Company Culture Promotes Right-the-First-Time Attitude


Last week, I attended the AGXPE regional meeting where we had info-packed sessions on the process of getting compliance documentation right. It was a pharmaceutical-focused group so we had a lot of discussion around FDA inspections. But, as any industry under regulatory supervision knows, the kinds of best practices and standard operating procedures that guide safety can be found in any manufacturing environment where employee and customer lives are on the line.

Two perspectives emerged from the sessions. First, the group discussed the many issues involved in getting data right the first time. Second, the group wrestled the issue of quality control checks on the back end. In both cases, many of the same attitudes and issues underlie the problems that result in faulty data and information capture that, in the case of pharmaceutical manufacturing, often result in lines shut down, batches thrown away, lots recalled or patients injured.

To get to the heart of the accuracy of initial data entry and quality control, you have to take a close look at what causes human error. Causes are almost as varied as the humans involved.

The AGXPE group had its share of trainers in attendance, and training people know that they are the first stop when a performance issue is uncovered. Training people also know that often the problem can’t be solved with training alone.

A complex human problem, especially this one, cannot be narrowed down to one or two specific issues with a couple of quick and neat little fixes. What really is going on is a complex web of human knowledge, skills and attitudes that come both from the personal background and experience of individual employees combined with the culture of the organization.

This is where the organization can affect the outcome. The one thing organizations can address and control is the culture. A right-the-first-time mentality can be cultivated, encouraged, rewarded and modeled from the top down. In fact, it is the only way that a company can reinforce behaviors that it values.

After employees are imbued with the company culture of responsibility and accountability at the source where information is captured or products manufactured, then training can come in and do their jobs by providing guidance and methods for achieving excellence the first time.

If solving the complex reasons behind human error were simple, the problem would not exist. But if solutions were impossible, near-perfect performance would not already be happening in plants around the world where examples of human excellence abound.


Podcast 2: Capturing the Right Knowledge at the Right Time

Welcome to Episode 2 of the Working with SMEs Podcast. Today, Nathan Eckel and I talk about 4 questions that commonly arise when we talk to corporate executives about managing the knowledge of their internal experts. (Listening time: 16:25)

Listen as Nathan and I drill down into these four questions:

1. Are we talking to the right experts?

2. What knowledge should we capture that is most important to the business going forward?

3. What knowledge needs to be captured immediately as opposed to eventually?

4. If we have limited resources or limited time, which experts should we speak with first?

Are you using your valuable, finite resources to capture the right experts?  Please comment below!

For Trainers and Instructional Designers: Your SME is Valuable During Evaluations

bostonredsoxspringtrainingschedule_2017 This blog is “inside baseball” for those who write training programs.

Recently, I wrote about how the subject matter expert is most involved in the design phase of your training program when you are doing knowledge capture. But an expert can be helpful during all phases of your training program. Experts who are with you every step of the way add more to your program’s depth and richness, and contribute to the learners in ways beyond a mere “information dump”.

As part of your course design, you most likely have included evaluation of the material, perhaps using Kirkpatrick’s 4 Levels or some other validated evaluation process. As you get feedback on your course, make sure your expert is included in getting feedback from the evaluations so he or she knows what is working and where the course is not hitting the target.  The expert can remain a valuable asset as you adjust the course in response to evaluations.

Here are a few ways your expert can participate in the types of evaluation based on The Kirkpatrick Model, with which most instructional designers are familiar.

·         Level 1 Reaction: This measures learner satisfaction and “the degree to which participants find the training favorable, engaging and relevant to their jobs” to quote Kirkpatrick.  Let your expert know if the learners enjoyed the content. This is particularly important if the SME also participated as a live classroom trainer. If they were rated as a trainer, share their scores with them.

·         Level 2 Learning: This measures learner retention and “the degree to which participants acquire the intended knowledge, skills, attitudes, confidence and commitment based on their participation in the training” according to Kirkpatrick. Your expert may be best suited to determine if the learner gained the knowledge that the course set out to teach by reviewing the tests and assessments.

