Revealing the Learning Science for Improving IT Onboarding

Key Stakeholders: IT Managers, IT Directors, Chief Information Officers, Chief Technology Officers, Chief Digital Officers, IT Governance Managers, and IT Project and Portfolio Managers.

Top Takeaways: Information technology is innovating at an amazing pace. These technologies hold the promise of increased effectiveness, efficiency and profits. Unfortunately, the training tools developed to onboard users are often constructed as an afterthought and are ineffective. Technologies with great potential are underutilized because they are poorly trained. Learning scientists can remedy this problem and can help IT professional build effective training tools. Onboarding will become more efficient, and profits will follow in short order.

IT Onboarding Has an Adoption Problem

In my lifetime I have seen a number of amazing new technologies emerge. I remember the first handheld calculators and the first “flip” phones. Fast forward to 2018 and the majority of Americans now carry some of the most sophisticated technology that exists in their palm.

In the corporate world technology is everywhere. Old technologies are being updated regularly, and new innovative, disruptive technologies are being created every day. With every update or new technology comes a major challenge that is being poorly addressed.

How do we get users to adopt the technology, and to use it efficiently and effectively?

This is a problem in training. As a learning scientist I find it remarkable that so much time and money is allocated to developing these amazing technologies, but training is treated as an afterthought. This is a recipe for poor adoption, underutilization of these powerful tools, and reduced profits.

The IT Onboarding Issue

I experienced this dozens of times in my 25-year career as a University Professor. I routinely received emails outlining in excruciating detail a new set of rules, regulations or policies. The email would be laced with threats for non-compliance, but poorly designed instructions on how to obtain compliance. The usual approach was to ignore the instructions in the email and instead to use the grapevine to identify which buttons to click, and in what order to achieve compliance. I also received emails explaining (again usually in excruciating detail) how a new version of an existing software has changed, or how some new technology was going to be unveiled that would replace a tool that I currently used. I was provided with a schedule of “training workshops” to attend, or a link to some unintelligible “training manual”. I either found a way to use the old technology in secret, made a formal request to continue to use the “old” technology to avoid having to learn the new technology, or I asked the “tech” guy to come to my office and show me how to do the 5 things that I needed the new technology to do. I would take copious notes and save them for future reference.

If I got an email detailing a new technology that did not affect my current system, I deleted it with relief.

My story is common, it suggests a broken and ineffective system, and it all centered around the lack of quality training.

This is not restricted to the University setting. I have a colleague who builds mobile apps for large pharmacy chains. The mobile app reminds patients to refill prescriptions, allows pharmacists to adjust prescriptions, and several other features. It is a great offering and adds value for his clients. As with most IT, he rolls out a new release every few months. His main struggles are determining what features to improve, what new features to add, and how to effectively onboard users.

He gets some guidance on how to improve an existing feature, or what new features to add, but he often complains that these suggestions sound more like a client’s personal preference and are not driven by objectively-determined customer needs. With respect to training, he admits that the training manual is an afterthought and he is frustrated because his team is constantly fielding questions that are answered in the manual.

The result: “Improved” or new features no one wants, and difficulty training users of the app.

Experts in IT development should not be expected to have the skills to build an effective training manual, but they do need to understand that onboarding is critical, and effective onboarding requires a training tool that is effective.

Key Recommendations for Improving IT Onboarding

This is where learning science should be leveraged. An extensive body of psychological and brain science research (much of my own) has been conducted over the past several decades that provides specific guidelines on how to effectively train users. Here are some suggestions for improving IT training and development that derive from learning science.

Recommendation 1 – Survey Your Users: All too often technology is “improved” or a new feature is released and few clients see its value. Users know what they want. They know what problems that they need to solve and want tools for solving those problems. Users should be surveyed to determine what features they like, what features they feel could be improved, and what problems they would like solved with a new feature. The simplest, cheapest and most effective way to do this is to ask them via an objective survey. Don’t just ask the CEO, ask the users.

Recommendation 2 – Develop Step-by-Step Instructions for Each Feature and Problem it Solves: Although your new technology may have a large number of features and can solve a large number of problems, most technology users take advantage of a small handful of features to solve a small number of problems. Step-by-step instructions should be developed that train the user on each specific feature and how it helps them solve a specific problem. If I only use five features to solve two main problems, I should be able to train on those features within the context of these two problems. This approach will be fast and effective.

Recommendation 3 – Training Content Should be Grounded in Microlearning: Microlearning is an approach to training that leverages the brain science of learning. Attention spans are short and working memory capacity is limited. People learn best when training content comes in small chunks (5 – 10 minutes) that is focused on a single coherent concept. If you need to utilize two independent features to solve a specific problem, training will be most effective if you train on each feature separately, then train how to use those two features in concert to solve the specific problem.

Recommendation 4 – Develop Training Materials in Multiple Mediums: Some learners prefer to read, some prefer to watch videos, and some prefer to listen. Training materials should be available in as many of these mediums as possible.

Recommendation 5 – Incorporate Knowledge Checks: One of the best ways to train our brain is to test our knowledge of material that we have learned. Testing a learner’s knowledge of the steps needed to solve some problem, or their knowledge of the features of your app requires the learner to use cognitive effort to extract and retrieve that information from memory. This process strengthens information already learned and can identify areas of weakness in their knowledge. This would cue the learner to revisit the training material.

How to Implement These Recommendations & Representative Vendors

Now that we have identified the problem and offered some solutions, key stakeholders need to know how to implement these recommendations. Several avenues are available. Key stakeholders can work with corporate learning and internal learning and development solutions, as well as with corporate communications from an internal marketing perspective. We at Amalgam provide guidance on the best solutions and how to implement them.

Solutions are available from companies such as: Accord LMS, Agylia Group, Axonify, Cornerstone, Crossknowledge, Degreed, Docebo, EdCast, Expertus, Fivel, GamEffective, Grovo, Litmos, Lumesse, MindTickle, Mzinga, PageUp, Pathgather, PeopleFluent, Qstream, Reflekive, Saba, Salesforce, SAP SuccessFactors, Skillsoft, Talentquest, TalentSoft, Thought Industries, Totara Learn, and Zunos. Over the coming months, I will be researching each of these and other offerings in greater detail and will be writing about how they support IT education.

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