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All employees must take responsibility for their own learning. At one time, many companies could promise a new employee lifelong employment and a predictable career path. Today, very few if any companies can make that promise. Even when your company has a formal training department and offers a catalog full of courses for employees, no one knows better than the employee and his or her manager what needs to be learned and how that learning can be applied to the job to make a positive difference in individual, group, and company business results. You must take responsibility for your own career path, whether with your current employer or through a series of employers. And the way to build your career is to keep learning throughout your career.

Many companies promise that every employee will receive one week (and sometimes more than one week) of training per year. But forward-looking managers know that one week of training isn't enough to create better performance and new opportunities for the future. They know that they and their employees must be in a continuous learning mode -- learning every month, every week, every day.

How do you plan for your own learning needs? Here is a method of planning for your own learning that I call the "learning contract." The learning contract is personalized for each employee and is negotiated by the employee and his or her manager, for no one in the company knows better what the employee needs to learn than the employee and his or her immediate manager.

The learning contract starts with the company's business goals or, at the minimum, the part of the company's business goals that are affected by the employee's work. By beginning and, as we will see later, ending with these goals in mind, we ensure that all learning activities are designed to make a positive contribution to the achievement of both personal and company goals. But it is often difficult for the individual employee to see a direct connection between his or her work and the larger company goals. It is the job of the manager to help the employee understand the company's goals and how those larger goals are affected by the department's or function's work and by the work of the individual employee.

Why is it important for every employee to understand the company's overall business goals, especially if the employee's work seems very distant from those goals? The answer is simply this: if you don't understand the company's business goals, how can you possibly work to help the company achieve those goals? Being able to demonstrate how your work is helping the company achieve its goals will be important when you seek your next raise or promotion. And even if you decide to leave the company to seek work elsewhere, potential employers will look more favorably on applicants who are able to tie their work experience to achievement of the company's business goals.

Once these goals are understood, the next question is: "How must I change my work or my skills and knowledge to help the company achieve this goal?" Too often, companies publish ambitious business goals, but no one bothers to ask how those goals will be achieved or what changes will be necessary to enable the company to meet those goals.

When you understand the changes you must make to help achieve the goals, then you must ask: "What do I need to learn in order to make those changes?" You can't change without learning. Learning may involve greater knowledge of customers and markets, building new skills in order to work differently, and so forth.

The next part of the learning contract deals with how the learning will take place: Will I attend a company-sponsored training program, take a course at a local college, read some books and articles, become an apprentice to someone who is a master of the new skills -- the list of potential learning methods is very large (and will be the subject of another article in this series). In planning your learning, you need to specify in the learning contract the methods you will use, where you will find the learning resources you need, and a schedule for completion of the specified learning activities.

I often recommend that employees, before undertaking any learning activity, find someone inside or outside the company who has already mastered the new skills or knowledge and who can act as a coach and answer the employee's questions as they arise. Ideally, this is the employee's manager, but the manager does not always have the needed expertise or the time to acquire it. If you cannot find someone to act as a coach, then I recommend that you find someone else who is learning the same skill or studying the same material to be your "learning partner." By having a learning partner, you will have someone to exchange questions and experiences with, and the two of you can help each other study and discuss your experiences as you later try to apply your learning to your jobs. If you cannot find a learning partner in your group or your company, look for groups on the Internet who are interested in the subject. The Internet can be a wonderful resource, and you can get assistance from people all over the world, even if you do not know the person and will never actually meet that person.

You also need to specify in the contract how you will demonstrate that the learning has taken place -- what will be the measure of your learning achievements? Will you submit a report on what you have learned? Will you take tests before and after the learning activities to show how much you have learned? Will you demonstrate the skills for your manager?

Next, the learning contract must include a section on how you will apply your learning to your job. This is where most corporate training programs fail -- most of the learning that takes place in formal training programs never gets applied to the students' jobs -- meaning that the company's investment in that training is wasted. It is also the area where the employee needs the most assistance from the manager. When you try out new skills, you will inevitably make errors -- no one can be expected to try something totally new and succeed the first and every time. The manager must provide the opportunity to make errors and must reinforce the employee's learning with coaching and reinforcement until the new skills are mastered. Without this assistance from the manager, the employee will quickly revert back to the old way of doing things when faced with a problem -- "Why should I risk making an error and being penalized by my manager for trying the new methods when I can continue to do things the old way -- the way I know and with which I am comfortable. The old way may not be the best way, but I know it works."

Finally, you must specify in the contract what difference in business results are expected once you have applied your learning to your work. This ties back to the first step in the learning contract, where you specified the company business goals to which you contribute. By beginning with the end in mind, all learning activities will be focused on specific, measurable, achievable business results, for the individual, the group/function/department, and the company as a whole.

Using the learning contract can also yield another benefit: When you can demonstrate the direct connection between your learning activities and the company's business results, no one will ever question the value of the training programs or other learning activities you undertake. You will never be asked to justify the investment in your learning, because the justification is built into the plan from the beginning.

Summary of the Learning Contract

1. Specify the company's business goals and how your individual work contributes to their achievement.

2. Specify how you must change your work to help the company achieve its goals.

3. Specify what you need to learn in order to make those changes.

4. Develop a learning plan, including:

·         What you need to learn.

·         What learning resources you will use.

·         A schedule of learning activities.

5. Specify measures of learning achievement.

6. Develop a plan for how you will apply your learning to your job.

7. Specify what changes in business results are expected from the application of your learning to the job.

Please contact Dan Tobin with any reactions to or comments on this article.