I worked at Sun Educational Services for a few years, and one ongoing debate was what the training books should be like. Should they offer extensive information, or a set of exercises and a skeleton for the instructor to work with? And furthermore, what type of business were we in? Education (say it to yourself with a pompous tenured sort of voice) or Training (use kind of a sarcastic tinny voice).
There was endless debate about what the difference was and which was more effective for learning software until someone, I forget who, made it all very clear. Probably a project manager who had spent a few painful years unemployed after obtaining a very lovely liberal arts education.
He or she said "Think about your sex education class."
Everyone did. It had been a long meeting and we were happy for any distraction.
We discussed what it had been like. Confusing, obscure diagrams, no one really getting to the point, and wandering out of the classroom with very little idea of what sex was, per se, much less how to do it with any degree of success.
"All right," said the savvy project manager. "Now think about this phrase. Sex training."
And everybody did. And started laughing. Because that made everything a lot different. Training is typically very very distinctly different than Education. At least in many people's experiences and in the word associations we have with it.
That might be an unusual way to start talking about OpenOffice.org training, but I love that story and I think it makes it clear how important it is to have hands-on time in a lab with an expert. Training. If it's important that people do something right, then training is important. You can throw books on desks, and that does work for some people, and of course it's a handy reference. But I believe that memories of doing things are a whole lot stronger than memories of reading things. (How many of you tell long, amusing, detailed stories about when you read something?)
It's partly about attention, the difference between education/information and training. Send out a memo about how to do a better mail merge and it gets lost in the inbox. Nobody forgets entirely about a day or a week spent doing a better mail merge.
Another aspect of training, specifically for open source products like open office, is that it shows commitment. Open office training is important for giving new users not only the skills they need but to instill confidence that the organization is committed to the switch, and that the software will work. You know it'll work, but the people being transferred, who were comfortable with their old tools, don't. Open Office training makes the transition go better.
One aspect of training versus reading a book is that training has to be limited in time. Generally, people spend a day learning an office suite, maybe a couple more days learning advanced features. So the classes have to focus on the most important features, the 80/20. The 20% of features that people spend 80% of their time using. So training, at least good training, is going to be more focused.
Here's another thing. Most people never had much education or training on the office suite they use now. Much knowledge is handed down from one user to another, from Becky to Dolores to Sam, and can get changed a lot in the process. And if Becky never had an opportunity to sit down and learn the software, hands on, she might not have been able to pass on effective, productive information.
Another thing. The difference between struggling to do something the hard way, and doing something quickly and easily the smart, quick way, is big. The difference in productivity for one task might be a minute or a week. Multiply that over years and over all the people using the software, and you're looking at serious time, effort, and resources. Lots of money.
And another. People feel good when they do a good job. When they can take a tool and use it to do what they need to. Frustration makes people feel bad. As the counselor on South Park might say, “Frustration is baaaad.” Give users the gift of expertise. One of the things I love about doing training is seeing the light go on. The previously discouraged student in the third row starts saying things like "Oh my god--I could use this for our monthly Qentori documents and just do it all automatically!" I have even had students (Canadian students!) say "I'm so excited my head's going to blow off!" Just the other day, a student in my Writer class actually did a chair dance, with lots of arm-waving, when she got the send-document-as-PDF-attachment feature to work and realized how much time and effort it was going to save her. Sitting and working in class, asking questions, going through the exercises and seeing how to do things quickly and efficiently, means your users are going to be able to get that power, and the confidence that comes with it.
When users understand and control their tools, and feel like they are powerful, knowledgeable users, they like their jobs better. They do their jobs better. I might even go so far as to assert that people are more likely to make another pot of coffee when they take the last cup, they're so happy. Feeling like you're in control of your tools, and not the other way around, is a Good Thing.
So that's my plug for training. Give your software users the gift of being able to stand up at their desks in the middle of the day, throw a fist in the air, and shout “I RULE!”
Postscript: My friend Kathy Sierra (also at Sun during the anecdote related at the top of this post) writes a blog on passionate users. Her learning theory post is a great guide to how to create learning, not just talking about facts in the same room as students. I can't always do all of the things she lists in training classes, but here's what I make a point of doing.
- Showing, not just blathering on about how to do something
- Engaging students emotionally as much as possible; I inject a bit of humor into the learning materials, and I have a whole song and dance about the Evil Plain Indent Icon and the Wonderful Indent Icons on the Bullets and Numbering toolbar
- Demonstrating potential mistakes when I show how the software works, as well as how to avoid or recover from mistakes
- Using stories; the training materials are based on the premise that that student is an intern at a fictional bookstore, and the motivation for the exercises is based on the demands of a crazy marketing person; an unreasonable boss; a new advertising campaign; etc.
- Fun ; for reviews, I sometimes have a Jeopardy-like game and divide the students into two teams, with chocolate for everyone at the end. Or I bring a nerf ball and have the students throw the ball around. When you catch the ball, you have to say something you learned that day, and how to do it.
- Helping students feel confident; when parts of the software are weird, badly implemented, or just complicated, I make sure they know that it is. It's a lot easier, and people feel much better learning, a complicated procedure when they know it's tough and that any progress is good. I also try to show students how much they already know by showing the toolbar for Word and for Writer side by side, for instance. Students immediately see the similarities and I reinforce that they already know much of what they do in Word since the tools on the toolbar are so similar.
Since writing this post, I've checked on whether Sun offers Staroffice training and from what I can tell, they don't. They have little free things they'll give out but you can't go to Sun (at least according to their web site) for StarOffice training. I find this odd, but I find many things about Sun odd. At any rate, any training you find on OpenOffice.org training will work fine for StarOffice training, and vice versa.