Application Training: Please No!

Corporate application training by Flickr user DiscoverDuPage, CC licensed
Corporate application training by Flickr user DiscoverDuPage, CC licensed

Last Tuesday I attended a lunch session at Bright Alley (an e-learning vendor in the Netherlands). The topic was application training and people from organisations like the Dutch police, Thieme Meulenhoff, ING and Getronics were attending.

I have a gripe with application training and have recently explored thoughts around three questions:

  1. How come we find it acceptable that software requires any training at all? If software was properly designed, then in most cases it shouldn’t require a separate manual, let alone a separate piece of training. If software would be more forgiving of people making mistakes (e.g. unlimited undo) and if it would be more aware of what people were trying to do, then the software could help the user accomplish her tasks. Well designed software can make a big difference (also see my earlier post about how Nintendo does this in the Mario franchise).
  2. Can’t we assume some basic computer literacy from our workers by now? A lot of software is best learnt by just trying it out. Learning by doing (and thus occasionally failing) will have a much longer lasting learning effect, than any other way. When somebody comes to work for a company you expect them to be able to do things like read a document and flush the toilet. I would have the same expectations from my employees when it comes to using a computer and, more importantly, how to learn to use new applications: they should already know how to do that.
  3. What feasible alternatives to application training exist? When a new piece of software is implemented we automatically assume that this will require some formal training intervention (usually part of the change management process). This intervention used to be face to face training and is now moving towards a solution that is less time and place dependent: often e-learning. I barely see people explore other ways. Can’t we just experiment with creating great support websites, an infrastructure of superusers who are available on instant messenger or a set of downloadable PDF files with simple instructions integrated into the software application right where we need them?

I don’t mean to be naive and I do realise that sometimes application training can be the only or the right solution. If for example standardisation is extremely important to you, than e-learning can be a good solution: the delivery is the same for everybody and you can have well designed and validated assessments. What I want to bring across, is the fact that we currently have too much of a knee-jerk reaction creating formal training without looking at the problem of people using new software from a slightly more strategic level.

Anyway back to the session. I was there to see what other people’s thoughts were around these issues. The session started by explaining what project teams around the implementation of a new piece of software or functionality are looking for when it comes to training. Most of them are moving away from face-to-face training or one-to-one training at the workplace towards e-learning. This is mainly due to cost reasons (more so than for reasons of quality!), especially when audiences are very large. They also want to formalise and standardise the training process and need the training to be available as soon as the software/functionality goes live.

Bright Alley showed some examples of e-learning modules that they have created for customers like the Rabobank, KPMG, the national railways and ING. I had hoped that Bright Alley would have some well worn rapid development methodology for doing application training. But no. If they have one, they decided not to show it, focusing instead on the custom work they had done for their clients. Basically inventing the wheel again and again with an up to date set of tools. Some of their modules were quite creative, but I am sure that theirs isn’t the most cost efficient solution available.

The discussion after the demonstrations was fruitful. A couple of things were interesting to me:

More and more software/application/machine customers expect the vendor to deliver the training materials and take this into account when choosing a vendor. Especially when it comes to machines that require certification to be allowed to handle them. Vendors have to deliver the training and often also have to keep track of who has a license to operate. It makes sense to also look at available training materials when choosing a piece of software, but I do think that each company should keep their own responsibility when it comes to knowing who is certified and who isn’t.

The move from face to face towards e-learning and/or online facilitation does not always receive complete buy-in from the facilitators of the face to face sessions. Their argument is that you lose some of the social interactions that make face to face training work well. Is there a way to incorporate this social aspect into e-learning? Nobody seemed to have a very good answer to this. How do you create systems where people can encounter each other(‘s work) without losing the main advantage of e-learning: independence of time. It would be great to start experimenting with e-learning modules where participants leave virtual tracks which other participants then encounter and have to interact with. This will be a technological challenge: the whole SCORM object model does not fit the bill here and suddenly an extra server component is necessary. This will mainly be a challenge for instructional design though: how do you make these things work? A virtual learning environment like Moodle would be able to serve as a hub for this kind of activity and it should be possible to create a good design which also works without any facilitation.

