Article: Are we making use of all Opportunities for Staff and BoD Training ?

“Are we making use of all opportunities for staff and board of director training?” I have recently been pondering this question, and must confess that I approach it with some trepidation, not knowing for sure if I can indeed answer it at all. It is safe to say that it is not really an acceptable answer to say “Yes, we are making use of all our opportunities for director training”, since there is ever room for improvement in anything we do. On the other hand, I am in no position to survey the whole field of director training in the world, cataloguing possible opportunities and actual activities, and then pointing out the obvious discrepancies. Nor would it do to simply say “I don’t know “, and simply move on with my day.

Having thus disqualified myself from, and committed myself to, answering the question, I shall move on with all due haste. What I propose to do is, against the background of some conventional concepts of training and education, to examine several key issues in director training, and to try to show how some current notions surrounding these keyissues often encourage us to miss opportunities for training. The focus will be the board of the primary Co-operative, although much of what is advanced is equally applicable to secondary and tertiary level organizations. I make no claims to originality, no judgement on any particular training programs, and no pleas for universal agreement. I simply present some personal reflections on the subject for your consideration, in the hope that further thought and discussion will be occasioned.

I am going to start with a few definitions, chosen not because they bear my stamp of approval, but because they reflect much of the current thinking on the the matters we are discussing. I suspect that when we use the term “director training” there are at least three activities that we could have in mind, three activities that are distinct but not separate. We could mean director training, which I take to be developing highly specific and immediately useful skills. We could mean director development, by which I mean activity that encompasses the whole, complex process by which directors improve their abilities to perform the wide variety of tasks, often ill defined, that are the lot of the co-operative board. Or we could mean director education, which to me means activity that develops directors as individual human beings, helping them to learn and to grow and to thereby cope with an indefinite series of situations limited only by the boundaries and horizons of their own individual lives. Taken as a whole, we can say that this “training” about which we discourse could have three basic thrusts – specific skill development, development of professional competence, and development of the individual as a more mature, more responsible, more fully human, human being. To say that they are distinct but not separate is simply to caution that they are inter-related and inter-dependant, but not synonomous.

As we have grappled over the years with the problem of training for cooperative boards, we have searched for some kind of model to help us get a handle on what needed to be done and on how to do it. And one of the models we found useful was one borrowed from management training. It is called the

Competency Model, and it works something like this:

  • You identify the job to be done in terms of tasks;
  • You identify the skills or competencies required to perform the tasks;
  • You assess the competency level of the people presently performing the work;
  • You fill in the gaps with training.

It is straight forward, logical, has an air of bussiness-like professionalism about it, and is adaptable to a number of circumstances. For these reasons it appeals to us, so we frequently use it. This brings us to the first of three key issues in director training – which model will we use? – or – how do we go about it? I would contend that the competency model for director training, whatever its strengths (and let me go on record as acknowledging that it has strengths), has some serious weaknesses as well, weaknesses that lead us to miss opportunities for what I am going to presume the originators of the theme for this session really meant by director training – skill enhancement, professional development, and personal growth, inclusively. Specifically, the competency model favors skill enhancement at the expense of development and education, focuses on individual skills rather than on the skills of the co-operative Board as a unit, encourages us to see training primarily as an event rather than as a process, and increases dependence on those we usually call trainers or educators. I will deal with these latter two separately in a moment, as they are what I consider to be the other key issues in “director training”. It is easy to see why the competency model favors skill training (by which I mean activities that increase one’s ability to do a ratio analysis of the balance sheet, use parliamentary procedure, or speak publicly). Skill training is more readily measurable, thus more easily perceived as necessary and hence more easily justified. All of which is good. Our co-operative directors need to improve their specific skills in order to do the job of directing. But too much emphasis on skill training may mean over-looking the development of directors as professionals called upon to exercise leadership and judgement on behalf of their members in the guidance of what is a “people’s business” in the very best sense of that term. It may mean overoverlooking the development of directors as human beings with a responsibility to a larger community that includes us all, co-operators or not. To overlook such development is to miss an opportunity, or a seriesof opportunities that increase exponentially, as the mathematicians say. The compentency model is not the sole cause of this, but it tends to allow it to happen because the model works better with measurable realities.

Failure to recognize that Co-operative boards are units in themselves, and not just legal compilations of individuals is another missed opportunity. Again, since the competency model favors measurable entities, and since it is easier to zero in the competencies of individuals rather than those of a seven or nine or twelve person board, we neglect dealing adequately with the board as a single organic unit. I would go so far as to say that the modern Co-operative board needs something very much like what Catholics call a “Retreat” – getting away, physically and mentally, from the board room and financial statements and policy debates, to reflect and to renew, and be renewed. Not to do it, or something like it, not even to have dreamed about it a little, is a missed opportunity.

