Tag Archives: Training

German Classes

A few nights ago I attended a Christmas performance by the Albion Band in the New Vic theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme, and one of the songs they covered was “Silent Night”, the last part of which was sung in German.

That reminded me of the time when I attended German evening classes during my time at Allied Steel & Wire. This happened one evening a week in Allied Steel & Wire’s training centre in Castle Works, with occasional full day sessions in Abergavenny. During one of our evening sessions prior to Christmas we learnt how to sing “Silent Night” in the original German version, which somehow felt more authentic than the more familiar English version.

It was a good education because the evening classes emphasised the actual speaking in German, rather than the little exposure we had in secondary school, where the emphasis was more on grammar and syntax. After all, during my time in secondary school we only had one weekly lesson for two years, just enough to make me aware of the complexity of its grammar, but I was not comfortable speaking the language.

So when Allied Steel & Wire offered the opportunity of some in-house evening classes, I jumped at the opportunity to come to grips with conversational German. Even after all these years the pay-off is there, allowing me to get by on the small number of number of occasions we’ve been on holiday in Germany.

Unfortunately, the lessons stopped after two years – presumably the company was by this time starting to feel the pinch financially, and non-essential expenses (none of the participants had to contribute to the cost of the evening classes) were being cut back.

And although I was not aware of it at the time, it may have been a harbinger of things to come.


Learning by Doing

Something that I’ve noticed over the years is that I only truly learn something if I can apply it in real life. For instance, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, I managed to apply the principles of Finite Element Analysis when I was performing studies of dehydrogenation, even though I proved at the exam that as a student I had not understood the subject when I only learned it in theory.

Likewise with subsequent courses on Hot and Cold Rolling at Ashorne Hill, which merely served to provide a general background to the topics, but no clear understanding because I never really applied any of the course’s content.

This is not to say that I didn’t learn a thing in those courses, but it didn’t go deep enough to become a practitioner, and most of the time, the type of things I was doing throughout my life was that of a generalist rather than a specialist, and generalists usually don’t have to go as deep into a topic as a specialist does, hence not applying what I was taught in courses was not a major drawback.

That all changed when I became data specialist cum web developer : all of a sudden I was learning on the job, often being sent on courses when I already knew more than just the basics of the topic. Although even here there were examples of things that never lodged themselves into my head because I never applied them properly. An example of this is the Matlab introductory course I attended in Cambridge : there was never a clear reason to apply the knowledge in anger, and over time I forgot about it, and maybe avoided reacquainting with the subject on later occasions when it could have been a useful tool.

The clearest example of not learning on the course but during subsequent grafting came the adoption of .NET for programming and web development. I attended not one but two courses on .NET and ASP.NET at e-Academy, and absolutely failed to try and apply the concepts on my return at work. I got so desperate at this situation that I requested to be allowed to position myself in an office at Process Control, where I would be in a position to ask someone to have a look at my work while I was trying to transform an ASP page to an ASP.NET one.

This 2-week period during which I was taken off the job and being allowed to learn the subject by doing rather than just being told general concepts finally cracked the mould: the first results were clunky and not particularly pretty, and showed a clear attempt to continue using procedural programming in an object oriented environment, but it was the decisive first step.

Subsequent suggestions for improvements, mostly from Chris Prince, who was my IT guru during this period, made my attempts less awkward, and in the end I started to come up with designs that stood the test of time (meaning that when I looked back on them several years later I did not have to cover my eyes and cringe). Signs that my training period of learning by doing stuff was nearing its end was when I rang Chris for help and his reply became more often than not “you’ll have to ask Mister Google for help, I’m afraid”.

The Importance of a Plan B

This was something that struck me when I attended the “Developing Personal Effectiveness” course in Ashorne Hill. As part of the course there were a set of group exercises, where our group trumped the other group’s efforts most of the time. The difference appeared to be that they had a plan and stuck to their plan through thick and thin, even when it became clear that the plan wasn’t working.

On the other hand, our group sometimes resorted to unorthodox means of achieving the goal when it turned out that our original approach was not getting us anywhere. Not sure if it always was good for group dynamics (which was really what the exercises were supposed to be about), since some people felt that their efforts had been gazumped, since their initial efforts had been dropped in favour of subsequent, more effective efforts without too much of a discussion.

Especially when it came to time constraints, unorthodox methods sometimes cut the time required to get the job done, but an outsider might have frowned about exactly how it was achieved. For instance there was one instance where you had to get from one side to the other side standing on crates, of which you only had three to achieve your goal. The initial approach was for two people to cross using the same set of crates, then one person to return with the crates, followed by two more people making the next crossing.

Effective ? Sort of. Time consuming ? You betcha ! So in the end we had one person throwing the crates from one side of the divide to the other side, meaning that you could have two people crossing without having to return anyone. Clearly, throwing crates had its own risks, but when you’re running out of time, then that’s the least of your worries.

Now if you translate this to a works environment, it goes to show that being task oriented gets results, but could carry the risk of losing the approval of part of your team, or could well lead you to ignore elementary safety rules. But it also highlights the importance of having an alternative plan so that you can switch midstream should your initial plan gets bogged down and does not deliver the expected results.

