4 Ways Innovative Training Grows Channel Distributor Mindshare

Each year, a vast amount of training dollars are spent across every industry to make sure sales reps have the product knowledge, sales skills, and proper processes they need to succeed. Whether it’s your job to train or enable an in-house sales force, a collection of regional sales affiliates in various countries, or a network of channel partners, I salute you. It’s not an easy job.

Internal sales teams require you to provide all of the skill development and coaching they need and make sure they are up to speed on new products. Regional affiliates each have their own preferred methods for handling training. So business units must provide product training that is easy to update and localize as needed.

Channel distributors are a different story entirely. The challenge is one part training, one part marketing. How do you improve your company’s standing in the minds of distributors? Most importantly, how do you maximize mindshare so distributors pull your product off the shelf instead of a competitor’s product? Do they know which products to sell to their different customer types?

Channel distributors are partners, not employees. How do you ensure they fully understand your products’ unique value if the training you provide to them is voluntary? In some cases, a percentage of channel distributors may not be accessing your current training materials at all. Are they accessing your competitors’ materials?

When you need to both convince distributors to take your training in the first place and make sure they actually learn something from, legacy training approaches such as LMS-driven eLearning and certifications likely won’t cut it. It’s time to consider new, innovative training approaches that get attention and foster long-term retention.

Here’s how innovative training can help grow channel distributor mindshare.

1. Innovative training is a competitive differentiator

If your industry’s standard is to provide distributors with content-heavy eLearning courses, there’s a bright side. Your competitors are probably doing it, too. Your organization has an opportunity to stand out from the pack by getting to know your target learners (in this case, your distributors) and finding out what type of training would be must engaging and useful to them.

For example, if your distributors spend most of their workdays away from a computer, providing them with eLearning they must take on a desktop is probably a waste of time. A mobile learning solution would probably be more optimal.

If you want your products to be “top of mind” to distributors, consider a novel, unique training approach such as a learning game. Games, for example, are often an ideal training approach. Games encourage repeat play and provide sales reps an easy tool to grow their product knowledge in short bursts. A learning game can also pique the curiosity of distributors who have been hesitant to take training in the past.

2. Effective training creates cross-sell and up-sell opportunities

When training is designed based on content you think you need to cover, distributors will struggle to see the value. Product facts, specifications, and data may be important to you, but distributors are focused on how they can improve their margins and grow their businesses.

To be effective, design training that focuses on outcomes. For example, a common desired outcome for distributor training is to identify cross-selling and up-selling opportunities. With these goals in mind, skilled instructional designers can craft a learning experience that will help distributors gain the knowledge and skills they need to increase their cross-selling and up-selling. When this happens, sales improve and both you and your distributors win.

3. Fun, Accessible Training Increases Overall Adoption

If your training materials are closed off on an LMS, the amount of effort required for distributors to take the training may be too high. Even if they complete a module once, they may be unlikely to repeat it… especially if they found it boring.

Instead of thinking of training as an information dump that is delivered on whatever platform is most convenient for you, think of it as an opportunity to provide distributors with fun, easy to use, easy to access tools they will actually want to use. If the training is easy for them to access on their device of choice, they are much more likely to give it a try. And if the training design is fun, rewarding, and actually useful, they will return again and again.

4. Enjoyable Learning Experiences = Brand Loyalty

Are you sensing the theme? Your distributors have a finite amount of time and attention, and you are competing for that attention along with all of your competitors. To grow mindshare, the product information and support you provide needs to stand out. When you provide exceptional training materials to distributors, you are doing more than checking a box. You are creating true brand loyalty and building a win-win relationship where distributors find it easier to sell your products because they understand them and they enjoy learning about them.

Case Study: TE Town Mobile Learning Game

Learn how we partnered with TE Connectivity to create an engaging learning experience for channel distributors.

Human-Centered Training: One L&D Trend to Rule Them All?

Pretend for a moment that your target learner is a field sales rep named Kate. Her schedule is packed with customer visits. Kate is expected to not just know about a wide range of products and competitors, but be able to articulate this information in a meaningful way to her highly educated customers. She also must effectively execute the company’s sales process and build meaningful rapport quickly. Easy, right?

When Kate needs to reference or practice something, she is often already sitting in a prospective customer’s parking lot. She is likely using her phone or tablet. Do you want her to know how to differentiate your product from Competitor A? Too bad… the eLearning course on that topic is locked away on an LMS. What about the course Kate took that covered the latest product information? She passed the completion test, but that was over a month ago and she has forgotten most of the details.

