Qualifying Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)

A lot of training development happens when we get the right people in the right room at the right time. In my experience doing this can be difficult. As the workforce continues to migrate to virtual offices, finding qualified people to be in the right room, physically or virtually, may become increasingly problematic.

Dangers of the Wrong Subject Matter Expert

Not having the right people in the right room not only has the potential to stifle the analysis phase of training development, it can derail

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Instructional Design Lessons from a 6-Year-Old

My 6-year-old daughter wants an American Girl doll in the worst way.  Recently, she cracked open her piggy bank to see if she had enough money to afford one.  As a mix of change and dollar bills lay on the ground, she started counting her pennies.

She counted out 40 pennies and asked if that was enough.  I explained that the doll cost over one hundred dollars.  Instead of trying to count her $1, $5, and $20 bills, or even nickels, dimes and quarters, she went back to counting her pennies.

In truth, after six years of squirrelling away spare change and birthday money, she had more than enough money in her piggy bank to buy an American Girl doll.  But she insisted on counting all her pennies, pausing to find out if she had enough for a doll every two or three minutes.

When I asked her why she didn’t try counting her paper money or her other coins, she explained that it was easier to count by ones, and she knew that each penny was one cent.  More than enough money was within her grasp to buy an American Girl doll, but she insisted on staying within her comfort zone of counting pennies.

As I reflected on this, I was struck at how remarkably similar this process was to developing training components.  The coveted object of desire – the American Girl doll, so to speak – for me or SMEs or anyone else doing presentations should be cultivating new skills and knowledge and better ways to do things among their audience. The best way to do this is through good instructional design and engaging presentations, but developing such components can take significant amounts of time and sometimes requires us to go outside our comfort zone to try something new.  It’s a lot easier to regurgitate old lessons or relapse into old habits of lecture and bullet-pointed PowerPoint presentations because they’re quicker to put together and there’s just so many other things that need to be done on any given day.

And when we eschew risk taking and trying new things and putting the effort into good design and engaging presentations, we’re basically just counting pennies.  In the name of ease and comfort, we sacrifice the opportunity that is right in front of us to create an amazing and transformational learning experience.  And at this pace, we’ll never get our hands on whatever the trainers’ equivalent is of an American Girl doll.

The Train Like A Champion Blog is published Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.  If you think someone else might find this interesting, please pass it along.  If you don’t want to miss a single, brilliant post, be sure to click “Follow”!  And now you can find sporadic, 140-character messages from me on Twitter @flipchartguy.

Subject Matter Expert: Intentionality Required

What Subject Matter Experts Say

“Look, my topic is boring.  It’s technical.  I can’t do all that touchy-feely stuff.  I just need to tell them what they need to know.”  I’ve been on the receiving end of this conversation with a number of technical subject matter experts over the past several years.

Why a Subject Matter Expert Must Care

If you can’t get excited about your own topic and if you think your own area of expertise is boring, what do you think your learners will think? Why should they care about your presentation? And why does anyone think “touchy-feely” is the way to go, anyway?  Who wants touchy feely?!  Yuck.

Unless “touchy-feely” is defined as “getting people to be interested in your topic for more reason than simply because ‘I told you to listen to me’”.  Then touchy feely becomes important.  And it’s not that difficult if you think about it.

An Example: Presenting Organizational Values

Organizational values are boring, but they’re a necessary evil in new hire orientation, right?  I thought so too until Todd Hudson from the Maverick Institute suggested that there’s a different way to present organizational values.  For example, Blendtec suggests they “make the world’s best blenders.”  But they don’t need to drone on about their mission statement and values.  They show you.  Does the following video illustrate, in a memorable way, their core belief?  Is this video, which illustrates their tagline, boring? Is this video touchy-feely?  You tell me.

Creativity is Good; Intentionality is Better

You don’t need to be inherently creative in order to connect with your learners.  You just need to be intentional about your presentation design. My favorite design model uses the following four steps:

1. Anchor

2. Content

3. Application

4. Future Use

Want to teach a new software program but aren’t quite sure how to engage your audience because, well, it’s boring and you don’t do touchy-feely?  Spend five minutes on an anchor activity that captures your learners’ imaginations of how your software will solve a problem for them before you jump into the more mundane details of how the interface works and how data should be entered.  And give the learners a chance to apply what they’ve learned – an opportunity to take the software for a spin and to make some mistakes while you’re still in the room. Even if you give them an entire manual, don’t forget to leave them with a handout or a small card with shortcuts or trouble-shooting strategies so that they have a quick reference guide to keep near their monitors when they return to their office.

Engaging your learners on technical topics is as easy as 1-2-3-4 (anchor, content, application, future use).

Information is Good; Emotional Connection is Better

It’s one thing to make the intellectual case that your topic is important.  But if you truly want to make an enduring shift in behavior, you’ll need to find a way to tap into your learners’ emotions and their natural passion to want to shift their own behavior.

