On training people

As a follow-up to my post on what I've learned over the years about hiring people, this is a similar list of what I've learned about training and onboarding people as you welcome them into your organization.

Many organizations reduce training to a pretty simple process ("here's the training manual, here's your trainer, go"), but I find it to be one of the most complicated and fascinating periods in someone's life with an organization. The initial days, weeks of someone's employment (or, in a not-for-profit context, someone's time volunteering or serving on a board) are highly influential in shaping the experience they're going to have in the long run, and the work they're going to do.

It's a time when they start to reconcile their "outsider" impressions of what you do and how you do it with what they see as a new "insider" with fresh perspective. It's where any idealism and over-simplification that happens during the hiring process runs up against the nuances of internal processes and the texture of individual co-worker personalities. Training can prompt many moments of truth about the new person's image of themselves as a part of your organization: "do I belong here?" "are they going to like me?" "can I live up to hopes/expectations?"

From the perspective of the people doing the training, then, I think successful training is a careful balance between providing enough structure to properly educate and acclimate the new person to your organization while also allowing enough freedom and flexibility to accommodate their learning style, pace, interests and questions - especially the "why are you doing it this way when you could do it this other way?" ones.

Whatever you do, don't figure out training on the fly. Don't let it be a 100% self-directed experience in some hope that throwing someone fully into the deep end is the best way they'll learn. And don't underestimate the return on investment you'll get from an intentional, comprehensive approach to training.

As the process gets started, minimize assumptions. Communicate clearly and directly with the trainee (a word that feels a bit demeaning but is useful here) about every detail of their first moments as a part of your organization: where they should be at what time (and in what time zone, if you're a distributed team), in what medium the training will be conducted (in person, text chat, audio chat, video chat, in groups or one-to-one), how long the sessions will be, what they need to bring, and anything they need to do in advance. Give your trainee every opportunity to get past nervousness and make a great first impression by removing unnecessary vagueness in these critical first days.

Communicate expectations and set clear training goals. "Over the next X hours/days/weeks we're going to walk through everything from this to that. Your main trainer/mentor/buddy will be this person and they are your main point of contact for the process, ask them whatever you want. Here's the format we'll use, here are the materials we're going to cover, and here's a list of all the things we're going to touch on. Here's how we'll track your progress through this training, and here's what we expect from you at the end of the process." And then make sure all of this information is known to the wider team and company. Continue reading On training people

The End of College?

I found this interview with author Kevin Carey about "The End of College" to be very much worthwhile. He talks about shifting understandings of the value of higher education, the ways in which college replicates privilege, why college is so expensive, and what college might look like in a few decades.

Carey's main prediction is that a handful of very expensive and elite schools will survive in the traditional model while the rest of higher education shifts to online tools and offline experiences that aren't concentrated in a specific location.

Some sort of major shift seems inevitable. As I watch my own alma mater Earlham College wrestle with increasing costs against the backdrop of a highly competitive admissions landscape, I have to wonder if I would spend the money to send my own children to a place like it.

Continue reading The End of College?

Educational attainment in Wayne County, Indiana

An article in today's Palladium-Item quotes the U.S. Census Bureau statistic that "7.9 percent of Wayne County residents have a four-year college degree. The state average is 14.6 percent."

I haven't been able to find the data that supports those statements. According to the Census Bureau's 2012 American Community Survey 1-year Estimates, the numbers are a little better than that: 16.8% of the Wayne County population over 18 have a bachelor's degree or higher. Other collections and analysis of data also suggest better numbers, e.g. 13.7% of people 25 or older have a bachelor's degree or higher or 17.1% of people 25 or older have a B.A. or higher degree.

I wholeheartedly agree with the article's point that the community needs to address 'brain drain' and improve our education situation. But I was troubled to read that the number of residents with a four-year college degree or better are that low, and at least with some initial research, it appears they may not be.

I'll reach out to the Palladium-Item to see if I can get more information about the source of the stats.

UPDATE on March 18th: Louise Ronald at the Palladium-Item helped clarify the discrepancy, noting that the original percentages in the article were from the EDC's strategic plan, and that

"The strategic plan numbers represent a % of the total population, whereas the quick facts is only taking into account the population ages 25 and older. Quick facts is also including bachelor's degree and higher into their 17%, whereas the strategic plan report has them separated between 4 year degree and graduate degree."

So, depending on whether you want to include people with graduate degrees in the stats of people who have a 4-year degree, or just want to identify people ONLY with a 4-year degree, the numbers are different.

How I learned to run a business

Meeting RoomContinuing in the theme of last week's post on how I became a computer geek, I thought I'd also share some thoughts on how I learned to run a business.

I get asked now and then what path led me to the world of business ownership/management, and I think the short answer is that I've always just learned what I needed to know to support my other interests and passions, and in one particular long-running case, that meant learning the world of business. I've never set out to run a business for the sake of running a business, and I don't have any formal educational training in that skill set.

I'm not sure that my story should be any kind of model for others; I don't claim that I've always learned to run a business well, and I'm sure that there are many things I could and should have done better over the years. But by at least a few traditional measures of my company Summersault's performance from 1997-2013 - profitability, financial stability and customer satisfaction - I think I can claim some success along the way.

Continue reading How I learned to run a business

Preventing war, preparing for war

Civil War Reenactment - School ChildrenOne of the benefits of education is that it can provide people with the tools, perspective and knowledge they can use to meet their needs without resorting to intimidation, theft or violence.

In school buildings and on college campuses, we learn about our history, how the world works and how to coexist with each others` diverse ideas, experiences and backgrounds so that we don't have to use threats, force and domination to maintain a life together.

Some are saying that the educational experience now needs to be conducted against the backdrop of a heavily armed security presence. Moving past just having metal detectors and "zero tolerance" policies, that our children should wear bullet-proof vests in classrooms and that educators should be trained to take down intruders with deadly force.

Continue reading Preventing war, preparing for war

Learning to improvise

Seaport VillageIn December I received the great gift of a 7-week beginner improv acting class, which I've just completed this past week.  I'd apparently remarked casually several times in front of Kelly that it might be fun to take an acting class some day, and knowing me as she does around experiences that might be outside my comfort zone, she took matters into her own hands to see that it might actually happen instead of just being talked about.

And outside my comfort zone it was, but also incredibly enjoyable.

The instructor Kevin (a professional actor and playwright in his own regard) has a background that includes the Second City improv comedy theater in Chicago, and so he made heavy use of Viola Spolin's techniques for teaching improv.  There were lots of exercises and games designed to train us how to create an environment with only our bodies and maybe the occasional folding chair, how to show a character's age, social status, mood, origin, destination and other qualities by showing instead of telling, and how to build simple objects or circumstances into a full-fledged scene.  We didn't really start using dialog until the last few classes; building the foundation of movement and environment had to come first.

Continue reading Learning to improvise

Teachable moments in textbook errors

Educators in Virginia are wondering what to do with the thousands of copies of an error-ridden history textbook that the school districts there have purchased:

A panel of historians has found an "appalling" number of factual errors in a new fourth-grade history textbook used in many Virginia school districts, one of the experts said...The historical inaccuracies "are appalling in number,"...the book needs more than 140 corrections.

I hope they don't throw them away.  This seems like a great opportunity to teach students in Virginia and beyond some important lessons about education (things I wish I'd been more cognizant of in the early days of my education):

Continue reading Teachable moments in textbook errors