Should you invest in training during a project?

Weighing the benefit of gaining knowledge against its price.
Written by Tom Mochal, Contributor
Sean was halfway through his proof-of-concept project, which looks at wireless technology. Since Sean works for the Research and Development (R&D) group, his people are used to working with new technologies and learning as they go. On this project, however, the price of gaining knowledge through experience was slowing progress on the project.

The dilemma
“Tom, we are making progress on this project, but it is slower going that I had planned,” Sean said. “Our deadline is six weeks out, but the current plan has us taking at least eight weeks until completion.”

“Do you still think it was because of the learning curve with this technology?” I asked.

“That is what my guys are telling me,” Sean replied. “Much of our normal R&D work involves investigations and analysis of new technology. We don’t often build working models like we are on this project.”

Sean was right. The software, hardware, operating systems, and the entire development process was somewhat new. Although they were not expected to put together an industrial strength application, they still needed to get all the pieces and parts to tie together and work correctly. I asked Sean what strategies were being considered to get the project back on track.

“We will probably bring in an experienced contractor to help us the rest of the way,” Sean noted.

“Have you considered formal training for your team?” I asked.

“Formal training?” Sean said with surprise. “Don’t you think we are past the point where that would help?”

“Maybe,” I said. “Or maybe not.”

Mentor advice
They say hindsight is 20/20, so I don’t like to second-guess past decisions that project managers make. Given what he knows today, I think Sean would definitely have better prepared his team to handle this challenge. One approach would have been to bring in an outside contractor early on who could have guided them through the unknowns of the new technology. He also could have invested in training so that they would have had a better technical foundation from the start.

Sean chose not to invest in that training up-front. The question I posed was whether it makes sense to provide the training now. Project managers often face this kind of dilemma. The basic question is whether the time to attend the training will be offset by savings brought about by a shorter project timeline.

On most projects, the investment of training time occurs at the start of the project. This makes sense because the team will have the maximum time to apply the new knowledge. It is not hard to imagine that training sessions at the beginning of a project will result in earlier project completion and a higher level of quality. On the other hand, it probably doesn’t make sense to attend that same training one week before you are going live. The class time will most likely result in a corresponding implementation delay and provide very limited benefit to the current project.

Of course, Sean’s project is half completed. So, it is not obvious whether it makes sense to invest in team training now. Sean should talk with his team about the training that is available and what they would learn. Then they need to realistically estimate how much earlier they could complete the project if they had the training. If attending training results in completing the project earlier, it may be worth the effort. If taking the class makes the project complete later, then it cannot be justified based on the time savings. (It may still be justified based on an increased quality level, but that would be a different set of factors to consider.)

Each week, project management veteran Tom Mochal provides valuable advice about how to plan and manage projects. Tom first describes a common problem scenario, based on a real-life situation. He then offers a solution, using practical project management practices and techniques.

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