“My topic is boring” isn’t an excuse for subject matter experts to torture their learners with poor learning experiences.  “I don’t do touchy-feely” isn’t an excuse to waste learners’ time and employers’ money on training programs.  Especially when all it takes is a little time and effort and a 4-step instructional design process.

What do you require in a subject matter expert? What advice would you give an SME who is trying to make their training sessions more engaging, more sticky?

When SMEs Go Rogue

How do you prepare a pediatric anesthesiologist for his first encounter with a set of concerned parents and a scared child?  Perhaps you could bring a few parents into his new hire orientation to talk about their past experiences.

Unless the parents go rogue.

A parent may offer a 6-minute biography even though she was asked to give a simple, 30-second introduction.  A parent may share 10 minutes of his daughter’s case history even though he was asked to simply share the questions he had for the anesthesiologist.

When a former classmate and I got together recently we spoke about this very situation.  She coordinates new hire orientation at a child-centered hospital and her sessions feature a panel of parents.  She was concerned that she only had 60 minutes to cover a broad range of topics, but sometimes the parents would take their stories too far which would occasionally take up time allocated for other topics.

I offered two suggestions:

  1. Advanced Warning.  In advance of the session, send a 3-sentence example of the stories parents would be asked to share.  This would provide parents a template and they would have clear expectations of how much to      share.  Having time to think about and practice their brief story in advance could make sure parents are prepared and focused on the day of the training.
  2. Visual Cues. During introductions (which sometimes went on too long and often went astray), post a flipchart in front of the room stating precisely the information each parent should share in order to introduce themselves and      a little about the reason they volunteered to participate in this orientation session.

Though the parents were well-intentioned and certainly had many experiences to share, this was not designed to be a counseling session for them to de-brief their experiences. It was designed to give new anesthesiologists a brief sampling of parents’ thoughts and concerns and how to address them.

Whether working with parents or any other subject matter expert, pre-session preparation and in-class visual cues can help to keep a lesson on track and on-time.  What strategies have you found helpful when working with SMEs?

The Train Like A Champion Blog is published Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.  If you think someone else might find this interesting, please pass it along.  If you don’t want to miss a single, brilliant post, be sure to click “Follow”!  And now you can find sporadic, 140-character messages from me on Twitter @flipchartguy.

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

Building Training DNA of SMEs (Part 2)

Recently, I offered a slideshow of what it looks like when subject matter experts (SMEs) use sound adult learning principles to engage an audience.  This post outlines five key elements needed to help SMEs design more engaging presentations.

Element #1: Seeing is believing

Before I work with SMEs in developing presentations, I try to demonstrate what a good, engaging, interactive presentation can be.  If SMEs don’t have an opportunity to attend a live presentation, I often send them a link to one of my favorite TED talks so that they can see that even a lecture, when well-rehearsed, can captivate an audience.  The bottom line is that in order for an SME to believe that interactive, engaging learning is more than just “touchy-feely fluff,” they need to see (or better yet, experience) what is possible through a well-designed presentation.

Element #2: Train the Trainer

All of the SMEs I’ve worked with over the past two years have attended some type of train the trainer session.  I’ve found that the most fundamental piece to these sessions is the activity around well-written, action-oriented, learner-centered learning objectives.  Basically, SMEs are challenges to finish this sentence when writing learning objectives: “By the end of this session, participants will be able to…”

Once the SMEs used a verb like “explain” or “demonstrate” or “describe”, pure lecture went out the window.  They had to leave room in their presentations for role plays or case studies or other activities that allowed participants to explain something or demonstrate something or describe something.

Element #3: Lesson Plans

To help SMEs organize their thoughts before they opened up PowerPoint and just started running wild with slides, I emphasized the need to use a lesson plan template.  This helped assign specific time to every concept they would cover and it was a way to be intentional about a variety of instructional strategies (instead of straight lecture).

Element #4: Intensive One-on-One Work

After all the training and resources that were provided to SMEs, I found follow-up with one-on-one sessions and phone calls to be incredibly important.  It wasn’t enough for me to simply review their lesson plans and email feedback to them (I found that when I only sent written suggestions, they were rarely integrated into a final lesson plan).  Real-time conversation was crucial to understanding the SMEs’ ideas, brainstorming how to present the content and building upon one another’s thoughts.

Element #5: Positive Peer Pressure

I’ve found that SMEs are driven and have a lot of pride.  When one SME took a risk and delivered an interactive and engaging presentation that was well-received and generated a lot of energy and excitement in the training room, every other SME who witnessed this wanted to design something even better and more creative.

A one-off train-the-trainer session will do little to transform an SME from lecturer to engaging presenter.  Like many other forms of change management, this really is a process.  What kinds of effort are you willing to put in to helping SMEs deliver more engaging presentations?

The Train Like A Champion Blog is published Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.  If you think someone else might find this interesting, please pass it along.  If you don’t want to miss a single, brilliant post, be sure to click “Follow” at the top of the page!

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.

The Train Like A Champion Blog is published Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.  If you think someone else might find this interesting, please pass it along.  If you don’t want to miss a single, brilliant post, be sure to click “Follow” at the top of the page!

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.