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Express to Maximum Value

by William L. Austin, Jr. 


Today, many companies have, or are in the process of establishing, their own training and organizational development unit or learning center. With that decision made, the question now becomes: how should the learning center operate so that it adds maximum value? The analogy of a commuter train illustrates how a learning center should operate. The rails, the power lines, or catenaries, the passengers, and the crew all work together to form an effective, high performance system. Their interaction provides a model for the best practice of operating a learning center.


The Rails

The train symbolizes the learning center. Your learning center, rides on a set of tracks. This track consists of two rails - one rail is the culture of the company and the other is the company’s business. Knowing and understanding the business and culture of your company is paramount. Knowing one without the other or taking either for granted will cause your learning center to derail quickly, regardless of your knowledge level or experience.


Becoming familiar with the rails requires keeping abreast of your company’s latest business trends, regulatory requirements, board priorities, corporate goals, and financial conditions. Simultaneously, you should establish and maintain open and candid relationships with employees at all levels. Track insight comes from being a good listener, showing respect, demonstrating that you know the business, and asking factual and thought-provoking questions. The condition of the tracks can change daily. Your train could encounter “slippery rails” causing it to have difficulty stopping and starting.


The learning center itself must be reliable, flexible, and visible with easy-on, easy-off access. Today’s corporate learning center has to be able to provide high quality, “just-in-time” services. Management and employees alike expect the train to be there when they want it and take them where they want to go, with a minimum amount of inconvenience. This requires your learning center to be well organized and offer a wide variety of services. Training programs should be held on a regular basis, on topics that are meaningful (preferably suggested by employees and management), and kept to within one hour or one and one-half hours.


Organizational development work should follow a similar pattern. However, this type of work will require having a series of short sessions on a regular basis. From time to time your learning center may receive requests that are not within the realm of training and organizational development. Some will want to substitute training or organizational development for strong supervision. In such cases, you will have to thank them for considering your learning center and refer them to employee relations.


The Catenary

The power line above the train, the catenary, represents the learning center’s source of power. This power source is knowledge. This knowledge includes training know-how, organizational development expertise and general human resource understanding. No matter how well the rails are prepared or how well organized your learning center is, it will not move or travel far without power.


Power is training and organizational development/human resources knowledge. This knowledge comes from a variety of sources including reading the current training and organizational periodicals, understanding the basic academic concepts and knowing when and how to apply them. It also comes from regularly tapping into training and organizational development professional associations.


Taking the knowledge from the high power line of theory and transforming it into energy that will move your learning center and serve your passengers requires transformers. You must be able to adapt the theory to the organization rather than insisting that the organization adapt to the theory. For example, this may mean consolidating a ten-step concept or process into two or three steps. In addition, when you use consultants who traditionally market two- or three- day programs, insist that they reduce it to no more than two hours. Single, full-day programs should be the exception. The idea is to provide constant service not semi-annual vacations.


The Passengers

The passengers who use your commuter train consist of your company’s management, departments and employees. However, they are more than passengers, they are ambassadors. They may come to you as individuals seeking coaching, skill building (ranging from technical to interpersonal), or wanting to obtain new information. Additionally, they may come as a unit wanting you to help them work more cohesively. Regardless of how or why they come to you, when they leave, they become your spokespeople. You depend on them not only for repeat ridership, but also to encourage others in your company to make use of your services. Therefore, it is important to understand what your passengers want and constantly strive to exceed their expectations. It is imperative that you understand your passengers’ business and be on a first name basis with them. Knowing your passengers will enable you to identify subject matter experts who could assist with certain trainings.


The Crew

The effectiveness of your commuter train ultimately depends on its crew. This crew, the conductor, assistant conductor, and engineer are the learning center’s staff. They should be comprised of high-energy, fun loving, creative, hardworking, and risk taking individuals. Their individual skills/abilities should vary, as well as their diversity in gender, race, and age. This multi-faceted and versatile crew will be able to operate your commuter train at maximum efficiency and relate to all your passengers.


This crew must be able to plan and execute both short- and long-term objectives. Your conductors have to be skilled at performing informal needs assessments with your passengers so they are able to provide just-in-time training and organizational development services. The conductors must have high visibility in the company in order to receive new ideas as well as informal feedback. Conductors also play a critical role in keeping the train operating on schedule.


The engineer keeps a constant eye on the tracks and operates the train. Passengers and crew rely on the engineer to draw the appropriate power and to maintain a safe speed during all parts of the journey. The engineer must be familiar with all aspects of your learning center. Both engineer and conductors stay alert for sudden changes and potential problems so that together they can develop solutions.


Fun is this crew’s secret ingredient. They have to be able to enjoy and have fun working with each other and create an atmosphere of fun among the passengers. This fun translates into increased professional development, stronger leadership, higher productivity, cost reductions, and increase in business.


A learning center that adds value operates by first knowing and understanding its company’s business and culture. Next, it must stay connected to the latest training and organizational development trends and appropriately apply them. The success of a learning center will ultimately depend on a highly skilled, flexible and fun-loving staff. A learning center with these components will consistently be viewed as a necessary part of the organization. Such a learning center will be regularly called upon to provide tools and techniques that will enable employees and departments to work smarter and more effectively in a fast-paced business environment.




About the Author 


 William L. Austin, Jr. is Manager of the Organizational Learning Center at Health Partners, a nonprofit organization, which administers Medicaid and Medicare coverage for 145,000 members in the Philadelphia area. Austin attended Albion College in Michigan and earned a graduate degree in Administration and Policy from the University of Michigan. A certified cultural competency trainer by the Cross Cultural Health Care Program in Seattle, WA, Austin was the “engineer” behind Health Partners’ 2002 Optimas Award for Service from Workforce Magazine®.


Copyright ©2003 Taylor Training & Development

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of the Tailored Briefs newsletter and is reproduced here with permission.



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