The changing face of technical training

Mark J. Scacco, P.E.

Welcome to the first in a new series of articles that will examine how current and emerging technologies are impacting the business of civil engineering. During the course of the year, we’ll look at ways software and hardware technologies are leveraged to improve efficiencies, reduce costs, and increase profits. Along the way, I hope to engage you and get your feedback on how you and your organization are leveraging technology to your advantage.

This first topic in the series is one I have unique and significant experience with. I happen to own a CAD training and consulting firm and am seeing significant shifts in the desires and outcomes of new technical training methods. Changes in technical training are improving the ways engineers and designers learn, and these improvements can positively impact your bottom line.

The problem with typical technical training sessions is that they are one-time (one-off) events and, therefore, are not efficient in knowledge transfer or cost. A typical, three-day training session forces students to “cram,” trying to learn as much as possible in a limited amount of time. Ranges in attendee skill levels negatively impact the pace of the class itself, further degrading effectiveness of the training. After the event has ended, users must rely on memory, courseware, and their (often incomplete) notes as they attempt to apply what they have learned. Effective technical training must be an ongoing process, not a one-off event.

One-off training events are also not cost effective. Fees for technical training range widely between about $350 and $600 per day per person, depending on geography and subject matter. Include travel and lost productivity time and the total costs are between $800 and $1,050 per user per day for a one-off event! Faced with these costs and the inefficient knowledge transfer of a single event, the need for better technical training methods is apparent.

Most changes in technical training delivery are made possible by the high connection speeds of broadband Internet connections. Software and services such as GoToMeeting and Adobe Connect make it easy to share your computer screen and digital whiteboards; coordinate learning session schedules and enrollment; and deliver live voice and video over the Internet. Video services, such as YouTube, have led to proprietary streaming video training services. Document sharing services, such as and, let content creators distribute digital training manuals direct to users. Broadband penetration, software, and service developments now bring technical training directly into the office, eliminate inefficiencies, add little to no overhead, and do it for surprisingly low costs. Following are some of the options.

Web seminars, or webinars, are short seminars, usually an hour long, presented over the Internet. Attendees listen to a lecture and interaction with the presenter is limited or not possible. Courseware or hands-on exercises are usually not used. These are often free sources of information.

Online live training
Online live training, uses the technologies discussed above to deliver full-length training sessions over the Internet. Classes are structured like a typical classroom event, with instruction followed by hands-on exercises. These sessions work best if the attendees have two computer screens, one to watch the presentation and the other to work through the hands-on exercises. In this way, the typical classroom setup is emulated, with the instructor’s overhead screen replaced by the attendees’ second displays. Instructor/student interaction occurs via typed instant messaging chat within the training session; via telephone conference call; or by voice over Internet protocol (VOIP), which uses the computer speakers and microphone; or a combination of these.

Online live training is commonly delivered in one of two ways. In the first, attendees use the provider’s hardware and software by remotely connecting to computers at a remote facility. The advantage of this method is that users do not need to own the software on which they are training and the remote workstations are preconfigured for the class. The downside is users may notice significant lags over the Internet when training on applications that are processor intensive (like CAD). Additionally, the fees for these sessions are usually the same as for attending live in the classroom.

In the second method, attendees join an online session, but use their own software. The advantage is that since the applications and workstations are the same computers that the attendees use every day, they are learning in a “real” work environment. Also, since they are using their own software, costs are significantly lower than the first option. The disadvantage is that the user must have the application installed on his or her workstation.

Video training
Video training makes use of prerecorded classes to deliver the lessons. The length of the material can range from very short (less than 5 minutes) to multi-day courses. True video training emulates live or online training in that it combines lecture and hands-on exercises and uses a training manual and data sets. Often derided as less effective than instructor-led training, video training offers several advantages compared with live training. Users have the ability to learn on their schedule, including outside normal business hours; they can pause, rewind, and otherwise navigate the videos; in a group setting (such as a corporate training lab), users can openly discuss the topics without worry of disrupting a class; the content is often searchable; and the videos can be viewed repeatedly, either in their entirety or particular sections.

Video training is commonly delivered in one of two ways: Streaming over the Internet or self-host on an internal server. Streaming lets users access the content from any Internet-connected computer, minimizes internal IT costs, allows easy updates of material from the vendor, and often provides tools for tracking views and usage. Self-hosted videos keep all activity behind the corporate firewall, eliminating the need for user Internet access.

Remote mentoring
Bringing a qualified consultant into your office to provide one-to-one or one-to-few “over the shoulder” training allows users to get custom assistance with their learning issues. Unfortunately, it is expensive and inefficient. But by using remote mentoring, trainees can get the same help and knowledge transfer without the high fees and inefficiencies. In remote mentoring, users log in to a private online session hosted by the consultant. Users share their screens (and optionally mouse and keyboard control) with the consultant. Two-way voice communication (via telephone or VOIP) allows for discussion and resolution of a problem. Other users in the office can be logged into a session to learn from their peers’ problems and then take turns sharing their screens and getting problems resolved.

The methods discussed here can be combined in various ways to deliver a blended learning experience. For example, users might take video training followed by a few hours of scheduled live mentoring to ask questions and get clarification on topics. Live online training might be supplemented by video recordings of the classes so that the learning can continue after the live session has ended. A quality consultant can provide options that work best for your organization.

Does it work?
By way of example, last year my firm, Engineered Efficiency, Inc., began offering AutoCAD Civil 3D product training using the methods discussed in this article. Since then, more than 850 unique users have logged 3,400 full-length training video views and attended more than 150 full-day, live-proctored learning sessions. Clearly, end users are looking for, and finding, alternate ways of receiving technical training.

Mike Boex, P.E., associate with Bonestroo, Inc., a full-service engineering, planning, and environmental science firm, sees exceptional value for his 100-plus CAD users. “For us, the biggest benefit is the just-in-time nature of the training. Because we can take classes on our schedule, right before a real project starts, our users’ retention is much higher. The quality of the training is as good or better than any live training we’ve had at a much lower cost.”

Terry Laird, manager of information systems with Landplan Engineering, Pa., also appreciates the convenience and value. “In this economy, there is no way we could take users out of production for a two- or three-day class. Having instant access to specific topics right at the users’ desktops is unbeatable and blows away live training.”

What about you? Is your staff using any of the methods discussed here or other alternative training tools? Please e-mail me with your feedback.

Mark J. Scacco, P.E., is the president and founder of Engineered Efficiency, Inc., a nationwide BIM and CAD training and consulting firm. He appreciates your feedback at

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