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Training Coordinator Illustrates Ways Focus Groups Can Help (Interview)

Karen Deering has over 16 years of experience in the training and development industry as an instructional designer, professional trainer, group facilitator, and performance improvement consultant.

Currently, she is employed at the University of Illinois as a Training and Communication Coordinator and at Eastern Illinois University as Adjunct Faculty in the Office of Academic and Professional Development within the School of Continuing Education. She can be contacted via LinkedIn.

Q. How did you begin your career in the training world?

I fell into it! I began my career in the training world in January of 1996. At that time, I was working in the Information Technology (IT) department within the Illinois Secretary of State’s (SOS) Office and joined IT as their Education and Training Coordinator. My primary role was to coordinate the training for the employees of the SOS.

I created the training schedule, coordinated resources (8 instructors, rooms, labs, etc.), managed attendees, distributed the schedule to the liaisons, and tracked progress.

For example, if the SOS upgraded the OS, all employees were required to go through Windows and software training before they were given a sign-on id. There was approximately 4,000 employees within the SOS and I coordinated their training with the install schedule put-together by the Systems group. Little did I know, I ended up being one of those instructors.

When I joined IT and their training team, I had no idea I was going to be one of the instructors. I literally fell into the role and developed a passion for training and educating others!

Q. Where do you currently work?

Currently I work for the 1.) University of Illinois as a Training and Communication Coordinator and 2.) Eastern Illinois University as Adjunct Faculty.

Q. Could you tell me more about how you facilitate focus groups?

THE BIG PICTURE Currently, I am working on a project team for the implementation of a contract management system, which will be used University-wide. As part of the change management initiative within the project, we identified key stakeholders across the University (different colleges and units) and invited them to serve as a Campus Sponsorship Team members.

The life of this project will be approximately 12 months, so over the next year, we will have monthly Campus Sponsorship Team meetings scheduled on each of the main campuses (UIC, UIS, and UIUC) and invite those members. Those meetings will consist of updates, timelines, demos, and system testing (depending on the projected project timeline).

The first several meetings, I would start with introductions, talk about the agenda, and then discuss outstanding issues from the previous month. The project team meets once a week and from those meetings, we would identify pieces of information we would need from those Campus Sponsorship Team (CST) members (e.g., approval process, roles).

After discussion outstanding issues, I then start the conversation on how to get the information the project team needs from the CST. For example, one meeting we had a discussion around their approval process (Dean, Department Head, Director). I would facilitate that conversation while keeping them on track (as far as time and topic) and take notes.

Last month (March 2011), the project team believed the system was ready to demo to the CST. So during our meeting, we talked about 1) workflow, 2) I provided a high-level overview of the system functional, and 3) we let them go into the system and “play.”

This month (April 2011), we are testing the system and have several CST members here.

Q. When you hold a focus group, what are you key drivers? What answers do you hope to find?

Oh! That’s an easy one to answer! Key drivers = stakeholder buy-in!

We want our stakeholders to feel and believe they are part of the process of implementing a new system. Before it gets to the stakeholders, we have a Steering Team who works with the Project Team to get approval for (and the purchase of) the system. The two teams work together to implementation. We bring in key stakeholders across campus to make sure the system will meet their need and for them to buy-in to the change –> change management.

We “think” we know what the campus units want but several years ago a system was implemented University-wide and it was a nightmare! I think that was about 7 years ago and people are still grumbling about the approach to implementation, training, and communication. So now we are very careful to avoid that same type of nightmare by bringing the stakeholders (e.g., business managers, academic officers, directors, end-users) into the process early-on.

During the Focus Groups, we primarily look for answers that will help “design” the system to meet their need. Or at least (I hate to say this) make them think/feel we are seeking their input on the design of the system. Helps them to be “part of the process.”

For example, last month we needed to know their contracting approval process. Currently, the process for approval on University contracts is different and because we purchases a certain number of license with the system, we needed to know their 1) process for approval, 2) how many people are involved in that process, and 3) who those people are.

That will help us determine the number of additional licenses we need and help us determine if we need to provide them support if their process is required to change (in the event we cannot purchase additional licenses). That’s one example of the types of answers we hope to find.

Q. What made the old system such as “nightmare”? What can you do to avoid “nightmare” situations?

It’s not an old system – a different system than I’ve been talking about – but not an old system. Several years ago, the University hired a ton of people to get a “records” system up and running – on time and on budget. And they did just that! I wasn’t here at that time, but I hear about ALL THE TIME! “Oh…remember what happened when we implemented XXX?!”

Long story short, people came in on a Monday morning to a new system – or at least that’s their perception. From their perception, they saw their employer pay an enormous amount of money for a system they didn’t know anything about, weren’t included in the process, forced to use, blah, blah, blah, etc. But – that’s their perception and that’s why “change management” was created!

The system is still in place today and people are still using it, they just grumble about that whole process.

To avoid similar situations, we (OBFS) create Focus Groups, Advisory Teams, and Campus Sponsorship Teams to make sure they are all part of the process and are being heard. We communicate, communicate, and communicate and then we train, train, and train, and then we communicate and then we train!

Q. What do you find most rewarding about training?

The most rewarding? Mmm…good question. Probably THE most rewarding is when someone learns something new because of something I’ve done. Whether that’s because of how I’ve identified a need, designed WBT, or facilitated the transference new knowledge. If they learn something, that’s what is rewarding to me!

What else is rewarding is when a customer thinks they have a need and I help them identify the real need, design and develop a training solution, implement the training solution, and evaluate the effectiveness (yes, the ADDIE model) if the need is met through my intervention – that’s what makes me tick – my passion – my reward!

Q. Were there any last tidbits of advice you would like to offer to past or present trainers?

Tidbits of advice? Keep up-to-date with trends and issues, stay creative, and be flexible!

Q. What resources would you recommend to our readers?





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