Proficiency Training

When training staff to use new technology, proficiency is a better measure of success than time spent in class.

by / June 30, 1996 0
LOS ANGELES -- You've designed and supervised the building of a software system that could revolutionize how your agency accomplishes work. It should help your workers get more done in less time despite your shrinking budget. What's more, service to the citizen should improve. Modestly, you admit it's a masterpiece.

Now it would be nice if someone would use it.

Even if you aren't fortunate enough to have a system destined to win national praise and awards, chances are that what you do have is not being used to capacity. Designing and developing a system is one thing, getting people to understand and use it is an entirely different problem. Even when systems are "user-friendly," they still present a training problem for those unfamiliar with graphical user interfaces (GUIs). Moreover, modern programs often have so many features, it is hard for new users to select out the important ones. Because of these kinds of problems, the effectiveness of your training program becomes at least as important as the capabilities of the new system.

Commonly, there have been two approaches to training -- classroom-style and self-paced study. Traditional lecture-style teaching usually gets traditional results -- some students get it, others don't. Self-paced study generally has a poor record for student completions. In the practical world of public service, those kinds of results aren't acceptable -- public agencies do not need accountants who get the right answer 85 percent of the time or bridge inspectors who get it right nine out of 10 times. Customers expect, and even demand, professional quality service.

Applied Scholastics Inc. (ASI), a Los Angeles-based education and training organization with offices around the world, is using a new approach to training called "100% Proficiency Training," which is based on the education methods of best-selling American author and researcher L. Ron Hubbard. The week-long 100% Proficiency Training Course teaches trainers how to organize course materials into "checksheets" -- a list of theoretical and practical application steps students need to accomplish to achieve 100 percent proficiency. Checksheets are part of Hubbard's popular "Study Technology," a body of work which describes the fundamental barriers to study and ways to overcome those barriers.

Ingrid Gudenas, president of ASI Northern California, has worked in training for 17 years, but has never seen any other approach produce the kind of results she is getting now.

"When I do talks to trainers at conferences, I usually ask them how effective they feel their training is," said Gudenas. "Most say it is in the 40 percent to 50 percent range for classroom training. For self-paced training, it's rare that more than 40 percent of the students even finish the course. Yet the amount of technology people have to learn today is astronomical. I've known for a long time that the level of a user's proficiency with a new technology determines their response to it and their ability to be productive. For agencies investing in technology, this means that their return on investment is directly impacted by how proficient employees are after their training."

Don Johnston, a staff programmer analyst with the California Highway Patrol, is now using the 100 percent proficiency method to train officers on the California Commercial Vehicle Inspection System (CCVIS). The new computerized system replaces the old paper-based system in which truck inspections were written up on forms which were then passed off to a data entry unit for keying.

"After keying," said Johnston, "the information eventually made its way electronically to Washington, although the error rate was extremely high. Some of the written forms didn't get fully completed, some were illegible, or the information was miskeyed entirely. These things lead to only about 60 percent of the inspection results getting to the federal government -- the other 40 percent were circular filed."

Even with data entry verification, the error rate couldn't be pushed below 20 percent. Because of this, the state designed a system to capture the data at the point of entry. Each inspection bay was equipped with a computer terminal. Mechanics enter a number associated with the vehicle -- whether a state assigned number or a Department of Transportation number -- and the system pulls up the basic data on that vehicle. From there inspectors enter any violations and the inspection is forwarded electronically to an on-duty review officer who directs any needed enforcement action. All information is stored and later uploaded to a central database which electronically forwards the data to Washington.

Although the system is intended to simplify and streamline the process, it represented a complete change for on-duty mechanics which could have caused problems. Originally, all the training was going to be done classroom style.

"The training was three days of classroom-style courses," said Johnston, "which had the common drawbacks of classroom-style training. You can only present at one pace for everyone regardless of what kind of learner they are -- and no matter how much experience they have -- which isn't very efficient. Although we could transmit valuable information and get a fairly good rate of understanding, some people didn't have time to practice the concepts before having to move on with the class. This means that the frustration level for inexperienced users can be very high, which affects how they feel about the system. Sometimes they feel like the Computer Age is rolling over them."

