Thursday, November 30, 2006

Be Nice to Your SME!

We had a lively webinar session on Thursday on Using Subject Matter Experts Wisely: Keeping Your eLearning Development Projects on Track. About 60 training and education folks from across North America jumped into the debate on how best to work with subject matter experts (SMEs) in getting at their expertise and integrating this into your eLearning intervention.

When we asked participants about their challenges in working with SMEs, we heard a common litany of complaints. Here's a sampling:
  • "It can be hard to keep them (SMEs) focused on what we actually need."
  • "Some are just too busy to stop and talk with you."
  • "(My eLearning project) is not a priority for the SME."
  • "They are time constrained, and very often off site."
  • "Sometimes they don't understand the concepts of eLearning."
  • "There is a lack of clarity in what they provide to us."
  • "SMEs are willing to help, but their management is reluctant to reassign that duty to them."
So what emerges is a picture of busy, harried people who's first priority is definitely something other than your eLearning project. This can lead to frustrating and costly delays in finishing your project on time and on budget.

But maybe the problem isn't entirely with SMEs. Maybe we should bare some of the burden of blame because we often expect too much of our SMEs, especially given the fact that they themselves are not training professionals, and are usually helping us with our eLearning project as an adjunct to their regular duties and responsibilities.

In the webinar, we discussed proactive strategies for engaging SMEs in such a way that both respects their time and makes the most of their talents and experience. We showed how you can change the role of the SME from one of a writer of content, to an oracle or storyteller who can provide you with the grist for well-contextualized activity-based learning. Through thoughtful interview techniques, and the use of templates and storyboards, you can get the most from a SME in the least amount of time. Also, through such an approach, the SME knows exactly what you need and is not wasting his/her time (and yours!) trying to guess at this.

This is how you can be nice to your SME. Doing so will likely lead to eLearning that is developed more quickly, and that is also more focused on what learners need to be able to do, versus what they need to know.

There are all kinds of ways to improve your relationship with SMEs. One webinar participant, for example, said that he never went to a meeting with a SME without bringing chocolates along. Hey, I'm not against a little bribery here and there...whatever works! Talk about being nice to your SME!

If you missed the webinar, here is a recording.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Harvesting Your SME's Brain

One of the great things about working in the eLearning field is the variety it affords. In the last year, for example, I have developed eLearning courses or online job aids that teach people how to: use software; manage greenhouses; work safely with hazardous materials; provide support for individuals with special needs; design landscapes; run a small business; produce food safely; and communicate effectively. I am not a subject matter expert (SME) in any of these areas, but I worked with people who are. My job is to "harvest" the SME's brain in their area of expertise and to translate this into an effective eLearning experience for a targeted group of learners.

Working with SMEs on eLearning projects can be challenging. Firstly, helping you with your eLearning project is usually just one of many things on their to-do list (and usually far down that list). Secondly, they are experts in their particular subject area, and usually know little about how people actually learn. These factors - limited time, and limited knowledge of learning processes - often means that you may not get what you need, when you need it, to keep your eLearning development project on track. My discussions with other eLearning developers bear this out; SMEs are quite often the biggest bottlenecks in holding up projects.

What's to be done to avoid the SME bottleneck?

1. Be Proactive in Getting What You Need

Don't wait for an SME to send you his or her "stuff." You may be waiting a long time. Set up appointments to interview the SME or SMEs (if more than one). Write up your notes, send back to the SME(s), get their reaction, and set up new appointments for refinements. The key is not asking them to be writers (most find this terrifying and will put it off for as long as possible). You want them to be resource people and reviewers in order to make the best use of their time and your time.

2. Use Templates to Focus the SME's Attention

Don't give the SME a blank slate or you don't know what you are going to get. I often use templates (e.g. script outlines, story-boards, outline documents, etc.) that clearly lay out a plan of instruction and learner engagement for an eLearning intervention. There are clearly labeled spots in the template that require SME input. By focusing their attention on exactly what you need, you are more likely to get it (on the first try, as opposed to the fourth).

