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Principles of a Learning Culture

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It’s no secret that vehicles have become more technologically advanced, and as OEMs have pushed the industry forward, they’ve introduced a multitude of changes in those vehicles, repair procedures and requirements. All of it, says Mark Bochenek, manager of OEM business development at collision repair industry training organization I-CAR, has made proper and regular training for a fixed operations staff paramount to long-term success.

Bochenek has spent the majority of his career in the OEM space working in the technical side of the operation. And while it may seem obvious that fixed operations departments need to prioritize training, he says that’s not necessarily a reality.  

“A lot of people think training is expensive,” he says. “In reality, training is not that expensive. It’s an investment in the future. By adopting a learning culture philosophy, instead of thinking of it as an expense, you can then get multiple times a payback on that training. Usually it pays for itself on a four-to-one basis. There really is dollars and cents, but it’s also morale of the employee, employee retention; now you don’t have to go out and retrain. It improves your repair quality and repair safety, it reduces your risk of litigation.”

And, he says, it’s ultimately to the benefit of the consumer, which drives customer satisfaction and brand loyalty.

On the parts side, National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) Academy instructor Chris Bavis says that the parts department is one of the most under-trained departments in the dealership, with very little training operations available in the industry. That’s why emphasizing learning and making sure the knowledge that exists in the department is shared is so crucial in parts, he says. It’s the only way to keep a notoriously lean department operating both efficiently, effectively and profitably. 

Bavis, Bochenek and Jeff Peevy of the Automotive Management Institute (AMi) outline the top four principles every learning culture in fixed operations should have. 


Principle #1: The culture starts with leadership.

Ultimately, a learning culture is set from the top, Bochenek says. The leadership team or owners of the organization need to commit to being a learning company or demonstrate that the environment  promotes the skill and development of the individuals in the organization.

“It really starts with the top and it has to be a commitment that’s reinforced both by practice and by demonstration by the leader,” he says.

If leadership isn’t committed, it could be an uphill battle, he says, but the reality is that there are tangible benefits to training that department managers should leverage when having conversations with upper-level leadership: Staff will be able to perform more efficiently with better quality, which leads to higher satisfaction, higher profit margins and brand satisfaction. 

Defining a Learning Culture

In the book Creating a Learning Culture by Marcia Conner and James Clawson, the authors define a learning culture “as a pattern of learned assumptions that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to the problems of survival and integration.”

Peevy, the head of I-CAR’s learning culture study that he worked on during his previous tenure at the organization, says that this definition gets to the heart of how a culture develops within a business and the potential performance skills that exist.

“The idea that our employees are operating under a pattern of learned assumptions and that these assumptions are considered to be so correct in the way someone should think and act that they are taught to new members as the way to operate and act,” Peevy says. “If these patterns of learned assumptions are indeed correct, the business will be profitable, efficient, have better-than-average employee retention and keep up with the changes required to sustain it. If the assumptions are not correct, the business will continue to struggle and typically look externally for the reasons for it.”


Principle #2: Seek out training opportunities.

The next step, Bochenek says, is setting an expectation that everyone in the shop should learn everything they can in every way possible. Start by doing a skills assessment and understanding the skills your organization does have. Once you identify your current skills, look at where you think you want the organization to be and put a “learning path” in place, Bochenek says. Time out different training opportunities, coupled with hands-on experience so they can practice what they learn to continuously reinforce that learning. 

“This means continual training and opportunities for those people to use their newly acquired skills. This is not just a check-the-box training requirement; it’s got to be a conscientious effort by the managers and the employee so the employee feels value in their role in the organization,” he says. “They’re going to feel more empowered, they’re going to do a better job and it spills over into other business aspects.”


Principle #3: Set an expectation to share knowledge.

This leads to the next important element of a learning culture: the expectation to share knowledge.

“Invariably what happens with a dealership is that someone got trained on a brand-new system a few years ago, [but] they may have left or never fully understood it,” Bavis says. “There’s kind of a half-life in training. You only learn half of what the guy before you learned, so you may only need to know one-tenth of what you need to know to operate on a daily basis.”

That’s why having those conversations is so important. Recently acquired knowledge is maximized when it is shared. Make it a habit to hold a quick meeting after staff returns from training to discuss what was learned and the main takeaways. Bochenek also recommends creating a mentor/mentee program, which allows more seasoned employees to get in the habit of sharing their knowledge effectively and allows newer employees to acquire new skills on an ongoing basis.  

As you move into this phase of adopting a culture of learning, be sensitive to individuals that perceive themselves as knowing everything and that lack the respect of coworkers. This individual will work against advancing the idea of knowledge sharing, Bochenek says, as they see it as a license to spend even more of their time trying to convince everyone how smart they are.


Principle #4: Recognize the behavior.

The last step comes down to recognizing and rewarding positive behavior and behaviors where a learning culture is reinforced. Ultimately, doing so will improve employee morale and retention, resulting in less retraining and constantly searching for new talent.

“You have to have some follow-up with the recognition and reward that behavior. Not just the individual but leadership also has to practice it and demonstrate it on a daily basis. Reinforce that behavior and that then drives the learning culture,” Bochenek says.

And, when it comes to recruiting, he says that highlighting the need to learn, grow and share knowledge as the very first qualifier used to describe what the candidate must possess to be successful within your business.


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