·         Level 3 Behavior: This measures learner application on the job and “the degree to which participants apply what they learned during training when they are back on the job” Kirkpatrick says.  Your expert may be one of the people, in collaboration with their direct supervisors, who can assess if learner performance reflects correct application of the material on the job.

·         Level 4 Results: This measures if business goals are reached and “the degree to which targeted outcomes occur as a result of the training and the support and accountability package” according to Kirkpatrick. Depending on the view of the expert regarding the long-term strategic objectives of the business, the expert may be able to help assess if learner performance is supporting the business and the outcomes desired. If performance is not advancing business goals, some experts have strategic insight into how to adjust the content to support the business. In many cases, however, experts are focused on one particular area of the business and may not see the bigger picture. But it is a good idea to include your expert in this information and get their feedback anyway.

The important takeaway here is that when you employ experts, they are often valuable to your training, information collection and overall business goals in ways that may not be immediately obvious. Therefore, if you are engaging your subject matter expert in your training program, make every attempt to engage them during all phases of knowledge transfer.

Experts more often than not can contribute in ways that even they do not know. It’s your job as a trainer and instructional designer to make sure you are getting the most benefit from their experience.


Respecting Your Learner’s Need to Know and the Value of Just-in-Time Learning


If you have ever been deeply engrossed in a subject, you know that life is constantly presenting you with opportunities to learn more about it.  Everything I do somehow relates back to something I am learning and writing about.  Yesterday, for example, my microcassette recorder wasn’t working. Yes, I still use it occasionally, and in this case I wanted to listen to a tape I made many years ago. I use the microcassette  infrequently enough that when I investigated the cause of the malfunction, I found the batteries had leaked into the battery compartment and the contacts  were corroded.

I “YouTubed” a video on how to properly clean the corrosion. The video was 3 minutes long. The solution was simple.  Dip a cotton swab in clear white vinegar and gently wipe the battery compartment clean, being careful not to get any of the leaked battery acid on your skin, and careful not  to drip any liquid into the device. Wipe the vinegar off the contacts with a paper towel. Soak another cotton swab in water and wipe the inside of the compartment to remove any traces of vinegar. Dry it with another paper towel. Done.

That probably took you about 20 seconds to read that paragraph. But it takes about 3 minutes to watch someone actually perform all those steps in real time.  Three minutes is a long time to watch this process.  After about one minute, I found myself checking the remaining time on the video and figuratively tapping my foot wondering when the heck this video would be over. But I knew if there were two remaining minutes, there must be more to it so I better watch the whole thing or I might miss something crucial.

I learned two things yesterday.

1) I learned how to clean the battery compartment of my microcassette player and

2) I learned just how impatient we have become as learners.

If I –  someone who was educated in the pre-YouTube era, someone who reads 300-page books to learn one critical point  –  if I didn’t have the patience for a 3 minute video, imagine how short the attention span of children who graduated from baby rattles to baby iPads by the time they were one year old.

The Post-9-11 Workforce

Those children born post-9-11 are entering the workforce this year en masse as they turn 17 and graduate from high school. Your employees of today learned to swipe an iPad to get the answer before they could drink juice out of a cup without a lid.

The other day I lunched with a woman who will be retiring within a few years who shared her experience of younger workers.  She works in a medical technical field in a hospital.

I will paraphrase her comment only slightly. “They ask me a question, and they only want to hear a quick answer. They don’t want to know why or how or the context. They just want to get right back to checking Facebook or looking at Instagram.”

I do not want to castigate younger employees. Quite the opposite,  in fact. I am suggesting that perhaps as we consider how all people learn today, what captures and keeps our interest, how we think and what we need to know to do our jobs,  that we respect the effect of our all-info, all-the-time culture on the way we expect to receive information.  After all, I can’t even sit through a 3 minute video without looking at my watch and wondering when the YouTuber will get to the point.

As you craft training programs to communicate with your workforce, ask yourself if you are you considering our cultural bias to learning new information. Is your approach and content relevant and compelling?

