Jeni Johnson was perfectly ready, willing and able to volunteer her instructional design talents to create a training program (for free!) for staff and foster pet parents on how to best care for the animals… but nobody was interested in taking her up on her offer.
It turns out, people were just too busy to stop what they were doing to take an e-learning course about how to give a flea bath. At the end of the day, it wasn’t even a training course that was needed.
I had a chance to sit down and talk with Jeni about her approach to training design and when it might be appropriate to use something other than a formal course to help others get their jobs done better.
Transcript of the Conversation with Jeni Johnson
Brian Washburn: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Train Like You Listen a weekly podcast about all things learning and development in bite-sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn, your host, and also the co-founder of a company called Endurance Learning. Today. I am joined by Jeni Johnson, who’s going to be talking to us a little bit later about resources, not courses.
But before we get to all that, we do need to give a shout out to our sponsor, Soapbox, the world’s first and only rapid-authoring tool for instructor-led training. It’s a little bit like instant pot, but for lesson planning. So you throw a few ingredients in such as how long your lesson will be, what your learning objectives are, how many people will attend,then you hit enter. And, wahla, you have a mostly baked lesson planned for you. So Soapbox. If you’d like to learn more about that, it’s soapboxify.com.
Jeni is a Senior Instructional designer at Traliant. Thank you so much for joining us today, Jeni.
Jeni Johnson: Hi, thanks for having me.
Brian Washburn: Well, I’m excited to talk about this because one of the things that we do with Endurance Learning is we try to figure out what’s the path of least resistance to help people learn. And recently I saw that you had posted a recent project that you did on LinkedIn and you didn’t do any training, so you cut training out.
Brian Washburn: But before we get into that, we like to have our guests introduce themselves with six words, a biography in six words. If I was to do my six-word biography, I would say “sometimes my training is a waste”. And part of that is because you don’t always need to have training. How about you, Jeni? How would you introduce or sum up your entire career in six words?
Jeni Johnson: Oh, okay. Mine would be “training dogs and people since 2007”.
Brian Washburn: (LAUGHING) I love that. And which one is easier by the way, dogs or people?
Jeni Johnson: Dogs. (LAUGHING) 100%.
Brian Washburn: They can also, most oftentimes be much cuter when they don’t do something that we want them to do.
Jeni Johnson: There’s a lot of similarities though, between training pets and people. It’s kind of amazing when you start getting into the psychology behind it.
The “Resources, Not Courses” Philosophy
Brian Washburn: Absolutely, so– I want to talk a little bit about this phrase “resources, not courses”. It’s pretty catchy, but can you talk a little bit more about what that means?
Jeni Johnson: It is catchy and it stuck in my brain. And I can’t take credit for it because I actually heard it on another podcast two years ago, David James‘ podcast. And I believe the guest was Ross Stevenson and he used it in reference to creating a repository like a Company Google for onboarding.
And, I mean, that podcast has stuck in my brain for the last two years. And it was kind of very, very eye-opening for me. And not only is the phrase catchy, but it’s just so true.
Brian Washburn: Absolutely. It’s, it’s one of those things where, you know, oftentimes our default is just, alright, we need a course. We need a course to help people learn that.
And that’s actually not how most learning actually happens.
Jeni Johnson: Exactly.
Brian Washburn: People go to Google, people use their intranet, people turn to a coworker, things like that. I’m kind of curious because you were able to do an entire project recently that was focused just on a resource as opposed to a course, but what are some questions that people should be asking themselves to determine whether a business problem will take a formal training course to solve, versus when more informal means such as resources or job aids or peer support or other things can do the trick?
How Can You Determine if Training is the Best Solution?
Brian Washburn: Mm-hmm.
