Full transcript of the death of training podcast

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00:00 Alan Pringle: Welcome to The Content Strategy Experts podcast brought to you by Scriptorium. Since 1997, Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize, and distribute content in an efficient way. In Episode 12, we discussed the Death of Training. 20 years ago, we offered public and private training classes on a regular basis. Today, most companies will not pay for tools training. Instead, they farm out tasks to expert contractors. Hi, everybody. I’m Alan Pringle. I am Chief Operating Officer at Scriptorium and I’m here with Sarah O’Keefe.

00:40 Sarah O’Keefe: Hi. I’m Sarah. I’m the CEO and Alan and I are the joint founders of this glorious enterprise.

00:46 AP: Yes, we are and we’ve been doing this for 20 years, and we’ve seen some changes in regard to training in these past 20 years. And I’ll let Sarah do a little history lesson quickly on the kind of training work we did say 15-20 years ago.

01:03 SO: Right, so 15 or 20 years ago, we had several people on staff who spent a couple of days a month on the platform, as we called it, doing classroom training, whether it was in a public class that we scheduled and offered or in a private class that we were doing just for a customer of ours. And I can’t give you the exact numbers on what percentage that made up of our overall revenue, but it was significant.

01:28 AP: It was substantial.

01:28 SO: That was a big part of our work, was scheduling and figuring out who’s going to travel to this location and deliver this class. The thing is it didn’t die quickly, but 20 years on, what we’re looking at is that we rarely or, I should say, never offer public classes and we do private classes and private stuff, but it is not nearly the volume that we used to do 20 years ago.

01:56 AP: Yeah. And looking at the changes in the past 20 years, I think, a big contributor to this is technology. Now, you can have websites dedicated to training that have exercises, that have lessons, that have videos. And a lot of what I would consider maybe 101 level training is now folded into websites that are inexpensive or even free. So as a result I think there may be this perception from a company’s point of view, “Why am I going to pay to have somebody take a class, in person or whatever, when I can have them go online and learn these skills maybe even on their own time, at no cost?”

02:45 SO: Right. There’s been some discussion about this recently about how employers are saying, “If you don’t show up with the right skills we won’t hire you.” There’s no, “Oh, you have nine out of 10 of the right skills, so that’s good enough and we’ll teach you the rest.” It’s more like, “If you’re not a perfect match, we won’t even consider hiring you.” It seems a little unfair to expect people to just go out and learn the stuff on their own without any support.

03:13 AP: I can see why you would perceive it to be unfair, but on the flip side, and I’m going to be the devil’s advocate here. I can understand why a corporation may not want to pay for skills that they perceive the person should have. I’m kind of torn on that from a management versus a non-management point of view on that.

03:37 SO: Right. And I can almost see it for a new employee. You put out a req and you say, “This is what we want.” Knowing that there are all these free sites out there, like shameless plug for our LearningDITA site. You can go out there and learn DITA, and show up with at least a baseline level of skill. What about the employees that have been there for a while? Are they supposed to go out in their copious free time on the side and just learn this stuff or is it reasonable to say, “Well, when we make a transition from the tool that we hired you knowing to a new tool that you maybe don’t know yet,” that there should be some support provided there.

04:16 AP: Absolutely. And I want to be really clear. I am not advocating for a no training position at all. If you are doing any kind of tool change, any kind of change to your process, technology, whatever. Change management, which we have beat like a dead horse on this podcast in previous episodes. You cannot just buy the technology and throw it at people, and say, “Do it.” You will fail. It is guaranteed you will fail. In that case training is as important as the technology itself, it is part of a change management process, it is not optional, as far as I’m concerned.

04:56 SO: Yeah. I suppose there could be room in there for these online low-cost resources for an employer to say, “Go work your way through these things or here’s a subscription to Lynda.com go learn what you need to learn. And you can take X amount of time in a given week to do that. To do that learning that you need to do in order to continue to be productive in your job.” But like you said, it’s pretty clear that that idea of classroom, in person, put everybody in a room and spend a couple of days learning a specific thing is becoming more and more rare.