We talked about software that will allow you to clone an application (like Certivator). This could be an alternative for keeping up and maintaining a practise or sandbox server as it can deliver a real experience for the learner in a fake environment.

Finally a topic that is very dear to my heart: the maintainability of e-learning and the way that updates to the e-learning modules are organised. This was a problem for all attendees. The software changes faster than the training department or the e-learning vendor can produce the e-learning modules (another reason to try and do something else than training). How do you combat this? Bright Alley has a maintenance contract in the form of a “strippenkaart” which will allow them to update the materials without having to go through the whole contracting and procurement process again. But not every client is willing to buy one of these “strippenkaarten”.

When buying application training (or any other form of e-learning), I think it is important to always do a couple of things to make maintenance easier:

  • Look at the total life cycle of the training module and include regular (once every 3-6 months?) updates in your budget for the course.
  • Design the module with maintenance in mind. Make sure that everything is modular, so that it is relatively easy to swap out a piece that has become irrelevant and include that new update to the software instead.
  • Ask the vendor to only use industry-standard technology to create the module and don’t allow them to use a homegrown authoring environment.
  • Make sure you don’t only own the published module, but also the source files and a style guide. This make it easier to create new materials using the same styles or to adapt old materials.

What are your thoughts? Is application training a necessary evil, or can we come up with an interesting and scalable alternative?

7 thoughts on “Application Training: Please No!

  1. Hi Hans,
    Interesting post. I think we can identify at least two lines of arguments in your post. The first one is about learning how to use an application. You’re right: we should not need any manual in order to learn how to use the application. On the other hand it is important to recognize – especially when it comes to setting up an environment – that the settings you make can have considerable impact. E.g., from a functional perspective it may be very easy to change a notification setting, but will you still be happy when it comes to receiving notifications froom 300 students who have uploaded their homework. It’s also a matter of embedding the use of an application in your daily working process. So a sort of a functional awareness workshop may still be very useful.
    The second point you make is about developing e-learning modules (content). I agree with you that you should prevent the danger of vendor lockin, especially if it requires a homegrown authoring tool to maintain your modules.

  2. Hi Hans,

    Thanks for your post. I agree with you: let’s be very critical about the use of formal training when it come to learning to use applications.

    I started my career for a company called SPC Training, back in 1996. I was an IT trainer (for applications like Office and Document management systems). Mostly it was face to face training. And although along with the training, some great training manuals were provided; the learning outcome was disappointing.

    From 1997 we started to offer a very blended solution. The umber of trainingdays was limited and supported by WBTs, virtual labs, EPSS (evolving in LearningGuide), walk-around support, training of super-users, short presentations, assignments at the workplace and a so-called learning desk. It was all very task based and concentrated around the working place. It worked.

    I think application training is not helpful and I would rather invest in informal, workplace learning. I would start with an EPSS and building a community. Use the knowledge of the colleagues although this is mostly named as a negative way of learning applications.

    Informal learning is the key. But try to facilitate it. With short, marketing kind of communications, with workplace EPSS, with self-made experts (or support them with training), micro-blogging tools, and more.

    It would be nice to brainstorm with a few people how to optimize it. Count me in.

    Best regards, Marcel

  3. Hai Hans,

    Interessant onderwerp. Wat betreft punt 1 ben ik het helemaal met je eens.

    Bij punt 2 ligt dat in onze organisatie al een stuk lastiger. Basis computervaardigheden zijn lang niet bij alle medewerkers aanwezig. (Kassa)medewerkers die overgang op nieuwe software (en tegelijk hardware) zijn vaak volledig gedesorienteerd. Dus…

    Gooien we er een e-learning applicatietraining tegenaan die we zelf bouwen in EnLight (Datango).

    Ik geloof erg in de suggestie die jij doet om medewerkers van elkaar te laten leren en ze meer ondersteunende materialen aan te reiken waar ze zelf mee aan de slag kunnen (dat is ook de reden om met Moodle aan de slag te gaan). Maar voor het zover is bij onze applicatietrainingen moet er nog een hoop veranderen.