Jeni Johnson: And the very first thing we should be asking in response to a training request is “why?”. Why are people doing this thing or not doing this thing? And is it really a lack of skill or knowledge or are there other factors going on that training can’t fix? And, you know, Cathy Moore’s kind of the queen of, if you ever look at her flow chart about how to get to the root of that problem and the same thing with the Toyota five whys. If you ask why five times you’re trying to get to the root of that problem. And a lot of times in training, it’s not lack of skill or knowledge that is the root of the problem. So if we throw training at people and we’re not addressing the problem, well, you know, what are we doing then? (CHUCKLING)
Brian Washburn: Yeah. That’s really fascinating. So you’re kind of approaching this with the idea in mind that people in the learning and development space should actually play the role of consultant more than order taker. Do you ever get anxious when somebody is like, “hey, we need a training”, and you’re like, “why?”, that it will diminish your role or people will be like, “Jeni doesn’t want to do what I asked her to do.”
How Does an Instructional Designer Push Back When Training Is Not The Solution?
Jeni Johnson: Yeah. When I was a new ID, I did. It was incredibly hard to push back. When you first start off in ID and it’s very, very common to become an order taker and you just kind of think, “well, this is my job. I’m here to create training. They’re asking me for training. If I give them what they need, I’m doing my job.” Right? But as you get deeper into this industry and you get more comfortable with yourself and you get more comfortable with the entire process and, you know in your core that being an order taker is not the right thing to do and is not ultimately going to help your organization meet their goals or the people that you’re providing training to meet their goals. So you get more comfortable pushing back and you get more comfortable in that consultant role. And I don’t think it’s so much that you start to feel like you’re not doing your job. It almost feels like you’re taking on another piece of your job, a more important piece in my opinion.
Brian Washburn: Sure.
Jeni Johnson: But it’s the hardest piece.
It’s a lot easier just to say, “yep. I’ll go do this training for you. Absolutely”. It’s very hard to push back, especially when you’re going to get a lot of pushback. You know, you may come back and say, “okay, I want to ask ‘why?’ a million times and try to get to the root of the problem.” And you’re always going to have people– stakeholders that say, “no, I just want you to do this”. And sometimes it’s above your pay grade. Sometimes you do have to say, “okay, we’re going to do what you need to do.” But there’s a little give and take there, especially as you get more experienced and more comfortable.
Brian Washburn: This is really interesting because your background initially was in the classroom. So in a public school setting. Did this have– did that have any influence on the resources, not courses philosophy? Because in a school setting, traditional setting, it’s all about courses. It’s all about classes. However, your background is a little different in being an ESL teacher, where the teaching instruction might be a little non-traditional. Can you tell me a little bit more about whether, or how, that may have impacted this philosophy a little bit?
Challenging the “Resources, Not Courses” Philosophy in a Public School Setting
Jeni Johnson: Yeah. I actually became the queen of pushing back to the point where sometimes I would have administrators say, you know, “you’re stepping over the line”. They were not a big fan of mine and I was okay with that because I wasn’t there for them. I was there for my learners. And I worked with mostly at-risk youth and the refugee population. When you’re looking at their needs, direct instruction, 9 times out of 10 is not going to be what they need. And that’s how our education system is set up. That’s how our training system is set up. So a lot of times I had to advocate for other things they might need, you know. Standing in front of the room and talking to them straight for 10 minutes isn’t going to do anything? Okay. I need to bring in videos. I need to bring in demonstration, hands-on. And a lot of times I was told “we don’t have time for that”. “We don’t have money for that.” “Just, you know, push out the lesson and be done with it.” That never sat well with me.
Brian Washburn: Yeah. This is so interesting because my hypothesis is the foundation for so much poor– poorly crafted training in the world of corporate training really goes back to our experiences in a classroom setting, or even in the university setting where it’s really all about “talking at”, right? Or having some sort of formal learning experience and that’s kind of what we grew up knowing. And so that’s what our default is to do. Now the thing that caught my attention, just in general over the past week or so, was you posted something about a recent project that you worked on and I’d love if you could just share with us a little bit more about this most recent project, where you came to the conclusion that a digital handbook would be more effective than a formal training class.
