Don't train employees - improve their work performance, argues Steve Simons, proprietor of PC Tamers. In this article, he sets out some ways of making people more effective at doing their job.

People attending training courses seldom need 'A Training Course'. They want to become more productive and efficient, so what they actually need is a solution to a business problem. I believe that it is up to us as IT trainers to change our approach and to help them find the solutions.

Why should we adapt our training?

Is it our job to improve an employee's performance rather than training them to understand all the functions of a particular application?

I have always believed that the purpose of any business training should be to help people become more effective at their jobs. This provides better service to our clients, and that should always be something we're looking to do.

The hard-nosed business answer to the above question is that, as training providers, we want companies to spend their money with us. The credit crunch has affected how organisations prioritise training and the IT training sector seems to be hit particularly hard by a reluctance to spend.

So why, when economic times are hard, are companies cutting training?

I'm biased but I think they should increase training. If that sounds counter intuitive let me give you an example: if my football team starts to play badly, I would be unimpressed if the manager announced he was going to cut back on the team's training in the hope it would improve their performance.

It is the same with business. When companies aren't performing (for whatever reason) and are making staff redundant, the remaining staff still have to complete the same amount of work they had before the redundancies. Surely it would make sense to increase training and enable the remaining staff to complete their work more effectively?

Change of approach

What I don't mean is that companies should increase standard classroom training - the sort where a disparate group of people turn up and are all taught the same topics, whether they need to learn them all or not.

Whatever training an organisation decides to implement, one thing I keep hearing is that 'in a recession the training budget gets cut'. This makes me wonder how much organisations value training in the first place. Is it a 'nice to have' when times are good and simply an unnecessary overhead when profits are down? Or is training valued only as a means to meet 'Investor In People' targets and have a nice certificate on the wall?

It is up to us to change our approach so that IT training is valued as something that makes a company work more economically. We need to convince organisations that the money they spend on training is money well spent.

So what approaches can we use to improve attendees' work performance?

Targeted training

For individuals, use as many methods as possible to make the training targeted. Some ideas that will help are:

  1. Define what needs to be improved. Is the process even necessary? Can it be achieved in a different way / method?
  2. Look at the cause of the lack of performance. Is the attendee having problems performing this task? If so, why are they having these problems? Are there other causes for lack of performance? Excessive workload; lack of usable tools?
  3. Assuming the task is necessary, find a way to improve the performance; this could be by formal training, on-the-job training, CBT or some other solution, such as posting the information for performing this task on the intranet.
  4. Implement the solution. Whatever solution is decided upon, set it up and get it done.
  5. For example, ensure that the attendees have been contacted beforehand (in plenty of time) and have let the administrator and trainer know which topics from the proposed content are most important for them to learn. Ideally have the attendees send examples of the tasks they want to achieve.
  6. Review the implementation. Has it worked? Could it be improved? How do we judge these?
  7. Test that performance has improved. This can be achieved by observing the employee, questioning them and their manager, or by more formal means, such as practical tests.

All this makes the trainer's and administrator's jobs more complicated but if we want to give the best value I believe that’s the level of service we have to provide.

Drop-in workshops and floorwalking

Drop-in workshops can be tremendously useful, giving attendees just the right amount of information without them having to attend a whole day of learning. Workshops can be on specific topics or set up as an ad-hoc question and answer session.

Floorwalking is one of my favourite ways to help people improve their performance because it allows us to deal with their actual problems there and then, at their desk. Again, a structured approach needs to be taken. For instance it's always best if the trainer has some prior knowledge of the questions likely to be asked. This is easily handled by asking, when the floorwalking is publicised, what topics staff want covered.

There will always be occasions of course when a question comes out of the blue. I was recently doing some floorwalking for a company and during a quiet time agreed to help someone who just had 'a few easy questions'. The first one was how to create a bibliography in Word 2007. Now I've been teaching Word for 13 years or so and have never been asked that. I managed to get him the result he was after but it was a bit of a wake-up call.

Modular training

If we are still providing traditional classroom training sessions, we can look at making them modular so that delegates can choose from a 'menu' of topics they might wish to learn. Obviously this doesn't work with open courses where delegates are coming from different organisations and where a more standard syllabus has to be adhered to, but it can be a good approach for closed courses, where delegates are from the same company.

My approach with the modular method is that I tend to teach people what they have asked for, plus a bit more to hopefully whet their appetites to learn more in their own time. For example, if someone says they need to produce charts in Excel I show them the quick way: select your data, including the descriptive column to the left and the descriptive row above and then press the F11 key. Quite often that's all a user will need to know to be able to create the charts they need.

However, to encourage them to investigate further on their own, I next show them how to add their own text to the chart, and how to modify colours of any object. It may be that they require a particular style of chart with a specific colour scheme. In this case I'll show them how to define a default chart type, so that each time they select their data and process F11, the chart will appear with the scheme they have defined.

Managed resource

Another way to prove value - and so allow you as a trainer to improve delegate's work performance - is to offer a whole managed resource for IT training. This will indirectly help to improve attendees' performance as poor administration can ruin a course before it's started.

For example, PC Tamers recently won a contract to provide at-the-desk training for a large organisation. Unfortunately the training was not well administrated. There were posters placed around the buildings, but they had misspellings on them; no actual times of appointments were booked. None of the delegates really knew what to expect, other than that a trainer would be turning up sometime.

This reflected poorly on everyone involved and did not give value for money. We have since accepted another contract with this organisation but have insisted on a full managed provision.

If you take it upon yourself to administer the courses - publish course schedules, determine attendees' prerequisites, manage bookings, provide the training and collate feedback - you are ensuring that these important areas are performed to your standards.


Blended training - where a mixture of web-based, classroom, and, increasingly, new technology such as instant messaging (IM) and even text messaging are used - can play a big part in improving staff's work performance.

We must push the boundaries of how these can be used, not simply use them as modern-day chalkboards. Intranets, SharePoints and online 'webinars' are all ways in which we can use these technologies to our student's advantage.

One example of this is text messaging. Bear in mind messages may be sent to personal phones, so sensitivity is required in the implementation of this scheme. You could set it up that staff opt in to particular topics they wish to receive information about by text. They then receive an agreed maximum number of short, quickly understood tips per week.

These can be sent at relatively quiet times and, obviously, always during work time. Of course there must be an opt-out option in place, and this must be implemented immediately when an opt-out request is received.

Impact on trainers

What is the impact of this approach on trainers and training companies? It's clear from the above ideas that it will mean harder work for us, but then that seems to be true of every industry at the moment.

Shifting an organisation's focus from providing training to providing improved performance is difficult to achieve. It requires a change in our thinking. Having said that, I believe this new approach should motivate us to make sure our training provision is in tip-top shape and is giving people what they want - improved work performance.