One of my first jobs strictly in the training field was as a curriculum specialist for networking products in the software services training organization at Digital Equipment Corporation. In this job, I received information on new products and product revisions, then planned what training would be needed by field software specialists to support the products. I then contracted with an internal training development group to create new or revise existing training materials.
The training group I joined had been in existence for many years before I arrived and had longstanding methods and systems to accomplish its work across all of the company’s products. I saw my two major challenges in this job as follows:
- There was no master calendar of product introductions for new or revised products. My information on these products came from a variety of sources: engineering, customer services software engineering, product managers, or marketing managers.
- There was no standard way of determining what training would be needed for any new product. What was needed could range from a simple update to product documentation to a quick computer-based training module, to a new instructor-led training program or the revision of an existing instructor-led program.
As a result, I found that I was spending about 30 to 40 percent of my time answering questions from various corporate and field offices about what training I was planning for various new and revised products. My colleagues, who had responsibility for other product groups, were similarly spending as much time with the same tasks.
My solution was to convene a quarterly meeting with the heads of product management, engineering, marketing, and other relevant groups to create a master calendar of the products in the pipeline over the next six months and, for each product, to discuss what level of training or information provision was needed. I then created a master calendar, which I updated quarterly, from which I could plan development efforts and provide information to the field software support groups. As a result, the amount of time I spent on the phone answering questions was reduced from 30 to 40 percent to about 10 percent, and I was able to spend that additional time working on the quality of the training products.
The group I worked for had been doing the same things the same ways for more than 10 years, and they got the job done. My approach of convening the advisory group and creating the master calendar was adopted across the group and greatly improved the group’s efficiency. Was this a revolutionary improvement in training methodology? No, but we all fall into the trap of continuing to do things as they have always been done because we know the methods, are comfortable with them, and know they get the job done. It is often helpful to bring in someone who is not familiar with the old methods to see if there might be a better way.
A senior vice president at a Fortune 500 company once told me that when he put together a task team to tackle a longstanding challenge, he always included a “smart dummy” on the team. A “smart dummy” was a very bright person who had no background in or knowledge of the problem under consideration – someone, he said, who could ask the “dumb questions” that no one else would ask and question the assumptions under which the others were working. This is the essence of “critical thinking” – being able to question basic assumptions and biases that affect peoples’ judgment and behavior.
When I first suggested the approach of putting together the advisory group and the master calendar, my group’s manager said that it couldn’t be done – the product managers, engineering managers, and others I planned to invite were too busy to take time to meet with me, and that these people considered training as more of a necessary nuisance that as an added-value service. I found that these people were anxious to participate because they too were constantly interrupted by calls from people wanting to know what was planned. So my solution not only benefitted me in my work, but also was a benefit to them.
Have you really looked at the assumptions and biases you carry with you every day and which affect your decision making? Try being a “smart dummy” for a while and see if you can identify ways in which longstanding beliefs and practices are holding you back.