As experienced trainers know, if the learner isn’t paying attention perhaps it is time to revisit your methodology.




The Expert’s Curse: You Need Patience and a Plan

Ignorance isn’t always bliss. For experts in any field, whether they have double PhDs  or have been operating a complex machine for 20 years, the curse is the fact that experts, by definition, know more than they can ever re-tell succinctly.

Abraham Maslow is credited with developing the levels of competence that has true experts at the pinnacle of competence. Maslow said experts are unconscious competents who know more than most people will ever be able to learn about their field. Often, experts are unconsciously competent because they love their field; they think about their work even when they aren’t at work. Their knowledge becomes part of their identity usually internally and often externally.

Expertise Challenges Corporate Knowledge Management Efforts

If experts could stay in one position forever, their job never changed, their company’s mission never changed, the market never changed and technology didn’t evolve, expertise would not be a curse. But in reality, some or all of those things are bound to change over time. And that is when it is important to be able to excavate the expert’s knowledge for preservation, modification and transfer. Change presents challenges to corporate knowledge management efforts.

If your experts are so immersed in their own knowledge that they can’t completely reconstruct it, how can your company manage the wealth of corporate intelligence?

First, companies need to get their arms around the body of knowledge, skills and attitudes that make them profitable and valuable to customers. Many companies today who are facing changing conditions – such as mass baby boomer retirements, corporate downsizing, mergers and acquisitions, divestitures, competition from nimble startups – are putting plans in place to make sure they preserve critical information.

When preserving critical information, most companies start by working with their internal experts to ensure business continuity. And that is when they encounter “The Expert’s Curse”.

Patience and a Plan

Many companies are finding themselves stuck at the intersection where they have made the decision to catalogue critical corporate knowledge and the place where they decide how to collect it. They need to make decisions about how best to collect it based on what technology and skills sets they must employ to gather information in a logical framework and how best to organize it for effective transfer while overcoming the expert’s resistance to describing their knowledge.

Often the expert’s resistance is simply the result of too much work to do. But many times that resistance is accompanied by a true frustration about how to begin to deliver a stepwise description of their expertise whether it is intellectual capital, processes, procedures or physical actions. How do  you impart what is often a lifetime of study and application – the subtleties, hints, tricks and clues- that lead an expert to make decisions that those with less experience are not as equipped to make?

You can never replace an expert. But you can isolate the unique knowledge they bring to your organization and lead them to re-tell it in a way that allows it to be captured and preserved. You can help your experts overcome their brilliant blessing disguised as a curse. It just takes patience and a plan.

For Experts: 10 Tips for Providing Great Information

When I originally conceived the Working with Subject Matter Experts project, its focus was limited to providing information for instructional designers in the training and development field. After speaking with many people about the topic over the last several years, it is clear that this topic has many more audiences including marketers and public relations professionals who want to communicate with customers and other external stakeholders, corporate executives interested in the strength of their company’s competitive position and the actual subject matter experts themselves who want to provide value and continue their legacies.

This last audience, the SMEs themselves, are stepping forward with interesting stories and information about their own experiences. Experts appreciate being valuable to their companies. They seek guidance on how to be better partners in the knowledge transfer process.

For the experts, I have put together this list of 10 suggestions for experts who want to be more effective when communicating their knowledge. As always, I welcome input on this list in the comments below.

Without further ado…here are 10 Quick Tips for Providing Great Information.

