Education

Talking Shop: Choose the right training style for your help desk

Implement the correct training program for you help desk

Because end users often view the help desk as the fount of all IT knowledge, it's important to keep your team members up to speed on the latest IT developments and refresh their knowledge of older subjects to ensure they're delivering consistent support. These objectives can be achieved only through continued education and training. But with a wide variety of training methods available, choosing the one that is best for your help desk can be tricky.

To help you make the right decision, I have divided the various help desk methods of training into four categories: formal instructor-led training, e-learning, on-the-job training, and group presentation. Each category has distinct advantages and disadvantages, as shown in Table A, that you should familiarize yourself with. Having this knowledge will help you make more informed training decisions for your help desk.

Formal instructor-led training
Formal instructor-led training is the most structured of all the training methods. This method ensures that techniques are taught in a uniform manner, in an environment free from distractions—and, if you've chosen a reputable training organization—by an instructor who is an expert in the course material. It is probably the best training method for presenting a new or complex subject. Formal instructor-led training also provides your help desk techs a break from their daily routine, which can help prevent burnout.

Unfortunately, these many benefits don't come cheap. Instructor-led training is the most expensive of all the training methods. It's not uncommon for a course to cost over $1,000 per person. You must cover not only the cost of a professional instructor but also the cost of having your staff away from work. In the UK, companies can be quite cost-conscious, and such an outlay is often the first to go when they are looking to save money.

E-learning
Flexibility is probably the biggest advantage to e-learning programs because they can be accessed from most any computer and completed as time allows. E-learning programs also tend to be significantly cheaper than formal instructor-led training, but unfortunately, e-learning's biggest advantage can be its biggest disadvantage.

E-learning's high flexibility means that organizations often want employees to fit e-learning courses into the gaps of their normal workday or take the courses at home. In my experience, neither of these approaches works very well. In the former, busy techs are likely to by interrupted while taking the e-learning courses, and such interruptions make effective learning nearly impossible. In the latter, employees can construe a mandated e-learning program at home as just another instance of work creeping into their own private time. This can lead to resentment, which again makes effective learning nearly impossible.

E-learning can be a valuable training tool when used correctly. Schedule time during the workday for techs to concentrate totally on their courses. Minimize interruptions and keep the training limited to their normal work hours.
Table A
Training method
Time
required

Group
/individual

Flexibility
Cost
Advantages
Disadvantages
Formal instructor-led training
Usually whole
day(s)

Both
Low
High

Information presented in a uniform manner
Information taught by expert
Minimal opportunity for interruptions

Expensive
Techs are required to be away from the job

E-learning
Usually several
hours (often
spread over
several days)

Individual
High
Moderate

Less expensive than formal training
Information taught by expert
Highly flexible schedule

Subject to frequent interruptions
High flexibility can lead to misuse

On-the-job training
Flexible
Individual
High
Low

Free
Focuses on real-world issues

Potential to perpetuate bad habits
Instructor not always an expert

Group presentation
Short sessions
when time
permits (usually
an hour or so)

Group
Moderate
Low

Almost free
Fairly flexible depending on help desk and presenter availability
Can focus on real-world problems in your organization

Presenter may or may not be an expert
Can be difficult to schedule
IT professionals aren't always the best instructors


On-the-job training
Let's face it: Most help desk training is received on the job. Unless your organization has a hefty training budget, your training program for new techs probably consists of placing them with a senior tech for a few weeks to teach them the ropes. There are two big advantages to on-the-job training. First, it's free and, second, the new techs get to experience real-world problems. Unfortunately, if not done properly, on-the-job training can lead to the perpetuation of bad habits. Your organization should take great care that the information delivered through on-the-job training is accurate and consistent.

Group presentation
Although sponsoring group presentations is a low-cost training approach, it combines many of the other training methods' advantages. First, it's cheap because the presenter is usually a member of your help desk team, or perhaps someone from outside the help desk but within the company. Second, it's fairly flexible; you need only schedule a time when all or most of the help desk techs can meet for an hour or so to hear the presentation. Third, everyone who attends the presentation receives the same information. Fourth, real-world issues from your organization can be used to illustrate new concepts or problem-solving methods.

Yet the group presentation technique isn't without a few disadvantages. First, you must ensure the presenter thoroughly understands the subject matter he or she will be presenting. It does you no good to have your team members learn erroneous information. Second, although more flexible than the formal instructor-led training, group presentations can be difficult to schedule because they depend heavily on the availability of your teams and the presenter. Third, not all IT professionals are great trainers. If you don't choose someone who is a good instructor, you're just wasting everyone's time.

A great way to conduct group presentations is through brown-bag lunch sessions. This lets you minimize the time your team members are away from their jobs but isn't as intrusive as scheduling a meeting after or before normal work hours. Either have your team members bring their lunch to the meeting room or, better yet, spend some money from your department's training budget and buy them lunch.

Go for a blended approach
In the end, the training method you choose will depend heavily on your help desk techs' needs and available resources. And no one of these methods is any more or less valid than the others. I would promote a system of blending these methods to make a coherent program of recognized training methods that can be used as and when deemed appropriate.
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