Choices, choices: Finding a road for the learning curve

June 1, 2001


The optical-networking marketplace is growing and changing at a truly dizzying rate. With the advent of expanding pipes, next-generation optical routers, and the convergence of traditional voice technologies with modern data communications, it is very hard to keep up. As a result, optical professionals need training just to stay afloat.

For companies looking to help motivate and retain their employees, providing them with education is critical. There is a wide assortment of training methods available and an assortment of strategies to help optical professionals keep their skills up to date.

Traditional classroom training still reigns as the preferred method for many people, but quality "e-learning" is closing in fast-particularly live, interactive e-learning. However, when Global Knowledge recently conducted a survey among an audience of training managers and e-learning providers to investigate their training preferences, they overwhelmingly chose the classroom.

When asked why, they explained that four key components made training valuable for them: experienced instructors, hands-on access to the tools, access to peers with whom they could network, and the right content in the class.

How will employees use what they learn in the real world? Good content should be designed to produce skills, not just knowledge. It's not enough just to know what a particular technology is-people need to know how to apply it and, more importantly, when (and when not) to apply it. Whether individuals work through hands-on practice labs, use a simulation, or practice with offline equipment at the office, training should be designed to help learners perform.

Who wrote the content? If experts on the subject matter authored the content, you're likely to get more of the interesting tidbits about how certain technologies work (or don't work) in the real world. High-quality courseware should also be edited by technical editors and include graphics created by graphic artists.

How will learners gain access to people who have real experience? Whether it's an experienced instructor who does consulting on the side, colleagues in an online community, or mentoring sessions over the Web, employees need access to a resource to get questions answered. Learners have questions whether they study on their own, in the classroom, or over the Web. Possibly the most critical factor in measuring the true business value of training is how readily those questions are answered.

Once you're comfortable that the training provider understands your needs and is ready to help employees acquire the skills they need, it's time to investigate individual learning preferences. Would your staffers prefer to take a book and lock themselves in an office for a couple of days? Do they prefer learning from an experienced mentor who can provide them with guidance on the spot? Do they feel comfortable viewing a computer screen for more than one hour? Do they learn best by watching, hearing, or working hands-on?

Answers to these questions will tell you a lot about how your staff prefers to learn-but be open to trying new things. A live-Web classroom can be as interesting as a morning talk-radio show. For some courses, online hands-on labs are identical to the classroom experience, and many are provided with live equipment. For individuals who prefer to work independently, modern self-study e-learning courses may be the best choice.

Formal training is only one part of creating a "learning community." Employers who need to keep technicians up to speed should maintain a library of resources they can access for information on new technologies, new products, or simply for reference. A library might include books, e-learning titles, and trade publications. IT managers should ask employees for feedback and suggestions; it may be possible to meet most of their needs with minimal funding.

If you're trying to use training to retain your people, it's vital to remember that employees value interesting work above all else-it's a primary motivator! Try to create opportunities for employees to use their expertise. Lastly, make sure to respect the need to take time for learning. People aren't motivated to learn as well when they are asked to do it at home on their own time after a 12-hour shift. If your company values learning, make sure your people have the time to do it.

Patrick von Schlag is director of market strategy for Global Knowledge Inc., a worldwide IT education provider based in Cary, NC. He can be reached via the company's Website,