Regardless of what industry you are in, Kate is your learner. The constraints your learners face in their work environments may be different from the example I’ve given, but my point remains: When we fail to put learners first in our designs, the training we create is doomed for irrelevance.

Don’t Jump to Solutions Just Yet

In the search for more meaningful training approaches, many of us turn to the latest trend or technology. The one getting the most hype and attention in the industry. Microlearning, Augmented Reality, Gamification, Machine Learning: each one of these trends, or perhaps a trend I have not listed, can seem like the one thing that your training approaches are missing.

There are articles and webinars galore that hype up the latest learning trends. They talk about how you must add X, Y, or Z technology to your training strategy. But while these technologies and approaches may be useful to you, they do not get to the root of the problem.

We need to figure out what our learners truly need. More specifically, we need to think about what Kate, a real person with a pulse, truly needs. Then and only then can we select the right mix of tools and technologies.

Is Your Training Business-Centered?

“Business-Centered Design” is not a formal discipline, although it might as well be. I’m referring to the tendency to do whatever is most cost-effective or convenient for the business and putting the needs of learners second. An example might be mandating that all corporate learning materials be housed on the LMS, no matter what. Or that you must create all online learning materials with a single software tool regardless of the business need.

Business-centered approaches make sense on the surface. Businesses obviously have goals to meet and metrics to hit, and employees are responsible for making it happen. But if employees need to gain knowledge and skills to make that happen, and the training they must take was not designed well because of various “business requirements” or legacy processes, was it really so business-centered after all?

The Human Element

It is nothing new to consider the human element of design. Many different processes, terms, and methodologies exist; design thinking, human-centered design, and user experience design to name a few. Human-centered designers build empathy with their users so that they deeply understand how whatever it is they are designing will fit into their daily lives and solve meaningful problems.

Surprisingly, it sometimes feels like a new concept to think of our learners as human beings. They might find it hard to log in to a training portal, or pinch to zoom in on a PDF on their mobile device. Kate has five minutes to locate the resource she needs before her sales call, and you might have known how stressed that makes her if you had asked!

How to Create Human-Centered Training

No single process or methodology has a monopoly on creating training with a human-centered approach. If done with a flexible mindset, even the ADDIE model can deliver human-centered solutions. The key is to make the analysis phase meaningful and iterate quickly.

The discipline of design thinking has a great deal to offer the L&D community. The d.school at Stanford University has a variety of free design thinking resources on its website if you are interested in learning more. I found this 90-minute design thinking workshop particularly valuable to see how the process works in action:

While I’ll leave it to the experts at Stanford to teach design thinking in full, three essential elements of the process stand out to me as especially applicable to instructional design:

1. Empathy is the goal of analysis

Instructional designers are already familiar with performing a training needs analysis, task analysis, focus groups, interviews, and surveys. They are less familiar with uncovering the deeper, more fundamental needs of target learners. Do we understand Kate’s feeling of frustration when she can’t find the information she needs on her phone before talking to a customer? How does that frustration help us define the real problem and identify possible solutions?

2. Ideation is essential to design

In the design thinking workshop video above, notice how the process involves the creation of many ideas quickly, followed by immediately sharing with the “customer”. Besides the possible focus group, learners are often the last ones to see the result of a corporate training initiative designed to help them learn something. This needs to change.

3. Iteration is the soul of development

So you made a user interface and you think it looks good. Now what? Did you test it with target learners to make sure they find it useful and intuitive? Development must include frequent touch points with target learners so they can validate design decisions and identify aspects of the learning solution that are unclear or difficult to use.

No single trend, fad, or technology is enough to get the results you seek from your training initiatives. But when you take a human approach to design, you will discover what approach is truly optimal… and wind up with a whole lot of empathy in the process.

Competencies aren’t Enough: How to Help Sales Reps Win

sales competencies

Early this year, I attended a conference for medical device sales training professionals. I expected to hear about innovative ways organizations are training their reps, reinforcing value statements and sustaining training after product launch events.

I was wrong!

Instead, I heard many sessions about competencies and competency modeling. Having the right competency model in place is critical for sales reps and account managers. Once the right sales competencies are in place, we can coach reps to meet these competencies, measure their performance against the competencies, spot high performers and identify weak ones. Competency models are hard to get right, so it’s no surprise that so many sales training functions spend a whole lot of time making and revising them.

