Sometimes All You Need Is A Fresh Set of (Non-L&D) Eyes

I spend a lot of time looking at the training lesson plans of subject matter experts, giving them feedback and suggestions on how to make their presentations more engaging.

About a month ago, I was preparing to deliver a segment of new hire orientation introducing my department’s work to a group of new hires. Before I began, I asked what the new hires thought of some of the other new hire sessions they’d attended. One woman said: “I’ve been impressed. There have been some presenters who have taken what could be very boring, technical topics and they’ve turned them into very interesting and cool presentations through interactive case studies, simulations, demonstrations and other activities.”

It made me feel good. Some of the things I’d worked with our subject matter experts on had been integrated into their lessons and apparently well-received.

Then I delivered my presentation. It was slated for an hour, but fifteen minutes into it I got a sinking feeling. The new hires were politely listening. And that was the problem. They were simply listening to my information.

I had been able to provide feedback and ideas to others, but I hadn’t actually used my own advice to make an amazing presentation with my own content.

I took my lesson plan to some (non-learning and development) colleagues and asked for some thoughts. With their fresh eyes on my lesson plan, we were able to come up with several stories to frame the work of our department. We came up with a case study. And of course, we ended with a short “pop quiz” just to see if people were paying attention.

For learning and development professionals, sometimes all of our theory and education and experience can’t stack up to simply getting a fresh set of eyes on our work.

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How Bob Pike Would Help An SME Out Of A Jam

On Monday, I put out a desperate plea, seeking advice for an SME who had a tough time in the preparation and delivery of a presentation (click here to see the full post). Training legend Bob Pike read the case study and decided to weigh in on this particular situation. Following is what he suggested.

Agree? Disagree? Have other ideas? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.

“Here are questions I would ask in order to respond to the situation:

1. How many in the audience?

2. Are they all eye doctors?

3. Why did they need this presentation?

4. What is the outcome of the presentation supposed to be?

5. Why were you asked to do this presentation? What do you bring that is unique?

Then, given that it is only 30 minutes and that there is probably a huge amount of expertise in the audience I might approach it this way:

1. I’ve given each of you a piece of paper. Working with a partner you have two minutes to draw an eyeball and label as many parts of it as possible. Begin. At the end of two minutes I would say, “familiarity doesn’t mean competence.”

2. Then, I would allow them two minutes to confer with those around them and add/subtract/correct anything they want to.

3. I would the use this as a springboard into pulling from them the anatomy starting from macro to micro, maybe with a large poster of the eye rather than a PowerPoint just to change it up.

One thing we constantly talk with our trainers about is having at least two ways to present each piece of content so that we are not dependent on technology.”

Bob Pike CSP, CPAE, CPLP Fellow, MPCT

Chairman Emeritus/Founder, The Bob Pike Group

Founder/Editor, The Creative Training Techniques Newsletter

Past Chairman of the Executive Board – Lead Like Jesus

When SMEs Know Best: A Case Study of Instructional Design/SME Collaboration

When a technical expert approaches me to ask for help in putting together a presentation, I consider it one of the highest forms of a compliment I can receive.  Last week, I received such a compliment, and the result can be viewed as a model for instructional designer/SME collaboration.

The Context

A colleague had been asked to deliver a short presentation about her team’s work during a monthly all-staff meeting.  When this colleague approached me, she knew specifically what she wanted to accomplish and had some ideas about the scope and flow of the presentation and she shared the initial draft of her slide deck. Continue reading

Subject Matter Experts: The Michael Jordans of Training

Michael Jordan was the best basketball player on the planet. Yet he’s proven to be a mediocre (at best) team owner. Similarly, subject matter experts can be the smartest people in their field. But training is about more than expertise. The following tale illustrates how people responsible for training results can make the most out of subject matter experts who are unfamiliar with instructional design and adult learning principles.

Adrian knew the question was coming.

She had been managing training efforts in the international development field for eight years and now she was attempting to make the leap into the tech sector. Three minutes into the interview, the recruiter asked the question Adrian had been anticipating:

“I have to be honest, the hiring manager is really looking for someone with a technology background. But you bring some international experience, so we thought we’d bring you in to talk. You’ve been doing such meaningful work, but you don’t have a technology background. How would you make an impact here?”

Adrian was grateful for this question. Many recruiters had passed her over because she didn’t have deep technical expertise.

“That’s a fair question. To be honest, I’m a political science major and I didn’t have much experience or knowledge about malaria either until I went to work for my previous employer. In fact, they weren’t even sure they needed a full time training person because they generally sub-contracted their learning interventions to subject matter experts – doctors or researchers or others in the field who had been working on the problem for a long, long time.’

“They were struggling with realizing results from their malaria control training programs in sub-Saharan Africa. So they brought me on board.’

“I took a look at their training materials. They must have had a considerable source of funding, because I don’t think I’d ever seen such professional looking materials. So well laid out. So detailed. They had paid a lot of money to some of the top malaria experts in the world to put together this training program.’

