I just completed the MIT on-line course: “Implementation and Evaluation of Educational Technology.” It was excellent and inspired me to create a complete plan for the implementation of Slack as an Educational Technology platform for online technical training, communication, and collaboration. It is quite long, but is a good example of the planning required for the successful implementation of a major infrastructure project. Comments are welcome!
Part 1: Target Environment/Implementation Context
Target Environment: I create technical training programs for engineers involved in selling high technology products such as sensors, measurement hardware/software, and consulting services. The target environment has a wide range of experience levels ranging from entry level engineers who are typically comfortable with eLearning, but lack experience with products and applications to seasoned sales professionals who may be unfamiliar with eLearning, but are very comfortable with products and applications. Currently training is primarily provided via face-to-face sessions at sales meetings and conducted on an intermittent basis. The result is training that is expensive, infrequent, and static.
Key Stakeholders: Internal technical support and Human Resources departments have significant resources and incentive to provide online training where it can be updated regularly and utilized whenever and wherever employees have time.
Why Should Technology Be Implemented?: Sales engineers travel continuously and their selling time is valuable since it directly results in revenue. Therefore there are major incentives to create online resources that provide ongoing training and collaboration capabilities. Sales engineers also typically share best practices through informal networks so capturing and distributing this information is also of interest.
Other Differentiators: Finally, the eLearning system might be even more effective if it allows interaction with subject matter experts in other parts of the company such as application engineers. This is currently done through email and messaging which can result in the the same questions being answered over and over again and a loss of field generated domain knowledge.
Part 2: The Technology
Background on the Problem: In many companies, employees have trouble staying up to date on developments within their company. Email announcements, product releases, company newsletters, spreadsheets, data sheets, and other forms of communication are typically used in a haphazard way to distribute internal information. For salespeople the problem is especially acute since keeping up to date on product releases, changes, and improvements can mean the difference between winning and losing sales. Face-to-face and intermittent online training has performed this function in the past, but the increased pace of change and higher customer expectations make continuous, real time communication an important competitive advantage.
Why Use a Technology?: Based on my framework, I am proposing not only to use educational technology for the training itself, but expand the scope of technologically enhanced training to incorporate communication. For the medium sized companies I work with, this would include communication between engineering, sales, marketing, and management so that critical information reaches the right people at the right time. It would also be used to foster communication within teams so that they could share best practices and challenges.
What Technology Did I Choose?: The tool I chose is called Slack (Slack.com). The product is marketed as a “messaging app for teams,” but it is much more. It organizes communications into channels that can be created for specific teams, projects, and/or topics. It also includes “private groups” for sensitive issues and simple direct messaging for one-to-one conversations. Slack’s powerful search function indexes both messages and the content of files attached to messages making it easy to find all material related to a topic through a single search. Finally, it integrates with a wide variety of other messaging tools such as Dropbox, Google products, and social media so information external to Slack also gets captured. Slack has apps for IOS, Android, and desktop computers providing employees with access to this entire body of information wherever and whenever they are: at their desks, in a meeting, in front of a customer, working from home, traveling, etc.
Why Did I Choose This Technology?: I was a manager in a technology company for many years and I constantly required information to answer customer questions, eventually settling on an unsatisfying combination of searching email, locally stored files, old catalogs, and the company’s website. There were a wide variety of tools to help employees working in the field, but the lack of a single repository for the information combined with a lack of two way communication made using these tools difficult. A price list would be in an Excel spreadsheet emailed out three times a year, a data sheet would be in PDF format with no way of knowing if it was current, and product configurators were found in multiple locations depending on the product. They could be on the website, in a document, or only available to engineering staff. Official support channels were also very slow to respond to technical support requests so “calling a friend in engineering” was a common practice. It was a mess.
To address these needs, a Slack channel for pricing would contain current versions of all pricing tools available. A channel for product data would contain current product data sheets, product configurators, and customer presentations. A channel for training would contain current training materials and be updated regularly as products changed and improved. A Private Group for salespeople would be a place where they could securely share information on sales opportunities and customers. Major accounts would have their own private groups so the appropriate salespeople and technical staff could stay up to date on what the rest of the team was doing in that account.
How Will This Implementation Improve Teaching and Learning?: In terms of training, this implementation would shift teaching and learning from discrete events to a continuous model. Slack “Integrations” like GoToMeeting or Google Hangouts would host training events in real time as well as recorded so employees who could not attend would have access at a later date. Tests on the materials would be created, distributed, and evaluated using Slack to insure the training was effective and reinforced. Product managers and support engineers would post to their appropriate Slack channels to make the team aware of new features, applications, and common support issues. This would create company wide awareness of pre and post sale support topics instead of requiring individual answers to be provided each time the issue came up.
