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Helping Employees Get the Most out of Technology

Novell Cool Solutions: Feature
By Ajay Pangarkar

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Posted: 8 Nov 2005
 

Technology provides numerous benefits to organizations on many levels. Increased efficiency, faster processing, higher productivity, and improved profitability are just some of the rewards for those that accept and integrate improving technology. The biggest challenge for technology, especially the introduction of new office productivity software, is twofold. The first is management's concern of maximizing the use of the software to improve productivity, and the second is the continuous learning required for updates and upgrades of the existing software tools. Initially, every organization views their decision to invest in technology and software as a wise one. But technology becomes a challenge and obstacle for the organization when attempting to simply keep up with new features and competitive forces. As a result, the initial investment made is quickly perceived as an unnecessary expense.

So what are IT and training departments to do when new software or upgrades are introduced into the organization? Management's first instinct is to send staff to training sessions or, even more common, leave staff to figure it out on their own to learn it. Unfortunately, in both cases, the software is not leveraged to its maximum productive capacity. Let's first start with management's proposed training effort.

Any training that is proposed within an organization is usually for software introduction. This type of training is seen as an essential and necessary requirement as stakeholders, management, and IT want to see the software fully implemented and used fully. Software training is often classroom based and delivered either by the vendor, an external consultant, or an internal group of subject-experts.

Now, you may be asking what is wrong with this approach? Well, there are some fundamental problems with conducting software and technology training in this way. First, the traditional methodology of simply conducting generic classroom-based instruction does not address the specific needs of the participants. Some individuals may have used the tool in the past or they may be resistant to adapting to the new software, as they are more comfortable using another solution or process (resistance to change). Traditional methods of deploying training do not identify the person's prior knowledge or use of the software in their daily tasks nor do they attempt to explain exactly how the software will benefit someone in their overall responsibilities.

Traditional classroom-based training does not:

  • Adequately address the way individuals prefer to acquire the learning or knowledge (learning styles). People all learn differently and assimilate information and knowledge in their own way. You may not be capable of addressing each learning style, but you do have the ability to identify groups with common styles.
  • Promote lasting knowledge retention. Knowledge and content retention levels of individuals that pass through instructor-led sessions decrease at an exponential rate. Essentially, what was taught does not stick or is not applied by the participant on the job.
  • Implicate the participant's needs in the session. Management and IT tend to "push" the knowledge they want participants to know rather than determining what they want or need to know. By getting the employee to "pull" desired knowledge, the learning retention tends to increase because the participant wants to learn.

The other training methodology management often resorts to is self-learning, or, put another way, "Here is the software, start using it!" method. This is an ineffective and unacceptable way for anyone to learn something new, especially when the use of the software is primarily for the benefit of the organization rather than the individual. Unfortunately, this type of mentality is not exclusive to technology but it is rampant across organizations and disciplines. A primary reason this happens is the demands on organizational resources, specifically time, knowledge, and money.

First, companies are stretched to find time to attend to current issues without having to add what managers often perceive as "non-essential tasks" to the mix. Second, the internal knowledge (or people) is not available to even provide even the smallest semblance of training on new technologies. And finally, financial resources are either already allocated to other planned and strategically focused issues or completely unavailable. Even if the funds are available, it often requires a convincing argument from first-level managers and employees to obtain some type of software training, let alone having a well-developed solution.

Software and technology vendors are also responsible and accountable for the popular "self-learning" method. As a result of competitive pressures and user demands for an intuitive solution, a vendor's sales pitch to a buyer is, "It is so simple to use - just install it and the user will know what to do." Well, if you are an IT professional you quickly recognize installation of the software is never as simple as the vendor promises and users state the same on using the software. The pitch is also reinforced with the vendor claiming that the company will save by not having to provide any training whatsoever. This is the pitch and it is usually bought hook, line, and sinker by management.

Even if the software is as simple to use and install as the vendor claims, why would you want to allow any staff member to learn or use it on their own? The reason any organization invests in technology is usually to become more efficient. By not providing a proper training strategy you are setting the employees up for failure. Here are just some of the reasons why providing training and support is important for the long-term success of any software training:

  • Resistance to change the old way of doing things. It is human nature to want to maintain the status quo. This is especially true if everything is working well. The statement, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" tends to be overused here. It may not mean that the old way is bad but the new solution may be better. Without proper support the employees will revert to their old and known ways because it is natural and easier for them. Even though the new solution may be easier, the fear of the unknown, the fear of change, and the lack of support will not convince them to convert.
  • Not gaining employee buy-in. The first rule in sales is to get the customer to want what you have to offer. Well, this is not any different when you are introducing a new software tool in your organization. Demonstrating to employees how they will directly benefit with the new solution will help you to facilitate the acceptance and integration of the software.
  • Not maximizing the power of the software's potential. This important point is directly related to the previous point of not gaining buy-in. Too often technology and software tools are not maximized to the full potential it has to offer. By gaining employee endorsement combined with strong and well-developed training solutions you accomplish what very few organization are able to do ? get employees to leverage the assets of the organization to the benefit of the organization.
  • Allowing employees to develop and reinforce poor habits. Providing poor or superficial training can be as bad as not providing any training at all. In either case, employees are not acquiring the knowledge they require to make proper or effective use of the software. If you are unwilling to invest in an effective blended training solution you are better off saving your money and time and not providing any training at all. The results will be the same.

