Coaching SMEs to be Expert Facilitators of Learning

May 13, 2014 in Author, Greg Owen-Boger, Posts for Buyers, Talent Development, Training

UPDATE: Back By Popular Demand

Greg’s been asked back to deliver this same session two more times at the 2015 Association for Talent Development International Conference & Exposition (ATD ICE).


ASTD ICE 5-13-14I had the pleasure of speaking at the ASTD (renamed ATD mid-conference) International Conference & Exposition in Washington, DC last week. The audience for my session included instructional designers and leaders within the training & development function. The topic was about ways to coach SMEs to be more effective in the training room.

The session, as you can see from the picture, was packed. Over 200 people attended, and more would have joined had the room moderator not closed the door and turned people away. I was reminded (again) how hungry the training industry is for help working with their Subject Matter Experts.

Why Bother with SMEs?
There’s good reason to involve SMEs in the training process. They bring credibility, depth, and enterprise-wide perspective. They can also cause frustration for everyone involved, including the learner. And when learners are frustrated, learning doesn’t happen as fully or as efficiently as it should.[Tweet “when #learners are frustrated, #learning doesn’t happen as fully or as efficiently as it should.”]

The Challenge We See
In our experience, working with SMEs to improve their effectiveness in the training room, my colleagues and I have discovered a few things:

  • Materials, slides, and facilitator guides are rarely created with the SME’s delivery style and experience level in mind.
  • SMEs want to do a good job as trainers, but they don’t fully understand what the job is and what’s expected of them.
  • They usually focus too much on the information rather than the application of the information to their learners’ jobs.
  • They don’t understand how to frame the information to provide proper context to the learners.
  • They often aren’t given proper training.

In short, organizations aren’t setting the SMEs up for success. They’re not getting the resources they need to be effective presenters and facilitators of learning. This, in turn, leads to dull learning events and the loss of learners’ good will.

The Solution
Let’s not beat up on SMEs too much. They mean well, but they need help.

On the instructional design side, they need materials designed to support them and their unique needs. Design elements that work for professional trainers don’t necessarily work for others outside the industry.

In the training room, once the session starts, they need to understand that they wear two hats.

  1. The Expert Hat is the obvious hat that they wear. This is the one they wear when they are talking about data, details, and their area of expertise.
  2. The Trainer Hat is less obvious, but a much more important hat. This is the hat they need to put on to provide context, connect dots, and to facilitate learning and the application of the information to the learners’ jobs.

Once they understand their dual purpose in the training room, SMEs are much better able to facilitate learning.

Contact us at info@turpincommunication.com to learn how we can help your SMEs be more effective in the training room.

Postscript #1: SMEs From the Ground Up
I was glad my session at ATD ICE was on Tuesday because that gave me an opportunity to sit in on Chuck Hodell’s session on Monday. He wrote the recent book SMEs From the Ground Up. If you work with SMEs, I highly recommend it. He has some fresh thinking that’s well worth taking a look at. During his session, Chuck talked about ways to manage SME relationships, set expectations, and celebrate their accomplishments.

Perhaps his most impressive thinking, though, is around redefining who the SMEs are on any given project. He writes, “… SMEs are both content-related and process-related. The programmer, the writer, the teacher/trainer and the manager are all SMEs in ways that matter in our work. Identifying and working with all of these specific types of SMEs provides endless possibilities for improved products and processes.”

Postscript #2: Is that Flat Stanley in the Picture Above?
Yes! Not only did I get to speak with 200 learning & development professionals, I got to do it with my Great Nephew Jayce’s Flat Stanley! It’s a cool project. If you’re not familiar with Flat Stanley, click this link: https://www.flatstanley.com/about

by Greg Owen-Boger, VP at Turpin Communication and co-author of the upcoming book, “The Orderly Conversation”

Impatient Learners

October 1, 2012 in Author, Delivery, Facilitation, Greg Owen-Boger, Preparation, Presentation, Training

greg 200x300If you’re a regular reader of our blog, you know that I often find inspiration in the Answers feature on LinkedIn. A while back, this question about impatient learners appeared.

