ClickLearn - Apr 06, 2016

The holy of grail of business system e-learning


In today’s implementation of IT systems, the training of the users is often given a low priority. Companies may spend millions on implementing the actual system and a few thousand on making sure that the users are actually capable of performing their day to day tasks in the system. When interviewing IT executives about their implementation they usually feel that they have their bases covered: They purchased the servers, scaled the system to perform instantly, tested the system, documented every technical aspect of the implementation and of course they created some sort of end user documentation, usually outsourced to the individual departments who are using the system. The training in the system is more often than not based on a couple of super users, who upon receiving class room training are responsible for teaching the masses (the remaining 90 % of the users). Sometimes they even built an e-learning platform carefully selecting, not every process in the system, but the common denominators for all employees or the top 10 processes within the system. Naturally, you might say, it is not free to create e-learning, and the cost structure is close to linear with the number of processes, you want your users to learn.

So when asking the IT executive about the quality of a recently finished implementation, he might respond that it was a great implementation because the system is available, the servers are not crashing and users have experienced very few errors. So the question remains, if you can measure the quality of say your garden work by checking if your lawnmower is working. The same people, who say no to the last, may very well answer yes to the former. One might argue that it is really not important, if you scale your system to millions of transactions, when 90 % of your users are unable to perform any transactions within the systems.

So the question is: “Why is training of end users not taken seriously?”

There are a number of reasons. Most of them because we constraint ourselves. Typically with resources and time:

Departmental issues and skills. Who is really responsible for and have the necessary skills to provide the end users’ adaptation of an IT system?

Just cost / no benefit. providing good training is too expensive. Everyone knows classroom training and e-learning projects are expensive. The benefits of creating high quality training for end-users are seldom measured but what is truly the cost of having end users who are unable to perform their everyday tasks.

Maintenance anxiety. When providing more documentation and training for the users, are we also dictating a hidden cost when the system changes? i.e. more training and revised documentation.

No see / no hear. We cannot see the total cost of bad training since it is typically taken directly within the end users departments, affected with the low quality training. Even when measuring the quality of training f.ex. the number of helpdesk calls received, you will never truly see the how many calls have been preempted within the individual departments.

If we, for a moment, see ourselves free of all the constraints in an IT project. What would be the most fantastic training, we can provide our end users with given an infinite budget and timeline. We will discuss why it actually makes sense to remove the constraints before making the choices because it puts the benefits of training into a clearer light and provides the implementer with an actual choice as opposed to mechanically accepting all constraints.

We will discuss three properties of efficient training end users in an IT system. We will divide these properties into measurable attributes and discuss their individual importance:

Quality, the quality of the training delivered with respect to objective and perceived quality of training.

Relevance, the relevance of the training delivered with respect to the targeted audience.

Availability, the availability of the provided training both pre- and post-implementation of the IT system.

Quality

When discussing the quality of a training session, it is natural to ask the simple question: “Did the training successfully teach our users to use the system?”

If the answer is yes, the training was successful. The question (as well as the answer) is in past tense. It is much more difficult to answer in a future sense though the answer would be ever so much more relevant. To better answer the question for a future implementation, we will break the quality question into a series of attributes that may each be discussed individually.

Ease of adaption

The ultimate end goal of any training session is adaptation of knowledge (the training impact). Cognitively adapting knowledge at a permanent level is far more requiring for users than to stash the knowledge in a short term area. Often training in an IT system has the defined goal of making the users feel happy with the new system, while learning all the quirks is secondary. The ease of adaptation becomes less important in that scenario, making the durability of the training and the availability of post-implementation more important. On the other hand a nuclear power plant may not prioritize a feel-good atmosphere in their training (making us all sleep a little better at night) but instead opt for a training where certification and proof-of-excellence is top of mind.

Durability of adaptation

The durability of the training has a close coupling to the availability of the training post-implementation. If post-implementation training is available, it might be less important to aim for a high degree of durability in the training. While projects where there is limited access to post-implementation training requires a high degree of durability.

Consistency

The consistency of the provided training has to do with the quality of the training process. You will experience reduction in training impact, if you provide different approaches of training to different areas in your IT system at the same point in time. Examples of inconsistent training may be a combination of structured classroom training for some processes within the system and a departmental trainer who provides other processes. There is normally little reason within an IT-system (other than monetary) to provide different training for different processes. So trading off on consistency will impact your final training impact.

In an ideal world we would naturally vary the training based on the users’ context and time in the post-implementation process. Providing multiple different media of training depending on where the user is in the adaption phase. It makes little sense to take the user to class room and giving him the full course, if what he really needs, is a quick guidance through the process.

The post-implementation training is normally in the form of documentation (sometimes reiterative e-learning). Creating a consistent documentation with regard to content and structure is important to improve ease of adaptation as is the consistent availability of the documentation. One aspect of post-implementation training that is often overlooked is the problem of training new employees. The trade-off is often, that new employees receive an inferior training to the users, who were employed at the time training took place. For some reason it is widely accepted that new employees receive an insufficient training, although their impact in the business this is properly the same as every other employee. One way to solve this issue is to provide an e-learning platform, which can be accessed by both existing and future employees.

