Saturday, July 8

We're #3! We're #3!

Recently I spent a little time pondering a statement that I've ascribed to for sometime now:

In a ranking of all of the groups in a typical organization who have the responsibility for helping direct the learning of employees or customers,  corporate training would finish 3rd - at best.

What?  3rd!?!?  No Way!


It's my belief that an honest appraisal of any good size organization will likely show that two departments would prove to be more efficient and effective in helping their target audience meet their learning needs.  They would be the IT Help Desk and the Customer Service Center.  This doesn't consider the Sales group who through various techniques prepare their field staffs for battle against the competition.  Often without help from the corporate training group.   Throw in a quality OD group or a Finance team who prepare their folks well and it's easy to find L&D dropping to 5th or lower.

So what is it that makes the Help Desk and Customer Service groups better at helping their constituents learn better.  This is the question I found myself pondering the other day.  What do they do and what are the results that would lead people to think they're better at facilitating learning that we are?

First the list of what they do:

  • generally don't teach courses
  • answer the questions their "learners" have at the time they are in greatest need
  • assess each situation and determine the best course of action to answer the learner's need
  • provide the learner with only the answers they need to overcome the current problems
  • have a database of answers to questions that have been asked before and will likely be asked again
  • have a mechanism for escalating the response when the learner's need is of greater breath than can be resolved immediately.
  • track very specific metrics regarding performance and learner response.
  • often have a follow-up mechanism to determine whether their solution to the learner's need is still working several weeks later and to gain feedback from the learner regarding their experience with the group
  • feed overall questions and needs back to the stakeholder groups who can take action regarding the issue to mitigate the same problem in the future.
  • Gather feedback from their stakeholders regarding their effectiveness.
  • Push as much of the process and answers pro-actively to their learners in the form of knowledge bases and FAQ as well as anticipatory actions like alerts and job aides.

Now I'm by no means saying that there are training departments that do some or many of these same things.  But I doubt that very few do all of these things.  Which is a bit scary.  The help desk and customer service conduct individualized needs assessments on the fly as if they were an emergency room triage unit.  Who needs attention immediately and what exactly does each person need?  It's individualized attention from first contact to resolution (change in knowledge or behavior for the learner). 

Unfortunately much of what the training department has done regarding needs assessment is more akin to a hospital that has just renovated their surgery suite so now every patient who presents themselves with a broken bone, a pain in the chest, pregnant, or needing a wound stitched up gets routed to be treated in the new surgery suite!

What does the above list of activities gain our colleagues? 

  1. They have a very high, documentable success rate.
  2. If they do these things well, they get repeat business.
  3. They are never blasted for try to teach anyone anything.
  4. They understand the real, underlying issues causing learner need much better than we do.
So maybe, as we are looking at ways to improve what we do and provide better value to the companies we work for, perhaps we should do some internal best practices research.  There may very well be a model that already works within our culture just waiting for us to understand and use it.

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Peter Isackson said...

You've raised a key issue and analyzed it astutely. Could it be that the principal function of HR and training is basically window dressing?

I'm not saying this is useless, on the contrary. There seems to be some systemic logic in having training parade around on the front stage as a comic distraction. Here in France, where a training levy exists and the law obliges companies to organize training for all staff, training departments play a key role in giving some official legitimacy to essentially wasteful policies. Could it be that the same holds true elsewhere? Training departments exist essentially to reassure staff that they have access to training and to reassure the outside world that the company is "investing" in training, which everyone thinks of as good and noble even if it serves no purpose or -- when a purpose exists -- fails to achieve it.

From there, ensuring that it doesn't effectively serve a purpose is just a step away! Primarily because training's uselessness and inefficiency is always available, right there on front stage, to justify serial cost-cutting decisions, whereby management can "prove" to shareholders that only performance counts!

Unknown said...


The most recent (I recieved it last week) issue of HRDQ has two articles about informal learning and informal trainers. I am trying to digest it right now (in fact I am reading the blog as procrastination from summarizing the articles) and I think that both articles touch on the idea of HRD being #3 - or at least #2.

Incidentally, one point that one article made gave me hope for the role of Learning and Education professionals in organizations - they found that people who had formal training in coaching adn leadership were more likely to see those two aspects as part of thier day-today practice and make efforts to create learning environments that promote learning.

That finding excites me, as I really believe that L&E's true role is leveraging opportunities for learning and impacting through the organization's structure.


Tony Karrer said...

Dave - great post. I think there are some good things to be learned by looking at what these other groups are doing. I've added a couple of specific suggestions of things we've done in a post on my blog:

eLearning Technology: Thinking Outside the Training Box

Donald Clark said...

