Training employees in a technical skill is a complicated task that’s often overlooked. Most training programs are haphazard or arbitrarily put together. As a result, most employee training takes far too long and is often ineffective.
The end goal of training an employee in a technical skill is to have them willingly and enthusiastically perform the skill every time, even when they are entirely unsupervised. Those sorts of attitudes are contagious, and will help other employees as well.
Unfortunately, the reverse sort of attitude is also contagious. It’s easy for an entire group to get into bad habits, poorly performing the skill or just ignoring it if they can.
Let’s try to stick with them being enthusiastic. Here are the core tenets of technical skill training.
Have a clear goal and accurate test
This is obvious, yet often forgotten. You need to have an exact idea of what they need to know by the end of the training, and how you will test to make sure that they know it.
The most important part of this is that your employees will optimize their skills for the test. If the test is optional, your employees will not optimize at all. If the test tests unnecessary skills, your employees will develop unnecessary skills.
For example, if you train your employees to bake a cake, but do not test them on it, they will forget all the instructions on how to make it. If you test them only on their ability to make a cake, they will be able to make a cake, but they will not necessarily be speedy or efficient about it. If efficiency is essential, efficiency needs to be part of the test.
Motivate the training by showing the problem
It is always possible to motivate learning by simply threatening to discipline people if they don’t learn (the stick). You can also bribe people to learn (the carrot).
But, if you want your employees to care about their training as much as you do (and to perform the technical skill when nobody’s looking), you need to show them why they should care. They won’t necessarily have your perspective.
For instance, if you want your employees to have a working command of Spanish, you can bribe and threaten them to go to Spanish classes. They will, eventually, sort of learn Spanish.
Alternatively, you can put them for a day around customers who only speak Spanish. After 30 minutes of trying to communicate with the customers, your employees will want to go to Spanish class themselves.
Situate the skill within employees’ workflow and skillset
Unfamiliar skills are hard to pick up and adopt out of context. If it’s not obvious how to incorporate the skill within what employees are already doing, they will have to be reminded constantly to do so.
For instance, if you run a restaurant, and you want your employees to cut tomatoes in a certain way, they might learn and try to do so. But, when the restaurant gets slammed with orders, your employees will panic and go back to cutting tomatoes the way they are accustomed.
On the other hand, you could take a different tactic. Train them how to use the new cutting method every time they cut tomatoes: when they cut tomatoes slowly, quickly, one at a time, or a bunch at a time. Then, when the restaurant gets slammed, they will feel comfortable using the new method.
Help your employees track their progress
If this technical skill is something that it’s possible to become better at, then let the employees know how to tell when they are becoming better. Ideally, there should be an instant feedback system: each time the employee performs the skill, they can tell if they did it right.
This can come in the form of a timer, a rating system, or even comments from their coworkers.
It’s even better if employees can track their progress over time. Ask any weightlifter: few things are as motivating as numbers going up over time.
Of course, same caveat applies to here as 1: employees will optimize towards the feedback. Make sure that’s what you want.
Encourage and welcome failure in the training
If the skill is unfamiliar or difficult, it is very easy for employees to become discouraged. They might say something like: “This just isn’t my thing.”
To avoid this, it’s necessary to explicitly create an atmosphere where failure is encouraged. Employees need to know that failure is a necessary part of the learning process.
For instance, let’s say you are trying to train them to use a new piece of software. They do something wrong, and get a bad output. Your employee says, “Sorry!” You should say, “That’s alright. I’d rather you get things wrong now and right later. Let’s try again.”
The message to get across is that getting things wrong is natural. It does not mean that they are doomed to never understand.
Give employees physical and verbal takeaways
After training is done, details will fade over time. That’s the reality of training. Sometimes, details fade right after the training, if they never really stuck in the first place.
That’s why it’s best to give employees takeaways. Some of these takeaways can be verbal, like short catchphrases or acronyms. Come back to them repeatedly throughout the presentation, and remind employees to use the phrases or acronyms while they’re working.
They can also be physical, like diagrams or posters. Ideally, these would be posted up right where employees would perform the skill, so they can see them accidentally (i.e. they don’t have to remember to look at them).
For a simple example, the “wash your hands” in the restaurant restroom sign is a useful physical takeaway from restaurant hygiene training. What’s important to note, though, is that it’s not a replacement for training. If the employee has not been motivated to understand the importance of washing their hands, they will likely simply ignore the sign.