Training versus Education and its Impact on Success

I was talking with a senior engineer the other day who had recently attended some vendor provided courses for their DDI appliances. When I asked him about his experience with them, he said that he was very impressed not only with the level of detail that they went into about the product, but more so with the depth of coverage for the DNS, DHCP, and IP address management domains that the appliances provided capabilities in. This is pretty high praise from an engineer that has worked with DDI solutions from a number of leading vendors for a good portion of his career and is also one of a fairly exclusive group of DNS practitioners that is certified on ISC BIND. I can say from personal experience that not all interactions with product vendor’s enablement are so positive. It got me thinking about what we should expect from our vendors with respect to enablement, particularly as it pertains to knowledge transfer and courses.

More than just the tool

Anyone who knows me will be aware that one of my mantras is “Good tools do not equal successful implementations”. Utilizing a tool to address a capability requirement in an organization requires more than just installing the tool and turning it on. There are a host of other activities needed to address the people and process side of the equation, not the least of which is knowledge transfer to the individuals that will administer and use the tools.

While almost all vendors provide some enablement mechanism, the quality of these offerings can vary wildly. Unfortunately, for knowledge transfer, vendors sometimes take a “we’ll tell you about how to use the tool; but let us worry about the why” approach. Basically, this tool does something, this is how you use it, no need to worry about why you would want to do the thing it does though.

From a knowledge transfer point of view, this manifests as training that is very heavy on making sure that every item on every menu is seen, and possibly even used in a lab situation, but is notably light on the coverage for why you may want to use the tool in any given situation or any information pertaining to general knowledge about the domain not specific to the tool. Not to be too flippant, but it is a bit like selling someone a back hoe and showing them how to dig a hole without discussing why they may want to dig a hole, whether the hole created is safe or not, or even if it may make more sense to use a hand shovel instead of the back hoe if the hole only needs to be 6 inches deep and a foot across. 

The reality is that for an organization to get the most out of their investment in a tool, the users need to understand not just what it can do but also why and when you would want to use it in the context of the domain they are working in. Blindly using a tool to do things in a system without understanding the system itself is, at best, likely missing out on efficiencies and, at worst, can produce material damage to the system that the tool is intended to support. 

Training vs Education

At this point I’d like to quickly discuss what I think is an important distinction; that between Training and Education. Training, as a knowledge transfer device, is very focused on the features and the mechanics of the use of a tool. Education, on the other hand, has a broader and more ambitious mandate. In an education paradigm for knowledge transfer, emphasis is on ensuring that the students gain not just information about a tool but also an understanding of the context in which the tool will be used.

Some folks may argue that if you are using a tool then you should already have an understanding of the domain that tool is used in. While this may be an accurate statement in a perfect world, in the real world it is rare that all users have a consistent level of understanding. Even for those that do have a good grounding in a domain, it is still likely that a discussion of the background and underlying concepts will provide some additional information to them. This can be particularly useful with regards to understanding the reasons for the existence of the problems that the tool subsequently provides solutions for.  

A simple example

Consider the example of configuring secure updates for a DNS appliance. Training may provide you with the menu items to choose and check boxes to tick to enable secure updates. It does not provide insight into the need to generate TSIG keys (or what TSIG keys even are) or how the keys are used to ensure the integrity of the updates being done. For that matter, it does not inform the students as to what secure updates are, the reasons that they are required, or why there was need to even have the tool that they are being trained on involved in the process. It simply gives them a rote method for completing a particular task.

An educational approach would ensure that the users were informed of these aspects and any others that could aid the user in understanding the processes that the tool participates in. For instance, perhaps an overview of the security concerns associated with the DNS protocol would be in order. This additional content can provide insight into why the tool does things the way that it does, provides users with a better sense of how to use the tool most effectively in the operational milieu, and understanding of how the tool can complement or be complemented by other tools in the larger ecosystem. In the end, this makes for users that can be more efficient and thoughtful in action, effective in communication, and engaged in their use of the tool.

Final words…

I think that when you are evaluating tools to address capability needs in your environment, you owe it to yourself to consider whether the vendors on your short list are providing effective enablement with their product – including education rather than just training. Having access to and utilizing good educational services can pay out much more than it costs and your chances of a successful tool implementation goes up significantly.

By the way, for those of you that are wondering, the senior engineer I was talking with was Empowered’s own Stefan Carcoana and the training he was referring to was Infoblox training for their DDI offerings. Keep up the good work Infoblox!