The Business of Learning

Some people are natural instructors. They adapt well to changing audiences and can generate interest in the most banal topics. But let’s be honest. That isn’t everyone. And when it matters most – when the audience is a new or potential customer of our product – companies are often caught in a dilemma. They can either send a great communicator with limited product knowledge, or a subject matter expert (SME) who risks overwhelming the customer with facts and figures. Many companies resort to sending both, preferring the known cost to the unknown risk.

The real issue is that stakeholders realize (though often not in so many words) that training is a work of art that must be achieved by a scientist. They know that their customers need more than mere facts. They need what computers and email attachments can’t provide – the human interaction to deliver something beyond mere content. But they don’t know how to get the best of both – to find or develop that rare combination of communication and content expertise.

For many years, it has been my privilege to work with technical experts and instill in them a love for helping others learn. It isn’t that difficult, really. All they must do is completely change their approach to learning. That’s it! Here are three tips to get started.

  1. Subject matter experts must understand that they are just that – an expert. Experts do things instinctively, without thought or even realization. Often, they don’t remember even learning it, they just know they can do it. Unfortunately, knowing something does not mean one can teach it. In fact, the more natural the knowledge or ability becomes, the more impossible it is to teach. The first thing a SME must do to become a good instructor is become aware of what they know and do. They must make what they do unnatural.
  2. Experts must also be willing to decrease the importance of content. Ask an expert to provide training and they will immediately provide a significant amount of content. I have seen many pained faces when I tell engineers that of the eight essential steps to creating product training, developing curriculum is – you guessed it – step eight. But after they go through the process, they understand why it was essential to put it last.
  3. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, experts need to understand how they became an expert. They only became good at what they do by doing it. The same will be true of their students. You can’t teach someone to ride a bike by showing them slides of bicycles or teaching them about gyroscopic effect. You must put them on a bike and give them a shove.

Only when learning becomes more important than content will you be able to transform your training from delivering information to transforming behavior. And that can make all the difference in the world in how your customers sell, use, install, design, integrate – or whatever they do with your product. In other words, it matters to your bottom line. It really matters.

These and other principles have transformed the way hundreds of technical experts around the world teach about their products. They are covered in my upcoming book, Product Training for the Technical Expert: The Art of Developing and Delivering Hands-On Learning, which can be pre-ordered now on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or directly through Wiley.

 

  

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