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Best Training Practices
Will Kenny
3927 York Ave N
Robbinsdale, MN 55422

Helping the Helpers in
Your Organization

educate support staff about the people and tasks they support

(reprinted from The Training Tipsheet)

You work hard to provide training that helps employees in your organization do their jobs better. But for many support staff, "doing their job" means helping other workers be more effective. Are you helping those trainees understand not just their jobs, but the positions and functions they are supporting?

Your company's support staff make it possible for various specialists to focus on the most productive tasks. And they provide the most help when they understand how those specialists think and work.

My spouse runs all the administrative functions, from HR to accounting to clerical and more, for four departments of the medical school at a large university. She regularly sends her direct reports, as well as employees farther down the org chart, "out into the field," as it were, to see what the faculty and staff of these departments actually do. Support staff visit labs and clinics, attend faculty meetings, and get an inside view of the mission and work of each department.

This is no lightweight orientation as part of an "onboarding" program. Staff who have been around a good while continue to have contact with faculty and other staff, and it is a long-term, ongoing process.

The benefit? Simply put, the rule books don't explain everything. Knowing every step of the official procedure for handling expenses or booking equipment, or any other support function, won't get the job done when something new and slightly different pops up. When that happens, the support person has to make some judgments, find some options, implement some decisions.

And the results will be infinitely better if that person understands what the outcome is supposed to be for the individuals or department he or she is helping, not for the support staff.

Now, you may tell me this is obvious, that everyone does something like this. Nonsense!

First of all, when new faculty arrive in one of her departments, they frequently comment that they have never experienced anything like this interaction with the support staff before. And, secondly, I (and you) have seen enough "orientations" and "onboarding programs", whatever you call them now, to know well that new employees really get very little understanding of what others do from these programs. Even if they acquire a vague notion of what is happening elsewhere in the company, especially among the people they directly support, they usually get through orientation with little contact, and no hands-on experience, with the functions they supposedly will help to be more productive.

This issue is in no way specifically tied to that medical school environment. One banking client of mine developed a short seminar on credit analysis and making loans that was aimed squarely at the non-bankers in the organization. Again, that was very wise, but not at all common in that industry, which is why this particular client led one of the best training programs at any bank in the country.

For your training function, there are a couple of implications of adopting a "help the helper" approach:

  1. By broadening your mandate beyond just teaching support staff how to handle the technicalities of their own jobs, and taking a more comprehensive view of educating them about the functions and mission of those they help, you can boost results for the entire organization; and
  2. When you look at the continuing education pursued by your own training staff, you may want them to spend less time on topics related specifically to training, and more time on topics of interest to the departments you serve.

We tend to like neat, self-contained courses and programs, so implementing this approach isn't easy, but the results are well worth it.

And you can start applying this thinking to your own department right away, so I'll have more to say about point #2 above in the next edition of The Training Tipsheet.

© 2010 Best Training Practices -- Will Kenny

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