Saturday, June 11, 2011

Little Green Men Invade the Parking Lot

Anyone who has ever walked into a corporate classroom, sat down with coffee in hand waiting for the session to begin, has probably looked up and seen a clean white sheet of flip chart paper tacked up to a back wall or taped behind a door with the headline “Parking Lot” written across the top in brightly colored markers. It is usually something the facilitator joyously points out during the beginning of class ritual somewhere among the agenda, the objectives, the what-do-you-want-to-get-out-of-today’s-session discussion and the directions to the restrooms and fire exits. It is the tool of choice to capture those seemingly unanswerable questions and comments that arise during class that must be deferred to, and deliberated over by, the all-knowing but unavailable subject matter expert “who can’t be with us.” It is an old stand-by meant to comfort the class and bring relief to the facilitator. The participants are comforted knowing their insightful questions or challenging real-world situations that takes us beyond the boundaries of what is being covered in class will be acknowledged, addressed, and perhaps even acted upon, by the remote and powerful bigwig who has the knowledge and clout to tackle such things. The facilitator draws relief from the fact that by jotting the issue down on a post-it, and popping it up on the Parking Lot, she won’t have to sacrifice valuable classroom time trying to unravel a seemingly unsolvable esoteric puzzle. Yes, the Parking Lot is a longstanding, battle-tested classroom tradition that is tried and true. But has reached the end of its day?

I recently took over responsibility for a managing a group technical training instructors. They conduct classes to prepare service technicians to install and repair a variety of hardware and software products we sell as part of our customer solutions. Having spent most of my workplace learning career focused on leadership, communication, and other soft skills topics, it is going to take me some time to understand nuances of this baffling world of electro-mechanical wizardry, touch-screen interfaces, and the impact of trying to train 64-bit software on a 32-bit machine (if that is even possible). This week, in a meeting with one of the instructors, we got into a dialog about how he keeps up-to-date on all of the technical knowledge he needs to run his classes effectively. With the amount and frequency of product introductions and updates in our company, I expected he needed to build a “Parking Garage” to capture all the questions I imagine to be unanswerable in this mystifying technical realm. He shrugged his shoulders seemingly to indicate that “it’s part of the job.” Then he admitted that it is impossible to keep up with all the product changes. But even though that is the case, there is no Parking Lot in any of his classrooms. He told me about the long list of engineering and operations subject matter experts he has on his MS Office Communicator instant messaging contact list. At any given time during class, he can scan the list to see who is “green,” meaning they are online and available. So when someone in his class asks, “What was the thinking behind moving the lever to the other side of the unit in the version 4 release of Product X?” he doesn’t reach for the post-its. He taps the keyboard and gets the answer right then and there. And when the service technicians leave class, they pull out of the parking lot not only well trained, but with the list of little “green” men and women in tow as well.

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