Sunday, 18 January 2015

Self Assembly

I spent a lot of time over the festive holidays on domestic tasks like putting up curtain rails, hanging pictures and assembling bedroom furniture. We moved into our new-build home at the beginning of November and I never really had time to attend to these tasks between then and breaking up for the vacation, so I was glad to finally put my own feet on the floor, so to speak.

I have accumulated lots of DIY experience over many years, so none of these tasks gave me any cause for concern, other than being unable to find my tools, which were buried in the garage when we moved in and remain as yet unrecovered. So, new drill and a new battery-powered, hand-held screwdriver duly purchased, I set to. I don't need instructions or training to put up curtain poles or hang pictures, but I did need them to put together the various self-assembly chests of drawers and cabinets we had purchased from the well-known Scandinavian furniture makers, Ikea.

And what great instructions they provide! No words, just illustrations. Clear, simple, well-drawn, specific to the particular piece of furniture being assembled and pared to the absolute minimum of content. They make no assumptions about the assembler's gender or literacy, nor their expertise with a very few basic tools - in this case a hammer and a screwdriver. They even indicate with arrows which way you should be turning the screws! They also relate entirely to the contents of the box. Indeed, they rely on the contents of the box being exactly as stated - x number of screws, y number of dowels, z number of thingys you use a screwdriver to turn to catch and lock onto the end of the other thingys you screwed into the other panel earlier. There are no unnecessary explanations. There's no padding. I found the instructions easy - a pleasure, even - to follow and, in so doing, I built and furnished our bathrooms and bedroom with 3 cabinets and 5 chests of drawers. I had achieved what I set out to do and had enjoyed doing it, thanks to their well-designed performance support materials.

And I got to thinking that I'm not sure I can say the same about some of the training materials I have been exposed to - and have either overseen the creation of, or, indeed, created myself - over the years. Over-engineered, wordy, illustration-free, full of jargon and assumptions and/or time-limited, they generally failed to do the job for which they were (badly) designed. And it's still going on.

This is becoming an even more important consideration now in the age of internet-enabled, always on, 24-7-available content and people's expectations of being able to access it as and when they need it. It doesn't matter how readily available it may be if it's still badly done!

So our challenge as training providers and facilitators is to think like those clever people at Ikea; to ensure that we design for clarity, brevity and relevance, making no assumptions about prior experience or knowledge, whilst also ensuring that we critically examine and curate content created by others to the same standard. No pressure there then!

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Are You a User or a Pusher?

Relax! I have no interest in your recreational habits. Let me explain where the question comes from and all will become clear.

I came into training as a novice. Having struggled for 12 years to make a career as an actor, and having spent most of those 12 years doing other work to keep the wolf from the door, my wife Mandy (@MandyRG) and I started an IT Training company with another couple in 1989. I had very limited previous exposure to using a computer, nor had I any formal training experience (although I did manage to last a whole term in post-graduate teacher training after I gained my  Drama Degree in 1976).

But that meant that I came to the IT Training business essentially untainted by a lot of background technical knowledge and expertise. I came in as a user of the technology with, frankly, no interest whatsoever in what was going on inside the box. I just wanted to know how to make the software do the things I needed it to do. And that software was still green screen Lotus 123 and WordPerfect!

It was several months - as we slowly built up our client base - before my colleagues were prepared to unleash me on an unsuspecting group of client  Lotus 123 learners. I had had the benefit of being trained by Mandy and had sat in and witnessed her and them training the course and done several dummy runs myself with their helpful feedback. I managed to hold it together and delivered a successful course - but it was to the letter of the albeit very good lesson plan and, if anyone had asked me any questions for which I had not been prepared (and let's face it, there are a million of those), it could all have gone horribly wrong. I was not entirely comfortable with being in that position.

And so we grew the business and I developed both my application and my trainer skills. But my ethos as a trainer was always the user/learner and the context in which they would be using these tools; to make the software work for them and not them to work for it. So we talked to them (as opposed to talked at them).  We asked them what they wanted to do and why they wanted to do it. And, yes, we did have to cover some basics in those days, but even then it was in the context of their jobs and their productivity - as users. 

This was radical stuff in those days! I'd experienced IT training from other people and it was clear that many of them, whilst technically very good indeed, had no understanding of nor empathy with their trainees. They were pushing their knowledge and information at them, rather than discussing their needs and contextualising the learning accordingly.  I personally never learned anything from the pushers, the show and tellers, who would sail through their 'schtick' without pause or concern for whether or not their learners were actually understanding what they were telling them.

And it's still going on. I still come across and hear about many different instances of trainers pushing information onto trainees. Facts piled upon facts. Bullet point after bullet point on text-heavy, graphically-challenged PowerPoint slides. No questions or discussion. And we wonder why people are turning their backs on traditional, classroom-based training.

So, here's an opportunity to reflect back on my original question. On the trainer/facilitator spectrum - are you a user or a pusher?

Your thoughts and comments are very welcome.