Tuesday, April 13

The prisoner, the tourist and the learner

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Today is Easter Sunday when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead after his crucifixion and burial. Jesus’ ministry lasted only three years. Remarkably during that time, his teachings were exclusively given via stories – parables. They were short, succinct, easily understood and remembered.

Perhaps my writing this week might be somewhat tangential but I want to illustrate the effectiveness of Jesus’ teachings via stories. So, here goes.

Some years ago I attended a conference where a speaker said there are three types of attendees in a seminar, namely, the prisoners, the tourists and the learners. I do concur.

The ‘prisoners’ are those who do not want to be in the seminar in the first place. They have been sent by their companies. Given a choice, they would rather be somewhere else, even if it were just to watch paint dry. Thus, they consider themselves ‘prisoners’ for the duration of the course. Speakers and trainers hate this type of people. Even if they manage not to make themselves overtly disruptive, their silent negative vibe alone can have a dampening effect on the proceedings. Some trainers take a ‘no prisoner’ (excuse the pun) attitude toward these ‘wet blankets’.

Once I was in a three-day self-development camp in America. On the first day, as part of the ice-breaker and introduction, the trainer asked the participants to introduce themselves and also to say why they came to the course and what did they expect to get out of the three days. One recalcitrant man said, “I don’t expect to learn anything. I am happy with my life. I am here because my boss sent me.” Well, one thing can be said of him – he was frank and bold, but I am afraid, rather foolhardy. He was promptly shown the exit with a stern letter to his employer.

I must say that we do have many such ‘prisoner’ types lurking in our training seminars. Fortunately, or unfortunately, unlike the brash American they are of the silent sulking variety. When I was a kid in school, we used to look out of the window when we felt in the ‘prisoner’ mood, looking longingly at the fields and trees, wishing that we were out there chasing butterflies, or catching fish in the ‘longkang’ (drain). Our imagination allowed us to break free from the confines of the classroom. For a fleeting moment, we were prisoners no more … until we felt the rap on the back of our heads. “Pay attention!” said you-know-who and he immediately sentenced us to write 500 times, “I must not daydream in class”.

The next type is the ‘tourists’. Oh, they love being in a seminar, as long as it is held in a location that can give them the holiday feel. They are not that concerned about the contents of the course or the effectiveness of the presentation skills of the trainers. They are ardent supporters of the property buyers’ motto, ‘location, location, location’ and they are concerned about the food as well. Getting them to attend a course in their home base is like pulling teeth. The ‘tourists’ look at training as a perk. Unfortunately, many companies conspire to accentuate this delusion. They only send those who have been performing well to training, as a form of reward. The problem is that the poor performers who may be in dire need of training are overlooked

The resistance to training and learning is shared by many employees and employers alike. Despite all the talk about the value of human capital, in practice, many don’t think so. They think that the ‘sharpening of the axe’ is a waste of time. In case you are wondering what the ‘sharpening of the axe’ is all about, it derives from the story (my version) about an old man and his young charge and about wood chopping. The young man took to his task with a frenzy, chopping non-stop. The old man went about his job in a deliberate and measured way, stopping every so often to sharpen his axe. “No, no time for stopping,” said the young man, whacking away with his increasingly blunt axe. Soon, he exhausted himself. Guess who cut more wood in the end?

Such is the reluctance to training that our government has to resort to strong-arm tactics to force companies to send their employees for training and skills upgrading. Companies of a certain size are required by law to contribute a certain percentage of the staff salary to the Human Resource Development Fund (HRDF). When they send their staff for training on approved courses they can claim back from this fund. However, if the accumulated fund is not used after a certain number of years, the total sum will be forfeited to the government.

Well so much for the negative people. Let’s talk about the ‘learners’. They are the darlings of speakers and trainers. They hang on to every word; they take copious notes, and the bolder ones, speak up and ask intelligent questions. They make the whole exercise worthwhile. They are a boon to trainers, fellow participants and themselves.

Now, I have just made a word count. It took me over 900 words to put my points down. Jesus on the other hand took a mere 98 words to drive home the message. He told a story of a sower who scattered seeds on four different types of soil. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. Still, other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.”

Happy Easter to all the Christians!