Competency models are a terrific tool for hiring and firing. They are valuable to managers and they help stakeholders decide what training should be created. But they are not helpful at ensuring that training is effective. Let me explain.

Know, Do, Believe, Avoid



Let’s use the common sales competency new account acquisition as an example. Assume you are a sales training manager who must design and implement a program to help sales reps develop their ability to acquire new accounts. Where would you begin?

If your competency model is solid, you will have a precise picture of how new account acquisition should be done. You’ll even be able to observe reps (and look at sales data) to see who is strong in the competency and who isn’t. But this does not help low or average performers get from Point A to Point B.

This is where learning objectives come into play. For the uninitiated, learning objectives are statements that tell us what learners will know, do, believe or avoid after completing training. Rather than saying “This training will teach new account acquisition,” learning objectives force us to get specific:

  • Follow the 6 steps in the XYZ selling process.
  • Position ACME corp. products with new accounts.
  • Segment accounts by size, type and product lines used.
  • Demonstrate superior listening skills with new prospects.

Essentially, learning objectives drive the granular behaviors that someone must perform to master a competency. By deciding what learning objectives are needed to meet a competency, you can ensure that training covers the appropriate content.

But even if your learning objectives are solid and they support your competency, you’re still a ways away from true performance improvement.

Optimize the Learning Experience


This is why instructional designers (IDs for short) stay employed. They know how adults learn best and they tailor the learning experience so each learning objective is met. We call our IDs learning designers.

A good learning designer will:

  • Winnow your subject matter down to what is truly essential to meet the learning objectives.
  • Employ a variety of interactions, activities and modalities to present the training content in a way that is memorable.
  • Craft meaningful scenarios that provide safe practice opportunities for learners.
  • Break content into small manageable chunks (like microlearning).
  • Incorporate appropriate performance support and reinforcement tools into a training experience to extend the learning.

And with the broad range of learning technologies available today, a learning solutions company can take sound instructional design further by incorporating mobile apps, game-based experiences, custom videos and more.

Most importantly, learning designers make sure training is designed based on the science of how people learn and remember. They identify what behaviors sales reps will need to exhibit in order to reach your competencies and design learning experiences that make it stick.

So if you’ve just recently finalized your competency model for sales reps, that’s great! You have the foundation, but you’ll need effective training to take them from theory to reality.

Want to take your sales training further? Our Sales Enablement and Beyond webinar will show you how:

How to Think Outside the Box at Work

If we are really supposed to think outside the box at our jobs, why do so many of us sit inside of cubicles?

Even if your office has progressive, trendy furnishings (like ours), there are still plenty of times when a change of perspective would help get those creative juices flowing. Sometimes it’s all about the little things in your day-to-day routine.

Truth of the matter is, some managers and bosses do not even want out-of-the-box thinkers, no matter what they say to the contrary. Some positions value efficiency and dependability, and those are certainly the traits that propelled an industrial revolution-inspired economy through years of success.

But times have changed. The world is smaller—or at least people are more connected. The traditional concept of a “job” has forever changed and only those who are adaptable and think on their feet will be prepared to meet the “needs of tomorrow” head on (whatever that means).

So how can I start thinking outside the box in my workplace?

You may work at a relatively traditional place in what feels like a “normal” job, but there are still plenty of opportunities to sprinkle some interest and excitement into your day. Changing up your routine and approaching things a bit differently, even if in small ways, can make a big difference in the type of ideas you generate. Here are some tips you can start today:

Make Small Changes to Your Routine

Every time you repeat a daily task, you are strengthening the synaptic pathways in your brain that have molded themselves around that task. If you park in the same spot, take breaks at the same times, and have the same conversations with the same people, then you are going to think the same thoughts. It may sound trivial, but I like to do little things like park in different areas of the parking lot in the morning and move to different workspaces within our office for different parts of the day. These small variations in my routine pull me ever so slightly out of my comfort zone—and it is through the smallest of actions that big changes begin to happen.

Fill Your Mind with (Good) Media

Turn off the Thursday night TV shows and pick up a book. Forget about the business books that make big promises about success, find a novel or piece of literature that resonates with you and fill your mind with it while you relax. If you’re able to listen to music while working, try picking a different genre or maybe put on some classical music. If you fill your mind with stimulating materials, you never know what great stuff will pop out later.

