Rethinking eLearning and Electronic Information Sources

At the time I am writing this column, it is mid-February and I already have a five-inch stack of papers on my desk. The paperless office apparently still hasn't arrived.

There is, however, an abundance of technical information available via the web, podcasts, phones and other electronic devices. These formats allow for a steady stream of both prepackaged and just-in-time technical information. Some also offer training in these formats, but beware of "information" masquerading as "training."

While there is enormous potential for electronic delivery of training, much of the technical eLearning available doesn't advance very far beyond the dissemination of information. For this reason, it is perhaps better to think of eLearning more as "electronic performance support" rather than core training material.

This does not diminish the important role that readily-available information plays in the daily job performance of your workers. Too much training, however, focuses on getting the information from trainer to learner, when it should really focus on core skills and knowledge - with the necessary training on how to find the needed technical information.

In an interesting article, Learning Flexibility: Why Adaptation is a Key Resource in New Education Paradigms, author Jay Cross likens the 21st Century training challenges to a stage production: "In the old days, corporations hired people to play roles. Job descriptions contained stage directions. Training taught workers their lines. The cast was composed of repertory actors, performing the same show with the same colleagues, one performance after another. Those days are long gone.

"Today's workers," Cross goes on, "perform without a script. Stage cues come from the audience in real time. Training was appropriate when actors memorized their lines. Today, it's okay to read from cue cards - you can't know everything. Good props help make a show great."

My take from Cross' analogy is thinking of training as the base script, but information as an important tool that workers can use to adapt to the unscripted. There is certainly no greater example of this than the fleet vehicle workshop. Beyond the core skills and knowledge that training provides, workers have to adapt to rapidly changing vehicle systems and diagnostic technology, while relying on the new information surrounding those technologies.

Training methods have certainly evolved over the last 20-plus years, but the majority of maintenance and service technicians still prefer hands-on training. That said, even the best, most learner-centered, hands-on training program cannot prepare the technician for the unknown - that new clean diesel engine or new electronic control system that is coming in the next few months or few years.

In the training world, we often like to think of our employees as "learners" at all times. But, of course, they are workers first. As such, they need the right combination of both training and tools (including information) to be effective performers on the job.

Stephen Howe is employed by United Rentals, the largest equipment rental company in North America with more than 600 branches and an equipment fleet worth approximately $3.5 billion. He is past president of the Automotive Training Managers Council, an organization of more than 60 member companies dedicated to recognizing training excellence and sharing best practices in the automotive and heavy vehicle industries.