The Biggest Implementation Challenge?: The biggest challenge would be working with the company’s current culture and systems to shift them to a highly collaborative environment like Slack.
Part 3: Implementation
One issue with implementing a major initiative like this is planning. It is much more fun to dive right in and start using Slack: adding content, users, and teams “on the fly.” But a little up-front planning goes a long way to avoiding early pitfalls. If users initially have a bad experience, it is hard to change their opinion later, even if the problems have been resolved. So here are the barriers and opportunities I have identified.
1. Corporate – The biggest barrier is corporate culture. In the conservative test and measurement industry, implementing a major infrastructure project like Slack to improve internal communication would typically require approval from the highest levels of the organization. It would need to be evaluated for compatibility with existing communication tools and compliance with legal accountability requirements. A strategy for managing this barrier would be to begin with a small scale trial for the sales team. For this group, communication challenges already exist and ongoing training and information sharing is a necessity.
2. Content Creators – This project would require input from Application Support Engineers and Marketing. The barrier would be getting these “teachers” to utilize the system for day to day support requests, product data distribution, and training tasks. As a consultant, my job would be to create the basic structure and demonstrate the short term and long term benefits of Slack. A strategy for this barrier would be to make the most critical set of materials available immediately including price lists, product data sheets, white papers, training materials, customer presentations, etc. If the Sales and Support teams find value in this approach, they will begin to use the system for other tasks.
3. Sales Team – Even a small scale trial with a sales team has barriers associated with the end users. Surprisingly, sales engineers vary widely in their acceptance and use of technology. I’ve seen some sales engineers with smartphones with only the factory default apps on them (and maybe a GPS app). Helping them achieve an initial comfort level with the Slack technology will be extremely challenging for some users and easy for others. A strategy for this barrier would be to demonstrate an improvement to their most critical needs early in the project such as support requests, product information, and pricing. For example, if they can get an answer to a customer question more quickly in Slack than via phone or email, they would be more inclined to utilize it further. Also, the ability to provide “on demand” training via Slack would be a major benefit. They could use their inevitable “down time” during their business day for training and/or support activities.
1. Addressing the Challenge of Communication – Again, communication is an issue for almost every client I work with. Part 2 (above) of this document “Background of the Problem” provides details.
2. Training / Education – Part 2 of this document “How Will This Implementation Improve Teaching and Learning?” provides details. Reducing the training and support burden on the organization immediately translates into cost savings and productivity improvements.
3. Collaboration – Sales engineers have utilized informal social networks for decades. A beer after work, calling each other on a long drive to a customer, golf outings, and sharing information via email/text messaging is common. I can provide a dozen examples where I obtained a critical piece of information about a customer or product “by accident” after reading the full thread of an email or overhearing a conversation in the office next door. Formalizing and capturing collaboration can provide major benefits by making these conversations available to the entire team. There is a challenge to ensure that these teams are appropriately defined, but in general, seamless and effortless team collaboration is a major opportunity for this project.
Steps of the Implementation Process
1. Evaluation would begin by rephrasing the questions found in Part 4 (below) “Questions That Will Guide the Evaluation” to develop an initial understanding of existing sales team culture and challenges. This is probably the most critical step to be taken before implementation that will positively impact this initiative. Time required: 1 week.
2. Identify a Core Set of Content for the initial trial by using information from step 1 above and speaking to key content creators such as Sales Managers, Application Support Engineers, and Marketing. Time required: 1 week.
3. Implement Slack using their introductory “Free” option. Slack’s free tier of pricing includes significant capabilities such as browsing and searching the 10,000 most recent messages, 5GB total storage, and 5 service integrations (like Twitter, Google Docs, Dropbox, GitHub and many more). This should be enough for a proof of concept trial. Populate the system with the materials from Step 2. Time required: 2 weeks.
4. Identify a small starting group of tech savvy sales and support engineers for the trial, create Slack accounts for them, and conduct one-on-one training designed to get them started quickly and easily. Time required: 1 week.
5. Monitor progress, fine tune teams, and provide additional training as necessary during the trial period. Time required: 2 months.
Part 4: Evaluation
Why is Evaluation Necessary?
Since I focus on corporate communication and technical training, evaluation is necessary to determine if the proposed solution (Slack.com) is meeting the minimum requirement of providing recurring, on-demand technical training and improving communication during the trial period. If it is, then additional evaluation will be needed to determine if it is meeting more complex goals such as:
* Developing an internal repository of training resources: product data sheets, product configurators, pricing tools, white papers, competitive information, customer presentations, etc.
