Your Training Department needs a Needs Assessment
Over the past several years I’ve been working at several high-profile technical start-ups. I joined those companies either as an individual contributor or as a contractor – rather than in a Management role. I enjoy the challenge of creating and teaching technical curriculum. But after my experiences at these companies, and seeing their struggles, I’m thinking about getting back into a Training Management role.
In each case, the companies seemed to be flailing in their efforts to create a well-functioning Training department. I would occasionally offer advice, but, for whatever reason, the existing teams seemed incapable of listening. I saw Training VPs come and go, Training Directors come and go, Training Managers come and go – but they would only leave after they had run out of individual contributors to blame and fire for the problems which arose. These were problems caused by a lack of good Leadership. And that has prompted this post. I want to describe a way to think about organizing Training. I spent a couple of years as a Product Manager. I also spent a couple of years in Technical Marketing. The result is that concepts like “distribution channels”, “market segmentation”, and “positioning” are not just buzzwords to me – and they can reflect deep thinking about Strategy. So understanding these concepts can help a Training Department, since they can help define both the tactical and strategic goals of a Training organization.
The Typical Reactive Training Approach
When I look at all of the start-ups where I’ve been working, they hired somebody with “Training Director” or “Training Manager” experience on their resume, and then hoped for the best. In every case, their logic seemed to be: “We know that we need Training and we know that we need eLearning since we get requests from customers.” The reaction to these customer requests was hiring or contracting some Managers, Curriculum Developers, Instructors, and eLearning developers. Then, based on whatever customer requests had come in, or whatever Senior Management thought Training should be doing, a bunch of projects would be launched.
Well, that is both very expensive and very wrong. That isn’t planning – that is a reaction. And, even if successful, is it the success you really want?
Trivial Market Segmentation
Let’s instead look at this from the perspective of Market Segments. Let’s take a simple classification of customers – categorized by potential for future sales.
- Tier 1 – “big companies”
- Tier 2 – “mid-sized companies”
- Tier 3 – “small companies and students”
When you think about company goals, the focus of a startup is often short-term profit and seeding the mid-term customers. And, candidly, ignoring companies that might become a big customer in five years – since focusing too much energy on them right now might mean that you won’t be around in five years. On the other hand, there may be other goals. That is why it is important to have ways to think about these things. So, from a Training perspective, how might a company meet the needs of their customers? Here is one way you might structure your Training:
- Tier 1 – Instructor Led Training from your in-house instructors followed by Consulting engagements
- Tier 2 – eLearning for purchase and Instructor Led Training (maybe using contract instructors)
- Tier 3 – Documentation and perhaps free eLearning – and perhaps meetups and video on your web site.
So, now you can fill-in this chart with your own approaches to meeting the needs of each market segment. It might include self-study and video for a Tier…or be exclusively documentation for every Tier. You should fill-in this form so that you are aligned with the strategic goals of the company.
For most, it would be ideal if you could enable everyone to be successful at deploying your product (assuming that is your goal.) But, in general, trade-offs must be made. So, after figuring out where you are, then you can figure out where you want to be – and what form of Training you ultimately want for each Tier. (I sometimes use a “horizontal” and “vertical” chart of skills to help focus development efforts. Again, something I picked up from my time doing Technical Marketing.)
The Mistakes of High-Flying Start-ups
The most interesting situation was at one company that I left. They did this:
- Tier 1 – Instructor Led Training mostly by contractors
- Tier 2 – Instructor Led Training mostly by contractors
- Tier 3 – Instructor Led Training mostly by contractors (with some free videos to promote the Training)
They are really only serving Tier 1 – since rich customers are really the only ones that can afford the expensive Training. They consider Training a success since they are generating lots of revenue from it. Their focus on revenue has also meant that they hired Curriculum Developers who don’t have the Training chops to create training that meets serious objectives. The result is that, while the classes get good reviews from students, they don’t really teach all the skills needed to successfully deploy the product. So the company is making lots of money (largely from Training) and they have few complaints from customers. As a result, they “know” that they are doing Training right.
Seeing what was going on, I had a casual chat about company goals with the CEO. His perspective was that we were there for the investors, and those investors wanted to cash out with a good return. Essentially, I left the meeting understanding that maximizing the return on Training is his primary focus. Ironically, they could have achieved that and much more with just some slightly better hiring decisions and project planning decisions.
Another company I joined did this:
- Tier 1 – Instructor Led Training by contractors
- Tier 2 – Instructor Led Training by contractors
- Tier 3 – Instructor Led Training by contractors (with some free videos to promote Sales)
Notice a pattern here? This is the same thing the other company did, but with a few new mistakes added in. This company had a Training Manager that didn’t understand that instructors must be properly ramped-up, and didn’t understand that course material must at least give students the impression that they are learning enough. The result? Lots of refunds, cancelled classes, and fired staff. I should add that this company allocated time from their best engineers, and the CEO allocated lots of company resources to create the training “fast” – but that just doesn’t help when you don’t know what you are doing.
But, even if their course had been successful, is this what the company should want? Is this type of training the most effective for the short-term goals or the long-term goals of the company? No. Not even close. Instead, they think that Training is just creating some courses and eLearning. And the Venture Capitalist CEO thinks that creating it faster is being “customer needs focused” – and thinks that he is being a more effective CEO by personally insisting on fast development. But with the time, money, and energy they have now spent creating and re-creating useless course material, they could have created a world-class Training organization. Instead, they are still floundering as I write this.
Another company I recently left did this:
- Tier 1 – Free eLearning
- Tier 2 – Free eLearning
- Tier 3 – Free eLearning
This is interesting in that it meets one important goal of the company. They want a competitive advantage in sales situations. And, as always, free is a good price. So, in some ways, this is genuinely successful. But they decided on this strategy after trying ILT and having problems in class after class (due to hiring the wrong people). So this is really their fallback strategy. But, obviously, this is a flawed long-term strategy. Their customers get no advanced training and get no seminars with live instructors who can help their development projects succeed after the introductory training.
So another case where they lack a cohesive Training strategy and lack the right staff to implement a long-term strategy.
Best: Alignment with Tactical and Strategic Company Goals
In the end, I am just arguing for something obvious. The goals of Training should be strategically and tactically aligned with the goals of the company. In addition, projects should be prioritized in a way that recognizes the trade-offs of that prioritization. Of course, all this is predicated on hiring the right people to craft and implement that strategy. (You might check out my “The Most Important Training Thing I learned in College” post.)
I’m arguing that a “needs assessment” should be done for Training Departments and companies – and not just students.