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‘On-the-job training can give Sweden an edge’

'On-the-job training can give Sweden an edge'
Anna Jonsson and an archive image from Farsta Interiör. Photos: Private, Tekniska museet/Flickr
Happier, richer, and with a stab at survival. That's how Swedish researcher Anna Jonsson describes Swedish companies that provide in-house education and mentoring to their staff, and in so doing outfox their rivals.

The Gothenburg University associate professor spent one year at the offices of Sweden's biggest law firm Mannheimer Swartling,

The high-profile law firm has a culture of senior employees taking juniors under their wing.

"It's in the company's DNA, which I use as a metaphor for learning being part and parcel of all processes and routines at the firm," Jonsson tells The Local.

But that focus on learning is not found in all Swedish workplaces. Too often, she cautions, staff are left to nag and cajole their employer to allow them to attend seminars and courses outside the workplace if not offered in-house.

"Whereas actually it should be seen as investing in the company," she says.

When Jonsson finished her PhD in 2008, for which she had studied the workplace culture of furniture giant Ikea, she received a letter from its founder Ingvar Kamprad, himself a fan of the apprenticeship system.

"He called it 'the world's most overlooked education method'," she recalls. "I got that little letter the same day that I defended my thesis, and it really hit the nail on the head."

She says she would welcome further research into which Swedish industries have a learning-based workplace, and says it has potential long-term rewards for the company as well as short-term benefits – "happier employees".

Preaching the model's virtues may be an uphill slog, however, as Jonsson found out while lecturing about learning and knowledge sharing.

"There's a lot of focus on effectiveness and efficiency, on the new IT e-learning systems or other modern solutions," she says. "Yet a solution that has worked for hundreds of years has been forgotten."

She notes, however, that more and more people are showing an interest in workplace reform. It requires more than goodwill, she points out.

"People want to have a learning culture, but say they don't have the time, but that's because there is not a structure to free up time," she explains, adding that there need to be clear routines in place, so staff can get education and practice-based learning.

To get started, business owners and managers can make sure they give staff regular feedback – not only on their work, but on what they have learned at work.

"Following up on the learning is critical, because it makes people feel engaged and motivated," she says.

Jonsson also recommends that management talks openly about the company's goals, so everyone is pulling in the same direction.

"The key to what makes certain businesses more successful is that they see their staff as a resource to be developed, not an expense, and not as something replaceable," she says. "The employees are actively encouraged to actively contribute to the the company's success."

"The attitude 'We can replace you with someone else' is probably not a good long-term strategy," she adds.

In the Mannheimer Swartling case, the firm's apprentice model attracts Sweden's top law students.

"Students see it as a opportunity for personal development," she says. "And to be involved and contribute to the firm's success."

But it's not just the juniors who stand to benefit – the senior staff do too. The master-apprenticeship model allows experienced staff the time to reflect on their own knowledge and skills, which in turn helps foster innovation.

"That means you can go on to develop not only products and services, but also improve routines in the workplace," she says. "And that allows you to out-compete your rivals, which is vital as the world becomes ever more globalized, no matter how much of a cliché that sounds."

"We should use the resources we already have for sustainable success," Jonsson concludes. "Swedish companies simply can't afford to have people sitting around reinventing the wheel." 

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