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Learning from the customers

Employees of knowledge enterprises learn most when they are out on assignments together with demanding customers. “Working with the right customers is more important for skills development than attending courses,” claims researcher Tale Skjølsvik at BI Norwegian School of Management.

Developing employees’ skills and expertise is vital for knowledge-intensive enterprises. Much is written about the plethora of courses, training programmes and other formal learning arenas.

Much less focus is placed on the skills development that takes place through the everyday work of employees.

While many employees spend a few days or weeks a year on courses, they can learn something new on the job on every single one of the more than 200 working days of the year.

Learning on the job

“Everyday skills development must be placed at the heart of every company that invests in skills development. And this applies to most enterprises in today’s competitive situation. Skills are becoming ever more important in order to develop competitive advantages,” claims PhD student Tale Skjølsvik at BI Norwegian School of Management.

Together with Professor Bente Løwendahl and Associate Professor Ragnhild Kvålshaugen at BI Norwegian School of Management and Senior Research Siw Marita Fosstenløkken at the Work Research Institute, Tale Skjølsvik has carried out a comprehensive study of skills development in professional service companies in five different sectors: management consultancy, law, consulting engineering and advertising agencies.

The results are published in the international scientific periodical California Management Review.

“Absolutely the most important learning arena in these companies is the assignments that employees work on,” claims Skjølsvik.

This promotes learning

The research team has sought to understand the characteristics of the various assignments that are important factors for the employees to learn a lot.

The study shows that there are six factors in particular associated with assignments which contribute positively to learning:

1) A high level of innovative and customised assignments
2) Variation in the composition of the assignment team in terms of skills
3) Time pressure
4) Major projects
5) Competent customers
6) A high degree of interaction with the customer
The most surprising finding is perhaps that time pressure has a positive effect on learning.

This finding is in contrast to previous research which has indicated that time pressure has a negative effect on innovative solutions and learning.

“Despite this, we would not conclude by recommending greater time pressure as a means to increase skills development. We need further studies which cover other factors, not least whether there is a threshold value for when time pressure changes from having a positive to a negative effect on learning,” says Skjølsvik.

The research study demonstrates that, in the work to improve skills, it is probably as important to place an emphasis on the day to day work that the individual carries out as it is to focus on courses and learning.

Audun Farbrot | alfa
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