* Improving sales team internal collaboration
* Improving communication between sales, marketing, management, and product support/development
* Facilitating new channels of pro-active communication
Finally, the results of the evaluations need to be presented to upper management to document the performance of the project.
The Vision for Success
* Sales engineers in the field with instant access to the tools they need to successfully present a company’s products and services including pricing, product information, competitive factors, and customer presentations
* Managers with an in-depth understanding of customers’ most common questions and concerns
* Up to date training materials available to employees
* Testing functions to ensure training is effective and regularly reinforced
* Sales engineers communicating with their fellow sales engineers about best practices and challenges
* Sales, marketing, and engineering being aware of each others’ activities and needs
* An online, internal support “hotline” to quickly get answers to customers’ questions in real time while in the field
Questions That Will Guide the Evaluation
For Sales Engineers: has Slack…
* Improved your access to training and support materials? In what ways (speed, availability, etc.)?
* Improved communication with your co-workers and managers, including application and support engineers?
* Increased the speed at which you get responses to technical questions?
* Improved you ability to stay up to date with product enhancements, releases, and changes?
* Changed reporting requirements in any ways (increased or decreased)?
* Changed how you use email (internally or externally)?
* Changed how you interact with customers while on-site, on the phone, or in other ways?
* Improved your overall awareness of activities in other parts of the organization such as marketing and engineering?
* Improved your use of time?
* Caused you to have any privacy concerns?
For Support Engineers: has Slack…
* Improved your ability to support the sales team? In what ways?
* Improved your ability to access existing technical resources?
* Reduced support requests for common technical questions?
For Managers: has Slack…
* Increased your awareness of sales activities and collaboration?
* Improved the technical proficiency of your sales teams?
* Reduced costs associated with training and support?
* Increased team cohesiveness and communication?
* Integrated well with existing tools such as CRM, product configurators, pricing tools, etc.?
* Improved your ability to communicate and monitor high level corporate goals and sales initiatives?
Data and Information Needed to Address the Questions
First, a small scale trial will be conducted in the sales organization on a well defined training and communication task. Since Slack is designed to organize communications into channels that can be created for specific teams, projects, and/or topics, gathering data by monitoring these channels will provide early answers to the questions above. When the inevitable issues arise, talking directly to the sales, support, and managers involved will help determine the cause of the problem and provide guidance to a solution. It might also be useful to initially follow-up the training delivered through Slack with face-to-face evaluations and visits to customers in the field to determine how effective the training has been. One of the biggest challenges in training sales engineers is applying knowledge that has been learned in a classroom to address customers’ issues in the real world, especially under pressure and when specific applications might look different from the training materials.
Communicating the Results and Modifying the Implementation
Results would be communicated formally and informally. Ongoing successes and challenges would be documented and collected into written project status reports. Informally, the biggest advantage of conducting a trial with the sales team is their ability to communicate. If there are issues, sales engineers will typically express their opinions early and vocally so appropriate modifications can be made quickly.
Part 5: Reflection
The most difficult part of creating this plan was expanding the focus from technical training to include communication. I have created and delivered a large amount of technical training over my career and have always been frustrated by not being able to capture those special “learning moments” to make them more widely available. There is definitely a kind of magic that happens when an expert instructor delivers a day of excellent content to a group of engaged students. It is unreasonable to expect to simply reproduce that experience with a day of online content. However, having that same expert travel every week to a different city to present the same materials over and over again is also unreasonable, not to mention the inevitable flood of emails asking the expert the same follow-up questions over and over again. This project has finally gotten me to think deeply about how to address these problems by using modern Educational Technology and Communication tools to capture, present, discuss, and distribute technical training as well as providing a larger collaborative environment to help companies create a living repository of information and interaction. It remains to be seen if this plan can be implemented in the messy “real world” of high technology companies.
As a result of this course, I have realized that even though the majority of my clients say they need “sales training,” they are actually looking to improve the technical skills level and communications in their sales teams. Therefore, I have changed the focus of my consultancy such that we are now “specializing in training and communication for high technology companies.”
Finally, the most impressive parts of the experience were:
– The way you kept us engaged, gradually guiding us deeper and deeper, so the concepts were easily understood and applied.
– The variety of content you provided in the course. Curated content from world experts like MIT is invaluable.
– The interaction with the Professor and TAs. I was shocked to get a personal mention in a course of 1,300+ and it motivated me to go much deeper into the material and spend more time interacting with other students.
– The videos were outstanding. They drew me in and logically connected in a way that was very effective (I used to create EdTech videos while working for a community college in San Francisco several years ago, it is HARD to do well).
Thanks again for an excellent course.