Wednesday, July 28, 2010

What Tourists can teach us about New Hire Training

I've been on tour in South East Asia for the last few days and it's been great fun, I must confess. For those who may have waited for an article and didn't see it on time, I apologise - and I'll try to put in a little extra when writing this article. When I go tripping, I usually try to study as much as I can about the place where I'm heading. Unfortunately my memory never serves me well, so when I reach my destination, it's all about planning for each day and relying on little, contextualised information sources such as the Lonely Planet website, Trip Advisor, a local map, street signs and my own senses. The fascinating thing is that regardless of how little I know about the place on day one, I feel like I know enough to get around by the time I leave the place.

I've been thinking about this lately and it makes me think that the way we tour perhaps has some inspiration on how we can effectively train new hires at our workplace. To think of it, a new workplace is similar to a new city. Knowing how to survive in a new city, getting familiar with the roads, lanes, alleys, eating spots, food, sights, shops is very similar to learning about a new job. Yet, learning a new job seems to be significantly tougher than touring a new city. I accept that we approach tourism and new hire training with different mindsets, but the fact is that both activities are eventually about learning. There have to some parallels - what do you think? In today's blogpost I want to share my thoughts of what we as instructional designers/ learning consultants can about new hire training from the age old act of tourism. A lot of my thoughts find resonance in our design of ThoughtWorks University and I'll try to relate my thoughts back to real world examples as much as I can.

Approach learning 'Breadth First'
When I was planning my trip, I did as much reading as I could about the the places I wanted to visit. After a while though, every new name of a place confused me. Was Ubud, in Penang or Bali? Is there a Little India in Singapore or in Penang? Or both? Which is the larger free-flight aviary? KL or Singapore? And do I shop for Batik in Singapore, Penang, KL or Bali? As the places, sights, shopping and food options kept piling up, my memory started to fail me. The illustrated Lonely Planets and Outlook Travellers weren't helping; nor was Wiktravel. So I decided to do just enough to get a high level plan in place. I used the travel guides to put together a rough itinerary, but that was it - I couldn't handle anymore.

When I think of traditional new hire training, I see a similar phenomenon of information overload. The idea seems to be to tell people everything they need to know in the shortest time possible. I look at this as being the equivalent of reading and remembering the Lonely Planet guides for all the three countries I'm visiting. That just doesn't work. What we need is a breadth first approach where learners can know what they don't know. I think of it as the equivalent of building boxes in our heads which we need to fill out with in-depth knowledge and skills as we go on. At ThoughtWorks University, we adopt a breadth first approach as well - our aim is to give people the bare minimum skills and knowledge to start ineffectively, yet safely at their jobs. The key is to know that they'll be ineffective - and that's where the importance of failing fast in safety comes in. I'll tell you about that in a bit.

People need a map to get around (even better, a GPS)
When I get to a new city, I first like to pick up a map. In Asian cities it's very common to find a detailed map at the airport or jetty. The map is then my guide to the destination and I carry it around everywhere I go. When I see a sight, I cross it off my map. When I want to reach a local attraction, I look at my map to guide me from my origin to the destination. If I'm unsure about what the fuss about a certain place is, I look at the back of the map for a description of the place. The information I get in context is badly authored, often grammatically incorrect, but useful - often invaluable. In terms of quality, it pales in comparision to the Lonely planet book, but the fact that it's lightweight and always with me, makes it far more valuable. If I had a smartphone with GPS, I would have perhaps found that even more useful! I learn about the new place by being in the thick of the action and the context for learning is no different from the context of real work. The map is a tool for me to deal with the new context and be successful.

New hire training requires learning designers and trainers to create the right context for learning. We need to be able to put people in a safe work context as soon as possible, while giving people the ability to make mistakes in safety. We need to be able to create a map of lightweight, useful information that can help people when they're stuck. Communities of practice, organisational knowledge sharing, search enabled learning and the ability to learn when you need to, is crucial to a new hire's success.

At ThoughtWorks University, we put new hires on a real world project for five weeks of their course. They already have the breadth to know what they don't know. This is the time for them to perfect their skills. The project itself is structured with rules that create the context for learning. In addition our online learning packages, our organisational wiki, communities and the students own social learning activities provide the map for students to learn step by step on the project. Learning here is contextualised to real-world tasks as against traditional learning which doesn't culminate in a tangible goal.

Quick feedback aids effective learning
When I get lost in a new city - I ask myself a couple of questions:
  • Where am I?
  • Which direction am I heading in?
I've found that the best way to stop going around in circles when I'm a new place. Street signs and unfamiliar places are a great way to get feedback when you're in a new town. If you see a street sign you aren't expecting, all you need to do is find your current location on the map and then correlate it to where you're actually heading. The course correction takes just a few minutes. Often, if you're traveling with someone, they'll tell you if they feel you're heading in the wrong direction. That is feedback too - it allows you to course correct.

