Here's a not-so-happy thought: You need to learn the essentials of HTML, or how to drill into a Microsoft Access 2000 database. The more powerful software becomes, and the more essential it becomes to every part of a business, the more dreary it is to learn. There may be no phrase more dreaded by overstressed businesspeople than "I'm from the training department, and I'm here to teach you."
Happy Computers Ltd., an aptly named software-training company based in London, has been trying to change all of that. The company — one of the largest independent IT-training facilities in the United Kingdom — is small by U.S. standards (it trains only about 12,000 people a year). But its influence far exceeds its size: Happy has garnered praise from the UK's training establishment, and its teaching methods have influenced a new certification program adopted by the UK's Institute of IT Training.
So what's the secret to Happy's smile? According to Henry Stewart, 40, who founded Happy in 1991, IT training isn't about technology — it's about people. "We base everything we do on the learner, not on manuals," declares Stewart. "In most IT training, a trainer spends 90% of the time telling and showing. We believe that you need to have empathy for every person in a room. People learn best when they feel good about themselves, when they're relaxed, and when they're involved in what they're learning."
Walk through the doors of Happy's training center in London, and that philosophy is immediately visible. Cafe tables and chairs dot the foyer. Brightly colored couches line the office walls, which are decorated with inspirational sayings and vibrant artwork. Even the toilet paper in the rest rooms is pastel. Classes break daily at 1 PM for lunch (students get a buffet) and at 4 PM for ice cream. "I've gone to a couple of other seminars, but I didn't find them at all useful," says Betty Mitchell, 61, an assistant in the services department of Cancerlink, who recently took an intermediate course in Microsoft Word at Happy. "Tutors at Happy are all friendly and interested in you as an individual, not just because you're taking a daylong course."
But Happy is much more than its upbeat mood. The company's "training principles," a teaching manifesto of sorts, are a short course in what it takes for any instructor (not just a software trainer) to make an enduring impression on students. The aim of a course, says the manifesto, is not only to teach the technology but also to "give students a sense of confidence in themselves." The motto for students is "Experiment. Ask questions. Make mistakes." Happy's courses follow what it calls "the rule of three." Trainers encourage students to practice a new skill three times: when they first learn it, in a review activity, and in an independent exercise. "If I tell you something, you'll forget. If I show you, you'll remember. And if I involve you, you'll understand," Stewart says.
By design, Happy keeps things small: No more than six students are in a class. And a trainer doesn't tell students what they need to learn. Instead, students are asked what they want to learn. "Many people come to class with a clear goal. Before they learn something, they might have some preconceived notions about what they want," says Cathy Callus, 39, a Happy trainer and the recipient of the Institute of IT Training's 1999 IT Trainer of the Year award. "So it's important to ask students what they want and why. We don't teach people how to use features; we teach them how to do what they want to do."
Happy also keeps its classes competitive. In its training course to prepare people for IT certification, Happy divides classes into two teams. Each team comes up with three review questions for the other team. Teams review the material that they need to know as they try to come up with questions that will stump the other team. That ties into another of Happy's training principles: Set the stage for learning, and then get out of the way. "After establishing an exercise's principles and parameters, trainers leave their classrooms," Stewart says. "People are used to dependent learning — doing what they're told to do. Our aim is to teach ourselves out of a job. We train people how to train themselves."
Contact Henry Stewart by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or learn more about Happy Computers on the Web (www.happy.co.uk).
Sidebar: Lessons for Life
Plenty of companies try to bridge the "digital divide" by donating hardware and software to nonprofits. But those donations can leave nonprofit groups wondering what to do next. How do staffers and clients use all this stuff?
Happy Computers is helping those groups answer that question. Since April 2000, Happy has worked with the Central London Training and Enterprise Council to partner with six agencies that serve the homeless and unemployed. "Giving these agencies money or hardware is a drop in the ocean," says Henry Stewart, Happy's founder. "We're trying to make people more effective."
Happy, which also donates 4% of its profits to charity and gives employees a paid day off every month to do volunteer work, offers nonprofits a range of tools and services: It prepares agency workers for certification by the Institute of IT Training so that they can then train homeless and unemployed people. It also offers educational nonprofits free training materials. What's more, Happy lets agencies use its space for free in the evenings and on weekends to train people.
"I have a core belief in the principles that this company promotes — not the technological principles but the politics that are behind them," says Suzy Cornwell, 33, Happy's operations manager. "We operate on the premise that everyone has a right to be trained."
A version of this article appeared in the May 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.