Developing a Custom Training Curriculum and Strategy

By Paul F. Aubin for Autodesk University

So you’ve been asked to get the staff trained on new software and/or procedures. Whether you plan to do it in-house or contract it out, careful planning will help ensure that the experience is positive for all parties involved. So where should you begin? Having a clear set of expectations at each stage of the effort is critical to a successful outcome, but having a very clear idea of the desired overall outcome is a great place to start.

There are plenty of other considerations: Should you do the training in-house or send your team to an established institution? How about an external consultant? What about training materials and learning content? Should you perform pre-assessments and post-assessments of attendees’ skill level? This article explores all of these issues and questions and more. And at the end, you will have a solid road map that you can adapt to your own situation, giving you the tools and strategies needed to design a successful training delivery system for your organization.

I am in the business of training. For nearly two decades I have been providing hands-on training to architects using Autodesk architectural software solutions. When I first started training, it was AutoCAD with an architectural focus. That quickly evolved into Architectural Desktop (currently named: AutoCAD Architecture) and then transitioned over to my current specialty: Revit for architecture. I have been an independent consultant providing training services, content creation and other forms of support since 2004. Prior to that, I worked several years in an Autodesk Reseller and Authorized Training Center. I began my career in Architecture and worked in mostly medium to small firms in that early stage of my career. As a consultant, I work with firms of all sizes from sole proprietors to large multi-office firms of hundreds of employees.

Early on in my transition from architectural practice to training and consulting, I wrote my first book on Architectural Desktop. The focus of that book and every one I have written since has been to marry my expertise with the software with my experience in architectural practice and teach people how to use the tools to perform meaningful tasks that were relevant to their real-life projects and practice, all while ensuring that I emphasis the “why” of the tools as much as the “how.” I have taken this same philosophy into each new endeavor that I undertake. I now approach providing training from three different but complementary learning styles: Live hands-on classroom (and remote) training, books and self-paced video training at Lynda.com.

I share this introduction with you so that you can understand where I am coming from with the content for this course and the recommendations that follow. I have tried to outline the process that I follow when evaluating a new potential training initiative. The topics that follow will fall into two very broad categories:

Strategy — how the training initiative will be designed and delivered

Curriculum — the specific items covered in the training

Where Should You Begin?

The scenario is common. You have been tasked with providing training on a new process, procedure or software package for your team. But you are not sure where to begin. It’s simple, right? Get the staff trained in “X,” what could go wrong?

Whether “X” is a new workflow, or a new piece of software or some combination, it can be a challenge to deliver effective tools that ensure that all stakeholders are satisfied with the outcome of the initiative. Ultimately, while the specific reasons for embarking on a training initiative will vary with each firm and what they are trying to learn or improve, the expected outcome should usually be the same: We are trying to improve the way our staff performs some aspect of their job. Toward that end, I think it is critical to be sure that all stakeholders have a clear understanding of what that really means.

Have a Clear Set of Expectations

Having a clear understanding of what it means to: “improve the way our staff performs some aspect of their job” might be a little trickier than it sounds. I believe that for any project or initiative to be successful, you must have a clear picture of each stakeholder’s expectations. We often find ourselves in situations where lofty sounding initiatives are proposed and mandated without really understanding what the true motivation for them really is. Before you can implement a training strategy, you must gain a clear understanding of what those expectations are. And you must get this from each key stakeholder.

So start by defining who the key stakeholders are. Stakeholders can include the boss, project and team managers and of course the team members who will receive training. What do each of these people expect to get out of the initiative? If you are able to do this right at the beginning, you can uncover the “unreasonable” expectations early and address them. Therefore, try to be as specific as possible. Unclear or vague expectations are almost impossible to satisfy. So ask questions of each stakeholder to try to understand where they are coming from and what a successful outcome looks like to them.

Know the Desired Outcome

When the initiative is complete, what does a successful outcome look like? The answer to that question may not be immediately obvious and it may be different for the various parties involved. As much as possible, we want to try and align each stakeholder’s expectations so that everyone has a shared vision of the outcome. That is the number one goal to delivering successful training in my view.

