So much for training

A lot of people worldwide are receiving new PCs for the year 2000; it’s a pity they don’t know how to use them.

Obviously, corporate users do know how to sign into crucial systems and send the right e-mails to prove they were at work and worthy of being paid. But how long does it take for them to do basic tasks? How many people do you know who are afraid of filing data electronically? These are the folks who have 800 items in their in-boxes and spend hours scrolling through them because they don’t know how to scan e-mail with the built-in search tool.

This situation leads to help desks getting what they call “training issues,” which translate into “stupid brainless idiot user problems” at the local watering hole after two direly-needed pints. There seem to be a lot of training issues out there; it has become the excuse of the ’90s. When IT professionals find out people don’t like their system, it’s a training issue and a user problem, not an IT issue.

So what has happened to training? In the IT shops I worked for in the ’80s, there were healthy training departments delivering classroom courses on the basic computer skills the workers needed. But this is a dying situation. One department was completely disbanded in the hopes of pushing the work out to the clients. This led to the clients pushing it out the door to other companies specializing in training, which in turn led to training not being done because it cost cash money. In another case, the client’s own expanded training department took the work on, but whittled the so-called technical training group down to two people for 15,000 employees. The other big trick was making each project manager responsible for training. Project managers put the training issue down to the bottom of the pile because of the bigger issues that might cause his or her professional demise.

At this rate, sometime around 2005, computer users will have to call a psychic hot-line to find out who knows enough about the systems to show them what to do.

To top it off, classroom training is inherently generic. Training issues arise at a customer’s desk, from which they pick up the phone to harass help desk workers. PC desktops are so adjustable that, when I go to a co-worker’s machine to do something, it takes time to figure out where the Start button is. A lot of money in PC rollouts is spent locking down the workstation so that people can’t use the features. Apparently this is cheaper than teaching them how not to hose up their machines.

IT training departments, when they existed, always knew that there are three pieces to training:

Concept – “Word processing is like typing except that to erase something you no longer get to sniff that toxic whiting-out agent.”

Simulation – “In the safety of the classroom, write a letter to your bank manager telling her how annoyed you are that they lost your deposit envelope.”

Performance – “At the completely not-calming location of your desk, write a complex proposal to a vendor requesting specific services. By the way, if you forget something in the document, you will be punished.”

Training departments could never really carry out the performance monitoring because training department managers usually believed that once the learner had left the classroom, the job was done.

But if you are planning a new system rollout or massive upgrade, I suggest you reduce your risk of project failure – and improve productivity – by doing the following: budget for training up front. Make sure you have secured trainers that are not afraid to go beyond the classroom. When you encounter the prejudice corporations have against training (“It’s just a day off to go eat donuts”), remember to rename “Training” to “Knowledge Transfer” and then do it anyway.

Ford is a Vancouver-based consultant who used to be an IT training professional until he realized that being a project manager more closely met his masochistic needs. He can be reached at