Helping SMEs Become More Effective Presenters through Communities of Practice

For years I’ve facilitated presentation skills programs and train the trainer programs for Subject Matter Experts, hoping that they’d buy into the idea of adult learning theory, some basic instructional design principles and the need to abandon bullet point-laden PowerPoint slides. It’s worked to varying degrees of success.

Later this month at the Association for Talent Development’s (ATD) International Conference and Expo (ICE), Darlene Brady Christopher, who is a Senior Knowledge and Learning Officer with the World Bank, will be sharing her experiences from a program that has seen great success converting SMEs to more effective presenters. Through a bonus podcast this week, we went into more depth about how her community of practice program has helped keep SMEs at the World Bank engaged and interested on becoming stronger presenters.

If you plan to be at ATD ICE, Darlene’s session will be on August 30, from 1:00pm – 2:00pm.

Transcript of the Conversation with Darlene Brady Christopher

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, Co-founder and CEO of Endurance Learning. And I’m your host today. I’m joined here by Darlene Christopher, who is the Senior Knowledge and Learning Officer at the World Bank. Darlene, thank you so much for joining us today.

Darlene Brady Christopher: Thank you, Brian. It’s great to be here.

6-Word Biography

Brian Washburn: So we’re going to be talking here about engaging SMEs through a community of practice. And so as we like to do with all of the podcasts, we have our guests introduce themselves in exactly six words. And I’ll start with an example of that with this topic. When I think of engaging SMEs in communities of practice, I would say that, “I appreciate experts who can teach”. How about you, Darlene? How would you introduce yourself in exactly six words?

Darlene Brady Christopher: So, this is tough, but I’ll say, “Training trainers virtually is my jam”.

Brian Washburn: Alright. So virtual training– and my guess, working at the World Bank, you have people all over the country– virtual training is your thing. And this is really interesting because we’re going to be talking about communities of practice here, and it’s also part of our series of people who are presenting at ATD ICE. And I know that, unfortunately, you won’t be able to be there in person, but your session will be on August 30th from 1:00 PM to 2:00 PM. And it is about this idea of SMEs and communities of practice. So before we go too far, can you tell us a little bit about how you’re defining the term community of practice? How is it being used? What do these communities of practice look like?

What Is a Community of Practice?

Darlene Brady Christopher: So the definition that I’m using is actually one that comes from Etienne Wenger, a guru in the community of practice world, and also one of the authors of Cultivating Communities of Practice. And he defines it like this: it’s a group of people who share a concern or a passion for something that they do, and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. So what it means in my situation, in our organization, is that you have people who work together on a team and they interact regularly through the course of their day-to-day work – but that’s different. A community of practice is a group of people that we unite them from different parts of the organization, where they’re not interacting on a regular basis, and we give them a way to do that through this community.

Brian Washburn: So, as you mentioned, you know, co-workers kind of interact informally all the time. This is interaction-with-intention of people that may not otherwise interact when they’re talking about a certain topic. Is that it?

Darlene Brady Christopher: Yeah. That’s right. So for the community that I run, our subject matter experts are technical experts – they are World Bank economists, transportation specialists, or other roles. And they partner with our team to deliver training programs to World Bank staff. So they work in different parts of the organization. They actually work all over the world. But they do something similar, right? They have this common interest, in a common line of their work, which is that they have to train. It’s kind of like their second job, and this is what it is to be a subject matter expert. And so they’re interacting a lot on their primary job, which is to get better at being an economist and learning what’s happening in the world. And this is that secondary role that they’re taking on, and naturally it’s hard for them to come together. So that’s what the community does for them.

Brian Washburn: I think this is really interesting because a lot of times, in a lot of the organizations that I’ve worked in, I’ve worked with subject matter experts and we’ll do like a train the trainer program or presentation skills program. And we’re like, “Hey, these are adult learning principles, and this is what you should use as you’re putting together your presentations. Don’t just talk to people”. And then for the rest of the time, we expect them to actually be able to put together something that’s going to be engaging and effective when that’s not their primary job. And so you have this community practice to help reinforce these skills in an ongoing way. I’m kind of curious, how did you get SMEs to actually spend time with this community of practice? They have their day job. What’s in it for them?

How Does an SME Benefit from Being in a Community of Practice?

Darlene Brady Christopher: Yeah. It’s a good question. And it’s– you know, what we found is that, like you said, we would do the same thing – we would do a train the trainer and then, “Okay, good luck! Go have fun with that!” And they didn’t really have a way to keep learning from each other. And we know that that’s– you don’t learn from going to the training, you learn from applying it. 

So they had previously also been doing a little bit of this because everybody wants to get better at what they do and their work. So they were, you know, watching each other. If they came across each other in a training class, maybe they were exchanging some ideas. But the community gave us a way to scale that. And I think the reason that they’re spending time with us and doing some of the activities that we have been doing is that they found value in it. They learned from each other which is how a lot of us like to learn. Maybe you go to the IT training because a new tool has rolled out and you have the IT trainers tell you, “Okay, here’s how it’s going to work”. But then when you start talking to your peers about how they’re using that tool – that’s when you can really start to learn. So that is what’s happening in our community. 

