A philosophy of education matters because the right training must be given to the right people.

Not all training is the same, nor should it be. Teaching soft skills is not the same as showing someone what happens when they flip this switch or unplug that cord. Even the reasons for holding a training event differ. While few like to admit it, the main objective of some classes is to have offered it. However, there are classes that are taught where true learning is imperative. This is where the dissimilarities begin to evaporate, especially for those companies that manufacture or produce a technical product.

Compare your companys organizational development (OD) training with your customer and product training and you may find large and inconsistent gaps between the two. Compare the results of the applied learning from these classes and you are likely to find little difference.

Certain soft skills are imperative to the success of a company, while technical product knowledge is required to increase sales, expand value, and augment profitability. Soft skills are required by the court of public opinion, while technical skills are required by the court of customer application.

Many companies invest large amounts of money into employee development and talent management because they understand that talent development is a key factor in talent and intellectual property retention. Much of their efforts go into making sure the right training is given to the right people. They develop precise and comprehensive agendas and metrics, and create detailed processes that guide them to their end goals. But those goals are almost never the satisfactory completion of a particular class or program alone. They are observed and mentored on the job, and their evaluation of real-life situations is a critical component of their successful talent development.

OD instructors have an advantage, of course. Mentors and supervisors are part of the program as well. But if they have proven results, why are we so slow to adopt these same rigorous methodologies in customer training, and even less so when that training is merely technical training on our own products?

Perhaps the two principal reasons are that we fail to truly understand our audience, and we fail to understand how adults learn. We are all too quick to give a subject matter expert (SME) the task of teaching a technical topic without worrying about how true learning really happens. An assumption is made that often has negative results: Knowledge can be distributed and the one with more of it has more to dole out. We mix up facts with the comprehension of those facts.

A very young child can impress us by stating that 2 + 2 = 4. If, however, that learning is a mere repetition of something she has heard over and over, we may have well taught her a much more complex (and more impressive) algebra equation. Technical training programs, as much as any other type of training, must emphasize learning philosophies that maximize long-term retention and future development. Failing to do it well not only will decrease the value of the training, but can be detrimental to the success of the product itself.

Know your audience needs

I have trained or managed product training for several companies, and have networked with numerous trainers from companies large and small during my career. There seems to be a common thread between the companies that get it right and the companies that struggle to train their customers on their products.

More often than not, the companies that struggle want to provide one training class on their product. Dont bother trying to define the audience; the answer is almost always the same: everyone. Some will argue that they dont go as deep when training a sales team as they do when training a more technical audience. That is a good start, but merely stopping a class before it gets too deep is not truly understanding ones audience.

To be fair, there may be some products that are so basic that a one-size-fits-all approach does work. But most companies that are investing in training are doing so to meet a need. Start by understanding what those needs are and how the knowledge gained is going to make a difference.

A salesperson needs to learn how to identify and prioritize opportunities. She may need to learn about customer issues and how this product provides solutions to them. She also may need to know what the competition is doing, how to create value for customers, or what applications to avoid. An installer, on the other hand, needs a whole different approach, as does the customer service representative. Identifying the fundamental reasons why a student is in class is an essential part of determining how to create learning that will stick beyond the event itself.

That is not to say that different groups cannot be combined, but it is to emphasize that their needs must be met or the training will be a waste of time. Identifying the audience and its needs is important because good training builds on existing strengths. It is easier and more ego-centric to fall into the I want to be the first to tell them trap. Usually, however, product training recipients, whether technical or sales, are individuals with at least some experience in their field. A creative instructor will find ways to turn that existing knowledge into a foundation to support the new information they are getting. Knowing their professional backgrounds and needs provides a launching pad for that type of creativity.

Involve students in the learning process

The benefits of a hands-on approach to learning have been well documented. Anyone with training experience, even without any formal education on the topic, realizes that adults learn more when they can do, and not just hear or see. About 2,500 years ago, Confucius stated: "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand." It seems that many instructors have taken that philosophical declaration and turned it into a procedural regulation.

Too often I find instructors taking an "after I tell you and show you then you can repeat what I did" style of training. While guidance is always necessary, it often is true that adult learners will learn even more quickly when they can do while they are learning.

In an April 2011 T+D article titled "Shut Up and Teach!," I encouraged trainers to talk less and listen more to their students. Another application of this concept is to allow your students to start doing from the beginning.

When most of your students are professionals in their fields, they are in class to get one or two nuggets to take back with them, or to learn the specifics of your companys products. There is no need to impress them with your knowledge. Allow them to show you what they know, and then learn from you in a safe environment. Dont be afraid to completely reverse your typical training routine.

Software training is particularly suited to this type of training. Start with simple tasks. Ask your students to perform them, even before you tell them anything. Use their successes or failures to construct knowledge. Let the ones who discover it quickly help those who might be struggling. If this process is controlled well, it will help to create an environment where everyone is involved in both the teaching and the learning. The instructor will become less of a "sage on the stage" and more of a "guide on the side."

