Job Shadowing: its Suitability as a Training and Familiarization Technique
In this post, I discuss the strengths and (severe) limitations of job shadowing as a training and familiarization technique. Because of the place job shadowing holds as a traditional and common familiarization practice, I am not sure how many friends I am going to make with this post. However, while working with the British Columbia Ferry Services I have seen the evidence first hand how a move away from job shadowing and toward a more formal educational process can improve familiarization experiences and outcomes.
In this post, I discuss the strengths and (severe) limitations of job shadowing as a training and familiarization technique. Because of the place job shadowing holds as a traditional and common familiarization practice, I am not sure how many friends I am going to make with this post. However, while working with the British Columbia Ferry Services I have seen the evidence first hand how a move away from job shadowing and toward a more formal educational process can improve familiarization experiences and outcomes. I think that most readers, if they dig deep, will agree that job shadowing, despite some benefits, does have some severe limitations when used as the primary training or familiarization technique.
Let me clearly state at the beginning that I am not suggesting that job shadowing has no place in maritime training. In fact, it is an irreplaceable technique when applied in the contexts for which it is well suited. The problem is that job shadowing is sometimes used as either the primary or even the sole technique for onboard training and familiarization. As common as this practice is, we can do much better, and our organizations are suffering for it in terms of reduced performance and reduced safety.
Let’s start by look at some of its positive attributes.
Job shadowing, used before training begins, is an outstanding technique for a prospective employee to find out what a job “is like”. In fact, there may be no better technique to understand what it is like to, for example, be a deckhand, than to follow a deckhand around for a few days while he or she does their work. This gives a first-hand, direct view of the flow of the work, the duties performed, the responsibilities which are inherent in the job, and so on. It also provides the ability, to some degree, to interact with a working deckhand and ask questions about their likes and dislikes as it relates to their career. Used in this way, job shadowing is the best available means for a person considering a career in the maritime industry to make a determination as to whether they are likely to enjoy the career.
Another excellent use of job shadowing comes after the more formal training or familiarization is complete. Here, it can be used to consolidate knowledge and skills learned during training. Once an employee is trained for a particular position, job shadowing can be used to gradually bring the employee “on line” as a full and independent member of the crew. They move from being the shadow-er, to being the shadow-ee. They can employ their new-found knowledge and skills under the watchful eye of a more senior and experienced employee. Over a short time of job shadowing, they will come to gain confidence in their abilities and have the opportunity to fill any gaps in their knowledge which become apparent by actually doing the job in the presence of someone with experience. This is an excellent way of being eased into their new job, get hands-on experience without compromising safety, and ensure that they are fully prepared to perform their work safely and effectively.
Having said this, job shadowing has its weak spots. Let’s examine those.
Limitations of Job Shadowing
The phrase “the right tool for the right job” comes to mind here. As with any valuable tool, job shadowing is useful when applied to the right “job”. The limitations of job shadowing begin to appear when it is used to accomplish a task for which it is not well suited.
In order to understand those training activities that job shadowing is not well suited to, let’s first remind ourselves what we are actually referring to when we use the word “training”. I suspect we will all agree that:
- There is a difference between knowledge acquisition and skill acquisition,
- Both knowledge and skills are required for safe operation in a maritime environment, and
- Training and assessment techniques appropriate to one (knowledge or skill acquisition) are not necessarily appropriate to the other.
As a simple example, closing the bow doors on a ferry in order to prevent water from flooding the car decks is a *skill* that can easily be learned by job shadowing. However, job shadowing is not a good technique to impart the knowledge necessary to understand the implications of a flooded car deck on that vessel, the weather conditions under which additional chains may be required, or what to do in the event of water ingress. Each of these require knowledge of information or systems separate from the operation of the bow doors which will not be apparent to anyone observing the closing of the bow doors. Of course, in a high quality job-shadowing experience the person being shadowed takes some time to explain all the implications to the trainee, details all related systems and required information, and verbally assesses the trainees understanding before allowing them to move on. The problem is that this "high quality" shadowing experience is rarely the norm, and there are impediments to ever being able to make it the norm. Instead, it is not uncommon that:
- The skills and knowledge of the person being shadowed are highly variable. This is a problem in itself which needs to be corrected - but made much worse when this person is made responsible for training others.