Otherwise you’re doomed to continue trying to repeat your plan A, trying to perform it to the best of your capability until you get lucky or until you fail utterly. And should your plan A contain a fatal flaw that dooms it to failure, having a plan B as an option is always a good thing.

Ashorne Hill

In the history section of their website, Ashorne Hill describe themselves as the Bletchley Park for the steel industry during its use of coordinating steel production for the war effort. Since then it’s been in the hands of British Steel and its various incarnations and has been a training centre since 1957. I don’t know what its current relationship to Tata Steel is, although my impression is that it’s at least semi-independent.

When I joined British Steel in 1996 it was still common place for people to go to week-long courses there, and that’s what happened to me in my first few months as Team Leader at Tinplate R&D. I can’t really remember the exact content of the course but it was something like a “getting to know the business” type of course. But, as I’ll come to in a later blog, what I can’t apply I tend to forget, and that’s the case with this course.

The next one was a week’s session aimed at improving communication between the technical and the customer side of British Steel Tinplate. What stuck in my head was how Tony Vickers (the Managing Director of British Steel Tinplate) didn’t know who I was, even though by then I had been in the job for more than a year, but did know a number of female graduates who had been in the central office for a mere few months. It made me realise how isolated from the production plants we were in Tinplate R&D as lodgers in Welsh Labs.

The only course I definitely benefited from was the “Improving Personal Effectiveness” course, which happened in two separate weeks, one in October and one in December 1998. This was done in an effort to mend my fraying relationship with my boss David Jones, presumably thinking that if I pulled my socks up, things would get better. I did learn a couple of things about myself, but in the end, David Jones did not change and it was not too much longer before I was seconded to Ebbw Vale.

The last course I attended in Ebbw Vale was during the first year of Corus’ existence, where we attended the Cold Rolling course as part of the Product Development Team from Ebbw Vale. It was notable for the fact that for the first time some Dutch colleagues attended – despite all the facilities they had in IJmuiden, I had the impression it did not include a conference centre like Ashorne Hill.

The course was also notable for for its timing : while we were there on the course, the first set of redundancies in Ebbw Vale were being announced, which made everyone involved feel a bit uneasy, even if we as a team were not one of the victims.

Anyhow, that was the last time I attended a course there, and apart from a short stop-over for a discussion on Single Source (it was a convenient midway point between the South Wales and the north-eastern part of the UK business) I never went there again. My impression is that over time, Ashorne Hill was encouraged to be become more self-sufficient, meaning that it became a training centre for other companies and the attendance by British Steel and its successors became a less dominant source of income.

All I know is that when I attended a Hot Rolling course in 2003, it didn’t take place in Ashorne Hill but in Brookfield Manor near Sheffield. Not sure why, and not even sure whether the changing status of Ashorne Hill versus Corus had anything to do with it, but in the end I don’t think I missed these week-long courses away from home. It may have been novel once or twice, but after the novelty wore off, it was a bit of a drag. Maybe in the end Corus decided that money was better spent on more targeted courses closer to home (although I’m sure that generalised graduate courses were still on the menu).

HR and Training

Human Resources (HR) is a bit of a strange department. On the one hand, they’re supposed to look after the best interest of the working population, but on the other hand their allegiance lies with senior management. Another characteristic (and I don’t know whether this is typical of the British Steel set-up or not) is that there is a lot of people moving jobs, with very few old hands, and many new faces trying to learn on the job.

This can lead to some awkward, and fortunately the change of responsibility for retirees was not upset by just such a personnel change. It did, however, lead to two instances when I was sent on a training course, and things went wrong.

The second time was merely silly, in that I was sent to e-Academy in Cardiff Bay (actually housed in AS&W’s old conference centre) to attend an ASP.NET course, and as soon as I entered the room and had an initial chat with the lecturer it became clear that the course was an advanced ASP course. Not only was this not the course that I had selected, but to make matters worse, I had already attended this course on a previous occasion.

Fortunately I managed to get hold of my boss, who had wanted to attend just such a course, and since the distance between Port Talbot and Cardiff is easily done in an hour, he took my place, and no major damage was done. Far worse with far more loss of face was the first time things went wrong, when I attended a Matlab taster course in Cambridge.

I had been given all the instructions of where to stay (a Travelodge on the A14 north of Cambridge) and how to join the course which was in a business park on the outskirts of Cambridge. So when I turned up at the course, I was the second one there, which was fine, since two attendees were expected. We were in the preliminaries of the course proceedings when a third person turned up.

This caused some consternation, and after some discussion and comparing of records, it turned out that there was no Corus name on the list of attendees. I was allowed to stay, on the proviso that should be sorted during the lunch break. When I rang my boss in Llanwern, it became clear after a while that HR had made a boo-boo: they had booked the hotel, bot for some reason or another had not actually paid for my attendance on the course!

In the end everything was sorted out to everyone’s satisfaction, but I must admit to feeling some deep shame that the company I was working for could make such an excruciatingly embarrassing mistake. It makes you wonder what other, more costly mistakes were made in the British Steel / Corus / Tata Steel days, and whether we ever learned from them.