Let’s consider a scenario. You’ve just begun a new job at a tech firm. You’ve got many years of experience, but the job is a step up for you, both technically and intellectually. During the arduous interviews that went on for weeks, you asked what kind of training would be provided. The answer was that training is part of the new hire process. Great, you think, finally an employer who ‘gets it.’ You look forward to quickly becoming a valued member of the team you’re about to lead.
You show up fifteen minutes early on your first day. Your enthusiasm is palpable, but you’re also a bit nervous. The receptionist leads you to your boss’ cubicle, and you’re then introduced around to the office, shown where the kitchen is, the bathrooms, etc. So far, so good. You’re then shown to your cubicle, which you’ll share with another team lead. It’s clean, modern, and all your equipment is ready and set up on your desk: a laptop, two 24” external flatscreen monitors, docking station, wireless keyboard and mouse, desk phone configured for you to use straightaway. There’s a laminated card with instructions for setting up your voicemail box just next to the phone.
Before your boss leaves you to get acquainted with the company computer system, you innocently ask: ‘Will I be able to schedule in training on the product this week? I’d like to get up to speed as quickly as possible.’ ‘Absolutely, but you don’t need to book it in. Everything you need to learn is in the stack of manuals on your shelf.’ You look up, daunted by the number of manuals displayed, spine out, on the bookshelf: User’s Guide, System Administrator’s Guide, Developer’s Guide, Troubleshooting Guide.
Your heart sinks when you realise the subtle deception. There is no training. The company expects you to learn the product by poring over manuals. Hardly a practical way to learn. ‘So there’s no formal training?’ you ask, sounding desperate. ‘No, sorry, the training budget was cut and the team was let go last year.’ ‘Okay, well then I’ll get started on these manuals.’
You spend the better part of your first day digging through the User Guide, but when you encounter terminology you don’t understand, you turn to the System Administrator’s Guide, only to find a brief glossary at the back of the manual. You ask your cube mate if the technical writers are available to ask them questions about the manuals, and he just laughs. There are no technical writers. They were let go, too. All the updates are outsourced to India.
Is this an overly bleak story? Surely there are plenty of firms that provide good employee training. Unfortunately, in my experience over the past few decades, good training is a rarity in the tech world. It’s a sad fact of modern corporations that some of the most vital information about daily operations is stored in impenetrable manuals that sit on dusty shelves, rarely consulted, but regularly trotted out when a new employee starts.
Let’s make clear, however, that manuals aren’t training. Their purpose is the same as a dictionary: to provide a listing of functions, terms, and occasional illustrations. Training is a systematic presentation of a product or set of products. It involves having staff on hand who are prepared to field questions, provide compelling exercises that help the employee learn the product, system, or set of procedures. Just as you wouldn’t give a child a stack of books and expect him to ‘teach himself,’ companies do their employees a grave disservice when they fail to provide formal training. Is it surprising that the attrition rates at large firms are dangerously high? When an employee doesn’t grasp the basic functions of the organisation where he is devoting his time and energy, he is likely to become complacent and, in short order, lose interest in his job.
What’s the solution? Obviously, it’s unrealistic to expect companies to send employees to long training sessions. In my experience as both a curriculum developer and trainer, I’ve found that the best courses are those that focus on vital pieces of systems, and not crammed into one marathon training session, either. Employees are also more likely to retain material if it’s served up in bite-sized chunks. I’ve also conducted follow-up meetings after training to ensure the material has sunk in. Finally, I’ve made myself available for questions for as long as needed.
Does it cost a lot to train employees properly? Absolutely. Does it cost more not to? I think we know the answer to that question.