Is Training Just for Dinosaurs?


To hear some Web 2.0 enthusiasts tell it, “training” is becoming an outmoded concept. These days, anybody who needs to know anything can find it on the web. It is a new dawn for the autonomous learner.

It is true that the read-write web has brought us an unprecedented avalanche of instantly available information.  If I want a new way to prepare the chicken and broccoli I’ve got in the fridge for tonight’s dinner, a quick Google search on “chicken brocolli recipe” will produce a number of options.

Of course, it helps that I’ve got some domain knowledge.  I know something about what my family likes to eat. And about how much time I’ve got available for preparation, and whether I’m up for a frying extravaganza or looking for something a little less fat-intensive. I have enough experience in the field that I can reliably size up a recipe for whether it looks like something that will work for me, in my kitchen, with my equipment and my skill-set to please my audience.

The Middlebury College students writing papers for their Japanese history course didn’t have that advantage. They are still developing their basic domain knowledge, and their knowledge of their professor as audience.  Hence, they could not recognize that Wikipedia was steering them wrong.

How much can an organization afford to trust “information in the wild” for apprising members of what they need to know?  I’d argue that the reasonable level of trust rises with the domain expertise of the seeker.  It is a huge boon to our organization that our deeply experienced Unix system administrators and our java developers can go out on the web to look for and find ways their colleagues have approached the problems they face.  We are a small organization, and don’t have the resources in-house to train these guys, in the first place. We depend on them to identify what they need to know, and to seek out books, training opportunities, and web sites for their professional development, because they are the subject matter experts in these domains in our organization.

But for the folks who come in green?  They need more than a browser and an internet connection and a mandate to go forth and learn.  We want them learning from our SME’s, about how we do things here. We want them learning the cultural history in which the why’s for how we do things is embedded. We’ve invested thousands of person-hours in making mistakes and learning from them, and we’d really like to leverage that investment by teaching our new hires how to avoid those pitfalls.  We know about some trusted resources, and we want to acquaint them with these resources. We try to hire creative, self-motivated individuals who will be interested in seeking out new ways of doing things.   Until they’ve had a chance to learn for themselves what works well and what doesn’t in “our kitchen,” though, we’d sort of like for them to run any shiny new ideas they find in the wild by us for a reality check before attempting to implement them for our customers.

In short, we want to train them.