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Kings Mountain, North Carolina, United States
"A mind lively and at ease" is a blog by a first-generation Russian-Ukrainian immigrant Maria K. (Maria Igorevna Kuroshchepova). An engineer by education, an analyst by trade, as well as a writer, photographer, artist and amateur model, Maria brings her talent for weaving an engaging narrative to stories of life, fashion and style advice, book and movie reviews, and common-sense and to-the-point essays on politics and economy.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

There is a difference between introducing change, mandatory training and corporate instability

I've written several articles on associate satisfaction in the workplace and on some common-sense good business practices. Of course, the corporate world never rests, never sleeps, and I have since acquired a couple more company-wide not-to-do's to add to my collection.

Mandatory training is a disease that befalls companies regardless of industry, location or size. I am sure we are all very familiar with those "ACTION REQUIRED" e-mails telling us about the new and exciting training du jour, which upon closer examination turns out to be something that will take up a whole day and is due around the same time as that major report you've been working on (and for which you have set aside that day, which you now will have to spend doing the training).

Don't get me wrong, folks, not all company-wide training is bad. Some of it is regulatory - we have to take it or the Fed will come and take our hard-earned money (millions of dollars in fines and lawsuits for non-compliance). Some of it is actually useful - like MOUS (Microsoft Office User Specialist) Certification courses. You don't have to take the certification test, but I would strongly recommend the courses themselves - there is a suite of them for every Microsoft application and, trust me, they do make navigating the woods of Microsoft Office a lot easier. There is some decent job-related training for people whose duties include a certain set of activities. It can be a pretty large set - you should see the suite of step-by-step procedures we have for loan officers - but the activities are very specific and can be laid out in a fairly orderly manner. In any case, when you look at that type of training, you can understand why people need to take it.

And then there is the other kind... Have you ever taken training, after which you've wondered, "Why did I have to do this? It told me absolutely nothing new, and in the meantime it's 8 hours later and I am a day behind on things that actually do relate to my work." This type of training usually relates to some new process that seems to be identical to the process we've been using before, except it's called differently and some of the terminology varies slightly; or to some new software application, which, upon closer inspection, turns out to be less intuitive and more high-maintenance than the one we were using before to accomplish the same set of tasks.

Folks, if you ever make it into the top circles of your organizations, please think your innovations through. Ask your people whether they really need it. Yes, there are tools out there that actually can and do make one's job easier, are well-designed with end user in mind and are laid out in a logical fashion. Interestingly enough, such tools usually don't require hours upon hours of training - you can pretty much jump in and figure them out. However, if you are a manager and you wish to implement something just because it looks prettier or has tons of fancy functionality (which nobody is going to use anyway) or because your competitor is using one of these, think again. If you are considering an innovation, talk to your employees first and ask them if they actually need one. Describe pros and cons of the new solution, talk about how it compares with the old one. But don't just go out and implement something just because.

Sometimes even good training can go bad - when it's rolled out poorly. A lot of training outside of the manufacturing environment is delivered virtually. You sit at your computer, go through the material page by page, and then take a test at the end. Sounds ok, right? Well, in theory it does work pretty well. However, first of all, not all topics lend themselves very well to the virtual environment. I remember taking the diversity training (which we are required to take by law, and it was actually pretty interesting) and wondering, why would it be delivered virtually, considering the subject matter? I mean, isn't that precisely the topic, where you need a live instructor, because there are usually lots of questions and "what if's"?

Second, if virtual delivery does work well for the new material, please, PLEASE test it first and set realistic deadlines to complete the training. One of the classic scenarios - especially in a large company - is training only being tested for functionality (making sure all the hyperlinks and buttons work), but not for load (the number of people that can get onto that server at the same time to take the training). So, it's rolled out and goes live, an announcement is dispatched for everyone to have it finished within a week, everyone jumps on the training server trying to take the training, the server overloads and crashes, and it takes half of the time allotted to finish the training to actually fix the server. While everyone is aware of the issue, it doesn't occur to anyone to actually push out the deadline. So, when the server is brought back to live, everyone jumps in AGAIN and... Well, you get the idea. I beg you, current and future managers, talk to your technology department and demand stress testing along with the functionality testing for every piece of virtual training that goes out there.

Sadly, lack of consideration, when introducing a change into an organization, is not limited to the area of training. I am sure many of you have gone through (and been frustrated by) the numerous mergers and reorganizations, half of which didn't seem to make any sense whatsoever. A few years ago I worked for a department within my company, which was integrated into another department. When that happened, we were all told that this was a very positive change for everyone, that everything would become more efficient from now on, and that we should all be very excited about the whole thing. Some people had to scramble to find new jobs in the process, but, hey, it was a small price to pay for a positive change such as that! Right? Well, a year later, it was decided to separate my department from that other department it had been absorbed into a year earlier. And, again, we were all told that it would make things more efficient and we should all be very excited. Sadly, our workload increased, but people we had a year ago, were no longer there (they had to look for other jobs due to reorganization, remember?), so we had to take on more work with fewer people.

A friend of mine mentioned to me once that her group was being assimilated into another group. Someone upstairs took one superficial glance at the two groups and decided that their function was fairly similar so, they should be one organization (kind of like someone deciding that police and fire department should be one organization, because, heck, they almost always show up at the same time anyway and they both drive vehicles with sirens and flashing lights, right?). The fact that (a) what the two groups do is completely different and (b) the two groups have two completely different cultures just didn't occur to anyone. When my friend told me about this I asked her, "So, let me guess, when they announced this, they told you all that this would be of great benefit to the company and stakeholders, and that you all should be very excited about this change?" She laughed and asked how I knew. I told her it was telepathy.

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