A second key issue is whether training is viewed as an event or as a process. An event is limited, in focus and in time. A process is an ongoing series of activities, including events, that has many foci, which is not limited to definite beginning and ending times, and which conduces to produce a desired result. (That is a fancy way of saying it is targeted). We tend to agree in principle that training is a process, but we act as if it were only an event, or an unrelated series of events. This is likely because it is easier to say than to do. An event like a film, a seminar, a course, a workshop, etc., is far more tangible than a process; more tangible is more measurable, controllable, convenient, and therefore justifiable. It is also more oriented to skill training than to professional or human development. But if our attitude toward training prevents us from taking the time and effort to create, and discover, a process by which Co-op directors can begin, and continue, to grow in some sort of coherent framework, we will miss other opportunities, as yet unimagined, the more so as our training events proliferate in number.A third key issue is “Who does it?” This is a particularly important one because the ramifications are wide ranging. If we say that training or education is to be done mostly by people we call trainers or educators, and this usually means staff people, several things are likely to occur. First, training tools will be designed that are to be used primarily by experienced instructors, and in fact can only be used with maximum effectiveness by them.

Second, training will likely move from being done mostly by trainers to being done only by trainers. Third, the attitude that sees training as event rather than as process will be reinforced. All of which increases the dependence of the board on staff people, a development that to my mind is fraught with peril. If the board is responsible for its own development, and as such accountable ultimately to the members, it must plan, monitor, and at least partly execute that development. Staff people, trainers and educators like you and I, must assist boards to do just that, and not merely allow them to ask us to do the parts we are supposedly qualified to do, and neglect the rest. Worse still would be for us to encourage them to take what we have and not to worry about the rest – like a local store in Antigonish (Webb’s) that proclaims – “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.” No matter what the personal and professional inconvenience to us, we must encourage boards to take responsibility for their own development, even if, on occasion, it means “forcing” them to do it.

Now, after 15 minutes or so of being borne aloft on the wings of theory and speculation, let me come back to earth and look at a few examples of what we could call missed opportunities for training and/or development and/or education.

  • The board that spends a major portion of its time at several meetings discussing and planning its own development, and then directs the “trainer”, whoever that may be, to put a one day seminar on financial analysis, with no lead in or follow up, and no attempt to fit such an event into an overall developmental process. A missed opportunity.
  • Directors who insist that the trainer for one of their seminars come fully equipped with hand-outs, flip charts, overhead transparencies, films, slide shows, etc., but who never expect operational management, or other board members, to have such training aids present when discussing matters that may be far more intricate and essential to the Co-operative’s survival. Both are training opportunities, and both should be approached as such. Everything we do is an opportunity for learning and we learn more by doing than listening, or role-playing, or discussing. To fail to create an atmosphere of learning is to miss an opportunity.
  • Trainers who do not see that problem solving moments are training opportunities. A Board that has a major problem in controlling accounts receivable is in the midst of an operational and a policy problem, but also in the midst of a training opportunity.
  • Boards who never get away from it all, to get to know one another, to reflect on what they are and where they are headed, to renew themselves; and educators who don’t encourage it. A missed opportunity.
  • Co-operatives that will approve expenditures on director training only if it relates directly and immediately to the specific tasks of the director, and not on anything else, are missing an opportunity. Sponsorship of directors on university courses in such seemingly esoteric subjects as political science or philosophy can have real payoff — and to close our eyes to the possibility is to miss another opportunity.

I could go on, but I will add 2 more points. First, I must re-emphasize that I am not suggesting we discontinue skill training and concentrate on development and education for our directors; rather, we should be wary lest we content ourselves with doing one and not the others. I am not saying the competency model is defective and ought to be returned to the factory; but it should be recognized for its strengths and weaknesses, and we should act accordingly. Boards should not dismiss all trainers, or keep director education and development away from them (I would never make that statement before a group such as this, not even toward the end of a paper, not even when the path to the door is clear); they should establish, or re-establish, control over their own development, and we should do all we can to help them. No claim is made that training is not an event; only that training is not only or primarily an event.

Second, and finally, I wish to place all of these remarks in a broader context that has heretofore been considered. To state that “training” should really be training, education, and development, and that education and development should include development of individuals in the fullest sense, is to begin to talk about something the Co-operative spirit. To my mind it is co-operation as to be almost a mystery, as are. Co-operatives are, or should be, people, to the growth and humanization own sake. FOR ITS OWN SAKE. Not just that is at so central all really the very heart of to the spirit of important things committed to the development of individual human beings, for its because well-trained and well educated directors will make better decisions that will result in better net savings and better service and continued business growth, but because well educated directors, and well educated managers and members for that matter, are better people, and that’s something we value for its own sake.

Of course, it will likely mean better business performance too, and I do not chastise those whose rationale is limited to utilitarian justification. But there is more to it than that. More to it because the co-operative spirit is universal and open to other matters besides gross margins and advertising policy. In the 4th chapter of Genesis Cain asks of his Maker – “Am I my brother’s keeper?”. The question is not directly answered, and perhaps for good reason. But tradition has responded affirmatively to it, not as an excuse for meddling in the affairs of our neighbour, but as a reminder of the simple but profound truth of community. This is what the Co-operative spirit brings to a tired world – a call to community and a re-affirmation that we are all in this together.

Win – win, not win – lose. We demonstrate this with our commitment to the development of people, for their own sake, not because it is profitable but because it is good. Not to see this, not to do this, is to forfeit our right to call ourselves “Co-operative”; is to forego a change to be, in the biblical phrase, a “light to the nations”. And who among us would relish the prospect of acknowledging, to our brothers and our sisters and our children, that we missed that kind of opportunity?