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How talking together helps employees

August 30, 2012

Employees generally like to talk with each other during the workday. A supervisor’s inclination might be to tell them to shut up and get back to work. Should this be the supervisor’s best reaction?

Not necessarily, if the employees are like the 1,000 employees studied by researchers for the Center for Workforce Development, affiliated with the Education Development Center (EDC) in Newton, MA.

“Keep an open mind, allow it [talking] to go on, and don’t get in the way,” said Barry Blystone, director of training at a Siemens plant in Raleigh, NC. Blystone’s company was one of seven companies in seven states that participated in the two-year study. Others included Motorola, Boeing, and Ford Motor plants.

Before taking part in the EDC study, Siemens managers literally “got in the way.” They walled off part of the company cafeteria, intentionally shrinking it, to discourage employees from lingering to chat. Research observers told Siemens the cafeteria was actually a hotbed of workplace learning. So, Siemens tore the wall back out, and installed some high round tables like those found in latte bars, to encourage impromptu employee meetings.

Informal knowledge transfer is stunted by a sense of what is and isn’t “real” work, researchers point out. Organizations often hire bright people but isolate them or burden them with tasks that leave no time for conversation.

Employers spend up to $50 billion annually on formal training, with another $70 billion on indirect costs. However, the study found that 70 percent of workplace learning takes place outside the classroom.

Informal learning is spontaneous, put to use immediately, and task-specific, while formal learning tends to be delayed, not need-specific, and not always relevant to the individual worker. Training costs could be reduced if it was first determined what, how and why people already are learning on the job, during shift changes, meetings, chance encounters in hallways or on breaks, the study suggests.

“The study has profound implications on corporate culture, worker satisfaction, productivity and improving the rate of innovation,” reported Monika Aring, director of the Workforce Center and project director of the study.

So, are employees talking about sports, families, the weather, the boss — or are they doing work-related brainstorming and tutoring their peers? It’s at least partly up to management. Researchers found that employers and managers can do things to establish an environment conducive to informal learning, from allowing the physical space to creating the emotional climate.

The EDC study found that well-run teams and shift change discussions were some of the richest opportunities for informal learning, along with meetings, and interactions between a novice employee and a supervisor or expert employee.

What to Do? Hire smart people and let them talk to one another. The vast majority of corporate knowledge is the information that is shared or created in face-to-face conversations among employees.

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