When Isabel Feher-Watters trains a company’s staff on new software, she can sometimes tell right away that her work is cut out for her. The manager of enterprise learning at Pink Elephant Inc., a Burlington, Ont.-based information technology consultancy, says she’ll discover while presenting an implementation seminar that some employees were told only moments before her arrival they were getting new software. That’s a clear sign the company hasn’t thought through how to teach its staff to use their new tools.
You wouldn’t buy your kids a car if they couldn’t drive and were never going to learn how, would you? Yet many companies do practically the same thing by acquiring new technologies without providing the time and training employees need to take advantage of them. As a result, the technology is underused or ignored outright, and expensive investments deliver disappointing—if not disastrous—returns.
Don’t let yourself be the next victim. Like any tool, technology is useless in the wrong hands, and it usually comes with a steep learning curve-even if the vendor claims otherwise. To bring your staff up to speed and realize the returns you expect, you must support your investment with the right resources, including a well-planned training program. But that’s easier said than done.
“The most common mistake is not getting people involved early enough along the way,” says Feher-Watters. The more involved your employees are, the less likely they are to resist change. “You need to sell them on how the technology is going to make the workplace better,” she says. “Explain how a few months down the road they’ll be able to produce a report in 10 rather than 35 minutes-and, at the same time, make them feel they are part of the process.”
You must also recognize that change takes time. When Victoria-based Island Publishers Ltd. decided to change the layout software for its newspapers and magazines from QuarkXPress to Adobe InDesign, it didn’t expect that to happen overnight. “We gave them almost a year to work [to a degree, with both programs], saying, ‘Understand that on January 1st, only InDesign will be on your machine’,” says Al McGee, Island’s IT director. That way editors could keep working with the old program they were comfortable with, while early adopters in the art department could import that data into the new program.
Of course, all the talk and time in the world won’t help without training. “It seems training is the last thing people think about,” says Colin Smith, a senior applications developer at Adobe Systems Inc. in Toronto. “Companies dump software on someone’s desk and expect them to be productive.”
A big part of the problem is short-sighted budgeting that fails to set aside enough for training, says Feher-Watters. Finding training resources, however, is the easy part. Both Microsoft and Adobe, for example, have partnerships with firms that provide for-fee training sessions. Most programs come with tutorials, and there’s a wealth of free and paid information on the Net. (Googling the software’s name with the Groups tool will call up dozens of enthusiast message boards.) Island set up an online discussion board so employees could ask and answer questions about the new software. It also designated an in-house support person at each paper to field queries and pass along advice from head office on fixing glitches.
Feher-Watters stresses avoiding the urge to jam your entire staff into the boardroom for a single, day-long cram session. People will retain more if information is parsed out to smaller groups at similar competency levels-and not all at once. “I’ve seen companies block off an hour each Friday as their training hour,” says Cheri Chevalier, group manager for small business at Mississauga, Ont.-based Microsoft Canada Co. Staff can then go back to their desks and try out what they have just learned.
And a little incentive doesn’t hurt. Feher-Watters knows of firms “that have developed puzzles where people have to work within the technology to find the answers, then give rewards like sports tickets or a dinner for two to whoever answers the most questions. It gets them moving through the technology, and gives them a reward at the end of the day.”
Your reward is to turn the productivity gains an IT investment promises in theory into actual gains you can see on your bottom line.