Oops – what about the users?

Main points: 
Sue Bird, director of operations at SkillSet Ltd, discusses key methods of ensuring that training is integrated successfully into system rollouts.
 
 
The level of investment required for major system rollouts or upgrades means it is crucial that companies cover all bases to ensure the project is a success. However, the best laid plans can fall victim to overlooking or downgrading one of the fundamental elements of a successful project: User training.
 
We've all been there. A major systems rollout or upgrade, months (or even years) of hard work, midnight oil, planning and re-planning. You're on the home stretch with go-live just weeks away when somebody asks you, innocently, "What's happening with the user training?"
 
Long pause...
 
End-user training is the Cinderella of the project world. It gets pushed out, foisted on an overstretched project team, downgraded to providing some 'these are the changes' documents or even cut from the budget altogether. The statistics about its importance should be well-known and are certainly compelling, none more so than the failure in end-user adoption is a very significant reason for failure of IT projects overall. So what can we do? Well, we can start as we mean to go on.
 
"If defining testing should be Job One in any large systems project, then training should be Job Zero. Start thinking about who you need to train, what they need to know and when they need to know it, right from the very beginning."

Training should be Job Zero

If, as a colleague of mine has often maintained, defining testing should be Job One in any large systems project, then training should be Job Zero. Start thinking about who you need to train, what they need to know and when they need to know it, right from the very beginning. It pays dividends; weaving your training plans into the fabric of the project means you can take advantage of overlaps between capturing requirements and understanding user roles and how they interact with the system. Working with the business as their requirements are established means your training team will understand what success will look like when the system is in use, and how evaluation can measure that; whilst keeping a learning focus alongside testing means activities during business testing and UAT can contribute to developing learning materials and building a community of 'super-users'.
 
But a caveat – UAT does not equal end user training. It's a powerful source of information and resource but you need a learning professional who also understands the complexities of a systems rollout to make sure you produce effective, timely and cost-efficient training interventions. Similarly, your project team may not have the instructional design or delivery skills – let alone the time - to make sure your end users are ready, willing and able to use the system at go-live and are supported afterwards. 
 

"Build it and they will come" does not apply

Even if you have a great training strategy, compelling learning materials, a bevy of eager and well-trained 'super-users' and an exemplary selection of post-go-live support tools, your end users will not beat a path unbidden to your door. End-user reaction to system changes can range from total indifference to blind panic, taking in denial, resistance and over-confidence along the way.
 
An effective end-user rollout depends on the three Es: users need to be Efficient, Effective and Engaged. Efficient, meaning they can carry out the keystrokes and operations necessary to make the system work. Effective, meaning they can use that system properly to run your organisation. And most importantly, Engaged: that their hearts and minds are won over to the change, they're open to new ways of working and they understand (and agree with) the business benefits and the 'what's in it for me'. Those three Es are like a tripod: lose one of the three and the whole thing is in danger of falling over.
 
In practical terms, this means that your training strategy and planning should be happening hand-in-hand with your change and communications strategies. Training deserves a seat at the project table and there should be a representative from your learning team embedded in the project governance structure. The messages to end-users about training should be consistent in tone, content, appearance and positioning with the whole communications package and should be seen as an integral part of project communications. By showing your users that you understand the importance to your organisation of their being well-prepared and enthusiastic about the changes to come, you will help achieve the most important of the three Es; engagement.
 

Hard questions

Achieving this takes work as well as forethought. There are some hard questions that need to be asked before the project even begins - of your vendor, your systems integrator, your project team, your business sponsors and your L&D team. What's going to be done about training and by whom? Can it be handled in-house, will it be part of the vendor or SI's services or do you need a specialist provider? Just how big is the task and who is taking ownership of it – now? Getting this right is all part of defining the project and the old cliché applies: failure to plan is planning to fail.
 
"Training deserves a seat at the project table and there should be a representative from your learning team embedded in the project governance structure. The messages to end-users about training should be consistent in tone, content, appearance and positioning"
Another hard question is how you measure success. Systems projects consume a great deal of time, money and resources and you need to be sure your investment really does return benefits. When the rubber hits the road, how well the system operates as a terrific piece of technology is to a great extent secondary to how well end-users actually employ it to run your business; getting the measures designed, implemented and evaluated to see what's really happening after go-live may give you one of the key indicators of how well it really went.
 

What happens afterwards?

Go-live did, with no more than the usual dramas. The rollout is over, the project documents are archived and the team have disbanded and moved on to new challenges. All is well with the world.
 
What about the users?
 
Keeping them effective, efficient and engaged doesn't end when the project does. Users come and users go, with staff changes, role changes, maybe-mergers and acquisitions. Knowledge fades over time and bad habits can creep in: so how do you protect your investment in the system and the people? Another thing to plan from the start.
 
Think about how you can build a self-supporting structure that allows you to build, maintain and enhance skills over time – developing a network of super-users or a community of practice; providing online, printed or interactive learning materials; integrating help and coaching into the system itself. This is where end-user training develops into performance support...but that's a whole new story.
 

 

 

 

Sue Bird is director of operations at SkillSet. She has as almost 20 years of experience in the design, delivery and management of corporate learning and development programmes. She has a proven track record in facilitating training programmes to some of the world's largest companies. Sue is an active member of the LPI and British Computer Society. She is also a committee member of the British Computer Society's IT Training Special Interest Group

Comments

Jooli Atkins's picture

Thanks Sue, for raising this issue again. 

I totally agree with your view and it saddens me to think that we are still having to say these things.  I first wrote about this problem in 2007 http://bit.ly/wKVDcQ and I am sorry that things have not progressed. 

In my project experience I find myself too often in meetings reminding the project team about the users of the systems because I believe that the project deliverable is not the system but competent, confident users of the system.  And don't get me started on the lack of focus on engagement ...!

I fear, however, that in the current climate the users will be overlooked even more than in the past.  I would love to be proved wrong.

Thanks again for a very interesting article.

It is amazing how many times over the years I have made a similar comment or had the comment "it's okay they can read the documents, we won't need training".

In the future I am going to show them this article and point out it is not just me spouting rubbish to keep me in a job!

I must say that in my current company things are better, but there is still that battle, especially when it comes to the time to implement it properly not just by a deadline date.

jannac's picture

Thanks for an excellent article.

We have a huge system change coming up - go live is scheduled for 20 November. I am very lucky to be working with a great Project Delivery Manager who understands the importance of training. She hasn't lost sight of that and has kept us in the loop and on the timeline.

Our system is an insurance database. Rather than big-bang, it's being phased in by product line (motor, then house & contents, then boat & farm). This has advantages in terms of less risk if things don't go right, but from a training perspective it's a bit of a nightmare. Training in dual systems going forward until full implementation is complete by 2014  doesn't exactly thrill me!

Our in-house trainers met last month with the Delivery Manager along with external design specialists. This will take the load off our already stretched training team, and we will take the role of reviewers as the material is produced. In our workshops we got to discuss how we'd like to see the rollout delivered, the impacts and considerations, timings and materials. We worked with the timeline and looked at the variations for each role - the system users all have their own unique requirements, despite there being a clear majority group.

I hope all this helps to ensure the next 7 months go smoothly and with minimal nasty surprises, as we have had such a good lead in time to be prepared. Leading Change workshops have already started for business managers and that is designed to address the 'Engagement' issue. I get to go as a participant; I'm sure it will be helpful when assisting colleagues later down the track.

Certainly makes a daunting prospect look much more exciting when we get involved early and get to have say!

Janna

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