Hardware training often takes more thought to develop a constructive approach, but it can be done. Good trainers are creative trainers. As you learn more about your students, you can find ways to help them create a learning experience. If changing the batteries of a flashlight works as a typical technical writing example, the following illustrates how to use it to develop a constructive approach to training.

Instead of showing students a PowerPoint of a flashlight, with sophisticated bullet points such as "portable illuminating device," an instructor could simply put one in their hands and ask them how they might use it. Better yet, the instructor may have them demonstrate how it could be used. Then, he might give the students a flashlight with bad batteries and let them decipher why it doesnt work. The students with prior flashlight knowledge might help the newer ones by showing them how to unscrew the end of the flashlight to put in new batteries.

You get the point; you're a trainer. But you don't train on flashlights. Perhaps the equipment you train on is the size of a small house. Or maybe it is so expensive you can't even afford to have one for a training event. The challenges are as numerous as the readers, but the philosophy is what matters. Using activities to reinforce what the instructor has taught is a good thing. It does, however, limit the learning to just that--what the instructor has taught.

When that approach to hands-on learning is taken, the knowledge gained can rarely exceed the instructor's ability to teach. However, if you are finding ways for students to experience what they are still in the process of learning and you allow the learners to mine nuggets from their own experiences, their learning will not be limited by the instructor, nor will the mining end with class evaluation. The ability to construct knowledge, rather than the ability to insert knowledge, becomes your primary mission.

Allow students to make mistakes

One way to construct knowledge is through the process of elimination. Allowing students to do something wrong is almost as important as teaching them to do it right. The Danish physicist and Nobel Prize winner Niels Bohr is credited with remarking that "an expert is someone who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field." If this is true, we should be much less reluctant to allow our students to make mistakes since in so doing we are pushing them toward expertise.

The educational value of making a mistake comes primarily in the impetus it gives the brain to refrain from repeating it. The challenge is to create an environment where making a mistake is safe. That safety should be both psychological and physical. If a mistake can create a hazard, find a way to simulate the process in a secure environment. Also, if making a mistake makes a student feel threatened or devalued, the learning experience will be jeopardized and real learning will not take place.

Create a positive learning experience

Everyone learns better when they are enjoying it. The experience and training environment are crucial to learning. Too often, the experience is merely a marketing ploy. We take note of them only if senior management will be present. The reality is that sufficient space, adequate room temperatures, lighting, and colors are all important to any training event, even if the topic is about nuts and bolts. Most important to this discussion is the necessity to create an environment that makes sharing knowledge easy and enjoyable.

Think of the little elements that make sharing easy. Chairs with wheels allow students to more easily help one another. Ample whiteboard or flipchart space will simplify breaking into small groups and creating group learning activities. Software programs that allow students to easily see their computer screen make sharing convenient. These are all relatively small investments that can affect retention and make learning easy.

Creating a positive learning experience does not stop with the physical furniture or room setup. In fact, that is only where it starts. The key word here is experience. Ask yourself this question: Will my students want to come back? The ways you can turn that answer into a resounding "yes" are obviously innumerable.

Think about their real needs and go beyond them. And dont limit your thinking to marketing trinkets. For example, they may be hoping to meet a few technical support personnel. They will be delighted when the vice president of customer service spends 15 minutes listening to them. If they would have been content with a hard copy of the manual, imagine their smiles when they get a flash drive with an electronic copy of every related document on it. Instead of just telling them about a tool that will reduce their workload, give them the tool. Keep in mind that an individuals attitude about what he is learning is one of his biggest inhibitors or activators.

Evaluate what students have learned

When training has been turned upside down and lecturing has decreased while hands-on activities have increased, it is probably not surprising that it will affect the way the training must be evaluated. A hands-on approach to technical training requires a hands-on approach to evaluation. This is not to say that objective exams are out of the question. They should, however, be limited to the portions of learning that were objective by nature. Hopefully, far more was learned by the student than just the step-by-step procedures, the precisely measured formulas, or a long list of technology-specific jargon.

Evaluating hands-on training in the 21st century is complicated, to be sure. Subjective evaluations dont hold up well in court. If compensation, certification, or some other benefit will be given or withheld depending on the outcome, it is advisable to consult with your companys legal team.

The main issue is to create an environment where all students are evaluated fairly. It will require effort to make sure that good rubrics are created and good records are kept. Tasks should be specific or require a specific outcome.

One idea is to incorporate the hands-on portion of the evaluation into the class as a prerequisite for taking the written exam. If you have more freedom in the class, you could even have the students assign themselves the tasks to perform. This is especially useful if the students came in with a diverse set of objectives they wanted to learn. Another good way to do this is to allow the students to work in teams, functioning together to accomplish a common goal. This provides an opportunity for learning to continue during the evaluation process.

If the outcome of training is important, the foundation is equally so. The way we train matters; as do the reasons for the way we train. Understanding how adults learn and developing a strong philosophy of education is critical, even when the curriculum is very technical. It puts the focus on what really counts: learning.