“Your first assignment, Mr./Ms. Phelps, is to train 17 people in our company—all of whom have different skill levels—in HTML, DHTML, Active Server Pages, IIS, Visual InterDev, JavaScript, and VBScript. You have one week to accomplish this training.

“For your second mission, you will have five days to teach a group of consultants—with very mixed skills—everything they’ll need to know about InterDev, IIS, ASP, SiteServer Commerce Edition, creating COM components with VB6, and XML so that they’ll be able to advise our Fortune 1000 clients about selecting and installing our e-Business products. Good luck, Mr./Ms. Phelps! This e-mail will self-destruct in 5 seconds…”

Total fiction, right? This could never happen in the real world of computer training, where trainers always have complete control over their curriculum, correct?

Training mission impossibles (TMIs)
You and I know better. We know that difficult training situations will eventually happen to all of us and that no two situations will be the same. In this article, I discuss a few of the TMIs that have happened to me and how I handled the training assignments.

But first, a caveat: I am a Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT) and most of the trainers I work with are also MCTs, so although I’ve had experience teaching other curricula (ColdFusion, Internet Rapid Application Development [IRAD]), my examples involve Microsoft courses and customized courses based on Microsoft technologies. (Don’t tell me “none of this stuff would ever happen with Sun/Java training.” I’ve been there. It does.)

Time constraints
Some TMIs occur when there is not enough time in the class to cover extensive, detailed training material. Not long ago, this happened to me. When I told my client company that I would need a minimum of two weeks to cover HTML, DHTML, Active Server Pages, IIS, Visual InterDev, JavaScript, and VBScript, here’s the answer I received: “We’re flying people in from all over the country. Every minute they’re in class they’re not out in the field earning money for the company. Cover as much as you can in a week.” Yeah, right!

So, how did I handle this? First, I identified the skill level(s) of the students and adjusted the pace and focus of the class to find that “happy medium” (or at least that place where everyone is equally miserable). I ended up restructuring my presentation on the fly to eliminate redundancy and create a better “flow,” covering all the essential topics in my lecture. Then I had the participants spend as much time as possible working hands-on. To help speed the exercises along, I paired the more knowledgeable students with the less experienced computer users.

Taking the “happy path”
Some TMIs present almost the opposite challenge: You have more than enough time to teach the class, but the training material itself is superficial, that is, it only explores what one of my company’s developers calls “the happy path.”

Microsoft’s “NT Server in the Enterprise” is a five-day course that is a compilation of material from three formerly separate courses. As a result, the material contains a lot of discontinuity and what most trainers and learners perceive as repetitious “make-work” lectures and labs designed to fill time in the curriculum.

So, what did we do about this? When I teach this course, I cut to the chase, speeding through or eliminating repetitious lectures and labs. Then I encourage students to veer off the beaten path of the carefully scripted labs. Inevitably, this creates more work for me, but I feel that the students benefit more from the “Why am I doing this?” approach than by sticking to the canned exercises.

A final reminder
When you find yourself mired in a training mission impossible, try to remember this small piece of advice. No matter what you think of the situation, or the material, refrain from criticizing the curriculum or the course in front of the class. By handling the situation on the fly, with confidence and poise, you will retain your credibility as well as your professionalism.

Robert Brents, Ph.D., MCSE, MCT, is the managing general partner of River Otter Productions , an Internet development and computer training company. He has managed projects for the University of California, Residential Funding Corporation, and Cellphone Solutions, and conducted customized technology training for PeopleSoft, Calico Technologies, Metropolitan Life Insurance, and Merrill Lynch, among others. He is an evangelist for elegant simplicity in Web design and implementation.

If you’ve experienced a TMI and would like to share how you turned a training mission impossible into a success story, please let us know by posting your comments at the bottom of this page or sending us a note .