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When I tell people that I am an instructional designer, the most common question I hear is “What’s that?” After I explain that an instructional designer uses expertise in communications, change readiness, and adult learning to make complex information easier to understand and more relevant to learners, the next question is usually, “But don’t you need to know all about the topic?” When I explain that we work with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) who supply the technical expertise, they usually ask, “Wouldn’t it be more efficient to have the SME create the training material?” Yes, it might be more efficient, but it is not necessarily more effective.

The biggest challenge that SMEs face is that they know too much. When one becomes deeply entrenched in a subject, it becomes hard to (1) remember what the rest of the world does not know and (2) discern how much information is enough. Instructional designers help by acting as a proxy for the audience. Since their level of understanding is closer to the audience’s, instructional designers find it easier to ask the basic questions that the SME might otherwise assume the audience already knows. If nothing else, the questions challenge assumptions and force the SME to pause. Sometimes the SME might explain the answer and say, “But they already know that.” More often, they say, “You’re right. We need to include that.”

The question of how much to include is much trickier. Whenever I teach instructional design courses, I am asked that question. Inexperienced course developers think, “This is my only shot to educate these people. I need to tell them everything so they can be as well-versed as I am.” This is a bad assumption because:

  1. Training courses are only the first step in education. Real learning happens back at the job when participants start applying what they learned. As they work with the concepts, they learn the subtleties. This is similar to how we get our driver’s license but don’t really know how to drive until we have experienced how to anticipate the movements of bad drivers.
  2. A single course should not be the only point of education. Trying to teach everything in one course is like trying to stuff eight pounds of potatoes into a one-pound sack: It’s just not going to hold.

With these new assumptions in mind, the following guidelines can help make it easier to determine how much to include in a training session:

  1. Keep logistics in mind: Remember that a full-day training course really only gives 6.5 hours of instruction. The other 1.5 hours is lost to lunch and breaks. Sounds basic, but many people make the mistake of planning on 8 hours of instruction, then wonder why they feel so rushed.
  2. Keep people’s memories in mind: The sad fact is that people forget what is not immediately useful to them. If you want them to remember, stick to what is relevant.
  3. Make it RACI: RACI stands for Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, or Informed. It is a useful analysis to identify how much each role really needs to know. Especially when preparing to teach a new process, start by examining who does what. For each step in the process, what is each role’s responsibility? For example, for a new travel expense reimbursement process, who is responsible for completing the expense report: the traveler, the boss, or the administrative assistant? If the traveler creates the report but the assistant needs to know what reports have been submitted, then the traveler is R (responsible) and the assistant I (informed). The boss who approves the report is considered A (accountable). Teach the most details to the R roles. Teach the least to the I roles.
  4. Focus on the Need-to-Know: Tell participants what they NEED to know to do their jobs. Returning to our example, if the assistants are informed about the expense reports, they do not need to know how to create them. They only need to know what they should do with that information. It may be as simple as “Once you are informed that the traveler has submitted the report, enter the report date into a tracking log.”
  5. Follow the 80-20 rule: Teach the information that participants will use 80% of the time. Omit the 20% that are the exceptions or Nice-to-Knows. Teaching all the permutations at once just adds confusion. Participants are more likely to remember how to handle an exception if they learn it at the moment of impact, when it is most relevant to them. On-the-job training is better for teaching exceptions. If there are enough frequently occurring exceptions, consider creating an advanced class.

When training is not about new policies, processes, or systems, other criteria might also help you decide what content to omit.

That leads us to….

This month’s question:

Based on your experiences attending training sessions, what kinds of content do you wish had been omitted from the course to make way for more useful information?

Please share your ideas below so we can learn from each other.

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