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Training 2.0: Turn traditional learning on its head

Training 2.0: Turn traditional learning on its head

When I’m not writing a monthly column for readers of Nation’s Restaurant News and , I have a day job designing leadership, sales-building and service-energizing training programs for managers and crew at foodservice and retail chains worldwide. Many companies and customers are curious how social-media sites will affect how foodservice training programs will be designed and delivered to Gen Next.

The short answer is: a lot.

So let’s consider the possibilities by first looking at the past and then assessing a possible future in which trainees teach, trainers learn and continuous improvement is achieved during the course, not after it. Welcome to the Brave New Classroom.

Since the first days of Gutenberg’s press, information and media—books, training manuals, videos—have been exclusively linear and hierarchal. Content and instruction is transferred from creator, the author or teacher, to consumer, in this case the reader or student. The student may have had valuable experience or insight to add to the subject but limited or no options to actually contribute to or improve upon the original context for the next wave of learners. The first iteration of the Web, so-called “version 1.0” spanning 1995 to 2003, was also a one-way format; massive amounts of content were posted for anyone wishing to consume it, but feedback, discussion or collaboration with the creator or source material was nil. Today’s Internet, or Web 2.0, has reversed five centuries of information delivery.

The Web has become a conversation, where creators and consumers can easily interact, discuss, share and learn together in real time. Consider Wikipedia. The content of this online encyclopedia is routinely designed and refined by legions of contributors who are either experts in or students of the subject matter. This collaborative dialogue spurs both deeper insight and better content. Occasional errors are swiftly corrected by next-generation collaborators. I think that maybe that’s where foodservice training is headed: a place where all learning is collaborative; a place where communication a dialogue, not a monologue; a place where you learn what you need and simultaneously share what you know.

For my generation, training largely mirrored our experiences with school: We were expected to patiently consume it, not contribute to it. The content was asynchronous and chronological, designed by foodservice operators, not skilled instructors, and the foodservice trainer stuck to the script. We sucked it up and took it, first in school and then at work, despite the fact that on-the-job realities often exposed wholesale gaps or outright lies in the training. This caused us to belittle training—“those who know, do; those who don’t know, teach”—and see it as something to “get through” on your way to the real world. This methodically dull and deadly process of “Tell-Show-Do-Review” may have been tolerated by a previous generation, but it is woefully out-of-sync and dangerous for the Nintendo Generation employee.

Our young team members today have quite different expectations. They see no reason why they shouldn’t be both consumers and creators of their learning experience. The way they use the Web revolves mostly around content they and their friends create, and within Web frameworks that facilitate creativity and connection. They prolifically build profile pages, upload photos and videos, and effortlessly interact with each other and “content creators” through active commenting systems. In fact, 88 percent of young adults between 17 and 21 are “active” users of sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. So if we truly want to engage and involve our Gen Nexters with our training, shouldn’t we consider adapting their social media behavior to the adult classroom instead of expecting them to adapt to our training style? Unlike Baby Boomers and Gen X, the iPod generation’s Internet experience is not separate from its work or social experience; it drives their entire worldview. Since their Internet is a conversation, maybe their learning experience should be, too. What’s next is now, but what’s past is present.

Fifteen years ago, pre-Internet as we know it, I accidentally learned that the best way to train servers was to have them train me. It was standard procedure then to require waitstaff at our restaurants to memorize steps of service and selling. Problem was, service wasn’t improving and sales weren’t increasing, but the lists got memorized. It was then I had the epiphany: Creating a “10 Steps of Service” list created an illusion of applied procedural uniformity to a process. But the truth is that service-giving and menu merchandising are complex experiential acts, not sequential ones. Getting customer interaction “right” requires experience, assessment, customization and, yes, collaboration.

So one fateful day we ditched our steps-of-service flip charts, exchanged “classroom-style” seating for round tables and divided the waitstaff into random groups of five. I told them our restaurants had two daily goals: Every guest leaves happy and every shift is profitable. Then I gave them a total of 11 minutes to identify all the ways we could please guests and either save money or make money each shift. They attacked the assignment with relish. The collaborative lists they created were more effective than our “steps,” and since valuable experience was exchanged at each table through discussion, it was highly prized insight.

I also learned that day that people never argue with their own data; our servers actually used what they taught each other. Service and sales markedly improved. I had taught them how to think, and they showed me what to do.

Now back to Web 2.0. As of this writing, Facebook and Twitter are the current media darlings, and while these names may pass as the sites du jour—remember MySpace and Friendster?—the popularity of social media will not. How do we best adapt and integrate the customizable and collaborative nature of social media into our future training programs? Your team members aren’t waiting for you to decide. Witness all the work-specific Facebook pages out there by bartenders, cooks, servers and managers dedicated solely to promoting their work-life skills, playlists, blogs, friends and schedules. Their initiative promotes themselves and their companies and teaches both marketing and training departments a lesson in learning.

Imagine an online training program that is a daily process, not an event, one that is constantly updated in real time by the experience of both trainees and trainers, as well as executives, managers and franchisees. The program enables discussion on, interaction with and customization of the content à la social-media sites. It combines a funky crew version of the company website integrated with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. It features graphic-driven info nuggets on company culture, service, selling and team that is easily accessed, personalized and updated via their cell phones or computers. The process features constant activity and requires regular real-time feedback and interaction with other learners via discussion boards or Twitter. The “teacher” is no longer the trainer; the process and students are.

It’s here now. Our company just launched a beta version of this course for Gen Y crew members at a large chain. Time will tell if we’re on the right track, but the initial results are most encouraging.

The notion of allowing the student to assume the burden of learning while contributing to, or possibly being critical of, your company’s training in real time may sound foreign or even threatening now. But I’m certain this is not something our industry will grow out of, but rather something it will grow into. And, yes, it may be “faddish,” and, yes, there are many reasons why it may not succeed. But I’m reminded of the words of Pappy Sullivan who said, “You gotta either lead, follow or get the hell out the way.” What’s next is now.

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