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The following article was written by Coleman Patterson and appeared in the Business section of the Abilene Reporter-News.

Continuing to learn key to job performance, June 9, 2006, 7D.

One of the most important aspects of a manager’s job is to ensure that workers learn and confidently perform their jobs.  Whether the workers learn through direct on-the-job experience or learn from sources outside of their organizations, learning job specific skills and competencies is critical for organizational effectiveness.

Learning refers to a relatively permanent change in understanding about certain things, concepts, and relationships.  Learning occurs as a result of experience and influences the ways that individuals think, feel, and behave.  The expression “learning curve” refers to the time and effort required to master a newly learned skill or concept.  At first, new methods, skills, and previously unconfronted challenges require additional concentration, time to figure out new methods and procedures, and, when performing physical tasks, time to develop “muscle memory”—where the body performs the task almost automatically, with little mental thought or concentration.

Knowledge is related to learning—it is the stuff that you know.  You only know things about which you have been exposed, paid attention, processed in your mind, and stored away in your brain for future retrieval.  People only know what they have been exposed to and filed away in a relatively permanent manner for future use—that is, learned.

Learning can occur as a result of direct experience or vicariously through the experiences of others.  When a parent cautions a child about the dangers of undertaking a potentially harmful action, the parent is trying to teach the child about actions and consequences without the child having to experience the consequence first hand.  From an organizational perspective, vicarious learning can occur by observing others perform or by reading accounts of others’ performances.  By observing and analyzing someone “model” appropriate and inappropriate actions and behaviors, workers can develop new skills and competencies.  Watching others perform before actually performing oneself, allows new learners to develop confidence in themselves to perform the task, before ever having to perform the task directly by themselves.

Self-Efficacy refers to the confidence that a person has in his or her ability to perform a task.  High self-efficacy refers to high confidence and low self-efficacy refers to low confidence.  Self-efficacy comes from direct past experiences performing the task and vicariously by watching others perform the task.  Self-efficacy about a new task can be strengthened when one learns that the new task is similar to another task in which he or she is already confident.  A seasoned tennis player, for example, would feel fairly confident beginning the game of racquetball.  Both games require similar skills and abilities and they share many of the same principles and strategies for success.  However, the similar natures of the two games might cause those with poor experiences playing tennis in the past to feel less confident about their chances of success playing racquetball. 

To bring out the best from workers, managers should make sure that followers understand and have opportunities to successfully develop new skills and competencies.  The concepts of learning, vicarious learning, and self-efficacy help give insight on ways that people learn and succeed in new jobs and tasks.

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© 2006, 2007, 2008  Coleman Patterson, All Rights Reserved