By: Don Riggs
Many Dynamics AX customers and professionals question the effectiveness of their training. I happen to believe they should.
Microsoft has tried many ways to deliver a more effective training methodology. Unfortunately, it is a problem that Microsoft cannot solve as a universal offering. People have different motivations, different needs and different ways of learning. The solutions need to come from Dynamics AX professionals and the customers themselves.
In this article, I will attempt to identify these different types of training and tie them back to the needs of AX customers.
Different roles require different training
The first thing I believe you must understand is the range of training needs around Dynamics AX. Different types of people need training, and they fall into the following general categories:
- End users. These individuals are usually not trying to be AX experts. They want to be able to do their jobs quickly and efficiently. Training that goes into too much detail may serve to just confuse them. These individuals need training that is specific to their jobs. It is most effective to offer them company-specific information in their training, which I explore in the next section. The most typical training here would be in the form of work instructions.
- Company experts. Sometimes called subject matter expert (SMEs), these individuals are interested in a much more in-depth knowledge of specific areas of the AX. They typically will serve as train-the-trainer resources and are the first line of defense in dealing with issues within their areas of influence. They usually are involved in development of the work instructions. They should also be very heavily involved in the AX implementation process. They are interested in a much more comprehensive training, but the most effective training comes within the framework of their business environment. In such cases training that incorporates company-specific information is the most effective. Otherwise, its effectiveness is limited by the individual’s ability to apply theoretical information in a real-world situation.
- Consultants. Since consultants work across many different companies and environments, use of generic data is much more effective. But, the information must include enough business cases to be effective. Also true, most training for consultants is purely functional, when consultants also need to learn how to implement the system. This would take the shape of a workshop that involves building a working environment of the area in question. From this they can get a better idea of how to proceed on building up things such as business models within an implementation process. Consultants also need training in real, non-technical consulting skills. This would include handling exceptions and conditions, team building, proper role definition and building consensus. Within AX, we confuse technicians with consultants, which could contribute to so many implementations that are less than successful.
- Development training. I believe developers learn differently than most people. A good developer can adapt to virtually anything. A bad developer should probably be doing something else. Much also rests on the strength of design team and company methodology, factors which are not AX specific. What we have found is that developers learn fastest by using business cases that relate to standard processes. They look at how one goes about specific things. They need some help getting started, then can take it from there. Although training exists, I do not believe it is optimized for developers.
- Administrator training. There’s a vast amount of information for administrators that is not AX specific. What is needed is more formal AX-specific training: Such things as AX SQL training, architecture training, best practices and code maintenance/merging. During implementation, not enough is done to prepare customer administrators to take over these duties. What makes it even more complex is that generally, the training that is available is version specific. Administrator training along with development training are the hardest to find.
Types of training
There are many types of training opportunities within the Dynamics AX space. The vary in their thoroughness and effectiveness.
Microsoft is moving away from textbook training toward e-learning and other formats. I’m not sure that this is the best direction since manuals also give you the ability to reference specific information quickly and conveniently. This is very hard to do in an e-learning platform. Microsoft’s TechNet currently replaces its manuals, but is not an easy platform to teach from. If nothing else, this direction provides opportunities for individual authors to write manuals, which I will explore below.
There is value in each of these forms of training, but in general, the training gains value as it becomes more specific, to AX, to a version of AX, to a job or a role. The more generic the presentation, the more gifted the student must be to apply it to his or her job.
E-learning is online training provided on the Microsoft Customer Portal. It is comprehensive and covers the majority of the AX body of knowledge. Although e-learning appears to be the direction of future, it is hard to ask e-learning a question or put it in a specific business context. Still, e-learning is an effective entry point for learning something new. The granularity makes it easy to fit into specific subject area training plans. It is very often used to identify areas that need additional study. It is good for all types, because it is done at your own pace and the user can skip over areas as they see fit.
