System Training Takes More Than Classroom Instruction

December 1, 1998
Today's workplace is a lot like Charles Dickens' novel, A Tale of Two Cities: It's the best of times and the worst of times. On one hand, technology offers us the promise of a more efficient workplace -- one in which administrative noise is eliminated and strategic thinking flourishes. On the other hand, consultants, vendors and industry technophiles almost never realize the utopian vision of perfect software and systems. For every company that taps into the full power of technology, a dozen others find themselves short-circuited. They wind up realizing only incremental gains, rather than significant advances.

The whole situation is downright maddening. And it always begins predictably enough. You hear about a new product or capability that promises to transform human resources into a far more efficient operation. You check out a variety of vendors, solicit bids and bring a team of consultants into your department. Finally, when you're comfortable you've made the right choice, you fork over tens of thousands of dollars, or maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars, to your friendly HRMS vendor.

As you fire up the system for the first time and watch the consultant show off its capabilities, you can already see yourself winning a company-sponsored award and taking a giant step up the company ladder. It's a wonderful time to be an HR manager, you think. And then you unleash the technology on the workforce, only to watch in wide-eyed wonder as the sleek new system chokes on a steady stream of errors, mistakes and mishaps.

If man possesses one quality that’s enough to cause a certifiable migraine, it’s his ability to invent new things that always exceed his capacity to use them effectively.

The next few months are a chamber of horrors that exceed even an IRS audit or a bout with food poisoning. You spend countless hours and untold training sessions trying to get employees up to speed. You pull your hair out trying to eliminate mistakes.

One employee after another complains that the new system is difficult to use and unwieldy. By now, you're way past the screaming-and-cursing stage. You've been reduced to utter despair. You ask yourself, "How can a system that offers so many capabilities become the source of so much resistance? Why are workers rejecting technology that can revolutionize the department and make their lives easier?"

Welcome to the technology paradox. If man possesses one quality that's enough to cause a certifiable migraine, it's his ability to invent new things that always exceed his capacity to use them effectively. It's no bulletin that most of us find it impossible to keep up with all the technological change rocketing through our world. We spend months learning a new software program, finally get a handle on it, then find ourselves greeted with an upgrade offering new and improved features. Once again, we must retrain our brain. We hear about the virtues of intranets, struggle to learn the various functions and capabilities, and then boot the computer one day, only to view a completely redesigned interface.

Learn how to embrace new technology.
Unfortunately, the problem isn't going away anytime soon. The question is how can an organization embrace new technological solutions, yet maintain a high level of productivity?

Multimedia and Internet Training Newsletter estimates industry spends $55 billion a year on all employee training. That's a hefty wad of bills. And while the figure doesn't specifically address the issue of software and computers, it's obvious that most of us rely on a computer to do our work -- whether it's a dedicated device on the factory floor or a PC sitting on our desktop. Despite trainers descending on the workplace like a swarm of locusts, workers continue to struggle.

If it isn't for the lack of money and effort spent on training, then what exactly is the answer? First, and perhaps most importantly, it's crucial to recognize that a corporate culture that embraces change and encourages employees to grow and learn has a better shot at success. Simply offering classes on how to use Microsoft Excel or click a mouse on intranet hyperlinks doesn't hack it.

As Mark Koskiniemi, vice president of human resources for Buckman Laboratories, explains: "Corporate learning involves more than content, classrooms and instructors. It's a philosophy that must become embedded in the organization's culture."

If any company embodies the learning organization, it’s Buckman Laboratories, a Memphis, Tennessee-based specialty chemical manufacturer that has realized enormous gains through such tools as distance learning and knowledge management. When Buckman hires a new employee, that person quickly discovers that ongoing learning and change are inexorably tied to their jobs and the future of the company. Creating a knowledge-based organization and maintaining skill levels, Koskiniemi says, is an issue that's 90 percent cultural.

However, cultural changes don't happen in a vacuum. It's almost always necessary to create incentives for employees to learn and change. People have to be rewarded -- though not always financially -- for completing courses and mastering skills. They have to see a payoff for themselves, as well as the company.

Simply telling them that a new program or system will pay dividends for their department isn't enough. Many workers, and even some managers, are less concerned with how strategic HR is and how much money it can save than getting through their day, month and life with minimal hassles and roadblocks.

Technology used correctly can liberate workers.
Of course, if you're going to sell workers on the promise of the technology, you darn well better deliver. As Glen Marianko, chief technologist for Progressive Strategies Inc., a New York City-based market research and consulting firm, explains: "If management doesn't know exactly what it wants to do with its systems, and if it doesn't have a well-structured plan, problems and failures will begin to occur. When that happens, employees begin to feel a lot of pain and things begin to break down."

HRIS professionals and executives get caught up in marketing hoopla and buy a product based on the possibilities, rather than the actual capabilities.

However, when it's done right, technology can liberate workers from the drudgery of administrative overhead. It can spur them toward more creative and innovative solutions. Suddenly, they can see the advantages of the system and take it upon themselves to learn how to use it more effectively.

Philosophically, that's in sharp contrast to the conventional wisdom of providing training and letting that drive the learning process. While it's indisputable that people need to comprehend the dizzying array of features that litter a typical program, that in itself does nothing to change the corporate mindset. In fact, organizations that take this approach sometimes find that the disconnection between using and understanding widens until the company is filled with employees who dutifully sit in classes and learn how to click icons with a high degree of accuracy, but still cannot use the technology to any strategic advantage.

A factor that further complicates this equation is that most systems are far too difficult to use -- even for a person who has years of experience using a computer.

Various studies show that between 80 percent and 90 percent of the features in a typical program never see the light of the computer monitor. While software engineers and programmers are busy stuffing capabilities into a system so that it can work for any company or person in the charted universe, they forget that simple and streamlined is often better. Unfortunately, HRIS professionals and executives get caught up in the marketing hoopla and buy a product based on the possibilities, rather than the actual capabilities at their firm. Then it's up to workers to live with the consequences.

Like many challenges facing HR and the larger corporate universe, the problem isn't solved through training slogans, two-hour Excel classes, ongoing rhetoric and assorted quick-fix solutions. When an organization creates an effective technology plan, links systems and resources so that people can do their jobs better, and develops a culture that embraces change as a strategic advantage, resistance fades and the true revolution begins.

Workforce, December 1998, Vol. 77, No. 12, pp.124-126.