Think of the parallels in new hire training. Does your course provide the right kind of feedback to learners so they can learn from their mistakes? How much of the feedback is intrinsic - driven by situations and real work? How much is extrinsic - a.k.a a teaching moment? The ThoughtWorks University project is structured into four iterations with plenty of feedback opportunities thrown in. Here are a few examples:
  • A broken build on the project is feedback that someone on the team needs to fix it.
  • Iteration retrospectives at the end of each week help the group figure out what they're doing well and what needs improvement.
  • Big visible charts monitoring the progress of the team, their technical debt and their learnings, provide feedback on how they're delivering.
  • Automated code analysis tools such as those for test coverage, help the team determine the quality of their solution.
  • Regular customer interactions create the real world business feedback for our learners.
  • Pair programming and group work ensure that people benefit from peer feedback and can learn from each other.
I could keep going on with how we've workscaped ThoughtWorks University to include real-world feedback, but I guess you get the idea of how you can effectively use feedback to create learning.

Expert advice at the right time is invaluable
Have you ever employed a tour guide for specific trips? Or found smeone to ask directions when you're woefully lost? This is where experience comes in handy. Sometimes, it's just not meaningful to keep making the same mistakes. You don't learn anything and you just end up getting very frustrated! And expert who can help in such situations is just wat the doctor will order.

Think of how you can provide expert advice on your new hire training programs. In reality, your new hires will rarely work all by themselves. OTOH, they'll rarely have experts guiding them at each step. What you need is a balance between letting learners be self-driven and offering them advice when they need it. At ThoughtWorks University we manage this by bringing on Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) as trainers - they are the best at their jobs, so why not leverage them to create the best learning experience for our new hires? We use our SMEs to create leveraged teams that mix youth and experience. From time to time, our SMEs pair with the new hires so they can coach each of them individually on their specific strengths and weaknesses. The key here is individualisation, as against a one-size-fits-all experience that fits no one. The SMEs being part of the team can help the group course correct when they reach a dead end. This helps students learn what to do when work is not the happy path you learn about in training.
As you can see learning about a new job is not so different from learning about a new city. So put on your design hat and see what you can do with your new hire program to include some of the elements I've mentioned in this blogpost. I'd like to encourage you to think of the tools as a means to an end. The goal is to have new hires feel confident in their job, just as you'd want to feel comfortable in a new city. On ThoughtWorks University, we're managing this by giving new hires just enough instruction to get started on a project, with enough resources (elearning included) for them to pull learning from when at work. We're supporting them with experienced consultants on their training project and we're creating lots of feedback opportunities for them to learn from their mistakes. I will speak more about our experiences at DevLearn 2010 and sometime soon on the Learning and Skills Group.

In the meantime, let me know what you think about this article - your comments are always welcome!


Archana Narayan said...

An extremely interesting parallel, Sumeet. I find this intriguing as I am currently designing an induction program for new hires of an bank. Like you mentioned, information overload is what we are looking avoid. During contextual inquiry, a learner said "I tend to forget all the inroamtion shared with me during an induction program (prior experience btw). This is because it makes no sense to me. Then as I start working, I realize what important that information." this clearly told us that context setting is important. So, we won't just tell them about the products and its features. We made the scenarios more customer centric and ensure that we don't go into unnecessary details. Why is it important for me to know this information? Like the tourist, the new hire is mainly looking to:
1. Get comfortable as soon as possible
2. Start getting some real 'work' done and make the most of it

Great post once again.

Taruna Goel said...

Great post Sumeet! You have drawn an interesting parallel between things that are different and yet so similar! As learning consultants, it is important to reflect on the key ideas you have suggested and make training - especially new hire/induction more valuable for our learners.

Cathy Moore said...

Great points, and I think the parallel between being a new arrival to a destination and a new arrival to a team/project/whatever are valid.

One extra step that helps me is to have a system into which I can put the stuff I've learned before it overflows my brain.

For example, I just spent a few weeks in a Mexican city that was new to me. My main tool was the map in my iPhone--I prepared for the trip by adding pins for restaurants and other places I wanted to check. Once I was in the city, whenever I found a site I might want to go back to, I added it to the map. (And I deleted the bad restaurants!)

My second most-used app was Evernote, which happily stored and tagged all the more detailed information that I couldn't stick on the map.

In the same way, new hires might be encouraged to use tools to organize their learning, and maybe be given examples of the tool with some commonly needed information already added. If a team of new people arrives at once, the tool could be collaborative.

Sumeet Moghe said...

Right you are Cathy. I remember using crowdmap as a system for some of us to collectively make mindmapped notes on a project that we were new to. On ThoughtWorks University, students experimented with Google Docs and Delicious to build a knowledge base for themselves.

Personal Knowledge Management is crucial for new hires or for that matter anyone. I remember writing about my PKM approach a few months back. Take a look and see if you find that interesting.

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