Training in E&P after the downturn – time to offer something different

ABERDEEN, the UK - AGR's TRACS Training Director, Mark Bentley, senses a change in the air for training delivery. After the current sustained downturn in the business, companies are beginning to return to training, but of a different sort …

The industry is familiar with cyclicity of the oil and gas business and we in a training and consultancy firm are particularly aware how quickly training responds to a downturn.  It is not gentle: more like turning a tap off. For a short downturn this is like taking a deep breath – “cancel training for the remainder of the year until the price comes back then we'll review … ”, and then the tap opens again slowly. Not so the current, more sustained downturn. 

No one can hold their breath for two years. 

The graduate training market has all but dried up – it's nothing personal, there is simply little graduate intake. Training for young technical professionals has largely been cancelled too, as many of those professionals are released by companies trying to balance their books. 

And yet we see the (probable!) start of a recovery as calls start coming in again.  The requirement for skills development is there, but many clients are not simply asking for ‘more of the same'.  We think this is more than just caution over costs, there is a need to demonstrate value. Downturns often encourage creativity and it feels like this recent crisis may be accelerating a move to new training formats.  AGR's TRACS Training responds creatively, and two aspects of this:

  • technology-based (remote learning)
  • design-based (tailoring local content).  

PowerPoint: the easiest way to teach; the hardest way to learn

First up - there is nothing wrong with PowerPoint.  A great tool, but it does get over-used.  It gets used as a prop.  It is a lot easier to deliver material if there's a script in big letters on the screen, even easier if arranged as a list of bullet points which can simply be talked over. There is little hunger for text-rich PowerPoint slides today.

We think there has been less hunger for this for a while, yet monologues accompanied by dull PowerPoint material sprinkled with occasional exercises have remained the default on the open course programme circuit, and there has been a casual tolerance for this.  With any one client having only one or two seats on an open programme course, they are not in a position to dictate the content, let-alone the style of delivery. For the training houses putting on the programmes, it's mainly a question of resourcing tutors with relevant experience and filling the seats.  There is always a wish for quality but dictating the style and quality of delivery is too difficult in this format.  

So what's the alternative?

Is the future all about remote delivery?

This is not e-learning. E-learning was an early and bold attempt to embrace the internet and we have much experience of it now.  It has a place for sure, allowing quick interactive learning on-demand, but has clearly been no substitute for face-to-face tutoring.  Whole classroom courses simply transported onto an e-learning format (those PowerPoint slides with bullet points again) are typically dreadful, a cost-cutting fall-back which ultimately satisfies few, and often doesn't save that much cost either.

The new option is remote face-to-face tutoring – one or more tutors interacting with remote groups who are not necessarily sitting together.  AGR's TRACS Training team are currently exploring this with a major client and it is already clear that this is not a straight substitute for true face-to-face interaction. 

Four reasons:

  • The IT infrastructure has to be robust.  It nearly is.
  • Although interactive, a dispersed group does not behave the same as a group together. The social cues are missing, the uplifting classroom moments don't happen and the immediacy of the person-to-person response is much harder to achieve.
  • People are easily distracted by their smart phones, or simply get kidnapped by their office seniors.
  • The opportunity for informal tailoring – adding ‘asides' to catch a teaching moment, are harder to seize, especially in the kidnapping situations.  This is a regret as these moments are often the ones which carry the greatest learning value.
Yet all is not lost.  This is simply a different format and structure is the key.  This is working with a ‘dispersed group' who are surrounded by distractions and lack the intimacy of a classroom setting and hence also lack the possibility of informal learning opportunities.  Maintaining focus is harder in this environment so the storylines have to be clearer, timing sharper and shorter, and session deliverables both desirable and attainable.. 

Ultimately, remote learning may find its best application in formal, structured, tutor-to-team or team-to-team coaching, rather than teaching fundamentals.  There will be continuing experiments over the coming years as bandwidth widens and it seems likely that remote learning will be part of life, but our bet is this will be an alternative to, not a replacement for, face-to-face learning.

Local content – sounds familiar

“We believe in knowledge transfer and enhancing local content” – a familiar statement in Learning & Development circles, notably in emerging regions with growing E&P businesses: East Africa is a prime example.  This stems from the fundamental premise that petroleum resources belong to a nation and its people; it follows that it is reasonable to expect the resources to be developed for the benefit of the communities of those nations.   

So far, so good. The question is “how best to go about this?”  This is where the attitude of existing training providers comes in. When an opportunity for new training business comes along in a country, there is a strong tendency for providers to take their current off-the-shelf materials and simply implant them in the new environment. This will be in spite of the fact that the materials will have been developed in another country, for another culture and perhaps even for a completely different purpose. An extreme example of this is a major multinational which exports expertise developed from offshore developments, and runs training courses in countries which have only land-based activity. Strange but true. 

The latter is a perfect example of un-tailored training.  Standardised capability matrices are another example – written once for one marketplace but exported globally.  Profitable but not optimal. Skills requirements for a country are not entirely generic – every country and every new development area has specific needs which are a consequence of the initial human resource, the technical need in question and the scope of the developments.  For in-country skills development, one size does not ‘fit all'.  

Tailored solutions – working with, not talking to

And so we tailor. In the 1990s a number of groups, including our own team at AGR's TRACS Training, developed tailored, experiential training as an alternative to fixed ‘open' programmes, and many companies now pick up on this appeal.  Advertising straplines such as ‘tailored for you' are therefore not uncommon (note: it is always worth investigating what ‘tailored for you' really means in a course context – it should be more than just changing the front slide of a PowerPoint presentation to add a new date and country location).  

Unlike remote learning technologies which are emerging as infrastructure allows, effective course tailoring is something we have experience of and can do now.  The barrier is attitude of the training providers.  What we and others have learnt is that whereas implanting existing material is profitable and easy, developing truly tailored solutions requires more time, effort and skill and is therefore intrinsically less profitable.  We have to be willing to do what is better, rather than what is simply most profitable. 

Explicit value
Coming out of the downturn, we note tailoring is being requested more directly than before. Previously we've had to convince, now it's being requested.  We see this as good news as the result should be better quality training, assuming the tailoring can be done well. This includes creating new events by combining components of multiple courses and rewriting to fit in-country data, and extends to allowing the IP rights to migrate exclusively to the client.  Unheard of for open programmes.  What is being asked for is explicit value. 

In emerging areas, a number of discussions at training conventions and with end-users this year have made a further trend clear.  Foreign tutors flying in-country to deliver a week-long course then flying out again, is not enough, even when the content has been well tailored.  The learning is too piecemeal, doesn't stick, but does serve to take the workforce out of circulation, which can be a disadvantage if the workforce is small. What is needed is follow-up post-course, and this comes from delivering a programme combining some face-to-face events with planned on-the-job skills development and, ideally, direct coaching from the tutors who have delivered the traditional class-based events.   

This requires a commitment by the training company and the tutors in particular, a commitment to be there for a longer term, and an attitude of enthusiastic knowledge sharing.  This is a long way from standard, generic, open course programmes, but offers greater learning efficiency and better value support, and feels like a better fit for a business emerging from a bruising downturn.

For more tailor-made training, visit our website www.training.agr.com

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