggle the managerial responsibilities with their substantive role. This view also reflects concerns that good managerial role models are rare.

Johnson advises HR practitioners to seek out the best role models they can and encourage them to be more visible and take an active role in capability development by passing on what they know through mentoring and coaching.

The aim is to clearly connect the desired leadership capabilities people are expected to learn from a development program to people in the organisation who demonstrate them, and can provide opportunities for social learning.

“We’ve got to remind people, if we want good leadership and management skills in the department then they have to visible, they have to be seen by people,” said Johnson, who also leads the new course.

Bad role models

“It’s about accepting that we can learn while we’re working, but we’re much more likely to learn and then transfer that learning to our own jobs if we put more structure around that process.”

In the study, interviewees recognised the benefit of tailored approaches based on individual development needs, which is another potential benefit of the 70:20:10 model, but also reported that public servants often learned “inappropriate behaviours” on the job.

“The discussions about experiential learning implied that it was being potentially undermined because the social learning was emerging from inappropriate role models,” states the paper, which includes anonymous quotes from the interviews to illustrate the most common perspectives.

“The frustration of most of those managers was that they’re thrown into jobs and they’re expected to just learn by the old osmosis method, and you’re expected to understand it and process it and replicate it, but there’s no support or structure, and actually a lot of it is missed,” Johnson said.

The interviewees were hungry for mentoring and peer learning opportunities that in many cases were simply not widely available, meaning they occurred more by luck than systematic design. The study found social learning was “predominantly dependent upon the preferences and working styles of individual managers” rather than systematic approaches, closely integrated with other learning.

“We think there’s an assumption that you’ll learn just by doing, almost as a matter of happenstance,” said Johnson, but in her view, “the complex soft skills of managing and leading people” need a more structured approach.

That would involve some organised coaching before acting in a higher position, so the person has some idea of what to expect, and specific things to look out for, followed up by more opportunities for social learning during and after their time in the role.

“It’s about accepting that we can learn while we’re working, but we’re much more likely to learn and then transfer that learning to our own jobs if we put more structure around that process.”

The research subjects expressed mixed views about formal learning programs: some found them very useful to build confidence when stepping up to a higher role; to others they were a generic, cookie-cutter approach with little value.

One strong view that comes through, however, is that the follow-up afterwards is often weak or non-existent. Back in the office it’s the same old routine, and superiors are often unavailable to help participants observe and apply the training in real professional situations.

Johnson suggests senior public servants may avoid their role in capability development due to increasing demands to work at faster pace over the last few years and the high levels of churn in the public sector. The next phase of the research will ask who is really accountable for capability.

“And that’s not about releasing someone to go on a course, it’s more than that. If supervisors and senior managers aren’t taking on responsibility for building capability in their team, then who is?”

The bottom line, she thinks, is the pace of work and that’s a hard nut to crack. Somehow slowing things down just a bit would probably help improve capability development but, at the same time, doesn’t sound all that likely.

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