Better by design

The look, feel and capabilities of training courses have changed drastically in the past few years, driven by advances in technology. In the run-up to this year’s Training Solutions show Rob McLuhan outlines some of the ideas and techniques involved in designing a training course

Technology has brought big changes to training over the past three years, and course designers have more options than ever. Instructor-led classroom sessions can now be enriched by various multimedia applications, while e-learning enlarges the reach of training to greater numbers of staff.

One new trend is an emphasis on speed. Course designers are expected to come up with a finished product much faster than before. “It used to be like a production factory, with three months spent on the design followed by extensive updating,” says Mark Dawson, partner in the client training group at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

This was on the basis that it would have a three- to four-year shelf life, but turnover is now more rapid. Where 20 days used to be the standard benchmark for preparing each day of instruction, the job now tends to be done in 10 or even five days, says Dawson.

And methods have changed too. Instead of locking themselves in a dark room for the duration, course designers meet for short brainstorming sessions and the rest of the time communicate their ideas via e-mail.

Another development is the growing demand for bespoke training, as companies seek courses tailored to specific requirements. Two years ago, 80 per cent of the courses provided by multimedia application service provider IMC were aimed at skilling up employees in office programs such as Word and Powerpoint. That has dwindled to only 20 per cent.

“Employees seldom use every part of these programs and clients now prefer to focus just on what is relevant,” says applications director Mike Kennedy.

Training objectives

According to software training author Steve McConnell, getting a requirement right in the first place typically costs 50 to 200 times less than waiting until a problem emerges. So the first task is to identify what the training is intended to achieve.

But many companies embark on training with only a vague idea of the desired outcome. For instance, Imparta, a developer and licensor of technology-enabled products, says a company will often request strategy training because its employees “need to understand business better”. And respondents to a recent IPD survey came up with similar statements: “Make more effective use of our staff,” “Meet quality standards” or “Achieve a better rate of return on investment”.

“You have to break down these general requirements into their constituent parts to reveal the real needs,” says marketing director at Imparta Mark Abell. “For instance, is the company looking for a short- term fix in one area or has it recognised a need to build the capabilities of its employees for sustained performance improvement?”

The design will also depend on the starting point, he adds, with questions such as how do people do things now, what are the processes and what are people’s attitudes to their work? “Performance improvement over the long term usually depends on changing people’s behaviour as well as their knowledge and skills levels,” Abell points out.

The start of the design process is also a good time to think about how the course will be followed up. Research by US company Huthwaite has shown that 8 per cent or more of the benefit of training is lost within a month of its completion, so this aspect should not be neglected.

“Happy sheets” handed out afterwards are no substitute for proper evaluation, and for this quantifiable measures need to be established, to ensure that the desired outcome is being achieved. The key here is to get buy-in from line managers and senior managers at the outset, so that when trainees go back to the workplace there is a system in place that encourages them to practice what they have learned.

Audience analysis

Course designers next need to establish the level of skills and experience of the participants, since these will influence the choice of delivery method and content. “There could be a huge variety of learning and mental models: the delegates may have always been taught through books or may have learned from instructors,” says Theo Lynn, chief executive of the Educational Multimedia Corporation. “We work with the customer to build a model at the predesign stage and help them allocate a budget to fit those needs.

“Once you do a training needs analysis you discover the degree to which training is required,” Lynn explains. “You also find out who needs it and what type it should be.”

But the need for quick turnaround means training needs analysis is often less rigorous than it used to be. At PwC, Dawson uses the Internet as a means of getting information and feedback to the suggested outline from participants. Up to a dozen questions will be put, including: is the subject proposed for the course an issue in the organisation, what will it cost if it is not got right and will the organisation support training?

Structured tools can also help here. For instance, IMC has a system called Team that gathers details of individuals’ job requirements and tests their current knowledge level. This enables a course to be customised to the individual, with just those elements supplied that the course needs. If necessary, HR and trainers can then modify the contents on a daily basis.

Having established the background of the audience the design should next ensure that content is appropriate to their levels of skill and knowledge. In particular it needs to take account of disparities such as age – younger participants may be more responsive to e-learning mechanisms than older ones.

A real difficulty will emerge if participants learn at widely different speeds. At e-learning provider KnowledgePool, CEO Paul Butler says, “You need to vet your students to the point that you don’t get 40 per cent slow learners together with 60 per cent fast learners. That sort of imbalance will soon lead to frustration on one element or another.”

A way around this is to stream the group for different speeds, but this is not always possible. Failing that, Butler says, a compromise is inevitable, with the content being tailored to the larger group.

