Invite students to lunch to expand your training program

If you need more training time, consider extending a lunch invitation to your students and co-workers. Fill their plates with useful skills, sweeten the meeting with a dash of fun, and watch them keep coming back for training over lunch.

By Linda Stephens

Our department provides both training and user support, so we're in the trenches with our users every day. We knew we needed a way to provide more detailed training on advanced features of our software. Although users wanted to spend more time on those features in training, we couldn't extend our time in the classroom any further. CBT was an option, but we knew that training would be most effective if we could relate it specifically to the jobs our users do.

To make up for lost time, we decided to offer the additional training at lunch. Of course, to get users to give up their lunch breaks for training meant that we had to offer them something worthwhile. We also knew we'd have to do some internal marketing to sell the program. Our efforts paid off! The "S.U.N. Seekers" program is in its second year and is one of the most popular facets of our training schedule. Requests for documentation from the lunch meetings led us to include this and other information in our company newsletter.
We asked the three winners of our training newsletter contest to describe how they developed their publications and how the newsletters benefited their training programs. This week, the first-place winner, Linda Stephens, editor of the S.U.N. newsletter, explains how lunch can be a good time for training. Next week, Shannon Stein tells how she developed the new Roadway newsletter and finally, Beth Blakely of TechRepublic talks to Marge Petkovsek, who created the online training newsletter, Tricks for the Trade. Click here to read the article about the three winning newsletters.
So, how did we go about convincing users to brown-bag and come to a training session instead of hitting the local deli? We decided early on that there were several key elements that we had to focus on:
  • Topics featured had to be relevant and immediately useful back on the job.
  • Material had to be concise enough to be covered in 45 minutes to an hour.
  • Documentation had to be thorough and accurate—the short duration of the session wouldn't allow for practice, so users would be following the documentation back on the job.
  • Users had to be excited about the program: We couldn't just tell 'em—we had to sell 'em!
  • Sessions had to be fun—users wouldn't give up lunch to be bored.

What to teach
We searched our support database for topics. For instance, we knew from the number of questions we received and from observation that most users weren't taking full advantage of the powerful calendar and scheduling features in our e-mail package, so our first session was "Scheduling Appointments and Meetings in GroupWise." Other topics have included, "Using Word 97's Draw Feature," "Dynamic Links: Sharing Data Between Applications," and "Hyperlinks in Office 97."

One of our most popular topics was a departure from software-specific training, offering users an opportunity to complete a learning-style inventory and discover how to maximize their learning efforts.

How to design the session
With only 45 to 60 minutes in which to teach, we decided on a demonstration format using examples specific to our company. We scheduled fictitious meetings, inviting the users who attended the session and scheduling those resources familiar to the participants. We were then able to demonstrate solutions for any questions posed by the users during the session.

We created documentation that stepped users through all the scheduling features, complete with screen shots. Users could take the documentation back to their desks, follow it to practice, and use the new skills. Later, our documentation became the source for our training newsletter (more on the newsletter below).

How to market the event
Okay, we had a great plan, and now we had to get the word out. Since I harbor a secret passion for marketing and advertising (please don't tell my techie co-workers!), this was the fun part. First, we needed a great name and a recognizable logo.

Since the computer world turns on acronyms, we settled on "S. U. N.," or "Skills U Need" for the title of the program. The logo was a rather obvious choice—a simple sun created with a Word 97 AutoShape and formatted as a watermark, and a WordArt headline. Bright colors caught the eye and got their attention. We kept our copy short and high-energy, promising a fun and informative program.

The S.U.N. newsletter won first place in TechRepublic’s in-house newsletter contest.

How to make it fun
Now we had to make good on the promise. We knew our topic was informative and relevant. To add fun, we used some basic trainer tools—puzzles on the tables when attendees arrived, music in the background before we started to set a lively mood, and a high-energy presentation style. But we knew we would need something more, so we took the low road—we bribed 'em!

For each session users attended, they received a point certificate that could be saved and redeemed for prizes. Prizes were not expensive; we used company promotional items, but there are many inexpensive options. When the time came to redeem the points, we sent a personal note to each attendee, thanking them for attending the sessions and encouraging them to spread the word to co-workers who hadn't attended yet.

It worked! Our first sessions filled our classrooms at two separate locations! The feedback from the first program was enthusiastic, and the positive response was confirmed when users returned for the next session a month later.

Next, the newsletter
We began getting requests for copies of the documentation from users who couldn't attend. A training newsletter was already in the planning stage, and the two worked together perfectly. Using the same logo we created to market the lunch sessions, we designed a simple newsletter format that would use the lunch session topic as the lead story. We added a couple of regular features, including a Reader Question Of The Month and a question that we pose to the users to challenge their skills.

The newsletter is still evolving, as any good publication should, in response to user needs and interests. Because we stick with a consistent format and use the already-prepared topic as the lead story, production time is minimal. We get great feedback on the newsletter, but the best evidence that the publication is being read and used is when we see it pinned to a user's cubicle wall for quick reference!

If you've been looking for a way to supplement the classroom or offer an extra portion of training to your power users, consider inviting them to lunch. Fill their plates with useful skills, sweetened with a dash of fun and good humor, and watch them keep coming back.

Linda Stephens, a Certified Technical Trainer, is the IT technical trainer for a midsize electric utility in Chattanooga, TN. She designs and delivers core PC skills, Internet essentials, e-mail, and Microsoft Office 97 training to approximately 250 of the company's more than 400 employees.

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