I’ve been reading the discussion on training with some interest. I have a few training models that I find helpful, that have been triggered by recent contributions.
In local government we have frequent discussions about the proper use of bonds. The consensus seems to be that it is appropriate to use bonds to pay for a large capital expenditure that will last for many years, say a large bridge, rather than to attempt to fund it with current revenue. In theory the bridge will be paid for during its useful life by the people who are using the bridge through taxes. On a bridge we may install a tollbooth, so that the actual users would fund it, but we would not do so for a new city hall, fire station or school. Bear with me, eventually this will all come together.
Consider the people of the planet Zork who lived under the Brund dynasty for thousands of years. The Zorkians lived in 100 villages of approximately the same size, and, coincidentally, the “wise women” – a leadership council – determined that the most cost-effective policy was to replace the sewage system of each village once every 100 years. If they did so more often, then there was a waste of resources, and to do so less often increased maintenance costs disproportionately. And so the policy was that each year exactly one village had its sewage system replaced by a crew of experts, and for many centuries all ran smoothly. Since this was a dictatorship given to central planning, this expenditure was always financed using current revenue, no problem.
The accountants of Zork kept accurate measure of all work and used a technique somewhat different from what we might use. In certain years, for example during time of war, all hands were needed for the war effort and work on the sewer system was suspended. The accountants recognized that work that was not done that should have been constitutes a deficit, and showed it on the books as such. It would remain on the books and remain cumulative until it was caught up. They were further aware that if they fell too far behind, say, five or ten years, that the cost of catching up would increase at a greater-than-linear pace (having to bring in outside construction workers and dealing with increased maintenance) and they were very careful not to allow this to happen.
We are in a profession in which a certain amount of ongoing training is mandatory. If someone is “fully trained” – whatever that means – at the beginning of the year, then it probably takes a set amount of training – let’s call it 15 days of in-class equivalent training – during the year in order to be “fully trained” at the end of the year. This is the amount of training that results in the most cost-effective long-term policy for the company. This is true each and every year, and I suspect that the required number of days is increasing rather than decreasing, compared to a generation ago.
In our personal and in our corporate accounting we should budget enough to cover these 15 days of training every year. We should be aware that if we fall behind and skip a year, or only invest 10 days instead of 15, that we are accumulating a training deficit. Our accounting system is flawed in that it does not show up on the books, but we are pursuing a policy that is not the most cost-effective long-term strategy and we will pay for it inevitably.
Note, too, that a deficit in training is both cumulative and increases at a greater-than-linear pace, so that falling far behind in training is very expensive in many ways, and can become disastrous. Not only does one lack the staff necessary to do the work, but it is not possible to skip five years of training and then schedule 90 days of training in the sixth year to catch up. People do not learn that way. We must interleave new training with periods of work in which one gets to practice what one has learned.
This model needs at least one other factor – the cost of running the sewer system each year after its scheduled replacement date. In our business, people who are a few years behind in their training can make a huge stinking mess.
Of course, the analogy fails when you consider that companies find it a lot easier to dispose of an employee than Zorkans find it to dispose of a sewer system. Commonly, a company will undertrain a person because “we can’t spare you from maintaining system X.” Then, after a few years of this, they retire system X and fire the person “because you haven’t kept up with the latest technologies.”
I agree on both counts, but it turns out that the brilliant accountants on Zork had figured the cost of running the system beyond its useful life in their calculation of the most cost-effective replacement plan, and likewise I contend that hiring people, not training them, burning them out and then dismissing them is not the most cost-effective long-term solution for a company, either.
On the other hand, I believe we are all ultimately responsible for our own training, and if we allow ourselves to become so abused, we should not act like victims.
So, as promised, here is:
My Taxonomy of Training
Training comes in a wide variety of types, and I find it helpful to divide or segment the spectrum. We separate the spectrum of colors into an arbitrary set of seven. Other cultures could just as arbitrarily choose six or eight or fifteen, it is only a convenient mechanism for discussion. Likewise, my division of training into four categories is arbitrary and many other groupings are possible. So, too, are the boundaries fuzzy and overlapping, such that any particular training might straddle two categories. Still, I have found this particular division to be helpful in my thinking and discussions.
