Recently, my computer specialist attended a free training seminar on network wiring. Yes, I said free.

Because I live in a small town, most of our training opportunities, including the seminar on network wiring, take place in Denver, a four-hour round trip by car. This is why I need to know before I go if free training is really worth the effort. I want to make sure that my computer specialist’s time is not wasted when he heads up to Denver for the day.

According to the brochure of the wiring seminar mentioned above, the seminar would cover topics such as new wiring standards, bandwidth improvements, and also introduce us to new techniques in network equipment such as improved punch down racks, network cabinets, and network testing devices.

In this case, my computer specialist was very pleased with how the seminar was presented. Although the company that organized the seminar included a brief sales pitch of their products, the seminar was definitely worth the time to attend.

Free training sessions are important because I have a small budget for technical training. But free training can be risky, especially when the “training” is more sales pitch than seminar.

It is my opinion that free training seminars will never take the place of professional training sessions, but there are benefits to including free sessions in your training plans.

Why bother?
Of course, the most obvious benefit of free training seminars is that they are free!

If you’re like me, you have already balanced your training schedule with your training budget for the year. But what happens if you need training to start a new, and unanticipated, project? Enter free training.

Here are five other reasons you should consider free training:

  1. The right free training seminars will allow you and your staff to at least be familiar with a new technology or technique. In most cases, you will receive handouts, reference materials, and Web site addresses for more information.
  2. A good seminar will spark new ideas and rejuvenate your employees.
  3. Free seminars offer your technical staff a chance to network with other IT professionals. These new contacts often come in handy when problems occur in your shop. I have often solved a problem by sending an e-mail to a seminar contact.
  4. Free seminars conducted by certification organizations can help you and your employees decide if paying for a certification program is worthwhile. I have paid for training in the past based on the training brochure, only to be disappointed when the presenter focused on his opinions and not the facts presented in the brochure.
  5. Free training can also serve as a morale booster for your technical staff. Although free training can be a disappointment if you choose the wrong seminar, an effective free training session can be fulfilling. Your employees have a chance to get away from the office, enjoy a meal on the company, and even feel like you rewarded them for their hard work.

How to decide if the training is worth it
Here is how I go about identifying the best free seminars available:

  • Research the training offering by reading the brochure and visiting the related Web site before making a commitment. Look for details on information to be covered and the qualifications of the presenters. Take a look at the agenda to ensure there will be interaction between the presenter and the attendees.
  • Call the company and request registration information. Ask if reference materials and handouts will be available and if hands-on activities are featured. If the seminar focuses on a product, ask if the featured hardware or software will be demonstrated.
  • Consider the “hidden” costs of a free seminar such as meals, transportation, and lodging for overnight seminars.

There is also the cost to the rest of your office of not having your technical staff available. If an end user’s computer goes down, you need to have a backup plan when your technician is out of the office.

How do you evaluate training?

We’d like to know: How do you evaluate training opportunities and determine where you’ll get the most for your time and money? Share your tips with other members by posting below.

Evaluate the end results
It’s important to evaluate the training when your staff returns so you can determine whether future training sessions offered by the same vendor or group will be worth attending.

Asking for a post-seminar report is not the answer. You will probably receive a synopsis of the agenda.

Instead, sit down with your employees when they return from a seminar and hold an informal debriefing.

Some of the questions you should ask include the following:

  • How was the seminar in general?
  • Did they cover the topics outlined in their agenda?
  • Did the presenter seem to be knowledgeable?
  • Was the facility acceptable?
  • Did the seminar come across as a sales pitch?
  • Was it worth your time to attend?
  • Did they give you any materials to read?
  • What specifically did you gain or learn from this experience?
  • Keep a training log to track the sessions attended and the time spent away from the office.

My favorite free training opportunities
In my experience, some of the better seminars are:

  1. Colorado Springs Cisco Users Group (CSCUG). This specific user group meets once a month and offers free presentations in all areas of networking. Look for a users group in your area.
  2. The Siemon Company offers an excellent presentation on wiring standards. They distribute excellent handouts.
  3. The Root Group, of Boulder, CO, has featured presenters from Cisco, HP, and Firehunter to talk about how their products (Ciscoworks 2000, HP Openview, and Firehunter, respectively) can help manage LAN/WAN environments and monitor the health of your networks.