    De applicatietrainingen zijn bij ons namelijk ergens een symptoon van een heel ander probleem.

    We willen strak sturen op vorm en uren. Managers die sturen op uren zijn gek op onze e-learning modules omdat het zo strak geregiseerd is en we precies weten hoe lang medewerkers er mee bezig zijn. We schotelen de medewerkers alles hapklaar voor zodat we allemaal weten waar we aan toe zijn en het makkelijk ingepland kan worden.

    We verwachten zo helaas te weinig van onze medewerkers en maken ze passief door eigen initiatief te onderdrukken en ondertussen te klagen dat ze zo weinig gemotiveerd zijn.

    Als het gaat om ander soortige trainingen denk ik dat wij er klaar voor zijn om meer 2.0 te gaan leren. De e-learning applicatietraining zal echter nog lang blijven bestaan omdat het bij dit soort trainingen altijd gaat om zeer grote aantallen medewerkers en applicaties die worden gebruikt in direct klantcontact. Spannend, dus dat regiseren we graag strak.

    Doel voor de komende jaren is met andere opleidingen en trainingen te laten zien dat de computer ook op een heel andere manier ondersteunend kan zijn in leerprocessen zodat de de organisatie en medewerkers daar aan wennen en ten slotte ook de applicatietrainingen een andere vorm zullen krijgen.

    Volgens mij zie ik dit wel bij meer (retail) bedrijven. Er gebeurt veel vernieuwends maar nu nou juist niet bij de applicatietrainingen.

    Herken jij dat ook vanuit andere bedrijfstakken?

  4. Hello Hans,

    Interesting topic. In the past 10 years I have been involved in developing a whole range of application training modules (as an instructional designer). I absolutely agree with your first point. Unfortunately, in our imperfect world most applications are still designed and built from a pure technical-functional point of view. Aplications are generated in tight-controlled project management processes, wherein budget and planning come first and (end!) users and usability are of minor importance. What a waste! I also agree with your second point. More and more employees are used to a lot of (standard) applications. They also are perfectly capable of learning new applications by doing. However, in a lot of companies employees have to learn new applications as novices. Moreover, these applications are directly related to primary processes. When there is no sand pit to play in, learning by doing is not an option. As it is no option to allow pilot candidates to fly a real plane. Let them use the flight simulator first. In my experience, a well designed application simulation can be most effective, to master the basic skills (and procedures!) in a formal, controlled way. Tips and tricks can be learnt later in an informal way, from colleagues and experts. How about electronic performance support systems, super user networks, in-built help files, web 2.0 etcetera? For experts these means can be supportive, not for novices. In this discussion, I think we should clearly make a difference between novices and experts. Nevertheless, maybe there are new ways to combine the benefits of face-to-face training with computerised application training, change this training into a collaborative experience. I gladly would join this discussion.

  5. Thank you everybody for your excellent insights and comments to my post! 🙂

    I agree with Stanley that there are multiple threads in my argument. I probably should have turned it into three separate posts. One about how software should just be better designed, one about what alternatives we have for training when we have to deal with less than perfect software and one about how you can ensure that you stay independent from your vendor. The latter actually has nothing to do with application training and is more about e-learning in general.

    Sigrid has pulled me back into reality with her perspective straight from the real world: a retail (= low margin) company. Her comments (combined with Leo’s distinction between novices and experts) has made me realise that there is actually a big market out there for properly designed software. How many of the iPhone apps come with a manual? Can’t we develop Point of Sale (POS) software that is as easy and intuitive to use as the touchscreen ticket machines to buy train tickets here in the Netherlands? If somebody came to the market with a product that was designed as thoughtfully as the ticket machines, it could be a use hit. It is the people that buy the software who should become more critical and not accept bad software anymore.

    Marcel has shown in a recent blogpost that he is excellent in creating new rules/dogmas for this wired world. Marcel, shall we try and write a manifesto for application training and how it relates to software design and then organise a small grassroots session?

    Thanks again to all and looking forward to continue the conversation,


Comments are closed.