Dos and Don’ts of Online Training

What to follow and what to avoid when it comes to online training

Credit: iStock/DrAfter123

I was sitting with a couple of friends over drinks a week or so ago listening to their complaints about the new company email system, which from their point of view was more complicated than it needed to be. Most of all, they were irritated that they were expected to train themselves on how to set it up, and any help they needed they were expected to get online. Both women were valued, seasoned employees. But when one of them asked if there was going to be any backup training, especially if they had questions about applying the new system to company operations, she was told no. When she expressed concern, it was suggested that she might be more comfortable somewhere else.

A little drastic? For the employee, probably. A little shortsighted on the part of the employer? Potentially.

We have noted any number of times in this column that not everyone learns in the same way or at the same pace. And given this limitation, managers are best served by providing a mix of training, ideally with some access to person-to-person contact. But in-person training takes time and costs money, whether it’s onsite or at a supplier-sponsored workshop or seminar. This is what makes online training so attractive—buy the package, sit the employee down in front of a computer, and voilà.

For some employees, yes, but to get the optimum from this kind of training, managers should be well informed about their employees’ needs and learning capabilities and they be clear on what they’re trying to accomplish with whatever training they decide to implement. They, or their human resource advisers, should also be up to speed on the pluses and minuses of online training, including the tradeoffs: is shaving dollars off the bottom line worth the risk of losing valuable experience and irreplaceable corporate memory when apprehensive employees opt out?

To help avoid stumbling over some of the rocks in the road to online training, you might want to keep the following thoughts in mind.

  1. Assess your employee pool. Take note of overall knowledge base, individual learning styles, computer experience/skills, and attitudes toward training. Be clear about who needs to know what—no matter how it’s presented, people won’t learn about what they won’t use. If your employee pool has a high percentage of people who aren’t experienced with computer-based learning, build in appropriate help functions. These can run a range from an in-house employee who is already up to speed, to some live time with a supplier’s training or technical support personnel, or an opportunity for live online chat. Because online training is accessed and utilized individually, it will be most successful when it is matched with the learning objectives of individual employees or groups of employees. It is also good to keep in mind that employees best served by online tutorials are those doing routine tasks who are comfortable with computers.
  2. Be prepared to supplement online tutorials with information about how a particular principal, process, or procedure applies to the way your company does business. This is a particular limitation of scooping up prepackaged manufacturer-sponsored programs. Some employees may be well prepared to make the connection, but not all. Unless it’s customized for your operation, online training is by nature generic and must be presented in such a way that employees are able to tie operating principles and procedures with the specifics of your organization, how they function within the organization and how their job integrates with the corporate end product.
  3. Be informed about what online learning packages can do. Webinars are adaptable to a number of functions, from presenting the basics to advanced applications. On the other hand, specific topic tutorials are well suited to training existing users on updates or expansions and may be too advanced if employees haven’t been first introduced to the total package. Depending on the level and depth of the material being presented, tutorials can work well for introductory training, as long as it’s been established that new employees have sufficient background and experience. (In other words, someone who already has a sense of the system and isn’t trying to learn it from the ground up via an online tutorial.)
  4. Keep an eye on things. It make sense for supervisors to check: first how trainees are making use of the material they have access to, and, second, their progress, to determine if the target knowledge level is being achieved, where there might be gaps among individual staff members, and what additional training resources might be added to assure that each person reaches the level of proficiency they need to perform efficiently.
    This doesn’t mean wandering around with a clipboard, which is both time-consuming and inefficient, given a problem that you noticed yesterday could be cleared up by tomorrow. Individual assessment can also stigmatize employees who may be stumbling. A better way to manage this process is to stay in touch with employees as a group, discussing what’s been learned and what additional questions remain. Insights gained in such sessions can also help employees better utilize the online material in the way that best suits their needs.
  5. Recognize achievement. Particularly if what’s being presented is new or particularly innovative, it’s useful to recognize staff members who take the time and effort to take advantage of online material. This reinforces the importance of training and will encourage others. If operational changes will require adjustment on how employees approach and discharge their job responsibilities, it can be useful to select a champion who can help introduce fellow employees to the training material and vouch for its value.
  6. Provide adequate time for employees to access and work with the online material. Don’t expect that everyone will know how to fit this kind of learning into their schedule, and don’t expect employees to do this is their spare time.
  7. Provide immediate opportunities to apply what’s been learned. Another way of saying this is that whatever you make available to your employees must be immediately applicable to the work they’re doing, so that they have the opportunity to “practice” what they’re learning. Presenting material too far in advance of situations in which it may be applied diminishes effectiveness and may require that employees expend additional time and effort to go back and review.
  8. Don’t expect online training to do something it doesn’t. There is a logical sequence to how people learn that begins with an overview, followed by how-to, followed by application. To skip the first step or neglect hands-on practice is to shortcut the learning process and compromise time and dollars expended. Depending on the nature of the job the training is meant to address, a combination of online tutorials and some one-on-one training is often the most effective, followed by opportunities to practice and immediate application.
  9. Assure the training is what employees need and set goals for time, competency, and mastery. This means taking time to assess where employees are, their problems, and their challenges. This admonition brings us full circle: be sure you know what you expect your online training program to accomplish—what do you expect employees will be able to do differently or more efficiently or effectively as a result of the training, along with the timeframe for accessing and mastering the material and applying what they’ve learned.

As one software developer put it to me:

A given firm may have several disciplines of work they perform and employees with a variety of skill and knowledge levels. These factors, coupled with resources [computers and employees], time, and costs [physical training costs and out-of-office costs], will often dictate the type of training which is best suited for the client. I find it to be a specialized art and should be respected as such. GX_bug_web

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