Designing Learning for “when things go wrong”


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12 tips for working with Subject Matter Experts

The power of social collaboration in practice!  These tips came from a wiki I facilitated while teaching  an introductory  Technical Communication Class at Cal State Dominguez Hills. Contact me if you want the full list of 76 challenges and solutions.

Challenge Solution
1. SMEs do not present information in an organized manner. Communicate requests using templates that make specific requests. Provide the SME with an outline of the information required, the schedule, and meeting agenda in advance. This can be emailed to the SME to help them prepare, and focus on the topics you plan to discuss.
2. SMEs sometimes expect you to have background knowledge or training similar to theirs. Request SME to utilize clear, concise, common language and follow a pre-determined format. Have the SME provide very simple explanations for complex situations. Remind the SME not to assume that users/readers are familiar with the subject. Always try to learn more about the subject; the SME may be correct about the need for additional information.
3. Many SMEs are reluctant to give you information if they don’t see the benefit for them. Explain how the SME’s input will improve the organization and may make their job easier. For example, by documenting their knowledge in a manual, they may not need to spend as much time explaining procedures to new employees.
Try to make it clear that your organizational role is to remove what can be a laborious task of writing documentation.
Be useful to your SME. You can assist the SME and facilitate the drafting process by checking spelling and grammar in the GUI.
4. Sometimes SMEs are on a time constraint. Work out a service-level agreement at the beginning of the project to which everyone involved has agreed. Ensure that the SME knows the deadlines of the project. Set intermediate deadlines that are realistic both for the project and the SME.Be on time for the interview. If traveling to the interview, get reliable directions, and allow plenty of time in case of unexpected traffic.Control the flow of the interview. If the SME gets off the subject, gently bring them around to the topic at hand.
Agree with your SME on the means of communication, whether in person, via the phone, or email. It may be helpful to email the SME beforehand with the list of questions you need addressed.
Always be prepared for the interview in order not to waste your SME’s time. Read any available documentation as you can frequently find answers to your questions there.
5. The SME gives information that is too technically advanced for the audience. Do an audience analysis before the project begins with the SME. This enables the SME to give information that is appropriate to the audience.Ask the SME questions to clarify and simplify the information they’re providing. Make sure you understand what they’re trying to say before you leave them.For complicated processes, draw a thumbnail sketch or flowchart of the process the SME is describing. Make sure you understand the process thoroughly in order to revise the information to make it more understandable to the audience.
6. The SME does not like answering many questions. Provide the SME with the questions prior to any meeting or interview, if possible (also see #4). Provide 5 to 10 in-depth, open-ended questions during the first interview in order to help the SME provide meaningful answers. Moreover, this underscores your commitment as the technical communicator to be efficient and mindful of the SME’s time. Group your questions logically in order not to re-visit the topics that have already been discussed unless clarification is necessary
7. The SME may be concerned about being misquoted during interviews with the technical communicator. The technical communicator should involve the SME in the drafting process and validate all information that is gathered from the SME by providing periodic drafts to allow for revision. This builds trust between the parties by crediting the contributions of the individuals involved and providing joint validation at each stage of the document creation.
8. When taking over a project, the SME may be used to working with another writer and may not give you the support he gave the other writer. Establishing the SME’s confidence in you is critical. Ask the person you are replacing if he can give you a thumbnail sketch of what he might expect, quirks, or what kind of format he likes. Try to make the transition as seamless as possible. Changing horses in mid-stream is never easy. Plan ahead and don’t try any sudden changes unless that is what the SME wants. Make sure you communicate how you work upfront.
9. The SME has been assigned to the project but he does not really know the material and does not want to communicate with you out of fear. Give the SME as much time as possible to come up to speed. If the deadline is approaching, talk to the SME. Suggest that the SME contact colleagues to collaborate on the subject, or suggest individuals that the SME may consider approaching. If no progress is made, quietly talk to the team leader. Suggest to the team leader that additional support may be necessary to meet the impending deadline. Don’t let the problem grow too big and endanger the deadline.
Try to make it clear from the beginning which information and support you will need from your SME during this project. Start your communication as early as possible to feel out the SME’s technical abilities.
10. When using a SME to troubleshoot an ongoing problem it is easy to duplicate previous efforts. Supply the SME with all historical data related to the issue. Have staff available to answer questions the SME may have that are related to the issue.
11. On a large project SMEs often do not understand how the end product will function and the interrelationship of their work with others. It is very important that the SME is provided with a clear scope of the work. On large projects it is wise to include a project lead and involve staff to obtain an end product that meets your organizations expectations.
You’ll probably need more than one SME for the larger project. In the SW industry, developers usually play the role of SMEs for technical writers. But they often can’t help you with the ‘big picture’ of the product. Product Managers or Business Analysts can be useful in such situations.
12. The SME may be of a different cultural or linguistic background. Seek an interpreter or do self-research regarding the SME’s background.
If you have linguistic difficulties, try to use more diagrams or other illustrations when communicating with your SME.
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Building a Better Boss- A Localized, Competency Based Approach

