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New Takes on Tech Training

Technology keeps changing, and so does the way we learn about it.

Is it true, as the old saying goes, that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Not true at all, say the training experts we spoke with recently about the latest techniques in training to keep integrators and dealers up to speed on the ever-changing technology landscape. These experts tell us that new methods of dealer education and technical training are evolving to not only better teach the old dogs new tricks…but also to quickly get the young dogs up to speed as well.

Developing programs that balance the time constraints of busy integrators against the need for deep learning on increasingly sophisticated and ever-progressing technologies is extremely challenging. However, we have uncovered four companies taking totally fresh approaches to creating impactful training that are both effective and efficient.

Our expert panel sharing the secrets behind their latest and truly remarkable training programs consists of: Ted Haeger and Rus Rasmussen of Control4, Tom Darling of CEDIA, Chris Smith of Cloud9 Smart, and Jason Sloan of Dana Innovations.

Control4 Says It’s Time to Come out of the Middle Ages

“Part of what led us on this track is that we needed to expand the opportunities in our field in home automation because there is no on-ramp for creating home automation techs education-wise,” says Ted Haeger, VP of training and support for Control4. “You can’t go to a tech college…you can’t go to a university…you have to apprentice. It’s like we’re stuck in the Middle Ages.”

Haeger’s colleague, Rus Rasmussen, director of worldwide education for Control4, agrees: “The dealership doesn’t want to hire someone unless they have experience, but they can’t get experience unless they’re working for a dealership.”

This classic industry conundrum is what Control4 sought to solve by launching their Pakedge Certified Network Administrator (PCNA) training program about a year ago at the 2017 CEDIA show. (Pakedge is Control4’s line of networking products.) But it was a tough problem to solve, especially when you consider that integrators were telling them that the traditional Control4 training — organized group trainings in a Control4 education center — were too costly; costly in the four days their techs were away from their businesses, costly in travel expenses like airfare and hotel charges, and costly for all of the other incidental expenses that come along with that.

“Most Online Learning Programs Suck!” — Two Steps to a Better Alternative
So some kind of an online education course seemed the obvious alternative. Classes are designed and uploaded, and course material is then available online for whenever the dealer’s tech has time in his schedule to go through it.

But the problem is, as Haeger makes emphatically clear based on his long experience in technology education, “Most online learning programs suck!”

So Control4 took a two-step approach towards a better program. Step One was to set out to design a new kind of program, one which combines the best elements of classroom, online, and even lab-based education. With PCNA, students register for the course and pay a fee. Shortly thereafter, they will receive a box from Control4 with Pakedge networking gear to be used during the training.

Students then access the online educational material, which is designed to be highly interactive and includes practical hands-on skills training, as the course materials incorporate the networking products shipped to them.

Step Two is for the course’s final exam to be both rigorous and legitimate. The rigor is necessary, the Control4 executives say, in order for “the certification to mean something in the industry. If you’re in the industry and you’ve gone through PCNA and you’ve passed the exam, then nobody’s going to be able to say, ‘Yeah, well anybody can pass that.’”

Current results show that between 20-25 percent of the students who take the final exam fail on the first try. And that, say Haeger and Rasmussen, is by design — that is the rigor they seek to make PCNA certification meaningful.

To protect the integrity of the exam process, Control4 engaged the services of an online proctoring company called ProctorU. Yes, you take the exam in your own company offices or even in your own home, but you remain under the watchful eye of an online proctor.

“Yeah, it starts out a little creepy, but after a while you get used to it,” Haeger says. “But this is a little more controlled because the proctor is monitoring video, audio, and anything that is on the [test taker’s] computer.”

Control4 has had strong adoption of their new program with more than 2000 people registering to take the course in less than a year. From this total, around 1000 have attempted the final exam and 700 have passed and are fully certified. Their first-year goal was to get 500 students certified, and they’ve exceeded that number by a wide margin.

