IT's top five training mistakes

You just rolled out Microsoft Windows Vista companywide, only to find your help desk flooded with calls. Or you spent hours with the mobile sales group going over the basics of laptop and wireless security, only to discover team members still opening rogue e-mail attachments and stumbling over password protocols.

Sound familiar? The problem could be in your training.

It's all too natural for IT to cast blame on end users when new or upgraded systems hit snafus, but rather than pointing fingers, IT should instead consider its own role in training miscues, experts advise.

While IT's relationship with end-user training has always been ambivalent, the pressure is on to get users comfortable and productive on new tech systems, thanks to a corporate emphasis on information security, compliance and return on investment to justify costly hardware and software rollouts.

In that light, a good training program can count as a competitive advantage, but management isn't always sold on the business benefits of effective tech training. "Companies don't yet fully value training," says David S. Murphy, founder and membership director of nonprofit International Association of Information Technology Trainers (ITrain) and a professor of English and computer science at the University of Phoenix and Howard Community College in Columbia, Md. "I've yet to come across a commercial company that embraces training as a requisite value-added service as opposed to an optional value-added service."

Worried that your IT training falls into that latter category? We talked to IT managers, in-house and third-party trainers, industry advocates, and academics to uncover the top five mistakes technology professionals make when training end users.

None of these mess-ups are fatal, we're happy to report. With an open mind and some targeted adjustments, IT managers and trainers can achieve greater success with their end users and a little peace of mind for themselves.

Mistake No. 1: You didn't plan for training upfront.

IT budgets have been under close scrutiny for years, and the dollars earmarked for training have been among the hardest hit, according to Murphy. As a result, many companies don't factor end-user training into the total cost of their systems' rollouts and are left scrambling for funding and resources at the tail end of the deployment.

Consensus in the industry dictates that a good training program should account for 10% to 13% of the total spend, yet most companies underestimate the cost and the resources that requires, according to Pat Begley, vice president of learning solutions at RWD Technologies, a Baltimore-based professional services company that does end-user training.

"Many times, organizations feel they have the bandwidth within the IT team to do the training, but they don't realize how tied up those people are going to be with the blueprinting of the system," she explains. "Then they get caught short with little time left" for training.

Unisys Corp. learned that lesson the hard way several years back during a companywide rollout of Windows XP and Microsoft Office 2003. At the time, the company didn't have a prerollout training program for the software in place.

As a result, Unisys University, a companywide training group, partnered with IT to deal with training issues after the fact, when the software landed on people's desktops. "There was a flurry of calls about 'how do you do this?'" recalls Weston Morris, chief architect with Unisys' strategic programs office for Microsoft products. "It was an expensive proposition."

This time around, Unisys is taking a proactive approach to end-user training. It is preparing to roll out Windows Vista to more than 30,000 users, starting this April and continuing through 2009. Unisys University and IT are again co-handling the Vista training, Morris says, but this time, training will begin before the software hits the desktops.

Among the initiatives is a collaborative effort with Unisys' early adopter community to identify common trouble spots and create customized training exercises that will address those concerns.

Unisys is also putting a program in place that requires users to complete the training on Vista and get certified before they're upgraded to the new operating system. "We want make sure [users] have a basic understanding of the technology so they're not going to be calling the help desk with silly questions they should be able to handle if they took the training," Morris explains.

One area that companies frequently overlook when it comes to upfront planning is future requirements for training after the initial deployment, Morris says.

After a period of time on the new software or hardware platform, users typically advance to more sophisticated functions, but training typically doesn't cover those capabilities. As a result, users are left to muddle through on their own.

In addition, without proper training on more sophisticated new features, users often don't graduate to new functionality, and companies in turn lose out on some of the business benefits for which they purchased new systems in the first place, notes ITrain's Murphy.

Another concern: Most organizations have changing staffing situations and fluid business processes. With all that change, it's often not clear who's responsible for updating training curricula and materials to reflect the current computing environment, notes RWD's Begley. "Someone needs to take ownership of training materials to make sure the incoming people don't get static and outdated information," says Begley, who makes the case that individual business units -- not IT -- should take ownership of that role.

Mistake No. 2: You're out of tune with your audience.

Let's face it: For training of any sort to be effective, it's not enough for the instructor to have mastery of the material. The trainer also needs to be able to connect with the audience and present information in an interactive and engaging manner. Problem is, IT professionals aren't famous for their stellar communication and soft management skills.

"Just because someone is an expert in a subject matter and their passion is technology, that doesn't make [that person] a good trainer," Murphy says. "We tend to put subject-matter experts in training positions, and that's the worst. We should be putting people with expertise in education and adult learning into those positions."

Trainers with strong communication and interpersonal skills are best able to get a read on their audience and tailor their instruction accordingly. IT professionals, on the other hand, may be so comfortable with their subject matter that they run the risk of presenting the material in too detailed and technical a way, or conversely, of oversimplifying it.