05:37 AP: It is. And when we were working on projects say even 7-10 years ago. When we would go in and do a content strategy assessment and we’ve talked and interviewed the various stakeholders, we would often hear things from people saying, “Oh, we want to be self-sustaining, we want to learn every single aspect of this workflow and how to change it.” But I have seen an absolute shift in that point of view and there’s one case in particular that really opened my eyes to this change. About five years ago, I was at a client site and I was talking to the director of IT. We were talking about tools for a DITA implementation and part of that was they had to transform their source XML into HTML, PDF, and whatever else with transformations. And I told her, “We will be glad to train some of your IT folks on XSLT, XSLFO, so you can manage the changes to those style sheet transformations yourself.”

06:46 AP: And she said, “No, I’m going to stop you right there. That is a very niche thing, I do not want to waste my resources and time. I have a bucket of hours for these people and I don’t want to waste it on something that small and that niche because once those style sheets got implemented, they would only need to update the member every once in a while.” So it wasn’t going to be a huge amount of time to do that. However to learn XSLT and XSLFO, if you don’t have those skills, that is a tremendous undertaking. That is not easy stuff even for a lot of programmers. And as a result of that, she’s like, “That is not a good use of my time.” And she added also, “I don’t want to give someone those skills because they could turn around and leave and take that knowledge with them.” So I can’t dispute what she said, but it really opened my eyes to that point of view.

07:47 SO: And that seems to be the dominant winning perspective, today. Again, 15, 20 years ago, what we would hear was, “Well, we’re going to do this project, but we don’t want to be dependent on evil outside contractors on an ongoing basis. We want to do this project and then you’re going to come in, you’re going to train us on everything that we need to know, so that we can maintain this thing in-house and you people can go away.” I mean, literally. And they were usually nice about it. But they didn’t want us there. There they didn’t want us there on a long-term basis because that was considered bad because that meant dependence on outsiders rather than having a team that had all the needed skills onboard, in-house, permanent.

08:37 SO: And exactly what you said, right now, people are saying, “Forget it. I don’t want to train my people on this weird esoteric stuff that they’re not going to use that much and then they’re going to leave. So why should I bother?” So there’s been a complete turnaround to saying, “That’s just something we’re going to hire. We’re going to use our outside contractors, periodically, as needed, to do those things and we’re not going to bother training our in-house team on that because we don’t see enough value there to do that.” We, for the record, we’re okay with doing it either away and we have clients that operate in both ways. But there’s a really, really clear trend toward saying, “We’re not going to bother. We’re going to farm that out and make you guys do it because that is not something that we want to train our in-house people on.”

09:26 AP: Right. It makes no sense for us financially to get people to learn these weird things. It just doesn’t help us out in the long run. It doesn’t need their business requirements, basically.

09:36 SO: So I wonder if this is really, is it a change in the attitude towards training? Or is it just that the tools are getting so weird and so esoteric that at that level, it makes more sense to outsource?

09:53 AP: And there you go getting in my head again. This is a common problem [chuckle] by the way. We, 15, 20 years ago, we were dealing with more desktop publishing tools that were a little more straightforward. When you start getting into structured content where you create say XML source files that are then transformed into multiple different outputs, you were not seeing what that formatted end result or end results look like. ‘Cause there’s been a shift in that kind of thing. It’s all under the covers, behind the scenes, I’m going to push this button or type in this command and create my various outputs. Well, all the things, the leavers behind these scenes that make that happen are vastly more complicated than a WYSIWYG interface on a piece of desktop publishing software. And I think think that’s a huge contributor to a part of this shift. And also companies are getting in lot of cases, don’t want to spend a lot of money. And that’s one way they can cut costs.

