Written by Bo-Yi Lee.
Image credit: P1010198 by Tim Moore/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0
Employee training is critical in the success of organisations, including productivity, profitability, innovation capabilities and overall competitiveness. Due to the everlasting and intensifying global competition among firms, particularly in the ICT industry, the Taiwanese government has incentivised firms to build formal training systems. This includes establishing a training committee at the corporate level, creating skill development maps and building e-learning databases for employees. Thus, it will help employees catch up with predicament of ever-changing technologies. However, R&D engineers in the Taiwanese ICT industry rely much more on informal training to update their knowledge and skills in related technologies. The dependence on informal training lays some challenges ahead for the industry, including high work pressures, long work hours and the varied effectiveness of employee training.
The distinction between formal and informal training is that the former is highly structured, institutionally sponsored and classroom-based, where an educator or trainer is usually present. The latter is predominantly unstructured, experiential, non-institutionalised and highly integrated into everyday business (informal training occurs while employees conduct work activities). Specifically, employees are trained informally through talking or collaborating with others, observing or listening to others, reflecting on actions, mentoring, trial and error, and learning online or from papers. They can pick up knowledge in their daily work.
My data shows that when an R&D engineer graduates from university (either undergraduate or graduate programs) and joins a firm, they, first, must attend an orientation/induction, which lasts from half a day to two days. An induction usually does not involve any specific knowledge or skills regarding the changing technologies. Instead, a typical induction introduces the company’s physical and virtual (such as the information systems) environment and the rules that an employee must obey (including proprietary information protection and occupational health and safety).
The induction is the only formal training activity for R&D engineers in the Taiwanese ICT industry, though it has little to do with specific knowledge and skills. After induction, R&D engineers learn new knowledge and skills from informal training, particularly learning by doing with the help of their colleagues or managers. However, there might be some training courses, most concern occupational health and safety (including maintaining work-life balance), team building, corporate identity or organisational culture. These have little to do with employees’ knowledge or professions in the ever-changing technologies. A few courses might be related to R&D engineers’ profession. However, it is usually not done professionally: a manager admits that the training in his employing firm has been only asking participants to read some related materials and listen to a talk delivered by some higher-level officials.
How exactly does informal training, the primary approach that R&D engineers have been trained in the Taiwanese ICT industry, including the related practice of learning by doing and mentorship, work in the industry? An R&D engineer could learn from informal training activities, such as online or from papers—searching for related journal articles or discussions in their professional community—observing or listening to others, talking or collaborating with others, experimenting and feedback-seeking. For example, a junior R&D engineer is guided by a senior one in real projects so that the former could be familiar with their jobs. Specifically, senior colleagues review the junior ones’ work, and they informally train those who are junior to them by giving feedback about R&D engineers’ performance.
The prevalence of informal training, particularly learning by doing, exerts pressure on R&D engineers because they are also expected to learn by themselves, even though some knowledge is beyond their professions. Furthermore, given that the Taiwanese ICT firms are required to advance in the performance of the end products (such as electronic devices), the technologies embedded within such products become more complex and involve more disciplines than before. It is, thus, highly improbable for an R&D engineer (even for those who have become senior) to catch up with the ever-changing technologies efficiently and effectively in many fields at the same time without a properly designed and implemented formal training system. Expecting and further requiring an R&D engineer to learn cutting-edge knowledge and skills in the advanced technologies could also suggest why employees in that industry work long hours.
My interview data shows that some managers – especially in the electronics manufacturing and services sector – maximise R&D engineers’ work hours. Through this, they believe employees will acquire advanced technological knowledge. Therefore, it will further lead them to develop successful business products by ‘learning from working long hours.’
Another problem of the prevalence of informal training, such as mentorship, is that there is no clear guidance for the senior employees in one firm about guiding new members (how to be a mentor). For example, when asked if there are any related instructions, one R&D engineer (who has been working in the firm for over seven years and a mentor for others) responded that there had not been such guidance and the way to mentor a junior colleague might differ for each individual. This has been confirmed by several interviewees that I have talked to, no matter whether they are an R&D engineers or managers. Therefore, the lack of guidance for being a mentor might lead to specific learning outcomes for new members. Some senior colleagues might not be willing to mentor junior ones or do not have sufficient skills and knowledge to be a mentor.
This article shows that informal training plays a critical role in the industry to train R&D engineers, despite some problems identified above. I also found that categorising firms by sizes or competitive strategies and further explaining the variations in employee training through organisational factors might not be sufficient. Some of my interviewees working in the firms specialising in ODM report that informal training, rather than formal, is the dominant (or even the only) employee training approach. Besides, firms with more employees do not necessarily build formal training systems to develop their employees. Therefore, asking how to better explain the variations in human resource management practices, such as employee training, in the Taiwanese ICT industry is essential. This helps us understand how employees’ skills could be developed, and knowledge could be accumulated. Moreover, both have to do with the firms’ innovative capabilities and Taiwan’s national competitiveness.
Bo-Yi Lee is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Management Science at the National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University (NYCU), Taiwan. His research interest includes human resource management, employment relations, job quality, and the future of work, particularly platform economy and diversity and inclusion. This article is based on his PhD thesis, which he finished at King’s College London in 2021.
This article was published as part of a special issue on Science and Technology.