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Who Are Your 20-Percenters?


Thu Oct 19 2017

Who Are Your 20-Percenters?-4e8369ff46bfec2f819694ae2f9ba27b6829e001400ac7fe1bbe11d6be00ff51

Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, said, “Learning organizations discover how to tap people’s commitment and capacity to learn at all levels in an organization, and are continually expanding its capacity to create its future.”

My take on this, as I discuss in my book 50 One-Minute Tips for Trainers, is that knowledge plus skill equals mastery. Without mastery, an organization cannot expand its capacity to create its future.


This is a real story:

My phone wasn’t working, so I got in touch with my phone provider. Two technicians came to my house expecting to fix my line. They worked for more than an hour and admitted they had no idea how to correct the problem. These technicians were maybe 25 years old. I heard one of them say, “Let’s call Hank.”

“Who’s Hank?” I asked.

“Hank knows everything about phone lines because he’s worked here for over 35 years, and he’s about to retire,” said one of the technicians.

Hank described the problem and the solution to the technicians, and my phone line was repaired within 15 minutes. “We’re kinda nervous about our job when Hank retires because we don’t know as much as he does,” said one of the techs.


In another company, Joe is a tool engineer with 56 years of shop-floor experience in the plastics industry. At age 70, Joe is working to close the skills gap at his company before retiring.

Hank and Joe are the 20-percenters who own 80 percent of the knowledge in the workforce. Who are your 20-percenters? In other words, who are your subject matter experts (SMEs) who can be used as trainers at your company to maximize and capitalize on their knowledge by giving it to others?

This is what Peter Senge meant. Leadership needs to identify SMEs and turn them into trainers, a process we refer to as training the trainers. To begin, you must ask these two questions:

  • Who are my SMEs?

  • How can my SMEs become trainers to spread their knowledge?

Too many SMEs randomly train on the job without training objectives—a document that outlines the coursework, applications to be taught, and specific teaching methods for different learning styles.

Leadership needs to provide SMEs with a formal training system by asking the following questions:

  • Do my SMEs know how to prepare, present, practice, and follow up?

  • Do my SMEs know the best training method to use?

  • Do my SMEs know how to effectively train on the job?

  • Do my SMEs know how to train in the classroom?

  • Do my SMEs know how to explain a concept and teach a skill?

  • Do my SMEs know how to handle frustrated learners?

Recruit your SMEs to deliver on-the-job and classroom training, create knowledge management databases, videotape top performers, and even write your standard operating procedures. Your SMEs possess the highest level of specialized knowledge and skills.

With your SMEs, you can create apprenticeships, mentor younger workers, and cross-train others. As more and more companies streamline their budgets, they will need their SMEs to deliver training.

Your SMEs know a lot about their own skills, knowledge, and abilities, but not a lot about how to train. Invest in them. Provide them with a train-the-trainer system so they know how to be learner centric.

A successful training system should be live—one in which learners operate real or simulated equipment in the classroom and on the job for consistency, sustainability, and return on investment. This is what your SMEs need to learn how to do.

You cannot go it alone anymore. You must forge a partnership with your SMEs to fill the skills gap. It is no longer simply the human resource department’s responsibility. All leaders must now formulate strategies that capitalize on and maximize SMEs to “continually expand its capacity to create its future with mastery.”

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