Schedule in Time for Thinking

We are led to believe that being productive means taking action and “doing things” as much as possible, but sometimes that is simply not the case. Time spent in a quiet contemplation will lead to more ideas and possibly lead to the solution you were looking for.

Unplug During the Work Day

If it is possible for you to cut off the internet connection or e-mail for any part of the day, then do so. The ability to focus your attention on a specific task without constant distraction will lead to better work and clearer thinking.

Build a Better Relationship With Your Boss

Go out of your way to connect with your boss whenever possible. I don’t mean sucking up, I mean really try and build rapport. If you have a positive relationship with your boss, you will be much more comfortable and likely to generate better ideas and suggestions.

There are plenty of times when efficiency and output require us to put our heads to the ground at work, but making a few small changes and giving ourselves time to think with a clear head can lead to more creativity and better results in the long run.

This infographic has more great thoughts to consider, taken from Visual.ly.

How to Think Outside the Box Infographic

In the end, it’s all about being creative

We tend to think of creativity as something that only belongs to certain people: artists, designers, poets. But anyone reading an article about “thinking outside the box at work” knows the truth—creativity happens everywhere.

As a learning design company, we have to be creative all the time. Thinking outside the box for us means changing up the boring eLearning everyone seems to expect, and delivering something truly engaging.

Use the tips presented above to channel your creative side. Whether you’re in training, accounting, life science, or anything else; you’ll see that creativity pay off.

Designing UX for eLearning? Skip the Cargo Cult


When it comes to user experience (UX), most eLearning designers will tell you they can do better. The problem? They are not really UX/UI designers. They are instructional designers, eLearning specialists and trainers. If they work inside an organization, they do not have the luxury of having a cross-functional team that includes someone with deep UX/UI design experience. UX testing is not even on most project plans! We assume we know what the learner’s experience should be like… and that is what we create. No testing required.

This 6-minute video challenges that idea. It is from a UX conference held back in 2009, but its message is pretty timeliness. The speaker starts with a quote from Picasso. “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” Sounds like carte blanche to copy, right?

Nope. Because a great artist is really seeking inspiration from what he sees. A great artist analyzes other ideas to see what he can steal to achieve his vision. Then, based on his intentions (or need), he creates his own masterpiece from that starting inspiration. When we attempt to copy, without understanding the drivers behind the design we are stealing from, we can end up with user experiences that do not meet the needs of our users.

Skip the Cargo Cult

Jeff Veen, the speaker in the video, uses the analogy of cargo cults, which refers to indigenous people on Pacific islands who tried to mimic the behavior they observed US soldiers perform during World War II to bring more materials goods to their islands. These people hope that by mimicking the superficial actions they saw, wealth will return to them. Veen argues that UX designs do the same thing. They look at successful examples and try to copy without taking the time for a deeper analysis.

We need to be much more critical and analytical of our user, and we all need better education on what is even meant by user experience design. We need to know the difference between user experience design (interaction experience and usability of the site) and user interface design (graphic design/aesthetics). This slide show is a great resource for learning about user experience design.

Test Your UX Designs

To get better at making sure UX/UI design fits well with our target learners, we need to test our designs. We need to grab 4 – 6 target users and watch them interact with our prototyped design and invite them to “think out loud” as they do. We need to tell them to speak aloud their inner thoughts and communicate what they like, what they find confusing, and what they find surprising or unexpected. As we watch, we need to get answers to these questions:

  • Is our user figuring out what to do easily? Is the navigation intuitive to them?
  • What frustrates them about the user experience? Is there anything that is disengaging them at any point?
  • Are they be engaged and interested by what they see? Does what they see or experience motivate them to stay with the experience or are they trying to get through it as fast as they can?
  • What delights them? What bores them?
  • What are they ignoring that you need them to attend to? (Oh yeah, you will see users totally ignore stuff that you think is super obvious.)
  • Where do they need help?
  • What do they think is missing?
  • Do users get what they expect when they do something?
  • Is there any point at which users become confused?

Before You Copy, Find out the “Why”

It’s great to look at templates or existing eLearning courses, websites, mobile apps, etc. for design ideas. However, be careful not to simply copy a design without fully understanding the “why” behind it. Before you simply copy a design you like, ask yourself:

What instructional design problem was it designed to solve?

What learning need was it intended to meet?