New CEDIA Exec Shakes Up Certification, Training, and Education

“What I saw when I first came to CEDIA was very typical for a trade association — very print heavy, many similar topics,” says Tom Darling, CEDIA’s new vice president of education and certification. “It needed an update — not so much that the content was bad, because the content was not bad, but in how it is packaged and delivered. In particular, in how the learner wants to consume the content.”

Darling joined the association about four months ago and has been doing a top-to-bottom review of CEDIA’s educational programs and certifications. Member education is the organization’s most vital mission, and one it takes very seriously. Recognizing the need to take things up a notch, CEDIA brought in Darling to review and revamp its offerings.

With a background in education consulting, workforce and economic development, and education product development, Darling has been surveying the membership to better understand what types of education they are looking for — and how they want to consume educational content.

“We just completed an education survey that we sent out to our members globally,” Darling says. “Happily, I’m able to report that we got a 20 percent response rate! When I saw that, I asked myself, ‘Am I reading this right?’ Normally, you’re thrilled to get a 3 or a 5 percent response rate…but we got a 20 percent response rate! And the members provided fantastic feedback.”

Boosting Availability of Online Education
Like Control4, Darling says it is quite obvious that members are looking for more online education. “What we found is our members do want more online, but they crave and really want that interaction, they want relevance, they want rigor, and they want to be able to learn from each other.”

He maintains that a high-quality online education program can be much more engaging than simply reading screens and clicking “Next.” Techniques such as matching terms and matching or labeling some parts on a diagram, for example, keep the student interacting with and engaged in the material.

So CEDIA education, though it is in the process of being revamped and updated, will not go to 100 percent online-only courses, Darling suggests. “But we are going to have a larger focus online with digital than ever before.”

CEDIA will still offer many in-person, face-to-face courses as they remain an important component of the overall education plan, Darling emphasizes. “One of the things that we’re also working on for 2019 is bringing in-person classes to more locations around the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada.”

Certifications are also an important component and are undergoing a much-needed update, Darling says. The networking certification was just about finished at the time of our interview, and should be rolled out by the time you read this. The designer certification will undergo a full revision next year as well.

Workforce Development
One thing that gets Darling really excited is that the organization is launching a workforce development initiative. This is a new initiative that is designed to offer a totally different type of education, the CEDIA executive says.

“The whole purpose is to bring new people into the industry and get them to a level where they have enough training and education that it would be highly beneficial for our members to hire them.”

Members are telling Darling that their biggest problem is finding qualified people to hire. So if CEDIA can find people coming out of the military, or graduating from high school, or looking to make a career change and provide them with a level of basic tech training that would allow them to be able to contribute to a member’s business on Day 1, then that would help the industry grow dramatically, Darling suggests.

New York Integrator Cloud9 Smart – Training Architects

To be sure, Cloud9 Smart has an internal training program for their staff that is smart, organized, and impactful. But perhaps even more fascinating is their commitment to training architects about technology on an ongoing basis. That’s right, Cloud9 Smart conducts training courses to teach architects what they need to know about incorporating technology into a successful project — and they deliver these sessions an average of twice a week.

The fact is that architects are often the first involved in many of the projects that will grow to include interior designers, electrical, and AV integration companies. But often integrators are brought in late to the project — so late, that it limits their options for the system design.

Cloud9 Smart realized that the sooner they get relationships with architects, the better. Not only that, but if they can find a way to convince architects to bring the AV integrator into project design earlier, they can make sure all of the various disciplines have made all the necessary provisions for a robust AV/lighting/security/networking whole home system.

Joining the AIA
By joining the American Institute of Architects (AIA), Cloud9 Smart found opportunities to conduct outreach to the greater architect community. They learned that the AIA requires its members to engage in continuing education.

So Cloud 9 Smart COO Chris Smith and the management team studied the AIA’s requirements for courses, developed a course on technology, and submitted materials to the organization for accreditation. Now the organization offers a tech education program for local architects that allows them to earn CEUs called Blending Technology into your Design.

“In this course, we cover the spectrum of low-voltage technologies and show the ways we can have the systems basically disappear,” Smith says. “We start off with this idea of hiding all of it, show how we can build a plan that does that, and show the products we use that can do that. However, we emphasize, if we’re called in too late into a project, there’s no way for us to solve for that, because you’ve now limited our opportunities to do so.”

