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Is Training the Answer? Not always, says Kelly Kirkland

KellyKirkland-webThe green building industry is slowly coming to realize that the most efficiently designed buildings in the world won’t operate at peak efficiency without well-trained building operators, managers and occupants. With technology evolving and people turning over, ongoing training is generally required to achieve peak efficiency and comfort.

But when faced with a building performance or comfort problem, throwing a training at it mindlessly could end up as money wasted. Experienced trainers can crank out PowerPoint slides on any topic at a moments notice to be delivered to warm bodies in a dark room. A friend, who is the training manager at a large company, refers to this as the “magical training factory.” But will anything this factory spits out result in real learning, or provide a solution to the problem?

Here are a few real examples of green building problems that may or may not have a training solution:

The Scene: A small, remote building that operates 24 hours a day to serve military personnel. Individual staff members rotate through this location every few years, and the person put in charge of building operations is likely to have had little to no previous experience—plus a slate of many other duties related to their “primary mission.” The complex building DDS system is something no one really understands. When something in the building goes wrong, a huge amount of the maintenance budget must be spent to fly in an outside expert.

Is Training the Answer? Probably not—at least not at first. When I talked to the staff members all they really wanted was something simple and intuitive that they could operate themselves. Making a change to the equipment with the next building upgrade would likely save a lot more energy and maintenance budget in the future. If the new system came with intuitive documentation, a simple recorded training could ensure that all new staff could be oriented to their role as building manager quickly and without taking time away from their other duties. Another option would be to reevaluate staffing structure to allow for a dedicated building manager—what a great skill that would be to take home to the civilian workforce!

The Scene: A governmental organization adopts a new green policy mandate that all project managers need to follow. The staff in charge of ensuring adoption with the policy are worried that PMs will be resistant due to concerns that it’s too complicated or expensive to implement. In addition, staff have been resistant to training in the past when they feel it’s not a good use of their time.

Is Training the Answer? In the case of staff resistance to implementing the policy, no. You can’t train motivation but you can remove barriers (like reducing the paperwork burden) and add incentives (like individual and departmental recognition). Both of these were done. In addition, staff tapped green advocates at each department to organize a brief “training” for PMs. The content of this training covered the basic policy requirements  and showed how these were relevant to the specific types of projects the PMs managed. These concise trainings highlighted case studies from the relevant department to provide concrete examples to assuage fears about the complexity or limitations the policy might impose on projects. Even better, these sessions provided an opportunity to determine which kind of additional technical trainings would be needed to support project managers moving forward. PMs reported  they appreciated the concise initial training and were much more eager to get additional technical training once they understood the opportunities.

The Scene: A K-12 school with a highly interactive natural ventilation strategy that made buttons on the wall glow: green, when windows could be open for ventilation, or red, when they should be shut while the building was in heating mode. In this case, I don’t know that the building managers were aware of the problem. On green building tours I like to sneak away and talk to occupants to see how a building is really performing for them. None of the teachers I spoke to had any idea what those glowing lights were for and they complained of stuffy spaces.

Is Training the Answer? In this case, yes! The teachers were motivated to make their classrooms more comfortable and had everything they needed to fix their problem—except the know-how. In fact, when the building opened all teachers did receive training. The problem was that in three years the teachers no longer had that information, either due to being new or not understanding or remembering it from the first training. A short module as part of new staff training (or, better yet, as part of an in-service training day for all staff!) would be a great way to help teachers be more comfortable and get the desired energy performance. A quick reference sheet for each classroom, and better signage on the lights would be great training follow-ups.

OpenHouse (7)You don’t need a training on adult learning theory to know that adults will be learn better with information that they need to know (to do their jobs or to be comfortable) presented in a straightforward, practical way that involves some engagement or interaction. Before throwing a training at a problem, however,  make sure that the issue isn’t with equipment, policy barriers, lack of motivation, or another issue. Your time and resources might be better spent by providing better equipment, processes,  incentives, individual coaching or something else. We have had experience where training has had  the opposite of the desired effect, because it simply wasn't the right solution to the problem. Participants left the training frustrated, as they were still left with the same problem, and had (in their minds) less time to manage it.  On the other hand, if lack of know-how is the problem, training is absolutely the right way to go.

Kelly Kirkland is O’Brien & Company’s Education Coordinator. She has developed and delivered dozens of courses on a variety of green building topics. She recently completed a three-day course on training assessment, development, delivery and evaluation and holds a Training Certificate from the American Society for Training and Development.

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