How to train the untrainable. (That would be, um, me.)
A couple of years ago I spent two days in a computer lab being trained on an automated performance-management system. As is usual in these situations, I was soon lost. We had reached a part of the program that required each trainee to assume the role of a manager logging quarterly notes about a fictional employee. The trainer told us to concoct a job with a set of goals and responsibilities. It was the first task in hours that I felt competent to perform.
I imagined an entry-level position at an insect circus and charted my worker's progress as her proficiency at bug wrangling propelled her through the ranks. As her manager, I was impressed by her motivation but worried that secretly she was teaching her charges human language and other forbidden skills. Gleefully I filled screen after screen with this stuff. Others moved on to the next module; I pursued my tale to its tragic denouement, in which the employee was devoured by her now superintelligent charges.
Training over, I returned to my office with no clue as to how to launch the new program from my computer, let alone perform evaluations on it. Fortunately I was able to change jobs before the need to use the system arose.
Okay, maybe I'm a problem employee. But I've met others as hopeless at formal training as I am. We try to keep up, but the need to repeatedly sneak peeks at a neighbor's screen is humiliating. Then, if more than a day elapses between the class and heavy-duty application of the new system, our brains are wiped clean. Meanwhile, some technically proficient folk complain that training induces mental frostbite. "I spend the first few minutes silently critiquing the software design," one savant told me recently, "and then I zone out."
When training doesn't take, it wastes time--both during the sessions themselves and later, as workers at their desks pore in frustration over thick, impenetrable manuals. Employees who work effortlessly with people or products may become anxious and unproductive when mired in the slough of process.
To make things easier for such people, I propose two alternatives to fruitless classroom toil. First, have someone on staff collaborate with the software vendor to create step-by-step, kindergarten-basic directions for each process, using the precise language employed in the company for every action, document type, and department. The directions provided by MapQuest are an excellent model. I crave the "turn right on Oak Street" simplicity of that estimable site whenever I file a health care claim.
Second, I advocate for the creation of a new position: the process sherpa. This person would master the nuances of all of a company's processes and walk employees through them whenever they need help, repeatedly if necessary. After performing routine tasks with one-on-one assistance every week or month, employees would certainly learn them. They might never master processes required just a few times a year, but that's probably no great loss.
Another alternative, of course, is to avoid hiring people like me. It's a valid choice, and I would support it.
Leigh Buchanan is an Inc. editor-at-large. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan