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Breaks provide better training Shooting the breeze is good for business


Some bosses say productive work can occur only if employees toil away in their work stations or cubicles -- and with few distractions. Strategy sessions at chance meetings in the hallway or banter over coffee can't measure up, they say.

At Siemens Power Transmission and Distribution in Wendell, N.C., a unit of Siemens, the big German manufacturer, it is just the opposite.

Management removed the plant's time clocks and expanded the cafeteria, putting in pens, pencils, markers, paper, flip charts -- even overhead projectors -- to encourage lingering lunch breaks, more talk and thus, more training.

"It's a good, relaxed atmosphere to be in," said Joshua Gifford, who maintains computers, software and the help desk as a Siemens work-station specialist. "There's no role-playing there -- it's not the boss' office. Your opinion is just as important as anyone else's."

Effective on-the-job training has always been a challenge in the workplace. Indeed, American companies with 50 or more employees spend $56 billion annually on formal training, according to the American Society for Training and Development in Alexandria, Va.

Of the $500 spent on each employee in this group of companies, 67 percent goes toward paying in-house trainers or outside professionals, the society reported.

But the typical corporate response might overlook the greatest opportunities, recent research has shown.

"Companies are spending all this money, while the informal learning gold mine is largely ignored," said Monika Aring, director of the Center for Workforce Development, a research organization in Newton, Mass.

In a two-year study whose findings were released earlier this year, the center sent groups of 20 psychologists, economists and anthropologists around the country to observe, survey and dissect company cultures and learning patterns at seven manufacturing corporations.

Researchers found that during a typical workweek, more than 70 percent of work site training took place informally, with employees sharing information with one another. Fifty-five percent of the respondents said they asked co-workers, not supervisors, for advice.

Overall, informal training was found to be continuous, if often unrecognized; instead of being a drain on productivity, so-called idle chatter was actually good for business.

Elizabeth Denton, an organizational psychologist and business consultant in New York, said the findings reflect her own experience.

"In every single company I have done an organizational assessment of, employees have said they need more information and more open communication to do their jobs better," said Denton, who has worked with more than 100 corporations. "It's something that many haven't been paying attention to. The most excitement, interest and true dialogue tends to happen in the off-hours, or when people are sitting around shooting the breeze."

At some corporations, informal learning initiatives have their roots in the concepts of teaming. In the team approach, management sets the goals, and workers decide the membership of each team and its methods.

Informal learning goes a step further by leaving it to the workers to teach and set goals themselves.

Siemens spent years searching for the right approach by fostering a variety of on-the-job and classroom training. But those plans had limited success.

"Three years ago, there were a significant number of supervisors who were suspicious of people congregating in the cafeteria," said Barry Blystone, corporate manager of training and development. "The perception was that if people weren't on the production line, then they weren't working."

When they took a closer look, though, Blystone and other Siemens managers determined that these informal gatherings were productive.

The change has been noticed and appreciated by the work force.

"Employees used to be a little afraid to speak up when they had a question or an idea," said Gifford, the work-station specialist. "Now we're encouraged to speak out and take charge."

Pub Date: 5/10/98

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