If you're in a leadership or management position, think about how you train your people in new skills. You probably use a mixture of training methods, including on-the-job training.
But when is on-the-job training appropriate? And how do you structure it effectively so that your people and your organization get the most significant benefit from it?
In this article, we explore on-the-job training. We examine where it works best and discuss how to set up an effective training program for your team or organization.
What Is On-the-Job Training?
This type of training happens when a team member (trainee) works alongside a more experienced colleague (trainer) so that they can learn new skills under normal working conditions.
As such, it's probably the oldest form of career development. For centuries people have been learning how to do a job by working with or observing someone more knowledgeable and experienced. It's still the most widely used training method and is suitable in many workplaces.
There are two forms of on-the-job training: unstructured and structured.
Unstructured Training Methods
Unstructured on-the-job training is "free form." It primarily consists of the trainer acting as a guide or mentor to the trainee throughout the working day.
The trainer teaches vital knowledge and skills and allows the trainee to learn through trial and error. The trainer and a manager offer feedback and suggestions for improvement as they go along.
Types of Structured Training
Structured on-the-job training also takes place in the work environment but differs in that it is better planned. For example, trainers may deliver presentations and lectures, recommend reading materials, or provide instructive questionnaires to help the trainee learn new skills.
The trainee then applies what they've learned. The trainer inspects work or shadows the trainee and offers feedback and suggestions, as with unstructured on-the-job training.
Advantages of On-the-Job Training
One of the most significant advantages of this approach to training is that it's easy to set up. All you need is an experienced team member and the tools and resources the trainee will need to do their job.
On-the-job training (especially unstructured) is inexpensive compared to other forms such as computer simulation and classroom-based training. This makes it especially useful for smaller organizations.
Another advantage is that this approach to training puts new team members into the organization's daily operations right from the start. New people can quickly get a feel for the corporate culture and the pace of work and rapidly get to know their new colleagues and key stakeholders.
Trainees will also have the opportunity to put their new skills to use immediately, which helps them to retain the information they've learned.
When On-the-Job Training Is Appropriate
On-the-job training can benefit many work environments, especially in customer service, retail, sales, and manufacturing.
It can also be helpful for roles that require hard skills, such as data entry or purchasing, or any position heavily dependent on structured procedures. It is often used in succession planning, too.
It can, however, be less beneficial in knowledge-based roles such as IT or marketing. (Trainees in these roles will likely benefit more from classroom-based training.)
The effectiveness of on-the-job training will also depend on your team or organization.
For example, the quality of instruction largely depends on the staff member you choose to do the training. If they do not know training techniques or have poor communication skills, they won't be able to deliver instructions or insights. This can lead to gaps in the trainee's knowledge.
On-the-job training can also take a long time. During this time, trainers may have to delegate, or delay other work, to make time for training sessions. Depending on their role, this can lower the productivity of other team members or even an entire team.
How to Set Up On-the-Job Training
On-the-job training is relatively easy to set up.
The first step is to identify potential trainers in your department or organization. Look for those skilled in their area (and potentially others, too). They'll also need good communication skills, patience, emotional intelligence, and empathy.
Trainers must be willing to share their knowledge. You may also want to identify trainers based on their overall attitude to the job and your organization – having a good role model is especially important if trainees are new to the team or organization.
Once you've identified your trainers, you may need to teach them how to train new people. Your trainers may also benefit from knowing how to mentor another team member.
If the training session is unstructured, write a brief outline detailing what you'd like the trainer to cover. Ensure they have all the passwords and tools they need to work with the trainee.
You'll also have to decide who will take over the trainer's primary responsibilities if their work is affected while training.
If the training is structured, do a Training Needs Assessment with the trainee to find out how much they already know. This can help you, or the trainer, structure the information in the most valuable and effective way.
Next, consider following this simple four-step process for each session of on-the-job training:
Prepare: Explain to trainees how the training session will take place. Give them an overview of the skills that they'll be learning.
Present: Present the information that they need to know. This could be written materials, videos, online learning sessions, or lectures.
Apply: Once trainees have received instruction, encourage them to try tasks out independently while being supervised by the trainer.
Inspect: At this point, the trainer needs to inspect what trainees have done and offer feedback on what went right and what went wrong. For each new skill learned, the trainer should continue to provide input and guidance.
This four-step process was initially designed by Charles Allen, a manufacturer, based on psychologist Johann Herbart's ideas. However, this process might not always be relevant to your needs or training role. Use your own best judgment here.
Example of On-the-Job Training
You've recently hired a new sales rep, Janet, to join your district team.
After reviewing her résumé and conducting a Training Needs Assessment, you know that Janet has previous sales experience and responds well to observational and hands-on training techniques.
You pair her with Eva, one of your top sales reps. You know that training Janet will take away from Eva's valuable time, but you want her to be coached by one of your best people.
A few days before Janet starts, you call Eva into your office to discuss the training. You've written a list of learning objectives and skills that you'd like Janet to know by the end of the week-long shadow session. Her main goals are to learn how to find potential new clients, understand the organization's process for initiating contact, and thoroughly understand the entire product line. You also ask Eva to pass along other skills, such as how to sell effectively in your industry's niche.
On Monday morning, Janet spends the morning in Eva's office, watching her make sales calls and organizing her list of afternoon client meetings. She takes notes and asks frequent questions.
In the afternoon, she shadows Eva while she meets potential clients. She gets to see how Eva approaches the clients, the methods she uses to explain the product line, and how she goes about closing the sale.
Eva asks Janet to communicate with potential clients a few days into her training. Janet is also encouraged to start researching and creating her list of prospects. She then goes with Eva and takes the lead in these meetings while Eva stays in the background, watching and taking notes. After each session, Eva lets Janet know what she did well and where she needs more work.
By the end of the week, Janet is comfortable with the routine and demands of her new role. She's developed a list of potential clients and done several meetings as the lead rep. Eva will continue to mentor and answer questions over the next few weeks while she learns more skills.
CDPS's Key Points
On-the-job training is one of the most widely used approaches to training. It offers several benefits, such as ease of use, low cost, and quick implementation.
You can improve your on-the-job training programs by ensuring that your trainers are adequately trained. You should also provide an outline of skills that the trainee should have mastered by the end of the training program.
For structured on-the-job training, follow the four steps for each training session: prepare, present, apply, and inspect.