Developing a Business Solution Without a Formal Training Course
Jeni Johnson: Sure. I started volunteering for animal rescue groups long before I was an ID. I worked on their websites did photography, you know, walk dogs in the shelter. When I first got into ID automatically you start to notice things that are wrong. It’s just where your brain goes. What can be improved by training? What learning and development do they need?
So I started to see things within those organizations when it came to their volunteers that, you know, there was just this mass disorganization. And at the time, you know, you have a fixed set mentality. I’m like, well, they just need more training for their volunteers. Let me help you do that. I’ll do it for free. I’ll volunteer. Let me make you a course. Let me make you an e-learning. Let me make you a seminar and we’ll get all these volunteers together. You know, big, big dreamer, new to the field. And their eyes would glaze over. I talked to shelter directors and they would just be completely overwhelmed. “Yep. Yep. Thanks for your time. Okay. We’ll see you later.” Just not receptive. And at the time, being stubborn. I thought, “well, I don’t get it. I’m offering to do this for free. Why aren’t they taking me up on it?”
“They don’t want to sit through an hour e-learning of what they already know.”
Jeni Johnson: And then, you know, a few more years down the road, more experience, becoming more savvy at my craft. It really made me change my tune. And then this past year I became a foster home. So I was really one of the volunteers and I was, kind of, in it. And I could see from their perspective and I– it finally dawned on me, “well, they don’t have time. They don’t have money, they don’t have resources. Their main goal is to care for these animals, it’s not to make training.” Beyond that, there are volunteers spread out over multiple states. You have 16 year olds trying to get credit for high school all the way up to 20 year veterans that have been doing animal training and veterinary services for years. If you make them take a course, you’re quickly going to alienate them. You know, they’re the experts. They don’t want to waste their time. They don’t want to sit through an hour e-learning of what they already know.
So I really started to rethink this approach to maybe not all volunteers need a course. What else could we do? How else could we make their volunteer experience better for them? And then also getting more “training” out there for them, for the newbies who are completely lost. I mean, I remember my first experience bringing home a dog to foster, no training. You know, I was given no information. You just go pick up this dog and they’re– usually they have some illnesses or, you know, they’re covered in fleas. I’m like, “what do I do with this dog? I don’t even know how to give a flea bath.” I needed a quick reference. So I started to look at it from not only the organization’s point of view – lack of time, lack of resources – but also from the volunteer’s point of view.
Brian Washburn: And you didn’t want to stop and take a 30 minute e-learning course on how to do a flea bath, right?
Jeni Johnson: That would not have worked very well with the 70 pound German shepherd in my bathtub. So I talked to one of the directors and I just, kind of, flat out, said, “you know, we both agree that you need something” and she’s like, “you’re right”.
You know, “we’re using Facebook, we’re using social media.” And they’re using it very well. They have a volunteer message board and group where they’re communicating and that’s where people are asking questions and that’s great. That’s a great start. How can we build on that? And she said, “you know, we just have like kind of a repository. We just throw stuff. We just throw– here’s a memo, here’s a letter we’ve sent out, here’s this and it’s just kind of a mess.”
So she said, “could you just take a look at that? Let’s just start there. Let’s take a look at our Facebook group. What things have been posted?” And I kind of gathered all the resources and started to look at, well yeah, there’s a lot of overlap. There’s a lot of things that may not make sense to a new person if it’s just a memo. So I just thought, okay, we’re going to put everything that somebody would need to know into one place, but it’s not just going to be random documents that they have to download from Facebook. It’s going to be a handbook, a digital handbook so they can access it quickly and it can be updated quickly and then they can always have it with them. And we can always update it on the fly and add to it, change things as needed and the director: “Great. That, that sounds wonderful. We need that so badly. We’ve never had a handbook.”
