How to train the trainer: Unleashing in-house SMEs
Interviews / Opinions

How to train the trainer: Unleashing in-house SMEs

In the business world, SMEs and team managers have truly packed calendars and are faced with a constant lack of time. And on top of their day-to-day jobs, which are rather demanding, they’re often tasked with training other employees.

Given that they usually don’t have a training background, designing and running training sessions and figuring out how to measure the success of their training eat up a lot of their time, yet many of these training sessions fall short when it comes to engagement and effectiveness. Plus, all this prep keeps them away from their job-specific tasks, which provide value to the company.

So, are SMEs and team managers the right people to conduct training? Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird are outstanding performers yet terrible coaches. Just because someone knows how to do something doesn’t necessarily mean they know how to teach others to do it, too. But what would happen if they had thorough training on how to become trainers themselves?

Passing the torch of knowledge and expertise

Just because people have subject matter expertise in an area doesn’t mean they know how other people learn. Or because they learn something one way doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone else can learn it in the same way.

Being able to teach people means the death of the ego. Great performers are usually competitive and tenacious. And that’s a great thing, as it can get people to the top of their field. SMEs and managers should embrace how awesome they are, but in order for them to become good trainers, they should take the time to discover how to help others become awesome by passing on their knowledge and expertise.

And this is not an easy task. In fact, shifting the attention from “what I know” to “what others will do with it” is a big trainer challenge. But if people manage to find the balance between these two, it’s the perfect measure of success.

Another important aspect of being able to teach others is responsibility and accountability. It’s a common misconception that everything is on the learner. The learner is responsible for paying attention and trying to learn–whatever this might be. But the trainer also needs to be accountable to their learners so they can become better through the learning experience. And then be able to perform well by applying this new knowledge.

The key to effective learning is learners leaving the training session and being able to do things better. If they don’t, it’s on the trainer.

Important skills (new) trainers need to cultivate

Great and effective trainers should focus first on how to engage other people. It’s not necessary for someone to be naturally charismatic or extroverted in order to be an amazing trainer. Of course, some traits and skills help the process, but basic training skills can be taught.

That’s why train-the-trainer sessions are absolutely essential to providing (new) trainers with all they need to know to succeed in their mission.

However, the most important traits and skills one should have while becoming a trainer are:

  • Liking the topic they teach: It’s essential that trainers believe in the topic they teach before putting any effort into polishing their training skills.
  • Humility: SMEs and team managers, or top performers, are great at their work. But training other people on how to do something isn’t about them or their performance. It’s about people who are learning.
  • Willingness to be in front of other people: Sometimes people are really good at what they do but don’t want to be in front of others. And that’s okay, but they shouldn’t be the trainers. So, the right approach for (new) trainers is that if you’re going to help other people learn, you should embrace being in front of an audience without being afraid of making mistakes or focusing on flexing your expertise.
  • Curiosity: If somebody’s open to learning new things such as teaching techniques, skills, and methodologies, they tend to become more effective trainers, as opposed to a high performer who may believe that their way is the only way to learn.

Cultivating these traits and skills can be highly beneficial for all trainers–professional or “occasional.”

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How to structure train-the-trainer sessions

The most important thing to remember when creating train-the-trainer sessions is that you should start creating learning experiences, not content dumps.

Based on my experience, I will share some tips to consider:

1. Ask people about their learning experiences

When I think of a train-the-trainer session, the way I will typically design them is by starting with asking people about their best learning experience. It could be in school or another training session. Then, I break that experience down into the factors that made it so good for them.

By doing that, we can connect to some adult learning principles. Great learning experiences never happen by chance, i.e., because it was their favorite teacher or because they had a lot of charisma. It all goes back to the principles of adult learning and education. And while making this connection, I can then move on to theory.

There’s a rhyme, and reason to the way that any programs are designed, so identifying specific learning principles and replicating them can help you tremendously. For instance, you may discover which points you should skip or shouldn’t. After all, the goal is to create an engaging training program by following adult learning theory best practices.

2. Focus on the learning objectives

Then, I’ll introduce some basic learning design principles, like learning objectives. This is the main intention, after all–to accomplish a goal. After that, I will focus on organizing a training session using a lesson plan and spend time brainstorming a variety of activities. These must be chosen carefully, always with the learning objectives in mind.

For example, Jeopardy is a super fun activity for people, but if it’s not tied to a learning objective, it’s just a waste of time.

So, typically in a train-the-trainer session, we pick the right learning activities, go into the training session, do some practice facilitation so that participants can get comfortable in front of a group, and then conduct a feedback session using a training facilitator evaluation rubric.

3. Using an LMS for train-the-trainer sessions

An LMS can be very helpful while structuring train-the-trainer sessions. First, an LMS offers self-paced and self-guided eLearning programs and modules, which are very popular for adult learning. For example, you can design sample facilitation videos or small eLearning components that teach key concepts, upfront so the learner can see them at their own pace.