  1. When you are sharing your knowledge, pretend you are talking to a court reporter. Share what you know slowly, carefully and logically. Your expertise will be used later to educate, train, inform and persuade.
  2. Keep in mind that procedures and knowledge are often being written for people new to the information not other seasoned experts. A new hire needs to know every single step in a procedure and needs explanations of complex concepts. For example, pressing the “enter” key after an action might seem like common sense to you, but would a new hire know to do it?
  3. When presenting introductory material, aim for the overall picture first. Context is critical to understanding. Describe the reason why the information is important, something especially important to a new hire or neophyte.
  4. Provide who, when and why your information is important. When you’re giving instructions for completing a specific action, don’t forget to mention who the knowledge will affect, when the knowledge is applicable, and why it is important.
  5. People only know what you have told them so include detail. Inaccuracies arise when people try to interpret ideas or fill in missing links of information. If you have doubts about your wording, jot it down on paper. When you are presenting complicated information to someone else personally, be sure to ask, “Did you get that?” before you proceed
  6. When giving information, stay on track. Avoid extraneous information that does not pertain to the specific topic you are documenting.
  7. Break procedures into multiple sections to make the information more user-friendly. If you have complicated information or processes, a good rule is to limit steps to about 10. If the number of steps becomes excessive, break a process into smaller procedures. When reviewing your information, pretend the procedure is totally new to you and imagine performing the steps or using the information as you have just presented it.
  8. While shortcuts are advantageous to someone who has worked in your field for a while, they are usually confusing to a new person. Share all the officially approved processes the first time. Before giving information on corporate process or procedure, ask yourself, “Is this our organization’s best practice?”
  9. Carefully review information that is returned to you for verification. If you make a change when reviewing a document, note your change directly on the page next to the information you are correcting whether using a review function in an electronic document or affixing a sticky note to a hard copy. Be clear about the change. Try to avoid ambiguous statements such as “No! This step needs rework.” Instead, try to use statements such as, “Add after step 3: Move the cursor to the next line before proceeding.”
  10. Whenever possible, provide documentation. If you have a slide presentation that you have delivered on the topic, provide that. You may have charts, graphics and sources in those materials that will fill in valuable information.

These 10 tips simplify what can be a very demanding process. There is no substitute for strong communication skills and mutual respect between experts, their companies and the people assigned to work with them in the knowledge transfer process. If you have an experience you would like to share, please comment below.


Answering an Important Question: “So How Can I Work With You?”

Lately, several people who are interested in the Working with SMEs and Finding Your SMEs methodology have asked me, “So how can we work with you? After we buy the book, then what? Am I on my own to figure this out for my company?”

You are not on your own! The books are good starting points for understanding how and why to work with your internal corporate expertise. However, I offer workshops, presentations and consulting packages to help you and your team pull through the ideas, execute on them and get results. If you are in the Philadelphia area, AmpTech in Malvern is sponsoring a public workshop next Friday, January 13 from 8:30 a.m. to noon, 3 Clear Strategies for Finding, Capturing & Transferring Retiring Expertise. You can register here.

If you want to work directly, here are a few ways I can help you today:

  1. Presentations for your organization including a one-hour overview of how to work with subject matter experts geared toward subject matter experts and instructional designers, and a half- or full-day session for decision makers who are concerned about losing valuable corporate knowledge.
  2. Ongoing consulting to pull through finding your experts, working with them and helping you move the process toward completion that includes presentations, relevant workshops to meet your particular circumstances and one-on-one sessions with key personnel.
  3. Do-it-yourself workshops on Working with SMEs and Finding Your SMEs that include presentation materials and a detailed facilitator guide with or without train-the-trainer assistance from someone on my team.

I also have a few projects in development this year to help expand my reach to help more people more easily.

  1. A handbook, Working in SMEville: Tips, Tools and Techniques for Subject Matter Experts and the People Who Work with Them, will be available for sale by the end of January. It is designed to help the training department and subject matter experts with some practical advice drawn from the two books organized quickly and simply in one place.
  2. This blog will continue on Tuesdays, and I am working on creating a weekly podcast that will run on Thursdays in this space with conversation and advice that addresses issues presented by clients and readers. If you sign up for weekly emails, you will receive the blogs and other notifications.
  3. Video classes and presentations on individual topics, both on-demand and live.

Admittedly, the two books can be used as working documents with charts, checklists, diagrams and explanations of the theory behind them for some intrepid individuals to implement on their own. However, I have developed workshops that tie the pieces together and take you through the various processes. And I would be very pleased to work with you to make the plans work inside your organization.

