A key challenge in software implementation is getting the end users up to speed with the new system. My experience has been that training is more often a failure than a help. At my last job, I found people doing astounding work-arounds to get their work done because they didn’t know how to use the system.

There is a surprising but valid reason that managers skimp on training of all types. They don’t think training works. In many cases they are right. Just think about the number of people you know who have gone off to training, but showed no change in behavior or outcomes when they returned. You might even have been one of those people! Why would a rational manager repeat that.

Of course, the training gurus tell managers that “you just didn’t train enough”; in other words, you need more of the same medicine. But from the surface, it is virtually impossible to distinguish one training supplier from the next. So picking a “good” trainer is very tough for the non-expert. And in the software world, the trainers usually come with the implementing firm, so you may not even have much choice.

In the face of all this, it seeems there isn’t much to recommend training; however, much we might think that it is a good thing in principle.

Or is there? Maybe it isn’t training in and of itself, but how we do it. After all, Olympics athletes aren’t born doing what they do—they learn their skills. It turns out there are some pretty consistent practices that help those athletes improve.

What, then, if we could find a set of practices that seemed to make a difference?

A program called Training Within Industry (TWI) was developed during World War II (WWII) to help boost the production and productivity of the nation. They were dealing with bringing large numbers of unskilled people (women and those who had been unemployed during the Great Depression) into factories that hadn’t existed, making products that had just been invented. For example, the labor force in shipbuilding went from under 50,000 in 1939 to over 650,000 in 1943!

This program developed an approach to training that was proven effective time and again. The training time to get people productive on a new task went down at least 25% for every company that used it, and often much more. For example, the time to train a competent lens grinder went down from 5 years in 1940 to 5 days in some plants in 1944.

Interesting. But how does that make any difference in 2012 in the world of software?

There are two reasons to think it might be effective.

First, this method is still used today by some of the very best companies, such as Toyota. The TWI approach is still at the core of how Toyota trains its workers, and the company expects new plants to produce at full run rates within the first shift of start-up!

Second, we have seen it applied by a software vendor with remarkable results:

  1. A client installation of a module that had historically involved several support calls happened without a single call, and compliments on-the-job instructions.
  2. A group of sales people who had never used the application before learned to do sales order entry in two sessions, and were doing it with high confidence, with virtually no errors, and were excited about their new contribution to the sales process.
  3. A module installation that previously had taken a day and with lots of support was done flawlessly in just one hour without any questions by a junior person.

This company is now using this approach whenever it trains clients, and the consultants are excited about how fast the training is to develop, and how quickly the learners master the skills.

What makes this method work? There are five key reasons it is effective.

  1. Starts with context
    Most people like to know why the work they are doing matters. How does it affect the customer? The TWI approach starts by preparing the worker, figuring out what his/her existing experience is, how that experience might relate to the work at hand, and explaining why the work is important—how it matters to others in the company and, ultimately, to the customers. Letting the learner see the big picture helps his/her interest in learning.
  2. Distinguishes between three types of information
    One of the challenges in most instruction is that the presenter wants to get across not just what to do, but how that step needs to be done and why it has to be done that specific way. In most cases, these different kinds of information get all mixed together. This makes it hard for the learner to follow the flow of the work. It also makes it harder to remember. By carefully distinguishing between Important Steps, Key Points, and Reasons, the TWI approach makes it easier for a person to learn and remember the steps of the operation.
  3. Demonstrates in stages
    If you think about someone who has taught you to use a piece of software, the single biggest challenge is following where the teacher’s cursor is. If you are not familiar with the task, then you don’t know what fields matter, and where they are located on the screen. By doing repeated demonstrations (four) and layering on new information each time, the learner gets familiar with where to move his/her eyes on the screen, and doesn’t get overwhelmed with information all at once. The “bite-size” pieces of information make it easier to swallow.
  4. Learners repeat the process
    Too often people learning software are shown the process once, and then allowed to do one practice try before moving on to the next task. The problem with that is that humans learn well through repetition. So the TWI process asks learners to repeat the process several times, with specific activities during each repetition, so that before they leave the training session they have demonstrated not just ability, but also understanding.
  5. Only shows the current best way
    Most software offers many ways to achieve the same result. Think about how many options there are for aligning text in any word processor. However, when you are learning, choice is NOT your friend. Those who have used an application for some time also know how to get the desired result with the fewest clicks and screens. In the TWI approach, you teach only the current best method. You also start with the core task that will cover 90–95% of all cases. Let the learners master that. Only then do you layer on the exceptions. Don’t give the learners unnecessary options. It makes it far easier for them to learn.

Fortunately, the TWI method for job instruction is easy to learn. The instructional time is just 10 hours, not weeks.

Of course, practice is needed to master this training method, just like anything. But the evidence is that this training model can be as effective today with software as it was in WWII with shipbuilding and aircraft manufacture, or as it is today at the very best companies.

As you consider the training needs for an installation, look for a vendor who uses this proven method—a method that reduces the learning time by at least 25%. And if you can’t find one, ask us and we'll help.