Which Comes First—Enabling Technology or Skill Development? Four must-ask questions for this classic “chicken or the egg” situation

About a year ago I was in one of those meetings with our team that we’ve all been in, discussing how to make a critical process more efficient, increase customer service levels and transparency, and give our team better tools so they could do a better job. In the room were sales, marketing, and development leadership, along with a few other stakeholders who had an interest in the outcome of the discussion. 

Our team did a great job deconstructing the challenges and getting to the core issues: communication, enabling technology, and team member skills. One of the approaches we used was to create a “solution cascade” by which we prioritized the things that have to happen in the best order so that we achieve the target outcome. We faced the same question each time we created the cascade: Do we first upskill our team and then deploy the enabling technology? Or do we instead first deploy the technology designed to enable the team to better execute their new skills? Communication in this case turned out to be a byproduct of better skill execution, and got incorporated into the training component. 

If you’re facing a similar situation, here are 4 questions to ask your team that may help bring some clarity to the discussion. 
  1. Do we need to make the intended change faster than we can implement the technology? If yes, then you may not have a choice other than to train or intervene in the current processes
  2. Is deploying the technology first going to overtax our team’s ability to learn or function in their job roles? You want to ensure the technology is seen as a resource versus a distraction. Taking the time to learn technology is to be expected and is part of the process
  3. Are we likely to uncover better approaches and processes as we deploy the technology? The technology may change the way we’re thinking about our current processes
  4. Is it possible that the training will actually be more efficient when we include the technology on the front end? 
As we were deciding which route to take, we created a couple of different scenarios—one that deployed the training first in order to give the technology a “home” when it was deployed, and another in which we deployed the technology first and built the training around how to use the tool to execute. 
  • Training first: People need to understand expectations and have solid business practices in place. Otherwise, technology will simply accelerate problems and poor decisions. Underlying job skills are critical to effective implementation of any new enabling technology
  • Technology first: The enabling technology will function as the glue that holds the skill development together. It will help accelerate adoption of new business processes and make them more sustainable in the long run by increasing efficiency for the people who are responsible for implementing them. This option increases the learning load by layering the technology on top of the skill learning. So a discussion on knowledge retention and time availability must happen 
In the end, we opted to implement technology first and upskill around the platform. Six months in, it appears to have been a good decision. It turned out that if we had implemented the skill side first, we would have uncovered a lot of processes that would have had to be reworked and retrained simply because we didn’t have enough knowledge about different ways the platform would help our team streamline this aspect of their work—we didn’t know what we didn’t know. The other significant benefit that came out during training was that if we had opted to train in advance of deploying the technology, we never would have been able to sustain the business processes we were asking our team to adopt. We never could have gotten to the level of efficiency and service without the technology being in place. The technology allowed us to do more and do it faster. 
About the author
For over 25 years Gary Marinko has worked in a consultative capacity with Fortune 500 companies solving complex business challenges with technology. More recently Gary has combined his expertise in technology with sales training in the life sciences industry to bring focused value creation to key Proficient Learning customers. In his current role, he leads the interactive business unit at Proficient Learning, which focuses on developing sales enablement software and mobile solutions that help sales teams and managers accelerate performance and efficiency.