In my previous post I outlined my opinion regarding the problem with the A/E industry. Based on the amount of feedback I received, it seems many of us in our industry have similar opinions. The problem centers around the need to use advanced design and modeling software, the complexity of these applications, the lack of adequate training resources and A/E management’s reluctance to integrate these solutions into their processes. This problem causes most A/E firms to lose up to $30,000 per employee each year. In this post, I will lay out a multi-faceted solution to this problem in the hopes of pointing a way forward.
Facet 1: More than Baby Steps
The software used by A/E firms is complex and nearly all users need to start at the beginning, learning the basics, understanding the fundamentals, getting our heads around the “picks and clicks” - the features - of the software itself. We need to learn to walk before we can run. Even those of us who’ve used a given application for a long time can always benefit from a refresher course on new features or on existing ones we seldom use. But where do we go from there? After we’ve got the basics mastered, we need to know more. We need to understand advanced topics. We need to know how to apply the software to our projects, to know how to integrate the applications into our workflows. Further, it's not just the CAD operators and designers that need information. As we discussed in the previous post, BIM and modeling applications can have a tremendous positive impact on the entire organization, assuming of course that staff understands these benefits. Therefore, your learning system must include resources for all users, not just the CAD operators, not just the designers, and not just the newbies.
We need basics and advanced lessons. We need courses for project managers on BIM/modeling as it relates to production efficiency. We need courses for business development managers and the marketing team on how to leverage these applications to win business. We need courses on how quality assurance and quality control can benefit from integrated use of the software. We need content for everyone from owners to interns. Not all team members need to know how to use the software but they should certainly know how the software is used.
Facet 2: Wall to Wall Coverage
One of the most important components of a solution is also the most obvious. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most elusive: in order to learn and use your software most efficiently, you need a learning system that covers all the products used at your firm. All the products. We no longer have the luxury (restrictions?) of using a single application to get a project out the door. We now have “suites” of applications which include products for drafting, surface modeling, structural analysis, hydraulic and hydrology simulations, mapping, carbon impact, visualization, rendering and animations, project and construction sequencing and so on. By way of example, the Infrastructure Design Suite from Autodesk includes no less than six separate applications and as many as seventeen, depending on the edition. Offerings from other vendors including Bentley and Trimble include a similar dizzying array of products. And this is just for civil engineering! While there are a lot of great tools here, there is also a lot to learn. When we look at multidiscipline firms and firms that do both public and private work, the number of applications on which A/E firms must keep their staffs educated doubles or triples. Add in the typical office products from Microsoft and the problem grows larger still.
And here in lies challenge. Our job is not to remember where to go for an answer. We should be focusing on our projects and other billable duties instead of hopping from one resource to another. We need a single learning resource that covers all the products used by our industry to complete a project, not a hodge-podge of training tools bolted together from a variety of vendors. A single solution provides a unified user experience, a lower learning curve and consistency among departments and or branch offices. A/E firms must make sure their true product portfolio is covered by the training solution.
Facet 3: A Needle in a Stack of Haystacks
At the risk of flogging a deceased equine, I’ll reiterate that modeling/BIM software is complex. Architectural and engineering design are also complex. Combined, modeling/BIM software and the duties of the design professions present us with a lot of information to keep track of. Assuming we have a learning platform which provides lessons for all the products your firm uses AND provides lessons for all those at your firm involved winning and delivering projects, how do you find what you need in that mountain of learning data?
After initial training is complete, learning must shift to a just-in-time, on-the-job resource. How do I resize a return air duct? How do I edit a depressed curb and gutter? What’s the quickest way to renumber our plan set? The answer to these questions is not, “Go ask a power user.” Nor should finding the answers to these types of questions require watching a 30 minute video just to see the 2 minutes of relevant information. The best system provides tools to narrow your search and immediately access the information you need. Information should be logically organized and readily available at your fingertips. If you can’t find it, you can’t use it. And if you can’t use it, by definition its useless.
