Q: What's the difference between an instructor and a student?

A: The instructor is one page ahead of the student.

You might find this riddle amusing or not, but it hints at a real problem: Are you wasting your precious IT training opportunities? Training is not only a major factor in maintaining your staff's morale but also an essential element of IT strategy. What makes instructor-led training precious is that you can't recover the time your employees lose when they're stuck in substandard training. Consequently, the sticker price on instructor-led training shouldn't be the deciding factor when you're selecting a course of study; rather, the quality of the training and how well it maps to an employee's learning objectives should be your guiding principles.

Job One: Create Learning Objectives
To get the most out of training, create learning objectives. A learning objective simply identifies a skill that will result from the training. For example, a good learning objective might be: the ability to install and configure a Windows Server 2003 file share cluster. Learning objectives should take into account your company's business and technical needs, as well as the professional development needs of the employees taking the training. One of the biggest mistakes IT managers can make is to allow employees to choose training that interests them but that doesn't map to the business needs of the IT department or to the employee's professional development. After you've compiled a list of learning objectives, prioritize them with the employee taking the training. This list will help you ensure that you select the appropriate training before the course begins.

Evaluating Training Factors
Three factors in instructor-led training must be evaluated separately: the instructor, the training materials, and the training facility. Of these factors, the most important by far is the instructor. A top-notch instructor can create a valuable training experience even when the training materials and venue are less than outstanding. A mediocre instructor will never be any more effective than the training materials.

Finding the Right Trainer
Always base your evaluation of instructor-led training on the instructor's skill and relevant experience. Consider the following.

Hands-on experience. There is no substitute for experience. Always ask for the biography or resume of the instructor before purchasing training. If a training provider denies that request, keep looking. When evaluating an instructor's experience, look for job titles that show experience with the technologies in your learning objectives. Many trainers have published articles and books about their area of expertise; such experience demonstrates depth of knowledge.

If you or the members of your staff who will be training get a chance to speak with an instructor before purchasing training, ask fundamental questions about technology you are familiar with. Pay attention not only to the technical accuracy of the responses but also to the instructor's ability to give the answers in a way your employee understands.

Training qualifications. Another primary competency is training skills. To investigate a trainer's delivery skills, look for objective measures such as industry certifications or a background in public speaking. Look for teaching-specific credentials, such as the Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT) and CompTIA Certified Technical Trainer (CTT+). Find out whether the trainer has presented at major IT and security conferences such as Windows Connections or Microsoft TechEd. Find out how long the instructor has been an active trainer. The number of times the instructor has taught the specific course you're interested in can be important, although it's not a foolproof test of competency.

The single best way to determine whether an instructor-has delivery skills that match your employee's style of learning is to have the employee sit in on a class the instructor is teaching. Because many training centers use contract instructors and hold classes out of town, sitting in on a class might not be possible. However, when the class and trainer are local, consider it a red flag if a training provider denies your request to attend a class to observe the trainer.

Industry credentials. In addition to teaching-specific credentials, IT industry credentials are good, although not perfect, objective indicators of a trainer's knowledge of subject matter. For example, if you're in the market for security training that focuses on Windows 2000, you'd want to look for trainers who have both a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) certification for Windows 2000 (ideally, having passed the two Win2K security exams) and the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) credential, which covers general security knowledge. Find out how long a trainer has been certified: the longer the period of time, the more experience with the subject matter.

References. References, especially from a trainer's peers, are valuable indicators of the trainer's skills and experience. Ask people you work with or local user groups for references, positive and negative, for trainers and training venues. The key questions to ask are:

  • What value does the instructor add to the materials?
  • Does the instructor have credibility with the other students?
  • Is the instructor able to answer questions from students on subjects that the class materials don't cover?
  • If you took a class from this trainer, were you able to use the skills you learned?

Evaluating Training Materials
The materials associated with any type of training are secondary in effectiveness to a strong instructor. However, because few people can remember everything they learned in a week-long training course, the more complete, concise, and accurate the course's training materials are, the more valuable they will be after the course ends.

The best way to determine whether a particular course or class is the right one for your purpose is to evaluate the course materials before you commit to the training. Ask the training provider for a look at the training materials. In addition to reviewing the quality of the text and graphics, decide whether the labs the course includes address the skills that your learning objectives identify. Finally, check the date of the last revision to the course. Technology changes rapidly—having up-to-date training materials is essential.

The Training Facility
Less significant than either the instructor or the class materials is the training venue; nevertheless, a good learning environment is important. When assessing a training center, look at the general condition of the facility, the physical state of the lab equipment, and the general demeanor of the staff. Determine whether the training center provides equipment appropriate for the course, adequate desk and personal space, and optimal whiteboard or chalkboard space.

More than a Page Ahead
Well-chosen training can increase productivity, decrease implementation and management costs, and improve IT services. By systematically evaluating learning opportunities to identify the best training for your employees, you'll get the most out of your training dollars.