Software Training: Tips from the Pros

Professional trainers know things you and I don’t. They know how people learn, when and why they can falter, and what makes a software-training program successful. We asked four veterans for their behind-the-scenes tips. What they said was mostly common sense, yes, but how easily we forget.

1. Executive buy-in-Let your staff know the boss is behind them and why. “Executive buy-in is critical,” says Chris Henry, director of technical services at HCSS. “And this includes transmitting the importance of the new software throughout the entire organization. You have to market what’s in it for every user or stakeholder. I find it amazing that management can fail to consider the actual users when it develops how the software is going to fit their operation. Their employees’ world is about to change and they’re the last to see it coming.”

Geoffrey Falk, project manager for Spectrum Software at Dexter + Chaney, agrees. “It’s amazing how much better and faster software gets implemented when the boss lets everyone know what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it. I’ve found if senior management shows up and says, “˜We’re going to do this because it’s going to help us in these ways,’ it trickles down. On the other hand, I had one manager tell his employees, “˜This is the way it’s going to be. Either you do it or find a new job.’ That’s hardly the way to go about it; much better to say something like, “˜If we had this software in place we wouldn’t have made this or that mistake and lost all that money.”

2. Pilot the software-Get the bugs out before you implement the new program full scale. “Introduce the new software with a small control group,” says Henry, “and make sure these are the people who are most likely to succeed. Find out the mistakes and the areas that need improvement, fix them, and then bring it out to the rest of the group. I’d much rather make the mistakes with one, two, or three people, get those problems mitigated, and give everyone on the job the best possible opportunity for success.”

3. Monitor the process and get feedback-“Look for good behaviors,” says Henry. “Most of us are prone to pick up on poor or negative behaviors, but you should do the opposite. Challenge the people in your pilot group-the first person to achieve one week of perfect entry without mistakes gets a $25 gift card to Chili’s. It doesn’t matter what the dollars are or what it’s for. It’s the challenge and the fact that you’re recognizing your employees’ hard work.”

4. Beware the no-bad-news environment-“If you ask someone how everything is going, and they say “˜fine,’ and they say that repeatedly, you’re not asking the right questions. If you’ve done a pilot program, you’ll know where your users are going to struggle and which ones are going to struggle the most. Focus on these people and talk to them about the problems they’re encountering.”

“Bad news doesn’t get better with age,” says Scott Meyer, vice president of professional services at Maxwell Systems. “When you go through a training cycle, you can tell if someone’s not willing to make the change. But if you wait until the end of the training to address the problem or hand it off to the support team, it’s a recipe for disaster.”

“You’ll have a lot of employees who will go through training, and the next day when they get in front of the software, they discover they didn’t necessarily comprehend everything you said,” says Henry. “But they don’t want to tell you. One way to address this is, first, make sure you’ve documented all your standard operating procedures, and, second, set up a people and responsibilities list: which person in your pilot staff is in charge of managing which feature. Provide cheat sheets and documentation. We have a cheat sheet onboard within our software, and we provide a paper cheat sheet, so when there’s nobody there to assist them they can use it as a road map for the first few weeks.”

5. Have a plan and implement it in phases-“With any software training, you’ve got to make sure there’s a clear and documented understanding of what you accomplished during the training so there’s no questions.” says Scott. “It doesn’t have to be anything fancy,” says Falk. “Even in the best of situations, adult learners probably only retain 50% of what they’re taught so you need to know if we’re making progress or not. We break our conversion down into phases. After a company has gone live and been on the system for at least a month, we go back and do additional training. It’s not that people don’t get it, but they knew enough to get through conversion and now they’ve got some unique questions that will help them in their day-to-day life. Maybe they didn’t notice that button over there and want to know what’s it for, or they want to know how this or that feature will help them do something they’ve come up against it. This is actually a lot more fun for the trainer because the questions are at a higher level because the people learning are typically more engaged.”

Both Henry and Scott agreed that a real cog in the wheel is what they call skill creep. An organization purchases software with the intent of doing one thing or another. But once they see what it can do, they want additional training on a host of other things, but they don’t adjust their timeline. Which means both management and those doing the training have to be clear in the beginning about what their goals are and how long they have to accomplish them, particularly acknowledging how those goals may have changed and what this means in terms of costs and timelines.

“A big stumbling block can be that people expect the material an educator will bring with them will be the magical silver bullet,” says Ladd Nelson at Carlson Software. But we’re not talking about cookie-cutter training. What we’re doing is introducing a process your employees can follow which will require some freeform thinking when it comes to applying it to your particular organization.”

6. Plan for continued learning-“We had a customer who needed information on a number of questions in order to get his staff as productive as quickly as possible,” says Nelson. “They could have taken some time on their own to try to get these things straightened out, but it might have taken them a month to get through all the questions they had. So the issue for the owner was, Does he spend his money paying his people to stumble around for the next three or four weeks, or does he spend it on a trainer to come onsite and give them all the information they need?

“We showed up at the office at 8:30 in the morning and sat down at a computer with two keyboards and two mice so that one of his staff could be running the keyboard and mouse and I could take over very easily from my side of the table and address the list of questions they had developed. Face-to-face is the easiest way to get questions answered. Employees can demonstrate what they’re having problems with, and I can look over their shoulder and see where they might be making a mistake. One question brings up another that might not even have been on the original list. But if you opt for something like this, make certain your employees know that they have a very finite amount of time to get their questions addressed, and that if they don’t speak up, they’re squandering a huge resource and investment the company is providing.”

“My team had been training itself with tutorials,” says Michael Banak at Adventures in Professional Technologies in Fulton, MO. “We were at the point where we knew what the questions were; we just didn’t have the answers. These were people with varying needs and varying levels of preparedness, and what Ladd did worked well. The fact is that the only way your staff will have their precise needs met is to seek out a competent professional to guide them in the details of setting up their internal workflow.”

“Knowledge gets lost,” says Falk. “A company has to be willing to invest in some sort of continuing training for their people, whether it’s giving them time to watch training videos or read documentation when it comes from the software company. It’s sad that in the 16 years I’ve been doing this, I see so many times when clients are doing things the hard way because they don’t know they could do it easier.”

7. Give your employees a chance-“Don’t pull someone out of a class because you think you need a question answered immediately,” says Falk. “Think a minute. Can it wait? Remember, you’re paying good money for this.” And don’t schedule going live on the software for January 1. “That’s probably the worst thing you can do to your staff, because they’ll have to work through Thanksgiving and the December holidays to get ready for that January 1 conversion.”

“Anybody who’s in management has to show interest not only in the software but also the users who will be using it,” says Henry. “I encourage managers all the way up to owner of the company to review their employees’ diary entries for the first couple of months and report back to the people who made those entries. Imagine what it means to have the president of the company call and say, “˜I’m reviewing what you’re doing and I appreciate what you’re accomplishing for the company.’ That’s a really good way to get users engaged in the software. It also helps executives understand what’s going on with their software implementation.”

“Management needs to be a change agent inside their own organization,” says Scott.

“Sometimes I have to remind them why they’re doing this in the first place.”