Call customer support for many a company and you get connected to some person overseas that can at times, barely speak English. And don't ask any tough questions or you are simply going to get the run around -- because they go strictly by a set of written rules. And if you do by chance get good customer support it is more than likely because they had good training!

Call the IT help desk and there is a good chance you get put on hold. After so long a recording ask if you want to leave a message -- either way you have to stay next to the phone. And when you finally get through it better not be too tough of a problem or you get bumped to the next level (someone who can diagnose outside of the database). . . and of course the waiting time for one of these specialists is even longer -- if you called first thing in the morning you might get helped before you go home. . . if you are willing to do some overtime. And if they can't help you get put on a list for a technician to come and diagnose your computer. . . within a day or two.

Spend two days training on a forklift -- you might have to wait for a class, however its a way to advance in many a company. You get personal instruction. Before you get certified you must pass a performance test that takes place on your actual jobsite. And if you have any questions later, no problem -- the trainer works right there in the distribution center with you -- no phone calls, no waiting.

In some companies and some circumstances the IT help desk might be number 1, in others it might be customer service, while in others it could very well be training -- it all depends. Although I do agree with you that we could learn a lot from these other processes.

Peter Isackson said...

It seems to me that what you're talking about is more organizational cynicism than the relative value of training. Call centers are in fact very efficient in the circumstances. They are partly meant to discourage customers from asking for help and especially meant to cure them definitively from expecting it!

Does it really matter who is no. 1? The question at the management level is usually what's the minimum cost of training we can get away with.

What surprises me is that it's taking so long for management to realize that effective learning is both a key to productivity and a consequence of organization. What Dave points out, if it were taken seriously, should be enough to convince a few decision makers that there's a lot to be gained in rethinking the whole training-learning equation (or non equation).

As a single example, when delving into the whys and wherefores of operational efficiency, it might be noted -- as many on this blog and elsewhere have already pointed out -- that when professionals teach each other (especially informally), learning takes place in three directions: from the "teacher" (the experienced professional) to the learner; from the learner to the "teacher" (who begins to understand what he already knows, starts making new connections and gets a grip on who knows what in his surroundings); and from both to the organization, since this new (albeit informally executed) formalization of skill and knowledge begins circulating within the local culture and may even become a vital element of the corporate culture (I would guess that it includes skill in operating a forklift, but I'll let you develop that one, Don).

The old model of the specialized trainer spouting knowledge actually inhibits the circulation of vital knowledge and operational skills, though it does tend to establish "rules" by which people may be judged (judgement -- followed by reward or punishment -- being one of the basic tools in the traditional management toolbox).

There definitely is a role for "Learning and Education professionals", as Joe calls them, and that involves not only coaching and mentoring but other communication skills. Isn't it odd that the best "trainers" tend to be good communicators but they are rarely trained in those skills (Or the training is so partial as to be meaningless, as in traditional "presentation skills")?

The question Joe raises is an important one. It leads to another: what will the organizational answer be? Which leads to yet another, how do L&E professionals evolve into their new identities. I personally don't think it will happen through training programs alone (though, as usual, and Don is absolutely right to insist on this, they do have a role to play).

Donald Clark said...

Peter, maybe there is some cynicism with my comments, however, I work in a large organization and have close associations with others in large organizations, thus what I am writing about comes from experience. Dave writes that the customer service department helps people to learn, yet you say their job is to discourage people from asking for help. I totally agree with you! Thus most customer service centers have nothing in common with training departments -- for the most part, they are nothing more than a pacifier that really have nothing in common with learning. . . so why do we want to compare ourselves with them?

That leaves the IT help desk. Yet it is not as efficient as it would like most people to believe. Remember, these are the same people that thought the best way to knowledge management was to build a huge databases and the users would naturally fill them up with all their knowledge. Thus its main reliance for helping users is to fill a database up with answers and in turn, spread the knowledge within as needed. Yet, the technology is so diverse and often changes so fast that even their huge database has a hard time keeping up. In the last year, I have seen the users twice come up with solutions faster than they can! And for the most part, users do not get instant answers, it is often a time consuming process!

Thus I say again, yes we can learn a few things from them, but I don’t believe there is anything close to a silver bullet by us trying to be like them.

Dave Lee said...

Great discussion everyone. I could go on for pages in reaction, but I'll keep it to a few points. Don, I get your point about bad IT and Customer Service I've been victimized by service from these groups too. But I can honestly say that a large majority of calls for help or information to these desks have been resolved efficiently and effectively. Yes, even by overseas operators. I'd argue that we tend not to remember the calls that went well as well as we remember the one that were disasters.

My key point, which I think JOE and Brent Schlenker on his own blog picked up on was that we really need to be rethinking what we're doing is some areas of training. I agree with Don that two days on a forklift is the way to learn how to operate a forklift.

