Familiarity Breeds Contentment

The explosion of software programs developed to take advantage of today’s faster, more powerful computers offers the tantalizing vision of efficient operation, increased productivity, and reduced costs. But learning how to harness this  power is not easy.

It is not unreasonable for an experienced computer user using a program’s manuals and on-line tutorials to take from two to four months to learn one of these sophisticated programs. For the inexperienced user, the learning curve is much steeper.training_article_200

Organizations that are short on staff expertise for specialized training and with little time to acquire it are turning to consultants or training organizations for their computer training.

Trends

And they are not alone. In 1990, U.S. business spent over $45 billion on training programs. A growing share of that is computer training. Nancy Weingarten, publisher of Training News, sees computer training “growing in parallel with new technology. As the technology grows there’s a definite trend towards higher end training that’s more technical and complex and away from the basics.”

Bob Dydo, Director of Information Systems for the American Insurance Association agrees. “While we try to hire people with qualifications in the software we use, we still need training.”

It is easy to see why. Software for network operations, desktop publishing, spreadsheets, database management, and other applications that associations typically use continues to grow in size and complexity.

Training methods are changing too. Besides the traditional instructor-led classroom training, there are other forms including computer based training (CBT), multimedia, video, and teletraining. 

What Training Must Do

Clay Carr author of Smart Training, believes that whatever the method, training should have one goal and one goal only: improved performance. “Know the performance you want from training, see that the individual being trained knows what you want, and then check to see if you got it.”

Is It Necessary?

When the issue of training comes up, decide if it is really necessary. As Bob Dydo suggests, “Look at particular cases to see if there really is a training need.” Nancy Weingarten concurs. “Make sure that if an individual requests training your organization really needs it.”

A training needs analysis can help. It is a process that examines current performance levels to decide if improvement is necessary. Weingarten points out that while the analysis “doesn’t need to be rigorous or scientific, it is important.”

A good analysis examines the specific tasks a group or individual performs. Its basis is the idea that training can only be effective when it concentrates on improving specific tasks.

In-house staff, an outside consultant or a training organization can perform the analysis. A decision to go outside offers the opportunity to observe if the potential provider is flexible enough to focus on specific performance needs.

Don’t overlook the analysis. According to Clay Carr, training “must begin with an effective up-front analysis of the performance situation. There are no exceptions, period.”

The results of the training analysis are the specific tasks that the training must accomplish to be effective.

Finding a Trainer

While looking for a trainer, keep in mind Nancy Weingarten’s advice: “Training is a real investment that should not be taken lightly. Look at training as you would any other business deal. Check out reputation, references, and make sure you understand exactly what you get for your money.”

While it is not quite like looking for a car, there are

similarities. Does this comment from Bob Dydo sound familiar? “Salespeople will say something is going to be covered in a course and then it isn’t.” Let the buyer beware.

The accompanying table provides a sampling of the many companies and consultants in the area that provide computer training. It is by no means exhaustive and it makes no recommendations. Besides the organization’s and a contact’s name, it offers twenty three points to consider when looking for a trainer.

1.       Training organizations provide a service. Look for a mission statement that indicates the provider’s goal of doing whatever it takes to satisfy the customer.

2.       Professional and community affiliations indicate the level of a business’s commitment to its community and its  profession. But as Nancy Weingarten points out,   “Professional affiliations indicate some amount of                        reputability, but they’re no guarantee. And they’re no substitute for doing your own homework.”

3.       Course offerings are a natural place to start when looking for a trainer. Bob Dydo agrees. “Be sure to look at the curriculum to see if it meets your needs.”

4.       Some trainers advertise areas of expertise (e.g., desktop publishing, networks, multimedia). If this is an important consideration, go for expertise that derives from actual working experience.

5.       Look at staff size with one question in mind: Is there sufficient backup capability if an instructor leaves or gets sick? Avoid this unpleasant possibility by making certain backup is available.

6.       Are testimonials available? Very important. Don’t look at any training organization that won’t provide them. Don’t accept association or company names alone either; insist on specific names, positions, and phone numbers.