3. Focus on Context, Not Just Content

SMEs love their area of expertise (that's why they are SMEs!). Unfortunately, this often leads to an obsession with content and an inability to tease out what is truly important (e.g. what the learner "must be able to do," vs. what is "nice-to-know"). So it is your job as an eLearning developer to get them to focus on the application of knowledge, as opposed to a recitation of knowledge. Ask them for stories, cases, anecdotes, etc., that speak to the "doing," not just the "knowing." This will bring your eLearning to life. Don't worry, SMEs usually have lots of stories to tell from their experience, which you can draw upon (changing the names, of course).

Following these tips will:
  • Make the SME's job, and your job, easier
  • Help you keep to your eLearning project development schedule
  • Lead to a better quality final product
These are some of the themes we will be covering in our November 30th webinar titled Using Subject Matter Experts Wisely. It will be our usual 12 noon Eastern / 9:00 a.m. Pacific starting time.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Making Your Case

What struck me most in our Thursday webinar on How to Get Management Buy-In for eLearning was the senior level of approval required to "green light" eLearning development projects. Most participants said that they had to get sign-off at a very high level. Some needed Vice-Presidential approval (e.g. VP of Organizational Development, or Marketing, or Sales, etc.), one needed Chief Financial Officer approval, and one even required Presidential sign-off. This can prove to be a daunting task. In my experience, the higher up in an organization that you have to go, the harder it is to make your case for your eLearning project. It faces much more critical scrutiny and many more competing priorities for attention and investment.

We focused on a three-pronged approach to "selling" senior management on the merits of your eLearning project idea.

1. Understand Management Motivations

You have to clearly understand organizational goals and priorities and know what motivational "buttons" to press to get senior management to stand up and take notice of your idea. In what ways can your eLearning intervention increase organizational gain (e.g. in terms of higher sales / revenue, service improvement, higher client satisfaction, etc.) and decrease organizational pain (e.g. in terms of decreased down time, less defects, less support calls, etc.)? If your solution speaks to management priorities you will get a fair hearing.

2. Use Measures that Speak to Motivations

Define success for your eLearning idea based on gathering and analyzing data directly related to the gains you are trying to realize or the pains you are trying to minimize. Senior management prefers to manage via facts, not conjecture. Show the ways that you will measure real outcomes from your eLearning intervention. Also, collect metrics that speak to the advantages of an eLearning approach to training (e.g. better reach, more convenience, improved consistency, lower costs per learner over time, etc.). Committing to measuring the effectiveness of your approach will win respect from management.

3. Communicate Your Vision Effectively

In the age of instant communications and information overload, attention spans are extremely limited. There is a very small window in which to make your point to senior management, so use it wisely. Boil down your value proposition for your proposed eLearning intervention to its essence. Can you sum it up in a few paragraphs? This takes time and practice. Remember, it is harder to say something of import and impact in a couple of pages, than it is to say nothing in 50 pages. And, please, at all costs, avoid slipping into overly-technical language. This will just create more confusion than clarity. Management wants to know what you are going to do, what benefit it will have, and how you will measure effectiveness in realizing that benefit. Period.

Finally, we discussed how it is far better to introduce eLearning incrementally, learning from experience, and scaling up intelligently as you grow. Nothing succeeds like success. This will make your next case that much easier to make.

Here is a link to the webinar recording.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Getting Approval for Your eLearning Project

The following has happened to me on more than one occasion. I'm either sitting at a table or I am on a conference call with a client group and we congratulate ourselves on coming up with a really solid plan for a new eLearning project. Then someone says that this will be taken up the line to Mr. or Ms. X for final approval and budget allocation. My question is always the same: why wasn't Mr. or Ms. X here during our many hours of deliberation and debate when we came up with this plan? Because when they are brought into the picture after the fact, rarely do they get a full appreciation of why a certain approach is being proposed, and why it will be the approach most likely to garner success, and why a certain investment is required. So, surprise, surprise, they often reject the proposal.

Why Mr. or Ms. X are not at the table from the outset is a matter for another day. They are usually very busy people who need to make big decisions, but cannot be everywhere, and cannot afford to get mired in detail. It is a fact of life, so instead of lamenting this, it is better to accept it and work at improving your communication skills to have greater influence and to get what you want.

I interact with training professionals daily. They are convinced of the value of training and are committed to developing the best training experiences for their organizations that is possible within the constraints of time and money that they face. In fact, I have heard some speak of the intrinsic worth of ALL training. Unfortunately, there are likely very few in the organization who are as "religious" as this about training. Upper management, in particular, will rarely buy into the idea of the intrinsic worth of training. They have to be presented with a good case, based on hard facts, not on conjecture and good intensions. And this is often where it all goes bad.

Training professionals have to become more adept at making the value proposition for their training programs. This is especially true for eLearning, as the initial required investment is usually higher than for traditional forms of training, and because of existing skepticism from those who have seen few good examples of eLearning.

Training professionals have to find out what is on the minds of management - what are their burning issues and what keeps them up at night - and then pitch their eLearning solutions in terms of how they will solve some of these problems. And you do not necessarily need a 50-page tome to make your case. Work at honing your message down to the essence of your value proposition. As my colleague Karin Albert puts it, you should be able to make your case in a 30-second elevator ride with a decision-maker.

In the end, it is not about "selling" eLearning at all. It is about selling solutions to problems, and, oh, by the way, this will be accomplished via eLearning. That's how you will get the thumbs-up you desire for your project.

We will explore these issues in much greater detail at next Thursday's (November 16th) webinar titled How to Get Management Buy-In for Your eLearning. We will have the usual 12:00 noon Eastern time. Join us if you are looking for ideas on how to make the case for your eLearning projects.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Figuring Out the Blended Learning Puzzle

Well, we certainly struck a chord with this week's webinar on blended learning. We had our most subscribed event ever, as 90 people were on line trying to find ideas to solve their own blended learning puzzles. In other words, what combination of training modes works best for which training challenges, and which types of learners?

If you didn't attend the webinar, don't worry, we did not reveal the magic formula for blended learning, because none exists. There are as many possible solutions as there are puzzles, and we are only limited by our imaginations. Instead of misleading stock answers, we provided general guidelines with case examples to get folks thinking creatively about how to tackle their own training challenges.

Most attending the webinar told us that they are combining eLearning with face-to-face learning. They are doing this for two reasons. Firstly, many of their learners are geographically dispersed or cannot afford to be away from their jobs for long periods of time. Secondly, they wish to optimize precious and expensive face-to-face time so that it can be used to greatest effect. Learners can be "prepped" via eLearning before they arrive for classroom-based (or hands-on) sessions, and/or eLearning can provide continuing support or job aids after such face-to-face sessions.

There can also be blended approaches to eLearning. We explored how real-time synchronous learning (e.g. webinars) can complement anytime asynchronous eLearning by increasing learner engagement and enhancing course completion rates. And we looked at how self-service eLearning can be blended with supported eLearning provided by online coaches for those requiring extra assistance.

It's not all good news on the blended learning front, however. One common mistake is to merely "tack on" another training mode to an existing one without any thought to how the two modes integrate and support each other. Another common mistake is to merely repeat the same training in two modes and require participants to do both. Neither of these approaches can be called blended because there is no real blending taking place.

Finally, our special guest Chris McCain from Aspirus Wausau Hospital in Wisconsin shared how she stumbled upon a successful blended approach to electronic medical records training. She wanted some participants in an in-person training session to try out a new computer-based training (CBT) module that had been developed. Chris came to the realization that having learners complete the CBT module in a classroom setting provided the best of both worlds. Learners could work through material at their own pace, and also receive immediate support if necessary. Classroom time for such training has been cut in half (which is no small feat for a busy hospital that has to be staffed around the clock).

Blended learning is much like a puzzle. You have to make sure all the pieces fit together, support each other, and tell a coherent story. (Yikes, last week I used a cooking metaphor, and now a puzzle metaphor...I promise I will stop!).

We made a recording of the webinar if you would like to have a look.