Or, you could create a standalone train-the-trainer course that can be used multiple times by multiple people whenever. These courses can be used pre-training as a warm-up to the main session or post-training for trainers to return to any time they need to refresh their knowledge.

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How to evaluate the success of SME’s training

The model that comes to my mind whenever I think about training evaluation and metrics is Kirkpatrick’s four levels of evaluation.

0. Attendance

This actually isn’t one of Kirkpatrick’s original four levels of evaluation, but it is one of the most common metrics: attendance. If you’re not having much attendance, is it worth all the effort, the money, and the investment you’re putting into? While attendance won’t tell you if people learned something, there is value in measuring how many people attended the training session.

1. Post-training evaluation

Similar to measuring attendance, a post-training survey might not necessarily give you information on whether people are doing something differently or better after training, but you can begin to glean information about how learners reacted to your SME’s training.

If you ask the right, targeted questions on your post-evaluation forms, then you’ll start having a better idea of what learners got out of this training session, whether they have more confidence in their abilities to train than they had before or if it’s something they’re still curious about.

2. Knowledge gain

Whether you use pre- and post-testing, or simply monitor whether participants are able to answer more questions correctly or if they’re beginning to demonstrate new skills during the actual training session, this level of evaluation is a good indicator of how engaged your learners are and whether they’re beginning to pick up new knowledge.

3. Change in behavior

Still, post-training evaluation and pre- and post-testing are not enough to measure the success of a train-the-trainer session. One of the most important measures of a successful training program is whether there’s a change in behavior (across the timeframes of 3 and 6 months). This can be measured by sending out a survey to the participants and asking them what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, or if they believe they are better at training overall.

Another idea is to ask the trainers’ supervisors and find out whether trainers are doing something new, different, or better. Or it could be looking at post-training evaluation forms from these trainers’ training sessions to see if their learners are getting something after their training program or if the results are better than before the trainers attended the train-the-trainer course.

4. Business impacts

Last but not least, you should check whether there’s a business impact. For example, do the error rates or the amount of rework people need to do decrease after attending a training session led by an SME?

These metrics will show you if the trainers have managed to teach people in the organization in a meaningful, effective, and impactful way to do things differently and better to reach business goals.

Pro tip: The business talk

When you want to dive deeper into what will be different as a result of this training and how it will impact the business–for example, making a case for a budget to the CEO or CFO–you need to talk in business terms, not adult learning terms.

Instructional designers or training pros who want to differentiate themselves and grow their careers by showing initiative need to understand how training fits the broader picture. And be able to explain how this specific training will help ease the business’s pain points.

How to train the trainer: Unleashing in-house SMEs

The eternal dilemma: Relying on in-house SMEs or hiring external experts?

Sometimes it’s not a good idea to take people’s time to prepare them for training.

For example, a large manufacturing company invested in preparing their in-house experts for training–all sorts of training, certification programs, and such. But at the end of the day, these trainers couldn’t bring the skills they learned from these massive investments into their professional development because they didn’t use them often enough to become a habit.

If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. When SMEs don’t have the time to develop their training skill set, it’s a waste of time trying to turn them into training designers.

However, if people within the organization have support (lesson plans, templates, checklists, etc.), a solid process for creating good learning programs that are helpful, resources, and information on how to use them, it could be actually wiser and more cost-effective than bringing in an outside organization to create training programs.

Another factor to consider is, do you want your highly-paid SMEs to invest 60, 80, 100 hours in creating well-designed, effective training programs? Experienced, outsourced instructional designers can create training programs that provide SMEs with all the information and guidance they need to conduct efficient and effective training programs.

All in all, it depends on the end goals. If it’s an hour training session that’s not necessary to repeat ever again, maybe you should have your in-house SMEs do it. But if it’s something that will be done over and over again, it could actually be more cost-effective to have a vendor come in and create an amazing program that SMEs can use.

Final thoughts

Sometimes, organizations that invest in training their trainers who are experts in their fields but not training pros can save time, reduce noise and frustration, or turn scattered tasks into a streamlined process.

The right tools, such as a cost-effective LMS, can assist in streamlining and facilitating the process and ultimately save everyone’s time while improving efficiency.

Finally, train-the-trainer sessions support growth plans and secure consistency and alignment across a company or team, especially those teams and organizations that grow quickly.

About the author:

Brian Washburn
Co-founder and CEO of Endurance Learning (Instructional Design company)

Endurance Learning works with organizations to help them put together training programs (in-person, virtual, or eLearning). They focus on creating train-the-trainer types of activities, whether creating a training curriculum and training the companies’ trainers on how to use it, or assisting companies’ in-house SMEs who often train with some basic design and presentation skills.

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