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Mentor in a structured on-the-job training: the new kid on the block?

How do we learn all the things we know? How do we learn all the things we know how to do our job?

Is it only by attending training sessions or by going to school? We might be tempted to say “yes”, as schools, universities and other similar institutions were specially created for this purpose.

Is it by watching others doing things and then carefully imitating them? We might say “yes” as well, as we can remember situations in which we acquired a skill through careful observation and imitation.

However, it is believed that 70% of our knowledge comes from practical experiences (learning by doing), 20% from interaction with others (observation, imitation) and only 10% from formal educational events.

Read more: Is the 70:20:10 learning model right for your organization?

Since most of the job knowledge is obtained using a hands-on approach, on-the-job training should be implemented as much as possible to boost learning and skills acquisition.

Experience alone will do the trick. It is obvious. Or is it?

Apprenticeships vs. structured on-the-job training

Experiential learning or traditional on-the-job training focuses too much on the experience in and of itself, almost completely ignoring the learning process. On the other hand, structured on-the-job training, a related approach that blends intentional instruction in the classroom with the applicability of experiential opportunities, might be a better solution.

Online classroom content and competency-based learning experiences are fully integrated around a clearly defined structure. Instead of apprenticeships that provide focus on the acquisition of all skills necessary for a role, a structured on-the-job training program will break down the role into subsets of skills and focus on the acquisition of those specific skills that the workforce lack.

The benefits are obvious for both the company and the employees. Structured on-the-job training will offer the company consistency for experiential learning sessions, trackable progress for learners engaged in on-the-job training environment and quantifiable, measurable results for leadership to use. Most important, staff will be better prepared and more confident, as each person can track personal progress in time.

Mentoring in a structured on-the-job training program

An important part of any structured on-the-job training is the mentor. Preparation is the key, especially as far as the learning process is concerned. Since mentors tend to be chosen among in-house subject matter experts, they might be indeed extremely good at what they are doing, but they might not be aware of the characteristics of the learning curve.

Not all top performers are good trainers. Training is a skill in and of itself and it doesn’t come naturally to all people.

With this in mind, set the correct expectations and make future mentors aware of the following: every learner is different, few learners are like you, and last but not least, mistakes are not failures; they are learning opportunities.

Read more: How many types of mentoring are there?

The four stages of learning a skill or a task

It is also useful to make mentors aware of the four stages of learning a skill so that they can better relate to learners’ experiences.

  • The first stage is unconscious and incompetent: people that are completely new to a task simply don’t know that they don’t know. New hires have to learn from scratch processes and procedures typical to a work environment.
  • The second stage is conscious and incompetent: as they understand the processes and the procedures, new hires realize that there is a lot they don’t know. Morale might go down, but they need to be made aware that this is only one stage of the learning process.
  • The third stage is conscious and competent: after a lot of practice under careful supervision, new hires know what to do. They still need approval and help every once in a while, but they have what it takes to do their job.
  • The fourth stage: after doing a task many, many times, employees become unconsciously competent. They do what they have to do without thinking about it.

Normally mentors are recruited from people who belong to this fourth category. They may be extremely efficient at what they are doing, but that doesn’t make them automatically good trainers. As far as their training skills are concerned they may well fit into the first category. That is why preparation is essential for the success of the program.

Keep in mind

Keep in mind that while there might be some truth to the saying: “Those who can do, those who can’t teach”, it is also true that only those who know how to teach can successfully pass on knowledge and competency to others.