Some thoughts on On the Job Training and formal learning

learningAn increasing number of organizations are listing project management (PM) skills as a requirement for their managers. It’s no surprise that many people want to acquire/improve their PM skills. I’d like to start a discussion about the value of the various ways one learns.

First, a few disclosures: I consult on PM issues, have taken PM courses, have an MBA, read journals and books on PM, and am an instructor on PM. So, I could be said to have a predisposition (even a vested interest) toward formal learning. On the other hand, a lot of the most valuable things I’ve applied as a PM I learned working with my dad (who was a landscape contractor) and my mom (who ran the office).

My bottom line: as a hiring manager, I’m looking for someone with specific experiences showing abilities and insight consistent with the way I want to run projects. Breaking that down, I value the application of knowledge over knowledge regardless of how the knowledge was obtained. At the same time, I’m looking for evidence of ability to go beyond a linear approach of “when A happens, I do B.” Finally, I’m looking for a pattern that indicates that when faced with a PM issue, we will not be so different as to make finding common ground difficult and not so alike that we share the same blind spots.

OJT – On the Job Training.

In some ways, OJT is the gold standard. It’s real. Working with my dad on a variety of job sites, I experienced a lot of different approaches to work situations. From simple things like always checking for the most recent version of the plan (getting my pay docked for the rework had a lasting impact!) to more nuanced like finding win-win solutions in supplier negotiations.

So, if you are learning relevant things on the job, that is great. Relevant. That’s one of the shortcomings of OJT. Sometimes we’re in an organization that has stopped providing relevant learning. However, remember that you don’t have to wait for learning to come to you. You can ask for new challenges or just start doing new things (is your organization permission-based? – are you sure? ok, that discussion is for another time).

OJT doesn’t have to be only from your job. Any organization (including your family) may provide great PM experiences.

Formal Training

You can read. You can go to classes and talks. You can have classes come to you (you can even participate in blogs). I’m a big fan. Do all of them. Reading can stimulate your brain and keep it sharp. Same for talks such as those at trade and professional organizations (e.g. PMI!). Classes and discussions, whether in person or online, can provide new ideas and techniques and tools. One of the best things about the formal side of learning is that you get the ability to think and talk about your experiences in the language and conceptual framework of project management.

Another aspect of your formal learning is that it gives you ideas on what to apply on the job. Take the theory and find out how it really works in your situation (or, even change the situation!)

I’m hopeful you see where I stand… it’s best to learn both on the job and through more formal venues. That’s how I believe you can get the most value. You are managing risk all the time on the job, why not learn more about what experts have done and are doing to improve risk management? You then can talk about your accomplishments in terms other managers can readily appreciate and try out new things to expand your abilities.

Last item. Degrees and certificates. By themselves, they don’t move me. I’ll choose experience over degrees/certs anytime. I do think that degrees/certs can be a powerful leverage to your experience. They can be a kind of imprimatur of your accomplishments. Also, over and above the knowledge, a degree/cert says something about your ability to set and achieve goals, personal initiative, commitment to improvement and time management.

So, keep learning and doing and learning and…

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3 thoughts on “Some thoughts on On the Job Training and formal learning”

  1. The best part of formal PM and management education for me is the immediate opportunity to go try something new on the job. Having a theoretical framework helps bring discipline and vision to everything I do. Working experience helps with flexibility, the ability to combine disparate concepts on the fly, and dealing with difficult situations. It’s also very true that many times, the best way to learn is the hard way.

    Great post!

  2. Thanks for this blog: a timely topic.

    Most modern formal education provides skills as well as knowledge. In the Foothill College CNET119 class (Customer Service and Project Management), teams provide real support to each other on the class tools: web conferencing, learning management system, project management software and CRM.

    In the online labs participants learn project and program management in a core team (marketing, manufacturing, support, R&D) structure. The teams conceive, plan, design, prototype and demonstrate educational games that teach teamwork, innovation, and leadership. They choose a parlor game, board game, playground game, electronic game or web-based simulation game. Last term a team building a Presidential Simulation game attracted the interest of a venture capitalist. The board games kept the class playing for a long time and the focus group of junior high school students provide input and helped improve the games.

    In addition the community college programs provide paid internships in the labs and at industry sites. Our counterparts at Cal State East Bay and UCSC Extension provide similar skill-based education. In short, formal education is on-the-school experience, a complement to on-the-job training.

  3. I agree that on job training is the best solution since nothing can’t be more efficient then practical applying the things you just learned.

    On the other hand, if for whatever reason that’s not possible, I would highly recommend some independent (free) job training programs like the one I just linked (it is not necessarily the best one, but the one I’m most familiar with).

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