Make the Experience Positive

When considering what a successful outcome looks like, naturally there will be factors other than delivery. You want the experience to be positive overall. Exactly what “positive” means might also vary per individual. So what exactly are we hoping to achieve? After training the team on X, Y or Z, do we want them to be faster? More efficient? Do we want to streamline communication? Do we want to improve the integrity of the data flow? Or streamline communication with teammates and outside stakeholders? And of course, we want to save money while making all of these improvements too right?

Try to separate the hype from the reality. Realize that learning new tools and procedures is a process that takes time. Sometimes it is uncomfortable to make a change and the users need to see incremental results to understand the overall benefits. Sometimes the new tool’s benefits are immediately apparent. But even in those situations, the transition can be slow. And there is always the possibility of unforeseen setbacks. So again it points back to having realistic expectations about achievable outcomes.

Understand and Communicate Why You Are Making the Change

Before you get too far in the planning stages of a new training initiative, it is a good idea to step back and ask yourself (and your team) “why” you are making this change. Change is a part of life, but it always presents challenges. And in some cases, it is met with outright resistance. But if we have a good idea of why the change we are proposing is important, then it is easier to use that knowledge and the clarity it affords to help keep others on track and bring along those who might be resistant. In other words, sometimes the education process starts at the moment you suggest that training is required; long before the participants enter the training lab to learn the new software or skill.

So much of what we do in daily life is about selling our ideas and visions to those we must work with. If you do not understand what you are selling, it is difficult to get any buyers. But if you have a clear understanding of what is required, what problem we need to solve and why this particular training initiative will help us achieve it, then it is much easier to bring everyone else along.

For example, if the folks you need to train feel like this is just another “unnecessary requirement” that management is forcing on them, they will not be fully committed to the process. Sure they will come to the training and do their best to follow it, because it is required by their job. But how much better will it go if they see it not as just another requirement, but actually as a valuable tool to help them succeed at their jobs better?

If you clearly understand why your firm is embarking on this path, and can articulate this clearly to the team in a way that helps them see the benefit in their daily workflow, they will not only get onboard, but they will do so enthusiastically.

Should You Perform Pre-assessments and Post-assessments

We are all “lifetime learners.” Most professions require their practitioners to continually learn new skills and adapt their practices to the latest technologies and best-practices. This is not optional. This is the modern economy. Furthermore, the skills required of most professionals are many and varied. So just how to assess if our team is equipped to perform the tasks required of their job and at the level that we expect? Even if you don’t realize it, we are being assessed and evaluated all the time. Assessment can be done “informally” or “formally.” Some firms rely on the informal process of day-to-day interaction with teammates to determine where gaps in knowledge might exist. Other firms opt for a more formal assessment approach and ask their people to take a formal assessment of some kind.

The goal of any assessment is to provide an objective measure of current performance and help the firm determine where best to allocate resources. Ideally, the goal of any training initiative is to get all employees up to a certain required benchmark skill level. Performing an assessment can help determine where folk’s current skills are and identify the areas needing improvement.

It can be difficult to create an assessment test that adequately assesses real-life procedures. For example, you can easily create a test that asks a user to perform some set of steps in software, but does this really test whether the user knows how to use the software in the more organic day-to-day project environment, or even if the prescribed set of steps really measures anything useful in the actual real-life project? It is a challenge to be sure. If you opt for automated assessment tests, I recommend that they be supplemented by other means of evaluation that include the evaluation of a user’s peers and immediate supervisors as well.

Budgeting Resources

Many of the previous topics are about overall strategy and philosophy behind the training. But when it comes time to begin designing the actual training initiative, you will have to address many specific and mundane practical concerns. These include:

Time Allotted
Time is one of our most valuable resources. A training initiative will require the consideration of a few different time components. How long should an individual training session be? How many people need training? How many can be accommodated in each session, and therefore how many sessions are required? Finally, when do we want the overall training initiative to be finished (when should all people be trained by)?

