Innovating the Way We Train: Digitizing our Training Manual

Patricia Sirma, a business mentor in Bungoma, Kenya, holds a large plastic bottle with many holes on the bottom, in front of a room full of fellow Village Enterprise business mentors and staff. She begins by explaining that the big bottle represents the pool where we collect the income. The bottom, where the holes are located, represents the daily expenses we face from school fees, food, clothing, hospital bills, transport, business input, etc. Then she holds up a handful of smaller bottles. She pours water from one of them into the larger one. The water flows out through the holes. 

Patricia stops and turns to the room. “What is happening?” she asks. A few people raise their hands. They all agree that when you have one source of income flowing through the pool, daily living expenses will consume most of that income. Then she demonstrates what happens when you add water from another smaller bottle and then a third and a fourth. She explains that when we have one source of income flowing into the pool, we will always spend that income on expenses, which will cause our businesses to fail. But the more sources of income we have, the more profit can flow into the pool. With this strategy, we can both meet our expenses and continue to grow our businesses.

If Patricia hadn’t used those water bottles in such an interactive and engaging way, the audience probably wouldn’t remember her lesson. Merely lecturing and speaking at people is a standard teaching style in Uganda, but it’s not very effective; it leaves people bored and disengaged. They feel that they can get by without internalizing the teachings, and questioning what they are learning is uncommon.  At Village Enterprise, we used to use this method. We spoke at people and wrote critical points on a flipchart. We used a 184-page business training manual to educate new entrepreneurs. This style was effective in a sense as it did manage to start thousands upon thousands of successful businesses — but the lessons were dense.

Most importantly, this method was somewhat inconsiderate to our entrepreneurs, many who have not yet had the opportunity to learn to read or write. We realized that our training curriculum was too long (15 modules and a 184-page business training manual), and our teaching method was not very engaging. Therefore our entrepreneurs were only able to understand and retain some of the concepts that were taught.

So, we did something about it.  

In early 2019, the Innovation Team came together and deconstructed Village Enterprise’s complete manual. Using the Human-Centered Design approach, a methodology used across the organization, the team took an in-depth look at our overall training curriculum. They pinpointed the key learnings and excluded anything that wasn’t pertinent. They also brainstormed activities that would demonstrate lessons that were important to running a business and ways of involving the entire class in theatre inspired roleplay. By re-imagining the training manual, our team created a new training manual that was engaging and memorable.

After deciding on several ideas, the Innovations team tested them in the field. With the help of a few business mentors, they inserted a few new ideas into a regularly planned training. Some ideas worked. Some didn’t. The team took the well-received ideas and included them in the new manual. Rather than assuming what our communities would understand and be receptive to, our team tested and then tested again. 

The next step was finding a way to illustrate these ideas in a way that everyone could understand. We hired an artist based in Gulu, Uganda, who took our ideas and transformed them into picture codes. These colorful graphics were then printed onto waterproof material and bound to plastic piping. This way, our business mentors could travel to the field and quickly flip through the picture codes while teaching.

Before we sent the new training manual into the field to use with our new entrepreneurs, our Innovation team held workshops in Uganda and Kenya to teach our staff the ins and outs of the new manual. The implementation of the new training manual began by splitting our staff into three groups. Each group received one module to study and discuss. 

After deliberating and exploring the content, each group presented their module as if all of their colleagues were entrepreneurs. The result was an interactive experience where everyone learned by watching each group present the content from their assigned module. After each presentation, there was time to share feedback. This was an essential part of the process because ideas and comments shared during this period influenced the training manual’s improvement.

Business Mentors looking through illustrations to make the training manual easier to comprehend

One thing emphasized during the workshop was the idea that business mentors are storytellers. They were encouraged to use stories and picture codes to teach. Rather than lecturing, the new manual advocates the use of interaction and questions. How do you teach someone who cannot read or write the concept of Value Addition? You use a story, hold up the picture codes, and ask the future entrepreneurs to figure out what’s going on in the pictures—learning by doing—learning by interacting—learning by observing and listening and taking it all in.

Our training manual was reduced from 15 modules (184 pages) to nine modules (42 pages). Each module uses a standardized structure, focusing on three key learning objectives that are both critical and applicable to our entrepreneurs. Each learning objective is introduced with a participatory activity. And finally, each training module concludes with application activities that allow our Business Mentors to gauge retention and where extra support is needed.  

The new manual for Business Mentors is only available on tablets and computers to eliminate paper. A digital format enables instant updates and changes to the ever-evolving document easier. 

We have heard from countless business mentors and other staff members that the new training manual is more effective and that our entrepreneurs are walking away with a better understanding of what it means to run a business, add value, increase profit, and how to save money. Vicky Achan, a business mentor, based in Kitgum, Uganda, noted that between the two manuals, “The old one was a bit hectic, and the new one is easier to learn and to deliver to our program participants: these new training manuals have picture codes, so even an illiterate person can see what is happening. I also like the educational roleplay, which they can learn from.”

Five months after the initial rollout of the new training manual, we held a refresher workshop. We introduced the business mentors to modified versions of the picture codes based on the feedback we received from the field. This is one of the most critical aspects of our approach to improving our program: continually listening to the people we serve to bring the most useful resources to their communities.

The new training manual brings our staff and communities to a better and more engaging state of teaching and learning. It encourages creativity and playfulness. It asks people to look at their daily lives and their available resources to see how they can learn from those things. It challenges people to stay engaged and to learn intuitively. We are still in the beginning stages of the new training manual, but, so far, we are beyond excited by the results.

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