THE MAGAZINE      October 2002
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Implementing Training Requires Planning: Build the Right Program for Your Firm

Training is indispensable to using new systems. But what tactics and tools help users learn best?


The purpose of information systems is not simply to exhibit elegant and state-of-the-art features. Systems yield benefits only if used, and used effectively. In essence, information systems are worthless without training, just as hardware is useless without software.

In implementing and upgrading systems, the task facing all organizations goes well beyond technical design and configuration. It must include motivating and training the user group to use the technology to do their jobs better and faster. Technology is only valuable to your firm if it improves the effectiveness and efficiency of the practice of law. How can you teach your users to really put new systems to work? Have the right blend of elements in your training plan.

Essentials of the Training Process

Training is a process, not a one-time activity. It involves educating users about why a system change is needed and what benefits it will bring, getting users to buy in and take ownership of the new system, and training users in how the technology works and how it can make the firm more effective and efficient.

Implementing new systems inevitably changes the way people work. As with any change process, a number of elements are critical to success:

  • Senior management must take ownership and support the change.
  • An inclusive project team must manage the day-to-day details of the implementation.
  • Copious amounts of effective communication must keep users involved and informed.
  • Users must be involved in major decisions, pilots and planning.
  • Each functional job description must have its training needs defined.
  • Employees’ skill levels must be assessed.
  • Training must be customized to address skill sets needed by each job function and users’ skill levels.
  • Adequate and convenient tailored training must be carefully coordinated with the rollout.
  • Training schedules must allow work groups to roll out together to minimize interruptions of ongoing work.
  • Questions and concerns must be encouraged and given serious attention.
  • Systems and training must be pilot tested, both to ensure their quality and appropriateness and to involve the user community and spread good "word of mouth" about the new system.
  • Support response time and quality must be good, particularly as pilot tests proceed.
  • Intensive floor support must be available immediately after the rollout.
  • Ongoing user support must be available, and new employee training must be in place.

Types of Training Content

Typically, a law firm or law department setting requires several types of training.

Basic skills. This training develops and maintains a working base level of core technology skills relating to word processing, legal research, case management, information management, calendaring and scheduling and communications.

Practice support skills. This training develops and maintains skills relating to practice-specific technology tools, such as client presentations, deposition and litigation management, document imaging and Internet use.

Management support skills. This training develops and maintains skills relating to management tools, such as marketing, budgeting and financial systems.

Communications systems skills. This training develops and maintains communications and remote access skills.

Most technology training programs focus mainly on one question: "How do I use this system?" That question is, of course, core—but it is only a beginning. A second question is the key to using technology effectively in law firms: "How can I use this system to practice law or support the practice of law efficiently?"

A critical objective of any training program, therefore, is to develop an ongoing in-house sharing of knowledge—a process involving lawyers, legal assistants, secretaries and administrative and technology staff. In any such effort, remember that knowledge sharing works best as an exchange of information among peers, when people in the firm say to each other, "Here is how I use this tool to support my practice" or "Here is what I learned about how other lawyers use this tool."

Adult Training Principles

Adult training works best when it is oriented toward problem solving—that is, when the program addresses solutions to real-life tasks performed on a regular basis.

Put another way, problem-solving education responds to the student’s needs. It starts with the user question, "How do I … ?" This approach can be particularly effective when used for follow-up training, in, for example, sessions focusing on "Now that I know what to ask, how do I … ?"

Adult training is most effective when the following applies:

  • Educational objectives and expected outcomes are clear.
  • The curriculum focuses on practical skills with immediate, practical consequences for the participants.
  • Participants are permitted to learn on their own, or in small teams, using instructors as mentors and resources.
  • Participants are encouraged to learn at their own pace.
  • Teaching techniques are responsive to a variety of learning styles (inductive, deductive, structured listening, hands-on experimentation and so on).
  • Education is interactive, and participants are encouraged to ask questions, discuss issues and draw on the skills and experience of the other participants as well as the instructor’s knowledge.
  • The learning environment is comfortable, with, for example, short classes, ample working areas, adequate lighting and good ventilation.
  • Classes are scheduled to fit into the busy professional’s schedule.

Traditional classroom education—the straightforward transfer of information from a teacher to a group of students— is not ideal for adult education. Effective training is focused, addressing each user at his or her skill level as closely as possible. But while individual attention is the most effective way to customize training, the costs are normally considered prohibitive. A successful training process is, thus, based on a reasonable compromise between personalized attention and one-size-fits-all techniques, offering learning opportunities at three skill levels (beginning users, intermediate users and expert users), supplemented, when possible, with focused individual follow-up.

