Adam Dales, Siemens PLM

When organizations set out to create training for their applications, they are likely to take steps like those described in this article—build a task force, define the requirements, check the needs and preferences of the industries they serve, decide on the audience, and select an approach and training format.

Technical writing professionals may well find opportunities to participate in the planning and implementation stages, providing recognized added value to the project.

Setting Up

Companies need to assemble a task force early on to oversee and develop the instructional content. This body typically consists of the following players:

  • Steering committee—including executives, experts, manager of technical communication if he or she oversees training documentation
  • Industry representative—a corporate or product management lead tuned in to the latest trends and demands from the customer-base
  • Specifications group—software engineers, writers who conduct analysis, reach decisions together with the steering committee and industry rep, write the specifications, and oversee the implementation of the training production
  • SMEs—product management, R&D deep into the scenario details
  • In-house developer—to produce the feasibility trials
  • 2nd developer—possibly external vendor to develop the full-blown training scenarios and materials

Mapping the Requirements

The specifications group, among its many tasks, will determine the content and format of the training and calculate gaps in existing training (if there is any training). They must evaluate in-house capabilities for pursuing the project—industry knowledge, skill availability, and data availability. Also, they may need to do a “make or buy” evaluation to understand whether the company can enlist its own staff to create the training or if it will be necessary to bring a vendor to build it.

As the team oversees planning and execution from early stages to complete implementation, they must also check intellectual property (IP) and legal issues, arrange for localization of the materials, and identify audiences that require or desire the training.

The flow chart of the training development activities handled by the various players listed above may look like Figure 1.

Figure 1: Sample Flow Chart

Identifying the Verticals

Initially, it’s important to divide the company’s target industry into major “verticals”; for instance, there may be various sectors using similar processes that the company’s solutions address. The team then prioritizes the verticals according to those sectors most likely to use the software for most of its capabilities. This prioritization helps to ensure maximum relevance of the training content.

In a company creating applications for the banking industry, for example, the planning team may list the verticals in descending likelihood of use of their solutions as shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Sample Verticals

In Table 1, the team established that the company’s applications are highly useful to the commercial banking sector while somewhat less so for the mortgage banking area, and so on down. This ranking is an important step toward deciding which workflows, functionality, and commands to include in the training and ensure the instruction modules cover a large range of use cases.

Deciding the Approach

Next, the coordinators have to decide whether to develop discrete Features-oriented units or “End-to-end” modules that address an entire section of productive activity. In addition, they have to determine the level of treatment in either case: Span or In-depth (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Deciding the Approach

Bank managers, for example, require close-up knowledge of every activity and financial tool in use at the branch and how those are intertwined and support each other. For this user audience, the training will be both End-to-end and Detailed.

For teller training on the other hand, it may be practical to build instructional units for each of the specific tasks they perform daily—opening the teller station, processing deposits, receiving/sending cash with Brinks—for instance, Feature-oriented, in Detail. It may also be desirable to provide beginning tellers with a general picture of the variety of bank services offered and the legal and ethical “culture” at the bank, which would entail an End-to-end, Span-Overview approach.

Customer Input / Identifying Audiences

The training planners may also survey customers to seek a consensus about which capabilities in the software are most critical to their success. Another factor: who are the “consumers” of the training? They may include any or all of these groups: customers, company support engineers (who guide customers in using the applications), pre-sales and sales forces, and even university students, who are potential next-generation users. The existence of a variety of target audiences has a big influence on training design. Customers and pre-sales representatives require a highly detailed level of instruction that may last several days. On the other hand, students and recent graduates could use a day-long overview of the solutions, spanning the major functionality and benefits, calculated to win the minds and hearts of future users (with a nice lunch thrown in).

Serving Up the Training

With all these factors in mind, the organization has to make sure that all the inputs (main verticals, Feature oriented or End-to-end, Span or In-depth, customer survey, target audiences) have been included in the training specification documents that will guide the developers who will create the scenarios.

Deciding whether to create sophisticated training simulations such as self-contained computer-based training or instruction based on live trainers and a full lab set-up depends on the complexity of the solution and technical infrastructure requirements. Here also, the team can consult the technical writers to draw on their familiarity with the constraints surrounding instructional projects and benefit from their expertise with tools for creating cutting-edge training modules.

For those in the technical communication department, it is certainly worthwhile to keep updated about training initiatives at the company. They can then contribute to the project’s success with their professional expertise and from a general understanding of the processes that their companies are likely to adopt when building training modules.