Survive The Continuing Chaos By Hiring JIT Learners

During 2020 we’ve endured numerous chaotic problems, and because most were unprecedented, rapid learning became the first step in overcoming them. Almost everyone agrees that if you had to describe the year 2020 with a single word, it would likely be “unprecedented.” And that means that the problems that keep popping up are “never previously encountered” business, environmental, and political crises. So, because of their sudden arrival and newness, learning even the basics about them is not easy because there is no established body of knowledge. As they continue to pop up, it’s clear that rapidly learning about these chaotic problems will continue to be a critical survival factor in every industry. 

A Snapshot Of Self-Directed JIT Learning

The primary issue with the traditional slow learning process is that even when managers possess little knowledge about an emerging problem, they are still prone to take actions to look decisive. Although, the actions might end up being little more than flailing. The actions might not have any positive impacts, and may even be negative. So, once you realize that you must learn a lot about this emerging problem almost immediately, I recommend an approach that I call “just-in-time (JIT) learning.” 

This JIT learning approach suggests that you must begin learning about a problem the minute it arrives (i.e., just-in-time). The approach is designed to help you learn immediately about the new problem, it’s costs, its causes, and the best mitigating actions. It is a decentralized learning approach that relies on your front-line employees to take responsibility for rapidly learning about any new emerging problem. And because it involves learning about new emerging problems, it utilizes nontraditional “bleeding edge” sources for information. It also realizes that because employee time is limited, the JIT learners must “learn as they go.” Meaning that they must figure out what they need to learn and absorb it while they are working on their regular job. Unfortunately, many current employees are not learning.  Recent research shows that 39% of employees say they never learn on the job.

Why Traditional Learning Is Inappropriate For Unprecedented Problems 

There are three primary reasons why traditional learning approaches won’t work in this chaotic environment.

  • Traditional learning is designed for established problems. The traditional corporate learning function is designed for well-established strategic problems. They simply don’t have the capabilities to teach how to rapidly learn about a problem that arises without warning and that needs an immediate solution.
  • There will be no warning telling you what to learn. So many of these crises are sudden, managers can’t know in advance the specific areas that require immediate learning. And, learning in areas where there is no guaranteed immediate need may be too costly when resources are limited.
  • Traditional learning sources are inadequate. You can’t rely on formal learning sources because it is unlikely that they have yet covered this emerging topic. Relying on traditional books can be problematic because they contain dated information as a result of taking so long to publish. And because they are so widely available, books provide no competitive advantage to an individual company. It is unlikely that there will be any in-house or university courses on the problem because the topic is so new.

Details On The JIT Learning Approach

Several of the factors that differentiate just-in-time learning and just-in-time learners are listed below.

  • The JIT learning approach is the best fit for a crisis. It requires employees to learn solutions while the impact of the problem is being felt. In effect, the employees must learn on the run while they are fighting the problem. For example, if this were a fire station, we would need employees that could learn the best solutions to a never encountered type of fire, while they were fighting it. JIT learning is unique because there is seldom a prepared plan, any lead time, or any formal learning support. However, because the learning and the implementation plans are developed “close to the problem,” they can be adjusted faster, and they are more likely to be successfully implemented.
  • JIT learning sources are on the leading edge.  Learning about emerging problems requires you to utilize mostly informal and completely independent sources. Including your employee’s external networks, blogs from professional associations and individual experts, online professional networks, professional Q&A sites, online instructional videos, and even Google searches on individual segments of the problem. In addition to learning the required knowledge, you should expect these learners to also identify any skills related to the problem that the team will need.

The targeted JIT learning recruit is unique. It takes a while to develop JIT learning capability. So, if you are currently in crisis mode you should look to new hires that are experienced in JIT learning. JIT learners stand out because they have certain unique characteristics. They are almost always self-starters that don’t wait for learning to “trickle-down” from the top. Instead, without being told, they start learning immediately when they sense a problem. Another key selection factor is that because the required JIT learning information is so disconnected, it won’t be enough to be merely classified as having rapid learning ability, learning agility, intellectual curiosity, or a growth mindset. These new hires must also be able to prove that they can learn really fast under pressure, while simultaneously working on the problem. Once they are on the job, these JIT new hires will be highly motivated to get the needed information fast, because they are already suffering from the problem. So, it makes sense to refocus your hiring program, to ensure that it can effectively target and assess JIT learners.

