There are few sure things in life, but there are a lot of probables. You’ll probably pay taxes, you’ll probably waste time looking at social media on your phone, and at some point, someone will probably make you angry. However, when it comes to technical training, you can be sure that your chances of creating a successful program – one where your audience learns, enjoys their time learning, and then applies their new knowledge on the job immediately – increase if you do the following four things.
Kerry-Ann Douglas-Powell, an application training specialist for Ontario’s Ministry of Community and Social Services, said whether learning leaders are running an internally developed technical training program or building one with a vendor’s help, the first, and probably the most important thing needed to promote program success is to:
1. Understand Your Audience. “If you don’t create a program that meets the needs of your business client, the program will fail,” Douglas Powell said.
Developers and engineers will come into a program with various skill levels – levels they may or may not fully reveal during an initial assessment. So, unless you’re an internal trainer, you may not be aware of each individual’s current skillset. With that in mind, if you’re working with external trainers, they should do significant pre-work to get a feel for your learners’ abilities, their experience with a particular type of technology as well as the organizational environment in which they work.
For example, Douglas-Powell said when learning a specific software language or how to use an application for the first time, a beginner might need a thorough grounding in the basics. Whereas someone approaching the expert level might be looking for touch points or quick wins when manipulating an application or building code. Understanding your end users’ current skill set is critical.
“People might appear to do the same job using the same tools at the same level, but we don’t know what’s happening behind the scenes or their level of expertise,” Douglas-Powell explained.
2. Create Easily Consumable Content. With the audience firmly in mind, technical training is best absorbed in bite-sized chunks of information that participants can use in their everyday workflow. Douglas-Powell said when learning leaders create programs, they shouldn’t make them too long, and they should always include opportunities for technical talent to practice as they learn.
“When I’m developing a course, I look at creating materials that provide maybe five minutes of instruction. Then learners go away, work on an item that will be tangible for them, and we regroup to build on top of that item.”
If learners are creating web pages, for example, they might get an introduction to HTML and then start crafting basic scripts to build an actual page. “Then we build upon that for the next module,” she said. “Splitting learning activities into bite-sized chunks gives learners a chance to check in, and see if they grasp the basic knowledge. If not, they have an opportunity to practice before moving onto the next skill.”
3. Create a safe space to learn. Like most learners, your technical talent need dedicated time to focus on learning. That can be tough if they’re in a rush to get back to the office, or they’re distracted, multitasking job concerns during a course. If they’re coding, for example, Douglas-Powell said they will need time to mentally put themselves in the space to code without being interrupted. They can’t afford to be distracted because if promoted into production, one wrong piece of code could bring down an entire database.
That need has implications for learning leaders as they plan programs internally, or work with an external training vendor. A training schedule should accommodate the mental time needed to learn a new technology or technical skill. For instance, an organization’s management team should know ahead of time that developers, engineers, or whoever is the target audience, will need to focus on training for a half or a full day and will not be available to their manager during that time.
It’s about setting expectations – including establishing a commitment to post-training follow-up – and taking a holistic look at training and its impact on the workforce and business at large. That could mean preparing key business partners in advance so that critical client work or customer needs don’t languish while key talent participate in training. Essentially, schedule training thoughtfully so that there’s little to no negative impact on the day-to-day business.
“You have to create a learning environment, especially if you’re learning technology,” Douglas-Powell explained. “You have to have a team that’s willing to support you. We often think about tools in technology in dollars, but we don’t think about the human impact. It’s about creating that safe space where talent can focus on learning.”
4. Establish Metrics Early. Technical training likely won’t be successful if learning leaders don’t understand the business need driving the training need. Therefore, Douglas-Powell said learning leaders should do a needs assessment before developing a program. That assessment will determine the appropriate metrics with which to gauge program success.
To ensure business goals are met, she said learning leaders will also need to build exercises based on real business situations and assessments into the actual training session. Participants should be able to demonstrate specific skills at different points during a program in order to move forward. “If I’m conducting training on how to build a website, the learner must demonstrate that they can create a page using basic SQL code. If they can’t do that, I know the rest of the program is just going to frustrate them.
“You have to learn to adapt,” Douglas-Powell explained. “As an instructional designer or trainer, that is really critical to your technology program. People get frustrated easily when they’re learning something new, especially when dealing with technology. Build in those check ins and breaks to alleviate some of the pressure that can pop up within the technical learning landscape.”
At the end of the day, to run an effective technical training program, learning leaders must understand from a user experience perspective, what is the end goal for the business? Then, Douglas-Powell said create a training program backwards from that point. Be sure to understand your audience; create content that is easily consumed in short, manageable chunks; create the right learning environment to promote learner engagement and knowledge retention; and finally, establish metrics early in the program design process. If you do those four things, your technical training should be a verifiable business and learning success.