Respect the system! – Creating engaging systems training

When I started as a new Instructional Designer at Saffron, I had to get my head around an abundance of new ‘systems’ in a short space of time. Of course, I didn’t think of them all as systems at the time, but when I stopped to think about what the word meant, I realised that countless new ones must be learnt and familiarised with whenever you enter a new environment. From working out how to get to work on time every day (still a struggle!), to mastering the various software applications that Saffron use; my cognitive faculties were busy getting to grips with systems all day.

Obviously, no one is going to build a systems training course on how to get the Tube. Most systems in life are used without any course-based training. You learn how to use the Tube by jumping in and making mistakes, by being taught by others (whether they are friends or strangers on the train), and following the signs and maps you need to get to where you’re going. While this may be practical for something as expansive and widely used as the Tube system, companies cannot afford to employ this ‘learn by doing’ attitude when their new employees need onboarding on how to use an existing application, or their current employees need to familiarise themselves with a new one. This is why Saffron uses the Show Me, Guide Me, Let Me, Assess Me model. First, the learner sees how it works, and then they do it themselves – with guidance and then without – and then they are tested on whether or not they can use the system.

For most people this is a clear, intuitive, and cost-effective way of teaching learners how use an application that is brand new to them. But what about when, as with a recent client, the learners are IT professionals? Surely the Show Me, Guide Me, Let Me, Assess Me model would be patronising for them, who just want to skip straight to Let Me? IT professionals will pick up how to use a new system much faster than most learners and will probably prefer to just give it a go themselves than be told what to do.

But if this is so, then why have the systems training at all? Well, in this instance, the training was needed because people simply weren’t using the system correctly (if they were using it at all). From this point of view, the simulation became less about the how and more about the why of using the system. With our blended learning approach, we can use realistic scenarios to show learners why it’s important that they know how to use the system correctly, and the risks of using it incorrectly, meaning that they will take the why into account when using it in the future.

If the learning objective of the systems training isn’t just to understand how to use the system, but why it must be used in this way, and thus what its true value is, the learner is more likely to change their attitude towards using it, and therefore more likely to change their behaviour on a deeper, more permanent level. This is the difference between explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge. Whilst someone with explicit knowledge of the Tube might know that to get to Leicester Square from Covent Garden you should take the Piccadilly line westbound for one stop, someone with tacit knowledge of the system will know that it is in fact quicker to walk from Covent Garden to Leicester Square than to take the train.

My time at Saffron so far has taught me that there is a difference between learning how to use a system and having true understanding of one. Truly understanding a system involves knowing why it is used, what it is used for, and how it can be used most effectively for its intended purpose. In this sense, the most effective form of systems training should lead to the learner respecting the system by understanding its true value. Who knows: maybe if I respected the Tube system more, I would be on time every day!

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Tim Fraser - Instructional designer

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