Uncharted Waters

Sep 29 2017   9:46PM GMT

Lessons Learned in Corporate Training

Matt Heusser Matt Heusser Profile: Matt Heusser


corporate trainingSix years as an independent, averaging a conference every-other month, with consulting assignments in-between. Four semesters teaching IS part-time, a couple years coaching soccer, and years of religious and military cadet education, I’ve learned few things about corporate training. Here are a few of my favorites – the easy, obvious things that yet are often overlooked.

Dive in and Quit

Corporate Training - Dive in! Image by © Royalty-Free/CorbisMost corporate training starts with definitions. Words. Theory.

It is boring.

Technical staff tend to think in concrete things – the work they do every day. Powerpoint presentations tend to be about abstractions. Some percentage of your audience will be stuck in a fixed mindset and trying to decide between three options. In option number one, they already understand the concept, they just don’t have the words. In option two, they don’t know it, and they stink. In option three, your training is irrelevant.

Human nature being what it is, your students are unlikely to pick option two.

So don’t give them time to think.

Instead, immerse them in an exercise that forces them to use skills that matter on software projects that they have no mastered yet.

Dive in.

After the exercise is complete, bring the group back together to discuss what they have learned.

Let the Students Teach

This is the first real challenge.

After the exercise, get the students together and ask what they learned.

Then shut up.

If you are good at what you do, and you care, you will probably have a ten to two hundred minute lecture memorized about the importance of that thing you just showed them was important, along with tips, tricks, and all kinds of stuff to get good at that thing.

You need to shut up.

Respect the audience. Wait. It will get awkward.

Let it be awkward.

Eventually, someone in the back will point out some part of what the exercise is teaching,

Respect the students. If they are working professionals, the room will have five to fifty times the combined experience you do. They know this stuff. They’ll figure it out. Let them talk.

You could argue this won’t work, for, say, learning new programming languages, and I would agree. Still, earlier this week, I gave students a simple program from the command line, which happened to written in Ruby, and asked them to write another program to interface with it. This second program could be in any language they wanted, but I gave examples in Java and Ruby. By the end of the afternoon two of the three teams had picked up Ruby as “pretty cool” and were doing their work in it – despite being C++ or Java Programmers.

Corporate Training could learn from how children learn by John HoltIn his book How Children Learn, the author John Holt points out that grade-school children can derive the rules for most of the rule-based learned they “taught” – things like the arc of a pendulum or rules for addition and multiplication. Once derived, they won’t be forgotten, as they can always be derived again.

Yet a lot of corporate training is still teaching how to configure a customer on the customer-configurer screen.

Forget that. Give them a problem to solve, split them into groups, and see if they can figure it out. Then step back and talk about it.


Exercises As Themes

If possible, do the exercise at least twice. Not the same exercise, but thematic; the exercises should build on each other. Students should do materially better the second time around. This will provide evidence they are actually learning something, causing them to reject the “Just gives me new names for things I already knew and did” hypothesis.

Address All Kinds of Learners

Give 'em Candy in Corporate TrainingSlides and Walk-Throughs address the visual learners; conversation reaches the audible learners. It is the tactile learners who often miss out in corporate training. One way I have mentioned to reach them is with experiential exercises where they actually do the work; a second is by giving away candy. If possible, create a light-hearted competition. Don’t just have a candy bowl; ask questions, get hands raised. For a good answer, or a good question, throw it to people to catch.

I like to split groups into teams of 3-7 people, find a way for them to compete, and give away prizes. Hershey’s Miniatures do well in Europe, because they are “imported.”

Ask for Focus

I used to tell students that we are all adults, so if you have to work, that’s fine, but please don’t give me a poor evaluation for not keeping your focus. It happened anyway. The students would be emeshed in their day job, look up when we got to an exercise, not understand what they were trying to do with the exercise, and tune out the discussion that followed after, connecting the exercise to their day job.

Now I say please focus, we’ll have plenty of breaks, if you need a break, one will be just around the corner. If you need to be focused at work, that’s fine, go work on the day job … somewhere else. You give me your focus, I’ll give you mine – that’s the deal.

Students Define The Acceptance Criteria Up-Front

For training that is an entire day long, I start with what I intend to teach, do a brief introduction to the topic, then ask what the students want to hear, asking each person to contribute a stickynote. During the first exercise I sort those notes into three piles: Will be covered by the class, could be covered in the afternoon, and out of scope. During the day I move stickies into a fourth pile, called done, and invite the students to look and move things back if they disagree.

The point here is students define what they need to learn explicitly, and we negotiate, explicitly, about what is going to be done and not.

It will be impossible, in any large class, to satisfy all the students. Still, I’m going to try, and these are a few techniques I have learned over the years.

The internet may just be the largest class of all, with thousands and millions more times experience combined than I have.

What are your favorite techniques to teach?

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