The neglected art of user training, and how to eliminate it

The most important part of any IT project is properly training the people who will be using it.  In many ways the quality of the training and the number of help desk calls it drives is the most important measurement of a successful project.  Yet all too often, IT teams treat training as an afterthought and don’t properly staff or fund it. 

Your intentions start out with a focus on training, but as the project proceeds and funding begins to tighten, training often gets cut to the minimum necessary.  Many people today, including me sometimes, question the need for training since numerous users go home and are able to learn complex software on their own without training.  However, we all know it’s not that simple.  As 2012 comes to a close, let’s all go into the new year with a renewed emphasis on properly training our end users. 

The first step of renewing our emphasis on training is to simply not forget about it.  Most projects are planned with training included, even if it isn’t conducted.  If the timeline or budget is tight, many times the training portion is what gets cut or the quality isn’t quite where it should be.  This of course leads to an end user community that is often frustrated with the solution, and with IT.  Their perception will be correct, because to them the solution isn’t good and IT failed to deliver their needs.  When planning and running projects, large or small, I encourage you to fight the urge to cut training.  Run the project in a way that conserves your training budget no matter what.  Make it a protected area no one can get to.  Your users will compliment IT, be more productive, and your costs, in turn, will be lower.

While it’s important to get project training correct the first time, it’s equally important to periodically refresh everyone’s knowledge on existing systems.  From Windows, to remote access tools, web browsers, file sharing and Office applications, continuing education translates into more productive and happier people, and lower support costs.  This became more apparent recently in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, when a number of companies confirmed to me better user training on basic tools would have enabled greater productivity while working remote.  A lesson learned is to make sure all users know how to use all of your remote access tools, even if they are not used often by some.

Many methods of educating users are available.  My advice is to use all of them and not limit yourself.  From self-administered, to online, to in-person and even print, each works to solve a different need, and each has a specific benefit.  It’s not always clear when to use each and for what situation, sometimes you will need to experiment.  If you are doing a large project, try all the different training options out on pilot users to determine which works best.  I’m a little old fashioned and still feel in-person training is the most powerful, but it’s the least realistic today due to the cost. 

Another way to train is to have an “IT Expo” event that is styled after a conference or exposition.  Set up different tables of the various services and applications you deliver, and let people sit and experiment.  Part of the advantage is giving them visibility into capability they may not have known you have, and part of it is training.  You can take over your lobby, or training rooms to do it.  Make sure to give away some items with your IT logo on it, that’s always popular. 

Let’s be honest, people in IT aren’t the best communicators, which makes all this more challenging.  I encourage you to partner closely with your internal communications department on this.  Work with them to help assemble the overall plan including the marketing message and your story.  Their guidance and support will make a huge difference in the quality of the education and message. 

Last, I’d be remiss without giving my opinion that the best way to deal with user training is to establish the goal of eliminating it!  Yes that’s right, eliminate it.  How you ask?  By creating software and solutions that simply don’t need training because they are so simple to use.  We in IT need to follow the example set by online consumer offerings.  Now stay calm, I know this isn’t easy or always in our control.  But think about it, your end users that you tech for hours on end when a screen changes, go home and login to dozens of online services with no training at all.  If you are purchasing software, include ease of use in your evaluation.  Maybe one of the options is simple enough that only basic training is needed.  If you are developing software yourself, challenge the team with a “no end user training” goal and see what they come up with.  I think you’ll be amazed.

One more thing, don’t forget about people in the IT department.  They all need training just as everyone else does.  Just because IT deploys and manages the Office suite, doesn't mean IT people know how to use a spreadsheet.  

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