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Margaret Kubicek looks at how organisations can encourage their people to
pool ideas and information

Organisations are good at assessing the training needs of their employees,
but too often neglect the skills people already possess that could be shared
with colleagues.

This belief prompted people management consultancy learnpurple to incorporate
a knowledge-sharing element into talent toolbox, its online review and
appraisal service, says learnpurple’s managing director, Jane Sunley.

"It’s not as though they’re asked, then made to share, they are asked
what they would like to share," says Sunley. "People actually like to
teach others on the whole, but don"t like to be made to do it."

Contract catering business BaxterSmith introduced talent toolbox about a
year ago. It employs 600 people across 36 sites and each now has a training
plan that fits in with the company"s overall training plan, says managing
director Mike Smith. "It’s an opportunity for those being appraised to say
how they could assist with the development and training of others in the
organisation," he said.

Central to BaxterSmith’s training plan is a "who-can-develop-whom"
ethos, exemplified in an initiative that sprang from talent toolbox: the chefs’
forum. The company’s 16 senior chefs hold meetings every other month where they
share everything from purchasing and supply information to the latest menu and
recipe ideas. "No managers or directors sit in on that forum," says
Smith. "The chefs feel they have a voice in our company."

This bottom-up approach engenders a sense of empowerment among employees,
and keeps regional managers from getting ‘bogged down’ in T&D needs across
multiple sites, says Smith. The forum has now gained its own momentum, with
chefs coming up with their own development ideas.

While knowledge-sharing initiatives have obvious benefits, training managers
often face big challenges in keeping them active.

Bayer Pharmaceuticals ran an online discussion forum last year following
implementation of a global targeting process in sales. It aimed to identify and
share any common learning taking place across five countries to support the new
process. Bayer is now putting together a best practice guide for targeting – a
positive result despite a huge amount of effort, says training manager Claire
Hutchins.

"The process is quite hard in an organisation unused to any kind of
chatrooms or forums," says Hutchins. "I think it can be hard to sell
the benefits of participating in a forum over and above e-mail." She
pitched the project as an opportunity to learn new technology and learn from
peers. "We made sure their bosses knew they were participating," she
adds, noting the importance of even small rewards for participation.

Upfront preparation

The forum was active for three weeks, a new question being posted each week
with set deadlines for people to respond. Participants all knew each other, but
they still weren’t always forthcoming in posting their responses. "Because
of its asynchronous nature, people tend to hold back and think someone else
will go first."

An online discussion forum requires about the same amount of upfront
preparation time as a face-to-face session, says Hutchins, but managers need to
allow more time for clarification throughout, as well as simply phoning and
e-mailing participants to remind them to take part.

"It’s completely new and some people probably struggle to see its added
value. That’s not to say people aren’t willing and happy to take part, but once
they’re into it, they may feel shy about asking or clarifying what you want of
them," says Hutchins. "Either they don’t respond at all, or don’t
respond to their full potential. Or they may hold back because they don’t want
to respond first, then mirror their response to whoever went first."

For any kind of online learning initiatives to succeed, their managers
should be prepared to "drip feed them all the time," says Andrew
Ettinger, director of learning resources at business school Ashridge.
"There’s an inherent tension between wanting it to be completely free and
making it very tight and focused and almost editing the flow because people can
get turned off by a hundred different ideas flying all over the place."

Another factor concerns the culture of the organisation. Some take to
technology like ducks to water, but it can be much harder for others, says Ettinger,
who believes many senior managers still struggle with anything beyond basic
e-mail.

Top tips on sharing knowledge

An online discussion forum can foster knowledge sharing among
colleagues who work remotely. Bayer training manager Claire Hutchins shares her
top tips for success:

– Identify a small, manageable group of up to six people, who
preferably have met face to face and worked or are currently working on a
common objective

– Have a telephone discussion with participants to gain their
interest and commitment to take part before discussions begin

– Plan questions that will encourage the responses you are
looking for. Ambiguous questions can mislead participants and in an online
situation – unlike face to face –  there
is a time delay before you may realise this, and are able to refocus the
discussion

– Dedicate time to encouraging participation, considering and
replying to each response

– Summarise responses to show where the connections are between
the responses and to highlight the learning points

– Recognise and reward employee participation

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