IT's top 5 training mistakes

When rollouts go wrong, it's tempting to blame the end user. You might need to look in the mirror instead.

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.

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