In small to medium-size organizations, it’s likely the manager’s job to educate end users when your organization rolls out new software, implements new hardware, or cleans up a network after a virus attack. But IT managers and end users don’t speak the same language, and it’s sometimes difficult for managers to break down technical topics in a way users can understand. When it’s time to help users understand technical topics, your best bet is to adopt three approaches:

  • Go easy on the technical jargon.
  • Make an example.
  • Let them see the forest AND the trees.

Incorporate these three steps into any end-user training or education session, and you’ll improve your chances that the education effort will be a success.

Watch what you say
One of the largest barriers between end users, managers, and an IT staff is language. Most users lack your level of technical expertise, and merely filling up their heads with technical terms won’t cut it.

Chris Wraight, technology consultant with Sophos, a provider of antivirus protection products, says it’s important to keep instructions simple and clear to ensure users will understand what you want to convey to them. For instance, you cannot expect success if you walk up to a user who’s having trouble using a virtual private network (VPN) and tell them something about Internet Protocol Security (IPSec) or tunneling protocols. You must break down the VPN problem into terms the user understands.

Simply saying that the VPN is down and a connection is not possible might be enough for an end user. Another user might need or want more information. If so, provide it, along with explanations of any technical terms you have to use. “More often than not, a miscommunication or a misunderstanding is simply the definition of a word,” said Jennifer Harrington, program manager for Hewlett-Packard’s Web-based e-learning product, the HP Virtual Classroom.

When training end users, it’s also important to ascertain which users do not consider English to be their first language. These users, especially, need training and education materials to be in simple terms and clear and concise sentences.

Language is a consideration whether you’re giving a verbal presentation or writing a training document. Whatever the vehicle for training, keep an eye on what you say and how you say it. “If (managers) write in their own way of talking and they write in their own words, chances are 50 percent of users won’t get it,” said Michael G. Beason, CEO of the California Training Cooperative.

Use an example
Many users learn best by following an example. If you need to educate users how to protect their machines and the organization from a virus attack, explain it to them using an example of an attack that actually happened to the organization. Explain to users what steps you had to take to fight it. Use the real-life experience to demonstrate what users need to understand about virus attacks and the damage they can do to an organization. “That kind of real-world example goes a long way to establishing credibility in terms of the message you’re trying to get across to the end-user community,” said Wraight.

Once you have your example, enlist a user affected by the virus attack to help you cowrite or coplan the training session. Collaborating with a user on training documentation or an education presentation will help you understand the user’s perspective on a particular topic. This interaction should help you create training that matches the needs of the organization’s user base.

If you do not have a real-life example, create a detailed scenario that will speak to users, Wraight suggested.

Offer a look at the big picture
You know how long it takes to recover from a virus attack, but your users may not, and they never will unless you tell them. When educating users on a policy regarding e-mail attachments, for example, don’t just tell them that they can’t open a list of jokes from their cousin in Hoboken. Tell them exactly why they can’t. Show users how a virus affects their personal machines, but don’t leave out the big picture. Let them see how viruses create more work for your team. Demonstrate that a virus means lost work and lost time for everyone in the organization.

Use an example to show how long it took you to right a security situation or repair a server after a virus attack. If you can, use actual numbers and statistics. Explain to users that because of an attack or a virus, your team members lost 10 hours of time that they should’ve spent working on another project. If this doesn’t impress users, show them how many hours the CEO of your organization was unable to work.

If you are training users on a new software technology, explain to them why the new software is needed and what management hopes it will accomplish. This step is important especially if the software is replacing an application your organization currently uses. For example, if your organization is replacing Microsoft Outlook with Lotus Notes because management feels Notes’ collaborative tool will solve a certain problem, explain that to the users during a training session.

Just because you and your organization’s end users might come from opposite sides of the technology universe doesn’t mean you can’t educate them about new technologies or security policies. These three steps will help any manager break down technical topics in a form that users can understand.