Building the Training DNA of SMEs (Part 1)

Last week in India, I witnessed what it looks like to have sound instructional design and adult learning incorporated into the DNA of a group of subject matter experts.  The following slideshow offers a few snapshots of what this physically looked like.  The photos were taken during two and a half days of workshops featuring surgeons, health care executives, Board of Trustee members and middle management.  Almost every session was led by a subject matter expert.

As you watch the slideshow, compare how many times you see someone standing behind a podium, clicking through slides vs. the number of photos of all 70 of the meeting attendees discussing, exploring, writing and actively participating in the learning activities.

Moving SMEs toward training design that involves and engages their learners didn’t happen overnight.  It wasn’t something that happened during the two months of preparation that went into last week’s meeting.  It’s been the culmination of two years’ worth of discussions, coaching, feedback, training and buy-in by everyone involved.

Friday, this Train Like A Champion Blog will outline the key milestones and strategies taken to build sound adult learning and instructional design into the DNA of the subject matter experts I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the past several years.

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Learning by Osmosis

What high schooler didn’t dream of falling asleep with their heads in a textbook as they studied, hoping to wake up having absorbed all the key points “through osmosis”? It turns out that most of our skulls are not semi-permeable membranes; it takes a little more effort to learn. Though perhaps not too much more effort.

Heading in to 2012, one of my New Years’ Resolutions was to spend more time with people in the training field. In January I sent an email to a colleague from another organization to ask if he’d be interested in meeting up for coffee on a monthly basis to geek out over training. I reached out to another acquaintance when I was going to be in Washington, DC in order to learn more about what her organization was doing with distance learning. Occasionally, I’ll get together for coffee or lunch with a larger group of trainers. I try to participate in some LinkedIn discussion forums when I can find the time. Next month I’ll finally attend a local ASTD chapter meeting.  And I find myself absorbing all sorts of new training ideas through these interactions.

It’s one of the only Resolutions I’ve ever kept – perhaps because this is a Resolution that I find gives me energy, it helps me do my job better, I really like it – this Resolution has given me several exciting benefits.

Benefit 1: Fresh Ideas

Earlier this year I was stuck in my effort to figure out an easy and engaging way to teach eye anatomy to staff in India without the lesson becoming a college-level biology lecture. Following one coffee-and-training geek out session, a colleague showed me an elearning module he’d been working on. It resembled a Cosmopolitan magazine personality quiz. And it struck me that I could create a classroom activity in a similar vein – a personality quiz about eye anatomy: which eyeball part are you? It was fun, light hearted and, when your personality resembles a pupil and a classmate’s personality resembles a cornea for various reasons, it’s easier to relate to the underlying biology fundamentals of the eye.

During lunch with trainers from various international NGOs, the topic of change management came up and several people mentioned they had read the book Switch. It inspired me to pick up a copy and after having read it, I suggested that my entire team at work read it in order for us to develop a common vocabulary around change management.

Benefit 2: Fresh Eyes

Beyond an incubator for new ideas, getting together with others in the training field has also helped me to recognize that I’m actually doing a lot of things right. After sharing a new scenario-based elearning module on coaching that I had been developing, I was able to get some good feedback from some training colleagues who are able to bring a valuable, relatively objective, “outsider” perspective. Basically, unlike my teammates and colleagues within my own organization, the training folks with whom I meet up for coffee can offer feedback without having to worry about seeing me in the halls every day – they can be brutally honest. And when I get positive feedback on projects that I’m working on (especially when they ask if they can steal some of my ideas), it certainly affirms the work I’m doing.

Benefit 3: Fresh Opportunities

Perhaps the biggest benefit of these informal meet-ups is the new opportunities it has created. One colleague asked me to pair up with a volunteer elearning developer to create an online course that can be used by dozens of NGOs (including my own organization) on the topic of performance management. Several others have asked me to work with their organizations in assessing, evaluating and improving their training programs. And the monthly coffees have led to an invitation to showcase some of my favorite instructional design strategies during a breakout session of an upcoming conference.

All these opportunities help both in expanding my network as well as in sharpening my own skills. I am a better learning professional than I was back on December 31, 2011, and I haven’t spent a dime on attending a training session or conference this year.

It’s not quite osmosis, but it’s as effortless of a way to learn more, open more doors and get new ideas as I’ve ever experienced!

Lecture Isn’t a Teaching Strategy (Part 2): A Parable

Last week’s post focused on three major problems with lecture and offered suggestions on what to do about them. As a reminder, the three problems were:

  1. In lecture, the presenter has no idea whether or not the learners get it.
  2. Belief in the myth that lecture is simply faster and easier for both learner and presenter to just tell people what they need to know.
  3. Lecture doesnt always provide a direct connection between the content at hand and how it can be applied to meet the needs of the learner in real life.

This week, I’ll illustrate those points with a short parable of how one attorney decided to eschew the organization’s typical lecture on sexual harassment during their new hire orientation in order to engage his learners and ensure they each understood the concepts.

Josh had been delegated the sexual harassment talk for the upcoming new hire orientation. His boss provided Josh a Word document with 19 bulleted points on the topic and a video to show next week’s group of 4 new hires. When asked for any words of wisdom in presenting it, Josh’s boss explained: “It’s pretty straight forward, just show the video and answer any questions. Check it off the box and let the new folks go to lunch. Anyone who’s ever heard of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill knows that sexual harassment is a bad thing. We just need to be sure we cover it.”

