Why training your employees is like giving your company a workout

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Regular physical and mental exercise are essential to keep our bodies and minds healthy. By exposing ourselves to physical stressors such the skeletal impact our body sustains every time our feet hit the pavement, we strengthen our bones, stretch our tendons and keep our muscles functioning. Taking this further and exposing our bodies to more intense stressors such as resistance training or raising our metabolic rate through cardiovascular exercise, can reduce our blood pressure, strengthen our skeletal makeup, improve our mood, make us look younger and even lengthen our life. Like the mechanism of a flu vaccination, exposing ourselves to small amounts of physical stress increases our physical capacity and improves our health.

In contrast, if were to permanently cocoon ourselves indoors at optimum temperature, insulating ourselves from danger or injury, our bodies will slowly become weak, our muscles will deteriorate and we become more susceptible to conditions such as brittle bones.  Similarly, to stave off mental decline and maintain a sharp mind we need to continue learning throughout our adult lives. Research developed by Thomas Bak at the University of Edinburgh suggests that learning a new language in later years can stave off dementia.

Taking your team for a ‘workout’

Big companies, small businesses and even departments within organisations act in a very similar way to humans. Businesses are essentially living and breathing clusters of people and just like individuals, they need to be stretched in order to stay healthy and to grow. The obvious metaphor is that, just like a human being, staying still and comfortable leads to atrophy and decline. Of course, we’re not talking simply about sending a firm’s employees to the gym (although it should be noted that workplace wellbeing programmes are indeed thought to increase productivity too). Far and above, one of the most effective ways we can prepare for the future and increase resilience is to invest time and money in training our staff.

If the right management structures are in place, continuous training and education can make our companies supple by encouraging employees to see their roles from new vantage points. Through training and development we can reduce risk by ensuring that employees are not only compliant but are fed new ideas about their industry or marketplace, free of internal biases or collective beliefs held within a firm.

Atrophy, decline and death

Without a commitment to intellectual growth, an organisation can easily become myopic and quickly lose the edge that made them successful in the first place. In mature firms where staff have been in post for 10 years or more, ‘bounded rationality’ eventually begins to creep in. In MBA speak, bounded rationality is a condition where long serving individuals make decisions based largely on their past experience, becoming guarded and closed to new ideas which often results in them missing major opportunities and threats in the marketplace.

I witnessed this first hand during the mid 2000s, when I worked for a large independent record label whose core business was built around selling their artists music on CD. Out of a staff of 500, I was one of two who worked in the ‘Digital’ department (the label struggled with what to call us). At one meeting, with a chap who’d been in the business for most of his life, I came away dumbfounded after his refusal to even entertain a discussion about a digital release of one of our artist’s big singles.

By his reckoning, the risks were just too big, the revenue a pittance and well… he’d worked at the company for 20 years and it just wasn’t how they did things. We fought our corner and over the years we battled to sign contracts with music stores like iTunes and revenue began to trickle in. Alas it wasn’t enough and the company was eventually split-up and sold off. In hindsight the decline of the CD was pretty easy to call but at the time the senior managers of the company didn’t want to hear about the changes taking place around them. I was studying at the time – not paid for by the company – and was able to bring the fruits of my academic research to my work.

In the evening I was reading about the slow decline of physical media and during the day I got the opportunity to witness it first-hand. But alas, I was powerless to stop the decline. For the most part my advice was ignored, and it certainly didn’t make me popular. I eventually went to work for one of the digital services that was cannibalising the business. I say this without any sense of schadenfreude, I loved working for the label, and despite the failures of the senior management, it was a fun place to work. The music business is certainly poorer without them.

Surviving a changing industry

Just like the human body, if companies fail to learn, grow and develop, they gradually wither and die. Blockbuster, HMV, Kodak and Borders went from multinational superstars to failed behemoths in less than ten years. And surely for every famous name there must be a thousand more who quietly fell by the wayside unnoticed by the masses. Conversely former hardware giant IBM has survived for over a century, originally selling tabulating machines, evolving to large scale computer systems and eventually personal computers. In 2002 IBM’s core business changed again when they acquired PWC and the firm eventually sold its PC business to Chinese technology firm Lenovo.

At the time of writing IBM employs over 375,000 staff and their core business lies in providing storage and security solutions – a big departure from their original business model. A thesis could be written on why IBM survived where others failed but a review of their history reveals three key details 1) the foresight to constantly innovate, adapt and respond to change 2) the empowerment of middle and senior managers to “question decision and policies” 3) the investment of large amounts of their revenues in research and training.

Train, adapt, change and win

We can’t predict the future. We don’t know what technologies will stick, when the next recession will hit or which events will change our world but we can condition our businesses like we condition the body and stretch the mind. With wisdom and foresight we can create structures that will respond effectively when the changes come (and change always comes). We need to make sure our staff are not only well trained but that they are trained regularly and crucially that they are empowered enough put their learnings into practice.

Furthermore education shouldn’t take place at just the top or the bottom of an organisation. Dictates from on high may lack the detail needed to put the winning tactics into place whilst employees at the lower rungs of an organisation can rarely initiate change alone. To roll with the punches, organisations need to be constantly learning both from outside and from within.

Finally the push and pull within an organisation – the clash of ideas, the new versus the old – act as the stressors that our body and mind endure when lifting weights or creating new neural pathways when learning a foreign language. Senior managers, directors and CEOs would be wise to genuinely listen to the observations and ideas of junior staff – they often have the most insight within the business. Some companies claim to do this but it can often become little more than a box ticking exercise.

Surrounding oneself solely by people who agree with your vision can quickly lead to a room full of ‘yes men’ and encourage a culture where staff who disagree or offer an alternative vision are seen as a cranks or outsiders.  During the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of the gravest situations in world history, President Kennedy found so many of his staff unequivocally agreeing with him, he employed a ‘devils advocate’ to aggressively disagree with his position in order to open the debate up. Like the physical stressors needed to keep our body and mind healthy, the natural push and pull within organisations – i.e. small amounts of internal conflict – are vital to keep us supple, vibrant and ready to take on the challenges of unavoidable change.

The content team are the owners of AAT Comment.

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