Sharpening Software Smarts

Driving greater productivity through staff technology training

By William Atkinson

Community banks spend large amounts of money on software, systems and other technology to help their organizations run more efficiently and accurately. However, while they devote a lot of time to selecting the best technology products and services, too often many fail to ensure employees are trained to use the technology fully. Others may fail to ensure employees put the system training that they do receive to good use.

“The biggest challenge community banks face is the staff finding time to learn to use the software and other technology,” says Jeff Simpkins, president and CEO of Community Bank Consulting Inc., a technology-focused consulting firm in Mooresville, N.C. “Most staff at community banks have more responsibilities than they have time to fulfill, so it is challenging for banks to allow the employees time away from these responsibilities to get involved in training.”

Trent Fleming, president of Trent Fleming Consulting, a community bank technology and operations consulting firm in Germantown, Tenn., says most businesses use about 20 percent of the available system features and functionality they already have. He sees this as partly the fault of vendors and partly the fault of businesses.

“In most cases, the implementation of software by a vendor is heavily focused on the basics,” Fleming says. Their main focus is whether they moved all of the customer information, balances and other financial information over correctly. “This is usually done over a weekend, so the bank will be ready to open Monday morning with accurate information,” he says. Sometimes there is so much focus on the upfront technical transition of a system that subsequent employee training may fall by the wayside.

Fleming says some businesses only reluctantly spend money on technology training, sometimes expecting their most technologically-capable employees to train everyone else. “These employees may understand the software, but this doesn’t mean they are good trainers,” he points out. Additionally, retraining replacement staff this way as employees leave the bank or are promoted to new positions is likely to be hasty and incomplete.

“As a result, over time software utilization levels continue to decrease,” Fleming says.

Regardless of the amount of staff software training that occurs at community banks, it is also important that training is tailored to the needs of particular system users and their specific job functions within the organization. “Line people tend to need training in teller systems and other transaction-based products, while dashboard training would be more appropriate for executives,” suggests Wendy Dowling, vice president of sales and former vice president of implementations, education and documentation for Data Center Inc., a community bank core processing software firm in Hutchinson, Kan.

Training options

When it comes to training sources, vendor-provided training and in-house training both have potential upsides as well as potential downsides, according to Simpkins. As he sees it, vendor-provided training is valuable when you want employees to learn the overall use of specific systems. “Vendors know their products better than anyone,” he says. Yet the potential downside of vendor-provided training is that not all vendors understand how their products are going to be used in community banks on a day-to-day basis, including such distractions as regulatory and compliance obligations.

The value of in-house training is that it can be customized for a bank’s specific policies and procedures. Sometimes in-house training can be overwhelmed by immediate or continual needs for compliance training and basic training for higher turnover jobs, such as tellers and customer service reps, Simpkins says. Sometimes that leaves little time for more thorough technology training across the organization.

As with vendor-provided training and in-house training, classroom and online instruction have their place in overall technology training programs. “In my experience, live classroom training is the most effective kind of training,” Simpkins says. “However, you need to be sure that the instructors are experienced and professional, whether they are in-house trainers or trainers from the outside, such as vendor trainers.”

According to Simpkins, online software training can be most useful for teaching targeted functions of systems that need to be learned within a specific time frame. If a bank does elect to use some form of online training, Simpkins has found that it tends to be more effective if it is scheduled in a number of short (15-minute or so) segments, rather than multi-hour webinar training.

“When training lasts too long, people tend to lose focus,” he says. With short training sessions, retention tends to be better, because people aren’t forced to learn too much information at one time.

“When employees just need a high-level overview or basics of a product or system, online training is appropriate,” Dowling adds. “One benefit is that people can engage in self-paced training and don’t have to wait for a class to schedule.”

However, online technology training shouldn’t replace personal hands-on instruction in a classroom setting, Simpkins and Dowling agree. Onsite, instructor-led classroom training makes sense if employees need training that involves asking questions of an instructor and getting more in-depth into a product or system.

Timing training

One of the most overlooked elements of a comprehensive software training strategy is when the training should take place. Often banks schedule employee training when systems are first introduced, but then neglect ongoing or follow-up refresher training.

“When I work with a client to manage a software renewal or a change to a different software vendor, we write in a demand for additional, post-conversion training,” Fleming says. “Once we make the conversion and have a stable platform, we will arrange to have subject matter experts from the vendor come back in a few weeks or a couple of months later for additional training.”

Follow-up training sessions, Fleming says, give employees the opportunity to ask what he calls “intelligent questions.” That is, they already understand the basics of the system and feel comfortable with it to some degree, so they will be receptive to learning new features and more sophisticated functions that can generate the greatest efficiencies.

As Fleming sees it, the goal of technology training isn’t to get from 20 percent to 100 percent utilization of a system, because most banks don’t need that degree of functionality. A more productive goal is to get to 40 or 60 percent system utilization by staff.

Regardless of how comprehensive training is and when it occurs, there is always the chance that employees will not utilize everything they have learned. According to Fleming, that which gets measured gets done. As he sees it, supervisors and managers should be responsible for making sure that employees fully use the available software, rather than reverting to informal steps like handwritten notes or other manual workarounds.

“Training should emphasize what is in it for the employees—how the training will help make their jobs easier or more enjoyable, or provide better interactions with customers,” says Simpkins. “If the training is explained as simply being mandatory, there isn’t much incentive for employees to pay attention to it and utilize what they’ve learned.”

William Atkinson is a writer in Illinois.