OS rollouts hinge on user training

ALL TOO OFTEN, when a company introduces new technology for its users, training is simply tacked on as an afterthought. But unless your users are properly trained first, don't expect Microsoft Windows 2000 or any other sophisticated technology to work miracles.

"The slowest part of any computer is the user," says Peter Squier, president of the ITTA (Information Technology Training Association) and senior vice president at Productivity Point International, a training company in Austin, Texas. "If you want optimal performance from your system, the best return you can get is by upgrading your user."

To that end, Mary Kay Giunta, vice president of technology training at Bank of America, in Silver Spring, Md., usually begins preparations for training on a new technology by looking for books in the library. Currently, Giunta is preparing training programs for the company's forthcoming upgrade to Windows 2000.

"Even if a rollout is months away, we like to get stocked up on self-study items for the bleeding-edge folks that are interested in beating the rush," Giunta says. This approach, she says, provides learning resources for the technical staff responsible for rolling out and supporting the new software so that the help desk is prepared to actually help the users.

In terms of moving from its Microsoft Office 97 world to Office 2000, Bank of America prepares its employees by first offering short "Why 2000?" user seminars that cover the business benefits of migrating to a new technology and also give a quick overview of new features. Then, standard instructor-led classes are timed to coincide with the rollout.

Paul Lenk, IT director at Partners First, a credit card service company in Baltimore, is in the midst of coordinating Windows 2000 training. His responsibilities include overseeing the creation and implementation of training programs to satisfy end- user needs. Lenk emphasizes that an effective training program should include these four elements: truly understanding the end-users' needs, developing a training program to meet those needs and constraints, executing the training program with expert instructors or technology, and creating a feedback loop to assess completed training and future needs.

Lenk plans to incorporate this training philosophy to help acclimate end-users to Windows 2000, and he expects them to make an easy transition.

He believes that most of the training will be needed for those supporting the operating system, which will require that IT staff be re-trained to use, administer, manage, deploy, and support clients.

Consequently, Lenk advocates taking an inverted pyramid approach to training and then rolling out the new technology.

"Much more time will be invested in evaluating, testing, and planning for the upgrade than will take for the upgrade itself," Lenk says. "The early adopters and those [who are] too eager to deploy the upgrade will probably get burned."

As Partners First is exclusively a Windows NT Workstation and NT Server shop, Lenk anticipates a smoother transition to Windows 2000 than for shops with Windows 9x clients.

"Active Directory [AD] forces an all-or-nothing upgrade and introduces a level of complexity that will take weeks of training to learn and implement properly," says Lenk, who plans to hold off deploying AD until later this year.

"The plan for Partners First is to slowly integrate Win2K clients into our existing NT network," says Lenk, "and decide at a later date on how we want to implement AD once our entire IT staff is trained to use this complex operating system."

Many options for training

Bank of America's Giunta always tries to round up resources first, and Partners First's Lenk is making sure that the training elements are in place far in advance of any rollouts. But with so many training options available today -- classroom instruction, Web-based and computer-based training, videos, and so on -- what is the most appropriate solution? What is the best way to train users effectively, and what are the elements of a good training program?

Experts agree that no single approach works best. And, whether you use a classroom or multimedia approach, you can do several things to ensure that users are trained properly.

Like any IT program, a successful user training program requires careful planning. Begin by obtaining management buy-in and commitment, while explaining to users the business benefit of learning the new technology.

To prepare for training, ITTA's Squier suggests adhering to four key rules. First, make sure that management understands the importance of training. Second, provide training at exactly the same time that the technology is being implemented, not a month before or a month after the fact. Third, give users what they need according to their knowledge and background. Fourth, partition training classes by common interest and background. For example, don't mix systems and marketing staff in a software migration class, because each group has its own unique learning needs.

"A good training program begins long before anybody sets foot in a classroom," says Penny Gelb, IT training manager at GTE Internetworking in Cambridge, Mass.