- Even if the person being shadowed is highly skilled and knowledgeable, they may not be interested in training, they may be a poor trainer, they may be a poor communicator, or they may view training as a burden to be done as quickly as possible despite the cost. Thus they may be excellent at doing their work safely, but be very poor at teaching others.
- Job shadowing is not well suited to the tracking and analysis of the learning process - which means that continuous improvement is almost impossible. Without a proper assessment technique and preferably a skilled trainer at the helm, we cannot measure how well the trainee learned, which gaps remain to be filled, and how our training program can be improved.
- Possibly the worst limitation of job shadowing is that it makes it difficult to codify and train to company-vetted best practices. Every employee has, to some degree, their own way of doing their job. Job shadowing passes on their way of doing the job, which may not necessarily be company-vetted best practice. In the best case, this leads to inconsistency in operations. In the worst case, this is an excellent mechanism to pass along unsafe practices from one generation of employee to another - likely getting worse with each passing generation like a bad game of "pass the secret". But in either case, control of what is taught and how well it is taught is somewhat out of the hands of the company. This is unacceptable.
Even if none of the above problems existed in job shadowing, the simple fact remains that the demands of the job may make it hard to teach and perform concurrently. This is especially true in busy times or poor conditions.
An alternative is required which is more suited to knowledge acquisition.
As I mentioned above, job shadowing is a useful technique that should be retained to accomplish those tasks for which it is well suited. But alternatives are required to cover those tasks for which it is not well suited. I have discussed these, and will continue to discuss these, in other blog posts. But as a quick reminder, some alternatives include:
- Supply company-vetted training or familiarization information to the candidate and test it before they step on board. Also, make this information available throughout the career of that mariner (updated as policies change). This is a very powerful way of providing a new employee with a base of knowledge which conforms to company best practise, before learning the skills based on that knowledge. This ensures they understand the "why" in addition to the "how", and that bad habits are less easily passed from employee to employee. It also makes acquiring skills more efficient because the trainee has a context of knowledge and understands the skill conceptually before seeing its practical application during on-board familiarization.
- Use trained and dedicated trainers. Rather than shadow whomever is on duty at the time of training, it is more effective to use a trainer who enjoys training, is current on company best practice, and who is detached to focus fully on the trainees despite prevailing conditions. This greatly reduces variability in training, and may be cost neutral (or even reduce costs) because skills and knowledge will be acquired much more quickly than they would be through job shadowing.
The section on alternatives, above, is quite short due to the length of this article and the fact that I have and will write more on that topic in other articles. In the meantime, it is my hope that all of you, expert mariners and possibly even expert trainers, weigh in on the merits and demerits of job shadowing. What is your take on job shadowing?
Let me write about your story so we can all learn from it! Is your organization leading the way in job and familiarization training? I’d like to write about it. Or, do you have an example of a poor familiarization experience or practice that we can all take lessons from? I would like to write about that too (without naming you or your company, in this case). Contact me by email at Murray@MarineLS.com. You have a familiarization tale to tell. You can benefit everyone by sharing it.
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About The Author:
Murray Goldberg is the founder and President of Marine Learning Systems (www.marinels.com), the creator of MarineLMS - the first learning management system specifically for maritime industry training. Murray began research in eLearning in 1995 as a faculty member of Computer Science at the University of British Columbia. He went on to create WebCT, the world’s first commercially successful LMS for higher education; serving 14 million student in 80 countries. Now, in Marine Learning systems, Murray is hoping to play a part in advancing the art and science of learning in the maritime industry.