The 8 most common IT training mistakes

The 8 most common IT training mistakes

Poor training can sink a technical implementation, derail a digital transformation or leave you scrambling to fill gaps when employees leave. Here’s how to structure you training practices for practical success.

Whether you are seeking incremental productivity gains or pursuing digital transformation, training is critical. Unfortunately, many organizations treat training as an afterthought, relying too heavily on self-direction and theory with few opportunities for practical application.

Because experts often forget what it is like to be a beginner, IT has earned a reputation for assuming all new technologies are intuitive and easy to learn. That assumption lurks behind many IT training failures. After all, for business users undergoing radical changes to business processes, proper training can make or break a new installation.

Following are eight of the most common mistakes IT organizations make when it comes to training, whether it is with a specific technology or professional development in general. Consider this an informal training session on how to get training right.

1. Assuming self-directed training will get the job done

Online video tutorials, FAQ documents and the like are mainstays of IT training. Unlike classroom instruction, these training materials are inexpensive and easy to scale. But focusing on cost is only half the equation. If training materials aren’t accessed, they provide no benefits.

And the data on online, self-directed training use isn’t pretty. If online education is any indication, the vast majority of your users will not complete their training. Less than 6 percent of people who enroll in one of Harvard or MIT’s open online courses earn a certificate, according to a edX study.

But with the right structure and incentives, you can beat those odds. Seth Godin’s altMBA claims a completion rate over 90 percent. The program runs for four weeks and has limited enrollment so it is structurally different from open enrollment courses. Inject some intention in your online training, rather than rely on users to direct themselves.

2. Failing to explain why training is necessary

If your training seeks to change behavior and routines, explaining the why behind your training program is critical if you want the change to stick.

“Many software training programs include the ‘how to do something’ and the ‘what it looks like,’ but they leave out the ‘why’ you should be doing that activity in the software in the first place,” says Eric Peters, senior growth marketing manager at HubSpot Academy, an online training program for Hubspot’s sales and marketing software products. “This is what separates documentation from training in my opinion. The ‘why’ is particularly important because it connects the software to the desired outcome of the user.”

To address the “why” issue, Hubspot has implemented a simple three-part structure to its training. “Every HubSpot Academy class is structured in three parts: Why, How, What,” Peters explains. This approach reduces the chance of users bailing out because they feel disengaged with the overall purpose of the technical change.

3. Neglecting to provide practical applications after training is completed

If employees don’t have opportunities to apply what they learn, they will disengage during training and forget much of what they learned soon afterwards.

“It’s really hard to learn a new piece of software if you don’t have a project or activity you can apply it to,” Peters says. “If the whole learning process is hypothetical, how are you supposed to put your learning into action when you do have a project? If I’m working in Excel, and I realize I don’t know how to do something, I go look it up. I’m educating myself with an outcome in mind, and because I’m applying that learning immediately, I’m much more likely to remember it.”

To avoid this mistake, look at training in the context of other projects underway and each individual’s goals. As Dan Pink explains in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth of What Motivates Us, many people are motivated at work to achieve mastery in their field. Aligning IT training with your employee’s career goals is a tried-and-true strategy.

“I’ve learned to identify and cater to each individual’s learning style. Some people work better when given a book and told to learn, while others need hands-on, practical application. Still others thrive in peer-to-peer training environments. A mixed-method approach is key to successful IT training,” says Janet Brown, CIO for global legal administration firm GCG.

4. Making training an afterthought

Your organization just bought new software. When will you start to reap the benefits? If you neglect to support training, the answer might be a long time or never.

“CIOs and IT leaders invest in software with the expectation that their organization will get a return on that investment. Training on the software accelerates time to value for the organization, makes sure employees are using it to its full capabilities, and mitigates the risk of using it in the wrong way,” explains Peters.

If your organization is pursuing a transformative strategy or introducing brand new software, avoid leaving training as an afterthought.

5. Refusing to invest in professional development

If you equip employees with the latest and greatest skills, will they leave your organization for a better job somewhere else? That’s the silent fear that hurts IT training efforts in many organizations. Not every organization shares that view.

“Contrary to some beliefs, employers enjoy increased employee retention when they offer personal development opportunities, and continued opportunities for career growth,” explains Kathie Miley, COO of online training platform Cybrary, which offers courses and practice labs for IT skills and certifications.

Some certifications like the Project Management Professional (PMP) require ongoing education credits to stay current. Fail to provide those and your employees may wonder about the company’s commitment to them.

If you fail to provide IT training opportunities, you will be left behind other organizations. According to Brandon Hall Group’s 2016 Training Benchmarking Study, a majority of companies spend over $1,000 on training each year for their senior leaders. That’s a good reminder that training is needed by everyone, not just new employees joining your organization.

6. Failing to provide lab experience in the learning process

Online training programs that teach coding skills have exploded of late. CodeAcademy, for example, teaches HTML, Python, JavaScript, PHP and SQL. The platform has a lab where you can see the code you’re writing and get feedback. It may not be as nuanced as a live instructor but feedback from working in a lab context is valuable. The ability to experiment — to build a “product” — goes a long way toward translating abstract training concepts into practical skills.

“A common weakness in IT training materials is too much theory and not enough practice. The challenge is finding a lab or equipment that someone can really use to improve their retention through practical hands-on experience,” explains Jamie Boughman, technical director of managed services at Carousel Industries.

7. Not taking a programmatic approach to training

What happens when a few key people leave IT at the same time? If you’ve neglected training, you’re likely to be scrambling to make up the gap. In addition to hiring for those openings, you may also need to frantically send current employees for training. This last-minute approach to training tends not to work very well.

“Some managers fail to grasp the nature of the work ahead of them and end up in a reactive mode when it comes to training. A more programmatic approach — looking at the team’s inventory of skills mapped to the foreseeable work — helps balance where training can fill in the gaps,” says Philip Casesa, director of product management at Focal Point Data Risk.

Solving this problem falls squarely on the manager’s desk. Setting the time to think through the skills (and skill gaps) of your employees takes time and in-depth discussions. For IT executives, the discipline of proactively engaging with the business regularly rather than waiting for orders will help as well.

8. Having unrealistic expectations about books

Books are great for sharing information but they have sharp limitations when it comes to technical training. For example, the For Dummies series do a great job communicating technical topics to beginners. For advanced professionals, relying exclusively on books may not work.

“Books are a very passive learning experience. While many learners can pick up something from a book, there is nothing hands-on to make the learning stick. From an organizational perspective, buying a few books for the staff and calling it training won’t get strong results over time,” Casesa says.

Books can play a helpful role in professional development broadly defined. When it comes to personal productivity, reading classics like The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker or Getting Things Done by David Allen are hard to beat. The same can be said for books on communication skills like Crucial Conversations.

As managers plan to develop and grow their teams, providing training must stay on the list. Reflect on these mistakes to enhance your training program. Connect the training you provide to the opportunities available in the organization. Use a mix of training methods — external facilitators, online courses and books — to provide flexibility. Finally, never forget the career goals of the people in your organization and see what you can do to help them hit those goals.

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