04 May 2006

Is There A "Silver Bullet" For ERP Training?

In the last week, I’ve listened to three different companies attempt to convince prospects that their software tool is the “cure all” to ERP training woes. In addition, I had a conversation with a colleague this morning about his frustrations with a particular client that was “sold” on a particular software tool that is supposed to make ERP training “faster, cheaper, and better.” Moreover, the client only wanted to work with companies that were well versed with the software. Well, guess what?!?!? The company with competency in the tool is the one that designed it, built it, and sold it to the client!

I reminded my friend that 1) there were probably other consultants and trainers in his marketplace that had experience with the software tool in question, and 2) the issue was really in another area entirely and he needed to discuss that with his client. So what was truly going on?

The client had a rocky ERP implementation the year before. Murphy reigned supreme and everything that could go wrong, did. The installation and rollout to corporate headquarters missed several deadlines and went over budget. There was heavy user resistance due to poorly executed change management and training development and delivery.

The software company with the training tool had convinced the new director that all the earlier problems would be history and future rollouts to the divisions in the US and Latin America would go much better due to using their new software. Would the future ERP rollouts be better? Maybe. Would the improvement be due exclusively to the company using a new software tool? Not necessarily. How do intelligent people manage to convince themselves that a software tool will solve all their problems? The short answer is fear of failure and its consequences.

I suggested to my colleague that he revisit what he has directly experienced regarding user resistance in the workplace. Employees often resist change because they don’t perceive that it is necessary (lack of urgency) or the proposed change is introduced poorly or in an unexpected manner (bad timing) or they don’t understand the purpose for the change (lack of clarity) or they believe that the change may be counter to their best interests (self-interest). None of these reasons are mitigated through the use of a software training tool! In fact, the bulk of research on this topic over the last 30 years indicates that the best approaches for handling this challenge include solid planning, clear communications, and appropriate training!

I remember a saying that I heard decades ago from my father, a former Marine. He was fond of reminding all his children about “The 5 P’s” — proper planning prevents poor performance. Without a plan, no one can execute effectively. Yet, companies persist in approaching an ERP implementation or upgrade with a notion that the only planning required is related to technical challenges. In fact, technical issues are only the beginning. It is equally important to develop a plan for addressing business process, employee communications and training challenges that arise. When an organization neglects one of these non-technical issues, there is always “fall out” during the “go live” and post “go live” phases.

A client once asked me if I thought that it was possible to over-communicate a message. In theory, I agreed that it was possible. In reality, especially the arena of ERP implementations and upgrades, most companies do not communicate enough with their employees about impending changes driven by a new or updated ERP system.

The other question clients ask is “How much communication is enough?”

My response: When a manager can visit a department or call center or plant floor and ask employees, “Why is our organization making this change?” and get accurate responses from the people who will be affected, he can probably be comfortable about the amount of communication that is occurring with his employees.

Perhaps you are thinking by now that I have something against training software tools. I really don’t. The right software can make training development and delivery easier without a doubt. To understand my distaste for the “software as panacea” approach, let’s consider the discussion from a different angle.

When you get up in the morning and think about eating breakfast, do you say to yourself, “Hmmmm, an omelet sounds really good today?” Or maybe it’s “Wow, an omelet would be really great right about now, but no time. I guess I’ll grab a bagel and schmear.” While pondering breakfast, you don’t think, “Gosh, I have a griddle, a spoon, and a spatula. What shall I make for breakfast?” Does anyone think about cooking utensils when deliberating over a meal? Of course not. Training development and delivery is no different.

In the late ‘80’s I worked as a publications manager for a software company. The hot tools discussion in the “tech pubs world” back then revolved around decisions to use Ventura Publishing, PageMaker, Microsoft Word, WordPerfect, or any one of a number of products that were on the market at the time to assist publications departments with the task of producing press releases, newsletters, ad copy, software user guides, release notes, technical updates, and the like. The product that was selected frequently depended upon the complexity of the needs, existing skill sets of the writers, and the platform the company was using.

The conversations among marketing communications and technical writers, instructional designers, and publications managers could become quite heated. A distant listener might err in thinking that the topic being bandied about was religion or politics, rather than which publishing or word processing tool was best for a set of writing activities. My position in these discussions was frequently viewed as bordering upon heresy. I actually thought we shouldn’t concern ourselves with tools. Rather we should address the business of writing. Further, the tool that worked best for the marketing folks was not necessarily the same tool that the tech pubs folks wanted. Finally, I could have cared less whether or not a writer (marketing, technical, or instructional designer) could use a particular tool. I did care very much about an applicant’s ability to write! As far as I was concerned that was the most significant determining factor in the hiring decision.

