So…anyone can create a course, right? But…very few people actually create GOOD courses that truly train people to do something.

If you are tasked with creating a course on a technical topic…and you have to rely on a subject matter expert (SME) to help you create this course, you need to get your SME to think in terms of outcomes as opposed to content.

Subject matter experts tend to want to share everything they know about a topic. It’s the course designer’s job to help them shape their thoughts into outputs rather than inputs. At BLP, we do this with a design meeting. Here’s a quick look at the main steps in our design meeting and the process we use to “shift” SMEs toward an outcome focus rather than an information focus.

Step 1: Verify required outcomes. This sounds amazingly simple, yet you wouldn’t believe how many times people say they need training and yet they cannot articulate a simple goal or outcome this training should achieve. In instructional design lingo, we call this a “course goal.” It’s a description of what learners will do on the job once training is complete. Here’s a few examples of course goals:

  • When selling Product X, reps will position Product X against competition, communicate benefits, and successfully close at least 80% of sales.
  • During customer phone calls or customer meetings, reps will appropriately communicate the “fit” of Product X for the customer’s particular situation.
  • Patients will safely and confidently use Equipment X to do home treatment.

Often, SMEs who have been tapped to be content experts have thought very little about what OUTCOME they hope learners will have. They have focused instead on thinking about what content they want to deliver. We give them examples of possible course goals and then ask them questions to help them shift focus:

  • When training is over, what does the employee need to be able to do on the job? (When you hear, “Well, they need to understand X, Y, and Z,” you simply re-direct them and say back. “But WHY do they need to understand X, Y, and Z? What will they DO with this information?)
  • If this training is successful, what problem will you solve or prevent?
  • If this training is successful, what improvement will occur?

Sometimes, SMEs simply cannot articulate a goal. If they can’t, try shifting to step 2 and seeing if you can distill the ultimate goal after seeing their responses to Step 2 questions.

Step 2: Define the learning objectives. Now – we don’t tell SMEs that we’re “defining learning objectives,” but it’s what we do. We ask these questions, and we have them write their responses to each one on individual Post-It Notes. Ideally, we’ll use different colored Post-Its for each “type” of question:

  • What do learners need to know?
  • What do learners need to do?
  • What do learners need to believe/feel?
  • What common mistakes do you want to prevent or what problem do you want to solve?

SMEs generally respond really well to this activity. They may not do a great job distinguishing between something people need to know (knowledge) versus something they need to do (skill), but they will brainstorm their thoughts and we can then organize them.

Step 3: Chunk everything. This is honestly what we do. Together with the SMEs we shift/move the Post-Its around into logical groups. Topic themes will emerge and natural hierarchies will form. We’ll put the Post-Its on flipcharts and name each chunk with a logical title.

Step 4: Identify required content. Now, the SMEs can start talking content. We will look at each objective we defined and discuss what content has to be included to support it. For example, if the objective is that the patient performs machine set-up tasks, then the content is clearly descriptions of the machine set-up tasks.

Step 5: Identify appropriate learning activities. This is something we sometimes do with SMEs..and sometimes without them. If an appropriate learning activity is a practice activity in answering customer questions, we will brainstorm with the SMEs what questions are typically asked, what common mistakes reps make in answering these questions, and what kinds of resources a rep typically has available. In other words, we use the SME to craft the structure of the learning activity and to help us populate it.

Step 6: Identify job aids. What tools can help the learner transfer the training to the job? Sometimes the answer is – nothing. Other times, SMEs will identify “job aids” they want the learner to have access to. Honestly, in our experience, this offers a nice outlet to the SMEs to spill out all the content they didn’t get to include in the body of the course. We call these “reference materials” and allow SMEs to include all the “extra” material that we helped them winnow out through Steps 1 – 5.

I did a podcast where I attempted to show a very abbreviated form of this design meeting process. You can check it out here (And, yes, I realize no one is going to nominate me for an Emmy or an Oscar for my scintillating performance in the podcast!):