Why ERP training must change; and why I spent too long in isle 6 at B&Q

How we learn has changed. When I bought my first house 25 years ago, it needed re-wiring.  I bought a book, my Dad bought some old-school experience, and we spend several hours over several visits chatting with a very knowledgeable man in isle 6 of B&Q about fuses and junction boxes. At about the same time, I was embarking on my consultancy career.

In my last blog, I rather got on my soap box about the low priority we appear to give to modern software training.  I made a case for sacrificing cutting edge technology, or at least deferring it, until we can train it out in a way that is ‘sticky’.  Perhaps my real frustration is that we haven’t really changed our learning style in a generation.

But I know change happens, and the opportunities of new technology adoption, even if driven by the marketeers, can be very powerful.  So, if we must roll it out, how can we do it better?

My background is ERP, where there are some nuances that make training and adoption trickier than most software packages. By its nature, ERP is wide and complex.  Some users will interact with large elements of the system at a deep level, while others touch a tiny part with high rapidity. Learning must align to all ends of that spectrum.  Core competency varies too, with some users picking up quickly, and others needing a very gentle hand to walk through even basic tasks.

An additional nuance of ERP, is that despite the best designed list of processes in the world, there are always some unhappy path processes that have to be solved on the fly.  That requires users that have a deeper understanding about how to use the toolset to solve unexpected scenarios.

Let me play my hand up front here.  I am not a fan of classic classroom training in ERP project delivery. I have been an MCT, stood at the front, and delivered my share of courses.  I’ve also been at the coal face at go-live of those same projects.  I don’t have the stats to back this one up, but I would describe the average user ability on day one of go-live as ‘patchy’.   It seems even the basics of finding, sorting, reporting, filtering, and navigating are not bedded in.

Let’s heap on a few more constraints: classrooms run at the pace of the slowest learner; and getting a whole team in the room for 1-3 days (sometimes more) is a valid business challenge. Finally, a classroom rarely has precisely the same job role, so the trainer must overlap and balance competing needs in the room. And it is hard, really hard, for that trainer, no matter how good, to keep 6-10 people engaged and focused, away from email and phones and day-to-day business pressure, for several hours at a time.

In the interests of this remaining a blog, and not a book, I’ll skip the merits or otherwise of general methodologies around consultant verses certified trainer verses train-the-trainer approaches.  Ultimately, they all end up in a classroom, and it is here that I’d love to see some variety of approach.

I believe there is a place for the classroom and face to face learning.  But critically, I’ve come to understand that the best use of that valuable time is to embed existing knowledge, and not as a forum to teach new tools. The academic world has been applying these methodologies for a generation, but somehow business, and IT in particular, have not naturally adopted them.

Take Efrat Furst’s work which focuses on understanding the learning processes in the brain. In developing her Model of Building Long-Term Memory Representations, she explored the role of retrieval practice in learning, drawing insights from cognitive psychology and neuroscience. Her model takes the learner on a journey of Know, Understand, Use and finally Master.  Each stage aligning with practical tools and methods.  I can’t do the depth of academic study justice here, but my takeaway from much reading is that learners in the ‘Use’ phase (read: Classroom), perform at a much higher level if they have already progressed through the ‘Know’ and ‘Understand’ phases.  For me, this is something of a revelation, and turns traditional software training on its head.  If we accept that classroom training is a valuable and limited commodity in a project – and I do – then that limited time is far better spent re-enforcing existing knowledge, not introducing new information.

A visual summary of Efrat Furst’s Learning Model

The challenge is to move from, “Now you’ve had your course, please go away and practice” and into, “You’ve had your introduction and basic knowledge courses, let’s spend this time together to use and embed that learning”.

So, can our classroom move away from classic process driven delivery, to labs, clinics, practice, what-if Q&A, problem solving, learner collaboration, and unhappy path exploration?  I don’t see why not. 

And if we can layer that with other modern techniques such as micro-learning and learning-in-the-flow-of-work, we would begin to leverage learning techniques that are proven to deliver better results (…than our traditional methods).

What is micro learning and learning in the flow of work? Well, if you’ve ever been a bit stuck on that random DIY project, wanted to know how to cook a […..] , or need to know how to get red wine out of your beige carpet, you’ve probably paused to search YouTube. If you did, you are entering the micro learning world.  When you find the magic life hack 30 seconds into the video, pause it, and go back to apply your new skill, you have just been learning-in-the-flow-of work. 

I don’t have all the answers in a succinct form, because as always, every project demands some pragmatic approaches, but I do advocate for some fresh thinking and the adoption of some proven academic techniques.  I for one would love to work on a project where hyper-care is what it should be; a safety net of resource dealing with unexpected scenarios, and not another name for 1-2-1 training because the user learning model has fallen short.

I suspect you are asking a question along the lines of….”If we use our valuable classroom time to embed the use scenarios, how does the learner get past the Know and Understand phases in the first place?” Yes, fair point, and material for another post I think. I have some ideas.  In the meantime, I want to push us to open the conversation and challenge our traditional standards.  How dated does 25 year old software look? Perhaps it’s time to update our learning methods too.

I did enjoy rewiring my house, and I very much enjoyed the hours spent with Mr. DIY in isle 6 at B&Q, but I also accept that if I did it again tomorrow, my approach would be very different. 

If you’d like to explore more about these models, here are a couple of references I leaned on for starters…

Efrat Furst – Understanding “Understanding”

Applying Efrat Furst’s Model of Building Long-Term Memory Representations

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