After the sheep dip

Don TaylorOver the past 15 years, just about everything has changed in IT training, argues Donald H Taylor, a veteran of the IT training profession. From sheep dips to individual online coaching, the industry has moved up a gear. And the future will only be more demanding.

'We've come a long way, baby.'

If you're old enough to remember the slogan for Virginia Slims cigarettes, you're old enough to remember a time when things were different in IT training. Very different. Things have changed, and they're going to keep on changing. If anything, the future will be even more demanding.

It was all so simple just 15 years ago. Only a handful of academics had email, and the world wide web was just one year old. Microsoft had begun its move from personal to business software and its new application, Windows NT Workstation was in beta.

In 1992, Microsoft launched 3.x, an upgrade to its recently-launched PC operating system, Microsoft Windows 3.0.

Windows 3.x transformed the face of IT training. An increased demand for technology was also fuelled by PCs and applications being cheaper and more powerful than ever before - and suddenly in Windows 3.x there was an operating system and interface that was widely available and straight-forward enough for general office workers to use.

And it was also completely new.

It was that newness that drove demand for IT training. From green screens and keyboards, people suddenly had to deal with using a mouse and seeing on screen something close to what you’d get on paper. People were understandably nervous with all this novelty and turned to the experts for help.

The experts smiled and set up shop.

Boom times

There were so few experts and so much demand that it was a golden time for IT training companies. Almost the entire workforce needed training in a key area of skills and knowledge. Without these computer skills they couldn't function in the workplace.

That level of demand kept an increasing number of IT training companies growing at around 50 per cent per annum for several years. Growth continued to be fuelled by a series of upgrades from software vendors which ensured that people always needed new training.

First steps to professionalism

The steady output of software releases led to a production line approach to training: 'sheep dipping'. All employees got the same training whether they needed it or not. And usually they did - because they were all starting from scratch.

But as the '90s went on, the expertise in IT training widened. More employers set up their own IT training departments. More people set up their own training companies, regardless of how much they knew. In just a few years, end-user IT training became commoditised.

Training company growth continued, fuelled by technical rather than end-user IT training. By 1995, though, 10 vendors were concerned enough about the rise of what they saw as unqualified  providers to band together and part-fund the launch of the Institute of IT Training.

The hangover after the party

The year 2000 saw the conditions for a perfect storm. IT Skills Research figures show the annual market peaked at some £500 million at the turn of the millennium

It then crashed as employers decided not to upgrade their systems, run more training in house, or just reckoned that the new release of Office wasn't so very different from the last, and their users could pick it up on the job. By 2003 it had fallen to £380 million, taking a lot of training companies with it.

If the trainers had changed, so had the users. Delegates came to the subject with real problems they wanted to solve. Also, we knew more about how they learned, and understood that knowledge dumps in the classroom were not always the best way to train.

Research and thinking backed up what we were learning at the front of the classroom. Conrad Gottfredson of Brigham Young University in the US recently identified five points when training is needed:

  1. When learning for the first time.
  2. When extending learning.
  3. When training to remember/apply learning.
  4. When things change.
  5. When something goes wrong.

In those early boom years up to 2000, we were only training for the first two of these points of need.

The new world of IT training

This greater understanding of when to train is just one of the things that have changed since 1992. Among the others are: what we train on, how we deliver it, our understanding of how people learn, and our approach to the learning profession. 

1992 2007
Classroom based learning Blended learning
'Sheep dip' training Personal development plans
Training events Learning processes
Knowledge dumps Learning support
Experts on stage Peer collaboration online
Technology as novelty Pervasive technology
Training as an 'accidental job' Training as a profession
Training decided ad hoc L&D determining skills needs

The wider choice of delivery mechanisms - in particular the growth in electronic performance support systems (EPSS) - has come because we now understand that to meet Gottfredson’s needs 3 to 5, we have to support learners at work, making learning a continuous process rather than a series of intensive events.

Good content is still a crucial part of excellent training, but it is now arranged differently. Recognising that 48 hours after a course there is a 66 per cent drop in recall of unused material, we now tend to run shorter courses and aim for more rapid application of learning.

Increasingly, too, learners are doing it for themselves, turning to the internet to interact with each other and to dictate their own learning. The growth of online forums and communities has accelerated the power of the informal learning that takes place in any organisation, making it possible for learners to tap into expertise anywhere in,  or outside, their organisation.

Does this mean that expert teachers at the head of the class have had their day? No. Informal learning is powerful, but you don't know what you don't know, and what you do learn may not be terribly useful. And if you want to interact online, you'll need some tools.

Someone can help make those tools available. Someone has to set the organisational agenda for learning. And someone has to ensure that an organisation has the skills it needs to meet current and planned demands.

These sorts of activities - facilitating, planning, strategising - would not have been dreamt of as part of the profession 15 years ago, and yet these changes in the environment are one part of IT training’s present, and a substantial part of future.

The future

The role of the trainer is becoming increasingly professionalised - whether in IT or any discipline. Skills are now essential to every organisation in the developed world, and recognised as such. The past ad hoc approach where people fell into training accidentally is already passing. In its place we can expect trainers to be experts. Not in every detail of every subject, but certainly expert in the delivery of training, and the support of learning.

And this role of the professional trainer will be augmented with at least one other role: that of the skills strategist. The sheep dip has gone. In the future, formal training will be delivered, and informal learning supported, towards specific goals. What goals? Someone needs to establish a view of the human capital of the organisation that includes an understanding of its current and desired future capability. That person is what I would call the skills strategist.

The skills strategist understands how people learn and how they can be developed, and makes recommendations to the L&D department, to HR and to the board on future directions. It is a senior role, and one very few people pursue right now. However, it is needed, and if it is not evidently in demand now, it will be in the next few years. It is the obvious next development for any ambitious IT trainer.

And what about the technology?

Technology will play a role in the future, but only so far as it supports a particular need. The social aspect of learning means that the classroom - real or virtual - will never be abandoned. People will never switch to reading PDFs from a mobile phone to learn. Instead, they will use their phones to access each other - by voice, by IM or over the web - anywhere in the world.

We will never again see so much change so quickly in this profession, but we can expect some fundamental shifts in the future. The job that people once fell into will increasingly be the first step on a professional ladder that ends with some serious strategic responsibility.

In the table above, Don Taylor suggests the training market has reached a certain level of maturity. Do you think all of the market is already there or only part way? IT Skills Research is conducting a survey to find out more views about the maturity of the UK IT training market.

August 2007