7.       The time to schedule training could be very important if schedules are tight. Especially if there is a small number of trainees. Bob Dydo cautions that “Some training organizations will cancel courses if they have only four or  five students. This can be a big problem when you need the course because of time constraints and the next course is after your date.”  Get a firm commitment that the course is definitely scheduled.

8.       Price range is always a consideration, especially when all else seems equal. As the table demonstrates, there is a wide range.

9.       Some organizations offer guarantees, usually in the form of  additional training at no cost. There are two schools of  thought here: one believes it performs so well that there is no need for any type of guarantee, the other indicates a  training organization confident of its abilities. Decide how important a guarantee is.

10.     If a training needs analysis shows a customized course is necessary, make certain that a potential trainer has the flexibility to focus on special requirements, and most importantly, provide them.

11.     Nancy Weingarten was quick to respond to the question of  whether certification from software manufacturers indicates superior instructor qualification, “No!” Certification gained from a taking and passing a vendor’s course often certifies basic competency; rarely does it endow the depth of knowledge that actual work experience does. Best bet: a certified instructor with relevant work experience.

12.     Typical course lengths vary depending on the subject matter and the training organization. Look for one that best fits your schedule.

13.     There are numerous teaching methodologies available today. For information on their advantages and disadvantages, refer to the resources at the end of this article.

14.     Organizations may require a minimum number of trainees for a course. Always find out what that number is.

15.     Prerequisites are usually necessary for advanced courses. To avoid problems, find out about prerequisites before contracting for a course.

16.     On-site and off-site training both offer unique benefits.  Off-site training often provides first-rate facilities and an efficient training environment for larger numbers of students and for generalized courses. If it’s off-site,    Weingarten’s advice is to “check out their facilities to make sure they’re using the same equipment that you are.”     Because on-site training lets students use their own equipment in the performance of typical work day tasks,     consider it for customized training.

17.     Post training assistance can be critical. As Nancy Weingarten notes, “Follow on services are important. Some organizations provide them and some don’t. Some charge extra  for them and some don’t. Be sure you know up front if they are available, for how long, and for how much.”

18.     The equipment supplied can affect a training course. Regardless of who supplies the equipment, make sure that the equipment is the same that the students use at work. Also make certain that there is enough for all students to have adequate hands-on training.

19.     Hands-on tutorials let trainees reinforce and remember their training. They are useful for refreshing newly learned skills. Look for them, especially if there is a time gap between learning new skills and using them.

20.     Training will be ineffectual unless there is a high percentage of hands-on training. According to Clay Carr,   “People learn best when they actively participate in the   learning. People learn the skills they need to perform only when they actually use these skills.” Look for training thatstresses a hands-on approach.

21.     Check that the typical activities a training course provides emphasize the practical. Echoing Clay Carr, Nancy Weingarten  recommends activities that stress “Practice, practice,  practice.”

22.     Instructor workbooks cover material taught in a course. With    one, a knowledgeable trainee can share learning with other staff after completing a course. Bob Dydo believes they are useful, “Students bring back documentation and training aids that certainly do help.” Look for them.

23.     Job aids are simple devices (e.g., templates for keyboards, flowcharts, checklists) that a trainee can use to get the    job done. They are useful for simple tasks done at long intervals or as memory joggers for complicated processes. Insist on effective job aids, especially customized job aids for specific tasks.

Resources

For more information on training, consider the following resources:

Professional Societies

American Society for Training and Development

1630 Duke Street, Alexandria, VA 22313

National Society for Performance and Instruction

1126 16th Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20037

International High Technology Training Organization

P.O. Box 1565, Melbourne, FL 32901

American Society for Adult and Continuing Education

1201 16th Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20036

Publications

Training News (Weingarten Publications, Inc., Boston, MA)

Training and Development Journal (American Society for Training and Development, Washington, DC)

Training and Development Organization Directory (Gale Research)  Hope Reports U.S. Training Business (Hope Reports, Inc., Rochester, NY)

Suggestions for Quick Cuts:

Training should have the goal of improving specific performance.

Use a training needs analysis to see if training is necessary.

The most effective training emphasizes a hands-on approach.