Distant Learning – Adult Education Strategies for the Call Center (Part 1 of 2)

Chinese CrisisThe reality of Adult Education in the majority of call centers can be described as desperate, at best!  Why, because the model has been Bloom’s Taxonomy, mix in some ADDIE, add a sprinkle of desperation, and a load of “This is how it’s done here,” and you have the template for many corporate training programs.  Then remote training was forced upon the call centers due to COVID-19 related government mandates, and the model that barely worked before is fully inadequate to the present and future.  Yet, this unyielding model, is being forced into the new reality, like a square plug into a star shaped hole.  Stuffing this model into the new reality creates two things, waste, and confusion.  When we the call center leaders admit and face this reality head on, innovative solutions to the training problems can be derived.

Let’s admit this reality as well, Bloom’s Taxonomy does not work!  I am not advocating throwing it completely out the window, but Bloom’s Taxonomy hardly works in academia to barely describe a small subset of the population.  This is a reality that never seems to be communicated to people looking for training assistance.

ADDIE (Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, and Evaluate) as a learning model is useless.  This is another reality that must be acknowledged.  The most dedicated ADDIE enthusiasts add their own additional levels to the Basic ADDIE Model, to produce an “ADDIE inspired training program.”  The problem with adapting the ADDIE model to a single training environment, is the ever-changing student in adult education.  The model cannot adapt, does not have a basic return and report, and frankly, fails when students change from training group to training group.

Experience teaches that a standard training model built upon the basic four steps becomes the eventual template for training in the call center:

  1. Gathering Information
  2. Design
  3. Build Content
  4. Evaluation

Not that this is the best method, but because it is a method that is inexpensive, quick, and by hammering these four items success can be observed, provided standards for education are set very low.  Setting standards low serves nobody, but this is the fallback position when ADDIE and Bloom’s Taxonomy fail, which in reality they will always fail, but the very select few in any given population.

GearsSome call centers will occasionally find success using Merrill’s Principles of Instruction, and if your call center is a series of tasks that are called “customer service” then your call center can find success using Merrill’s Principles:

          1. Task-Centered
          2. Activation
          3. Demonstration
          4. Application
          5. Integration

Important to understanding, Merrill’s Principles of Instruction are scalable, flexible, holistic, but are limited to one specific type of learning task-centered.  Merrill’s principles of instruction can be attached to any other adult education theory, including Bloom’s Taxonomy and improve the performance of training, if that training is to learn by route memory a task that must be performed.

Call Center Agent - MaleDuring my youth, I worked for a call center, a national brand, winner of generous amounts of accolades and industry awards.  Their model of approaching customer service was to give the customer what they wanted.  Providing a soft-spoken voice to the customer and giving the customer what they wanted.  The company was bought before the 2000 business shift, and is not remembered, because they did not supply the customer service the customer found valuable.  But this organization makes an excellent example of Merrill’s Principles of Instruction for task-centered adult education.  Teach the new hire how to give a bill credit.  Teach the new hire how to speak softly during confrontational situations.  Teach the new hire how to approach a customer to sell upgrades, new services, or plan improvements.  Never teach the new hire anything more than tasks that need completed.  Never allow the new hire to exceed the bounds of tasks and call this excellence in customer service.  Eventually losing the company to your competition!

The glaring holes in adult education, found in call centers currently, originate from three core areas:

  1. Failing to decide what type of company is desired.
  2. Failing to set high standards for learners.
  3. Failing to understand adult education.

In addressing what type of company is desired, Myron Tribus asked, “What type of company do we aspire to be?”  Tribus claimed there are only two answers for this question, a money tap, or a learning organization.  If your call center is simply a front for a money tap organization, continue using Bloom’s Taxonomy and ADDIE, change nothing, and you can cease reading at this point.  Your competition wishes you the best of luck!

Andragogy - The PuzzleIf, your company is a “learning organization,” please allow me to aid you in discovering a better way to educate your adult learners.  Adult education, also known academically as Andragogy, is specifically designed for the adult learner to discover new content.  Important to understand, adults learn through events, not through hierarchical learning, which separates pedagogy from andragogy.  The events an adult learns from will include the environment the learning was delivered in, include feelings and emotions, and will be understood through the lens of earlier experiences, including previous success and failures in formal education, as well as attitudes, and socially accepted behaviors.  In Europe pedagogy (child learning) and andragogy (adult learning) are often confused and without a clear distinction.  For this article, training adults (post-secondary school aged people) is andragogy, and the training is a formal event in a new hire’s schedule; the best thing a business can do for adults in formal learning environments is to set high levels of performance.

