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April 2001
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Small & Home Office

Brown Bag Seminars: Short Bursts of Training

Too many small firms fail to provide staff with adequate training, so people get stuck in ruts.

By Storm Evans

Brown Bag Seminars: Short Bursts of Training TOO OFTEN, if small firms offer any training on technology at all, it's concentrated at the time a new software package is introduced.

Few firms provide ongoing training, so people are stuck doing things the way they learned in the initial classes.

As a result, much of the functionality of software goes unused. With children, we know that we must train, reinforce, and train again, over and over throughout their lives.

With training in the office, however, we think that one big burst is enough. It is not.

Six things to remember about learning:

1. You will never realize the full potential of your staff (and the software you have purchased) unless they are welltrained. Ongoing training is the only way to achieve that goal.

2. Classroom training for children is conducted in one hour chunks. That is not an accident. People learn better in small bites.

3. Adults want to take their training and put it to use immediately.

4. As you prepare a training outline, remember the advice given all newspaper reporters: "Tell the reader what you're going to tell them. Tell them. Then tell them what you told them."

5. As in any kind of training, reinforcement enforces learning.

6. Interactive training (where attendees help clarify points and ask questions throughout the session) is more successful than lectures.

One of the most effective training techniques is the"brown bag seminar." Spring for lunch, and train your staff in small groups, around a conference room table. These seminars can be developed by someone on your staff or can be developed by an outside consultant. But regardless of where you get the trainer, the sessions must be customized to your firm.

Here are some tips for success:

1. Use visual aids to make your points.

Augment your discussion with pictures to illustrate the skill you are teaching at each session (e.g., how to prepare a document to automatically table of authorities, how to use e-mail, or how to set up a spread sheet.) Hook the projector up to your network, so you are using actual firm exemplars.

2. Use real-life examples.

Follow a step-by-step demonstration, with "real life" examples of how the feature would be used at your firm.

Discuss the process. The steps alone do not always convey what is happening with the software.

Go through the process again using an example of an actual application from within your firm.

3.Prepare to "off topic."

Leave time for technology conversation beyond the topic of the day.

If the topics don't come from the attendees, the trainer should ask about topics covered earlier or potential topics for further training.

4. Set regular times.

To maximize value of "brown bag" seminars, make them regularly-scheduled events.

It helps if you always schedule them for the same time and place, so that they become part of the firm routine.

Pick a day of the month that is easily remembered -- such as the last Friday of each month, or every other Monday.

5. Pick obvious topics.

You'll get more cooperation if you start with topics that are obvious -- where people know the training will immediately help them do their work

6. Choose effective trainers.

Your trainer must know the software (and firm examples) well; yet be flexible. Trainees may pull the trainer off a script and want the seminar to flow with their thought processes. The best trainers will be confident and able to keep the session on topic but willing to deviate from agenda.

7.Beyond handouts.

Brown Bag Seminars: Short Bursts of Training Always have an agenda. The training outline and handout are only a portion of what you are trying to accomplish during the session. Distribute the handout at the end of the session. You want your attendees to pay attention to the trainer.

8. Ask for feedback, and listen to it.

Be sure to ask for feedback. And be sure to take suggestions for improvement to heart.

9. Reruns are popular.

Repeat topics in subsequent sessions if needed, where you review the content of the earlier session.

But also add new examples to build the attendees' skill level.

10.Add a little variety.

Occasionally offer a seminar with 30 quick tips in 30 minutes.

In that session, build in a little more time to address questions. Suggest to attendees in advance that this is a good session to bring any questions.

11. Reprise. Repeat. Reprise.

Put the contents of the session on your network in a place where people can find and print them later.

The information conveyed in these sessions remains valuable for months after the session.

12. Carrots, carrots, carrots.

Include an incentive for participation. What you offer may depend on how much you need to motivate your staff to attend.

In some firms, staff members are glad to give up their lunch hour in order to learn something new.

In others, you almost have to break bones to get people into the sessions.

If your staff seems reluctant, here are a few suggestions to whet their interest:

* Comp time if the seminar is held during a lunch hour.

* Overtime pay, if appropriate.

* Cash bonus. Try sealing small handouts in envelopes. Put a $20 in one envelope per session.

* Gift certificates. They can be silly and fun, such as $5 in Burger King "dollars," a day of free parking; a rapid transit pass.

Where to Start

Print the table of contents of Word or WordPerfect "Help" menu.

Pick a topic you find interesting but are not sure that your staff understands or uses effectively.

Brown Bag Seminars: Short Bursts of Training Figure out how to use the feature and find examples of ways to use it in your firm. Design the seminar and set the date.

Conduct the seminar and ask the attendees for other ideas.

Commit to on-going seminars and don't let outside pressure keep you from presenting them.

J. Harris Morgan, former chair of the Law Practice Management section of the American Bar Association, used to remind us to "Begin. The rest is easy."

Storm Evans is a law practice support consultant, based in Philadelphia.

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