A Big Impact on Attending Architects
Smith says the classes, which are known as “Lunch and Learns,” have a big impact on architects. When they see an elegant installation featuring hidden lighting and shading, audio/video, networks, climate, and control systems, the gears start turning in their heads. They’re creative folks, and these elegant designs appeal to their design sensibilities.

The normal Lunch and Learns typically run one hour, with 45 minutes of instruction and a 15-minute question-and-answer session. In addition to this, once or twice a year, Cloud9 Smart partners with their vendors to do a day-long multi-session training that will last a full six or seven hours with four vendor sessions per hour. The architects like this format because they get a wide cross section of information that helps them meet their CEU requirements.

Smith himself personally conducts most of the Lunch and Learns. With two sessions per week, he admits it’s a lot of hours of preparation, coordination, teaching, following up, and building relationships. Should a company’s COO be spending all this time on training architects?

“It is a big time commitment,” Smith agrees. “But it is probably one of the most useful things we do — there’s a very high return on investment. A single relationship with an architect we meet in our class might return two, three, or five projects a year. When you consider the average value of a project and the margin you make on those projects, finding good relationships and providing true value goes a long way.”

At Dana Innovations It’s Not Training, It’s Sharing Stories with Invited Guests
While most manufacturers offer some form of training to support their lines, a distressing number of them send a sales rep or a training person into the field armed with a static PowerPoint presentation to review models, features, and pricing. Have these on a Friday night after a long week, and you’ll watch a few members of your team nodding off.

However, Dana Innovations, parent company of Sonance, Trufig, and iPort, offers an engaging and intense two-day training seminar at their dedicated education space inside their all-new headquarters in San Clemente, CA. The company has made a substantial investment to create multiple rooms dedicated for the purpose of teaching dealers about its impressively wide assortment of products across their three brands.

Attendees of these events will see a variety of installations of various Dana Innovations products in purpose-driven spaces that help to visually demonstrate recommended best-practices.

“As we were hosting more and more customers, we got serious about how do we walk somebody around that facility and tell a comprehensive story,” Jason Sloan, chief sales officer of Dana Innovations says. “So, for us, it really revolves around a storytelling element — which is, you need to have impactful openings, meaningful middles, and then a conclusion that brings it all together for the audience.”

Sessions start in a well-designed classroom with multi-screen video walls and a projector. There is an agenda with timing that the presenters stick to. This classroom serves as a sort of home base that attendees will return to after completing sessions in other spaces. In addition to the classroom, there is a fairly large theater with two theater systems in them — a full Dolby Atmos system with high-resolution projector and full speaker setup, and a separate flat panel TV with a soundbar.

There is also a Gallery with large panels containing graphics representing different product categories hung on the wall like fine art and overhead lighting to visually demonstrate a key Sonance theory in sound distribution. There is a distributed audio room with installations of real product from the many product categories that the company participates in — with a full demonstration area.

Green Room Visually Shows Installation Techniques
And finally my favorite there is the Green Room, where you walk into what appears to be an unfinished space with exposed stud walls and open ceilings where the dealers are taught proper installation techniques and tricks for Dana Innovation products. In the Green Room, dealers get a lot of insider tips and tricks to make installations easier and more professional.

Sloan says that by having these dedicated training spaces available, they are better able to articulate the part of the sales process that he feels is particularly important, which is, “What is the DNA of the company…what’s the culture about…what’s meaningful to them…and what’s important to them?”

In his mind, this factor alone justifies the investment in the Studio — their training center — “it facilitates that conversation better than anything else we’ve ever done.”

Overall, the Dana Innovation’s two-day dealer training is a packed agenda that offers a solid combination of classroom instruction, powerful demonstrations, and hands-on lab work — all done in a friendly, conversational style that delivers a substantial amount of content without overwhelming the attendee. But unique to this session is that it also conveys the company’s culture and core philosophy in a way that feels inclusive to the dealer.