Free, Easy, and Effective
Taking advantage of online software resources
Training has a reputation for being expensive, time consuming, and often less than productive. Absolutely not, say the producers of software for the construction and dirt-moving industries. The critical word is “essential.” The software developers call it implementation and insist that this kind of training is key to a successful software installation and critical to protecting your investment.
Most software companies design training programs with individual clients in mind, but as a service to their customers (and a way to showcase their products) they offer a range of integrated no-cost computer-based training aides that, when used properly, can help build the basis for an effective employee training program. We checked, and here’s what they have to say.
Packaged self-paced tutorials available 24/7 are the most basic online resource, designed to provide fundamental information on how to navigate within a software, find information, and perform specific tasks.
“Tutorials are especially well suited to teaching specific procedures such as payroll, accounting or estimating,” says Brad Mathews at Dexter + Chaney. “We see tutorials being used to create a base level of knowledge among employees being introduced to new software and to train new hires. In most cases, tutorials will need to be combined with some additional live training that focuses on specific aspects of a company’s data collection and management systems, which can often be performed by a supervisor or a knowledgeable coworker. Tutorials can also help seasoned software users supplement their knowledge, and they’re good for introducing upgrades and as refreshers for procedures that may be used infrequently such as our videos on year-end processing.”
At Carlson, Karen Cummings recommends users just starting with a software program take a training class and then use the information Carlson makes available online to enhance their skills. That being said, she acknowledges that some users have been able to pick up what they need through the company’s one-hour webinars. “I see tutorials as a first, freely available line of training curriculum,” says Ladd Nelson, Carlson’s Midwest sales manager. “Most of the time, our clients can get basically operational after spending time with one or just a few of our tutorials, which are intended to provide new users with step-by-step instructions to become familiar with the Carlson interface. For material not covered in the tutorials, the webinars provide a second, freely available source of educational information. Although the primary intent is to demonstrate what’s possible with the software, many of our existing clients download and review webinar content for educational purposes.”
When it introduces its new software release in 2012, Carlson anticipates offering some 100 “quick clips”: three- to 10-minute “movies” demonstrating specific commands or software procedures. For now, all Carlson documentation, which consists of help files for all current and legacy products, is available for free download at http://update.carlsonsw.com/manuals/(you can also get it hardcopy through a print-on- demand service, http://stores.lulu.com/carlsonsw. There’s also the Carlson knowledge base, composed of hundreds of articles on commonly asked questions not directly addressed by help in the software or the documentation or tutorials, the idea being customers can help themselves when the technical staff isn’t available, http://update.carlsonsw.com/kbase_main.php. Dexter + Chaney offers the same thing but at its proprietary website where customers can also find blogs and user forums.
Maxwell Systems likes to see the function-based online tutorials it offers through its Learning Management System (LMS) applied the same way Mathews suggests, in combination with more personalized training that demonstrates how the software has been configured to an individual operation. Depending on the software purchased, LMS comes with participation in Maxwell Systems’ maintenance program and features online training videos and mini-courses available 24/7, with recommendations listed for tutorials and exercises relative to each software function. “We have a combination of options for our clients,” says Lisanna Stotts, vice president, professional services. If a user is having difficulties, it’s usually with technical or ‘How do I?’ type questions. For that they have access to our knowledge base articles, which provide a high level overview of the troubleshooting steps and solutions for known customer issues. So between this and the LMS most of their questions are covered. We also have extensive online help that is text-based so users can read step-by-step what to do, which is different from the tutorials, where they essentially hear a voice walking them through the steps on the computer screen. And although it’s not designed to be a learning method, we also provide live chat online to give customers immediate access to a support technician for quick questions when they encounter a problem while using the software.” Maxwell Systems also offers two “user basics” programs on accounting and estimating for those who need to get up to speed on fundamental operations before moving into software training.
One of the important benefits of online tutorials is their flexibility. Users proceed at their own pace, depending on their ability and their work schedule. Which means don’t expect the light to dawn with everyone simultaneously. “Individual preferences will vary based on workload and other time constraints, but I think students learn best by isolating themselves from the daily workload as they progress through the learning material,” says Nelson. “When at all possible, students should remove themselves from ringing phones, coworker interruptions, e-mail/internet usage, et cetera. Since this is seldom practical during the normal nine-to-five, users will often progress through specific training materials that are most appealing to them and often on their own time. An employer who is seeking maximum employee productivity or return on investment for the product would be well advised to solicit feedback from employees about what additional training, if any, he or she needs.”
Mathews recommends “grazing” as a good way to use online tutorials. “A new user may view the material slowly and carefully, perhaps going back over it a second or even third time, where a more experienced user may scan the same material looking to pick up a few fine points that can improve his or her abilities. Monitoring specific use of tutorials by staff is probably not necessary, but staying in touch to discuss what’s been learned and what additional questions remain is an effective way to manage the process.” Mathews also recommends that management recognize staff members who take the time and effort to use online resources because it reinforces the importance of being proficient in the software and will encourage coworkers to do the same.
Online resources are also typically designed to be integrated. Dexter + Chaney offers a link in its software help section to appropriate tutorials that help users think through the whole process they’re working with beyond the immediate question that’s stumped them. Carlson tutorials can be accessed both through the software’s help files and through the documentation, and Nelson describes Carlson’s technical support as “a logical progression of information contained in the tutorials. Technical support is targeted for specific questions or logic problems within the software. Due to the large number of clients served by Carlson Software products, the technical support lines are intended for questions clients may have that are not directly addressed by the help, documentation and tutorials. Common questions include things like, ‘I am experiencing difficulty getting the software installed properly and need assistance,’ or ‘The command isn’t yielding the results I am expecting, how come?’ or ‘I am trying to solve a unique problem, am I using the correct command-set?’ Questions like, ‘I am new to the software; how do I use it?’ are usually better served by the tutorials or our other training options.” (Mathews says at Dexter + Chaney information has been known to flow in the opposite direction, with tech support referring users to tutorials for additional help.)
HCSS has a different approach to both training and its 24-hour technical support, which it relies on almost exclusively to guide users through programs with which they are having difficulty. “We believe that someone struggling with multiple possibilities for handling something with our software should speak in person with someone,” says Steve McGough, chief operating officer. “And we use this process to get feedback from customers. If we find a number of users are struggling with number five of X procedure, we want to fix that.” Basic training in the software is offered as for-fee classroom training, but users go home with free customized step-by-step documentation on how HCSS software has been configured for their particular organization.
Common mistakes in applying online training? Maxwell Systems: not using the product immediately after training. “Users need to test their knowledge by doing transactions,” says Stotts. “We provide a demonstration database that allows them to practice. The sooner the feature is used after training, the more likely the user will remember how to best apply it.”
Nelson: “The single biggest mistake I see is thinking you have to start with Lesson 1 before moving to (say) Lesson 5. Each of the Carlson tutorials is designed to stand on its own merit so that students can focus on the information that is of most interest to them. The best approach is to simply review the opening paragraphs of each tutorial, or contact a Carlson representative.”
“The biggest mistake people make,” says Mathews, “is not using what’s available.”
Author's Bio: Journalist Penelope Grenoble is a frequent contributor to Forester Media, Inc. publications.