Just-in-time training workshops earned a reputation for the technical writers and disseminated new knowledge throughout the company, effectively training expert employees on new software releases with a series of light sessions.
Article published in Management SIG News, volume 8, issue 3, October 2004 (page 14).
Employee Training as an Important Issue
Altitude Software is a Portuguese company that develops and sells software for sophisticated customers. The company has about 600 customers in 40 countries, with from four to 600 licenses per company. In 2002, it employed about 250 people in Portugal and another 150 in 10 worldwide offices. The R&D team based in Portugal had 100 people and included eight technical writers.
Using the results of an internal survey, the documentation team identified a specific set of employees who rated the user manuals poorly. These employees often consulted the user manuals with an intention different from the objective of the manual (for example, selling or supporting a feature instead of using the feature). The manuals often lacked the level of detail required by employees as opposed to end-users.
Employees should have gained the necessary knowledge from the skills-transfer, a company-wide event held when the company introduced a major software release. However, the event usually happened too late for R&D people and too early for most deployers of the software. The company could not afford multiple skills-transfer events.
The training department offered two five-day courses targeted at beginner and intermediate users, but not intended to address the specific needs of employees.
New employees attended the courses as an introduction to the product, but existing employees typically could not afford five days of training to learn a few new details. Also, the training department updated courses at the request of customers, and thus too late for some employees.
To solve the issue of training employees, the documentation team proposed to senior management a series of workshops hosted by expert employees.
Training Workshops — Phase 1
The training workshops were designed to enable expert employees to train other employees in a framework that reduced administrative overhead to an absolute minimum. Expert employees were encouraged to offer workshops on topics of their expertise. Employees were encouraged to attend sessions that they needed at the moment.
A few drastic limitations allowed us to streamline the sessions:
- Workshops covered a single topic and lasted at most one hour, including questions and answers.
- Experts required little or no preparation to present a workshop, because they presented their own well- known topics and reused existing materials.
- Sessions were limited to no more than five attendees, avoiding the need to prepare the elaborate slide shows typically used to train larger audiences.
- Presenters offered at most one session each week in a fixed room and time-slot, avoiding the need to schedule rooms every week.
In fact, workshop sessions often resembled office meetings where the presenter used a document or a computer to talk to a few persons around a table. Presenters often gained something from the question- and-answer part of the workshop. Workshops were simple to present, and there was a low cost of failure. If a workshop session did not work well, at most five attendees lost an hour each. Having workshops with a single topic also meant that it was easier for attendees to select individual workshops.
Selecting and scheduling the workshops was done as follows:
- On Monday, an administrative assistant sent an email to announce the workshops that might be offered the following week. An intranet site complemented the email with descriptions of the workshops.
- Potential attendees replied and stated their interest in any number of workshops.
- On Wednesday, the administrative assistant created a “demand” spreadsheet.
- Using the spreadsheet, presenters selected which workshop to present the following week and who would attend.
- On Friday, the secretary emailed the attendees selected for each session, as well as those not selected. Workshop sessions took place the following week.
Each workshop session had minimal evaluation. Attendees just said whether the session fulfilled their expectations, optionally adding free- form comments. Presenters said whether the workshop had the expected duration. The minimal evaluation tracked effective participation, made all the participants consider the benefits of the session, and provided formal feedback to the presenter.
A monthly report rated the workshops and justified the concept to senior management.
Results between April and August 2002
Between April and August 2002, four presenters proposed 23 different workshops. Fifteen of the proposed workshops were presented in 22 sessions to 82 persons. There was an average of 3.7 attendees in each workshop. The evaluations were almost all positive.
Overall, the workshops earned a good reputation for the technical writers and provided the ability to gather immediate feedback for the documentation of new features. Workshops also allowed the technical writers to disseminate additional knowledge not included in the user manuals.
The workshop sessions were a tremendous success for all involved. Still, there were problems. First, attendees often failed to renew their interests weekly. When presenters offered several workshops, potential attendees quickly lost interest in the workshops that were not presented within a few weeks. Second, the four presenters were in fact three technical writers and a single expert. In five months, the documentation team did not succeed in influencing other experts to offer workshops.
Training Workshops – Phase 2
Technical writers are well positioned to present interesting workshops, as they are “temporary experts” and can talk in detail about features just documented. These new features are especially interesting to other employees that are just starting to sell or use the features.
In 2004, the technical writers proposed a series of workshops about features just documented. Rather than opening enrollment to any interested employees, the writers worked with the managers of interested teams and delivered the workshops to whole teams at once. Workshop sessions were also delivered to people in foreign offices using conference calls and NetMeeting.
Results between February and April 2004
Between February and April 2004, one technical writer proposed six different one-hour workshops. Four of the proposed workshops were presented in 14 sessions to 136 persons. The largest session had 18 attendees while the average was 9.7 attendees. Four sessions were presented jointly with an expert that served as a safety net against difficult questions. Seven sessions were canceled because the target teams were surprised with other urgent tasks.
Sessions with more people required more preparation, as the risk and the cost of failure was much higher. Five attendees literally evaluated workshop sessions with their feet by abandoning the sessions. The 29 attendees outside Portugal sent only 13 evaluations.
Sessions aimed at Portuguese employees typically required an extra half hour of administration, while sessions aimed at branches typically required a full hour.
Since workshops were arranged with managers, the attendees no longer selected themselves. As a result of poor communication, some attendees did not know what to expect from the workshop sessions. Still, most evaluations were positive.
Just-in-time training workshops earned a reputation for the technical writers and increased the interaction among teams. The documentation team gained a position as spreaders of internal knowledge instead of being confined to user knowledge for customers.
The workshops succeeded in disseminating new knowledge throughout the company, effectively training the expert employees on new software releases with a series of light sessions. The evaluations were overwhelmingly positive. According to the director of the technical support department in 2003, no one ever complained about a workshop session.
The tricky issue is how to keep the sessions simple for all involved, balancing the risk of failure with the need to spend as little time as possible preparing workshops. The team currently follows these guidelines:
- Offer one-hour sessions, where ideally a half-hour of presentation is followed by a half-hour of questions and answers.
- Keep the administrative time for each session to a half-hour, including processing the evaluations.
- Allow at most two hours to prepare a workshop when all sessions have five attendees or less. Allow four hours to prepare a workshop with larger sessions.
In-house writers may want to use workshops to complement the documentation aimed at specific audiences. Consultants may want to consider debriefing workshops on hot topics to build relationships with customers, clarify possible confusions or omissions in the documentation, and gather feedback.
- Local copy
- Management SIG News, volume 8, issue 3, October 2004. Original at http://www.stcsig.org/mgt/news/October2004MgtSIGNews.pdf.