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Training on IT: Put yourself in the user’s shoes


IT trainingWith more than a decade of experience to call on, Simon Hurst argues that a good understanding of learners' needs, honesty and rapport are the keys to successful technology training.

First of all, I should admit that I am far from being a professional trainer and lecturer. Even worse I don't have a particularly IT-related background. I trained as an accountant, realised I enjoyed IT, worked for a software house and found myself increasingly training small groups on how to use our applications, and lecturing to larger groups on general IT issues.

Although nearly all the training and lecturing I do is on IT related subjects – particularly the use of the Microsoft Office applications – I do attend quite a few lectures on other subjects. Most of the issues I come across training on IT are, I'm sure, similar to most other training situations. However, there are some issues that seem particularly relevant to IT.

Whose shoes do you look at?

There is an old joke that suggests the difference between an introvert IT person and an extrovert one is that the extrovert looks at your shoes when they're talking to you.

Of course this is a wholly unfounded generalisation and stereotype. Having said that, an aptitude for the deeply technical often appears in inverse proportion to the ability and desire to communicate. It may be that the better you know and understand something, the more difficult you may find it to appreciate just how difficult other people find it. So one of the first requirements of a good IT trainer is not to be too good at IT. If you have to work at your understanding, you are likely to be better able to find ways to help others with areas they find hard.

Of course, you need to be good enough at IT to impart something of use to your audience. As with all training, the issue is not just being able to run through a carefully scripted lecture or training course, it's what you do when things go wrong and how you deal with questions or disagreements that will be crucial.

Simon Hurst"One of the first requirements of a good IT trainer is not to be too good at IT. If you have to work at your understanding, you are likely to be better able to find ways to help others with areas they find hard."

When lecturing on technology topics, I often find that there is at least one person in the audience who knows more than I do about some part of the lecture. If you are lucky, and react appropriately, they will contribute constructively and add to your lecture. If you alienate them, then not only are they unlikely to get much from your lecture, but they may influence the other attendees negatively.

Possibly the worst thing you can do when faced with a question you don't know the answer to is to pretend you do and state a wrong answer as though it were fact. Apart from misleading your audience, you may well be found out and lose credibility on the other points you make. I've generally found that, as long as you have made some attempt in the course publicity to ensure an appropriate audience, few people will expect you to know absolutely everything about the subject – particularly when it is as potentially vast as IT.

I often go for the 'I haven't got a clue' response if that's the truth, but then try and work out the answer with help from the audience. It's here that experience is vital. If you've worked enough with a particular application or type of application, then a lot of the time you will be able to make a pretty good prediction as to a possible answer.

I must admit I do sometimes resort to being a bit non-committal about whether I know the answer and saying something like: 'Well, let's go and have a look here to see if that's what you want.' The more you know an application, the more likely you are to guess correctly and if you don't, you haven't misled or been caught out giving the wrong answer.

Hands on or off?

Many IT courses do not require the delegates to have access to their own computer. If you are just trying to inform or show principles then displaying the application on a big screen may well be sufficient. If, on the other hand, you are trying to teach particular techniques of using a computer application then the attendees are almost certain to need to practise the techniques for themselves.

To take a very obvious example from the early days of Windows software, many people weren't familiar with how a mouse worked. I'm not sure I can think of any method of mouse usage training that would be as effective as allowing people to practice using a mouse during the course.

In a way, things have changed in more recent years, as applications use a pretty common and standard user interface, the actual techniques of using Windows software are much more widely known and accepted. This means that a hands-on approach may not now be quite so essential.

"It's what you do when things go wrong and how you deal with questions or disagreements that will be crucial."

As a practical example, I lecture a great deal on Microsoft Excel, and for years I believed – I think correctly – that hands-on was the only effective way to train on Excel. In more recent years I've run a lot of non hands-on courses that delegates seem to have been quite happy with. This is partly because they are already familiar with all the basic techniques and can see how to apply them to different areas without necessarily having to do it at the time.

It's also important to design the course appropriately. I've tended to make sure the notes that accompany the course are sufficiently detailed that delegates can work through the examples hands-on, in their own time, after the course if they need to.

Know your audience, make sure your audience knows your audience

One particularly important area relates to the range of knowledge and ability in the audience. As mentioned before, you do need to do your best in the course publicity to give an honest view of the level of expertise a course is aimed at, but even then you may find people have different opinions of their own capabilities and you can find yourself lecturing to a pretty disparate group of people.

I usually ask the audience as a whole a few questions about what they do know about an application, or which bits of an application they confidently use. This not only helps me to pitch the lecture at the right technical level, but also helps the different types of people in the audience appreciate that there may be a need to cover things they find very basic or conversely, go into areas that they think are very advanced.

Enthusiasm to explore, confidence to experiment

My aim for a non hands-on IT lecture on an application would generally be to show people what is possible and demonstrate enough of the technique to get them started. A lot of software is now sufficiently user-friendly that if you know what you want to do, and where in the system to find it, the application itself may well provide enough clues to guide you through the process.

There is often a conflict between how much you cover and whether everyone in the room is fully confident that they can follow and apply all of what you do cover. I tend to err on the side of covering lots, hoping that, by showing what is possible and with the aid of the notes, the delegates are able to fill in any gaps for themselves.

About the author

Simon Hurst is a former chairman of the ICAEW IT Faculty and runs The Knowledge Base, a Horsham-based consultancy dedicated to helping professional firms make effective use of technology. He is also the author of 100 Time-saving Tips for Microsoft Office and Advanced Excel Techniques for Accountants, available for sale from our sister site,


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