Aesthetics are for many people synonymous with consistency. If the fonts, heading styles and graphical layout in the documentation are identical, we have a high degree of consistency. If we train using the same pretty PowerPoint, we will achieve a high degree of consistency in our training. Although many studies attempt to prove the role of aesthetics most of them end up concluding that user interface design in an e-learning environment is significant and that multi-media support (pictures, video and audio) has a training impact. Many surveys rely on “a picture says more than a thousand words” to promote aesthetics. But these are all design considerations more so than aesthetics. There is no evidence that “ugly” has a greater training impact than “pretty” where as “ugly” and “pretty” may not train well together. Just the same as 7 variations on “pretty” may not. So consistency and functional design seem to be more important than pure aesthetics.

Relevance

Relevance of the training deals with objective relevance and relevance as it is perceived by the user. Where the first has to do with getting the right content across the board, the second deals with getting it across adjusted to the users’ preferred way of learning (learning style).

Learning style

A lot of effort has been put into the concept of identifying learning styles. There are numerous theories on how individuals learn and how we can categorize individuals into a manageable amount of distinct styles and create training for them. E-learning has made this much more manageable and doable and typically an e-learning platform provides for many of the learning styles. With the adaptation of simulation tools for IT systems it has become increasingly easy to target the individuals who really need to “get their hands dirty” to learn. Though providing for individual learning styles is important to the perceived relevance of training for the users, the relevance of the provided training is also a function of the user’s knowledge with the system and the time at which the user requires training.

Content

The content that we actually teach is significant to the learning impact as is the structure in which to do so. The amount of content one can familiarize oneself with is poorly aligned with our general requirement of getting all the knowledge across the table in the shortest possible time and completing the training. E-learning is an efficient means to create reiterative training of users, providing a learn-as-you-can approach to the training. Needless, to say that content must be targeted to the user’s role within the system. Providing a user who does invoices within an IT system with ex. training in how to create a new user in the system is irrelevant. At the early stages of the training, this approach is highly destructive to the training impact. The user is very sensitive to irrelevant learning at early stages. They are simply unable to filter the training with their own work tasks. And worst case, you will end up with a user, who (using the previous example) know how to create a user in the system, but not how to invoice.

Revised

One of the often overlooked aspects of training is, that your training and especially the collateral (documentation, videos, e-learning platform, etc.) created to support the training, is longer lasting than the actual implementation training.

Training for say math at a high school level is fairly simple in this context, as the collateral and fundamentals seldom change. Two of the common wrong assumptions when creating supporting collateral for training in IT systems are:

  • The collateral we create is created for the training and is not sustainable in the post implementation period.
  • The business processes we are training in do not change.

No business is static as are not the processes within that business. No IT system is static, so even though our fundamental business processes have not changed a simple system update might render the collateral unusable and change the process.

One of the solutions (commonly used) is not to describe all the stuff that we think may change over time. So instead of describing a specific transaction within the IT system we only describe it at an aggregated level, allowing us to only change our collateral, if our own business processes change, and then only at an aggregated level. The quality of such collateral is inferior and we accept that for our maintenance anxiety.

Another just as common solution is the do-nothing-approach to revision (which we have probably all experienced when reading outdated manuals). We simply use our collateral in the form it was created during the initial training with no changes. This often deems the collateral unusable at best and at worst is the cause of mistakes in our business.

The full maintenance task of revising the collateral with each change in the system is not as common as one might think. Sometimes companies, certified with a quality management certificate (ISO 9000), are required to update their documentation of business processes. However, these types of instructional documents are seldom used for training, more so to comply with the rules of the certification and document process quality. Typically they serve as the worst possible training material.

Before creating any collateral it should considered, if it needs maintenance (and most of the time it does) and ask the who-when-where-update question.

Availability

Availability deals with an objective availability of the training, thereby polarizing the different training methods (i.e. class room training is much less available than f.ex. book). But it also deals with the perceived availability of users, i.e. is the right training available at the right time and at the paces suitable for the user at different adaptation phases.

Timing

Timing is critical not just with regards to objective goals of getting the stuff to the users at the time they needed. But it also deals with getting the right stuff to the users.

When timing your training you also dose your training. You slip a dosage of training that corresponds with the users necessary skills at a point in time to the user in a timely fashion. This is complex task that may be aided with self-paced training in which the user is made responsibility for dosing the training.

Timing also involves

Self-pacing

Self-pacing deals with the user’s ability to accelerate and decelerate the training at his pace. Self-pacing is typically used with online media but a book is also an example of a self-paced media. Classroom training is not self-paced in itself but when not used exclusively, may be a part of a self-paced training.

The importance of self-pacing becomes evident in the post-implementation phase and when reiteration the training collateral available to us. However when training users at different skill levels, it is very cost effective to allow each user to learn at his own pace.

Self-paced training typically allows the user access to all collateral and freely pick. With emergence of simulation technology it is fairly easy to create self-paced training and still allowing the user to navigate and get a feel of the real live system.

Reiteration

The principle of reiteration deals with the way (if at all) we see the user revisiting the training.

It may be highly relevant to teach fundamental knowledge of a system combined with one or more specific processes at the implementation time of a new system. However 3 years after the implementation, the user might find it tedious to go over the fundamentals, when all he really needs is a fast process description. Providing learning of a process through a 15 minute session may be relevant in the early adaptation phase but may be perceived time consuming for user at a later phase.

Very little study has been done in the area of learning styles when re-learning something you have already learned. This is however very relevant to IT systems learning, where not all processes are performed at the same frequency. Infrequently performed processes may require you to periodically familiarize yourself with the process again. Have you ever tried to learn from a fantastic book and then go back 3 years later trying to find a single section or paragraph that you suddenly need? Not normally the easiest of tasks. Sometimes you may successfully use a reference type documentation to facilitate this re-learning process.