"Lots of times, IT won't tell people what they need to know, or they give people a long, technical explanation which is not relevant to them or meaningful, and then they've lost the audience," says Mary Kelley, president of Intelligo Inc., a Denver-based firm that provides end-user training and support for ERP systems.

Indeed, one of the biggest mistakes IT professionals make when conducting training is not adequately assessing the needs of their audience. "We don't take the time before we design a training program to interview both the people who will be trained and their supervisors or managers," Murphy explains.

Interviewing employees before creating a training curriculum is critical, he maintains, because that's the only way for trainers to get a true sense of the skill level of the user group. Bringing supervisors into the interview process is equally critical because they have a broad perspective on what's worked before and what hasn't for their direct reports. In addition, supervisors often have specific goals in mind for the training, Murphy says.

Mistake No. 3: You didn't follow standards training models.

Training a user community on a major business system like ERP or on a new operating system like Windows Vista involves a lot more than showing employees how to navigate a new desktop or run a specific report. Major system upgrades mean major upheaval to the way users work, and technology training should help users embrace those changes.

"Users need to feel comfortable with change -- they need to know what's happening and how it affects their role," a concept the training community refers to as "organizational readiness," says Begley. "IT doesn't typically consider organizational readiness as part of the training. What they typically look at is building competency."

In a similar vein, professional training companies like RWD stress the importance of formal learning models -- that is, best practices for teaching different kinds of learners -- as critical to a training program's success.

Organizational readiness and learning models are outside the scope of what most would consider general IT acumen. But according to Begley and other training professionals, for a major training program to be a success, it needs to be based on some formal approach.

RWD's learning methodology, for example, encompasses a preparation component that tells users what to expect and explains the specifics of how business processes will change, a run-through of what the new transactions will look like, a "try-it" phase where users can test-drive the system prior to going live, and a support stage where help is accessible on an ongoing basis. IT's skills are focused on the run-through stage of training, but not the other areas, Begley says, and that can lead to ineffective training, she maintains.

Standardization in training materials is another area where IT often falls short. Users need multiple reference points for learning a system, notes Intelligo's Kelley, be it step-by-step instructions, quick reference cards or Web-based training. That material should be delivered and maintained in a standardized way.

"Lots of times, there's high turnover among the people who do initial training for the 'go-live' stage," Kelley explains. If the original trainers have left and standardized training materials aren't available, "after a while, things get passed along as tribal knowledge, which over time decreases the ability of people to work in the system," Kelley warns.

Mistake No. 4: You're training out of business context.

IT is quite comfortable with instruction on the particulars of how to use a particular CRM package or how to securely configure a laptop or wireless network, but the training often stops there. What's missing is teaching users how to use that new business system to augment traditional work patterns. To do so, IT trainers need an understanding of how a particular business function like marketing or procurement works, knowledge they don't always have.

"The purpose of end-user training is to help a company be more productive in making money," explains ITrain's Murphy. "That means the trainer has to understand the business and organizational functions, and that's where very confident technicians often miss the boat. They're focused on the details of their equipment rather than the whole purpose of having that equipment for a department to run more effectively."

Menno Aartsen, a former technology executive, learned the importance of business context years ago when he trained an early generation of users on laptops at three divisions within Verizon. The IT training team made a point to emphasize how mobility could change users' work patterns -- a key point given that many rank-and-file employees at the time thought of laptops as simply desktop-replacement machines.

So rather than simply instructing users on how to use docking stations or what to do with USB memory devices, the training team demonstrated how the mobility afforded by the new laptops could help workers log on remotely at night to get ahead or catch up on paperwork during their commute, new practices at the time.

"Rather than just rolling out laptops to executives or important managers so they could carry around data, we looked at a broad spectrum of users and positioned mobility as a tool that could enable new kinds of work," Aartsen says. Almost at once, a vast majority of the newly empowered workforce was willing to stay connected on the weekends and during other off-hours, he recalls.

Mistake No. 5: You forgot to forge business partnerships.

Given that so much of what constitutes good training goes beyond the purview of IT, it's critical that the IT department reaches out. Human resource departments and dedicated in-house training groups like Unisys University are obvious candidates for partnerships that can help IT bring the requisite business context and formal learning methodologies to its curriculum.

Reaching into the user community is another good option. IT might do a phased rollout to "super users" first and leverage their feedback and expertise to tailor training for the remaining users. This super group is also the same community that tends to rely heavily on Web 2.0 technologies such as blogging and wikis, all of which can play an important role in technology training, experts say.

Whatever the system being rolled out, the message for IT is clear: It's not just users who have a lot to learn about technology -- you've got some work to do to make training a core IT discipline.

Stackpole last wrote for Computerworld about future IT workers.

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