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Personal experience, not professional seminars or workshops, enhances learning in the workplace (Released: 11/16/98)

by Luis Mocete Office of University Communications

STORRS, Conn. -- cierge made several phone calls before giving him a handwritten set of directions. The directions were accurate and easy to follow: Sheckley found the store. But it was 25 miles from the hotel.

"I knew there must have been an office supply store closer than 25 miles," says Sheckley, a professor of educational leadership at the University of Connecticut. "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?"

Sheckley and Marijke Kehrhahn, an assistant professor of educational leadership at UConn, have spent the past decade studying how businesses can help their employees to develop expertise and good judgement.

Many echo their question -- especially CEOs and human resources professionals searching for ways to cultivate these characteristics.

"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.

"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," says Kehrhahn. "That means money invested by businesses on classroom training does not always bring a high return."

Sheckley and Kehrhahn 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, feels Sheckley and Kehrhahn