Developing an effective approach to software training

Training employees in general has become a very involved and complex issue for management. Factor in technology and software and the task can be even more intimidating. So where do you begin and what is the most appropriate way to develop an effective approach to software training? The choices available for training delivery methods are varied, ensuring that participants' learning styles are addressed.

Many organizations tend to embrace new and quick solutions, especially for software training, and e-learning technologies fall into this category. With varied success, there is a realization that a proper software training solution requires an individual mix of media and delivery methods. Some processes can be successfully communicated and trained through stand-alone e-learning. However, if you are considering using e-learning to deliver all the training for the company's critical system implementation, then you should reconsider it. E-learning plays a excellent supporting role, but when it comes to teaching people not only the new IT system, but also their new job role and new business practices, then the most effective way is to use an integrated learning solution to achieve optimum results. This is known as "Blended Learning."

Blended learning refers to a learning solution incorporating several delivery methods and is also used to describe learning that mixes various event-based activities, e.g. a mix of web-based tools, e-learning tutorials, individual coaching, self-paced learning, and on-demand learning. The key to blended learning is selecting the most appropriate combination of media that will drive the highest business impact for the lowest possible cost.

Delivering a blended learning approach provides users of the software and technology solutions a range of learning tools and experiences that focuses on the best learning style for all learners. It is in the best interests of an organization to provide many opportunities to access the knowledge efficiently, and in a way that the learner can absorb the new information without finding the learning experience onerous. It was stated earlier that instructor-led training does not promote sustained knowledge retention. This is important in technology training as blended solutions offer the user access to the knowledge when they need to draw upon it. In other words, adults don't just learn in one way. The variety of different elements means that learners are more stimulated and motivated than if using just one solution.

Take, for example, a company that recently purchased the latest major upgrade to existing software deployed throughout the enterprise. The evolution of the software is significant enough to warrant user training but it may not require learning its fundamental use. What would be appropriate as a blended approach? One possible scenario would be to offer:

  • Scheduled classroom based instruction to introduce the new features and explain the major differences between the upgrade and the prior version.
  • Simple e-learning tutorials accessible on the company intranet delivering quick and relevant information to the learner when they absolutely need it. For example, prioritizing the features that would benefit a particular department of function.
  • Help desk support available to answer immediate and critical applications of the software supported with an intranet-based help desk resource.
  • On-site subject experts that regularly schedule short periods of time with users to provide individual coaching sessions and to reinforce the use of the software.
  • On-demand help desk tutorials that users can immediately access from their desktop. The help desk tutorials shows how to use a specific feature and gets them to immediately do it within a few minutes reducing the demands on the physical help desk and IT support staff.

This is an example of an effective blended learning approach. Some of these learning tools can be implemented rapidly providing the highest impact for the lowest possible cost. Most of the resources you already have available internally and the other tools can be purchased immediately and for a small investment. Some of these tools pay for themselves.

Take for example the last point of the help desk tutorial reducing the demand on the IT staff and physical helpdesk. Too many times the IT department and help desk time is wasted from users asking very simple questions. Let's say your help desk tutorial costs $4995.00 for an unlimited user license and you have five IT professionals paid $35/hour each and your hourly help desk rate is $25/hour. Assuming that they conservatively spend an average 5 hours a week addressing the simple questions like "how do I attach a document to my email?", you are wasting at minimum close to $8000/year having your experts handling minor issues. We did not add in the soft cost of your IT people being removed from more important issues which can add up very quickly. Now add in the other benefits such as your staff solving their own problems and learning from it, reduced stress on the physical help desk, and a more focused IT team. The initial investment in the help desk tutorial has more than paid for itself within the first few months.

To keep up with rapidly evolving software and technological developments, organizations must be able to offer training to their employees quickly and effectively. Choosing the appropriate method for your company's specific demands can be just as important as providing the training. Keep in mind the different training options available, get the highest level of support within your company and, above all, consult your employees to find out which method they prefer. Blended learning takes advantage of the power of technology to deliver training "just in time," anywhere and anytime. However, in blended learning, technology (and in particular, online education) is not used as an isolated tool, but as a key part of a comprehensive workplace performance solution. E-learning, therefore, is not considered the only means to educate, but it should be considered an addition to the overall training process.

(Ajay Pangarkar and Teresa Kirkwood are partners at CentralKnowledge.com, distributors of the Virtual Expert Help Desk tutorials for Novell GroupWise, Open Office Pro, and Microsoft Office. Call for a FREE evaluation of the Virtual Expert Help Desk Tutorials at 866 VXPERT or info@centralknowledge.com)


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