Managing end-user education in a cloud-first world

Posted by Eric Shupps on Jan 3, 2017 1:07:43 PM

One of the biggest advantages of cloud services is the pace at which new features are delivered and adopted. Microsoft has readily embraced the rapid release cycles made possible by their robust cloud infrastructure, releasing new and updated features for SharePoint Online and other Office 365 services on a monthly (and sometimes weekly) basis. While having immediate access to the latest and greatest functionality is a definite improvement over the old three- to five-year upgrade cycles for on-premises software, it creates some significant challenges for corporate training departments.

Every organization has employees who like to be on the cutting edge of technological advancement. These early adopters find it easy to integrate new tools and functionality into their work processes with little or no instruction, often acting as champions for new ways of solving old problems and pushing IT to deliver faster with fewer restrictions. While such technology trendsetters are assets, they usually represent a small subset of company personnel. For the most part, end users have a small number of tools they work with on a daily basis to perform their assigned tasks, and any deviation in those tools, even for the better, results in unwanted interruption and loss of productivity.

The vast majority of corporate training programs focus on these end users. They are structured in such a way as to deliver just the information employees need to get their work done, which is then reinforced by task engagement and periodic refresher courses. More advanced users typically have access to broader selections of in-depth material, and often act as mentors and problem solvers on their functional teams. The overall result is a consistent and adequately performing education-delivery system for corporate line-of-business applications that follow the on-premises model of long upgrade cycles between major application revisions.

Unfortunately, the way companies have traditionally trained their employees is completely out of step with the rapid pace of change introduced by cloud services. The classroom-based methodology of an instructor walking users through various screens and following strictly controlled lab instructions falls apart when the user interface is constantly changing and the feature set is always in a state of flux. The work process a user learns on Monday may have changed drastically by the end of the week, and not even exist by the end of the month.

In this kind of environment, the old ways of doing things just aren’t applicable any longer. Training managers must find new ways of keeping users up to speed and engaged.

It is tempting to throw one’s hands up in the air, treat it as an unsolvable problem and leave users to their own devices in figuring it all out. While that may work for power users (for whom videos and examples are an ideal resource), the average end user needs a bit more structure and personalization. Fortunately, there are some proven methods for education delivery that work well in a cloud-based environment, but will require some changes to the way in which corporate training departments engage with employees.

To begin with, the overall objective of delivering training should be repurposed to instill basic skills that are applicable across a wide range of tools, features or functional elements. The goal is to provide a thorough understanding of the elements required to complete a task in such a manner as to allow the user to approach it in different ways. When the user knows exactly what he or she is trying to do and which parameters are required for it to be done successfully, it is much easier for them to adapt to changing circumstances.

A good example of this is managing documents, something that most business users have to do on a regular basis. For years the industry has been trying to get users to apply metadata to files instead of simply organizing them in folders like they did back when everything ran on file shares. But content authors often make the mistake of assuming users understand why they need metadata in the first place. If they are first shown how it benefits them directly using contextual examples, and then are educated on the underlying concepts and guided through the use and implementation of metadata, they make use of it far more frequently.

Once they fully understand metadata, then it won’t matter if creating a new column takes seven clicks or three: If the screens change entirely, or if new features are introduced to streamline the process, they know what they need to do. They just need to adapt slightly to a new way of doing it.

This concept can be extended to all sorts of other areas, like data input, approval processes, page editing, and team communication. It’s not a great leap in terms of cognitive task switching to change from a combination of e-mail, instant messaging and discussion boards to Teams and Groups, assuming the user understands the basics of what they need to do in order to engage with the rest of their department or workgroup. Certainly there will always be a lag in productivity as the change is made, but once that is overcome, the baseline will return to normal (and hopefully improve if the new tools are effective).

The challenge in training departments is revising their content to focus on the “what” and the “why” instead of the “how”. That’s easier said than done. Many users have come to expect a certain mode of training delivery and consistency from the systems they are being trained on. They assume that the screens they are shown will be the ones they see when they get back to their desks, that the processes will flow more or less as demonstrated, and that they won’t have to repeat training for some time to come.

One way to overcome this challenge on both ends of the training model is to completely change the way corporate education is delivered. By breaking down task-based instruction into small, easily consumable chunks delivered on-demand, users can access the information they need right when they need it. Smaller, more focused nuggets of instruction support a more frequent revision process, adapting to changes in the target system with small content updates just for those areas that have been modified instead of complete courseware rewrites. The information never gets stale as it is constantly updated and revised.

Naturally, the process of updating content on an ongoing basis can be time-consuming and requires dedicated resources. That is one of the unavoidable consequences of doing business in the cloud. For training departments with limited resources, there are third-party providers who can deliver video and multimedia content that is regularly updated. Many Learning Management Systems also support smaller, more focused content iterations with features designed for flexible delivery models including video and self-paced tutorials.

But perhaps the most significant step organizations can take to facilitate employee education in the era of cloud computing is to change the internal perception of what training actually is and what purpose it serves. Users have come to expect a lot of handholding and in-person instruction, but that model simply cannot scale to keep up with the current pace of change. A new and fundamentally different educational model must be implemented across the board in a manner that suits the way business will be done going forward.

This type of dramatic shift begins with restructuring training delivery around task- and content-based education. When users are given the expectation that they will receive minimal upfront training, and instead are presented with on-demand walkthroughs and instruction as they proceed through the system, they have no preconceptions around how things should look or function. If the content then changes as the system changes, they will adapt, carrying forward the expectation that the instructions will be there when they need them. Of course, not every system lends itself to this kind of training, but many cloud services do and those are the ones for which the change will be most beneficial.

Organizations are going to be forced to adopt new training methodologies as they consume ever-greater amounts of cloud services. The velocity of change is only going to increase in the future, so it is vitally important to get ahead of the game and not come up short by relying upon archaic educational programs.

Companies that are able to change the focus of their training from how to complete specific operations to what the expected outcomes should be, that can implement on-demand training systems with contextual content. That can alter the perception of education delivery throughout their organization can will be in a prime position to capitalize on the benefits of the cloud with a nimble workforce that is adaptable to frequent change. Those who cannot move their training programs forward will be saddled with an inflexible structure that prevents them from adopting cloud services to any great degree, and their competitiveness will likewise suffer in the marketplace.

Change can be good. Managed change, with systems in place to facilitate it, is even better. Now is the time to deal effectively with the changes brought on by cloud computing or get passed by and try to play catch up later. Which situation would you rather be in?

Eric Shupps is a SharePoint Server MVP, and the founder and president of BinaryWave, a global provider of SharePoint managed services.

Topics: SharePoint, cloud

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