What user group was it designed to appeal to?

Be very careful of simply grabbing something you’ve done before – or that someone else has done – and then trying to shoehorn your learning objectives and content into that existing experience. Understand the why behind the design you want to copy so you can assess whether you should be copying it as-is, tweaking it, using it as a kernel of inspiration for something that is mostly new, or continuing your search for inspiration.

Validate Your UX/UI

You can think you’ve hit the mark, but will your learners agree? UserTesting.com is a great resource for doing quick user experience testing for low-cost and quick speed. (Your results will come to you within an hour of you uploading your test.)  For less than $300, you can have 4-6 users test your user experience. You can quickly set up your test experience and write a “test script” for what you want to assess. You then specify the demographics of your testers (age, gender, education level, income level). You’ll get videos of people completing your test with screen actions clearly visible. You’ll hear testers “think out loud” as they go through your application or course. You will get written responses to up to five questions that you specify, and you can follow up with individual testers for clarification of their responses.

It’s a great way to skip the superficial and find out what really drives your target learners.

How Gestalt Can Help You Create Better Training: This Month on #BLPLearn


Welcome back to our #BLPLearn blog series, where we offer a monthly look at design and technology as it pertains to learning and development. I’m your host, Jake Huhn… Senior Marketing Technologist at Bottom-Line Performance.

Let’s Talk About Gestalt Principles

Learning design and graphic design sometimes feel like two distant worlds. When you’re building a course—or working with a vendor—and you’re responsible for results, it can make graphic design seem like a trivial afterthought. You’re concerned with making sure every word is perfect, and making sure every step is explained thoroughly, and making sure you provide accurate definitions. Where’s the time to worry about how “pretty” that screen looks?

But I want to encourage you to make graphic design a higher priority—and there’s science to back me up.


It all has to do with Gestalt Principles of Organization. “The Gestalt principles of organization involve observations about the ways in which we group together various stimuli to arrive at perceptions of patterns and shapes.” [Gestalt Principles of Organization] These principles are essentially graphic design 101, and every designer should at least be familiar with them. And researchers at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia have shown how Gestalt theory can help improve learning:

“The new screen designs were then evaluated by asking students and others to compare the designs. The viewers were also asked to rate directly the value of using the eleven Gestalt design principles in the redesign, both for improving the product’s appearance and improving its value for learning.The evaluation results were overwhelmingly positive. Both the new design and the value of applying the eleven Gestalt laws to improve learning were strongly supported by the students’ opinions.”

These researchers aren’t alone, either. Other research has shown how these principles facilitate Visual Working Memory, an essential part of learning and other cognitive processes.

Implications for Learning Design

As a graphic designer, I gravitate towards how beautiful, clean design can improve learners’ comprehension of a course… but there’s more that Gestalt theory can offer learning designers. Gestalt is more than graphic design, it’s an entire psychology of perception—and it can improve more than just looks.

Consider what Gestalt theory teaches us about Similarity. Learning is facilitated if similar ideas are treated and linked together and then contrasted with opposing or complementary sets of ideas.

It can also shape the way you challenge your learners (think quizzing). “The Gestalt theory of learning purports the importance of presenting information or images that contain gaps and elements that don’t exactly fit into the picture. This type of learning requires the learner to use critical thinking and problem solving skills. Rather than putting out answers by rote memory, the learner must examine and deliberate in order to find the answers they are seeking.” [Gestalt Theory (von Ehrenfels)]

And bringing it back to where we started, the graphic design of your learning solution (the proximity of text to images, the negative space, the clean lines) is yet another piece of the puzzle when it comes to facilitating proper learning. If you organize your information and images according to these principles, your learning solution will look beautiful and be more effective.

So Take the Time to Learn About Gestalt Theory

I hope I’ve made the case that taking graphic design 101 can actually benefit your learning design. There is a lot of information on the web—from either universities or graphic design authorities—that can help give you an overview of Gestalt principles in design. A great starting point is this Designer’s Guide to Gestalt Theory on Creative Bloq. From there you can dive into the actual psychology and even explore eLearning Industry’s website for more industry specific coverage.


Chang, Dempsey, Laurence Dooley, and Juhani E. Tuovinen. “Gestalt Theory in Visual Screen Design: A New Look at an Old Subject.” Proceedings of the Seventh World Conference on Computers in Education Conference on Computers in Education: Australian Topics 8 (2002). Accessed March 27, 2016. http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=820062.

