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Focus on – Maintenance & Testing: Today’s Training

Advances in testing tools and technologies have increased the need for new and creative training methods.


January 1, 2002  


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The world of fiber optics is constantly changing and new technologies are developing. As a result, what was cutting edge a few years ago is now obsolete — and previous work methods are becoming outdated.

Users of instruments such as OTDRs have a wide range of experiences and needs. Some people graduated from training facilities many years ago, when modern technology was unknown. Many people have not had recent training, but still need to know how to get their jobs done. The need for greater flexibility means that instruments must be usable by all, regardless of their backgrounds.

The key to all of this is training. Training is available in a variety of forms — from formal courses to wizards that are part of software. Training can be provided as online help or as part of a user interface. And the development of the Internet means that for the first time we have the possibility to develop Web-based training methods which were unimaginable even ten years ago.

It is important to understand these new types of training, in addition to the more traditional training methods, and look at how they can best be used in today’s work environment.

WHO ARE YOU TRAINING?

What does the average person who produces training materials know about the people being trained? The answer is usually: Not enough. There never seems to be enough time or opportunity to meet the trainees or even witness the actual training sessions. Such meetings cost money and have no immediate financial justification. There are, of course, many benefits, but these are not always easy to justify on a balance sheet.

If you do not understand the difficulties that people regularly encounter, you may end up providing the perfect solution to the wrong problem. Outside of the factory, people may have problems with things that seem perfectly obvious to an R&D engineer. Furthermore, as different engineers have different levels of experience and expertise, no single trainee can give you all of the feedback you need.

But it is not only a matter of knowing what sort of information trainees need; you must know the trainees’ work and training environments. Many of the people using vendors’ products are engineers who work in the field and do not have computers — many do not even have laptops. You may have the world’s flashiest Web-based training, but that may be much less suitable than a simple printout. Similarly, if you are producing materials for a training centre, sometimes PowerPoint slides are exactly what you need.

It is better to provide materials that a trainer feels happy with than provide a whole horde of electronic gadgets that will remain locked in a person’s desk.

“OLD STYLE” TRAINING

The different types of training can be divided into two broad groups: old-style training and electronic training.

The more traditional type of training takes place in training centres, and has one instructor working with a group of six to 10 people. The trainees do not necessarily know one another — they may work for different companies, or at least for different departments. Even if they work for the same department, they may work in the field and have little contact with other people doing the same job.

For these reasons, training should not just be about one instructor preaching to the masses. It can be a forum in which users share experiences and needs. If you know what is discussed in such a forum first-hand, you can use this knowledge to produce better products and training materials. If a trainer tells you what was overheard in class, it may already be filtered through the trainer’s beliefs and expectations.

The best solution is to witness the discussion yourself and seeing just how effective your training really is. By watching trainees struggle with the course, you can see which areas cause them difficulty and which parts they are more attentive to. This method can also be a way to judge how instruments are used and whether users are aware of key features.

Unfortunately, attending someone else’s training course uses up scarce time and resources. It may also disturb the trainees, who want to be trained without having someone looking over their shoulders. However you gather information, it must be done unobtrusively.

ELECTRONIC TRAINING

Electronic training has become more widespread with the development of new technology. Typically, instruments are shipped with a wide variety of pocket guides and electronic presentations that introduce users to their features. As a result, it is now increasingly possible to train when and where you want.

However, a major problem associated with this type of training is that it requires a large amount of self-discipline. While people may be prepared to give up one day to attend a training seminar, they will always find more pressing tasks if left to their own devices. Furthermore, the isolation of self-training also means you miss the opportunity to share information and learn from others in the same field.

Notwithstanding the limitations of electronic training, it is fair to say that this style of training is becoming much more prevalent. This type of training provides many new possibilities for unobtrusively generating feedback. The person providing training materials is no longer excluded from the group of trainees, but is directly engaging with an individual. This makes it possible to ask the sort of questions that would be normally be passed around a group.

ENGAGING THE TRAINEE

A key to gaining feedback is to talk to trainees at the moment they are thinking of the problems at hand. People rarely go home after a training session and immediately write up everything that was confusing. Electronic training can be constructed to recognize when the trainees are having problems, and can solicit the information in real time.

To gain some information, it is not even necessary to ask direct questions. For example, if there is a lesson that always takes twice as long to complete as the others, you can deduce certain information from that. (Note that you should be careful about what you deduce: It may be that the lesson is harder to perform, that it is more interesting to the trainees, or that it coincides with the coffee break. Used selectively, such deductions can help you improve the next round of training).

It is important for people to see the training system as their friend. Many users do not want, for example, an animated paper clip jumping up and disturbing them when they are trying to get on with the job at hand. But if you use the training to understand when and where people have problems, and give them the opportunity to seek information on their terms, they will be much happier to let you know what they really want.

TRAINING MATERIALS

Electronic training materials now provide an extensive range of solutions — from guided tours and tutorials for OTDR software to Web-Based introductions to various products. Additionally it is advantageous to provide various forms of wizards, context-sensitive help, and embedded help (helpful text that appears on the window you are using). In each case, the training is not just there to meet an immediate need — it also makes users feel at ease with the instrument(s) and comfortable when doing their jobs. The “What’s in it for me?” element diminishes and users understand the point of contributing to the ongoing improvement of training materials.

Easy access to e-mail addresses and Web sites means that users can let you know which information is important to them. In some Web-based training schemes, users are able to make contributions to the training while it is actually taking place. This means that they can respond to immediate issues while the problem they have encountered is fresh in their minds.

LOOKING FORWARD

The industry still has a long way to go in building an environment in which users feel that training is created with them in mind. By its nature, feedback consists more of complaints than compliments, but often the most useful information is that which tells you what works well.

New technologies bring the opportunity to directly
address users and immediately respond to what they need to know. There is a wealth of possibilities opening up: from multi-option wizards to electronic packages, which adapt to a specific user (e.g., in determining the level of expertise, the depth of information to provide and the proper vocabulary to use).

However, none of this will ever replace the personal touch. It is difficult to imagine that computers will ever truly become our “friends”. Technological developments should be coupled with forums, which provide opportunities to talk about problems with real people who have had similar experiences. Some of this can be done online and through mailing lists and user forums, but this discussion must not be isolated from the creation of the next generation of instruments and training.

One of the major challenges that we currently face is how to set up communities of users who can simultaneously talk to one another and to the trainers, technical writers and R&D engineers. The correct questions must be put to the correct people — with the assurance of a prompt answer. Equally, the subject experts must not be bombarded with so many questions that they are unable to spend any time in development. This is why the new wave of testing training aims to filter and direct feedback, so that everyone’s expertise is used in an optimal fashion.

We have the opportunity to produce training courses that recognize the expertise, not just of the trainers, but of the people being trained. Only when this expertise is fully shared will we realize the full potential that is available to us.

Philip Butland is a Learning Products Engineer at Agilent Technologies (Germany), producing manuals, online help, and training materials. He is a member of the company’s Learning Products Council and is currently working on the design team for Agilent’s documents.


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