The payoff is large, though hard to measure.

OJT. Those three initials pretty much summarize the training methodology of the vast majority of this industry’s distributors. A recent survey conducted by the ASA Training Council found on-the-job training to be the largest influence on professional development in this industry by a wide margin. In second place was mentor/coach/peer networking, which can also be interpreted as a form of OJT. I’m confident most of you reading this would concur that OJT is the way you acquired most of your work-related knowledge.

This is not a good situation. OJT has its place and is probably indispensable for some things, but it’s a painstaking way to acquire knowledge and out of touch with the fast-paced business world of today. Nor does it have the systematic character that meshes with the career development concerns of today’s generation of talented young people. There has to be a better way, and ASA’s Training Council is a group of distributor personnel that has taken it upon themselves to find better ways.

Last November the Training Council held a meeting at a hotel just a few miles from my office, so I dropped in on one of their sessions. Here are some of the ideas and concerns that came up in the panel presentation I attended.

  • Distributors almost always cite lack of time as an impediment to training. If there’s a silver lining in the dark business cloud hanging over us these days, it’s that it makes this excuse less plausible.

  • An audience member pointed out that since many distributors are operating with leaner staffs these days, the lack of time excuse still gets tossed in from a different angle. The lesson I take from this is that excuses are always available to avoid training. But they are just excuses.

  • Panelist Joel Becker noted two factors that affect training programs: 1. The desire of the employee to take part. 2. The quality of the programs. They work hand-in-hand. “If the company offers upward mobility to its workforce, the company will attract employees to take advantage of educational programs that help their careers,” said Becker. On the other hand, people will lose interest in programs they perceive as wasting their time.

  • Product training is the most pressing need, and given our industry’s vast array of products it’s hard to devise shortcuts to OJT. At the same time, there are more training tools available now than ever before via ASA’s Product Pro series and its new online “Fast Track” program. Also, our parent company, BNP Media, has an online AEC Store ( that offers numerous PHCP product training CDs and publications.

  • Most product training is delivered by reps. An advantage to distributors is that this is free and can be quite good. A disadvantage is that the focus is on individual brands rather than basic functionality and application. Also, the quality is uneven. Some reps are great teachers, others not so good.

  • Besides product training, there is a need for more systematic training in job functions.

  • Measuring the payoff from training is difficult but that doesn’t mean there is none. Over time training pays off big in reduced errors, greater productivity and improved customer service.

  • Panelist Jeff New (ASA president for 2008) shared his company’s practice when sending personnel to any kind of training or educational session. Before going they tell the person(s) to be ready to share what they learned with other relevant staffers. This accomplishes two things: 1. It compels attendees to listen better and absorb more. 2. It spreads the knowledge throughout the company. This idea is so simple and sensible, every company should adopt it, IMO.

  • Current ASA President Joe Poehling was another panelist who observed that what’s needed is not just training sessions from time to time, but a comprehensive system of training. To make this happen, a company needs someone to “champion” training within the organization. I will add the proviso that since training is an expense with hard to measure results, the champion had better be the CEO or some other high-ranking executive with enough purse string clout to make it happen even if some numbers cruncher identifies training as a drain on profits.

  • Videoconferencing is an inexpensive solution for companies that want to train people in multiple branches.

  • Training ought not be a one-time event but continuous. New products, techniques and business innovations come about constantly. Plus, people forget.