Do You Support Eunuchs?

Members of the press waited along with company executives and industry dignitaries for the long-anticipated unveiling of the WANG Professional Computer. The newest member of the WANG Laboratories’ computer family was a “blazing fast” MS-DOS machine boasting a 16 bit processor and up to 640 kilobytes of memory – “the most memory”, I recall Bill Gates saying – “that would ever be needed”. The date was April 5th, 1983.

The official unveiling of the WANG PC had gone well and the assembled crowd “oohed” and “aahed” when the device itself first appeared. The unit they were viewing, they were told, had a full 10 megabytes of disk space but the crowd went wild when it was announced that a 20 megabyte drive – twice the size of what they were viewing – was coming, and soon!

During the Q&A that followed, a member of the press asked one of the marketing VPs “Does WANG support Unix?” The VP covered the microphone for a few brief moments of panicked collaboration with others on the stage after which he responded to the query with what seemed a rather unusual answer: “WANG has no policy on eunuchs, specifically, but we are an equal opportunity employer.” I am guessing that the VP was as puzzled by the question as the audience was by the answer. It is clear now that the VP was simply not up-to-speed on any operating system besides the Microsoft MS-DOS O/S that his computer supported, and certainly did not know about Unix. What is not evident is if that VP ever realized his mistake. I, for one, never told him.


Ignorant or Stupid?

How to pronounce the new term? Is it pronounced IZ-DEN” or “I-S-D-N”, “A-T-M”, or “atom”, “ipsec” or “I-P-sec”? How does that new technology work, really? Does wireless backhaul require a wireless connection? Are Carrier Ethernet and Metro Ethernet the same thing? How about SONET and SDH? How about SONET and WDM? “What is Unix” rather than “Who are Eunuchs?” You can’t always guess right and, unless everyone else is a clueless neophyte, you can’t fake it either. Only training can help you to truly understand and to truly put your newly gained knowledge to work.

The mistake at WANG was avoidable. It was one of those common mistakes that fits well into the category of “ignorant” – rather than “stupid” – and a mistake which just a bit more familiarity with the subject matter would have helped the VP avoid. How many times does this happen as one moves into a new area? The answer is “a lot more than you might realize”. But, how can one avoid it? It is clear that training is mandatory. The type of training preferably comes from an experienced practitioner in the subject area rather than from a traditional trainer who is just learning the material him or herself. Yes, this is an area where reading will help but it is not the same thing as a live, interactive, education session or, as I am increasingly describing it, real “knowledge transfer”.


Knowledge Transfer on a Budget

Information is abundant, thanks to the Internet and the proliferation of Wikis, blogs and other web resources. Knowledge is information that has been processed through the mind of the expert and rendered useful through the filter of their experience. Knowledge is ready to put to use and with less risk than applying information in its raw form. It is knowledge that we truly need and knowledge is expensive, but no one can risk the consequences of lack of knowledge. The question is, in a time of budget crisis, when training programs are the first to feel the financial scalpel, how does one obtain knowledge most cost effectively?

Weighing, for the moment, the value of the phrase “you get what you pay for” first consider any training that may have come along with services or products that you have purchased but have not yet taken advantage of. Didn’t that new switch have a two day training course? Do your vendors give you training credits as you purchase new products or upgrades? Are online seminars available or can you ask the vendor to let their expert address your technicians and engineers for a few hours? Of course, “you get what you pay for” brings to mind another phrase: “buyer beware”. That very same vendor does have other objectives.

So, what about paid training, consultation and collaboration? There are a few guidelines in this area that can provide some guidance and help you get the most for your training investment.

Internal Experts. Companies have internal experts – patent holders, inventors and experts in their fields – who are the best source of knowledge but internal experts come with a price. In some cases the value of the experts’ time to the company is so high that training will not yield the same return on investment as the next big breakthrough, patent or discovery. And, more often than not, the internal expert is not a good knowledge transfer agent and lacks the skills to share their knowledge effectively. Often an outside trainer, or knowledge transfer agent, is needed.

Venue/Format. The Web is the least expensive venue for knowledge transfer and eliminates the need for either trainer or trainee to travel. What is lost is the human interaction of being in person, in the same place in real time. Each situation is different, though, and web-based training is gaining in popularity, especially the live, interactive variety. The tools are getting better and participants are getting better at using those tools. In-person traditional training, especially when it takes advantage of exercises and labs, is the best and the best of the best is the “off site” where training is conducted away from the office to reduce interruptions. The main consideration, beyond saving a few dollars on the meeting room, is getting the most value from the investment of time of the participants. For instance, the cost for a class participant whose annual cost averages US$100,000 with salary and overheads is $450 per day which exceeds the cost per day for most training programs, even on site.

Do Your Homework. In training, as in all other areas, no two companies are identical and, in fact, the company that did your last training might not be the one to do your next training. Qualify and re-qualify your knowledge sources and be certain you are getting the best available company for the job. Interview the expert who will be doing the training, check their credentials, articles, books and other differentiators and be certain they are aligned with the direction of your organization. Training should improve skills and focus energy, not be a distraction from the core business.

Customization. Customization need not be expensive and, in the current economic environment, many trainers and training organizations who have never before considered customization may be enticed into doing customization for a modest fee or even free of charge in order to get your business. The best situation, however, is to work with a training group that has always customized training content to the audience as they are set up to customize and know what they are doing. Review the outline, ask questions and be certain of the value of the material to your audience. Some ways to cut costs while customizing training are to consider pre-reading or web-based training to cut down the length of training. Also consider having experts attend days two and three of a three day training program while only the beginners attend day one. There are many different ways that training can be customized. The key is to take the time to customize, to not accept a one-size-fits-all off the shelf course that will provide less return on investment than one that has been custom-fitted to your specific training needs.

Collaboration. If your chosen training organization is not collaborative, interactive, responsive and helpful, then maybe it is time to choose a new one. Even if they have been easy to work with in the past and have been highly collaborative and aren’t now maybe they, too, have been hit by the budget crunch. The people who will provide knowledge to you must be collaborative and be engaged in the process. Just selling you an “off the shelf” program is very unlikely to be your best option.

Assessment / Screening. Years back training almost never occurred without a pre-test to qualify a person for participation, testing during training and a post-test to assess the success of the program. These days, mainly for reasons of money and time budget, assessments are either skipped entirely or done in a very cursory way. With the increased scrutiny on expenditures, and considering the big investment training can represent, formal assessment to screen participants as well as to assess their knowledge increase as a result of training is just good business.

Return on Investment. An RoI is required everywhere else, why not in the area of knowledge transfer? If you really think about it, knowledge is a raw material that is needed by virtually every organization to assure success and the impact of applying knowledge can be measured. Apply an RoI to training just as to any other area.

Eunuchs or Unix?

So, what will it be, Unix or eunuchs? You should wish that it were this simple. You can see and hear eunuchs and know something is wrong but what about the small errors, misunderstandings and lack of knowledge that you don’t see? What about those little problems that find their way into the design and delivery or your product or service? What about the errors that cause missed deadlines, returns or a low market evaluation of your product or services. Start now to develop a knowledge transfer program that brings the most value to your organization.

Editor’s Note: Jim Cavanagh, having worked 30+ years in telecom (while teaching hundreds of classes and publishing half a dozen books), is a knowledge transfer agent par excellence, his areas of expertise being everything IP and optical networking. And, yes, Eogogics courses have always been customized and taught by passionate subject matter experts such as Jim rather than run-of-the-mill trainers. Jim is also the teacher featured in our Now@Web(TM) courses on NextGen, MPLS, and IPTV.