Applications training: teach the good stuff first

Procedural steps to a desired result...

Long before I ever heard of Ten Steps to Complex Learning, I developed my own principle for helping people in organizations learn how to use software:

They’re applications.
Apply them.

What that means: people learn a software application best by applying it to work they want (or need) to get done.  Few things focus your attention on the details of Excel formulas, say, than having to produce something with a few of them.

Just as there are two sides to a web page–the content that you interact with, and the code that underlies the page–there are two sides to working with software.  Those are the how-to (the procedures) and the for-what (the desired result).

And the for-what is always contextual: it’s a goal that makes sense to the individual learner.

Don’t work on software; put software to work.

For one client, I was in change of training design for a gaggle of standard office applications and half a dozen client-custom ones.  The target audience: sales reps and their supervisors, most having no experience with personal computers.

During the pilot phase of training, we taught the off-the-shelf applications first. In part, that allowed more time for the developers to finish Legion, the sales-force automation system that would replace 80% of the sales reps’ paper-based procedures.

In part, too, I believed that having learned less “risky” software — programs that weren’t job-critical — the reps would have an easier time a month later when they returned to learn about Legion.

So…about an hour into my first session of Legion training, one of the reps  leaned back and shook his head.  (This was not a guy who’d had a good time in the “easier” training a month before.)

Escape from routine software training.“Geeze, Dave, why didn’t you teach us this stuff first?”

So much for my skill at instructional design.  I’d worried so much about the size and complexity of the Legion software that I overlooked the point I keep harping on here: the training isn’t about using software, it’s about doing work.

The sales reps already knew how to make sales calls, report findings, analyze accounts — they just didn’t know how to get that done with Legion. Why not have them use it as fast as possible?

Thank goodness it was a pilot.

In the redesign, the office applications got shoved to the second session of training.  For the first session, the sales reps spent about two hours on the basic basics: they individually unpacked their new laptops, connected everything, started them up, and learned the absolute minimum in terms of cursor movement, single click, double click, use of menus, and so on.

Next they had about an hour on email, which was new to them, and which provided a vehicle to practice basic editing (backspace, delete, insert, click-and-drag).

For the next two and a half days, they were working with Legion. And they were learning, mostly because:

We started with what they knew. Instead of talking about the Initial Account Data screen (the label from the IT folks), we used their own terminology: “Here’s the store profile.”

We didn’t spoon-feed. Instead of a mindless field trip ( “Here’s the name field.  The name goes here.  Next is the address field.  The address goes here…” ), we’d open a screen and ask questions:

  • Got the store profile?  Good–so what was last month’s volume?
  • Who’s the wholesaler for Acme Retail?
  • (And, to double-check) How do you know that?

We encouraged (or demanded) practice with what they’d learned.  “Okay, this is the wrong store code.  How do you change it?”  (The answer was to click a radio button.  We didn’t care about the term; we just made sure people clicked, and let the result be the reinforcement.)

We used their everyday tasks as the framework for topics.

“First, you need to plan your call list (the stores the rep visits each day visit).  And when you get to MegaMunch, you’re going to sell a JD-27 contract (which means the rep has to cancel the incompatible, existing contract).”

We provided both paper job aids and digital help for routine, procedural tasks.

And, to help transfer the learning, we had each sales rep bring paperwork for her last 10 store visits to the training session.  By the end of the second day, she’d download her entire territory from the mainframe, and then enter those calls.

It’s amazing how on-task and how collaborative a bunch of sales reps are when they’re messing around with their own account data.

CC-licensed images:
Origami by adobemac.
Keyboard by Nils Geylen.

7 thoughts on “Applications training: teach the good stuff first

  1. Dave, sounds a lot like John Carroll’s minimalism (ala Nurnberg Funnel). Good stuff!

    Did you look at all at teaching the software ‘model’ (ie the essence, to develop their ability to explain/predict)? Still thinking that’s an untapped opportunity…

  2. Clark: I’m sure it’ll astonish you that The Nurnberg Funnel is in the cognitive wings here, along with the extremely useful e-Learning and the Science of Instruction (Ruth Colvin Clark and Richard E. Mayer).

    I’m not sure I get the full meaning of your question. For the folks at the fictionally-named Caesar International, the sales-force software was more or less modeled on an optimized way to do what they’d done before — less tedious data entry, easier account & territory analysis. Is that the sort of thing you had in mind?

  3. Kai ora e Dave.

    My hunch here is that it’s neither the software nor the approach. It’s the client analysis. The teacher who recognises the learner is an Einstein doesn’t need the soft-shoe introduction, doesn’t necessarily even need the stepwise pedagogy. If the learner already has the concept, or has the ability to accept it on the way, go straight to the quadratic analysis or the special theory.

    And you’re right. If the drive to get the job done, in this case ‘learning’, is already there, that’s all that’s needed in addition to being shown the ropes.

    So it was when I learnt how to use DreamWeaver, an application that makes some web-creation beginners run a mile. My mentor had an insight that told him not to waste my time with introductory toys. It was the same when I learnt Flash and Photoshop. Thank goodness my tutors didn’t waste my time!

    Catchya later

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