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4 Ways to Teach Your Employees Just in Time

Have you ever spent good money on classroom training for a specific word processing or spreadsheet program only to realize that you forgot more than you remember when you start to use it on your own?  A colleague and former software trainer explained that it’s better to know what features are available and learn to use them when you actually need them.

This basic principle applies to just-in-time learning (also known as just-in-time training), which can extend well beyond commercial software products.  The concept behind just-in-time learning is that workers learn things best when they receive instruction when they are actually doing their work, rather than in a remote classroom.

Just-in-time learning can be effective in a wide array of jobs, including factory work, procedural desk jobs and even emergency situations (if you’ve ever seen the BBC series “Fawlty Towers” fire drill episode, you know what I’m talking about).

Here are four low-to-high touch ways to put information in front of employees when they need it:

1. The sticky note approach

This option is definitely at the low-end of the expense scale, yet it can be enough to address certain errors that commonly occur at certain points in your operations.  Are workers having trouble finding a vital-but-hidden machine button?  A “Press Here” note is an easy fix, as long as you can affix paper to a machine without starting a fire.  Or, post a nearby cheat sheet to makes sure that workers perform certain steps in the right order.

Self-documentation is a similar approach.  If office workers consistently mishandle common forms, for example, why not print instructions right on the forms? This is like providing online help; it defines the information you expect in each area of the form and clarifies copy distribution.

2. Internal support

Workers are often surrounded by people with more experience and knowledge.  Those people may be ideal candidates for answering questions.

Understand that this solution is not free.  Every time co-workers help each other, their own work is interrupted.  Since it takes some time to get back on task when they return to their own work, you might want to first try a pilot project or find other ways to accurately predict the opportunity cost from these interruptions.

If you expect a consistently high volume of questions, it might be just as cost-effective to set up a small Internal Support department, which is common when the work revolves around computer or equipment use.  Staffing definitely costs more, but you might actually save money if those people can also fix common problems without calling in outside resources.  Just whip out a spreadsheet to crunch the numbers, provided you can do so without asking too many questions.

3. Intranet Wiki

In any company, most employees are continuously solving problems and developing new and better ways to do things.  Some people discover that switching the order of their common tasks removes a bottleneck elsewhere in the process; others may find something new that reveals a product defect.

These discoveries can provide just-in-time training so other workers do not have to conduct experiments that arrive at the same solutions — as long as someone writes it down and makes it easily accessible to the entire company.

If you have ever turned to Wikipedia for information, you already know something about Wikis.  These are basically well-organized entries available online.  But you also know that Wikipedia entries are not always accurate.  This is why anyone can easily edit existing information to make it more accurate, or even to add newly-discovered information.

Once they are set up on your company’s intranet, a little initial training makes them easy-to-use for your staff.  But, you’ll probably need to hire or contract out for a tech-savvy individual to do the initial setup and periodic maintenance.  It may be well worth these expenses to open important information to everyone in your company.

4. Customized training systems

If your business is unusual, off-the-shelf training solutions may not meet your needs, and it might be cost-effective to spend on custom training. Your system could conceivably teach new users to run a unique program or machine. Or, it might use artificial intelligence to recognize user errors and offer ways to correct them on the spot.

This type of just-in-time training will be costly.  Even medical offices that use off-the-shelf products to keep their patients alive and well often spend significant sums for this type of electronic support.  But, if customized training and error detection systems help your products make it to market without returns or lawsuits, they might make the difference between profits and bankruptcy.

The right time for just-in-time learning

Just-in-time training does not replace the need for traditional classes and it won’t help employees learn to perform complex tasks, such as building excel dashboards.  It’s also not great for teaching managers to make business decisions (better to get a business degree).  But any time you can disseminate information precisely when workers need it, you gain greater productivity and accuracy, higher retention levels and less frustration on the job.

About the author

Carol Roth is a radio host on WGN, a CNBC TV contributor, a ‘recovering’ investment banker & a bestselling author of The Entrepreneur Equation. You can find her on Twitter @CarolJSRoth or at She also has an action figure made in her likeness.