It appears the industry is moving away from printed manuals. There are many reasons including cost and obsolescence. Still, a lot of us enjoy having manuals for reference, to take notes, or because of how they are structured. This shift opens an opportunity for manuals from independent sources, like Scott Hamilton‘s series of books, available through Amazon. What makes these references so valuable is they are generally written by leaders in their subject areas. This offers insight that would only be possible if you worked directly with them on a project.
Certification training covers the body of knowledge needed to pass certification tests. It is an indication of how well an individual understands the technical content. Even with training aids and a sample test, it is questionable as to how valuable the certification is: A common perception is that certification indicates no greater ability than to pass a test. I believe there is a need in the industry for certifications that indicate a real-world ability to implement the product, not merely understand it.
A seminar is a good source of detailed information on a specific topic. They are typically led by someone with proper credentials – a true expert, not just a presenter. It also can provide a format to get answers to questions not possible in other settings. Seminars typically represent relatively small commitments of time and cost. The benefit is that, for a specific topic, you will get a level of detail generally unachievable elsewhere. The only thing I feel that is better is a book written specifically on the subject.
Workshops (or “Boot Camps”)
In theory, a workshop would be absolutely the best way to learn about any given subject. You are not only presented the materials, but able to do specific exercises to validate the materials. The biggest problem with workshops stems from the fact it is the most inefficient way to learn. They are usually done in a group setting, so are limited by the speed of the slowest participants. For that reason, workshops are simply not a very good way to learn a large amount of information quickly. Another common challenge is achieving a proper balance between presentation and exercises.
Customized, client-specific training
Probably the most successful way to teach a client is by creating a company-specific training plan. This plan can accommodate the needs of different groups, and the instruction is based on the company’s real-world information and desired business practices.
Because the success of training is directly related to the interest of the student, company- and job-specific training is always preferable.
Except for very small organizations, customized training is not usually delivered directly to end users, but to individuals who become in-house trainers. typically delivered by outside consultants, and to individuals who become in-house trainers. Finally, it is very important to develop in-house trainers to teach the ultimate end users. These are the people that should be taught by the outside entities. You need to invest in your own trainers to be successful
What is missing
There are holes in all these training methods. It is not specifically about the method but the content and to whom we are trying to teach the content. There is not enough granularity in the current options and, in some cases, not enough content to be effective. Here are some areas you should think about:
- The more people an organization tries to train together, the less effective the training. Sending many people to generalized training sessions costs more money in the long run. This is because the training must be structured to cover everything within a subject area. Not everybody needs or wants to know everything. It is more effective to offer a series of courses aimed at the specific needs of different groups.
- It is most effective for an organization to own its training effort. This means that the organization enables a select group to teach the rest of the organization.
- Workshops need to be more effective. The currently-available workshops teach the what but not the how and the why. Workshops should be a-full immersion experience that build a complete working environment of the selected area. Then, they must present problems: People learn more when something doesn’t work than when it does, so need the experience of resolving problems driven by improper setups and bad information. This is specifically true for people doing the actual implementation of these products.
- Learning is strategic. Studies have shown that the most successful companies are learning organizations that put a high value on the learning experience. A learning culture allows organizations to grow and facilitates the growth. It is important for companies to own their training programs and to promote training as a company benefit.
- Take better advantage of learning opportunities. People are not aware of all the training opportunities out there. Groups like AXUG and MSDynamicsWorld are doing a wonderful job promoting knowledge transfer and training.
For whatever reason, most partner organizations do not consider training a profitable offering. This, despite the unfulfilled demand for it.
The biggest contributing factor to additional training needs is the complexity of the ERP system itself. There is no better indication of the real-world training deficit than how many systems are customized to requirements that are standard within the product.
The need is immense and the solution is the development of more high-quality educational opportunities provided by people with real business experience. But, the most experienced resources are usually applied to the sales cycle, not the delivery cycle. Simply put: There needs to be more emphasis on successful implementations, not just on successful selling.