If your organization is going to set exacting standards of performance, and expect those standards to be met, then your first job is to improve who instructs, and how they instruct.  How are your trainers and mentors trained?  What are their standards of performance?  Who trained them?  Formal and informal education has value, who set the standards for the trainers to meet?  Where can an aspiring trainer find the standards to be met to earn the title “trainer” or “mentor?”

Which is where an adult educational model that works, is needed, and applied, “Gagné’s Nine Events of Instruction.”  Interestingly, with minimal wording changes, the same nine events of adult education are applicable as a standard for face-to-face, online real-time, and online student led delivery modalities.  Here are the basic nine events as established by Gagné.

  1. Gain Attention
  2. Inform Objectives
  3. Stimulate Recall
  4. Present New Materials
  5. Provide Guidance
  6. Elicit Performance
  7. Provide Feedback
  8. Assess Performance
  9. Enhance Retention to Transfer to the Job.

These events represent episodes, or steps, for powering adult education and adapted for both task-centered and non-task-centered educational events.  More importantly, these nine events of instruction open the door to declare the standards desired, how those standards are met, and how the adoption of those high standards are evaluated.  Evaluation should not be a single faceted event, such as a written test; but should be reflected in the changed behaviors, attitudes, and mental functioning of the individuals.  Except to evaluate in this manner, the objectives must specifically identify what a successful candidate of that learning event shall reflect.

Stated more simply, does the trainer know what a successfully trained candidate looks like, and are they modelling that successful candidate in every student interaction?  If the answer is no, how do you the business leader know that successful training can occur?  Training is evaluated for the following reasons, to validate training, justify costs, improve design of training, and improve selection of training methods.  Thus, the importance of evaluating training programs. The five levels of measurement are (in order) reactions (Happy Sheets; where an emotion measures the training program), learning (new or improved skills which are observed), application (behavior changes which can be observed), business results (behavior changes leading to improved results), and return on investment (ROI; monetary return over a specified time, after training occurs.  Yet, a simple truth prevails in training, even without formal training improvements can occur in behavior, unless the evaluation of training is an event and retention of knowledge as transferred to the job is measured instead of all the other training evaluation methods.

Andragogy - Trainer FailureTraining in the call center must change, adapt, and be understood through Gagné’s Nine Events of Instruction, and Gagnè’s Instructional Design model, which helps to take strategic goals and tactical actions, blended together in the training events, and observed through ROI improvements.  If training does not lead to a changed individual, why spend the money to train?  If the trainer is not exemplifying the behaviors of a successfully trained person, how can any other employee be held accountable for not learning?  It is imperative that how training is evaluated changes as the current models do not measure training, do not explain the resources invested, and does not justify what training is or what a trainer does.

Part 2 more fully explores Gagné’s Instructional Design Model and the Nine Events of Instruction in more detail.

© Copyright 2020 – M. Dave Salisbury
The author holds no claims for the art used herein. The pictures were obtained in the public domain, and the intellectual property belongs to those who created the images.
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SMART Training –Shifting the Paradigm on Corporate Training

GearsCorporate training continues to be a difficult topic to describe, mainly because everyone seems to “know” what training is, but cannot understand what it is not, even when receiving inferior corporate training. As an adult educator, schooled and experienced in corporate training, let’s discuss corporate training, the principles, the need, and the student.

One aspect of organizational development needs to be considered at the outset, the difference between active and reflective listening. In active listening, the person not currently speaking pays attention to content and intent, engages in emotional meaning, focuses on removing barriers, and remains non-judgmental and empathetic. In reflective listening, the speaker and the listener take active listening and employ two-directional messaging to ensure mutual understanding. The central aim in reflective listening will always be the desire to achieve mutual understanding in communication.

The importance of understanding listening in training remains the utmost concern as the process of engaged, reflective listening producing the environment for the most potential positive training results. The needed 360-degree or two-directional communication to safely and more efficiently operate is critical in training and necessary in communication. Trainers must be able to gather anecdotal evidence and hard data to check for validity and veracity in training operations. Without a quality control mechanism that includes open and honest feedback, the trainer is operating in a vacuum and wasting corporate resources.