Dates Available
The time requirements above will often need to be adjusted when you factor in conflicts that inevitably occur when actually attempting to schedule the sessions. You have to consider the availability of the trainer, the availability of the attendees, holidays, prior bookings of the facility, etc.

Budget Allocated
Cost is always an important factor. Training initiatives have costs even if you deliver it completely with internal resources. Those internal resources get charged back to the overhead of the firm. Naturally if you hire out the training to an outside provider, there are direct costs associated with that. But don’t forget that there is also a “double cost” hit to the firm. This double cost is the attendee’s time away from billable work activities. Even if you hire out the training to an outside consultant, the cost of your employee’s non-billable time is probably the highest cost in the equation. So this cost has to factor back into your decision about how much time to budget to the training for each individual.

Expected Return
This is tricky to calculate, but when talking about costs, there has to be some measure of how to determine if there is a return on this investment and how long it will take to realize it. This is the hardest one to calculate. Time and scheduling are challenging, but we can look at a calendar, look at personnel and figure it out. Likewise, we know the costs of the training, our employee’s billable rates, and so these numbers can be calculated as well. But to calculate return, we have to be confident in our earlier assumptions. If one of our goals in training is improving the process and eliminating wasted time and effort, we can put a number on this to make a calculation. But do this with caution as there are many factors that influence what the actual outcomes will be. That is why, once again, setting that initial and realistic set of expectations is so very important.

Should You Do the Training In-House

This is one of the key questions that firms must always decide. Do we have the resources to train our folks internally, or should it be contracted out to an external firm or consultant? This is a very important question and as you might expect, is not always easy to answer. In general, larger firms typically have more resources to devote to internal training than smaller firms. But this is naturally a generalization. Sometime large firms contract out the training even if they potentially have the internal resources to do it. So look carefully at the pros and cons before deciding.

Do You Have the Resources?
So this is probably the first question to address. Does your firm have the resources to provide a training initiative internally? You will need a space in which to deliver the training. This space needs to be available for the entire duration of the training. If the skills you are training are hands-on, you will need to have computers available within that space and loaded with the required software. And most importantly, do you have the intellectual resources available? In other words, is there someone in the firm who can perform the training?

Someone Good with the Software Is not Always Good at Training
This is one of the most common mistakes I see. It is easy to assume that the person in the firm who is an expert in the software or procedure is the best person to train the rest of the employees. But this is not always the case. Being good at a process, does not automatically mean an equal level of skill in presenting it. And in some cases, it is actually more important to have someone who is good at relating ideas and teaching than it is an expert in all aspects of subject matter. Quite simply, there are experts in all fields and subjects including teaching. And a good teacher is someone who can convey sometimes complex concepts in a way that anyone in attendance an understand. They should be good with people, patient and knowledgeable. They do not need to know everything. But they should be very good at explaining what is most important in the skill you need trained. In most skills, once someone has grasped the basics, they can usually learn the nuances on their own and often will continue learning critical skills as they use the tool, software or procedure in real-life scenarios.

This is where your expert user can come in. If you choose the person to deliver the training who has solid knowledge of the tool being trained, but is an expert trainer, they can get the users up and running to a base level of proficiency. Then your expert user, who may or may not be good at training, can be a kind of mentor or resource for ongoing questions.

There is another factor to consider when deciding who should deliver the training internally. Again, that expert user may be a good instructor, they may not. But even if they are good at training and meet all the requirements mentioned above, they may simply be uninterested in doing the training. A lot of expert users like to be experts, but do not always have the same interest or passion in sharing that knowledge. So if you are lucky enough to have an expert user that is a great trainer and is willing and able to train the team, then by all means use them. But otherwise, don’t be afraid to look to someone else if required.

