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Theresa O’Leary: Changing Training

June 18, 2014
One of Theresa O’Leary’s first tasks as a customer service curriculum manager for an electric utility was the revision of the entire curriculum suite for newly hired customer service representatives.

One of Theresa O’Leary’s first tasks as a customer service curriculum manager for an electric utility was the revision of the entire curriculum suite for newly hired customer service representatives. As part of this initiative, O’Leary was also asked to address other issues, including the fact that management believed the existing new hire training program was largely ineffective.  Specifically, they questioned why newly hired reps seemed to lack basic customer service skills, even after completing what they perceived to be an intensive six weeks of training.  This situation had additional business consequences – not only did newly hired reps have a high percentage of errors, supervisors were also spending an excessive amount of retraining newly hired reps once they reached the floor.  

After hearing these issues, O’Leary suspected, and later confirmed, that the existing new hire training program was not developed using a “systematic” approach. 

“It was largely a combination of screen-based training and war stories,” O’Leary said. So O’Leary and her team completely revised the training program.  After developing the task list for customer service reps, they then designed and developed modular training blocks based on these tasks.  These training blocks were then assembled into courses. 

The new program was a success.  “Management reported a significant decrease in the percentage of errors made by new customer service reps, as well as a drop in the amount of time they were required to spend re-training them,” she said.  

O’Leary is Instructional Designer/Technical Writer at SOS Intl, where she has been an integral part of the continuing effort to revise the NERC Certification Training program to enhance students’ retention of material for the NERC certification exam. The most recent revision includes updating content to align more closely with the NERC test content and a refreshed look and feel for the modules.  

Using the systematic approach to training as mentioned above, she designs and develops online training courses and assists with the development of simulation courses. O’Leary works directly with the programming staff to incorporate Flash animation sequences into training modules. Most recently, she has prepared training for CIP, NERC standards, PER-005, presentation skills, voltage and angle stability for clients. 

She is currently working at a major Midwestern utility developing the curriculum for their system operators, “one of the most complex and challenging jobs in the world,” she said. “Very few people outside the electric utility industry realize what a significant service they provide to the community. System operator training must be extremely accurate. Incorrect training can easily lead to errors performed on the job –however, unlike most job-related mistakes, system operator errors can result in blackout conditions.”   

O’Leary does well with developing curriculum for system operators and other jobs within the utility industry as she has a technical writing degree and a degree in electrical engineering technology. This educational background has proven invaluable when interviewing system operators to obtain or review course material – they don’t need to spend additional time explaining fundamental concepts of electricity to her (as they sometimes must do for someone without this background).  “A system operator informed me that he once worked with an instructional designer who believed his experience writing about automotive transmission systems qualified him to develop course material on electric transmission operations,” she said.

O’Leary did not start out majoring in electrical engineering tech, however. “In college, my medical technology professor noted that my writing skills were far superior to my talents as a phlebotomist (after having fainted for the third time during a blood-drawing exercise),” O’Leary said.  “She recommended that I consider switching my major to technical writing. I soon found this field of study was the perfect fit for me. It allows me to combine my love of writing with my scientific curiosity.”

O’Leary sincerely enjoys developing training for system operators, and ensuring it incorporates all the elements they require to succeed. These elements include highly analytical tasks such as contingency analysis and situational awareness as well as more routine tasks such as controlling voltage and keeping daily logs. 

She also enjoys helping family and friends, “volunteering” her services as an editor and ad-hoc composition instructor.

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