Effective Corporate Learning Environments Need This

What makes for an effective corporate learning environment?  Does that question cause pictures of boardrooms, or training halls pop into your head?  Maybe your first thought was of an employee’s desk or an eLearning lab.  All of these can be applicable when considering what a corporate learning environment is, and certainly all of them are different physically, but they should all have one thing in common: mental engagement.

Any learning environment is less about the physical setting and more about the emotional support. Take the best, most advanced interactive classroom in the world, and put Ben Stein from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in front of the room, and every moment of time is now a waste. Conversely, take a mud-floored thatch walled hut and put someone that is passionate and excited to be there in front of learners, and a beautiful thing occurs: engagement.

The instructor has more power to create an engaging learning environment than any lighting, color, desk, tool, or background music. Too often companies try and fix these physical things to improve their training programs and forget the lower hanging fruit: training the trainer. How many SME’s (subject matter experts) attended training that helped them be better instructors/discussion leaders/classroom-control experts? An expert in PowerPoint is not automatically an expert at teaching PowerPoint. Head knowledge doesn’t always translate to teaching skill.

So how do we help our SMEs be better teachers? Let me tell you a story:

John was a sales rep that was consistently recognized for his ability to meet sales goals while maintaining exceptional relationships with his clients. If you read the top 10 books on how to relationally sell, John exemplified all of them. In an effort to help his clients sell more of the product they bought from his company, John agreed to come to a live training the client was hosting and put on a training seminar on his product.

Talking about his product was something John could do in his sleep. Unfortunately, it ended up being the learners who were sleeping, not John. He approached his training session just like he would a sales pitch. He had slides packed with text about the products, how they were manufactured, what their key features were, their supply chain, and pricing matrix breakdowns. As he went from slide to slide pointing out key items, the learners became more and more disengaged. By the end of the 90-minute session, no one in the room was even paying attention.

John could sense he’d lost the room, but had no idea why. In a private moment later that day, John approached me and asked for feedback. He admitted that it was a rough session but didn’t know what he could do better. Excited at his teachability, I sat down with John and started reviewing his session.

“John, the first mistake you made was with your slides. They had way too much text, not enough images, and you read them to the group almost verbatim.”

“Yeah” he said, “but I didn’t want to forget anything.”

“Tell me the top five features of product X” I asked. He looked at me oddly for that question, but then rattled off the top 5 features like I expected. “Now how can those features be turned into benefits?” Again he had a quick and thorough answer.

“See John, you won’t forget anything important. You’re putting people into cognitive overload, in other words, you’re overwhelming their brains, with so much information. They don’t need to know the nine fabrics that make up your product; just that it can stretch and is more comfortable because it has mixed fabrics.”

John thought for a moment and started to see the point. “So, key points only without overwhelming detail?”

“Bingo. Now the next thing I’d like to see you do is to involve the group more. Call on people. Get them to participate. Have them do some structured activities that teach them about your product and get hands-on with it.”

…our conversation went on like that for a while, with him taking notes and me mentoring him on how he could impove. I also sent him a Guide to Live Training pamphlet I’d written for our SMEs. Ten months later John came and presented again. His was one of the highest rated sessions in the entire two-day event. He took to heart the items we’d discussed and put together a great seminar. After he finished we talked about how well it went and he again asked me for improvements. If only all my SMEs were that eager to improve!

L&D folks, two take-a-ways for you from John’s story:
1. Mentor your SME’s (preferably ahead of time) to help them be successful. Many are experts in their field, but not experts in ours. So help them improve!
2. Never stop critiquing and learning how to improve your own training. As the world moves forward, if you are standing still, you are actually moving backwards. Never grow tired of perfecting your craft.


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