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Six must-ask questions to help you get the most out of your IT training.

This year, American corporations are projected to spend almost $11 billion on IT training. According to a recent study done by Coplan & Co., corporations spend an average of $7-11,000 on IT training per IT employee, requiring 7-17 days of training. This includes everything from learning to program in C++, .NET, or Java to picking up skills in Web development and system administration.

If you’re responsible for an IT budget, how do you know your time and money will be well-spent? Companies now have more training options to choose from than ever before–distance learning, e-learning, blended learning, hands-on classroom training. How do you decide which training company to choose? Regardless of their methodology, you can start by asking your potential trainers these six questions:

1. “Who are your instructors?”

Training companies come in all shapes and sizes, from single-office consultants to large, multi-campus corporations. Often instructors are hired on an as-needed basis to keep overhead low–some training companies even schedule classes before they have instructors to teach the subject. That’s why it’s important to find out how your potential trainer qualifies, certifies, and hires their instructors.

Do they have an existing pool of qualified, experienced instructors from which they draw as needed, or do they have to search to fill each instructor position as it comes up? There’s no shortage of stories about instructors hired just days, or even hours, before a class is scheduled to begin. If you’re spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on highly technical training this is a good way to waste money.

To ensure you get the best instructor for your money, evaluate the person who will be doing the training. If possible, have someone technically proficient in your company determine if the trainer has the proper skills, knowledge, and ability to teach the subject. Don’t be afraid to ask for a money-back or make-good guarantee. Avoid contracting with anyone unwilling to provide some form of satisfaction guarantee.

2. “How much hands-on practice is provided?”

True competence can be achieved in highly technical training only through scenario-based, hands-on exercises. The only way to assure competency is for the training provider to analyze necessary tasks and have students actually perform them during the training. Well-designed, hands-on practice exercises during training serve to increase the student’s real level of experience. A good technical IT training program actually minimizes the amount of time in lecture and maximizes the amount of time spent practicing skills with realistic, well-structured, hands-on exercises.

Many self-styled “bootcamp” programs that offer accelerated time-to-completion claim to include a substantial hands-on component, but it can turn out to be as little as a half-hour per day. If there’s no guarantee of satisfaction, be very wary of such accelerated programs. Horror stories abound and can be easily researched on the Internet; check out your intended provider to see if they talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.

For distance education, blended learning, and e-learning classes, an important question is how the training provider will handle lab exercises and how hands-on practice will be facilitated. Studies have shown that the effectiveness of training in technical topics is almost entirely dependent on the presence of scenario-based, hands-on exercises, often just not feasible with technology-based course delivery.

3. “Where does the courseware come from?”

Here’s a question most managers fail to ask, yet it’s perhaps the most important. In fact, courseware origin is probably the best-kept secret of the technical training industry. Many training companies simply buy or lease third-party course materials, which they neither vet nor work to improve. Often this material is substandard or just out of date.

The hands-on exercises, if they exist at all, often border on trivial because the third party provider cannot know what the end-user’s specific hardware and software environment will be utilized by the various consumers of its product. In addition, the courseware and labs cannot be easily focused to fit a specific course environment. If course materials are lacking in these ways, your training experience is going to be substandard regardless of how good the instructor is.

If a company owns its own materials, it means that the hands onhands-on exercises can be made more robust, meaningful, and thorough and focused to the precise training objectives of each class. Also,, the course can be regularly improved in response to direct and timely customer feedback, and the course can be focused to the precise training objectives of each class.

4. “Do you train for certification or competency?”

Many training providers focus on certifying their students, particularly providers of “boot camps.” But training for certification often involves little more than cramming for an exam, leading to a piece of paper saying the student is “certified” in that particular technology. Training for competency is an entirely different matter and involves task-oriented hands-on lab exercises, live instructor/student interaction, and plenty of practice.

Certification does not indicate anything beyond the fact that a student passed a test, while development of competency enables a student to be immediately productive back in the workplace, confident in his or her ability to actually use the skills learned.

Start by looking at the course description–does it focus on product features or does it describe the actual tasks students will be able to perform after taking the course? If you can’t create a list from the course description of tasks you’ll be able to perform, then the training is probably not task-oriented. If the stated goal of the training is to help students achieve certification by passing a test, then the program is test-oriented and is not designed to impart skills necessary to perform certain tasks.

Vendor-provided “official curriculums” are often product-oriented and/or certification-oriented, which means they do not contain valuable information about competing technologies and tend to focus on product features rather than the problems those features are intended to solve.

5. “How big are your classes?”

While e-learning and other self-directed training formats can be successful for many topics of short duration, a live classroom setting is best for complex technical training. Social interaction drives retention rates up to double the level of ordinary self-study approaches. Because of the importance of instructor facilitation, the quality of live, instructor-led training is directly affected by the size of the class.

For a truly meaningful experience, students need to be able to get the attention and assistance of the instructor to address their particular problems. It is of little help to have an expert providing assistance if students can’t get his or her attention to answer a question, provide recommendations, or discuss their work.

6. “How can I control cost while maintaining convenience?”

It’s easy to be lured by “low cost” training offers, but they often come at a sacrifice of quality, true convenience, and return-on-investment. One obvious factor is the tuition rate. That old saw “you get what you pay for” holds as true for training as it does for most other things. Low-ball training bidders may be cutting costs by buying or leasing inferior courseware and hiring sub-par instructors. If there are no success guarantees, the risk of failure may not be worth the savings on tuition. This is particularly true of e-learning programs.

If you’re considering an e-learning program, find out how the potential provider structures the programs and mandates specific training times so that the “convenience” of self-directed study doesn’t result in students postponing completion or not completing at all. Since the investment in e-learning delivery platforms is often substantial, check diligently to see if claims of success at other locations are real or just marketing puffery.

To keep travel costs under control find live, instructor-led classes that are available locally. Also check on cancellation or change-of-venue policies.

By asking these six questions; performing a little due diligence to find the right training provider for your company, budget, and subject–and allowing enough time to do it all without the pressure of approaching deadlines–you’ll be able to rest assured that your IT training budget is well spent.

Roland Van Liew is president of Hands On Technology Transfer Inc., a corporate IT training provider.

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