“Gestalt Theory (von Ehrenfels).” Learning-Theories.com. 2014. Accessed March 27, 2016. http://www.learning-theories.com/gestalt-theory-von-ehrenfels.html.

Peterson, Dwight J., and Marian E. Berryhill. “The Gestalt Principle of Similarity Benefits Visual Working Memory.” Psychon Bull Rev. 20, no. 6 (December 20, 2013): 1282-289. Accessed March 27, 2016. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3806891/#R23.

“Gestalt Principles of Organization.” Psychology Encyclopedia. 2013. Accessed March 27, 2016. http://psychology.jrank.org/pages/278/Gestalt-Principles-Organization.html.

How to Close the Account Management Skills Gap

Account managers and salespeople play two important but different roles in the customer acquisition and retention life cycle. But at some organizations, you can’t tell the difference. Most of the training that organizations provide their sales functions is centered around front line selling techniques, product knowledge, features and benefits. Increasing a salesperson’s ability to immediately impact sales dollars is obviously an important objective to drive. In some industries, it’s the most important objective.

Want to learn more about sales enablement? View our recorded webinar: Sales Enablement & Beyond: Using Games and Smart Implementation to Drive Performance.

The water gets murkier when an industry is highly complex and heavily regulated. In the Fall 2015 issue of LTEN’s Focus magazine, Wendy Heckelman, Ph.D. described the challenge life science and medical device companies face:

Life science companies can no longer rely on the “one-to-one” or “sales representative to physician” model to drive growth. Treatment decisions are often made by various stakeholders across large and complex healthcare and government institutions. They face the challenge of improving patient outcomes while simultaneously reducing associated costs. Therefore, decision-makers need solutions that address quality patient care and broader healthcare outcomes.

Key Account Management (KAM) requires a different set of competencies and behaviors than that of the traditional sales rep. When the selling process within an industry changes from a one-to-one sale (such as sales rep to doctor) to an account-level sale (such as an account manager selling to the C-suite of a health system), the type of training and coaching required to equip learners also changes.

The ideal solution to this problem is often a blended learning curriculum that helps your Key Account Managers take the long view and differentiate their roles from that of frontline sales reps. Here are three areas of focus to consider:

1. Realign core competencies

“Selling” in a traditional sense is only one small piece of the strategic account management life cycle. The selling skills, product knowledge and features and benefits you previously focused on in training do not build the competencies a key account manager needs to build long-term, mutual value with a customer’s organization. Before you re-design training, a sound analysis should be conducted to assess needs and find the gap between existing competencies and desired competencies.

2. Redefine the Launch or POA meeting

For the organizations we work with, the product launch meeting, national sales meeting or POA (plan of action) meeting is usually the key event that will (allegedly) prepare sales reps and account managers to sell the “right” products the “right” way. Once you have re-aligned your core competencies to include key account management and selling, the learning solutions included in these meetings will also change. Consider blending online pre-work with interactive live events that incorporate gaming and roleplay. The learning content should focus less on features and benefits and more on identifying ways to create long-term value for an account and articulating that value proposition as a compelling story.

3. Extend the Learning

Because Key Account Management is a highly complex discipline, ongoing coaching and performance support is essential. Include in your plans a way to reinforce key learning objectives and remind learners to apply the behaviors they learned regularly. A mobile reinforcement app such as Knowledge Guru can be used to embed the most common customer stories into long-term memory.

Start at the Beginning

If your organization has been equating selling with strategic account management, you’ll need to realign your core competencies and behaviors before you jump to the solution. Dr.Heckelman’s article includes a chart with some example competencies and behaviors, and these are a great starting point. Our recorded webinar on analysis describes how to conduct an audience analysis and task analysis, two steps that can help identify what your competencies need to be and how to close the skills gap.

Subject Matter Experts vs Learning Experts: What’s the Difference?


We often talk to organizations that are trying to start fresh. They’ve outgrown the tried and true training approaches of yesterday and are ready for something different. They are confronted by a “new normal” in their industry that has changed the game entirely: the regulatory environment has shifted, competition is on the rise and learners must be more skilled than ever before to succeed. Sound familiar?

