In a recent article, I made the case for formal training by saying that ‘manuals aren’t training.’ I argued that the purpose of training is ‘a systematic presentation of a product or set of products.’ A former colleague agreed with my thesis, but added the reverse is equally ineffective. There was nothing worse, in her opinion, than sitting through days of training only to find there’s no reference material available when it’s needed.

I wondered if the lack of user and technical guides was that bad, as long as students were allowed to take the workbooks and practise exercises with them after a training session was finished. No, my ex-colleague insisted, because training materials are only appropriate for a highly structured approach to learning, but not to implementation.

It turns out my sage ex-colleague had a point. When I think of all the times I’ve gnashed my teeth in frustration when trying to figure out how to perform a particular task, I realise what I needed was a good guide, complete with clearly organised content.

Let’s use a fictional, but easy-to-understand example to illustrate the problem: a front-desk clerk at a hotel. Part of the post-hiring process necessarily includes formal training to ensure new employees know how to check guests in and out of their rooms, instruct them of the services available in the hotel, tell them where they can get assistance when they need it, among other things. Training is thus presented as a series of exercises and role-plays with other new hires. The trainer isn’t necessarily a desk clerk, and consequently is only good at teaching new hires the myriad tasks that make up the role, but not necessarily as good at resolving problems that arise on the job. What happens when the new clerk is alone at the front desk and has forgotten how to perform a vital task, thereby increasing the risk of angering a guest? Where does the clerk go to solve the problem?

This is where clear, well written, and easily understood reference materials become a necessary part of the clerk’s job. There is no one right way to present this material. In some cases, online help may be appropriate, if the forgotten task involves some aspect of the check-in and check-out processes. In other cases, well placed laminated ‘cheat sheets’ are a better type of reference material. Or, if a task involves an ordered list of things to do, a numbered list taped to a wall behind the counter may be the most appropriate approach. In any case, the employee needs to be able to resolve the problem quickly and efficiently so as not to interrupt the process of giving good customer service. In other words, the customer shouldn’t know that the new employee is new.

I’ve come to think my former colleague is absolutely correct. Good reference materials are the flip side of good training: both are necessary, but for different reasons and in different contexts. Failure to provide both sends a message to workers that their employer doesn’t care whether they perform their jobs well. Do the right thing: train your employees well, but also provide them all the materials they need to shine in their jobs.