In the era of “just Google it,” online schools like Udemy and W3Schools, and online university degrees, you can find any tutorial on YouTube or complete an MBA online. It is hard to believe we live in a world where with only your laptop, you can obtain an MBA and learn how to sharpen a chainsaw. I believe the role of the educator has changed. An educator is no longer always working one on one with students and no longer working just to teach; they are looking now to mentor and help shape their students so they can make the right decisions. (And training will come later).
One thing that we often forget is that people used to learn one on one and that this traditional learning was considered the norm. It is proof to me that learning by osmosis works; it has for a long time, and we should not discredit it. It is probably more important than any formal training or certification where you don’t always have the opportunity to put into practice what you learn right away. Long story short: it’s nothing new (and I don’t want to take credit for it). The point is I think organizations and tech leaders should leverage this strategy in the integration of new employees to ensure they have the most structured onboarding, ongoing training, job shadowing, and mentorship experiences.
Learning By Osmosis
Learning by proxy, or being exposed to someone, can naturally achieve an unconscious assimilation of ideas, knowledge and even technical skills. It’s called osmosis. The concept is not so different from animals learning from the herd or groups of teenagers all naturally dressing in the same clothing (or a non-issued uniform). Today, we often overlook or undervalue learning by osmosis in the workplace and favor visual and auditory learning or even kinesthetic learning. Kinesthetic learning is “learning by doing,” which includes students carrying out physical activities. Kinesthetic learners learn best when they can move around and engage their muscles.
So what is the link between osmosis and delegation? It’s very simple. Take your busiest employee and — assuming you hired smart people — physically put this superstar with one to two team members who are intelligent but possess minimum skills to complete a task or their job. I’ve seen that at the end of one day, the employees who started with few skills will have learned something new that they can likely do again independently. The idea is dependent on your employees being motivated to try, rather than sitting and watching someone work while they create no additional value.
Learning by being exposed to an expert works with any type of content and is our secret for how our interns learn and how new hires become “billable” in a shorter period of time. One year, we ran out of space at the office, and a new intern sat next to me. In a few short months, he became a strong consultant with a disproportionate amount of expertise for his position. Because we spent time together, the way I work, the knowledge I have and even the coffee I drink impacted this impressionable intern. I believe information was going to the corners of his mind and entered his knowledge base subconsciously. Just overhearing me speaking on the phone prepared him to receive more complex assignments in the near future.
Because of that, I even made it a personal rule to always encourage osmosis in all aspects of the company. This means that I always make sure to include someone from my team and use any opportunity I have to train and then delegate, from closing a deal to negotiating with a supplier and from project disaster recovery to in-depth financial analysis. Once I realized the impact of teaching by osmosis, I decided to always bring an employee with me to off-site meetings — especially with customers. I don’t bring the busiest person in the office, but someone who has the bandwidth and room to grow or someone 2–3 levels lower on the organizational chart who can benefit from increased exposure. In my experience, this never offends customers because I always present the employee as a key member. And when you do this, your staff will probably feel valued and learn how to pitch your organization, solve problems for your customers, communicate effectively with decision makers and become aligned with your vision.
The more your team members learn, the more they can do and the busier they become. I have only experienced upsides by bringing an employee with bandwidth along. The best case is that they learn how to work with customers and deal with unforeseen situations, and the worst case is they will take notes, understand the “why” of what they’re doing and approach it with more motivation. I can get behind training, especially when there is little (to no) downside.
I encourage you to try it. Leverage your senior employees to train your least experienced team members passively, and see if their progression is superior to those who don’t undergo passive training. Here are some rules I follow as long as there are people available:
- Ensure all seniors are going to their meetings with someone by asking them, “Who are you bringing?”
- Make sure that nobody executes a core business activity alone.
- When an employee is being onboarded, they should not be isolated. They should be overwhelmed by the number of interactions with their peers for the first few weeks. This can be key for learning information.
- If anyone complains about being overloaded, ask them to choose the right arm to help them. If they say the “arm” is underqualified, challenge them to try to push themselves and their colleagues.
Now I just need to figure out osmosis with remote employees that don’t share a physical space in our offices or a digital one. For the rest, it’s very simple: If you want to delegate, surround yourself with smart people, ensure you carve out time for osmosis and let nature take care of the teaching.