Question: How do you deal with impatient participants during corporate training workshops?

As I think about this question, I’m reminded of an incident with a client several years ago where we were brought in mid-stream to try to rescue a particularly large training initiative.

Back Story
Leadership discovered that their employees lacked a basic understanding of what they actually did as an organization. To fix this, there was to be a big training push to educate everyone in the organization on the core elements of the business. To protect our client, I’ll call this initiative “Our Business 101.”

Each department was to develop a half-day session that would be delivered to the entire organization. They were to roll through the sessions roughly one a month until they had made it through the entire company. No matter your position, how long you’d been there, or what department you worked in, you would attend in person on the same day as everyone else. And, if you worked remotely, you’d dial in.

This was to be repeated annually.

Sounds like a good time, right?

Well, each department begrudgingly put its session together, assigned SMEs to speak and waited for their big day.

After a few months, we got a call from Leadership. The training wasn’t working. People were disengaged, the sessions were boring, and the initiative wasn’t doing what they had set out to do. Further, evaluations were bad. Real bad.

Leadership asked us to observe the next one and identify what they were doing wrong.

What we observed
The speakers demonstrated their expertise, but they were dull and long-winded. There was little connection between what they were saying and what was on their slides. They stood behind a podium and seldom looked up.

As I looked around the room at the learners that day, they seemed like naughty middle schoolers. The employees (who couldn’t find an excuse for not attending) did not participate. They passed notes, played games on their mobile devices, checked email. One even fell asleep. I wish I could say I was making this up.

It didn’t take long for us to understand what was happening. There were several issues that we uncovered. Here are the four biggies.

First, departments did not coordinate their efforts, which caused a lot of redundancy. Not knowing if contract negotiations fell under business development, finance, or legal, each department included it in their session. Brand integrity was discussed in the marketing session as well as legal. You get the idea.

Second, they did not stop to think about how much detail they really needed to go into. They were told to fill up half a day. So they did.

Third, Leadership was relying on SMEs to deliver training without giving them the training or resources they needed to be successful.

And fourth, there was no effort to engage the poor souls who had to dial in from remote locations. In many cases, they couldn’t see the slides or even hear the speakers because of the poor technology set-up in the training room.

The result was worse than not hitting the learning objectives. They gave training a black eye. I found this whole thing frustrating. It didn’t have to be this way. And think of the cost to the company both in money and employee engagement! I wish them luck getting these employees to participate in future training.

So now what?
At the point we were brought in there wasn’t much we could do other than work with each of the upcoming SMEs on the delivery of their presentations, which at that point had been locked down by Legal. That was OK and they did get something out of it, but we could have done more had the client brought us in earlier in the process.

Had they brought us in earlier we would have:

  • Consulted with them to coordinate among departments to avoid redundancy
  • Suggested smaller groups and worked with Leadership to split the employees into groups of similar backgrounds and interest levels
  • Suggested that remote attendees attend a webinar designed specifically for that purpose
  • Explored eLearning options (imagine how much time and energy this might have saved)

For the SMEs we would have:

  • Helped them tailor their session to the interest-level of each audience group
  • Consulted on their instructional design so that it facilitated learning more efficiently and effectively
  • Worked with them on their delivery skills to help them keep sessions relevant and interesting (I have written about this before.)
  • Helped them connect dots from previous sessions so that learners could get a better grasp of the organization as a whole rather than just the silos

So, next time you’re thinking about rolling out training, make sure you do it right. Think strategically. And if you need help, give us a call. We’ll be there to help you through the process; from instructional design consulting, to tailoring to each audience, to working on the training skills of your trainers and SMEs.

And if we can’t help, we’ll help you find someone who can.

By Greg Owen-Boger, VP and Trainer at Turpin Communication