So-called "general issue" training focuses on systemic issues relating to one or more technology systems—for example, classes on "All About Windows 2000" or "How to Work Away from the Office." In contrast, "detailed topic" training focuses on specific aspects of specific systems—for example, using footnotes and tables of authority in WordPerfect or the like.

A successful training process mixes both types of training for two reasons. The first is a matter of different individual learning styles. Some adults learn best when presented with a broad overview, while others learn best when presented with an in-depth focus on particular skills. Mixing both approaches in the training process addresses both types of learning styles. The second reason relates to differences in subject matter. Some skills naturally require an in-depth focus, while others lend themselves to discussion in a broader context.

Good training addresses the need to balance individual attention with one-size-fits-all approaches and general-issue with detailed-topic contents.

Training Issues for System Migrations

Special issues arise whenever users face a wholesale migration to a completely different system. Fear is always a factor. Users naturally wonder, Will the new system really work? Will I lose my efficiency? Can I master this more-complex software? Will it require me to do my work in a new way? Migration training, therefore, needs to confront participants’ fears honestly and consistently.

Some participants will resist the changes attendant to migration, often based on inadequate, anecdotal evidence. ("So-and-so in such-and-such department tells me that the new system is horrible.") Training has to address resistance by providing concrete information about the new system’s benefits, as well as realistic information about problems the new system will create.

Other participants will feel overwhelmed by the change. ("Too much to learn and too little time to learn it.") So migration training also needs to be phased, focused and "one day at a time," lessening the risk of overwhelming users by providing opportunities to learn the system through individually paced demonstrations and explorations—before, during and after classroom training.

Be aware that yet another issue arises in organizations where users have expressed a high level of dissatisfaction with past training: Migration training undertaken for the new system faces an initial hurdle of overcoming "baggage" from the past.

Best methods and resources. Migration training typically requires more resources than does ongoing training, because users need to learn a lot in a short period of time. For this reason, migration training usually employs classroom sessions as the core tool, rather than relying on other training resources. When time periods are highly compressed and multiple locations are involved, classroom training increasingly is moved online, using videoconferencing or live instruction and Q&A interaction delivered over the Internet or an intranet.

However, given the volume of new knowledge needed and the requirement that all users develop minimum skill levels quickly, migration training based on the classroom alone is not sufficient. The best course is to supplement classroom sessions (either in person or live online) with a wide variety of other resources. The firm can offer take-home videos, opportunities to read and "tinker" outside the classroom and ready access to follow-up desk-side support.

Follow-up desk-side support is critical because newly trained users tend to forget basics during the first few days after training has been completed. The necessary level of desk-side support depends on several factors:

  • The scope and depth of the change—that is, how many new applications have been introduced and how different the new applications are from the old ones
  • The knowledge level of the users involved
  • The anticipated workload of the users during the first week after initial training

A typical desk-side support plan makes a support trainer available for every 15 to 25 new users for a period of two or three days after initial training.

In addition, careful attention to templates, macros and other computer-assisted aids is critical to a successful migration. These aids need to be migrated or upgraded in connection with new systems, so a training plan needs to focus special attention on how these commonly relied-on tools must henceforth be used.

Pilot testing. Whatever blend of training tools and techniques a firm chooses, every aspect of the plan should be pilot tested. A carefully selected group of users, volunteers if possible, should participate in a pilot implementation—including preparation, training, rollout and supportÑas close as possible to the full implementation dates.

The implementation team should obtain complete feedback from the pilot users on their impressions and experiences: how well the system works and meets their needs (what fixes and configurations are needed); how the training and support went (what changes in curriculum, trainers, technology or schedules need to be made); and what policies and procedures are needed (for example, classification standards in a document management system, e-mail conventions or records-purging policies).

For a successful pilot, the implementation team must then promptly respond to pilot user-reported issues. The team also needs to be communicative and open about problems, and what can and cannot be modified or fixed. It may want to run a second, follow-up mini-pilot implementation, if appropriate, to test any reconfigured systems and modified training and rollout procedures.

Pilot implementations allow the team to correct configuration and conversion errors and to make improvements to rollout, training and support processes. At the same time, they allow representatives of the user community to feel—and be—involved in the migration process and to take ownership of the new systems. A successful pilot generates good "word of mouth" about the new systems that paves the way for a successful full implementation.

Find the Best Blend of Tools and Techniques

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to systems training and support. Each organization is different, and each system migration has its own peculiarities and demands.

In addition, busy professionals want to spend as little time as possible learning what they need to know to do their jobs—and they don’t want to spend time learning it until they need it. But while users want customized, just-in-time one-on-one training, budgetary constraints typically dictate the use of more standardized group training formats.