If you are interested in exploring ways we can work together, contact me at and let’s schedule a discussion.




Does Your 2017 Strategic Business Plan Include Retention of Your Experts? Public Workshop on Capturing and Transferring Corporate Knowledge

Your strategic business plan for 2017 must include a comprehensive assessment of your internal corporate expertise, and a plan for retaining critical assets. If it doesn’t, it’s not too late.

Join us for a second presentation of this public workshop in the Philadelphia area on Friday January 13 based on the book Finding Your SMEs: Capturing Knowledge from Retiring Subject Matter Experts in Your Organization Before They Leave, where we will look at the kinds of expertise you need to capture and how to make those decisions. We had a lot of great participation at the December session, and we look forward to another exciting exchange of ideas.

I hope you can be there. It will be so much better with you. Here are the details.

Topic: Working with Subject Matter Experts: 3 Clear Strategies for Finding, Capturing & Transferring Retiring Expertise.

Date: January 13, 2016

Time: 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Place: Malvern, Pa

Cost: $30 (lunch will be provided)

Seating is limited to allow maximum participation by attendees. We recommended that you send more than one person from your organization to facilitate discussion within your company.

A nearly perceptible anxiety surrounds the retiring baby boom generation in corporate America today. Many thriving businesses began in the post World War II manufacturing boom. As those knowledge workers leave for the sunny golf courses of Florida, they take with them lifetimes of knowledge and skills that some businesses will never replace.  But it doesn’t have to be that way for your organization.

Join us for the second presentation of this workshop on January 13. Click here to register.

Our host for the event, AmpTech, serves as a provider of expertise for innovators, entrepreneurs and startups.

AmpTech Commercialization Center

As part of the Greater Philadelphia Entrepreneurship and Innovation Ecosystem, AmpTech maintains a collaborative environment where start-ups, service providers, investors, academia and local businesses can join together to get products and services to market FASTER. AmpTech bridges the gap for start-ups and corporate innovators by providing a place to develop products quickly and under one roof. AmpTech provides rapid prototyping capabilities establishing an opportunity to pilot various technologies before market launch.

31 General Warren Blvd, Malvern, PA 19355, USA   |   484-320-8938

Join us for this popular workshop Friday, January 13 in suburban Philadelphia where we will be discussing managing corporate knowledge assets. Click here to register. Lunch and a copy of the book Finding Your SMEs: Capturing Knowledge from Retiring Subject Matter Experts in Your Organization Before They Leave are included in the registration fee.

 If you have questions, you may also contact me directly at


Subject Matter Expert or Poser?

I love doing live workshops, webinars and seminars because the questions and discussions are usually a great place to further explore the subject matter of subject matter experts. A discussion at a Working with SMEs workshop the other day led to an issue that deserves a quick mention – and that is, how do you know if you are working with a true subject matter expert or if you are dealing with a poser?

Let’s define our terms, and that will get us where we need to go pretty quickly.

A subject matter expert (SME) is somebody who has dedicated about 10,000 hours to learning a subject. In working years, that translates into about five full-time years of effort. People who earn PhD’s, for example, dedicate effort to research and working in a very small area of study for least as many years. They are expected to be able to defend what they know to a jury of their peers and then write several hundred pages of documented effort showing their work.  A Harvard Business Review article from 1989, The Experts in Your Midst by Michael J. Prietula and Herbert A Simon, defines a SME as someone who is analyzing and applying about 50,000 disparate pieces of information in their head at one time. It goes mostly without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, they know their subject well enough that their analysis and ability to problem solve is mostly happening at a subconscious level.

An expert in business and industry who hasn’t earned an official PhD  might have dedicated 5, 10 or 20 years perfecting their craft at a machine that manufactures a specific item or part, or by learning from their customers while meeting their needs. That’s true expertise, too.

What is a poser? For that, I defer to Merriam Webster. Definition #2 is “a person who poses.” The etymology of the word is “pose” and the first known use is 1888. A person who poses as a subject matter expert is not a subject matter expert but is donning the position. How do you know if that is what you are dealing with?