But any negative effects can be minimised by running a pre-course session to enable the slower learners to get a solid foundation. This has the added advantage of enabling the instructor to focus on developing skills through interaction instead of using up valuable time in merely giving information.

Delivery methods

Cost will be a main factor in deciding whether a course is to be based on the classroom model or delivered through some form of technology solution. Workshops and seminars are potentially effective ways of trans- ferring knowledge and skills for senior managers and small groups, but will often be ruled out where a large part of the workforce needs to be involved.

Where the need for flexibility and economy indicates a technology-based method, course designers will first need to go through a checklist of items to determine whether it is appropriate for the circumstances.

“If you can experience everything you need in a simulated mode then you can use e-learning,” says Butler. Clearly this will generally not be the case for “soft” skills such as customer-facing activities that require human interaction. Similarly, it will be ruled out if the need is to train for presentation skills. Conversely, however, it would be appropriate where use of technology is a major element.

Another factor will be the availability of the technology platform. If videos and sound are appropriate for the course it is necessary to establish that the network structure will support it. At the very least, students will normally need to have access to a PC or the Internet in conditions where they will not be distracted.

There is also a need to ensure that the audience will respond to technology-based training. Many people will not thrive in the relatively isolated environment, or readily take to e-mail and chat as substitutes for face-to-face interaction. And with no fixed schedule to follow or an instructor standing by to offer encouragement it takes a much higher degree of motivation.

The ideal is for all these conditions to be satisfied, but in practice some compromise may be needed. “It is difficult for big companies to accommodate every need, and in the end one has to design a learning style that meets the majority requirement,” Butler says.

Content and learning styles

The content of the course will be driven by its objectives and the preferred learning styles of participants. Training that aims to enhance skills or change attitudes may be best served by workshops, in which the instructor leads discussion and confronts issues through dialogue, role play and interaction. Where the aim is to educate and inform, a seminar structure may be more suitable, with presentations enlivened by slides and video to keep the audience entertained.

Attention also needs to be given to the pace of the training. “If it is too slow, trainees will switch off; if it is too fast, they will panic and then switch off,” Imparta’s Abell says. Ideally a course should also allow time for personal reflection and avoid overloading participants with long evening sessions and overnight assignments.

That is a concern at Shedlight, which teaches selling and marketing on the Internet. To ensure delegates are not having to learn too much at a time, wherever possible it splits its training into half days spread over a period. That gives maximum opportunity for individuals to try out new ideas in the workplace and then feed back results to the group.

In a case such as this, where the focus is more on transferring knowledge than training skills, an informal approach can help. “A lot of people are intimidated by the whole new media thing, so we try to get them relaxed and provide as much of a dialogue as possible,” says Shedlight founder Craig Wilkie.

Course structure

Thought also needs to be given to the way the content is structured. “You need to think about your role and decide whether you are there as a lecturer or a facilitator,” says Juanita Cockton, course director and senior examiner at the Chartered Institute of Marketing. She recommends giving short sharp bursts of input, followed by some activity or exercise. “That encourages participants to think the issues through and explore what they can pull out in terms of knowledge and skills,” she explains.

Cockton also structures the day to take account of the fact that concentration will be best in the morning and flag in the afternoon. Any theoretical input is best got out of the way early on, with the practical exercises left for after lunch when the activity involved will overcome any desire among participants to nod off.

Variety is a good way to ensure boredom does not set in. “When you are designing exercises it is important not to have everyone repeating back the same thing,” Cockton says. Giving slightly different exercises to each participant will mean the answers they contribute to the discussion afterwards will not be identical.

Time and cost pressures have tended to shorten classroom training, so not everything will be covered in great detail, Cockton adds. It is important to provide detailed handouts at the end, so that trainees come away with something they can refer to in their own time.

Every trainer wants the course to be fun, and in the case of classroom training it can be achieved through the use of video and slide presentations. And an entertaining use of multimedia is a key advantage in keeping the attention of e-learners. “Remember how fast time seemed to go when you were playing sport as a child,” says the Educational Multimedia Corporation’s Lynn.

Retention is an issue here. Research shows that although trainees take in about 80 per cent of visual presentations, only 11 per cent of it will stick. The key here is interactivity, which should be an essential ingredient particularly in any e-learning course. Lynn’s company uses animations and simulations based on computer games technology, an approach which he claims can boost retention levels to between 40 and 75 per cent.

• Training Solutions takes place 4-6 July at the NEC, Birmingham. Contact Brintex on 020-7973 6401

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