L&D Best Practices: Technology and Technical Development

2011 Training Top 125 winners and Top 10 Hall of Famers share strategies for technology and technical development.


By Andrew B. Wolff, PhD, L&D Educational Methods Leader, PricewaterhouseCoopers

It’s no secret that training has been affected heavily by the economic pressures of the last several years: Curricula have been trimmed; courses (de)prioritized; delivery strategies altered; and, in some cases, training teams downsized. Training Top 10 Hall of Famer PricewaterhouseCoopers was by no means immune from these challenges: “Like most others, we were asked to spend prudently,” notes U.S. CLO Tom Evans, whose team successfully saved the firm millions of dollars through the prioritization, localization, and virtualization of courses. “Our national fly-and-stay delivery model made it easier to see ways to cut costs and meet the budget challenge put to us by our leadership team.”

That said, Evans is quick to point out that cost savings was only one aspect of optimizing people development at PwC. “Our focus was and continues to be on balancing formal training, coaching, and learning during the course at work, and our perspective on this continues to evolve. We’ve learned a lot in a short time, and those lessons help us make necessary adjustments and, ultimately, deliver a better experience for our learners.”

Experimenting with Technology

Much of what PwC has learned over the last 24 months came in the e-learning space. On the tactical side, course administration proved an early challenge: PwC’s registration, tracking, and evaluation systems weren’t configured to handle mixed learning models and required some creative workarounds. Similarly, some of the vendors and platforms used to deliver learning didn’t scale as well as hoped. We quickly uncovered some issues that might never have surfaced with previous levels of usage. And while we learned from those challenges, we probably grew more on the learning strategy side.

One question going into the transformation was how to encourage social interactions without bringing everyone together in one place. To this end, PwC experimented with several emerging technologies, including course-specific wikis and microsites; virtual conference platforms; and video blogging. Reaction was mixed. Where the technology satisfied a real, compelling need, it succeeded; where it was an “enhancement” or a “nice to have,” a few learners embraced it, but most of them just ignored it—which has helped us be more reflective about how we approach some of these tools.

Aside from experimenting with technology to enhance socialization, PwC also has resorted to increased blending. Our learners value opportunities to interact with each other in meaningful ways, and our training needs to reflect that. Our mix today is much broader than it was previously. Instead of the “local,” “virtual,” and “national” programs we used to have, one of our more successful models has local groups coming together in person, and then linked to one another via technology. This helps us maximize opportunities to network in ways that are often—though not always—just as effective but much less costly than they were before.

Social Learning

And what about new “social learning” platforms? We constantly scan the market, but if we’ve learned anything this year, it’s that success isn’t about the platform or tool we’re using, but rather it’s about the opportunities we create for people to work together on meaningful tasks, whether they are learning- or work-related. Our goal isn’t to find the next cool thing; it’s to drive great learning closer to work.

Technical Training

By Zach Sumsion, Senior Technical Training Specialist, Corporate Training, CHG Healthcare

With the emergence of new technology in virtually every corner of the workplace, technical training has grown steadily from a niche segment of the training industry into an essential building block for any training department. At CHG Healthcare, technical training refers to the process of teaching employees how to better perform the technical components of their jobs—be it a business standard such as Microsoft Excel, or a company-specific application that has been customized for a particular workforce.

Technical training (where technology is the topic) often is lumped in with e-learning (where technology is the delivery method). E-learning can be used to deliver technical training, but just as often it is used to deliver soft skills training.

As demand for this skill set increases, companies may try to fill technical training vacancies in creative ways. CHG has had great success transitioning traditional soft skills trainers into the field. Although technical ability is essential for success as a technical trainer, a strong foundation in training and development is just as important. Soft skills trainers utilize many of the same skills as technical trainers, and the subtle nuances that separate the two can be learned over time by a competent training professional.

Using Subject Matter Experts

One of the fundamental skills employed by a technical trainer is the ability to collaborate with a subject matter expert (SME). Soft skills trainers also lean on SMEs, but more often the trainer must become the expert on the given topic. Technical training is different in that an IT professional is typically the SME during the development phase of a training plan.

SMEs are critical to technical training development, but they are not trainers. The technical trainer’s job is to take the content received from the SME and condense it into a relevant, consumable training module. To accomplish this:

Establish yourself as an authority on the topic through your own research, as well as utilization of the resident subject matter expert. A respectable level of expertise on the subject will allow you to ask the right questions of the SME during the development phase, and provide you with the confidence you will need during the rollout phase.

Structure the learning experience around key objectives. SMEs often are fixated on two topics regarding a particular technology: the coolest things you can do, and the most difficult things you can do. At CHG, we refer to this distraction as the Cool & Hard. To the expert, Cool & Hard is the most interesting information. But to a new user, Cool & Hard is the information that has the least amount of context and adds the least amount of value.

When appropriate, utilize the SME in class. Some technical training initiatives may allow for the trainer and the subject matter expert to present a class together. In this scenario, the trainer facilitates by keeping the session on task and away from tangents, while the SME fields tough questions and provides general expertise without the responsibility of classroom management. Moderated successfully, this arrangement is a low-stress endeavor for both parties.

Technical Proficiency (But How Much?)

Many trainers steer away from technical training because they fear the technical demands are equal to that of an IT professional. Technical trainers must be comfortable with technology, but CHG has found there are distinct advantages when technology is more of a second language rather than your native tongue. Consider that:

You are the first learner. When you must begin the training and development plan by learning the application as if it were a second language, you are—in essence—the first learner. This built-in case study helps you identify stumbling blocks and common questions your learners likely will encounter, and it provides an insider’s look at the best approaches, methods, and tools for learning the application.

Technical trainer = interpreter. Not only will technology as a second language help you in the development phase, but it can be an advantage in the teaching phase, as well. IT professionals can struggle to explain concepts that are innate to them. As a second-language technologist, your ability to relate to and communicate with the core of your employees will be enhanced because there is no technology language barrier.

Selling the Change

As the rollout of new technology is nearly always met with some level of resistance, change management is an integral part of technical training. When a technical trainer is asked to introduce new technology to a company, it becomes impossible to deliver training courses consisting only of learning objectives. The training plan must be designed to sell the change, then teach the change.

Finally, whether you are a training professional wanting to know more about growth opportunities within the field, or an executive considering the future of the industry, opportunities will not be difficult to find in technical training.

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.