As I recently watched this classic Seinfeld episode featuring George Costanza's “morbidly obese” wallet, I immediately made a real-world training connection. Watch and see if you're reminded of anyone you work with...
These "George Costanz-SMEs" are the bane of every training designer's existence — seemingly seizing any opportunity to insist on minute details covering every possible scenario, thereby cramming needless content into your training in much the same way George crammed useless stuff into his wallet.
Unlike George's wallet, content overload probably won't cause a trainee's head to literally explode (thank goodness!), but it certainly impacts their ability to effectively learn the material. Research has shown that our working memory (the part of our brain that consciously processes learning) has limited capacity, and can effectively handle only a small number of information chunks at a time. Because of this limitation, trainees may become quickly overwhelmed when they're required to process too much information at once.
So how can you help your SMEs keep your trainee's cognitive load in check? Try using these three filters:
Filter #1: What are the business needs?
The purpose of training is to close a performance gap and/or meet a strategic business objective. However, SMEs sometimes let their passion for the subject, instead of a focus on the needs of the business, drive the training content.
For example, I used to work with a team of experienced Tax Accountants who held their professional standards in such high regard that they believed every person new to tax should learn the subject by reading (and memorizing!) the U.S. tax code. The needs of our business dictated that we had to attract, train, and retain tax preparers, thus making the prospect of spending months of time training newbies on the tax code a losing proposition.
When SMEs are fighting for more and you're fighting for less, how can you stop the tug of war? First, commit to uniting divergent perspectives under the umbrella of business needs. In my case, by gently but firmly refocusing on the business needs of the constituents we were all there to serve, it became less of a personal assault on anyone's profession or beliefs and more of a conversation about how we could collaborate to increase our odds of success. Here's what worked for me:
Filter #2: What should learners be able to do on the job?
For each topic that a SME wants to add to training ask them if trainees really need the information to perform critical tasks.
Using this filtering process helps to ensure that trainees don’t spend time and energy learning things that may be interesting - but not entirely necessary.
Filter #3: Critical training content or performance support tool?
Explore the option of using performance support tools like job aids, wikis, or other quick reference materials to augment training. For each topic ask SMEs if a learner needs to commit the content to memory to perform effectively, or if the information can reside in an external reference that the learner can access as needed on the job.
By prioritizing content for the learners, you free them to use their cognitive capacity for the information that is most critical to their job performance.
For a great explanation of the science behind cognitive load and additional ideas for how to design training to help learners free working memory, check out this great post from the eLearning Coach.
Looking for additional tips on partnering with SMEs to make your training content “trainee-friendly”? Check out these posts from the Mindflash archives:
How do you work with SMEs to manage learners’ cognitive load? Share your tips with the Mindflash community by leaving a comment.
Trina is a learning and communications consultant with thirteen years experience designing, developing, and delivering smart, engaging training. When her skills aren't being tested by her children, you'll find her helping others to develop their own training design muscles.