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How to Build a School without Walls Using Systems Engineering Principles
By Ron Labrie, founder and senior consultant, HumEng International
SAN FRANCISCO, sept.. 30, 2007 (Viewpoint) - Systems engineering applied to training indicates that training must be structured according to what it should deliver. The objective of training may have been clear a long time ago, but it is not so clear today.

The principle of entropy applies to the training situation in mills. Entropy is the degrading of an organized structure towards chaos. Just as pumps break down, machines rust and rolls crack, training becomes outdated. Entropy increases as time goes by. Training should be an organized, coherent system and is not immune to erosion with the passage of time. Trying to fix it in its actual context is like changing the bearing in a rusted pump. It is a stop gap measure, not a new, improved pump.

It is abundantly clear that the problems of today cannot be solved with the solutions of yesterday. It is clear that an organized, professional, learner-based human resource development strategy and multi-party funding is required for the pulp and paper industry. It is required to make it more competitive and to allow hourly workers to work more safely and productively. Poyry has documented that "at least 25 to 30% of the profit variation between business units can be explained by human factors." People and jobs are at stake and mill managers are pivotal to the success.

Challenges and Solutions

Mills face many challenges, many barriers to becoming more productive. Some of these challenges are beyond their control. The following are a few that can be solved:

  • Loss of expertise through retirement and/or downsizing
  • Reduction of operations budget, i.e. of training budget
  • Untrained incumbent workers
  • Every mill for itself

The solution to these challenges includes:

  • Availability of targeted, multi-layered curriculum
  • Professional status of the training function
  • Training standards for hourly employees
  • Accountability of training
  • Structured on the job training (OJT)

A "School Without Walls" for this industry will help promote, design, implement and manage these solutions. For too long, the industry has forgotten about the importance of a well-trained shop-floor employee.

School Without Walls: Objectives

The School Without Walls needs to be funded by the industry, suppliers, governments and school system, with national or international sector associations as certifying bodies. The School Without Walls would have two roles to play:

  • Develop and deliver industry-specific, adult-education-based, multi-layered learning content based on training standards for incumbent workers
  • Promote the certification and professional status of trainers and training departments in each mill

School Without Walls: Road Map

The North American pulp and paper industry has spent large amounts of money to facilitate the training of its future workforce as well as its incumbent workers. Yet, it has fallen behind its international competition with respect to training and the competitive advantages a well-trained workforce provides. We have trusted for too long that the right things would be done. Some of the right things were done, but not enough, not in a very concerted manner and not in consideration of all partners' strengths.

  1. Develop and deliver industry-specific, adult-education based learning content based on training standards for incumbent workers
  2. A training roadmap without training standards provides nothing but a plan. Training standards provide the objectives of any training venture and lend themselves to making training accountable to line personnel, as opposed to a strictly human resources function. Of course, training standards must be flexible enough to identify what a papermaker needs to know and do in his/her job. For instance, what does a millwright or a machine tender need to know and do to perform his job? These skill sets are the "knowing" type and the "doing" type.

    Our workforce has been neglected, insofar as the "knowing" skills. Humeng's data support this conclusion many times over. We have documented that papermakers do not know more than 40% to 50% of the theory and principles on papermaking that they should know in their specific job classification.

    Although we do not have enough pulp and paper data to draw the same conclusions about OJT, we can affirm, if the pulp and paper industry is not different than other North American companies, that fully 95% of the training that is done on the job is done so poorly that the job suffers measurably.2 More than $180 billion was spent on OJT in the US in 1995 and results show that the traditional way of following "Joe" around, observing, practicing and learning by trial and error does not meet the needs of today's organizations. OJT is the preferred vehicle for training on "what to do."3 A mix of "knowing skills" and "doing skills" is required to have an employee who is able to problem solve and troubleshoot.

    These training standards must be developed by the industry for 10 to 15 important end-of-line of progression job classifications.

    Equipment, fabric, chemicals, process control and maintenance suppliers have a wealth of pulp and paper science, because of their privileged status. They have an important role to play in the survival and prosperity of every mill. It belongs to them to supply the resources to develop learner-based, job-centered, state-of-the-art curriculum. That curriculum must be layered to support incumbent hourly employees, junior technical personnel and senior technical personnel.

    The first layer is generic in nature and will be delivered via eLearning platforms. It is effective, convenient, less disruptive and proven to decrease learning time. The second tier of training curriculum are intensive short courses engineered to add more in depth understanding of concepts previously learned via eLearning content. These short courses can be delivered by supplier representatives, consultants and the college system.

    The third tier is more advanced equipment, chemical or control-specific content to be delivered to individual mills via industry experts.

  3. Promote the certification and professional status of trainers and training departments in each mill
  4. The pulp and paper industry has done a great job at hiring engineers, technicians managers, etc., but has done poorly at hiring professional trainers. The question could be asked: "How many training managers in mills have a B.Ed?" If training is to be critical for a mill, it has to be managed by a professional with line responsibility. The HR function cannot be aligned with mill imperatives if training is not perceived as instrumental and strategic, nor if the training manager does not sit at a table where decisions are made.

    The School Without Walls would need to orchestrate the development of best practices for training inclusive of OJT and organize training seminars for trainers and training managers. A third party national association could become the certification body for trainers. And, training needs to be accountable.

School Without Walls: Modest Beginning

Efforts have been made by to initiate the development of training standards through the production of industry-wide DACUM charts, better known as skill profiles. Further refinements to this approach for 10 to 15 top jobs in the line of progression for different departments have to be produced. The skill profiles will document the knowing skills (content) and the doing skills (know how) required for the jobs.

Humeng International Inc. has produced industry skill profiles in many lines of progression. These have been useful in matching what a backtender or a millwright needs to know and needs to do. That experience has been very useful in decreasing learning time.4

TAPPI, with its Workforce Development Program, has developed a mixture of eLearning and classroom courses (known as blended learning) and OJT for a pilot project in five mills in the US Pacific Northwest. The curriculum was developed by Humeng and delivered through Lower Columbia College. The project covered stock preparation and approach systems.

Albany International and Humeng have developed eLearning training modules for pressing, drying and forming. A total of 40 modules have been engineered based on Humeng's experience and Albany's content on best practices. The content is devoid of "commercials" and covers the concepts required to be learned.

National or international technical associations are ideally suited to help the industry become more competitive by helping to increase the skill level of incumbent employees. They should be the certification bodies vested with the responsibility of certifying that technical training offered by the School Without Walls is proportional to training standards defined by the skill profiles. This process could afford them a continuous flow of new members.


We all know that we have to do a much better job at training to become more competitive. We need a concerted, targeted, adult education-based multi-partner funded School Without Walls in the next frontier. Who will be the leaders in the crusade? Who will rise to the challenge?

RON LABRIE is senior consultant and founder of Humeng International, Longueuil, QC. He can be reached at rlabrie@humeng.ca .

  1. TAPPI 2004 Spring Technical Conference and International Environmental Conference, "The Impact of Human Performance on Profitability"
  2. M. Broadwell, The Supervisor and On-the-Job Training, Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA (1995)
  3. James H. Lex, The Role of Structured On-the-Job Training (OJT) in the Workplace, Master of Science thesis, Pennsylvania State University (1997)
  4. Humeng International Inc., Case Study: Target Training Investments: Results, Return on Investments and Interactions, www.humeng.com