At 11:30 on Tuesday morning, Josh arrived at the training room, ready to ensure that the four new hires he was about to meet would always remember the organization’s policy on sexual harassment.  Josh found the new hires unattended at the moment by any staff members.  They said the previous session had ended a few minutes early and they were given a break until this session.  They were all hungry and looking forward to lunch after this 45 minute session.

Josh surveyed the faces of each new hire – they all looked relatively young.  Definitely in their early 20s.  After greeting them, he asked if any of them knew who Clarence Thomas was.  The new hires looked at one another, and at in unison two of them said: “a Supreme Court justice.”  One new hire continued on: “Jinx!  Buy me a coke!!”

Ignoring the last comment, Josh asked if any of them knew who Anita Hill was.  The new hires again looked at one another.  Nobody responded.  The room was awkwardly silent.  So much for “anyone who’s ever heard of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill knows that sexual harassment is a bad thing.”

“You know what, never mind about those obscure references.  As you can all see from the agenda, we’re here to discuss sexual harassment.  What is sexual harassment?”

Silence again.  The new hires looked around the room.  Stared at the ceiling.  And the floor.  There was no eye contact with Josh.

“Actually, it’s not a rhetorical question.  I really want to know what you all know about the topic.  Why don’t we do this: each of you pair off and take 45 seconds to share with a partner everything you know about sexual harassment.”

After a moment or two, the new hires turned to a neighbor and began sharing thoughts.  Forty-five seconds later Josh brought their attention back to him.  “Well, it sounds like some people in here know something about sexual harassment.  What did you talk about?”

One pair shared that they thought sexual harassment had to do with hitting on co-workers, even after being told to stop.  The other pair mentioned that they had heard the term “hostile work environment” but they weren’t quite sure what that meant.  A five minute conversation around the overall topic of sexual harassment ensued.

Once the conversation and questions began to wane, Josh announced that they were going to watch a video.  The video had four different scenarios.  Josh gave each new hire a piece of paper to take notes.  In one column, new hires were asked to jot down one ah-ha moment, question or take-away from each scenario.  In a second column, new hires were asked to jot down any themes that arose from the initial group discussion on sexual harassment that they observed in any of the scenarios (i.e. do any of these scenarios illustrate the idea of creating a “hostile working environment” that we discussed in our initial conversation?).

Following the video Josh led a conversation about each scenario using the notes that the new hires jotted down.  In order to wrap up the 45-minute session, Josh quizzed each new hire on a hypothetical situation and what each new hire would do if confronted with such a situation.

As Josh released the new hires for their lunch break, one commented that this was the “fastest 45 minutes of the day so far.  I mean, time really flew by in this session.  And I have to say, I was expecting someone to just talk at us about the topic for 30 or 40 minutes and then pass us off to the next presenter.  That’s how the rest of the morning has gone so far.  And it hasn’t been easy staying awake or paying attention to those sessions.”

A second new hire added, “Yeah, I always expect new hire orientation sessions to be quick ‘check off the box that I learned this or that topic.’ It seems like it would just be easier to tell us the information and move on.  But I really appreciated this session.  I can definitely say I will remember it.  While the topic itself is dry and quite frankly kind of icky, this session was very interesting.  Thanks for getting us talking.  And thinking.”

As a presenter, is it more fun to talk at the learners or engage in dialogue with the learners?  As a learner, is it more valuable to have a chance to discuss ideas and thoughts with other learners and the presenter, or do you want to just get the information and move on?  Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Why “Train Like A Champion”?

It started out as a joke between two colleagues and I in June 2007.  I was the “new guy” so I thought I’d show off my wonderfully brilliant sense of humor to break the ice a bit.  As we were driving to the training center for the first day of a workshop we’d be facilitating together, I was asked if I did anything special to prepare myself before getting in front of a group to facilitate.

Maybe they were wondering if I studied the lesson plans the night before.  Or perhaps whether I would picture everyone in the audience naked so that I wasn’t so nervous in front of a group.  I thought for a moment, then said: “I crank up the AC/DC on my iPod, I draw a flipchart that says ‘Train Like A Champion Today’, I hang it above my hotel room door, and I make sure I tap it twice on my way out of the room.”

My colleagues looked at each other in what appeared to be a mix of confusion and horror.  Confusion in wondering what in the world I was talking about.  Horror in wondering who this weird-o was that they were in the car with and with whom they were about to train.

I laughed and told them I was just kidding.  To prepare, I generally glance over my notes and stick a bunch of post-its on my lesson plans in order to make sure I touch on everything I want to say.  My colleagues burst out in laughter, relieved I wasn’t such a weird-o.

When I was in middle school, I remember seeing a sports report about how the players from the Notre Dame football team touch a sign that says: “Play Like A Champion Today” for good luck on their way from the locker room to the field. There are tons of superstitions and traditions in the world of sports that may seem silly… until you’re the one who decides to break the tradition because, after all, it’s just a silly superstition… and then your team loses.

In sports, if you want to win, you don’t mess with superstitions or traditions.  They’re taken very seriously.  This was the inspiration behind my joke.  In very few other aspects of life are such superstitions practiced with such fervent regularity, and training is certainly not one of those few areas.  The line “train like a champion” became a running joke between my colleagues and I.  One colleague even had t-shirts printed up with the words “Train Like A Champion” printed on the back.

The more I think of it, however, the more I wonder why “train like a champion” needs to be just a joke.  No, I don’t think it’s necessary to hang a poster with the words “Train Like A Champion Today” above the hotel room door and to tap on it prior to every facilitation experience.  But what can trainers, facilitators, presenters learn from the world of champions?

This blog is intended to explore answers to that question.