Burn That Syllabus – A Story
My First Training User Experience (Year: 2001)
It was 8:30 pm when I started towards San Jose International Airport to catch a red-eye to Houston. I was to provide a 2-day training workshop to Phillips Petroleum, in a technology my employer was specializing in.
I was not ready.
This was my first training assignment, where I was asked to step outside my comfort zone of coding in VC++ and rise up to the occasion. The occasion being a forced situation where no senior consultant was available to go for this training. It was becoming a common phenomenon (more demand than supply) – us being a small product company in heart of Silicon Valley with growing popularity across US.
This time however, it was unavoidable, since the other consultants were completely tied up with high priority on-site engagements to be made available for 2-days for weeks together. My boss (the owner) comforted me with a soft-copy of the Syllabus and 23 Hard copies, saying: “Don’t worry Vishal. I know you’ll do fine. And for some reason, if you don’t, it won’t be a reflection on your competence, but ours.”
“23 Hard copies!?” I shivered.
Here was my first training assignment, and all I was doing (in mind) was count the number of handicaps. My English accent. My no-training experience. My few weeks only into depth of the subject. Hardly any travel experience – rental cars, hotels, etc. And above all, 23 participants, which I was told were all in the age group (30-45).
I was prepared to fail. Being only my first red-eye, I was not used to catching good sleep. So, I struggled during the flight, trying to visualize the training room, the people and how I would generate an applause (or a booooo!). In what must be few minutes of hibernation, I was recollecting what a senior consultant and friend had told me: “They’re determined to learn. They’re paying us. They would not gang up on a 24 year old to harrass. So, just go with the flow and if in doubt about a situation, take a break and call me.”
Few hours and a shower later, I was at the destination. The person who received me at the company extended a warm welcome and we small-talked over a coffee. Once I was escorted to the training room, the participants started pouring in. Some introduced themselves, others came in, started and took a seat. I was ready with their name tags, and passed it around for them to keep on their desks.
8:15 AM: (DEEP BREATH)
The moment was here. I started with an introduction, fumbling several times I remember, over my diction. I started rushing through the Syllabus (probably fantasizing about the 2-day being shrunk to few hours!). While I started talking about Features and Demonstrating them, I got blank expressions at first, and then “hostile” questions. After some time, I noticed that few participants started joking amongst themselves and ignoring the training (and me!)
I looked at my watch. 9:33 AM. I couldn’t believe it was barely an hour and few minutes since I started. I requested a bio break; what I really took was a smoke break, wondering whether to call my senior friend/consultant at the early hour considering he was in California (-2 hours). I didn’t. But I wanted to reflect on why the disconnect. It certainly can’t be my accent, my attire, or anything on the surface. The reason has to be deeper. Should I be telling them a story? How do I connect a story with my product? Is the syllabus too overwhelming for the audience? Is it too technical and too boring? Am I a small guy trying to come across as a bad teacher who just talks and doesn’t listen to what the students really need?
NEED? Yes, there’s something to think of. While I lit up the second time, I was quickly figuring out what I would do next after entering the room again. 23 people. All wearing different hats – Technical, Functional, Business, and Admin. How could I possibly create an experience that could be common to all? A joke would be perhaps universal. A magic trick? Trick. That’s it. Tips. Easy tips on what they want. Let them drive the training. Let them voice out their problems.
Eureka! I walked in and requested them to log in to their respective PCs and “activate” the trial license of our software that’s supposed to simplify their SAP ERP. I asked them to bear for a few minutes more before they could witness some cool things.
Once, we were past the boring setup, in a crazy moment, I thought of a dramatic start. I asked them to pay attention, and then on my laptop screen (projected for them on a large screen), I selected the soft copy of the syllabus and deleted it. And I asked everyone to literally “dump” their hard copies in their under-the-desk trash cans.
“What’s going on?” said one. “No more training, is it?”
I said: “You’re absolutely right. No training.” I told them to bear with me for exactly 60 seconds more, after which they could decide whether or not to continue.
Assuming the silence as a unanimous “yes,” I told them to navigate to their favorite transaction module on SAP. I asked them to “pick” an unwanted screen element, and write 2 words inside a txt file that our software produced. “Refresh your screens” I said. The screen element that each one had chosen was gone. Invisible. Out of their way. Nobody could believe that they had actually done something, which they always believed to be non-trivial highly technical activity.
I apologized for the late realization that I was not listening to them. I might as well be a recorded tape that’s blabbering over the feature set of our product without considering what’s helpful and what not. I told them that I just realized that the best way we could utilize the rest of the time. I asked them to throw away the two assumptions that we all started with, just like the stereo-typical syllabus. One, that the training was technical. Second (more important), that this was a training at all!
I got some encouraging nods and some doubting stares. Fine. Slowly I’ll win everyone by listening to everyone, I promised myself.
I told them I acknowledge that the pace at which each of them would grasp things would be different. Also, not everything would be relevant for all. I reiterated that since there was no strict syllabus, we could take few real-scenarios that they experience regularly, break them down into pieces and how the same scenarios challenge each of them separately. Once we have that picture and problem-statement, I would have them build a solution prototype using my software, explaining the used features along the way. And that too, walking and hand-holding at every desk. After the first exercise, I asked for volunteers who had picked up things sooner than others, to join me in explaining few “slow” individuals. This was smart employment of their internal and mutual comfort in knowing each other as colleagues.
The entire exercise was becoming very involved and very personal. Time and again I made them realize what they were achieving was a practical connect with their problems and solving entirely on their own. “I am a just-in-case guide,” I said. Everything that they needed was in their minds – most of the processes when articulated correctly, automatically paved way for some brilliant observations on their part on how to apply the newly gained knowledge. I also requested them to stop memorizing the tool commands, and focus on understanding what is workable and what isn’t.
Furthermore, we could even compartmentalize time periods, where I would encourage people to go ahead and attend to something critical, and be back in the specific time-window for a full-attention topic flow for that part of the audience. Not following the syllabus was the best thing that happened.
Why was it important for all participants to know all 100 features I wondered. Why were all trainings designed to walk a fixed path? Why not structure and apply the flow on-the-fly. Participants mostly care about how they can apply the knowledge in their professional life. They’re least bothered about how many features they’re learning.
Fortunately, the turnaround happened. Not just in this case. Before even I was back to California, my boss had gotten some feedback on the training exercise. What happened the immediate next day, was a re-designed “simple and fluid” syllabus; that focused on few critical aspects as pre-requisites, and other slots as “Scenario 1″, “Exercise 3″…and so forth, without actually defining them with granularity. I cannot take entire credit for this change, but I know this was a significant contribution.
Years later, while I see the fixed approach being followed by most trainers, I’m glad to continue to employ my first training user experience. With improvement. Continuous!
2 takeaways for making the training user-friendly: One, let participants drive the flow. Second, let participants actually perform the “tricks” (plenty of hands-on).
Really guys, “Burn That Syllabus!”