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The ABCs of Intranet Learning

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (12-Aug-2004)

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Using an unfamiliar computer system for the first time can make some feel as though they're walking through a stranger's house with the lights off (never mind why you're there, just play along for a moment). As you try navigating your way through the countless obstacles—walls, closed doors, furniture, children's toys—the chances of bumping into something are good. But an even worse scenario would be knocking over an expensive vase or a pair of high-end Bang and Olufsen speakers. And if this happens too often, you'll be conditioned to be afraid of the dark—to stand perfectly still and not touch anything ever again.

While some more talented individuals have a natural ability to see in the dark—through some type of internal night vision or echolocation—the majority of us need a little bit of help. So rather than blindly feeling our way around a darkened room hoping we don't break anything, why not just turn some lights on?


The Importance of Intranet Education

Many IT systems are introduced into the corporate bloodstream with little more than an announcement of their arrival, if that. Standard business applications—e-mail and collaborative tools, personal information managers, office suites, anti-virus software—can be found in almost all companies regardless of size. And while we expect employees to have the basic, fundamental skills to use these tools, somewhere along technology's evolutionary timeline we seem to have lumped every IT system into the same generalized class. We expect our employees to be able to use them all with the same proficiency regardless of their complexity.

Even when more elaborate systems are implemented, IT professionals sometimes seem to forget that not all users are on a level playing field—that not all users are as technologically adept as they are—if they were, there wouldn't be any need for IT. Perhaps because of the overwhelming prevalence of software tools in our business culture, IT professionals think (albeit mistakenly) that users will eventually be able to figure things out on their own. After all, IT's job is to put a functional and stable system into production; learning how to use them properly is the users' responsibility, right? WRONG.

Putting a new system into a production environment without providing your users with training is like washing a marble hallway without putting down a “wet floor” sign; some will get through it unscathed, some will stumble, and some will pay unwitting homage to Buster Keaton and land flat on their faces.

Now I know what you're thinking: Do you know how much it will cost us to train our employees? Well, how much will it cost, in both time and money, for your IT staff to answer phone calls and e-mail from users with simple questions that would have been answered had they been given proper training? Answering elementary questions of this nature will overtax your IT staff and take up valuable time—time that can be better spent on more urgent matters requiring immediate attention.

Training will also help to increase overall intranet usage across the entire spectrum of your corporate user community. This is especially true of those users who are uncomfortable with technology and may be hesitant to use a new system for fear of doing something wrong—and all the marketing in the world won't change that. Practical, hands-on training, however, will belay these fears and go a long way toward dispelling the myth of the "Big, Bad IT System" that can devour a user in one fell swoop.

But how much training is enough? You can always gauge the level of training required by the complexity of your intranet and the technical savvy of your user-base. For example, database or application-driven intranets that integrate specific corporate systems—supporting either new processes or replacing processes that were ported over from older systems such as mainframe or PC-based client server applications—require much more training than a simple presentation can provide.

To simplify this issue, you can usually categorize intranet training programmes into two types: One for regular end-users, and another for content/site managers. While it's not always necessary to train end-users on every nook-and-cranny of an intranet, they should at least be given a general introduction to the system, the type of content available, and the types of applications that can be found. However, training your site and content managers is a must; you never put an unqualified, untrained person in charge of an intranet or you'll be inviting disaster.


Types of Training

To many of us, the word "school" still conjures up images of spitballs, note passing, and irate teachers telling us to shape up or ship out. We trudged to class despite the snow or rain like a scene out of some Hollywood Doomsday movie—but we've come a long way from that... or at least I hope.

Nowadays, a globally dispersed workforce, advances in technology, and higher bandwidth have given us far more options when it comes to training. The two most common:

  1. Face-to-face (F2F): Traditional training courses where the instructors and their students are in the same room.
  2. Electronic learning: E-learning can be defined as the use of a network or electronic medium such as CD-ROM or DVD-ROM to deliver training material. E-learning can be further divided into two sub-categories:

    • Instructor-led Training (ILT): A live, real-time course driven by an instructor (known as synchronous learning) with the use of streaming video and audio. Common tools used in an ILT e-learning session include, but are certainly not limited to, live presentations, real-time chats, and shared whiteboards.
    • Computer-based Training (CBT): A recorded course where a computer takes the place of a live instructor (known as asynchronous learning).

Here's how the different methods measure up:

  Pros Cons
Traditional F2F Students are more accustomed to live, social interaction.