Designing a Digital Handbook of Instructional Resources
Jeni Johnson: I mean, they’ve been doing volunteer work for years and they’ve never had a standardized handbook. So we just talked about, well, once that’s done kind of a three phase approach. We’ll start with the handbook. The second phase, we talked about doing a video repository of things that new people would be completely lost on. Like, how do you give a flea bath? How do you teach a dog to walk on a leash that’s scared to death to go outside? You know, quick little snippets of video. And the great thing about the handbook is it was created in InDesign, which can do interactive. So I can also include the videos in that handbook. So again, it’s staying in one place. Everybody knows you just go to this one place. That’s where all your information is going to be. And then the third phase, we talked about adding in a quarterly newsletter with “at the moment” things that they may need to know, like what happens every summer? What crops up? What problems can crop up? But we just need to remind people and get it back in their face again. “Hey, pay attention to this. These are some new updates”, possibly a podcast with a vet with issues that come up. So, again, more resources that they can have at their disposal, that’s never a course.
Brian Washburn: I love this story because it’s not just this experience that you had with a volunteer organization and, you know, a flea bath. There are so many transferable components from this story to the world that most of us operate in for learning and development, right?
People just– they don’t have time to sit there and, you know, navigate a 30 minute e-learning course or attend an hour long webinar. Sometimes, you know, it depends on what it is. You know, if I need to learn something about how to use augmented reality, maybe I do want to educate myself on that and spend an hour in a webinar or go through a course or something like that. But if I just need what it is what I need to know in the moment, I don’t want a training course. I want the video. I want the thing.
So Jeni Johnson, Senior Instructional Designer at Traliant. Thank you so much for sharing this experience.
Get to Know Jeni Johnson
Brian Washburn: Before we go, I do have a couple of speed round questions, so our audience can get to know a little bit more. Are you ready for that?
Jeni Johnson: Yep.
Brian Washburn: Okay. So first question, when you’re giving a presentation right before it what’s your go-to food or snack?
Jeni Johnson: It’s probably going to be something salty, some kind of chip.
Brian Washburn: Oh, nice. A lot of times, people will say “chocolate” or something like that or “caffeine”. But salt. Salt is your drug of choice. I like it. What’s a piece of training tech that you cannot live without?
Jeni Johnson: I could not live about Snagit. I use it daily, hourly.
Brian Washburn: And especially for things like the digital handbook.
Jeni Johnson: Yeah
Brian Washburn: Absolutely. What should people be listening to today? Or what should they be reading these days?
Jeni Johnson: So I’m going to throw out a non-training suggestion. When I kind of need my brain to have a break and I’m like walking dogs in the morning, I listen to Dear Sugars podcast, which is a little, little dose of humanity with some psychology thrown in.
Brian Washburn: What’s the– like, what’s the topic or what’s the genre of that podcast?
Jeni Johnson: It’s two authors and they have people write in letters and then they read the letters on the podcast and then give advice, life advice.
Brian Washburn: I love it because– yeah, because a lot of times, and I just posted about this the other day, yeah, I dig all sorts of learning and development stuff, but sometimes it’s just good to get inspiration from outside of the field. Or just to give the brain a break, and, and hear from something else that that could inspire some thoughts.
Finally, any shameless plugs?
Jeni Johnson: I don’t have a shameless plug, just that I’m always willing to help. I’m always available to, kind of, guide newbies in the field or even seasoned veterans that just want to chat. I do free portfolio reviews. So if you need to refresh your portfolio or you’re just, kind of, not sure about the things you’re putting in your portfolio, send me a message. I’m always willing to look at your stuff and give suggestions.
Brian Washburn: And what’s the best way for people to connect with you? Is it LinkedIn? Is it email?
Jeni Johnson: Definitely LinkedIn.
Brian Washburn: Okay, perfect. So Jeni Johnson, Senior Instructional Designer at Traliant. Go ahead and look her up on LinkedIn. Thank you so much, Jeni, for joining us–
Jeni Johnson: Thank you, it was great.
Brian Washburn: And thank you everyone for listening to another episode of Train Like You Listen. You can find us on Spotify, on Apple, on iHeartRadio or wherever you get your podcasts. If you like what you heard, go ahead and give us a rating. That’s how people will find us. Until next time, happy training, everyone.
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