Don’t Underestimate the Value of Knowing Your Own Process
You may be assuming from the previous passage that using an internal expert is not recommended or not a good idea. On the contrary. I only wanted to raise the issues above so that you can evaluate each candidate you are considering as your instructor carefully before deciding. So let’s make the case for using an internal expert. No one knows your firm and your procedures better than the members of your team. So using the people in the firm who know your procedures best can be a very smart way to pass on that knowledge. Do keep the previous considerations in mind and if you have a choice between more than one individual to train on a particular topic, choose the person with the best people skills. Also, consider breaking the training up into segments and have different individuals take the lead on training those aspects of the process that they know best.

Do also keep in mind that some of your existing procedures might necessarily change when implementing new technologies. So avoid the “we’ve always done it this way” trap as well. The new tool you are trying to implement may have a better way to do something that you have always done…

Avoiding the “One Size Fits All”
And the flip-side of that is that there is rarely a “one-size fits all” solution in technology. Yes, many of the tools that we are trying to implement perform workflows that are common among most of our firms, but each firm has a unique business model. And any training initiative should be flexible enough to adapt to and incorporate those aspects of your corporate culture and procedures that make your firm unique. Of course, doing this while being nimble enough to recognize those things that can be safely characterized as obsolete and ripe for change to a new procedure. Because presumably that is why you are implementing new technology in the first place.

Onsite or Offsite

If at all possible, I recommend delivering training at an isolated or offsite location. Consider this all too common scenario: We go through all of the strategy and planning listed in the topics above. We get all the stakeholders together, we synchronize expectations, we agree on expected outcomes, we coordinate all of the schedules and conflicts and agree on a budget. We figure out who is in each group and who will deliver the training. Then the day of training comes, and training is underway. And then someone’s supervisor (who is not in the training) comes into the room, interrupts and pulls one or more attendees out to deal with some “important project issue.” These interruptions are sometimes brief, but sometimes they are not. So after all those careful logistics, someone who was not even involved in the process comes in and derails the entire effort.

It is true, that despite our best laid plans, some interruptions or disruptions are unavoidable. But if we are being honest, most of the interruptions that occur are not mission critical. If the folks in the training are not easily accessible to the rest of the folks who are not currently attending, they will find a way to solve the problems that arise without them. It is no different if the person is out of the office for some other reason. So if possible, do your training initiative a big favor and get the location as cloistered away as possible.

Ideally this would be offsite and out of the office. The attendees tend to have an easier time disconnecting from project work in an offsite location and they won’t be interrupted by peers or managers either. Yes, this will potentially add to the cost. So you will have to factor that into your cost/benefit analysis. But the benefits of having an uninterrupted training experience are well worth it. Consider it this way, how likely are you to meet everyone’s expectations set at the beginning if people are coming and going and not attending the whole training session. How well can that training really be delivered if folks miss key topics in the middle?

If you cannot justify or procure an appropriate offsite location, then a conference room with a door is the next best thing. But then it is very important to get the boss or management involved and make sure that those outside of training have been informed that the session is not to be disturbed. I cannot stress the importance of this enough.

Send Your Team to an Established Institution?

What if you don’t have an in-house expert? What if you don’t have a suitable training or conference room? Or if do but you just like the idea of getting off site noted in the previous topic? In those cases, you can consider using an established institution like a training center or community college. One advantage of such an approach is that the institutions you are considering will have a proven track record that you can verify. Also, you will not have to spend time or money outfitting the facility. An established training center will have the training personnel, standard curriculum and the facilities. Chances are there is a suitable facility near you.

Reach out to the institutions you are considering. See if you can tour their facilities. Explain to them the strategy you have in mind, your goals, expectations and expected outcomes and see if they can accommodate you. You can also ask to meet their instructors. Most institutions will have “standard” offerings. For example, if you are considering a community college, they will have a class catalog. If your training initiative is on a commercially available tool, then a standard class may be just what you need. However, you may not have any opportunity to customize such an offering. It will be offered on a specific schedule and will have a standard curriculum.

If you meet with the institution, they may offer opportunities for you to commission a custom course and curriculum. They may also be willing to simply rent out their space to you in times when they are not offering classes of their own. This is a nice option if you want to get your training off-site but use your own staff or a consultant to deliver it.

