Streamlining the employee training process

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It can be a challenge to get new employees up to speed on how your business runs and what they'll need to know for their jobs. Learn some guidelines and customize the associated training plan to streamline the process.

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It's a paradox faced by every company at some point: new staff is desperately needed to handle the increasing workload shouldered by existing personnel. However, mentoring new staff takes time, pulling current staff away from the very issues they need the extra hands to solve. Often, training methods can be piecemeal, provided in between emergencies, using a "stream of consciousness" method which leaves the mentor overwhelmed and the new employee confused. Shadowing existing employees, for instance, can provide a new hire with an understanding of what to do and when to do it - but not always why or how. After all, it's easy to know how to perform your job functions where you've been employed for months or years, but it can be difficult to transfer the related skills and experience to new faces so they can match your familiarity levels. Fast-paced IT departments engaged in upgrades or break-fix work can feel especially pinched by these limitations.

In addition, employees switching roles in an organization face some unique challenges. While they benefit from existing knowledge of the company and its departments, transitioning to a new role can be daunting if they're trying to learn as they finish tasks for their former group. Making sure these staff members can "jump the gap" without being called up to perform their former duties is also critical for them to succeed.

Never throw a new employee into the pool to see if they "hit the ground running." You might test their grit, stamina and ability to learn as they go, but you might very well be testing their patience with your organizational methods. Staff turnover costs money, and it behooves both companies and employees to get it right with each new hire. Extra time spent orienting employees will pay off when they can take the reins of their new job and ride on their own - or even help train new hires themselves. In addition, some responsibilities are too critical to hand off without proper training, since mistakes can have disastrous consequences. With that in mind, new hire orientations can be compared to entering a hot tub - it's comfortable if they've had time to slowly immerse themselves but painful if they plunge in.

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Training should be completed in a series of levels, just like building blocks of a foundation. The blocks have to be stacked in the proper fashion since new information will be worthless if it's based on details the employee doesn't know about or understand. Many new hires experience the sense of "drinking from the fire hose" and overloading them with information won't help them retain what they need to know.

It may make sense to record multimedia presentations of many common tasks or elements to help make training as efficient as possible, especially in situations where multiple employees are being hired for similar roles or the same information (company details) needs to be communicated on multiple occasions.

Training procedures

1. Identify your training resources and goals

Determine who will conduct the training and the purpose of each step (being able to identify procedures for activating redundant Exchange systems or performing cloud-based backups for instance). Ideally the training should be restricted to a few key personnel, but these employees should also be provided sufficient time to meet their own responsibilities and stay up to date with communications.

2. Cover the company background and details

It is essential for employees to understand how the scope of their job relates to the company overall so they can see the details of the big picture, measure the impact of their work and spot areas for change and improvement. An employee can't do their job effectively if they don't see how their goals align with that of the company, or understand just what the company does.

3. Provide an overview of departments and what they do including roles and responsibilities

The nuts and bolts of the business are to be found in the ways in which departments operate and interact. Make sure that new hires understand what departments do and why. It can be especially daunting to identify responsibilities external to the group and often decisions are delayed or imperiled by not possessing a clear understanding of who to involve or hand tasks off to.

4. Focus on the business processes - the "why" and the "how."

Many organizations, especially those in technology or finance, have intricate processes that have been built and developed over a period of several years or longer. While not every employee should be expected to possess an in-depth understanding of all company operations (informational technology workers do not need to focus on recruiting concepts or financial transactions for instance), a familiarity with business processes demonstrates the employee understands how things get done and can leverage those processes as needed. If the development team works through a series of iterations which last a set number of weeks, it helps showcase to a new hire how their workloads and priorities operate and why it is important to attend iteration kickoff meetings to set and become acquainted with the project plan for the next month.

5. Analyze the employee's department and how it functions

Obviously the bulk of training will take place in this and the next segment, which focuses on the knowledge required to perform the employee's job. Some departments are small and easy to understand; a boss and a few team members. Other departments have different leads and responsibilities, such as an IT department consisting of Windows administrators, Linux administrators, network engineers and security personnel. Many complex departments have blurred roles whereby some technicians wear multiple or unique hats (for instance a security expert who also understands Exchange, or a small team where one person might be the storage expert, another a certificate guru, and so forth). Introduce the employee to all personnel, have them sit with staff and discuss the existing roles and how the new position will relate to it, then make sure they understand the group hierarchy so they will be able to refer to the appropriate resources as needed.

