May 2012
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Breaking the Technical Training Enigma

Tuesday, May 8, 2012
Breaking the Technical Training Enigma

The technical training enigma is tough to crack, but here are a few tips that can help ease you along the way as you develop a program.

I once worked on a technical training course for a product line that had more than 315 different abbreviations associated with it. At first I didn't believe there could be that many—until I sat down one day and counted all 13 pages of them. It is not uncommon for technical topics to have a language of their own; in fact, this is part of what makes technical training development so ... special.

Technical training is not easily classified. Whereas nontechnical content often can apply across the board, technical content is specialized to each topic. Other characteristics that make technical training development unique include scarce or confusing information, constantly changing technology, the status quo of previous (ineffective) courses, and—most important—reliance on subject matter experts (SMEs). Effective developers must juggle all these factors while still producing a technical course that is truly valuable to the organization.

Although difficult to maneuver, technical training can be achieved. Here are a few tips that can help ease you along the way.

Find the right people

For technical training, it is extremely important that the right people are in the right roles. There is one important person that you cannot afford to have miscast: your main SME.

A good SME is needed as a guide and a resource throughout the project. The SME should have extensive experience with the topic and, if asked, should intimately understand what the areas of focus need to be for the target audience. Additionally, you should look for the following characteristics.

An ideal SME should have enough time to devote to the project. This can end up being a challenge because good SMEs usually have many responsibilities since they are good at what they do.

An effective SME should have numerous contacts and resources. Contacts are important so that the SME can point you to another person if an answer is unclear. The resources the SME has available (either electronically or in hard form) allow you to save time and avoid duplicating efforts.

The SME should be able to communicate. For most situations the SME should not be a person who tends to be too general or too detailed. For example, if the SME tends to give information that is too general, it can be hard to make the class challenging, and general statements can leave room for errors. Being too detailed becomes a problem when it paralyzes a perfectionist SME and he is not able to continue on with the project because it is not absolutely perfect.

Now, the question you may be asking is: Where do I find this person? It usually is not hard to find a good SME if you know for what you are looking.

When considering a possible candidate, ask a few questions about the technical topic and judge the quality of the response in terms of understandability, length, voice tone (exasperated at the onset is not a good sign), and length of time to answer (if asking a question via email or a survey, for example). Try to gain a grasp on the business impact your course will have. If your SME also is a stakeholder in the outcome of the project, you may have more luck.

Don't be afraid to look around. If the original SME who you were assigned to or who you found is not the ideal person to work with, ask around for a different one. Be honest with the original SME; she may be able to point you to someone else who would be better suited to help out with the project.

Gain a broad perspective

Although it can be helpful to work closely with one or two SMEs, it is important that you still gain a broad perspective by talking to multiple people. Remember that different locations and countries have different norms, rules, and laws regarding the way work gets done.

When training a global audience, find out what employees face in all locations, not just one. It is easy when developing training to get caught up in the practices of one world view. In a multinational economy, however, this won't work.

To be relevant on a global scale, try to secure a list of what products are used and what services are used and performed in different places. Talk to stakeholders in various locations. Allow time for many different people with different perspectives and situations to review material. Consider offering a baseline training module with additional add-on modules that can be tailored depending on the location.

Make it interactive

Adults learn when they are able to share experiences and be involved in their own learning. It is no secret that active learning is necessary to achieve acceptable retention levels.

Yet many organizations fail to use these principles in their technical classroom training. One reason may be that organizations are not aware of existing research and have been content with the status quo of just telling students what they need to know through a lecture.

Another reason may be that it can be more difficult to develop technical training and, for whatever reason, when subjects are highly technical it can be more challenging to build interactivity into a classroom course.

Enlist your SME's help to identify ways to make a particular section interactive. If you can get your SME to understand what you seek, his intimate knowledge of the topic can add a breadth and depth to the exercise that you might not have been able to generate on your own.

Also, when in doubt, keep the exercises simple. An easy way to add interactivity to a class is to ask students to write down all that they know about a topic before you begin discussing it. Talking about these items can help steer you around topics already understood and toward topics that need more detail for that particular group of students.

Make sure it has a point

Specifically tie the training to a job, task, or case scenario whenever possible. Even with complicated topics, a good SME should be able to walk you through the basic process of the job and pinpoint major portions that should be clarified and emphasized.