And I also think that they’ve realized that the better they get at delivering training, these skills translate to the skills they need to be successful overall. So if you’re good at presenting your ideas clearly, or you’re good at getting put on the spot with a question and knowing how to think on your feet, these skills help you with your career overall. So that’s also some value that they get out of this.

Brian Washburn: I love that there’s something that’s in it for them, right? It’s not just, “Hey, you’ve gone through this train the trainer. Now we expect everyone to be part of this new practice”. There’s something in it for them, they’re getting value out of it. How about overall results? What kind of results have you seen as a result of this community of practice that’s being put together?

What Are the Overall Results When SMEs Participate in Communities of Practice?

Darlene Brady Christopher: So, I’ll talk about three different areas. We’ve seen results in different ways, at different levels. So first of all, our community existed before the pandemic but then we switched to a hundred percent virtual deliveries, like many across the world. And many trainers wanted to– some of them had experience doing virtual training, but they wanted more. They wanted to learn more about how to master this method. So I would say we’ve seen skill development. We have seen them get better at it. And everyone’s curious about it because it’s new, the platforms keep changing and we keep getting more and more creative. 

I think on another level, we’ve provided a way for the trainers to be recognized for this really important work that they do in the organization that’s often– it just doesn’t get noticed. So we feature them in our newsletter. We’ll share our stories about them in the newsletter. We’ve also worked with our community to create videos where we do interviews with them, kind of, train the trainer interviews. We get them to share best practices, and then we share those videos beyond the community, into other parts of the organization where training is also taking place, so they can get more notoriety and more recognition there. 

And finally, it’s a place for them to network. Networking is huge in our organization; you need a broad network, you need a deep network. So this is just another way for them to network. They can keep in touch with people who are working in different parts of the organization. Maybe they can learn about something that’s happening in a different part of the organization that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do that. So it’s a way for people to keep in touch and they value that as well. And that’s been a great result.

Brian Washburn: I love all of this. And I’m a little jealous that I never was able to come up and develop something like this within a number of my own organizations, prior to starting my own company. Now I’m curious, and I bet the other people who are listening are also kind of thinking this actually sounds like it could be really helpful. One of the biggest challenges is getting subject matter experts to communicate their expertise in a way that other people can digest without giving people all the information, right, that’s in their head. And so for anybody who’s listening, other than attending your session on August 30th from 1:00 PM to 2:00 PM at ICE, what would be a first step or two that perhaps they could take to get on the path of creating something like this?

Steps To Get Started Creating a Community of Practice

Darlene Brady Christopher: Well let me share just a couple of tips, and then of course the whole story is in my session. I would start first by determining: what’s the purpose of your community? So in my case, we knew that we wanted our SMEs to become better trainers, so that may be the story for the listeners of this podcast. But your purpose has to go beyond that. So what’s the business value? If your trainers are better trainers, what value does that bring to your organization? Because you need to link it to your business. And then I would say look and see what resources you have available to support your community because you can’t do it all on your own. And you also can’t just assume that, “Okay, I’m going to create”– for example, we use Yammer. “I’m going to start a Yammer group and there you go, have at it! SMEs go interact”. You know, it won’t work like that. So you need people. You need a business sponsor who’s going to legitimize your community and you need a core team. You need some– a few people who can carve out some time. It doesn’t need to be their full-time job but they need to be able to set aside a little bit of time to do this. And those are some things to get you started. And then next you’ll start thinking about what it is you’re going to do for the community. But those are two foundational steps, I would say, are really important.

Brian Washburn: Yeah. And I hope that people will have an opportunity to hear the longer conversation for this at ATD ICE. We’re out of time here to talk too much more about that but, Darlene, thank you so much for giving us just a little bit of a taste of what this is and what this concept is. 

Get to Know Darlene Brady Christopher

Brian Washburn: Before we go, we’d love to have our listeners get to know a little bit more about you, just as a person. And so we have a few speed round questions – are you ready for them?

Darlene Brady Christopher: I’m ready.

Brian Washburn: Alright. So the first question is: what is your favorite city to travel to for work?

Darlene Brady Christopher: Bangkok in Thailand.

Brian Washburn: Why is that?

Darlene Brady Christopher: It’s such an amazing country. The Thai people are amazing. The food is incredible, and it’s just a lovely place. Yeah.

Brian Washburn: How about the best– what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Darlene Brady Christopher: I had somebody tell me this in my current organization: “It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it”. So you may have great ideas and, you know, had this amazing vision, but you need others along the way to support you and collaborate with you. So think really hard about how you do your work and how you get others involved, as well. It’s been very helpful throughout my career.

Brian Washburn: Good advice. How about any shameless plugs before we go? Is there anything that you’re looking to plug or promote?

Darlene Brady Christopher: Oh, well, I have a website: darlenechristopher.com where I blog about virtual training. So happy to connect with people there.

Brian Washburn: Excellent. Well, Darlene Brady Christopher, thank you so much for joining us today. You are the Senior Knowledge and Learning Officer at the World Bank. Thank you everyone else for listening to another episode of Train Like You Listen, which can be found on Spotify, Apple, wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, go ahead and share what we’re doing here. And that’s how other people find out about us, too. Until next time, happy training everyone.

This week’s podcast is sponsored by Soapbox. Sign up today for a free demo below.

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