AEC Training and Education for Strategic Success

December 26th, 2013

The times, they are a’changin’!   The AEC industry is awash with new BIM tools promising increased efficiency and accuracy, but requiring an overhaul of traditional workflow processes to achieve it.  In this article, I’ll discuss how education and training are crucial to help firms evolve their processes while maintaining productivity.

Education versus Training

Often considered the same, education and training have end goals that are notably different. Education is gained knowledge, the basis of developing rationale and reason. It’s the What and Why of our actions, and is crucial to individual development, as well as effective leadership and management.

Training, on the other hand, addresses the How of using design tools, many of which have significantly increased in complexity over previous methods.

Knowing What You Don’t Know

A change of technical tools is disruptive. Established methods and sequencing change, and staffing and timeline decisions change along with them. Disruption is not limited to firms implementing new software—those continuing with their standard software often need additional training to translate new file formats into a mode they can use, or to integrate their output with other disciplines of the design team.

How much training does a firm need? What should staff members get trained on? Until a team experiences the change in workflow, they cannot predict all of the ways that processes will be affected. Even after they do, it’s often difficult to translate that into transferable “lessons learned.”

“Documentation requires a lot of time and energy,” says Chris Parsons, founder and CEO of Knowledge Architecture, a consultancy that integrates data management tools and social intranets for the AEC industry, “and is often an overhead expense firms find difficult to afford.”  Parsons describes the use of a knowledge network as key to connecting a firm’s most vital assets—its knowledge resources—and unlocking the valuable experience team members hold in their heads.

Accumulate and Aggregate

The knowledge network can take many forms—a series of checklists addressing various phases of project development or a more formal narrative document, as long as it is a “living document” that is updated and revised frequently. A good example is an intraoffice communication platform such as Sharepoint or Google Sites, which allow quick broadcasts and comment-enabled conversations to accumulate. Subjects can be tagged to make searching and aggregating possible, thereby achieving collective knowledge. When a subject is clearly generating questions or providing answers, that informs the firm of the need to seek specific training, or to present its accumulated knowledge in a more formal mode.

Figure 2: Tag clouds emphasize active topics

Educate Beyond the Technology

Technical training is often provided only to staff members who are hands-on with the technology. However, various staff roles can benefit from some overlap between management education and technology training, particularly to develop better understanding of the motivation and needs of another group. Design and technical staff can gain perspective on the priorities dictated by contract conditions, while managers who receive some technical training on production tools have a deeper understanding of progressive workflow and can better foresee timeline and staffing impacts.

Specific technology should also be put into the context of the larger goals of the industry. Beyond learning the “clicks and picks” of how a program works, users should be exposed to how any particular technology fits into the greater goals of the project, the firm, the profession, and the industry.

State of the (Training) Union

A survey of AEC companies conducted through social media sites Twitter and LinkedIn provides a representative picture about who is getting training, and how.  The results showed the majority of surveyed firms have some form of training program in place, much of which is prompted by current project needs and conducted by more experienced peers within the organization—proof of the knowledge network at work!  Notably, all of the surveyed firms rely on a mix of methods—some standardized curriculum, some customized to the firm’s processes, as well as published manuals, online tutorials, and lessons learned gathered from a variety of informal sources such as discussion boards and user groups.

Figure 3: Survey on AEC software training methods

Start with Standard

Many firms that are making the initial transition to new software will opt for standardized training provided by software companies or their regional resellers. Courses may address different user levels, offering beginner, intermediate, and advance user courses.

Receiving training from the same source as the software itself has benefits: the cost of training may be combined with the cost of software for prorated financing, relieving the burden from operational cash flow.  In addition, various vendors offer standard training courses presented across a variety of media, from complete courseware packages such as eGlobal Learning, to specific topic seminars such as Ideate’s Revit 201 series.

Standardized training means all users get the same exposure, and provides a consistent baseline of knowledge. A well-defined training course will address the breadth, if not depth, of the program functions, and provide courseware and example files that users can return to at a later date. This is an essential starting point for firms that are brand new to the software, and have yet to determine how the transition will impact their current process.