The majority of adult educators in the US today, and possibly much of the world, have become convinced of several untruths because the colleges teaching adult education seem fixated on teaching misleading concepts that ultimately do more harm than good. For example, ADDIE, as a methodology tool used to govern training, is useless without a quality control and a return and report function, both of which must be added to the basic ADDIE model; thus changing the design and interposing more personal opinion and bias into what became, with the addition of quality control and two-directional communication, an untested model. Colleges continue to press the ADDIE methodology as the only proper method for instructing adults, without changing or testing the basic ADDIE model. Other untruths include Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs,” which has been researched and found not entirely accurate, nor does it explain the natural needs and the current model of the world; thus, remaining just Maslow’s opinion.

By teaching untruths to the soon-to-be-adult educators, the adult educators go forth professionally to train other adults, using the same untruths. Thus fulfilling the axiom of GIGO, programmer’s aphorism meaning, “Garbage In results in Garbage Out.” Hence, the untruths are disseminated into future classrooms, and the company and the adult students lack proper training, resources are wasted, and the potential in training is lost.

Putting the value of training in dollars and cents is difficult, but the following will give an idea of the problem. Two kinds of money govern business, blue and green. Blue money is all about the potentblue-moneyial for good or ill to the bottom line of an action, process, tool, employee, etc. Green money is cold, hard, cash, and the food of bottom line health. What is the potential of cross-training employees? If done properly, incalculable positive results and consequences are forthcoming. If done incorrectly, immeasurable adverse effects and consequences will abound. Leading to a stunning observation; if enough blue money is burned, green money evaporates, and the business leaders have no idea how or why the bottom line is vanishing, and market share is shrinking. Since training is all about increasing an employee’s potential and runs the risk of the employee leaving the company, the potential costs and benefits remain difficult to quantify in dollars and cents.

As a newly hired operations manager, I made three expensive presumptions: 1. All the production employees were cross-trained. 2. The machine maintenance had been done properly, and the production machines were in top order. 3. The production employees knew the jobs they were being paid to accomplish. The presumptions cost a lot of blue and green money until rectified, which cost the plant valuable production time, temporary staff increased costs, and the need to perform the production floor manager’s position as well as the operations manager’s role until these three presumptions were corrected. Total cost from my hire date until resolved, 3-months of 50-hour weeks, and more than triple my annual salary in green money. With the total savings from higher potential after addressing the deficiencies, the annual salary of every employee in the plant multiplied by five.

Leading to how to increase potential, decrease blue money evaporation, and develop SMART Training, I have found the following ideas helpful to consider in creating hybrid solutions:

  1. Quantify and Qualify blue money loss. This sounds technical but is quite easy to implement.   I suggest the following principles for review and application:
    1. Respect those around you as potential superstars. Respecting includes employees or customers, vendors or shareholders, deemed less useful. Respect first, last, and always. People will always rise to the level of respect shown.
    2. Change your perception. How valuable or costly is a hammer when directly proportionate to the amount of training in the hands of the operator? If you, as the business leader, are not willing to change how you see the hammer, then it will be impossible to see the worker differently.
    3. Focus on people. Processes are how work is accomplished. Products and services support the company, but the people remain the variable requiring attention. Get out of the office, get onto the production floor, interact, ask questions, and know people.
    4. Freedom to act is a blue money saving principle. If the actions taken by individuals are rigidly controlled, the customer is not served, the problems multiply, and the result is wasted potential. Remember, for every dollar in potential money spent, five dollars in cash evaporates.
  2. Believe in cross training. It is said that Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines love to train. They might grumble, moan, and complain, but the training helps lift the morale, empowers the individual, and enhances the individual self-image and self-worth. The same is true in business and every other human endeavor; embrace a love for training.
  3. In accordance with item two above, make sure that the training is valuable and SMART. Relevant training is a knowledge object that can be used immediately, often, and is easily recognized by other employees as something to aspire to obtain.
    1. SMART training is specific; if the employee is to be a cashier, do not include forklift training with cashier training.
    2. Measurable, can the employee feel they learned a job-ready skill. Attainable training is training that can be achieved. For example, not everyone needs to be a nuclear physicist to perform well in customer interactions. Scale the training to meet the tasks at hand. Yes, training should be tough, but attainable.
    3. Realistic training is directly applicable to daily tasks, not trying to cover 20-years of hypothetical nuance, but realistic to daily production goals.
    4. Timely training means to train the employee to the job standard, as it is designed currently, not 5-10 months down the road.
  4. Training has a shelf life; thus training must adapt and change as the business changes. Allow training to live and die as needed to meet the business needs. This also requires cognizant and purposeful planning for strategic and tactical goal realization. Nothing is worse than receiving training in a classroom, then needing to receive different training on the floor because the trainers do not know current operations.
  5. Organizational design. This topic seems peculiar to mention in an article regarding training, but please note, many times, the disconnect between training and operations is not the training or operations, but how the organization is designed. An example, during a project recently concluded, I saw this principle first hand; a common theme on the production floor was a feeling of disconnect between higher levels, e.g. director level and up leadership and senior manager level direction and down. Because of the perceived disconnect, e.g. front-line employees thinking and feeling the higher level leaders are not interested and engaged, and the real disconnect, e.g. the leaders changing methods of work without understanding the processes, procedures, and technology in the work performed, many problems on the floor were never discussed and resolved, simply Band-Aid solutions applied with the hope the core problem goes away, while complaining that the leaders did not have a clue. Use the following to improve organizational design concerns:
    1. Problems in organizational design are easy to spot and discern during process reviews; this is a valuable time; use it well. Thus, never let a process age beyond 18-months and always ensure each process has a single individual responsible for the shelf life of the process.
    2. Use the quarterly, semi-annual, and annual employee events to listen to employees, talk with staff, and take these thoughts back to strategic and tactical planning meetings to direct resources to qualify and quantify the comments from employees, then act promptly, and keep the employees in the communication loop.
    3. Stop the Band-Aid solutions. If the problem needs a Band-Aid, the problem is bad enough to invest actual time and resources in fixing properly. Communicate using reflective listening to achieve two-directional communication with mutual understanding.blue-money-burning
  6. The student in corporate training can be the customer, a shareholder, a vendor, another employee, etc. Training should be an ongoing topic looked forward to as an enabling event. Want to quickly see if the training is SMART? Listen to the comments made by employees when annual compliance training is announced. If there remains a monumental lack of enthusiasm, training is not SMART, not valuable, and blue money fire pits are raging, burning potential directly and green money by remote. Hence, the following tips should help in understanding the student more completely:
    1. Regardless of mode, make sure the student is known before training occurs. Knowing the student ensures the proper language is employed in offering training, and the trainer and the student can relate to each other and the topic under discussion.
    2. Know what the student expects to receive from the training and then adapt the training to meet the expectation. Even if the student does not know what they desire in post training, allow the student to vocalize and establish expectations.
    3. Confidence in training comes from trainers knowing who they are and what they offer. If teachers are not confident, students will never be confident and will have been taught how not to be confident in acting upon the training principles.
    4. “Enthusiasm,” per Henry Chester, “is the greatest asset in the world. Enthusiasm “beats money, power, and influence.” Enthusiasm is sourced in confidence and trust. Faith in the topic is acquired by being trained and trusting in the application and organizational design to support the issue being taught. Enthusiasm is easily taught; teach by example and others will follow!

Employ voice-of-the-customer (VoC) surveys more completely. Make a team of highly professional, and soon to be promoted to team leader, employees and have them administer the VoC program. Employ the VoC as a tool to improve the business processes, procedures, and organizational design. Possessing inputs for training topics, directing customer interaction resources for marketing, and understanding the role of potential (blue money) inherent in the business products and services, as well as the employees delivering on the company promise for customer interaction, improves the business processes, procedures, and organizational design. By employing seasoned employees, the VoC becomes an organizational tool worthy of the customer and the cost of collecting the customer’s input.

There remains a great need in business for SMART training, which includes realizing the potential in people and processes to influence for good or ill. Tooblue-money-burning-2 often the problem in lost bottom-line or dropping market share is not found in green money costs but in blue money waste. When costs need cutting, always look first for lost potential and save the potential first. If the potential waste is not stopped first, the blue money will continue to burn and will morph into different budget areas because the potential lost is a raging forest fire untended and burning green money.

© 2017 M. Dave Salisbury
All Rights Reserved
Copyright for images used is retained by the original creator and used under fair use.