By guest expert, Adam Weisblatt
I’m going to show these people…a world without rules or controls, borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you. —The Matrix
In the 1990s, I had a gig as a computer software trainer at a pharmaceutical company.
On good days, it was fun taking people on a journey of exploration. When we reached our destination, everyone in the class said, “Aaah, I get it.” That gave my endorphins a rush.
But on not-so-good days, people would hang on my every word and write down only step-by-step instructions. I would explain that those steps alone wouldn’t help them adapt when the software or circumstances changed. But they weren’t interested in thinking about those things.
It was like showing people a map when all they wanted was directions. They needed skills and perspective that would help them navigate through unexpected terrain — but they only wanted to know how to stay on their immediate path. I knew they were likely to become lost when they left the class and began to move forward on their own. However the best I could do was stay with them until they found their way at least to a basic level of capability.
“You have so much patience!” students would tell me. On those days, I felt like a bad salesman, pushing unwanted product on an unwilling customer.
Software Training Roadblocks
My primary job was to help students develop competency. But there were other agendas at work. I was also expected to convince them that the company had chosen the right software, as well as the right type of training program to drive adoption.
This meant I needed to focus on show-and-tell feature demonstrations. “Click that button. Isn’t that great?” It seemed futile, because that kind of training doesn’t offer the knowledge and understanding students need to make the best use of software in their daily lives.
Of course, I also faced more universal software training challenge. The truth is, no matter how “slick” new functionality or training programs are, people don’t like to adopt new software. They resist change at every turn. And a classroom is the only place they’re likely to complain about it openly.
Moving Beyond Training Demos — Or Die Trying
Often, my students would ask me, “How did you learn all this?”
I wanted to say, “Not this way.” When I’m introduced to new software, I dig in and play with it. I imagine what programmers were trying to accomplish when they developed it — what specific problems they were trying to solve, what kind of information they hoped to gather from users, and what kind of interactions they anticipated.
To me, new or improved software is a multidimensional puzzle. I deconstruct the components of the user interface, so I can focus on the ideas behind its design. Then I think through the ways those ideas can potentially serve my needs. Once I see the “why” behind the “what,” understanding “how” to use an application becomes much more intuitive.
In my years as a software trainer, all I really wanted to do was show other people how to think like this and actively test their assumptions. It’s far more powerful and effective than any feature demo.
Eventually, I grew tired of the frustration, and one day I hit the wall. I was teaching a class on archiving email. Only one student attended — I had trained everyone else. She was so sweet — acting like she had no clue. But when I asked her to create an archive file, I saw seven other files she had created in previous sessions with me.
I was burned out. I couldn’t continue. And years later, I’m amazed that the format still hasn’t changed.
Reloaded — The Promise of Performance Support
Fortunately, I moved on. Now I develop learning technology — creating tools to help other training professionals make an impact.
At my current company, software training is a critical part of what we provide to clients. Perhaps now is the time to resurrect my dream of creating a more effective format for technology training. I realize that putting theory first isn’t practical in business environments. Workers want to focus on doing their jobs efficiently, and we need to meet them where they are.
However, we should also be responsive to those who want to learn both “how” and “why.”
Recently, I saw Bob Mosher speak about the relationship between learning and performance support. He explained the Performance Support Pyramid — which suggests that our first priority is to connect people with essential information they need to complete an immediate task. Once that need is satisfied, some learners want to dive deeper into theory and underlying logic. We should supply supplemental learning paths and resources to address those interests.
This model makes sense. It seems like a viable framework to move beyond one-dimensional “cookbook” training. So let’s think about how it could work.
The Pyramid In Practice — A Starter
Every software application has a set of business tasks it’s designed to support. You could start a training session with a brief overview of these core business tasks. Then you could offer a drill-down for each task. This could be accomplished with a brief video of someone introducing the task, and then walking through the process — demonstrating the role of the application within that task (rather than simply demonstrating features, out-of-context).
Next, you could provide a digital or printed “cheat sheet” for each task, with appropriate commands, icons, and short keys for each system (such as Microsoft Office or Google docs). Then give students an opportunity for hands-on practice, with the reference tool as a guide..
Once students have mastered the basic skills, invite interested participants to dig deeper in the future. You could create a collection of related standalone elements that support strategic thinking — for example, stories from other business users, infographics, or game-based problem-solving challenges. You could also incorporate social forums to encourage discussion about product issues and ideas for improvement.
Context Creates New Possibilities
At the end of the movie “The Matrix,” the hero recognizes the true nature of reality. This knowledge frees him to embrace mind-over-matter skills, so he can do whatever he wants. His world becomes boundless.
Imagine what could happen if software users could feel the same way. If we provide training tools and information that fit more naturally into a user’s work context, they’ll be free to explore an application’s possibilities in ways that make business sense. It may not lead to a “Matrix” moment — but perhaps more people would understand why they should embrace new technology and champion change. Ultimately, that’s the kind of knowledge will help them find their own way.
Doing more to empower others. Isn’t that why we became learning professionals in the first place?
About The Author: Thanks to our guest contributor, Adam Weisblatt, Learning Technology Leader at Nielsen. Adam is passionate about creating a dynamic environment for engaging learning experiencess. To read more of Adam’s insights on learning and technology visit his blog, Creating Understanding. You can also connect with Adam on Twitter. Adam’s opinions expressed here are solely his own.
Photo credits from “The Matrix.” Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures