Link training with R&D to create better solutions for customers

With the high demand for IT training, training departments are in a position to move from a cost-centered to a revenue-generating role. To do this, managers need to revise their mission and their relationships with development and support teams.

By Joakim Carlson

It’s not easy managing a training program in a large corporation whose core business is the hardware and software that the training is designed to explain. When you’re working with technology products that have shorter and shorter time spans in between releases, it gets even harder. In this article, I will discuss the intersection of development and training and how large organizations should develop and supply various services, such as training, in the future.

When companies develop training programs, they are often forced to take into consideration incremental development in the software to be taught. This means that the software product may be delivered in stages, with each stage providing an additional component of the software. When you take revisions and upgrades into account, it’s possible that some projects could never end.

In addition to those considerations, hardware and software projects sometimes demand early training for certain key customers or internal training for certain employees. This puts pressure on training development units to have their projects ready when hardware/software development projects are rolled out. This is difficult in most cases, partly because of the fact that the hardware or software does not yet exist. Technicians seem to have an annoying habit of changing and adding features at an incredible pace—which has a direct impact on the training. But, this can’t be the only explanation. So why is this happening?

For starters, this problem is a creation of the fast-changing business world of IT. In the near future, we may see life cycles of products often coming down to only three months, as opposed to the years it currently takes some products to mature. Obviously trainers cannot continue working independently from other departments in a business that’s changing so fast. Rearranging training’s relationship with internal hardware research and development units is a must.

It is also important to understand that too many companies today are using development processes that are based on a timeline that spans a year or so, when there are only a few months allotted for these projects. Even more than before, this means that service providers—training among others—will need the freedom to set their own development agenda. The era of stopped and restarted projects must end. Today, the project managers who make decisions now are the ones who will make the profits.

A change in the business model
The training team should maintain a close relationship with the project development team in order to monitor changes more closely. Project managers must be able to arrange the development projects so that R&D will function side by side with the training department. This can sometimes be difficult due to a common assumption: Training is a cost activity more than anything else.

Training is also a service-oriented activity, however, and as the IT business world shifts importance from the supremacy of hardware products toward the growing significance of the revenues generated by the services related to these products, training will become a key player in the new IT business model. This trend shouldn’t be news to managers.

So in order for training to work on an equal playing field with R&D, management must think of training as a revenue-producing part of the organization. Beyond increased cooperation between R&D and training, there needs to be a process that supports the training department’s efforts. The two departments must work together so that training is kept in the information loop and so that training products explain the latest version of the software. This change is even more important as training’s larger role within the company shifts to become revenue-centered.

Moving from revenue taker to revenue maker
Converting training and other typically cost-oriented service providers into revenue generators will require training development managers to see business development as a core part of their activities. Product life cycle management will become more important for managers when they have higher responsibility for the growth of a business. Being a product manager for a service unit that is about to execute these changes definitely means you will have to fight for your right to roll out the projects you see as the most important, while still remaining focused on the overall business plan for the company.

Integrate training into the entire service package
Training is merging with other business functions more and more. But often, training’s communication with other departments in an organization isn’t as strong as it needs to be.

Recent problems at an ISP network management center are an example of this lack of communication. People serving the network nodes visited their supplier and received training on the vendor-specific switch. After this initial training, the technicians relied on the network supplier for support but used on-site help tools as well. These on-site help tools often furnished a lot of the information needed to manage the switch.

The problem was that the tools often provided a poor learning experience, which in turn meant that the technicians could not get their work done. This also meant greater pressure on support staff and a feeling that the initial training was not worthwhile, which translated into frustrated managers and coworkers. Looking at it from the supplier’s business point of view, the business had effectively been torpedoed.

Instead of making the on-site help tools a bigger part of the training that technicians receive, the tools should be integrated into the total learning experience—meaning that they are fluid services. When unnecessary boundaries are created between the initial training, the on-site help tools, and the customer network support, the success of the ISP’s business is compromised.

Providing a complete solution
This lack of cohesion between departments is more a problem with a big supplier’s organization, where different parts of the business do not connect with each other or work in an integrated manner. The service organization can and should work not only vertically but also horizontally.

Regardless of the size of an organization, the supplier must furnish a service solution that integrates all the parts of the project, from network rollout, integration, training, and support, to day-to-day management of the system. By valuing training as a revenue-generating facet of the organization, this integration can merge the typically independent R&D department with training, providing increased overall value for the company.

J.A. Carlson has been working with training product management for some time. Today, he also is developing his own business, Kusttobis, that manages telecom and datacom products and project management. Click here to send him an e-mail with comments about this article or suggestions for another.

The role of the training department is changing all the time with business and technology developments. Have you had to reposition your department within your company or come up with a new mission statement? Share your experiences with us so we can help other members who might be facing a similar task.

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