Commercial training centers like Autodesk Training Centers and Resellers is another option. These types of institutions will be typically more willing to customize the experience than community colleges will.

How about an External Consultant?

Similar to a private institution, there is the option of using an independent consultant. (Full disclosure, this is my role). If you are considering using an outside resource to deliver the training, but not necessary provide the training facility, this can be an excellent option. An independent consultant will typically have the most flexibility in curriculum customization. Most will have a standard outline for popular tools and procedures that they will be happy to share, but they will also allow you to work with them to customize the curriculum to tailor it to your firm’s specific needs.

It is certainly possible to find a consultant who has access to an offsite training facility that they can offer for the training, but this is not always possible. More often, they will come to your office and deliver the training in your office. This is where having that separate room with a closed door becomes so important.

Be sure to have a thorough conversation with any consultant you are considering and discuss all of your goals and expected outcomes with them. They should be flexible enough to accommodate any special needs or requirements, but they should also advise you on the best approach to take. If what you are suggesting that your consultant teach will not achieve the desired outcome, a good consultant will tell you so and work with you to recalibrate your goals and expectations to come as close to your needs and desires while still providing an excellent training experience.

Also, be on the lookout for consultants who over-promise. In my own consulting practice, I would rather turn down a job than promise to deliver something that I will be unable or unqualified to deliver. That is really not too much to expect of any consultant soliciting your business.

Do Nothing

I suppose I should have started with this topic. Some firms just expect their users to fend for themselves and learn the latest tools and technologies on their own. Well this is certainly an option. But keep in mind that choosing to do nothing IS a decision. And despite the fact that you will not be paying training centers, consultants and people’s non-billable time, there IS a cost to doing nothing as well. So be sure that this is carefully considered in the budgeting and strategy process.

How much time (billable time) is spent searching on YouTube or forums looking for how to do some process or use some tool? When a decision is made on the project team to structure things a certain way or use certain tools without the proper know-how, there are sometimes implications of those decisions that are not immediately apparent. So the project progresses along and then the results of those decisions prove to be detrimental to the project and its successful completion. Now the team has to spend valuable time later in the schedule to reverse or fix such problems. Furthermore, they might not understand how to fix them, so they spend even more time on YouTube…

As I stated at the beginning, we are lifetime learners. And each person should be committed to their own personal growth and development. But that does not absolve firms from any responsibility in the matter. Keeping an employee outfitted and productive is a necessary cost of doing business and yes, it is expensive. Just like you have to spend money to provide a place for each person to work and provide them to tools they need to do their job, you should also spend an appropriate amount of resources to make sure they can use those tools effectively. So don’t just “do nothing.” It is actually the most expensive choice of them all.

Curriculum

So now that you have scheduled the training, determined who needs it and lined up the instructor, just exactly what will you have them cover? Naturally this a critical part of the equation. If you are covering an in-house process or procedure, get the folks who understand the process best to help with this. Think about the key topics. What are the core concepts? How can break it down into smaller easy to digest chunks of information. Try to make the curriculum hands-on if at all possible. Demonstrations are fine and work well for certain topics, but if you are teaching a skill that someone will need to perform on their own, a good hands-on representative example will help cement the concepts.

If your training initiative involves off-the-shelf software or tools, the provider will likely have a sample curriculum you can use as a basis. For example, Autodesk has the Autodesk Design Academy.

If you are planning to use a training center or independent consultant, they will have a standard course outline and curriculum that they typically use. Ask them to see this ahead of time. And if appropriate for your goals, ask them how they feel about tailoring the curriculum to your needs. An easy way to do this is to use your company templates and content in the training. A request like this is pretty easy to accommodate, and most trainers and consultants should be willing to do so.