Meet the Subject Matter Expert

Our clients are usually experts in their field or have easy access to others on their team who are considered expert. For example, training professionals at pharmaceutical and medical device companies often have either A) years of experience in sales or product development, B) an advanced degree in a related field, C) a clinical background or D) access to people within their organization who have these characteristics. They know their products inside and out… but they do not know how to close a specific performance gap that is happening or how to give their learners the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in their roles.

These individuals are subject matter experts. They know their content, but they are not experts at teaching this content to others. It might seem counterintuitive, but the expert is not always the best teacher.

Meet the Learning and Performance Experts

To drive success, both a Learning Expert and a Performance Expert are needed. These are often the same individual, or members of a team. They can be part of an internal training department or an external training vendor. Whoever they are, they perform the essential tasks of identifying the performance gap, figuring out how to close it and identifying how to teach the knowledge and skills that are most important in the best way possible.

What is a Performance Expert?

Performance Experts know how to get to the root of a problem. They conduct analysis and gather data through a variety of means (surveys, focus groups, interviews, job shadowing, etc) to get a real picture of the current state of training. They pinpoint the performance issue and are able to see what training can fix… and what is outside of training’s sphere of influence.

Our Performance Experts often go by other names, but our clients will know them as their project manager or the facilitator of their design meeting. It’s no coincidence that our “performance experts” are also often our best “learning experts.” They are the ones who take the big picture of what is needed to fill a performance gap and design a blended learning curriculum approach to close the gap.

What is a Learning Expert?

A learning expert understands how people learn. They are skilled instructional designers and are able to create interaction-rich learning experiences that support a given outcome. In the corporate world, a learning expert should also have an understanding of the business needs of a given learning experience and design it in a way that supports those needs.

Learning experts can gather all of the highly technical content your SMEs have (either documented somewhere or just in their brains) and make it engaging, meaningful and memorable to learners.

At BLP, we call our learning experts Learning Designers. They partner with our multimedia team to design our learning solutions, whether it is an eLearning course, an instructor-led session, a video, a learning game, or a combination of these solutions.

Finding the Right Balance

Many of you are already quite familiar with the need for both subject matter experts and learning and performance experts. Some organizations prefer to work with vendors who also have deep subject matter expertise in their particular industry… while others leverage their own internal SMEs in order to work with a vendor that is expert in adult learning and instructional design. The right balance, of course, depends on the project and particular business need. Our own approach has been to focus on learning and performance first while also building knowledge and skill in the specific industries that we most often work with.

What balance of vendor expertise works best for you? Do you have subject matter experts, learning experts and performance experts on your internal team?

What Will Training Really Fix?


“We need training on _____”

As a company that creates custom learning solutions, many of our conversations start something like this. A client comes to us with a specific need, a deadline and maybe even an idea of what needs to be produced. It’s our job to find out what the real story is.

In the short term, the need seems simple. Maybe your company has just merged and there is a push to get a more consistent look and feel across a wide range of eLearning. Or perhaps the National Sales Meeting is three months away and you need to make reps excited to sell your newest product. You’re hearing things about “mobile” and feel like the training you deliver to your customers should be more “modern”, but you aren’t quite sure what that really means or what problem you are actually trying to solve.

This is why analysis is so important. It’s an essential, yet often overlooked, part of the process of creating a truly impactful learning solution.

One Story, Many Meanings

At the beginning of a project, clients will give us a picture of what “reality” is. They will tell us the problem they are having, what employees need to be doing differently and why it isn’t happening. They know they are having symptoms, but they may not be able to immediately pinpoint the underlying cause. Or they may think they know the cause when other factors are also causing the performance gap.

We listen to these stories to look for the desired outcome, then make it our mission to uncover what behaviors, knowledge and skills are needed to reach that outcome.

In other words, we look for a performance gap: the real star of the story.

Training is Just Part of It

We love to create interactive eLearning courses, elegant mobile apps and engaging game-based learning, but these solutions by themselves are seldom enough to solve a performance issue. Any good Human Performance Technology (HPT) model will show you that there are many factors external to the performer that impact their performance. We like to use David Wile’s model with our clients:


In our 2016 Learning and Remembering Survey, 16% of respondents cited an organizational issue, aka something external to the performer, as the primary challenge they face when delivering meaningful training. Many other responses, such as having too much complex content or lots of regulation, are also somewhat external to what training can “fix”.

Take the Time for Analysis

A well-conducted analysis is a crucial step when you truly want to solve a performance issue. A good analysis will:

  • Find out what results a job is supposed to produce for the company.
  • Identify if it is something that can be trained.
  • Look at internal and external factors that impact performance.
  • Identify what impacts results and what does not.
  • Separate fact from opinion.