There are fewer opportunities for distractions in a classroom setting.

Set dates and times may not suit students' schedule. It will also force them to factor in travelling time.

May be expensive sending students to course location if not in their home city.

Synchronous E-Learning Shyer students may be more comfortable asking questions and participating in the course when there's a certain level of anonymity.

Accommodates geographically dispersed student-base.

Set dates and times may not suit students' schedule.

Students may not be comfortable with technology and/or the e-learning tools. Or they may simply not have the proper equipment.

Asynchronous E-Learning Courses are self-paced, allowing students to take the course whenever it's convenient for them. Also supports "just in time" (JIT) training, allowing students to take only what's immediately applicable; other topics can be taken when required.

Accommodates geographically dispersed student-base.

Without human interaction, students may find recorded, computer-based courses dry and dull.

There may be too many interruptions during the course: e-mail, phone calls, other employees.

These various methods, however, are not mutually exclusive. Companies can, and should, use a combination of these techniques depending on the material and audience. For example, a recorded CD-ROM or DVD-ROM can be created to introduce users to an intranet's featureset and instruct them on its basic usage while more complex site and content management training can be given live, using either synchronous e-learning or traditional F2F.

The advantage in this example is that a CD/DVD can be given to new employees as part of their introduction package (allowing them to take the course at their convenience) rather than having to give a course each time a new group of employees joins the company. And site/content management training—a course that will likely occur much less frequently than a usage course—can be given only when a new content manager joins the intranet team.


Different Audience, Different Approach

I find that the most effective learning occurs when the course material is designed around its intended audience. This doesn't mean you need several dozen different intranet training programmes to accommodate each and every user type, but you should at least have—again, this will depend on the complexity of your intranet—two different approaches: one aimed at your technical users and site/content managers, and another for your non-technical users and site/content managers.

Users with a background in technology—engineers, software programmers, network and systems administrators—will be more receptive to faster-paced sessions and will be equally at home with either a traditional F2F or e-learning course. Since they deal with technology on a daily basis, learning to use an intranet won't be too big of a stretch. And given that techies are naturally predisposed to curiosity, many of an intranet's finer details and features can often be discovered on their own through normal usage and experimenting with the system.

However, do keep this tiny word of caution in mind: Don't let them turn the course into a surgical procedure. If engineers and IT users get their hands on a new "toy" they will take it apart within minutes in order to figure out what makes it tick. So it's important to keep intranet training—whether on usage or site/content management—on track and not to let it digress into a lengthy discussion on the technology used to build the system.

Non-technical users, on the other hand, tend to favor the traditional methods of F2F training over the "coldness" sometimes associated with e-learning—especially recorded CBT courses—and may find the lack of human interaction a little disconcerting. Smaller, intimate classroom settings are often more conducive to open discussion and class participation. After all, we have been accustomed to F2F learning since kindergarten.

I usually discourage the use of synchronous e-learning to teach users who are already uncomfortable with technology unless it's absolutely necessary and unavoidable. The reason behind this is that you're forcing them to have to clear two hurdles instead of one: The first being the course material itself, and the second being the e-learning tool and interface to learn this material. And when non-technical users are engaged in a synchronous e-learning session, the majority of their time will be spent either wowing at, or cursing, the e-learning interface rather than focusing their attention on the intranet material.

But if geography forces you to use e-learning with your non-technical users, make sure that you understand the level of their computer know-how—or at least how quickly they will be able to adapt to a new learning medium—and design your program to place more emphasis on human interaction. You want to involve the students in the discussion as much as possible rather than allow the session to turn into a long, one-sided lecture. It's also a good idea to break up longer topics such as site/content management into several, shorter sessions to allow more time for questions and to absorb all the new material.


Final Thoughts

While I've always advocated the use of different teaching mediums and methods to suit the audience, there may be times when your training options are limited by your circumstances. Perhaps you don't have the proper equipment to support synchronous e-learning or maybe it will be too expensive to constantly send employees from satellite branches to a central course location.

Regardless of your circumstances, you should always seek an alternative. Never abandon intranet training simply because you're unable to implement your desired method. Your goal is to teach your employees about the use and management of the system so that they don't have to blindly figure it out on their own. Even a little training is better than no training—and as the Chinese proverb goes, "It's better to light a candle than curse the darkness."


Copyright © 2004 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article in whole or part in any form without prior written permission of Paul Chin is prohibited.