If you are not deeply familiar with the topic at hand, it can be challenging with technical training to determine what is "nice to know" and what is "need to know." As a developer you will have to be on the lookout for determining whether the material you are including really has a point. Often there is a relative scarcity in text regarding highly specialized technical products or operations.

When a developer does find some text, there is the temptation to use it even if it diverts a little too far away from the main objective of the module. Maintain discipline and eliminate content that is not related to the objective of the section.

If you suspect your SME is gearing off in a wayward direction with course content that does not match previously agreed-upon objectives, quiz her on it. Asking "How does this help meet our course objective?" is a simple way for you to figure out how the information fits.


If the information does not fit nicely, ask why. Course objectives were set at the beginning of a project for a reason: they were labeled as priorities. Don't be afraid to question why course content defers from objectives.

However, this also is an important area in which to practice tact. It is possible that seemingly wayward content is, in fact, crucial to the course objectives, but it is not obvious to you because of a lack of understanding of the concept on your part.

Keep that in mind, and also remember that while you should strive to keep to your previously agreed-upon objectives, you also shouldn't be strictly confined to them. It is possible that objectives may change slightly as you get deeper into the material and the SME realizes that certain facts were originally overlooked.

Keep up-to-date with changes in the business

It is no fun to put together a course that will promptly be obsolete. Ideally, we want our courses to enjoy a long shelf life while still being relevant. You won't always know if a product or service you are training on is going to go away, but you can at least protect yourself by asking as many questions as you can about the future of the product line.

In this rapidly changing marketplace, it is important that training staff are clued into what tools or services the business plans to emphasize and which ones it plans to phase out. Ask about these matters in an email to management, engineering, or operations to gauge the future of that product line, which will save you time, resources, and money in the long run.

Breaking the technical training enigma is not easy. Still, whether it is finding a good SME, making the course applicable to all locations, incorporating interactivity, keeping the main point of the course in focus, staying up-to-date with changes in the business, or even simply learning the extensive abbreviations of the technology, there are strategies available to assist you in development. With focus and preparation, you can develop your own technical training effectively.

Taking Technical Training on the Road

For many organizations, technical training is necessary on a global scale. Taking training on the road can be a rewarding experience and quite valuable, but to be effective, there are some factors to remember when developing or delivering technical training for different cultures.

Plan your strategy. Do your homework and know your audience. If your training plan or tone differs from the cultural norms of the location you are training, recognize this and provide rationale to your learners. For example, let’s say you wish to have an informal classroom where everyone is free to ask questions and discovery learning is encouraged. However, you happen to be training a culture that expects the classroom to be a formal place, where even raising a hand to ask the instructor a question is considered rude or even a challenge to authority. In this situation, you might plan to begin the learning event by setting expectations and explaining that you will be diverging from the norm, but that this is planned and it is OK. You might also plan for activities that allow students to respond as a group rather than individually. Accommodate the culture when you can and explain yourself when you diverge.

Double-check your communication choices. This means little considerations such as analyzing the words you choose to explain a concept. It means avoiding abbreviations (or at least spelling them out at first use or providing an abbreviation quick reference guide). It also means establishing a numbering system. For example, will you use the imperial or metric (or Canadian metric!) system in your course? How will you use commas and periods when expressing numbers? (For example 123.120 could also be 123,120 or 123 120 depending on where you are in the world.) To ensure success, clarify these at the beginning of your learning event.

Plan for language barriers. Have a plan in place for what you will do if there are language barriers. Will you write key words on the board? Will you provide a glossary of terms? Will you stop every five or 10 minutes for a comprehension check? You also can plan to maximize the use of images. Pictures, graphics, and animations can explain concepts that words can muddle—especially with translation issues. A picture just might be worth two thousand words when language barriers are present.

Mind your manners. You are not expected to be perfect, but you always should err on the side of politeness when dealing with other cultures.

About the Author

Sarah Wakefield is a technical training supervisor for Schlumberger Limited in Houston. Her primary responsibility is managing the design and development of technical training courses for audiences in locations such as the United States, Europe, South America, the Middle East, Russia, China, and North Africa. Before this, Sarah worked as a curriculum designer for various organizations. Sarah also was an instructor of communication, writing, and life success courses at Ivy Tech State College and at Purdue University in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Sarah holds a master's degree in communication from Purdue, as well as a bachelor's degree from Purdue with a double major in professional writing and psychology.

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