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Onboarding new Ninjas with Sensei LMS: The good, the bad, and the ugly

Written by Job Thomas on May 26, 2015 Blog, Sensei.

While WooThemes was still a small company, it was easy to share necessary information with new team members (who we call “Ninjas”) as needed. However, this onboarding process gradually became more difficult as the team grew.

Several years ago, some of our team members started compiling a Google Doc with some of the most relevant information: our mission and focus, the most important tools we use, administrative details, and so on.

This solved several problems we had with onboarding. Most importantly, we didn’t throw people in at the deep end anymore — they now had a resource to review upon joining. It was also easy to edit. If some tools changed or some information needed to be added, anyone in the team could do it. Finally, we were already using Google Drive as a company, so our team members could consult the doc as needed.

A screenshot of what our original Ninja Manual looked like
A screenshot of what our original Ninja Manual looked like

However, there were also a few downsides. The most important one was that it got quite bulky. There were so many links in the document, and following that link often resulted in finding another document with more links. Before the new Ninja knew it, they had opened a dozen new tabs with different information, and that made it difficult to get back to the core.

It was also extremely challenging for supervisors and mentors to keep track of what was happening. Had the new Ninja read through everything or not? Did they need some assistance?

One of my first projects at WooThemes was addressing these challenges while still retaining the advantages of the Google Doc. Together with a small team, I started looking at our options. After a short while, we decided that we should use Sensei.

How we transitioned to Sensei

Our homebrewed Learning Management System, Sensei, powers a private platform we call WooLearn. Some examples of courses that were already developed by our team for WooLearn are Contributing to WordPress, Workflows, and Accounts.

We transferred the information that used to be in the Google Doc to a Sensei course designed specially for new Ninjas, which we later branded as The Ninja’s Guide to the WooGalaxy. By doing this we were able to address the needs we had identified.

The "Knowing Woo" module of our onboarding course with its lessons
The “Knowing Woo” module of our onboarding course with its lessons

With Sensei, it was a lot easier to get an overview of what was going to be taught. The course page shows the modules, as well as the lessons available. We’ve been selective in only including lessons that were absolutely necessary for the first few weeks and months.

All the content that wasn’t necessary was migrated into other courses. For example, we had a lot of information on how to use ZenDesk (the software we use for our support tickets), but since not all of our team members work with ZenDesk on a day-to-day basis, we put that information in a separate course. The course could then be taken specifically by those who would be using the software.

Some of the courses our Ninjas can follow on our private WooLearn platform
Some of the courses our Ninjas can follow on our private WooLearn platform

Next, we also wanted to make sure that the lessons were not cluttered (read: too long), but at the same time, we also wanted to keep them in lesson format. So we decided to do three things:

  1. We limited the information on how to use software in the actual onboarding course and focused on why we use it,
  2. We had the information on how to use the tools in separate posts that would pop up within the lesson instead of in a new window (and built a custom Sensei extension for this), and
  3. We made sure that any necessary linked URLs did open in a new window so the current lesson would stay open.
Our pop-up resources to not make the lessons too long and cluttered
Our pop-up resources to not make the lessons too long and cluttered

Because of Sensei’s learner management feature, it is easy for us to keep track of the progress of our new ninjas. We can see how much of the course they have completed. Admittedly, not everything can be taught through a course, so we also developed a Trello template with a checklist for all of our new ninjas.

The good: Sensei made learning easy for new ninjas

With this switch to Sensei, we were able to retain the good that the Google Docs method had. It is obvious that our onboarding course gives our new ninjas great information. It’s a good introduction to our company and how we work. It’s just become even better as we’ve gone through a an intensive editing process and updated the format.

Switching to WooLearn has also made it easy to edit lessons. Instead of choosing to limit editor permissions, we’ve chosen to give everyone access so they can add relevant lesson content or correct a spelling mistake (we do make those). We have also revamped our Trello board to keep better track of changes made on WooLearn, and have asked our team to ping us if they make changes.

Using Trello to track changes to and development of WooLearn
Using Trello to track changes to and development of WooLearn

Finally, WooLearn was a place that already was being used by our team, so it’s also a place where they are already at when they become a Ninja and as they continue their learning journey.

The bad and ugly things we fixed along the way

Using WooLearn more intensively also had another advantage. We feel that the best way to test software products is to use them actively. For example, by using WooCommerce on WooThemes.com, we’ve been able to identify several bugs and also set priorities for features.

With WooLearn, we decided to use Scholar, our Canvas child theme that works brilliantly with Sensei. Within the first days of revamping WooLearn, we identified several challenges with both Sensei and Scholar. For example, certain processes just didn’t feel natural.

We also found places that Scholar was being overridden by its parent theme. These bugs and issues were more easily identified through actively using our software, and we were able to fix them for everyone as a result.

Using GitHub to report the bugs and issues we discovered using Scholar
Using GitHub to report the bugs and issues we discovered using Scholar

Sensei makes onboarding fun

Using Sensei for our onboarding process has made the experience of joining WooThemes a little less intimidating. There is still a lot of information for new Ninjas to go through, but with Sensei, it has become a much more fun and clear process for them.

Could your company use Sensei for onboarding new employees as well? Let us know what you think!

Header image credit: Markus Spiske

11 Responses

  1. Leo Gopal
    May 26, 2015 at 6:23 pm #

    Awesome post Job – especially after meeting you in person to get a live demo of this process and how it can help others in the community, this is an awesome addition and refresher.

    • Job
      May 26, 2015 at 6:40 pm #

      Thanks a lot, Leo. Glad I could help.

  2. John Gardner
    May 26, 2015 at 9:19 pm #

    Absolutely brilliant idea. I had never thought of using Sensei in this way. We have a pretty intimidating onboarding process for sales and support staff and this looks like it could be a much better way than the in-person training we’re doing now.

    • Dan
      May 29, 2015 at 10:29 am #

      Thanks John! If you do implement this, please let us know how you get on 🙂

  3. Jason Mark
    May 26, 2015 at 9:55 pm #

    Nice post Job. Good to know you guys are ‘eating your own dog food’ 🙂 – It’s one of the best ways for Woo to evaluate and improve Sensei. Learning right! Love it. 🙂

    • Dan
      May 29, 2015 at 10:28 am #

      Absolutely! We’ve learnt a lot about how we can improve Sensei in the process of setting this up.

  4. Deon
    May 30, 2015 at 11:15 am #

    I love this idea! I already use Sensei on 3 websites, but this is a fantastic way to get new staff members onboard. I think I’m even going to suggest this to some of our clients as I’m sure the expanded Teacher role could be utilised by them for this exact purpose.

    • Nicole Kohler
      May 30, 2015 at 4:51 pm #

      So good to hear that Deon! Let us know how it turns out for you, we’d love to hear your feedback on the process.

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