Industry September 2012

The Death of on-the-job Training

Lack of investment in people is driving down standards

A silent, tectonic shift is taking place in Japan. The so-called lost decade—that commenced in the 1990s with the collapse of the nation’s asset prices—is now into a third decade. The period has seen stasis in many areas, including investment in human-capital productivity.

It is not that white-collar workers and the service sector fail to be paragons of efficiency, for that they never were. More critical is the fact that the lack of investment in people has seen the formal-training-internal-follow-up nexus break down.

As a result, the on-the-job-training (OJT) construct has become a parody of a reasonable idea, with the untrained, incompetent and mediocre leading the corporate charge. It has also become the sole default.

With clueless leaders clueing in successive generations, many workplaces now have seniors who have not faced a new idea about leadership in the last two decades. The injections of formal training, from which employees were able to learn 30, and even 20 years ago, are no more. Training and learning are not the same, and OJT is killing firms.

Although some of the older, more traditional firms are seeking training to enable their senior ranks to catch up, these employees are not able to confront the new. Moreover, these days, training has become little more than a box-ticking exercise.

The leadership style with which the seniors have grown up has come from the school of tough love, but minus the love. Just as in many countries, in Japan modern leadership training roots stretch back to the military model of World War II.

Most countries have moved on from this model but, mainly thanks to the OJT, elements of the imperial forces linger here, in the form of giving orders not praise, condemning not complimenting, and criticising mistakes rather than motivating.

The rationale in Japan is that this is how the present batch of leaders were educated through OJT. And, if it was good enough for them, then it is good enough for this generation.

But it is not. This generation is different; and future generations will be in short supply. Meanwhile, as universities are rapidly dropping their standards, to better compete for fewer fee payers, the raw material entering firms each April is no longer of the same quality.

Japanese universities, never a powerhouse of education and learning at any time in living memory, will continue to have marginal impact on the intellect of those in their care. Firms will be tapping cosseted, 22-year-old brains that won’t be up to par. Imagine this generation being trained on-the-job by managers dishing out tough love as part of their corporate buffing, designed to make them appear to be glistening diamonds.

I find that scary, as do a growing number of Japanese firms. The young people are baffling them. They have attitudes which seem incomprehensible and disturbing, while nearly 40% of them are jumping ship in their third and fourth year with a firm, voting with their feet and heading off to greener pastures.

The cost and disruption of the youth exodus is huge. Firms are starting to work it out: the OJT solution for training this generation just isn’t working.

Apart from induction training, demand for leadership training in the senior and middle ranks is well up when compared to three years ago. Communication skills get the Gold Medal for burning need. Leaders who can inspire, arouse, motivate, enrol, engage, and incorporate are what they are seeking. Yet, the younger generation is driving this requirement, whether or not firms like it.

Sales is the other area in which OJT is in a death spiral. Globally, most salespeople are not adequately trained, and Japan is no exception. Slowly but surely, the realisation that particular knowledge might be better learned than merely wished for, is sinking OJT as the default setting.