However, while training programs designed for the average user may clearly outline a rudimentary use of the tools, they may not address the more specialized requirements of a particular project type with highly customized content needs. Users may need to reformat the program output to address stringent firm- or client-dictated graphic and informational standards.  Generalized training will likely need some level of customization.

“It depends on the discipline,” says Daniel Stein, a published courseware author and BIM Administrator with LHB in Minnesota. “Some (software programs) are highly defined and thus not compatible with (standardized) resources, such as the Electrical Productivity Pack for Autodesk Revit MEP we developed.  Other groups, using Bentley BIM or Autodesk Raster Design, may benefit from off-the-shelf training materials.”

Breaking Out of the Box

Where standard training ends, adaptive training—not quite standard, not quite custom—picks up.  Many regional software resellers offer consulting services to adapt standard training courseware to address a subset user specialty, such as Interior Design.

Specialty function add-ons that cater to specific tasks or workflow needs are increasingly available from third-party development resources. Packages for file organization, content management, and data mining such as CTC Revit Express Tools, Ideate BIMLink, and Kiwi-Codes Family Browser all strive to increase user productivity, and often offer training services to get teams up and running with them.

Conferences such as Autodesk University, BIM Forum, and Revit Technology Conference present roundtable discussion, seminar, and hands-on lab training from both accredited professionals and users “from the trenches.” Presented in the form of Case Studies, these sessions represent a vast collection of acquired specialized knowledge and provide the foundation upon which more firm-specific custom training can build.

Learning a la Carte

The evolution of design tools poses a challenge to many firms: How to learn what’s newly available and gain proficiency while remaining productive.  Often the need for task-specific guidance is immediate and pressure is high to keep project development moving forward.  “With technology changing so fast these days, our staff feels overwhelmed,” confides Antony Isenhoff, Senior Design Application Specialist with Eppstein Uhen Architects. “Staying on top of technology and offering bite-sized training sessions is critical to success and retention.”

Organized group training takes time to plan for and coordinate with multiple users’ schedules. If a firm doesn’t have a menu of readily available tutorials, users are likely to turn to the vast smorgasbord on the Internet for help. And help is out there. User groups and discussion forums such as AUGI and Revit Forum extend the peer-to-peer training network into searchable collections that cover a broad range of often interconnecting software programs, and collect years of user response.  These collections represent a valuable resource grown and nurtured by a dedicated user base.

Online education or “eLearning” is a rapidly growing market, offering subscription-based access to training curriculums on many AEC programs. Online availability allows users to view tutorials right when they need them, reducing lost productivity. In-house developed custom training can be leveraged to be Internet accessible as well, through content hosting services such as CADLearning and Screencast.

Free multimedia tutorials are abundant as well. Streaming video sites such as YouTube and Vimeo deliver media-rich instruction that is often a direct demonstration of actions, presented informally, peer-to-peer style. Randomly sourced tutorials have the advantage of providing timely guidance in digestible bites, at zero cost. But buyer beware—survey respondents report mixed results. Tutorials from varied sources may result in a lack of workflow consistency across teams, a chasm that widens over time. 

You Can Lead a Horse To Water…

An often-cited struggle is that with all the training resources and materials available, few users are taking full advantage of them. Time is often the issue. If time is not set aside specifically for training, it falls to the individual to carve out time against project deadlines.

Bear in mind that the most effective training happens when teams learn together—when different perspectives and expected outcomes can be discussed and addressed. However, making the time for a team to hit the pause button and huddle is rare, and costly in terms of immediate productivity.

Figure 4: Hindrance to firm-wide training

Bandages to Bandwagon

Informal custom training is reactionary, working to define solutions to an immediate issue. Discussion boards, online tutorials, technical support call-lines and good, old-fashioned “asking around” are all forms of informal training. However, these effectively “staunch the bleeding”—resolving problems that have already occurred. How does a firm transition from applying bandages to preventing problems in the first place?

Getting ahead of issues is a key goal of fully customized training. “We have developed training white papers and videos to review the major topics. Our (custom) training shows where company standards are located and how they all work together,” states Glen Walson, BIM Manager of Interface Engineering. 

