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Two Techniques for When You're Clueless About What You're Training

"My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions." - Peter Drucker

BOSS: "I want you to train the engineers on R38-X hydraulics safety at next week's meeting."


YOU: "Gulp! Hydraulics safety? Uh-oh."


​Often, trainers are asked to train in topics outside their expertise. For example:

  • Work procedures you haven't done.

  • Decisions you haven't made.

  • Analysis you don't do.

  • Financial matters you don't understand.


All of these are examples of when trainers train on unfamiliar topics.


When this happens to me, I rely on a few analysis techniques. These techniques serve me well, and they've resulted in meaningful, useful, and performance-based training. Here they are:


Simple Techniques -- Powerful Impact

  • Subject Matter Expert Interviews

  • Content Prioritization


Subject Matter Interviews -- "I bring process, you bring expertise."

Since you don't have the expertise, you have to get it. A straightforward way to get it is to ask someone who knows. This person is your Subject Matter Expert, or SME.


You may find this daunting, but people with jobs expertise usually are happy to share it. When you tell them that you're not there to judge but to learn, and are sincerely interested, they'll deliver the goods.


Here are some tips:

  1. Do your homework. Observe the work/content, read books and manuals, get smart about the general stuff first to frame your questioning.

  2. Have an odd number of experts. That way, if you find a discrepancy, they can vote.

  3. Ask a lot of questions on business impact, business requirements, and the like.

  4. Use open ended questions. You remember these: Why? How? What? When? Where? These questions follow up on others to probe more learning.

  5. Take lots of notes.

  6. Ask to be shown as well as told. Watch the SME do the work or task. Ask a lot of "what's going on here?" and "why is this done this way?" A great approach is called Cognitive Task Analysis, especially if the task is complicated or hard to do well.

  7. Don't just take their word for it. SME's are often wrong and incomplete. Much of what they know is unconscious. Ask them to tell you, show you, and do it for you.

  8. Remember, confidence does not mean competence. Just because the SME is sure doesn't make her right. If it's important, get a second opinion.

Remember, the goal here is to determine what the learners need to learn, how they are to use that learning, and what performance context they are using it. All of this is very useful to the training designer.


Prioritize Your Content -- "Saying, 'It's all important' is not helpful."

After you've done your homework and interviewed the experts, prioritization is in order. You are trying to answer the question:


What learning requires more time, unique training methods, or specialized materials for learning and performance?


To do this, review all the the content topics you gathered from your SME interviews, documentation, and other sources. Make a list of tasks/topics that the learners must learn. Wall charts are great for this. Then, assess each task or topic from the point of view of the learner population. Rate each task/topic High, Medium, or Low. You should consider:

  • Consequence of Error. If the learner makes a mistake on the job, what are the consequences? High consequence of error should require more time and care to achieve competence and confidence.

  • Learning Difficulty. If the learner struggles to learn complex material, perhaps you should adjust. Learning is hard work. Remembering is even harder.

  • Frequency. Infrequent tasks will be learned and then forgotten, since the learner won't use the new material on the job very often. Remember any French from High School? I thought not.

  • Prior Knowledge. Some say this is the most critical. Avoid including things rated High on this factor, since learners already know this material. Remember, if learners already know how, more training won't help.


I often will apply a formula to these assessments, where Prior Knowledge counts three times more than the other three criteria. I REALLY don't want to cover content people already know. It's very annoying to them and wastes their time.


A Gram of Analysis is Worth a Kilogram of Cure (Thanks Joe Harless!)

These techniques are a bit of work, to be sure. I have found that the value far outweighs the effort. I see these benefits from this approach:

  1. I get the content right. If I get push back in training, I can share my process and who my SME's are.

  2. I can navigate corporate politics. I can learn the sacred cows and elephants in the room.

  3. I can focus on performance. The learners are at the center of all that I do.

  4. I can use training time well. If time is tight, I am at least focusing on the content that is of highest priority.


Thanks to these techniques, I can confidently train a group of engineers on almost anything, including R38-X hydraulics safety. They love it, and they'll ask for more!.


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