However, sometimes firms request that their people be allowed to work on a live project in the training. In my experience, I do not find that this works very well. From the firm’s point of view, it is a way of reducing costs by charging the training time to the project. However, the chances that you can do meaningful training while simultaneously “working” on the project is pretty slim. It does however depend on the original strategy and goals you established at the start of the training strategy. If the main purpose of the training is to gain an overview of a particular software tool or procedure, then working in a live project is not a great way to achieve this. The needs of the project will often be too specific and compete with gaining general knowledge of the tool. If the standard overall course curriculum includes coverage of curtain walls for example, but the live project has no curtain wall, it is unlikely that a curtain wall will be added to the live project to satisfy that part of the curriculum. Rather, the curtain wall will be left out or covered in broad brush overview. Meanwhile, very specific needs of the particular project can derail a conversation and focus on specific workflows or even possible work arounds that would otherwise not be a common part of the procedure in other projects. And if there are folks in attendance who are not part of that project team, they will not get the most benefit out of the experience.

The bottom line is that while you might make some forward progress on the project at hand, the team in the training will not necessarily be adequately prepared for the next project. I am over generalizing of course, but in my experience, this does tend to be the outcome. However, if the specific goals of the training ARE to specifically train a particular project team, then the approach can be quite successful. Once again, it is all about setting the proper expectations. So if the expectation is that we are going to design a custom curriculum specifically for project XYZ, then it can be a very positive experience for members of the that team to attend.

Training Materials and Learning Content

Everyone learns differently. Some like to be shown how to do something one-on-one. Some learn best in a classroom setting with structured lessons and regular quizzes. Some can learn simply by reading a book or watching a video. Others learn by first-hand tinkering. Most use a combination of methods. I think as a firm, you should assume that you have users who excel with each of these methods and therefore try to make resources available to your team for however they learn best.

This means, buy books, sign up for online training resources and schedule regular face-to-face training initiatives. This will provide a good collection of resources for all of the off the shelf tools utilized in your firm, whether it is Microsoft office, Adobe or Autodesk products.

For the unique tools and procedures within your company, what are the best ways to disseminate this knowledge? Well once again, with folks varied learning styles, you can make the case for written manuals, video tutorials and live training for all important company procedures.

Naturally, you will not always have the resources to do all of these. But I think that the same basic process and strategy that we have been outlining for the live training above would be appropriate for the other materials as well. So if there is some process or procedure that you can explain effectively in a written document, or in a video, then allocate resources to it and build those resources and post them somewhere on the server where all users can easily access them. If you are able to supplement with off-the-shelf materials, then do so by all means. Similarly, you might be able to sub-contract some of these efforts to outside consultants as well.

Follow-up and Continuous Improvement

If the most important part of starting a successful training initiative is setting the proper expectations for success will actually look like, then the most important expectation to have about “finishing” the effort is that it is never finished! You must allow for follow-up resources, potential follow-up training and ongoing and continuous improvement. Our technology is changing rapidly. Our workplaces and economy are changing just as fast. This means that the training effort is never done. So always allow resources for that ongoing follow-up and always be on the lookout for the next major change. Again, we are lifetime learners. Do not budget training resources as one-time expenses. Think of them like you do any other ongoing employee expense or utility bill. If you have an appropriate budget and resources allocated, you can ensure that your team is always prepared to meet the new challenges they will face.

Paul F. Aubin is the author of many Revit book titles including the widely acclaimed: The Aubin Academy Series, Renaissance Revit and Revit video training at lynda.com. Paul is an independent architectural consultant providing Revit for Architecture implementation, training, and support services. Paul’s involvement in the architectural profession spans over 25 years, with experience in design, production, CAD management, mentoring, coaching and training. He is an active member of the Autodesk user community, an Expert Elite and is a top-rated repeat speaker at Autodesk University, Revit Technology Conference and Midwest University. His diverse experience in architectural firms, as a CAD manager, and an educator gives his writing and his classroom instruction a fresh and credible focus. Paul is an associate member of the American Institute of Architects and lives in Chicago with his wife and three children.

Learn more with the full class at AU online: Developing a Custom Training Curriculum and Strategy.

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