Most subject matter experts I work with are delighted to contribute their expertise to a new online learning solution. Unfortunately, and especially if it’s their first contribution to a training initiative, many SMEs are unaware of the difference between education and training.
You can help them focus on the appropriate level of detail with a reminder that training is not interchangeable with education. While education focuses on knowledge in the form of theory, facts, and figures, training is intended to support qualified employees acquire or improve a skill, or shift an attitude in the workplace. In other words, training helps people use information to do something.
We can’t expect subject matter experts to be familiar with proven instructional design techniques like Cathy Moore’s action mapping or Will Thalheimer’s ELRA model. So it’s up to instructional/learning designers and their managers to keep asking questions like, “What would you like your colleagues to do differently? What should they start, stop, or continue doing with regard to topic ABC?” “What information do we need to target an improvement in the related key performance indicator?”
Use a sports analogy
If your eLearning design process is bogged down by subject matter experts insisting that “legal has vetted this information so you can’t change it” or “employees need to understand the importance of understanding ABC”, try reframing the conversation with a comparison to a sports team.
When you reframe the eLearning project as helping teams of employees improve their skills with subject matter experts assuming the role of coaches, it’s easy to see why information alone will not help anyone. A coach who uses a half-hour session with their team to explain, say, the history of soccer and the many variations of the rules around the world is not helping players to improve their performance in their next match.
The coach who uses that half-hour to set up drills, i.e., repetitive practice of specific skills in a non-competitive environment, will have much better results, since team members can learn, try, and repeat new skills and sequences with the benefit of feedback.
Just like a soccer/basketball/football practice, effective eLearning provides people with the opportunity to practice new skills–which includes decision-making–and attitudes in a safe environment. Asking your expert stakeholders to think of learning activities as sports drills may help them remember that the goal of training is improved performance in the workplace, not simply knowledge.
Ask for a tagline for each topic
If all else fails and your expert stakeholders continue to insist on including “robust “explanations of workplace structures, policies, or procedures, ask them for a tagline for their topic. My colleagues and I have success in teasing out key messages and actions when we ask subject matter experts to come up with a five-word sentence that describes the most important thing people should do with regard to the topic at hand.
For example, by asking for a five-word elevator pitch, we were able to help a SME work their way from a learning objective of “understand the importance of safety at organization GHI” to “slow down and stay safe”, which then reframed the conversation around the type of information to include in the training program.
For SMEs to recognize the difference between training and education, it’s up to L&D managers and designers alike to do what we do best: support each other in finding creative ways to help SMEs update their knowledge of eLearning best practices, shift their attention to performance outcomes, and steer their contribution to eLearning projects away from content lectures and toward practice in a safe environment.