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The Benefits of Continuing Education for Personal Growth and Team Effectiveness

Putting an emphasis on adult learning might be the single most important focus for your team

Building a team of lifelong learners is crucial to the long-term success of your organization. Identifying staff who are eager to grow and providing them opportunities to do so will enable your team to thrive. The benefits of training and development (T+D) extend beyond the learners to include the entire enterprise, providing a return on investment.1 

Approaches and types of training and development

There are many options and approaches for both individual T+D plans as well as the team’s training/learning programs. Individual staff T+D plans should include training and how you’ll facilitate their professional development. This could include what certifications they aspire to, mentoring, job shadowing, coaching on soft skills, etc. Approaches for the training portions of both include in-person versus eLearning, individual vs. group training, and topic- or job-specific vs. lab-wide training. Each can be used effectively on their own or in tandem—it all depends on your staff’s learning needs combined with your lab’s organizational structure. 

What types of T+D will you provide? Some examples include:

  • Management (e.g., budgeting)
  • Leadership (e.g., motivation)
  • Technical training (e.g., operating the autoclave)
  • Softer power skills (e.g., active listening) 
  • Typical HR-mandated subjects (e.g., diversity, equity, and inclusion)
  • Lab safety/risk-related topics (e.g., chemical hygiene)

Are you going to use instructor-led or self-paced instruction? Should you use in-house resources or externally-provided training? Some of both internal and external sources  are often a best practice. Develop a cadre of lab staff skilled in various aspects of learning (e.g., how to perform daily lab inspections or proper disinfecting techniques) and encourage them to share their knowledge with others. Also, solicit proposals from consulting trainers on specialized topics as needed (e.g., the DOT hazardous materials shipping requirements or authorized servicing of lab equipment). 

Adult learning

Learning is often divided into three aspects: knowledge, skills, and attitudes (KSAs). As an example, consider a

List of 5 key learning aspects your lab needs
Lab Manager

typical autoclave. Do your staff know not to put bleach in it? Are they skilled at operating and troubleshooting it? Do they have a positive attitude toward using it regardless of the chore? Which of these is the most significant driver of behaviors? Our intent toward our attitude overrides knowledge and skills for behaviors and change.2 For a healthy attitude toward learning, American psychologist Carol Dweck   says that a growth mindset is key.3 

We are all self-directed adult learners. We want to decide what we’ll learn and do it in a way that works well for us. We want it to directly apply and meet our immediate needs and we enjoy sharing our expertise with others during learning activities. What don’t we like or want? To have training forced on us, that isn’t applicable to our needs, is dry or uninteresting, or for it to be something we “might need” in the future.

Ultimate learners are heutagogical; they learn without needing a teacher or guide. You want them on your team. They take on learning new things easily without being asked or told. Take the example of Jake*, a team member who strives to learn soft skills and teach them to others. This results in improved morale, team relations, and effectiveness. 

Benefits to individuals

Learning enables staff persons to develop, grow, gain new roles and soft skills, and lead a team. With professional development, we gain new competencies, advance as a manager, develop greater empathy, and help with team effectiveness. Certifications are often attainable for advanced learning. Many exist, such as lab management, project management, chemical hygiene, equipment maintenance, etc.

Retention and employability often increase with training. Lab safety and risk can improve. Frances is promoted to chemical safety specialist and takes on more duties with her in-house T+D plan. She then prevents lab incidents, helps others, and makes meaningful contributions to the team.     Frank, a scientist, learns data validation. He becomes 100 percent billable, can teach/train others, and it helps with his certification exam.    

Not only does training help develop staff, but it also facilitates team relations as staff help each other take on new skills and attitudes. With new learning, staff careers will often advance. They might move up to supervisor, manager, or director. When staff see one of their own move up, they learn what’s possible and are inspired to do likewise. Today’s work world is a knowledge economy—you’re respected for your knowledge. In labs, this could vary from performing difficult lab procedures to assessing risks better or tracking assets, finances, and inventory.    

Benefits to the team and organization

Learning can improve morale, empathy, relatability, and psychological safety, making for greater effectiveness. Cross-training staff for various roles can boost their confidence, loyalty, and team cohesiveness. Pat is a field sampling tech who is trained in microscopy techniques. He fills in when it’s busy, providing increased value to the lab. Pat’s new knowledge improves his customer communications, and he goes on to train others. 

Julie expresses interest in maintaining the equipment. She’s sent to take manufacturer’s authorized training and can troubleshoot, calibrate, and maintain equipment. She becomes equipment manager and teaches others, sets up equipment schedules, and it helps her on a certification exam. 

A common saying involving lab safety is, “We learn more when things go wrong than when they go right,” Did a risk decision go badly? Refocus on improving the team’s risk assessing tools and techniques with new training. Didn’t plan well enough? Refocus on learning new planning skills.

Typical arguments against investing in training/learning

Here are some common reasons against investing in training and development, and  responses to these myths:

“It costs too much to send people out or bring in a trainer.” It often doesn’t cost as much as we think, and it pays off in less turnover, more loyalty, and enhanced operations. 

“People will leave as they gain new skills.” Typically, staff who gain new skills enjoy implementing them where they are. The more likely applicable saying is, “People leave bosses, not jobs,” and they leave when you don’t provide support for training/learning. 

“So much commercial and in-house training is boring and worthless.” Bad training occurs when it’s done poorly, whereas well-designed training can be highly engaging and effective

Take the example of Jackie who is getting an advanced certificate in lab management. She put her new skills to immediate use, improving lab hiring practices and advancing her career. She’s even more loyal and likely to excel where she is. 

Summarizing key points

Focusing on adult learning pays big dividends—morale, spirit, innovation, operational excellence, and improved KSAs are all possible outcomes. Your teams will benefit with their drive to take on new challenges with greater effectiveness. There are many aspects to consider when introducing training and development programs but identifying your staff’s learning needs is a great starting point. Support your people by facilitating self-directed adult learning. Embrace learning different ways and reap its benefits. 

[*real cases, names have been changed]

References:

1. The ROI of Learning: Why measuring learning is key in a new world of work. 2016. Desire to Learn (D2L).  https://www.hci.org/system/files/2019-12/The-ROI-of-Learning.pdf. 

2. O’Keefe, Daniel J. Persuasion: Theory & Research, 2nd ed. 2002. Sage Publications.

3. Dweck, Carol. What Having a “Growth Mindset” Actually Means. Jan. 13, 2016. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2016/01/what-having-a-growth-mindset-actually-means. 

4. Knowles, Malcolm. The adult learner: a neglected species. 1973. Gulf Publishing. 


Jonathan Klane, M.S.Ed., CIH, CSP, CHMM, CIT

Jonathan Klane, M.S.Ed., CIH, CSP, CHMM, CIT, is senior safety editor for Lab Manager. His EHS and risk career spans more than three decades in various roles as a consultant, trainer, professor, embedded safety director for two colleges of engineering, and now writing for Lab Manager. He is a PhD candidate in human and social dimensions of science and technology at Arizona State University where he studies our risk perceptions and the effects of storytelling. He can be reached at: jklane@labmanager.com.


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