10:56 SO: Right. And so I guess, maybe it’s a little bit of everything because for the authors, the content creators, the bar of what they need to learn is actually lower because they’re not doing all this formatting and all this crazy, but for the production or whatever you want to call that piece, the bar is much higher, so we see that separation. I do want to make a bit of a defense of classroom training because we go along with this and we say, “Okay. We’ll minimize this training, or we’ll do web-based training, or we’ll go work through LearningDITA, and we’ll answer some questions and do what we need to do.” However, classroom training beyond the actual learning environment has some really unique advantages. You can learn a basic tool in a lot of different ways, whether it’s online, or through videos, or through just trying it out on your own, or whatever. But if you have a classroom full of your coworkers, so you take your team of five or 10 people, and you go into the classroom and you work together, so you’re learning together.

12:10 SO: Then what you have is a shared, possible painful experience. You have an opportunity to work in that team, and to build rapport, and to bond with your team, to learn a little bit about your coworkers, that maybe you wouldn’t learn especially if you are on a geographically distributed team where you only see each other once a year, if that. So I think, that’s, there’s value there and it’s important to look at that question of, what do we get by putting all these people in a room and having a shared experience above and beyond, “Okay. After three days they’re going to know something about the tools.” And we have fewer and fewer companies that are willing to make that investment, and I think again, its what you were talking about there, its, why bother, they’re just going to leave, why, why do this?

13:00 AP: And there’s this kind of sad, self-fulfilling cycle when you have that attitude, or the extreme version of that attitude, because I am not going to invest in my people or maybe not even treat them super well, and then you wonder why they leave. So there’s a catch-22 there with that kind of an attitude and I think management really needs to be aware of that. They’re sending a message, when they’re handling training in that manner.

13:23 SO: Yeah and there’s, we have to find a balance. Like everything else. But yeah, if you, if your attitude is that your team is sort of generally disposable then your team is probably going to also treat their job as a thing that is disposable and replaceable. So that’s where we are in some environments, others are doing what I would consider to be the right thing.

13:47 AP: Yeah, and I think another benefit of being together in a classroom beyond what you just mentioned is that, a lot of times classroom training is very focused and customized on a particular implementation or how that company has put something together. That way everyone’s seeing, “Oh, we’re going to solve this particular problem we’ve always had in this way.” So when you have that customized training and you’re talking about these shared problems all together, it really does make things more clear to people and I think you’re going to have great difficulty finding that level of specificity in a canned online class. There’s some very good online classes, but you’re not going to get that level of detail or customization in those, very rarely.

14:37 SO: And that is, in fact, the direction that we’ve sort of gone in is to say, go to the low cost options for the basics, the introductory stuff, the generic stuff, but when it comes to the point of talking about your particular setup, your particular implementation, your particular business requirements, right, if you make medical devices you have a very different kind of set of requirements than you do if you make industrial equipment. And if you make, or if you’re in government or non-profits, they all have different kinds of priorities for their content, and should. And those are the kinds of things that are worth discussing in a group setting with your coworkers with some sort of a facilitator or a leader, who can talk to you about that and raise those questions and help you work through them.

15:33 AP: Exactly. And I think, we have done a pretty good job in showing the pros and cons, and why training is “dying” and it may not be necessarily dying, but I think we are changing our perception in how we apply training, and how a lot of companies are applying training these days.

15:53 SO: Yes. But Death of Training is an excellent clickbait title.

[laughter]

15:58 SO: But you’re right. So the point of training is not really to learn the basics, it’s to connect with your coworkers, and solve problems together, and build that rapport, and work through those kinds of things.

16:12 AP: Exactly. And I think on that note, we’re going to wrap up, so thank you everyone.

16:18 AP: Thank you for listening to the Content Strategy Experts podcast brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information visit scriptorium.com or check the show notes for relevant links.

About the Author

Sarah O'Keefe

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Content strategy consultant and founder of Scriptorium Publishing. Bilingual English-German, voracious reader, water sports, knitting, and college basketball (go Blue Devils!). Aversions to raw tomatoes, eggplant, and checked baggage.

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