Investments in Human Capital

I helped run an academic conference hosted by the Society for Interdisciplinary Studies of Social Imagery a couple months ago, and in the process attended a lot of the sessions. One of them particularly intrigued me. The speaker explained his research into learning techniques and described how traditional classroom learning is not very effective because it defines ‘passing’ but does not reward improvement appropriately. The analogy he used was with sports. If a very unskilled baseball player has a .15 batting average and through work doubles that average, he is praised highly for that improvement and is considered a good player. But if a very underachieving student makes a 20% on an essay and then works hard and doubles that score, he is still failing and gets no praise. Think how much better your worst employees would be if they doubled their job performance. Would they be the best employees in your organization? Maybe not, but I bet they’d become very good employees. This speaker at the conference advocated achieving this improvement by rewarding progress, instead of just for reaching a particular goal.

In theory, this is a great concept. We even have a term for it: longitudinal evaluation of progress. When you get into the details of applying the idea, however, it seems to me there are a lot of potential concerns. For example, if we are rewarding progress, how much progress is required for the effort to be praiseworthy. We don’t want to hand out participation medals to all our employees. As the villain “Syndrome” from the movie The Incredibles points out, “when everyone is super, no one will be.” That means we have to reward employees for reaching a certain point, but not necessarily the final point we want them to reach. But then what if they make progress toward that lower goal but don’t reach it? Do we reward them for that progress? The conference presenter didn’t directly address this question, but he did say something that I think answers it. It was the most interesting thing he said in my mind, mostly because so many people think it and so few say it. He said the problem with high schools isn’t that they have high drop-out rates, but that they pass so many people who should fail. In business terms, we can translate this statement as “the main problem that traditional instruction encourages isn’t discouraging learners and causing them to give up but encouraging students to move forward who need to spend more time learning the current lesson.”

I think this is a concept we often overlook in all forms of education, but especially in a business setting where time is money. The longer it takes someone to complete their training, the less time they spend actually doing the job. But isn’t it better to let our employees take a little longer to learn and then be more productive after? And if our focus is to encourage our employees to be better equipped to do their jobs and have more understanding of the underlying principles and skills, isn’t it better to tell them to take their time and understand the basic lessons before moving to the more advanced ones? We have a cultural stigma about being “held back” in school or being “slow” to learn, but people who spend more time paying attention to the details of what their training is teaching are more likely to be better employees in the future. Longitudinal evaluation may be the way to go, but be sure to apply it in an environment built to foster understanding so your employees can take the time to do their jobs better in the future. Invest today, make money tomorrow.