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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.         Vol. 32, No. 17 * September 25, 2000

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I Never Metaphor I Didn’t Like

This is an article about the power and value of metaphorical training as a technique available to HR trainers of public administrators.

In any organization, training is an essential success factor in employee retention and attracting new talent. The most effective training is memorable, well presented and brings the subject home to the student as something valuable to know and apply. In short, it must be compelling; however, it also helps if the training experience is enjoyable, thought-provoking, and not boring.

Linking training to a metaphor is a great way to accomplish these objectives. A metaphor is an “implied comparison,” that is, using one word or concept to represent another idea. It is possible to select and apply training metaphors very economically and effectively. The HR Doctor offers the following examples as some successful approaches.

SWAT teamwork
“Borrow” the SWAT team from the sheriff or police department to surprise students with a demonstration of how the team works. SWAT teams cannot be successful and safe unless the individual members are well trained, dependable and respected by their fellow team members. The team must focus on a mission, train and work together, with members able to count on each other at all times. SWAT teams are engaged in constant training and will be cooperative and available for demonstrations. The HR Doctor has often used SWAT team demonstrations. Following the team demonstration of safely seizing a perpetrator or entering a dangerous situation, the commander of the SWAT team often stays behind to address the students and answer questions.

The concepts that make a SWAT team successful are identical to those principles of teamwork and leadership that make any group of employees successful. They can be a powerful metaphor to begin any group retreat or training program focusing on individual and team responsibility and accountability.

Run with a sports metaphor
Most areas of the country are close to a professional athletic team or a well-known amateur team. The HR Doctor has taken employees to a nearby U.S. Olympic Dive Team training facility. The employees watched part of the practice and were treated to a presentation by the team coach. The students explored how to take a group of individual champions and get them to work as a team. The combination of a venue memorably different from a typical office classroom setting, and the opportunity to meet and hear from people who may be in the news or engaged in an activity we only dream about, is a powerful device to capture and retain the attention of students. In fact, as with the SWAT team, it becomes quickly apparent that there are basic core principles of respect and leadership that make any work group effective.

Enlist the military
Cooperation with the military produces great metaphorical opportunities. Most counties and many cities are home to or are near a military installation. In one urban county the HR Doctor “borrowed” an aircraft carrier for a tour and a discussion by executives of how to motivate and direct staff to accomplish a mission successfully.

An aircraft carrier has approximately 5,000 crew members, with an average age of under 20, who come and go as enlistments begin and end. The work is 24 hours a day and inherently very dangerous. Yet the crew of the carrier is successful in its mission. Compare that to a large county government with the same number of employees, a much more stable workforce with an average length of service of 10 years who are older and more experienced.

Why is it that there is less cohesiveness and mission focus in a group that logically should be better able to accomplish its objective? This is the question explored during the aircraft carrier tour and briefing. The “Air Boss” discussed this issue with top executives from local government whose agencies often lose sight of a common purpose and focus on competing missions or lack focus to begin with.

Off to a flying start
Another metaphor the HR Doctor has used is a visit with an F-16 pilot on the tarmac at an airport. After explaining Gulf War operations and showing them the F-16 parked on the runway, the pilot led the students in a discussion that pointed out how much they had in common in using technology and trusting one another to accomplish work goals. Often national guard, reserves, and other military units are cooperative and enthusiastic about applying their work principles and strategies to other settings.

Service animals also offer great metaphor opportunities. The HR Doctor has used guide dogs, police dogs and even monkeys that serve disabled people to discuss the concept of the “team of two.” Community groups and individuals often are readily available and interested in sharing their teamwork relationships with an audience. This is a metaphor particularly recommended by Kamala the HR dog.

Choruses of cooperation
Music can be an effective metaphor for life in general and work life in particular. An orchestra conductor challenges, inspires, and shapes individual experts literally to “read from the same sheet of music.” Invite a local orchestra conductor or choral conductor to demonstrate how he or she works with a soloist to create group success. Conduct the seminar at a local performing arts center and hold the class on stage for a change of perspective. Mozart or Woody Guthrie might have been very successful management consultants!

Civil service as dinosaur
One of the HR Doctor’s favorite training metaphors was to hold a seminar on the future of civil service at a museum full of the bones of extinct animals. Is extinction ahead for the nineteenth century concept of civil service? How does evolution apply to the way we do work in public administration? This setting was powerful and the briefing by a paleontologist made it all the more interesting.

In the training concepts described above, the use of facilities, guests speakers, and tours were obtained at little or no cost. When you think about it, it’s amazing how many resources are right in your own neighborhood.

Health care facilities, universities, sport teams, construction sites, nuclear power plants–the world is rich with metaphors that public administrators and private-sector executives can use to make training come alive.

The HR Doctor advises colleagues to look for these tools so that traditional and boring lecture-style classroom presentations are never used in your agency–except as a treatment for insomnia.

Enjoy thinking about metaphors and apply them regularly to your life at work and at home.

P.S. The aircraft carrier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, was returned to the Navy in good condition!

Best wishes!

(Rosenberg is the Human Resources director for Broward County, Fla.)


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