Facet 4: Make it Your Own
I personally have spent a lot of time on both the teaching and the learning side of technical training. The varying skill levels of the instructors and the students in the class notwithstanding, most courses do a fairly good job of getting the general concepts across. With only a few poor exceptions, it’s fair to say that 80% of the courses’ content was relevant. While 80% may seem like a lot, that other 20% is probably the most critical piece… and its usually missing. A bridge that only goes 80% across a river is a bridge I’d rather not cross. The same is true for software training. Even the best courses are never going to meet 100% your firm’s specific needs. Do you use a customized template drawing to start your projects? Do you store your projects with a specific naming convention and file folder structure? Do the reviewing agencies to which you submit plans have varying submittal requirements? My guess is the answer to these and dozens of similar questions is Yes. So, just as your company and project requirements are unique, so should be your software learning.
Unfortunately, this is not an option with most systems. If your users don’t like the order in which the material is presented, they are forced to jump around from chapter to chapter, disrupting the learning process. What if you like a few chapters from one course and a few from another? What if the way your firm sizes detention basins differs from the method shown in the course material? When your firm specs RTUs or prefab joists, do you or your clients prefer a particular manufacturer? As you can see, there are hundreds, thousands, of unique ways in which your firm differs from other firms and maybe even from different offices in your own company. No matter how great they are, it's simply not possible for a training vendor to know your own business better than you and your staff do. You need a system that is as flexible and malleable as your team is, while at the same time delivers solid, proven best practices. You need the ability to keep the parts of stock content that work well and combine them with your own custom content.
Further, what’s needed is the confidence that the competitive advantage you gain from your “way of doing things” remains just that, your way and your advantage. To this end, a private platform where you can share your own company best practices among your employees is needed. A private site let’s you discuss your projects, share internal documents, establish and codify your workflows and ultimately leverage modeling and BIM applications to your advantage, all securely away from the prying eyes of your competitors. In a nutshell, you need a customizable system that lets your team create and share custom courses and curriculum and you need to be able to do this easily, consistently and privately.
Facet 5: Reassign the Gatekeeper
There is a common practice at A/E firms in which a few power users are sent to training and then are expected to come back and share what they’ve learned with the rest of the office. There are so many flaws with this concept it's hard to pick a starting point in listing them, but I’ll rattle off a few of the most relevant. (All these flaws are based on the assumption the course attended by the power users was of high quality and taught by a great instructor. This is a risky assumption, but I’ll make it for sake of moving the conversation forward.) First, as I discussed in previous posts, live training is little more than multi-day cram session. So whatever knowledge your power users are able to retain is certainly less than the total material presented in the course. Second, “power users” are not necessarily “power teachers”. While they themselves likely have a strong understanding of the training material, it is not always a certainty they can effectively impart this knowledge to others. Third, even if it is their full time job to answer technical questions and provide mentoring, they will not possibly be able to assist all your users whenever your users need it. And finally, your power users' talents and skills are wasted on teaching the basics or providing rudimentary support. Instead, reassign these power users to pushing the envelope on innovative ways the software can be used at your firm and then, using a system described in Facet 4, share this knowledge with the entire company. There are many others reasons the train-the-power-user approach fails, but I feel this short list is sufficient to make my point: an intermediary between your staff and the knowledge they need is an obstacle to true software and business efficiency.
To solve the problem with the A/E industry, your entire team needs unlimited, unmetered, direct access to the training content and learning resources they need to do their jobs. They should be able to learn at their pace on their time and or on schedules dictated by management. They should be able to track their progress with assessment tools and quizzes, hands on data sets and clear, concise learning lessons. They should also be able to earn PDH and CEUs for their efforts. Finally, management should have the ability to run comprehensive reports which provide full visibility into the learning efforts and progress of the entire organization.
The A/E industry has a problem and yet it's not insurmountable. By pulling together these 5 facets and applying them to your organization as a whole, you can plug the efficiency leak and send that $30,000 per user to your bottom line each year.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!