This weekend’s New York Times article Google’s Quest To Build a Better Boss describes how Google used performance reviews, feedback surveys and award nominations to come up with a list of  directives, in order of importance, to make engineers better managers. These directives were integrated into training courses, performance reviews, and one-on-one coaching.
Here are some of my thoughts from a Training and Development perspective.
Competency Based Approach: Essentially, Google crunched data to come up with key competencies for effective manager behavior. Using this measurable approach, managers have a clear path to follow: There are competencies to be met, behaviors to  achieve these competencies (training plays a key role here) and to complete the circle, evidence to show that they have met the defined competencies  (employee feedback).
Training is a means not an end: In a competency based approach, as discussed above, training is part of an overall process and is directly aligned to a business need.
Localized competencies: Instead of using generic management best practices, the expertise came from within Google. What may work at other companies, may not be effective at Google and visa versa. Not every company has the luxury of a committed team to research competencies, but it is important to focus on what behaviors the company needs to be successful. Furthermore, managers are more motivated to align their behavior with the defined competencies since they are based on feedback from their own employees.
Expert Behavior: Finally, Google’s approach shows the importance of using experts to create standards for performance excellence. This is not rocket science and has been a practice for centuries. Unfortunately, expert knowledge gets distorted in textbook theories and management gurus. Back to basics, and you don’t need a big budget to tap into expert knowledge.

Thoughts??I look forward to feedback

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Learning Byte Video: Selecting the right words for Performance Objectives

Here is the link to my Learning Byte presentation for ASTD of Los Angeles.

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“How to Train Your Dragon” can also teach training folk

“How to Train your Dragon” was one of the top performing movies of 2010. I finally got to view this movie on DVD with my children. It was a great movie-going experience AND included some key learning points for Learning and Development (Training) folk. Here goes:

  1. Understand your Learners: Do not see your learners (dragons) as something to be tamed, tacked or “handled”. It is important to understand what makes them tick so they can be engaged in learning. Consider what frightens them, makes them happy, motivated or more likely to perform. Until the main character understood the dragons, he was frightened of them and unable to engage them in learning.
  2. Let Learners be Teachers: In the movie, the dragon was  initially wrongly perceived by the humans. Through a slow process, the dragon teaches the boy about how dragons best respond and perform. Actually, the dragon trains the boy rather than the reverse. Are we giving learners the opportunity to teach? Do they have opportunities to share best practices, mentor, teach classes and create learning bytes. This will help elicit the best performance from all leaners.
  3. Create Communities of Learning and Practice: The knowledge of how to “train” dragons was not restricted to only the boy and the dragon. It was shared among all the humans, refined, and displayed in a stunning battle performance. Communities of practice enable learners to share and build their knowledge. This results in peak performance for all learners.

Any other movies that include training lessons? Would love to hear your thoughts.

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Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – Behavioral Training plays a key role

The word “Training” has rocked the press this week with the repeal of the military don’t ask, don’t tell law.

We are looking at a major organizational change effort, in which training will play a key role. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said he would “approach this process deliberately.” In a PBS interview, Bernard Rostker (RAND Corp) and Tammy Shultz (Marine Corps War College) outline the process, including 1) defining the code of conduct, 2)setting expectations for behavior, and 3) training  service members to ensure compliance. Leaders will also be trained to ensure equal treatment and respond to specific situations.

The goal (or business need in corporate training terms) is equal, not special treatment . In a report by the National Defense Research Institute (U.S.), United States. Dept., sensitivity training has been deemed inconsistent with the principle that as long as people adhere to behavioral guidelines, what they think is “their own business”.

To meet the goal of equal treatment, the training will need to teach the guidelines or rules in the code of conduct (Bloom’s taxonomy knowledge and comprehension levels), and most importantly enable learners to apply these principles in a range of situations.(Bloom’s taxonomy Apply level). According to the report mentioned above, leaders will receive training in how to respond to hypothetical situations as well as answer questions from their command. The goal is to prove solutions to real life problems, not change attitudes.

It will be fascinating to observe the effects of this major change effort. Will behavior change ultimately result in attitude change too? The future will tell.

Happy holidays, Michele

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Designing Competency Based Training with Bloom’s Taxonomy

Today I delivered a workshop on using Bloom’s taxonomy to deliver competency based training. It was an excellent learning experience.

  • I learned more about Bloom’s taxonomy by creating the presentation (using knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, evaluation)
  • I also learned from participants when and how the taxonomy may be relevant. I am looking forward to applying this learning to future ID projects.

Here is the presentation: BLOOMS.ppt

Also, here is an excellent link to Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy
by Andrew Churches. This document provides practical suggestions for implementing the taxonomy using digital technologies. It is 75 pages!

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