For the first two facilities that were converted, the classroom approach was used -- a total of 18 hours. The third facility was done as a partial pilot of the 100 percent proficiency approach and by the fifth conversion, the checksheets were finalized. To date, 54 people have been trained using checksheets. The fastest student completed in five hours, the average was a bit over nine hours and the slowest student took only 15 hours, a full three hours shorter than the classroom method.

Even the slowest students, some of whom had English as a second language, achieved 100 percent proficiency and gave rave reviews. So far, Johnston has yet to have anyone who couldn't do their job after completing the course, and that proficiency has translated to system acceptance. No one has expressed any interest in going back to the pre-computer days.

The combination of a well-designed computer system that addresses real world concerns and an effective training program has shown up in the statistics. On a recent survey of errors, Johnston found the error rate had dropped to 0.5 percent -- only two errors in 5,000 records.

"We're going to continue implementing the commercial system throughout the state -- converting all the stations until the whole state is automated, which I anticipate will take another year," said Johnston. "With the success of the training program, we have started to institute checksheets for a patrol automation project. Under this system the arrest reports and other reports will be done on laptop computers. The system is in testing now and the checksheets are being written for the courses."

Bernard Percy, an author and educator with more than 14 years of experience in corporate training, has worked extensively with Applied Scholastics and serves as their national spokesman.

"Shifting the standard of successful training from 'time spent in the courseroom' to '100 percent proficiency' is key," Percy said. "When you do that with a well-designed checksheet using Hubbard's technology, you not only get people who can apply what they've studied, you also get people through the materials faster."

The California Air Resources Board began using checksheets for their training when faced with a brand new software release. In the late 1980s the board installed the Productivity Enhancement System (PES), an office automation system from OPN Inc., which includes e-mail, calendaring, word processing, graphics, spreadsheet and database. The system was used by board staff in the Sacramento office and 300 additional employees in a remote office. It ran on a Prime mini-computer, which is no longer supported, so getting parts and maintenance was difficult. To address this, the board decided to replace the Prime mini-computers with IBM RS/6000s.

The user terminals, which include everything from dumb terminals to PCs, were slated to stay, but a new, significantly different version of the software was installed on the new hardware. Due in part to budgetary constraints, the changeover was phased to happen gradually with 100 to 150 people a week switching from the old system to the new. Even with phasing, the training challenge this represented was daunting to Joan Winters, the PES training coordinator.

"When we started talking about the new system, I started to look at the numbers," said Winters. "We were looking at 10 trainees for 100 days and I realized we were looking at one dead trainer."

Winters had heard of 100% Proficiency Training at a conference the year before and decided to pursue it. She brought the idea to her supervisor who gave her the go-ahead to do the one-week training in designing and writing checksheets.

"I went into the training in August and have been working on it since then," said Winters. "We have about a two-month schedule laid out which started May 3rd and about 150 users accounts are going to be converted each week. The week before they are converted they will come into the learning lab to do the three checksheets that cover the things that are most different from the original system."

At press time, several groups had finished the pilots for the first three checksheets. Initial feedback from students has been positive and most rated the training higher than the previous classroom-style training. Winters plans to write checksheets that cover the rest of the system and from there hopes to use it for other agency projects.

"Trainers get very excited about this approach once they've seen it in action," said Gudenas. "Their time is more efficiently spent, they can handle a larger volume of students and their students love achieving 100 percent proficiency. The trainers finally see a way out of the training nightmare caused by all the new technology."

Applied Scholastics offers a one-week course on how to design and write checksheets and can provide technical and training support for organizations wanting to implement 100% Proficiency Training. Typically, Gudenas has found that organizations already have most of the documentation needed to design a 100% Proficiency Training course. What they've lacked is the checksheet methodology for presenting the materials.

In an age when people talk about the planet's total store of information doubling in a matter of years rather than centuries, it is vital that state and local governments find ways to efficiently train people -- not in facts and figures, but in an ability to produce. Proficiency, not time spent in class, is the true measure of any training success.

For more information, contact ASI at 800/949-5035.