Beyond Traditional Training

Workers have been promoted from cogs in the manufacturing machinery to mini-CEOs under the corporate umbrella, building a web of interlocking dependent relationships like spiders waiting for unwary customers to alight and be consumed. While the worker sheds loyalty and embraces life balance, the boss struggles to keep the best and tolerate the rest without slipping behind the learning curve.

In the construction industry, traditional thinking still rules. Management training is primarily acquired in a college degree program or at the knee of the family founder. What is learned is still largely based on business realities such as profitability, plans for growth and managing field employees. Those who teach are masters of content, but they may not be talented teachers. Most often, there is no time for long-range, intensive, multilayered training programs, and budgets for them are thin or nonexistent.

In other industries, managers are provided with individualized professional development plans, often combining their preferred learning styles with a wide range of vendor programs. Traditional master’s degree programs in business (M.B.A.s) now accommodate high-pressure work schedules, cranking out thousands of alternative-program graduates with a credential so ubiquitous that its value has been diluted. Meanwhile, electrical contractors concentrate on finding supervisors and managers who can fill gaps in the hierarchy and acquire the necessary knowledge and skills on the run. One finger moves along the page of the training manual while another plugs the newest hole in the dam. What is missing is continuity and creativity. Grooming competent managers and future company leaders takes more than the occasional seminar and daily grind of informal apprenticeship.

Creating a new vision of management training requires a paradigm shift away from traditional construction company values. The success of the company was built on the skills of field personnel, while management held the reins of what could easily become a runaway team of horses. For electrical contractors, it is still imperative to invest in updating the product knowledge and installation skills of craftspeople. Simply keeping pace with technical training can leave little financial support for upgrading management skills.

That is a huge mistake. Electrical contractors operate in a marketplace that requires more than responsive and responsible bidding. Having good technical people is a basic requirement, not a marketing advantage. The difference between surviving and leading the competition may well rest on the creativity and vision of management; unfortunately, most management thinking follows the same tired path it has traveled for a century.

The same company owners who clearly understand that a journey-level electrician is never finished with his or her education fail to allow company managers to expand their own mental range. Following the lead of educational theorists who are trying to resurrect the public school system in this country, wise electrical contractors will invest in management training they would have considered frivolous a few years ago.

Although strategic thinking is still the primary tool for managers and leaders, creative thinking is becoming a central focus of leadership training. Managers need to understand company operations, financial structures and strategies, and administrative parameters, but they must have excellent interpersonal and communication skills as well. For leaders, impeccable verbal and nonverbal communication skills are essential.

Project managers, job site supervisors, and upper-level managers often rely on mediocre language skills and reactionary relationship strategies to support their professional image. The same people you send back to school for basic keyboarding skills to improve efficiency are unable to determine when to override spelling and grammar checking on their word processing programs. As the literacy level of society becomes more polarized, contractors will be perceived as professional and competent based on their language skills in addition to their technical competence.

With the access customers have to information about electrical products and services, managers need to be able to help their clients screen information, assess its validity and refute misinformation. Precise and technical language is not enough to accomplish this relational task. It takes finesse to convince a customer he or she is wrong while still maintaining the relationship.

At the same time, the flood of information makes it more difficult for the managers themselves to maintain focus on daily tasks. A new, and largely unexplored, area of training is forming around the scanning and selective filtering of large quantities of information. For example, Learning Strategies Corp. (www.LearningStrategies.com), a company dedicated to accelerated learning techniques, has developed an advanced reading program. Photo Reading teaches an individual to mentally photograph pages of information within a short time period and retrieve specifics instantly and accurately.

Relationship skills and negotiating ability are more important than ever for management. As the culture of society rides the slippery slope of reality television, formal training in conflict resolution and anger management becomes a requirement for dealing with edgy employees and unpredictable customers. The lack of civility is emerging as a significant complaint in public polls, while etiquette, manners and ethics are dismissed as inborn skills not worthy of inclusion in the training schedule. Leading construction consumers such as the Construction Users Roundtable (www.curt.org) and accredited degree programs are considering ethics and integrity as essential qualities for construction professionals.

In other industries, internal training departments are gaining respect and a healthy share of budget allocations. Complicated systems for determining each manager’s individual development program, combining internal and external delivery systems, are being created and modified. Some companies have prioritized creative thinking, hiring training companies such as Creativity Central (www.creativitycentral.com) to teach managers how to apply the principles of creativity and play in their work. Using games and creative play to stimulate thinking has already resulted in new corporate positions. Fast Company magazine even listed “Director of Fun” as one of its job titles of the future. What used to be the bailiwick of advertising agencies and Silicon Valley is now considered a method of stimulating strategic thinking.

The lines between education and training are blurring; accreditation organizations such as the American Council for Construction Education (www.acce-hq.org) are jumping the fences of their own credentialing structure. Higher education is no longer limited to degree programs in construction management. With a nod to market realities and the shift of focus from the thesis to the sound bite, the credentialing organizations are making room for alternative programs. Within several trades, including electrical, hybrid degree programs are being designed that combine both technical skills (training) and management content (education) to escalate the advancement of first-line supervisors.

ACCE is also acknowledging the value of programs offered by associations and private for-profit companies, such as seminars, online self-study courses and other short-term offerings designed to fill specific training needs. Shaking the foundations of higher education, the future encompasses a wide variety of choices to accommodate the most demanding work schedules and the diversity of learning styles educational curriculum specialists are recognizing.

What works for elementary and high schools also works for adults who will, of necessity, be lifelong learners in some capacity. Playing to one’s strengths in the future will mean understanding how we learn and how we prefer to communicate. Individuals who rely on visual, auditory or kinesthetic learning channels will be better able to absorb and apply new content if it is presented in a diversified fashion, tailored to meet their attention spans, computer skills and intellectual abilities.

Neurolinguistic programming organizations, such as NLP Training Concepts (www.nlptrainingconcepts.com) will help with communication techniques to build rapport with people who use different communication styles. Using advanced brain-scanning technology, we will soon understand a wealth of differences in how people learn at all stages of life, and be able to maximize the efficiency of training and education.

So, what do you do to keep pace, spend your training budget efficiently, and distinguish between the latest buzzword and the legitimate training trend? One way is to watch what the academics are doing. Degree programs, accreditation organizations and industry associations will tend to align themselves behind the areas in which the greatest gaps are perceived.

The NECA Management Education Institute (www.necanet-mei.org) and the American Management Association (www.amanet.org) offer good basic management training programs, with the former tailored specifically to electrical contractors. The Risk Management Association (www.rmahq.org) offers a course in lending to contractors that offers a raw glimpse into the financial view of contracting businesses.

For traditional management curricula delivered through remote learning channels, Clemson University offers an online master’s degree in construction management, while Columbia University offers a traditional master of science degree in construction administration. According to the Columbia University Web site, the “program covers commercial and residential building construction from design through build, focusing on three main areas of the process: project financing and budgeting; legal and regulatory issues, including zoning rules and union and safely guidelines; and construction technology and project management.”

More universities will be following suit. The American Society for Training and Development (www.astd.org) offers training certification and excellent publications for internal use, such as the popular manual “Telling Ain’t Training.” For a wide range of training programs and products, the Training Registry (www.trainingregistry.com) is a directory with links to major seminar providers and other training resources.

If, like Albert Einstein, you believe that “the significant problems we face cannot be solved at the level of thinking that created the problems,” then you will not only want to think outside of the box, but create a whole new box, or even throw the box away and start from scratch.            EC

NORBERG-JOHNSON is a former subcontractor and past president of two national construction associations. She may be reached via e-mail at bigpeng@sbcglobal.net.