One of my mentors, the late turnaround  artist Elmer Gates, could sniff them out pretty quickly. When he took over a company, he called his direct reports into his office and asked them some basic questions about their lines of business such as how to defend their sales projections. He asked detailed questions about their customers’ businesses. If they didn’t have the hard data, he asked them to go find it. When his direct reports drilled down into the organization and found the answers, the actual knowledge usually resided one or two levels down.

Your actual experts are doing the work every day. They understand their machines, they understand your customers. Posers tend to be the people who know how to play the political game and leverage the actual expertise of others.

So when you are dealing with someone who puts themselves out as a subject matter expert, ask for detail. Look for the data. I read an article recently that stated an expert is usually known by their peers, but that is occasionally untrue. A master politician can accrue a lot of political capital to defend their job and bluff their way through a meeting. If you ask your subject matter expert for detail and they don’t have it, you may have a great politician or people person on your hands, but you don’t have an expert. You have a poser. Elmer Gates usually sent those people a pink slip because they added no actual value to the organization.

Spend your valuable, finite resources capturing  and retaining irreplaceable knowledge in your company, and make sure you are talking to actual experts by asking the hard questions and looking for detail. People with great people skills and master politicians are great to have around and companies need them, but they are a lot easier to replace.

Join us for a workshop Friday, January 13 in suburban Philadelphia where we will be discussing this and related issues. Click here to register. Lunch and a copy of the book Finding Your SMEs: Capturing Knowledge from Retiring Subject Matter Experts in Your Organization Before They Leave are included in the registration fee.


Anticipating Training Needs for the U.S. Manufacturing Sector

Certainly, more than at any time in recent memory, we are in uncertain times. A surprising U.S. election result… Brexit… Cuba. You can feel the global shift. Among all the hype and hyper-nationalism may appear a chance to change course from outsourcing jobs from the U.S. to bringing jobs back.

The U.S. can’t continue our slide into deficit spending without the substantial amount of productivity needed to support that spending. And we certainly can’t sustain a trade deficit that has us buying more from foreign countries than we’re selling to them.

For some companies, this shift signals opportunity. With opportunity comes costs. Some of the costs of bringing back manufacturing jobs will include the cost to train or re-train workers. 

The November issue of TD, ATD’s monthly talent development magazine, featured an article on the cost of training workers. The ATD 2015 study sponsored by Bellevue University and the Training Associates included more than 300 organizations. The study analyzed annual per capita training costs in 4 sectors: finance/insurance/real estate, manufacturing, information and software, and public administration. The average direct expenditure overall for all sectors was $1,252 per employee. However, the expenditure for manufacturing workers at $503 per employee lagged far behind the training costs in the other sectors. The low rate of training expenditure on manufacturing employees was attributed to several factors, among them “less specialized and less rapidly changing development needs” and the fact that more manufacturers are located in China, India and Mexico where “the costs of developing and delivering training may be much lower than in the United States  or other advanced economies.”

If an enterprise is to survive today and thrive tomorrow, it must always be alert for changes in the environment. That includes being able to interpret current events in light of historical trends.  If companies can anticipate a shift to increased manufacturing plants in the U.S., companies will also be gearing up to train those workers.

Right now, I am seeing a perceptible anxiety among manufacturers regarding losing their experienced, legacy employees to retirement and their inability to find qualified employees to replace them. If we anticipate a shift to more manufacturing jobs in the U.S., the need to find and train workers for this sector will become more acute. And, looking at the TD study, it will also become more costly.

The goal of training is to increase the productivity of employees. With this in mind, it is time for companies to consider the kind of training that will support new U.S. manufacturing workers with rapid uptake, skill reinforcement and to do it cost efficiently.

Join us for a workshop this Friday, December 16 in suburban Philadelphia where we will be discussing this and related issues. Click here to register. Lunch and a copy of the book Finding Your SMEs: Capturing Knowledge from Retiring Subject Matter Experts in Your Organization Before They Leave is included in the registration fee.