GTE Internetworking provides an IT boot camp to train new hires and other users, ranging from clerical staff to managers, on proprietary in-house applications. Gelb recommends partnering with business owners and internal publicity campaigns to educate users before rolling out the technology.

Know your users

When it comes to training, one size does not fit all. Instead, be aware that different users have different learning styles and also respond differently to various delivery styles and training formats.

Whether you choose computer-based training, Web-based learning, videos, lecture classes, or informal learning will ultimately depend on user needs, background and, knowledge; subject matter; and, of course, the company's training budget.

"Creating training programs without using the input of end-users means that you are flying blind," says Partners First's Lenk. "You may or may not be adding value to the organization."

Therefore, before you design a training program, determine user needs. A variety of skills assessment tools are available to help you determine these needs. Your training or human resources department can help you in this arena.

Partners First periodically works with HR to survey end-users about their training needs to determine their learning styles and preferences -- whether they are best served by an instructor-led program or a computer-based training approach, for example. The IT organization has also created an electronic public forum where end-users can gather to discuss their training experiences and needs.

As a result, Partners First is able to tailor training programs to fit user needs, including specific constraints. For example, employees with busy travel schedules may prefer computer-based training, whereas others may find distance-learning -- using interactive instructor-led videoconferencing, or intranet-based video streaming -- more suitable for their requirements.

Key components

Although no single approach works best, an effective training program flexibly addresses user needs while incorporating sound educational methodology and curriculum design principles. Of course, paying close attention to details such as class size, quality of instruction, and course materials is also important.

Dave Murphy, founder of the International Association of Information Technology Trainers, in Elkridge, Md., prefers teaching small group seminars.

Murphy says that a class size with a maximum of eight students is just right for involving everyone without excluding anyone. Murphy has also found that training materials relying on pictures and hands-on exercises often more than triple student attention. Most important, however, is matching the program to required skills.

"The elements of a good training program are understanding clearly the tasks that employees will be expected to perform, and designing the training program to meet those specific needs," Murphy says. "The companies that we have watched over the last 20 years that have implemented good training programs had IT managers who understood the skills required of employees."

Whatever you do, make learning fun. "Give students a chance to play in the classroom," Murphy says.

But no matter how effectively your training program may be designed, be prepared to overcome user resistance, particularly if students are ambivalent about the technology or feel coerced into training.

In this situation, it is important to emphasize the benefits of learning the technology, and how this new technology will help the business and make it easier for employees to perform their jobs.

Murphy points out that resistance is often simply a natural response to a fear of learning something new. The fear manifests itself in the form of negative attitudes and resistance. The best solution, he says, is to listen to complaints but never, ever give in for the sake of sending consistent messages.

"When you make the statement that all employees go to training, all employees [must] go to training," Murphy says. "If you make an exception, it becomes a nightmare for the tech support department."

Measuring success

After the training program has been designed and delivered, always make sure to measure its success. To this end, both informal and formal measurement evaluations can be useful.

Watch carefully for both obvious and subtle signs to indicate employee satisfaction and training success. Do instructors actively engage students? Do employees sign on for follow-up training without management prodding them or do they complain about the training?

Whether it's Web-based or instructor-led training, ask employees to complete evaluation forms at the end of the course. Read evaluations carefully and make sure to take comments seriously.

"The feedback loop is an instrumental way to measure the success of a program or its trainer," Lenk says. Partners First uses e-mail-enabled intranet forms, storing performance evaluation data in a database.

To some degree, success is relative, and you must set realistic expectations. Some organizations may base success on the end-user's ability to use the technology, while others factor in user satisfaction with the quality of instruction. In the end, actual success of the training program relates simply to end-user perception.

"A successful program is one that has made a connection with the participant, that demonstrates value to the participant, and that they can actually leave the training situation and bring back to their desk," GTE Internetworking's Gelb says. "What makes a training program successful is what makes it meaningful to the people who are there."

This story, "OS rollouts hinge on user training" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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