Maximizing the effectiveness of technical training

Use current technologies to reduce training costs and improve what your students retain.


How many times have all of us attended training for a week or two, maybe longer, only to come away with ten pounds of manuals, a hat emblazoned with the OEM’s logo, and a screwdriver? Training is expensive—in tuition, travel, and time away from your shop. But embarking on a project involving an unfamiliar platform without training will cost a lot more. How can we maximize the return on our training investment? Sure, we’ll come away with some hands-on experience with a scripted training scenario in a classroom environment where you probably had to share a workstation with another student. How much knowledge will we have retained when the time comes to apply our training?

Virtual stations can be made available for students to practice and experiment outside of class hours and beyond the last day of the course if needed. The effectiveness of training and knowledge retention are enhanced when the student can continue to experiment without risk. Source: Maverick TechnologiesThe latest trend in technical training is working in virtualized environments. I have developed and delivered several sessions using this method with very positive feedback and results. Students attend from their remote locations and access virtual training platforms via web browser or VPN. All the virtual platforms are hosted on a centralized server. The instructor delivers lectures and demonstration using web collaboration tools and can view and directly interact with each student’s desktop. The instructor can even display one or more student’s screens to the other attendees for group participation and discussion. While this environment might not be optimum for training that requires physical involvement with hardware components such as PLCs, drives, and physical I/O, most automation platforms have simulation utilities that can emulate PLCs, plant processes, and other hardware components.

Overall, virtualized training has several major advantages:

• Travel is eliminated.
• There is no need to find, rent, or ship computers.
• Real time instructor monitoring of and involvement with all students. In a classroom setting, the instructor can only monitor and sit with one student station at a time.
• Each student has his or her own station, no sharing required.
• Virtual stations can be made available for students to practice and experiment outside of class hours and beyond the last day of the course if needed. The effectiveness of training and knowledge retention are enhanced when the student can continue to experiment without risk.

Here are my suggestions for building value into training:

• Training delivery should be approximately one-third presentation, one-third demonstration, and one-third lab exercise and discussion.
• Course material should be written at about a junior-high school reading level. By the way, reading level is not indicative of aptitude.
• Don’t rush training development. For instructor-led training, allow two to three weeks of development per course delivery day. This may seem excessive but consider the cost and risk that comes with inadequately prepared and validated instruction.
• Choose your instructors carefully. An otherwise brilliant engineer may not have the delivery skills and patience necessary for knowledge transfer where there is a broad diversity of student experience and learning styles in the same classroom. Likewise, an instructor with exceptional public speaking and delivery skills may not have the real-world project experience to bring relevance to the learning. It’s imperative that you don’t lock your training people into boxes where they only do training delivery or training development. Instructors should also be involved in contemporary real-world projects, spending equal time in development, delivery, and project work.
• If you’re going the train-the-trainer route, don’t go more than two generations. The person who receives the original training should be the person doing the secondary delivery.
• Who are your learners? Consider factors such as: education, experience, language, culture, work shift, and position within the company. If you’re teaching a class in English to students for whom English is not their primary language, speak slowly, listen carefully, do not use contractions, and be careful what jokes you tell.
• What are the attitudes? Students usually fall into one of the three categories: explorers, hostages, or vacationers. I’ve taught many classes attended by senior engineers who found themselves having to implement a new and unfamiliar platform. They are proficient in the previous platform: they know how it works, they can fix it when it breaks, and often they’re not happy to be in my class. I make it a point to spend extra time with these students, and where possible, help them connect the dots between what they know and how it relates to what’s being taught.

If you want your engineers to develop new ways of thinking, give them the tools and environments that will lead them there.

This post was written by Ric Gibson. Ric is a technology leader at MAVERICK Technologies, a leading automation solutions provider offering industrial automation, strategic manufacturing, and enterprise integration services for the process industries. MAVERICK delivers expertise and consulting in a wide variety of areas including industrial automation controls, distributed control systems, manufacturing execution systems, operational strategy, business process optimization and more. 

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