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?