With dedicated resources, partial- to full-time technology support teams are able to survey the issues multiple teams are facing, define lessons learned from one project, then apply those lessons to other teams before the same problems arise. Stine says of LHB’s training outlook, “We still have new-hire crash course training; and a “new features” training each year. However, any additional training is provided via pre-recorded videos so the designer gets the information when they need it. For example, not everyone needs to sit through Conceptual Energy Analysis training, and those who do need the information do not all need it at the same time.”

Tailored Tutelage

Forty-three percent of survey respondents say their firm develops its own training materials, either aided by consultants or fully developed by in-house teams. For greatest impact and retention, different user groups need training that focuses on their specific tasks and deliverables and educates users on how to adapt their approach based on project-specific conditions.

There are significant benefits to cultivating in-house customization, one of the greatest being enfolding the firm culture into the process. To make learning both effective and engaging, the communication style should directly reflect that of the intended user group and address philosophies of the firm.  Do not overlook the opportunity of turning task-oriented training into a more robust educational experience, explaining the Why of a process along with the How.

A rigorous training approach can also build firm culture. Injecting training into project kick-offs and phase transitions are rallying points to assess collective skills and identify members as resources for the rest of the team.  Peer-to-peer training within a project team remains the most common form of custom training, and serves to build an interconnected support web, strengthening the knowledge network. Offering training also stimulates an appetite for more: 56 percent of the surveyed firms report users requesting additional training to increase their general value and attending training optionally, whether it applies to them or not.

Figure 5: Knowledge network

The results are win-win: when asked to define the benefits of firm-wide training, survey respondents cleanly split between higher quality documents, with more efficiency and consistency, and increased satisfaction across the design staff, with less frustration over lost time and effort.

Covering the Costs

Customization comes at a cost. Overhead for training development was cited as one of the top hindrances to firm-wide training. So how can costs be managed?

The majority of firms surveyed acknowledge that training and education are necessary and accept that as operating expense.  Many firms, however, find the cost difficult or impossible to bear completely.

Strategies such as bringing on consultants to address project-specific needs enable some, if not all, training costs to be billed to the project. Capturing that customization and turning it into a firm-wide training module leverages the investment further.  Requiring a return on investment is another approach—providing advanced training for selected team members with an understanding that they in turn train others.

Validating the Value

With all the investment made in training, is it reaching the right people, and is it sinking in? The majority of firms surveyed tracked only standardized training. Everything else—whether peer-to-peer or online resources—was left to happen on its own. Common resulting problems are inconsistency of methods from varied training resources, and less proactive teams that have had little to no exposure to training.

Tracking and assessment is a touchy subject.  Few of the firms surveyed tracked training, nor did they conduct on-going assessment, but many BIM leaders felt they should. However, proficiency needs vary greatly across a project team. Assessment of skills should be appropriate to the level of interaction with the software—infrequent users should not be expected to be as proficient as those who use the software as their primary tool.

Companies such as KnowledgeSmart offer a range of survey tools from gauging grasp of the overarching goals of BIM to tests assessing the technical proficiency of specific design tasks. “We have started to implement a formal Learning Management System (LMS) to track training usage and results (via in-line quiz questions),” says Stine. “Initially this is for our safety compliance, but I can see this being a good way to push out critical information (bugs, workflow issues, etc.) to staff and make sure everyone has digested the information.”

Summary

Organizations need to address both education and technical training across multiple levels of staff for realistic expectations through both implementation and perpetual use. Baseline training to get teams started and ongoing customized training to unify methods builds stronger, smarter teams.  Training is a long-term investment and you get what you pay for, but the rewards are worth it both in efficiency and user satisfaction.

Nancy McClure, CSBA, LEED AP, Certified Autodesk Revit Professional, holds a Bachelor of Architecture with a minor in Construction Management. Currently a multimedia designer and BIM consultant with more than 15 years of architectural and product design experience, her consulting focuses on strategic modeling and tactical documentation development for architecture firms in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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