With training development and delivery, the most important factors are:

  • Writing and/or training expertise (Is the instructional designer a capable writer? Is the trainer competent at instructing students?)
  • Subject matter expertise (Does the instructional designer/trainer know accounting or benefits administration or supply chain logistics?)
  • Software expertise (Does the instructional designer/trainer have a thorough understanding of the ERP software and how it impacts business processes?)
Instructional designers who are experienced in all three areas listed above can deliver quality training materials in less than a tenth of the time that ASTD says is the average (40 hours of development for each 1 hour of training delivery) for material development. How do I know this? I’ve observed instructional designers who have produced training materials on a ratio of 3:1. Further, I’ve written training development and delivery proposals based upon a 3:1 ratio, and occasionally, when I knew the designer’s skill set well, I’ve used a 2:1 ratio.

Let’s do some arithmetic. Company A decides to purchase training development and delivery software for $15,000 per content designer seat and $250 for 5 user seats believing that this will enable a general ledger super user to prepare training materials and deliver training to the GL end users in her department. The GL super user earns a salary of $75,000 annually. The GL course that she is designing is 4 days duration. Through using the software tool, the software company claims that she will spend 4 hours designing material for every hour of delivery.

Company B elects to follow a traditional approach to its general ledger training and contracts an instructional designer with training skills and an accounting background at a rate of $150 per hour to prepare the training materials and deliver the course. Company B pays less for its general ledger course than Company A, not only in year 1, but for years 2 and 3. The total cost over 3 years is less for Company B. In addition, Company B will have better quality materials than Company A because they were developed by someone who could write and knew how to design material so that it enhances learning (Click here to view numerical comparison).

Despite what software companies want you to believe, reality says that designing ERP training materials and delivering that training involve unique skill sets. Further, no software tool in the hands of an inexperienced designer with little or no understanding of how adults learn and a limited writing ability will produce quality training materials.

Now for the $64,000 question: Do instructional designers use software tools? Yes, they do, especially for crafting asynchronous online training materials, and the software products used most often cost less than $1,000!

06 March 2006

Is It Really Just A Matter of Learning the Software?

Since I work in an enterprise application training and consulting firm, many discussions that I have with clients revolve around training questions and issues about improving employees' productivity.

Last week I was chatting with a company's training director. He freely admitted that, with a predominantly soft skills training background, he felt somewhat out of his realm of expertise when the topic of ERP training arose. Yet, he asked a question that no one has ever asked me before.

"What makes ERP training different from other kinds of computer or technical training?" It was a great question and one that deserves serious discussion.

My answer at the time centered on two areas. The first difference related to the breadth and depth of change that can occur in people's work when an ERP system is implemented. The second difference had to do with the skill mix of a successful ERP trainer.

The entire fabric of an organization is rewoven at the point that a company implements an ERP application. This “reconstruction” to accommodate a software application can change the company’s organizational structure, business processes, as well as the daily tasks of its employees. I know of no other undertaking that can so profoundly alter a workplace as an ERP application. I’ve heard various accounts of people who have left jobs they loved to avoid the disruption of an implementation or upgrade.

I recall working with an organization several years ago that was implementing a purchasing solution from a major ERP software vendor. As a result of automating many of the procurement-related tasks and having the ability to incorporate business rules into the processing and workflow, the buyers in the Purchasing department were told that they would no longer be responsible for creating requisitions or purchase orders under a certain amount. That would be handled by the Purchasing system. Instead, they would be more involved with analyzing purchases and reporting on spending trends, reviewing supplier contracts, and monitoring blanket PO compliance. Needless to say, the buyers in that department had stunned expressions after that news was delivered. Despite the fact that some of them had worked 10 years or more as clerks, now they were expected to function as analysts.

A skilled ERP trainer can make a tremendous difference in how well a company’s employees embrace a new system. What makes a skilled ERP trainer? The answer can be summed up in three phrases — multiple domains of knowledge, working comprehension of adult learning issues, and a good sense of humor and humility.

Let’s look at the first phrase, “multiple domains of knowledge.” It is easy to find an organization that has a horror story about an ERP trainer who knew nothing about the domain, say it was accounting, or knew everything about accounting and was clueless about the software. There is also the situation where a client will say, “You know, he was OK. His knowledge of accounting was fine. He seemed to know the software, but he wouldn’t take the time to understand how we do business.” If an ERP trainer cannot wrap his mind around your company’s ways of doing business as well as have a solid understanding of the subject matter and demonstrate the software application comfortably, he will not train effectively.

Trainers who are working with adults need to have a thorough understanding of various adult learning theories, learning styles, and motivations for learning. Without this comprehension, a trainer can easily deliver instruction that is perceived as irrelevant, unrealistic, or worse, insulting. Furthermore, the deep understanding of adult learning issues coupled with the capability of taking that knowledge and using it to train a company’s employees effectively is one of the chief reasons that many ERP consultants do not make good trainers.

A good sense of humor is essential for any trainer. Humility is vital for an ERP trainer. Why? It is impossible to know everything. ERP and its impact on an organization is so complex and pervasive, there is no way to know in advance all the particular ways that it might affect a company’s operations. An ERP trainer must be capable of saying, “That’s a terrific question and I don’t have the answer at the moment. I shall, however, find the answer and get back to you.” The trainer with a good sense of humor who can laugh at himself is someone who can work productively with a company’s employees and help overcome the hurdle of ERP.

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