6. Establish tasks, responsibilities and expectations for the role

Here's where your foundational building blocks get applied to begin transforming a new hire from a fresh face to a seasoned veteran. Start with concepts, but don't overload the employee with too much objective data - real life examples and the ability to see processes live or in a simulated setting (building a new virtual machine for instance) will provide the appropriate context for them to remember what they need to know.

Provide documentation to elaborate on the methodologies the employee will use, but also encourage them to take notes and customize the written procedures as needed to clarify or help commit them to memory.

Where possible, try to conduct training with existing employees in a private setting like a conference room or empty cubicle. This will reduce interruptions and multi-tasking so both individuals can focus on the teaching/learning process.

7. Give them enough slack to start working independently

Regardless of the nature of the new employee's role, it will soon become dull for them to watch others work. Hands-on activities will go a long way towards orienting them to what they need to do for their jobs. It's best to smart out small with minor tasks then work up to more complex procedures. By the end of this step the employee should be well on their way to plotting their own course in the job based on the skills they've learned, but also know who to approach for assistance.

8. Get feedback and address weak areas throughout the process

Most new hires won't come out and say they don't understand something for fear of being perceived as incompetent or a bad choice. Asking "Do you understand?" is less effective than requesting "Tell me how this process works." Give them the chance to recount what they've learned in a private, encouraging atmosphere rather than one where they feel "put on the spot."

9. Arrange training in other areas

Many companies overlook the benefits of cross-training. Knowing how databases work can be very useful for a Linux administrator and seeing how accounts are unlocked or company-owned smartphones remotely wiped can come in handy for on-call staff who don't normally perform this kind of work. Your goal isn't to get anyone to do any job - that would be impossible - but to help build knowledge of what other job functions entail.

Additional steps for transferring employees

1. Make sure company staff understand the employee has changed roles

Humans are habitual creatures; if Bob is used to talking to Ted in Finance about payroll issues, he'll still be likely to do so even if Ted transfers over to the accounts receivable team. Sending out company-wide announcements to congratulate employees on new roles can help launch them into their new position by making it clear they now have different responsibilities.

2. Make sure they don't get pulled back into their old role (except in a possible emergency)

This can be a challenge when employees change jobs; they may be asked to perform tasks related to their old job. For instance, a help desk technician who moves up to the system administration group may be asked to fix a virus on a user's PC when help desk staff isn't around. Emergency situations may justify this scenario, but the employee's new as well as former managers should work to cut down on these instances, since these interfere with the employee's ability to focus on their new role. Redirect requests to the appropriate personnel when possible.

3. If applicable, physically relocate the employee alongside team members

This step works both for proximity and socialization purposes. If an employee joins a new team they should always relocate their workspace alongside the new team, where resources permit. This allows for questions, interaction and the ability to expand into the new role. It will also help cut down on episodes described in step #2.

Personnel training spreadsheet

This spreadsheet is a sample training guide for a Windows administrator position. It can be customized according to your organization and the roles therein. You can edit the descriptions, goals/results, individuals/groups involved and any reference material (such as a link to a company intranet site) which will be needed for training.

This plan includes orientation to the company, policies/procedures and the technical steps required to become proficient in the role. Training begins with standard tasks like building a workstation and setting up user accounts, then progresses to concepts involving the underlying structures of the job and department. One of the entries states "Arrange to attend weekly training classes designed to cover all aspects of the company. These sessions are very helpful, and will aide you to better understand our company and our business." Of course, this depends on the existence of these training classes in the first place, something highly recommended for businesses large or small.

You will notice each week contains fewer tasks (23 for week 1 and 17 for week 2, for instance). This is because the tasks grow more detailed and thus more time-consuming; these take place after the employee has mastered the basics and developed confidence in their understanding of the environment and the job.

By the end of week four the candidate should be able to work independently without needing further guidance (going on-call is listed as a measurable goal which will demonstrate their capabilities and ability to pitch in), and should be able to identify weak areas that need re-examination and further assistance. The candidate is even encouraged to update the training guides for the next hire.

Hopefully these guidelines will help you bring proficiency to new and transferred employees in an efficient and ordered fashion.

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