Classroom teaching doesn't scale ...
Classroom teaching doesn't scale ...

Capturing Knowledge, and Making it Transferable


If a knowledgeable trainer is not available, and the training material does not "stand on it's own" - it might as well not exist. This article covers ideas on improving the state of your art. (Part of a series)

We’ve talked about the importance of training material, and ways to make it “findable”. The next level of “active laziness” is to build material that doesn’t require the Subject Matter Expert’s presence to be effective. Need to train 100 people in 10 states – all within one week? You need to move past PowerPoint, and learn to create teaching material that is transferable.

Learn From Experience (ie. Copy What Works)

The first attributes that all documentors must develop are large amounts of humility, empathy, curiosity, and a willingness to try new things.

  • Experiment – Many in IT are downloading software, spinning up home servers, and buying all sorts of gadgets and software for home, personal, and business use. Especially with consumer goods, there is a significant amount of design expertise in the construction of the training manuals and on-line help – you should know, because you have been using them!
  • Curiosity – Have you ever thought about how these products, systems, applications, and processes are put together to make them easy to use? And, when required, just the right amount of documentation is provided? After you are done with that new video game, ponder a moment how the publisher has successfully made the software easy to use. And don’t stop there – examples of effective communication to modify behavior are all around us (directional signs, aisles and lanes in amusement parks, food packaging). Take time to deconstruct how these communications are “put together”.
  • Empathy – While observing things, take the next step back, and watch how other people are interacting with the same thing. Can you see how the product designer adds arrows, call-outs, and colors to keep people from making the same mistake as the last guy did? Don’t limit your thinking to your own style of working with stuff – anticipate what other folks might be thinking.
  • Humility – Some time after leaving college, I got over my delusions of center, and started noticing how so may ideas are just riffs on stuff that has preceded it. Sure, the true artists among us are creating the wild and new, and yes, I have a certain amount of pride of authorship in all that I do. However, I’m never above stealing a better idea or method; when I am documenting or training stuff, the objective is transfer the knowledge to lots of people.

In addition, a little bit of laziness helps. You really need to get all 100 people up to speed, but you should not allow for (or rely on) personal training sessions to get the job done. Wouldn’t it be easier to just write it once, and have everybody read the manual and get to work? This needs to be your goal – write it, distribute it, forget it. The hard working folks that decide “extra TLC” means hand-holding all of their end users through the new process will burn tons of time and energy doing truly repetitive work; personal attention doesn’t scale.

With those thoughts in mind, here are some methods and tools that will help …

Templates – Capturing Best Practices for Documentation

I like copying previous work, but I don’t like to copy previous documents – I will only see the thought that went into that particular piece of training material. With a document “template”, I can lay out a fairly generic outline, and add instructions, notes, things to think about, and step-by-step instructions. I have previously written about my generic project charter; each time I tee up a new project, I don’t have to remember what has worked in previous project charters, I just iterate on a proven model. (Note: If I get enough requests, I will publish the generic version, complete with instructions and sample text).

The key for any template like this is that it is a document that has been proven to work – to effectively communicate what I need. The real power is that it is a compendium of “best practices” – each time I use it, I add refinements and/or more examples of effective text to the template, so my next charter will be more “brilliant” (and, easier to construct) than the last.

Note – don’t confuse this with MS Office Document Templates. I love the idea, but in all of the companies I have worked with and for in the past, very few Office users understand how to use Document Templates.

HyperText – Oh, How the Mind Wanders

Of course, with electronic help (like blogs, wikis, and even the classic Windows Help System), hypertext is a powerful way to add in-context supporting information. Need to provide an abbreviation or expound a bit on a supporting concept? Hypertext – “hot links” to supporting details – are a great help. As a Reader, you know how this stuff works – now, as a Writer, you need to understand how to construct these connections. This also takes a hefty dose of Empathy – you need to get into the mind of your audience, anticipating the problems and/or questions they may have – and add a bit of HTML to take them where they [might] want to go.

Hypertext has certain analogs in the printed paper world – like an index in the back of a book, or the call-outs and margin asides that are featured in so many … for Dummies books.

Anticipate Multiple Consumption Methods

CSS allows us to separate presentation from content – this lets me focus on the content and not worry about how it will be consumed. Fine – but you must reverse that focus as well, and pay just as much attention on the multiple ways that potential trainees will want to consume this stuff. I’m not just talking about creating multiple delivery mechanisms; you also need to think about how your training material will lay on paper, in a browser, on a projected screen … on a smartphone … through a translator …

You also need to think about letting folks know that this knowledge exists, and how to keep informed when updates and additions exist. One of the nice native features of SharePoint is the ability for users to subscribe to eMail alerts or RSS feeds. Of course, you must assume that folks are subscribing, so any and all changes to the applications, business process, or training material have to be documented, and then a change notice sent out.

Sneaky Tactics to Assure Scalability

Especially with new systems, new processes, and new consumption methods, I like to invest face-time with some early adopters. It’s like beta-testing software – a reasonably small number of representative users are given more TLC than should be necessary, because you need to validate your assumptions about the effectiveness of the training material. To be sure – you should really say nothing, offer little help – in the end, the training material needs to stand on its own.

Still, you will probably not get it 100% right – so embed a two-way, feedback-enabled sensibility in your training documentation, by adding contact information. If nothing else, it will act as a security blanket for your end users – and, if you put your cell phone number there, added incentive to make the training material extra-effective (so you don’t have to take the calls).

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