This is something that I used to draw on a flip chart. I hope if this will look right in your format.
I I I I I
I I I I I
I I I I I
I I I I I
I I I I I
Syntax Concepts Soft skills Meaning and values
It looks to me like four labelled buckets. I hope that’s right.
First, let me offer an explanation of these terms.
Syntax is learning a new language, a new tool, a new protocol. A class in C++, Excel, or MVS/JCL or MS Project would be a syntax class.
Concepts – learning ideas that transcend language or tools, such as normalization, object-orientation, or the concepts behind project management or a methodology.
Soft skills – learning to understand and work with other people, learning about ourselves; teamwork, communication, etc. Some exercises in PSL address soft skills.
Meaning and values – learning why we are in business, what values we share, where we want to go. IT is about mission and vision. Originally I called this “spirituality” but I found that too many people expected training to take the form of a séance.
That’s spiritualism, not spirituality. Perhaps another category, but one you’d have a hard time getting your employer to pay for. Well, now that I think about it, maybe not. Lots of employers expect magic when they send their employees to a class.
The spectrum is arranged from the most narrow and specific on the left to the broadest and most general on the right. Across this arrangement we can make some observations of several variables.
AWARENESS OF NEED.
I would argue that a person who does not know a particular language, tool or protocol is very aware that they do not know it. This is less true as you move to the right. Many people who do not know how to normalize a database or design an online system are oblivious to the fact and think it is all just “common sense”. People who lack communication skills tend to think that other people are bad listeners, and I have yet to meet someone who though that he or she needed to be work on “values”.
Naturally expenditures as a portion of total training budget tend to parallel awareness of need, but perhaps even more skewed to the left because the cost-per-day of good quality training in soft skills and values discourages all expense in those areas.
I would argue that training in syntax should be presented on a just-in-time schedule, so that the day I finish learning it, I begin to use it. It is a mistake and waste of time to present syntax training a month ahead of time and expect students to retain the knowledge. This is true, but to a lesser extent, of concept training. But training in soft skills and especially meaning and values is something that ought to be ongoing, a regular part of every training program, and not tailored or scheduled to meet an immediate need.
I believe a motivated student can learn syntax from a book or tutorial with access to hands-on practice, with or without an instructor. I have taken classes in which the instructor did no more than to say “read chapter one and do the exercises” – and sometimes did not know enough to answer questions. Having an experienced mentor monitor my coding has been helpful, but primarily in teaching me the concepts behind the syntax, and not the syntax itself.
Concepts can be learned from a book, but the process may be accelerated with an instructor and exercises. I have seen this done effectively in a lecture hall with a hundred students.
The best soft-skills training that I have experienced require small groups with exercises simulating the work environment with a highly skilled trainer able to intervene at just the right moment, when I am, no doubt, doing some self-destructive thing for the umpteenth time, and bring me that nugget of enlightenment that I need to recognize and change my behavior. I’m sure many of us can think of examples.
And a good session about meaning and values requires a highly skilled facilitator, not a lecturer or instructor, to bring the group together and reach some consensus.
Although the awareness of need is skewed to the left, I believe that actual value may be skewed to the right, or at least flat.
I base this upon the old waterfall model of projects in which one went through phases of planning, analysis, design and code-and-test. What I recall is that an error made in planning, choosing the wrong system to implement, is more costly than a mistake of analysis. A mistake in analysis is more costly than a mistake of design, and a mistake in design is more costly than a mistake of the code-and-test variety. I’m sure we can all cite numerous exceptions, but this is the general trend.
I believe that there is a correspondence between “meaning and values” and planning, in the sense that planning involves the broadest directions in which the organization wants to move. Likewise there is a correspondence between soft skills, communication, and analysis of business needs, which primarily involves those skills. Further, there is a correspondence between concepts and design, which is primarily the application of those concepts, and finally, a correspondence between syntax and code-and-test.
Using these parallels, I can assert that the value or importance of the spectrum of training rises to the right, just the opposite of the perceived need.
I have found this model helpful not only in my own understanding of training, but in convincing management of the need to provide ongoing training on the right side of the spectrum, where the perceived need is lowest but the value may be highest.
My apologies to Johanna, to whom I promised to share this model with the world about six years ago.
© 2002, Jim Batterson