Unfortunately, there will always be the compliance training that Peter mentions (yes, Peter, the same thing happens here in the States. Ask anyone about Sarbanes-Oxley). And yes, the learning group sound be responsible for putting those butts in the right seats and getting the wet signatures that are required.

But it's what we do about the critical organization learning that matters. How do we help prepare the workforce to assure that the strategic changes planned will actually happen? If a new product is going to be the bellweather of a corporate rebirth, what's our role in spreading the mission along with the product knowledge?

Peter makes my point rather cynically. I'd put it more that the learning organization is responsible for assuring that the workforce is able and capable of performance to the level needed.

Donald Clark said...

Hi Dave.
I guess I'm still having a hard time seeing the IT Desk and customer service center as being the number 1 & 2 providers of "learning needs." The last time I contacted customer service was when they sent me a defective ink jet cartridge. It was not that I needed to "learn" how to use it, it was because the product was defective in the first place. And I believe most customer service calls are made because a product or service is defective or missing parts -- not because the customer needs to "learn" something about the product.

The same with IT Help Desks. They call mostly because the network is down or their computer will not boot, or one of their programs fail to launch -- not because they need to learn how to make columns in Word. If they need help with columns they just ask one of their fellow coworkers -- why call the Help Desk and get put on hold for 30 minutes when you can just ask your neighbor?

Thus, are IT Help Desks and Customer Service Centers number 1 & 2 when it comes to fixing problems that should have been fixed in the first place? Yes! Do they really have a large impact on meeting their customers' leaning needs? I doubt it very seriously.

And by the way, I never did get my faulty ink jet cartridge fixed. . .

Anonymous said...

Hi Dave and all,

When things work well, I agree with your comment. Customer support and especially professional services often do a better job with "just-enough, just-in-time" training. But the question is, should we not be re-defining what training is? Why isn't customer support considered within the realm of training? Aren't customer support mostly just teaching customers how to use the product or solve a problem? (of course this depends on the type of product ... sometimes customer support involves debugging issues and fixing bugs, but that is a different level of support).


Peter Isackson said...

I may be off base here, since this really isn't my problem, but the priorities of customer support in terms of learning should (I think) be, amongst others:

. knowledge of procedural, legal and compliancy issues
. typology of technical and functional problems, on the one hand, and customer behaviors (embracing both technology and practical sociology)
. communication skills
. business goals (including efficiency, which I think most of them do attend to).

To be effective, and not merely efficient, requires having a handle on all of these things. Given the high turnover in customer support training and learning should theoretically be a priority... for the staff, not for the customers! Becoming effective on all these fronts requires a lot more than a few short modules of training. It requires some serious learning!

I think this was Dave's point, and some of the subsequent posts may even prove this. The initiative isn't going to come from the training departments, which seem to reason in terms of standard catalogues of courses rather than in terms of development of operational skills. Therefore what does get done inside customer support is more often than not due to initiatives that pass under everyone's radar (which is almost always the case with informal learning).

Nevertheless, there probably is something training should be doing: monitoring and developing awareness of the precise nature of the needs (including the complexity of their inter-relationships) and the variety of feasible ways of dealing with them. But this means getting involved in and reasoning on the level of business strategy and that may be why the training department is systematically left out.

Everything I've just said is mere speculation, since I haven't tried to make a statistical study of such phenomena and am not aware of any that exist. But I thought it would be useful to refocus on Dave's initial point and perhaps get some feedback from those on the inside.

The one pattern that I feel pretty sure of is what pyschologists would call the "repression" of strategic orientation whenever "training" is talked about officially and formally. I believe we are on the threshold of seeing some changes here, precisely because of slowly growing awareness of the issues inside training and the quickly changing habits of knowledge sharing and dissemination (to say nothing of the more nebulous but critical areas of skill development).

Anonymous said...

Thanks for an interesting and thought-provoking post. In many ways, mentoring and coaching programs, being personalized and practical, enable us to develop knowledge and skills in-context and when needed and to achieve some of the same successes as the traditional helpdesk and customer support department.

jay said...

Dave, I like what you're saying. Rather than join in the chorus of how bad some (particularly outsourced) "help" desks are becoming, let's focus on the possibilities.

Thinking back to the days when help desks actually helped, which is what I think you're referring to, what they offer is great. A major factor is helping people when they need help. This is a model to which training departments should aspire.

Experienced workers are not looking for courses; they are seeking the minute pieces of information they need to fill in the holes in their knowledge and get the job done.

Shouldn't instructional designers be thinking about how this could work?

Maybe training comes to resemble news shows, help desks, and Oprah for product knowledge.