The best solution to these competing training and support demands is a blend of tools and techniques, ranging from generic third-party products to highly customized tools, from interactive online training to one-on-one sessions, and from formal classroom lectures to brown-bag meetings. The best specific blend must be designed to fit the particular organization, the systems being implemented and the real-world users’ needs.

Eric H. Steele ( is a principal consultant of Steele Scharbach Associates L.L.C.,a Chicago legal technology consulting firm that assists law departments and law firms with strategic technology planning and implementation. He formerly practiced law at Aaron, Aaron, Schimberg & Hess and Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal.

Thomas Scharbach ( is a principal consultant of Steele Scharbach Associates L.L.C. He was formerly Director of Information Systems Services for Kirkland & Ellis and a partner in the real estate practice area.


SIDEBAR: Training Tools Primer

Classroom Training

Half-day and full-day classes. Half-day and full-day courses in a classroom setting are the traditional methods of "basic training," designed to transfer knowledge quickly and efficiently to a group of users. These classes are typically used for introductory training for new employees and for systems migration training.

Mini-classes. Mini-classes are hour-long short courses on a particular, detailed topic (such as using tables of authorities or setting up a Notes bulletin board for a work group). Mini-classes focus on practical technology skills and are intended as supplemental, intermediate and advanced training. They are most effective when offered on a rotating, periodic basis so participants can sign up for training as and when a particular skill is needed. Most training companies offer half-day and full-day courses only, having found that moving personnel off-site for an hour of training is not efficient. A firm should consider mini-classes when they seem to be the "best fit" with particular training needs and the organizational culture.

Online classes. Full-length classes and mini-classes can also be delivered online—with live instruction and interactive Q&A sessions via teleconference, the Internet or an intranet. Online training can meet stringent logistical demands, although in many cases it is somewhat less effective than in-person classroom contact. The latter factor depends on organizational culture and individual experiences and preferences.

One-on-one training or "personal trainers." This method is intensive and best suited to resolving immediate, practical needs requiring an advanced skill level. One-on-one training is used sparingly in most law firms and law departments, supplementing other methods and online resources.

Follow-up training. Typically used in connection with intensive classroom training, this tool usually consists of a combination of (1) follow-up, desk-side one-on-one support in the days immediately following training related to a system migration; and (2) follow-up classroom training, in which sessions are scheduled within two weeks after initial training, to answer questions that users have developed in the interim.

Informal Seminars

Brown-bag seminars. Lunch-and-learn seminars are informal mini-classes, with a trainer leading focused discussions on a particular skill or solution. They are useful for all working groups, and for mixed groups, and can help to foster a teamwork approach to technology use.

Peer-to-peer seminars. These sessions are short (typically a half-hour) and are participant designed and led. They are, essentially, show-and-tell seminars focused on specific questions. ("Here is what I can do" or "Here is how I do this.")

Hands-on workshops. Short workshops focused on specific topics, critical tasks or subjects that prove hard for users to grasp can be effective. This is particularly true when they’re offered frequently and at convenient times during the period immediately following a rollout.

Take-Home Resources

Training videos and Web-based presentations. Both can provide solid "after hours" basic andintermediate skills training.

Workbooks. Whether in paper or electronic form, workbooks are good after-hours intermediate resources for participants who are most comfortable with books as a self-help training tool.

"Cheat sheets." One-page, double-sided reference cards, summarizing basic application commands or processes, can be powerful basic training supplements.

Computer-based training. This can be delivered in Web-based or CD-ROM format, combining video, walk-through demonstrations and on-screen exercises that both teach and help users practice. It is a beneficial resource for users who are comfortable with self-paced learning. For most, it remains a supplemental tool, not a replacement for live training.

FAQs. Frequently asked questions can effectively be addressed by topically organized documents available through the firm intranet.

Intranets and bulletin boards. The firm can post training materials and user discussions for "as needed" downloading and reference.

Other Tools

Application tutorials and help screens. Most software programs have tutorials, step-by-step wizards and context-sensitive help screens.

"Tip of the Day." A daily tip sent by e-mail each morning is helpful in ongoing learning.

Tip sheets. Tip sheets can be an effective "take home" supplement.

Best practices discussion groups. Bulletin board discussion groups have met with mixed results, usually because the response time is too slow for effective basic training. However, discussion groups that focus on "best practices" have been successful.

Newsletters. Also beneficial are monthly newsletters offering a schedule of training classes for the month ahead as well as tips, tricks and discussions.

Local mentors. Some users are quicker and more effective than others when it comes to grasping and explaining new technologies. These "super users" can be identified, encouraged to learn the new systems in depth, given time to assist others and rewarded for their mentoring. Super users understand local needs, culture and personalities and can deliver very effective first-line support.

—Eric H. Steele and Thomas Scharbach