Assessment approaches for JIT learners

Here are several ways to assess just-in-time learning ability during the hiring process: 

  • Have the candidate give you an example of how they learned JIT– under this approach, simply ask the candidate to show you a recent example of how they learned about an emerging problem on their job utilizing JIT learning.
  • Walk us through your JIT learning steps on our problem – sometimes it’s more important to focus on the steps that they take and the process that they use to learn JIT, rather than the actual information that they would gather. So, ask the candidate to walk you through the steps of how they would quickly become knowledgeable if they were given an emerging problem where there is very little, easy to find, information. Either give them a topic area or let them pick one themselves. Expect the best not just to limit their learning to their functional area, but to also learn about their industry, and business in general. As an alternative, you can give them difficult problems in advance to let them determine the JIT learning steps outside of the interview. Downgrade them if they learn independently without collaboration. 
  • Rapid learners know the leading-edge learning sources – continuous JIT learners invariably make it a practice to identify and utilize the best learning sources in their field. Where they can continuously get accurate leading-edge knowledge and information. So, pick an advanced technical problem related to this job. And ask them “what specific leading-edge sources would you utilize to find information in this area and why are these sources superior?” Be wary if they don’t rely heavily on their existing professional networks. 
  • Ask them to list the roadblocks to JIT learning – the very best will have realized over time that JIT learning on the “bleeding-edge of knowledge” is quite difficult. When asked, the best should be able to list at least 10 major problems or roadblocks that they have encountered in the past while JIT learning. As an alternative, instead of looking backward, you can give them one of your current problem areas and ask them to list the potential JIT learning roadblocks that they are likely to encounter.
  • Ask them to evaluate a flawed learning process – outside of the interview provide them with a “flawed” sample employee JIT learning process from a previous leading-edge problem in their job. And then, ask them to identify the potential omissions and the flawed areas in the provided sample JIT learning process.
  • How do you guide others in improving their JIT learning ability? – the very best go beyond being a rapid JIT learner themselves. And they proactively help others on the team become JIT learners also. Ask the candidate if they regularly do this and if they say yes, ask them to describe a recent helping example and the steps that they took to enhance the JIT learning ability of another team member.
  • Avoid these assessment approaches – whatever approach you utilize to assess learning ability, you should keep it as objective and direct as possible. Don’t expect indirect questions like “What is the last book you read?” or “Do you like to read/learn?” to accurately predict learning ability. Also, never assume that candidates with advanced degrees, a high IQ, or great grades will automatically excel at JIT learning.

Realize The Tremendous Value Of Widespread Learning

Having a large segment of your employee population that are JIT learners may be the only way to survive when the next crazy problem occurs. Google, a company that purposely operates in a chaotic environment, found that across all their jobs, the number one predictor of on-the-job success was learning ability. Other famous firms like Tesla, Facebook, and Boeing also target learning ability in their recruits. Learning plays a major role in problem-solving. However, your executives should also realize that it plays a key role in increasing innovation, product development, global expansion, and the implementation of new technologies. A critical output from JIT learning is that you also discover what additional skills your team will need to solve this problem.

In Addition To Learning, New Hires Must Also Be Adaptive 

Learning has its maximum impact only if the learning results in changes in all areas that are affected by the problem. So, after they learn, your employees will also need to be adaptive. Which means the changing, or pivoting of their team’s operations to meet the new reality brought on by the problem. So, the new pattern of thinking for handling an unprecedented problem becomes “Learn, Improvise, Adapt and Overcome” (which adds learning to the justifiably famous U.S. Marine operational slogan). And, to build that capability, you should recruit team members with a track record that includes both self-directed JIT learning and effectively adapting after they learn. The best way to assess adaptiveness in a recruit is to use a behavioral interview question that asks them to highlight how they adapted their approach after completing JIT learning for a major problem.

Final Thoughts 

Although it’s quite logical, many managers and executives don’t realize that the first and perhaps most important step in solving a brand-new problem is learning all you can about it. Until you know it’s impacts, it’s underlying causes, and its potential solutions, you are likely to take some initial actions that will likely be way off the mark. Next, make everyone realize that it works best when the learning process is owned by workers on the team that are most affected by the problem. Because that provides a sense of urgency to the learning. And finally, realize that rather than trying to retrain the average worker, hiring workers with a proven track record of JIT learning works much faster and it has a higher probability of success.

Author’s Note: Please pass this article around within your team and network. And if it stimulated your thinking and provided actionable tips, please take a minute to follow and/or connect with Dr. Sullivan on LinkedIn

© Dr. John Sullivan 10/12/20 for the DJS Aggressive Recruiting Newsletter

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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