“The materials had everything you wished to know about malaria… and a lot of things you probably don’t want to know about malaria. Honestly, that disease is just one big scourge on this planet.’

“The experts had put together a 2-day training program with a comprehensive history of the disease. The program had facts about what caused the disease and how to prevent it. They offered enormous amounts of empirical evidence. They instructed trainees how to use mosquito nets, what repellents were used with the nets and then they even gave out free nets to entire communities. Yet when they went to study the impact of this training program six months later, they found very few people using the nets.’

“Whether you’re talking about malaria or technology, the fact is that subject matter experts are just like Michael Jordan. He was the best player ever. SMEs are the best in their field. But Michael Jordan has been a disaster as an NBA owner, because a successful franchise is more than just an amazing player. And training is about so much more than technical expertise.’

“My former employer had spent tons of money on the training program created by the SMEs. And there was great content. I felt all we needed to do was to build around it a bit.’

“So I created an activity at the beginning of the training program in which the facilitator asked the group whether they would ever sleep out under the stars in a national park with lions roaming around. Participants laughed. It was a ridiculous question. They’d get eaten alive. And then the facilitator asked why people sleep without mosquito nets. It offered a way for trainees in the community to relate to the material.’

“Then we taught some of the SME-generated content about how to use the mosquito nets and how to teach other families who didn’t attend the training how to use the mosquito nets. We actually had them practice putting nets up. We gave the trainees a simple checklist for their family bed time routine.’

“In the end, we actually cut the training program in half! The experts had loaded the curriculum with lots of facts and figures that the SMEs felt important. I revised it to include only the information that was going to be important to the community members in order to change their behavior.’

“Within six months, we were finding that some communities had 90%-100% of families using mosquito nets. While subject matter experts with deep technical knowledge often have a desire to share their expertise with others, they don’t often approach training design with the end-user in mind.’

“I’m sorry, I’ve given you a long answer to your question. I don’t have a background in technology. But there are a lot of other people here who do. I’d see my role as figuring out what kind of training our customers need, then opening up the heads of our engineers and programmers to get answers, and finally putting together a learning experience that our customers can easily digest and do something with.”

Working with subject matter experts doesn’t need to be stressful if you’re willing to embrace their strength: they are the Michael Jordan of training. In the event that a subject matter expert has “designed” a training program for which you’re responsible, look for opportunities to build around the SME’s content. Sometimes, for political reasons, an expert guest speaker is enlisted to “train” an audience. Finding an opportunity to prepare the audience through a quick “anchor” question or activity prior to the guest speaker and then finding a way to de-brief the SME’s lecture afterwards are ways to ensure the learners will be able to use the material when they leave the training room.

Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) are Just Like PowerPoint

Surgeons. Judges. Attorneys. Researchers. They’re smart people. And their presentations can be… what’s the word… dry. So if you’re responsible for training results, how can you transform a Subject Matter Expert (SME) presentation into an engaging learning experience?

The fact is that your work life is going to be much more enjoyable if you embrace this simple fact: SMEs are experts, not trainers (unless they are SMEs in adult education and training). So, what are you to do when you depend on an SME to educate your learners? When it comes to effective training, you can delegate content creation and delivery to an SME, but never, ever abdicate the entire learning intervention.

Delegation, not Abdication
International development organizations, non-profits and major corporations alike depend on SMEs to bring their expertise to audiences of learners. An SME should be viewed as a training resource – much the same as PowerPoint is a training resource – but an SME is not the entire learning experience (just as PowerPoint alone does not make a complete learning experience).

My favorite training design model consists of the following elements:
1. Anchor (a brief activity to connect the learner to the topic at hand)
2. Content (the actual subject matter to be learned)
3. Application (activities allowing a learner to practice new knowledge, skills or behaviors)
4. Future Use (activities or resources a learner can take to transfer the learning to their job)

Effective training generally works when Step # 2 (content) is delegated to an SME. Too often, frustration sets in when an entire training program is abdicated to an SME, and all he or she produces is content.

Building Around the SME
SMEs are generally too busy to be bothered with mastering adult learning theory and strategies. Therefore, if you’re ultimately responsible for an engaging learning experience, then embrace the experience and expertise an SME can provide, and recognize that the material your SME provides is the content, and content is just one of four necessary steps.

If your SME is providing live training, then make sure that you’re able to provide an adequate briefing or anchor for the learners before the SME takes the stage. You can also immediately follow-up on the SME’s presentation with application activities and future use job aids based upon your SME’s content.

Sometimes an SME is contracted to produce training materials. As long as you haven’t abdicated the responsibility for the entire design of the training curriculum to an SME, you can take materials produced by an SME and build anchor, application and future use activities around an SME’s content-heavy materials.

It may be tempting to simply contract with an SME and walk away from the hard work that goes in to training program design. But engaging learning interventions require a proficiency in more than just the subject at hand; integration of adult learning and instructional design principles is essential.

Want an example of what this could look like? Come back on Friday for a fictionalized case example of building around SME materials.