Of course, you must choose the right type of analysis to conduct depending on the business need.

Watch “Measure Twice, Cut Once”

I partnered with Stephanie Sullivan to deliver a presentation called Measure Twice, Cut Once: How Analysis Drives Training and Business Results. You can view the recording of the webinar below!

Our Top 10 Training & Development Blog Posts from 2015


Trends! Tools! Technologies! There are adult learning and instructional design blogs galore that sing the praises of the “next big thing” in the training and development space… whatever it happens to be on a given day.

We strive to do more with our Bottom-Line Performance and Knowledge Guru blogs. Of course, we do discuss current trends and techniques and share what’s possible. But our goal is always to go beyond the trends and get to the root of things. What’s going to move the needle? Is there truth behind this trend, or is it just hype?

Here are ten of the most popular articles we published in 2015. Seven of them appeared here on our Bottom-Line Performance blog… while three appeared on our Knowledge Guru website.

From the Bottom-Line Performance Blog

1. The Myth of Micro-Learning

There’s a new buzz phrase going around town these days in the L&D and talent development communities. That phrase is “micro-learning.” But too many people in our industry have a misunderstanding of this otherwise great concept. In this article, Sharon Boller looks for the truth behind the micro-learning hype: Read Article.

2. L&D in 2015: Too Much Content, Too Little Time

It seems the central challenges and pain points of learning leaders do not change much year after year. In many ways, organizations are still faced with the same central issues they dealt with five years ago… or more. In fact, four of these challenge areas come up again and again. Learn what they are and why they happen: Read Article.

3. Ten Steps to a Successful Product Launch Training Implementation

For product launch training to drive desired knowledge and skills acquisition, it must be carefully designed and implemented. Every product launch curriculum project is different, but certain characteristics remain consistent across most projects. Product launch curriculums that have these characteristics are much more likely to contribute to a successful product launch: Read Article.

4. Three Truths About Millennials and Workplace Learning

It may be tempting for an organization to focus its L&D efforts on catering to the perceived “new characteristics” of Millennials, but doing so might ignore the bigger picture. This article shows how to reframe the conversation about Millennials in the workplace: Read Article.

5. Is Your Process Training Nice to Know or Need to Know?

Processes and procedures are critical to employee success on the job, yet many organizations struggle to effectively train their employees on how to follow them. Here are five possible reasons—and questions L&D professionals can ask to overcome these challenges: Read Article.

6. Should Instructional Designers “Teach to the Test”?

In the corporate world, people really do need to recall facts to do their jobs well. There are plenty of times where being able to “Google it” is not enough. In this article, Sharon Boller breaks down why “Teaching to the Test” isn’t always such a bad thing: Read Article.

7. How to Create Award-Winning Training Solutions

Many of our clients care about awards and would like to have the prestige that comes from having them attached to their training efforts. But if you’ve never submitted for an award before, how do you know your learning solution is award-worthy? And what do you need to include in the submission to draft a winner? Read Article

From the Knowledge Guru Blog

8. 7 Steps to an Effective Serious Game or Gamification Implementation

Are you a do-it-yourselfer? When it comes to serious games, ATD says you probably are. In an ATD survey 71% of organizations reported that they prefer to develop serious games in-house. Here are 7 steps to making sure that your game based learning efforts are effective, and not just money down the drain: Read Article.

9. 5 Ways Serious Games Can “Level Up” Your Sales Reps

So many of the custom serious games we create at Bottom-Line Performance are designed for sales reps. Customers who use our Knowledge Guru platform often create their games for sales professionals, too. Our experience has shown that games are often the perfect addition to a sales training program or set of reinforcement and reference tools.  This article has five tips for using serious games with sales reps: Read Article

10. How Cisco Uses Knowledge Guru to Teach Product and Technical Knowledge (Interview)

In this article, Paula Rossini shares how Cisco uses serious games to teach its sales associates. Cisco’s sales associate training program (CSAP) has won multiple Brandon Hall awards for its innovative approaches, including a 2014 “Gold” award won in partnership with BLP. Read Article

Want More of our 2015 Top Content?

We took five of the webinars we gave in 2015 and turned them into a single article with links to each recording. Each webinar has a white paper, lookbook or work sample to supplement the learning.