Friday 18 July 2008

Learn by doing

Did you learn to ride a bicycle by going on a course? Maybe you learned to drive a car by watching a video on how to do it? Maybe you learned to sew by watching your Mum doing so? Were you taught to breathe by a consultant?

No, I doubt it. I suspect that if you have any of these practical skills you learned them by actually doing them. We learn practical skills by practicing them, that’s why we call it “practicing”. The word practice comes from the Latin word practicare which means “to carry out or to perform”. Attorneys have “practices”, not because they are amateurs (we hope) but because they are “doing” it. They are practicing their profession.

So why do we seem to think, why do large organisations seem to think that their staff can learn new skills in any other way?

Of course there ARE certain things you can learn in a classroom. After all we all went to school and learned some things but think about it. How much of what we learned came from when the teacher was talking and how much came from doing the exercises he or she gave us? We learned mathematics by doing sums, we learned language by speaking it and we learned science by doing experiments.

So back to the question. Why do organisations think they can get their staff to develop skills by attending workshops, conferences and, worst of all, training courses? Ask yourself the question. What was the last course you attended when you actually developed a new skill? No, I don’t include chatting up members of your preferred gender and recovering from hangovers.

It also seems that the larger the organisation the more prone they are to making this catastrophic mistake. In the paper last week there was an advertisement from the Ministry of Health inviting “qualified consultants” to offer to deliver a (wait for it) “Customer Crush Course for Health Personnel”. No, not a “crash course”, they want a “crush course”.

To begin with I thought this was just a typographical error but then I read a little further. They want nearly a thousand staff each to attend a 5-day “customer care crush course” over an eight-month period. Now I understand what the crush will be. I spent a short while in front of a spreadsheet trying to calculate what this is likely to cost. I won’t bore you with the calculations but I suspect this training program could easily cost P2 million.

Does this matter, you might ask yourself, if this means that the Ministry of Health improves it’s quality of customer service? Perhaps it’s money well spent? Well, it would be if this approach worked. The problem is that it doesn’t.

Firstly they have already mistakenly decided that a 5-day course is the solution to a problem. Let me put this plainly. A 5-day course is not the solution to any problem, certainly not one that has anything to do with customer service.

Learning how to deliver excellent customer service is in the same category as riding a bike, driving a car or sewing. You can only learn it by doing it. You most certainly DO NOT learn it by sitting on your back side for a 5-day training program in some hotel, particularly when that training consists of presentations, group discussions and printed handouts.

Instead perhaps the Ministry of Health should give some serious thought to how these things really work?

So, you’re thinking, here we go again, Consumer Watchdog is moaning about the Public Service and it’s on-going failure to understand that customer service is as important to them as it is to banks, insurance companies, restaurants and supermarkets?

On the contrary. There is good news from the Public Service. Just last week in the newspapers and also on the Government web site they have published a “Customer Service Standards Framework”. Go to their web site at and you’ll see a link there.

These standards are remarkably specific and detailed. For instance they say that the public can expect a “response to correspondence” within 10 working days. Suppliers, whether local or foreign, can expect payment within 10 working days and you can get an Omang card within 8 days if you are in Gaborone, 10 days if you’re elsewhere.

We should all celebrate the Public Service for biting the bullet and publishing these ambitious standards. Ironically they’ve beaten almost all of the private sector in stating publicly the standards we can expect from them. They’ve been very courageous and, for once, I’m not going to be pessimistic about what the Public Service can achieve. Instead I think we should all wish them well. Then we should demand that they meet these standards. Every time it takes you longer than 8-10 days to get your Omang card, more than 10 days to get paid by them or more than 2 weeks to get a response to that angry letter you sent them you can write to them demanding an explanation.

More importantly though I think that this shows that there ARE some people in the Public Service who realise that what they should be doing is setting standards rather than sending people on ridiculous, wasteful and utterly useless training courses. They realise that if they are going to spend our money then they should spend it on things that work rather than throwing large quantities of it in the general direction of a second-rate training program.

Many centuries ago Sophocles is said to have remarked that “One must learn by doing the thing”. It’s nothing new and we all know it. It’s just that most of us don’t have vast quantities of the public’s money to waste.

This week’s stars!
  • Shakes and Shortie from Sandilands Plumbers who we’re told were incredibly helpful, patient and persistent and followed through with a problem.

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