To manage and keep ahead of change, our clients and their teams have to constantly evolve their roles, processes, and tasks — often at a dizzying pace.
For example, operational team members are asked to be more customer facing when they’ve traditionally worked behind the scenes. Or sales team members are asked to be more service-focused in their approach, when their roles have been primarily product-based.
How can you help your teams deal with the complexities of task-, system-, or organizational-level change? Often, the solution is providing the right know-how. This involves teaching the appropriate methods, processes, or approaches to help your people flex and flow with the varied situations and issues thrown at them, make more appropriate decisions, and apply new thinking.
The best efforts take into account both content and delivery to provide knowledge that users can easily internalize and adopt. Here are four best practices:
1. Make it relevant.
To help your users see value in and actually try what you’re teaching them, identify the “middle-sized” knowledge that fits them—knowledge that’s specific enough to apply, but broad enough that it’s relevant to everyone. Providing too much content can overwhelm users or water down your key messages. Providing content that’s too narrowly focused or lean can make what you’re teaching seem out of context or like a one-off solution.
Leverage your understanding of your users to curate relatable scenarios, examples, and exercises to help them understand how the new knowledge could help them. For example, when ThoughtForm was asked to help a large insurer’s internal communications teams incorporate plain language and health literacy principles into their documents, our first step was to learn more about the team members. After interviewing them and reviewing their work, we developed a ready desk reference with the top 10 aspects of their documents to consider, do’s and don’ts, realistic checklists, and good and not-so-good examples from their existing materials.
As you’re working to develop and “right size” your content, here are a couple of questions to ask:
- Will this content apply now and in the future?
- How replicable are the processes or methods you’re recommending?
- Would both a novice and an expert find it useful?
- At what point would an example or progress feedback be helpful?
- How can I give the user cues about how far along in the training they are or how much they’ve accomplished?
If you’re not sure of the answers to these questions (and even if you are), test or preview your content with actual users.
2. Make it absorbable
Organize your content into logical, manageable, and memorable chunks, and then share it in a way that is useful and timely.
Often, a good first step to making your content absorbable is to make the structure of your content transparent to your users before you start teaching them. You can do this in many ways:
- align content to a known process or concept familiar to the user,
- introduce a set of steps or mnemonic phrases,
- create a story or character to “follow”
- use structure-based color coding, layout and/or user interfaces
- develop a visual model, or
- simply provide a consistent heading hierarchy and layout.
One example of a transparent content structure that makes content absorbable and memorable is the well-known PDSA Cycle (Plan, Do, Study, Act) for continuous improvement. Its four-word structure is easy to remember, gives users a clue as to what happens within each step, and allows users to dive deeper into each.
Another way to create more absorbable content is to think about format and timing. This isn’t just about deciding if your content should be delivered online, in-person, or on paper (or a combination of many other methods). You should also consider how to “chunk” and share your content to fit the users’ time constraints, work habits, downtime, attention span, learning thresholds, preferences, and use scenarios. For example, a recent Wall Street Journal article noted the trend of “microlearning,” in which users access short, often digital lessons at their convenience.
The topic or type of knowledge you want to convey should also majorly impact how you format and share it. For example, you could teach a new sales technique or process using microlearning, but perhaps a workshop approach would help your users do valuable role-playing exercises. If you’re teaching how to use a new online tool, a screen-based approach that allows for individual user interaction and exploration is likely better than a workshop.
To help make your content more absorbable, ask yourself:
- How many users do I have to reach?
- How can I use structure to speed learning, access, and/or recall?
- Will users do this before, after, or while they are performing tasks?
- Would the content be enhanced by virtual or human interaction?
3. Make it flexible
Regardless of how controlled a learning environment may be, keep in mind that your users (and instructors) are also trying to keep up their other responsibilities. So as you develop your content and approach to building knowledge, try to make it as flexible as appropriate for your users’ time, workflow, and environmental constraints.
Earlier I mentioned structure and the value of making it transparent to users. How you structure your content can also significantly support flexibility. For example, a layered approach gives your users a high-level orientation, followed by the next level of information, and then perhaps an option to dive deeper if they have the time or interest. Another approach is to provide multiple ways for users to engage with the content—such as by topic, scenario, or process. If you know your users will only have time (or patience or stamina) to absorb smaller, more frequent chunks of knowledge—or the opposite—then make your structure (and format) acknowledge and support those needs.
To determine what level of flexibility is best, it’s key to really know your users and test out your approach with them. A couple of flexibility gut-check questions include:
- Will users have scheduled time to engage this content?
- How much time will users have at one sitting?
- What sort of tasks will users do before and after engaging with your training?
- How can you help users who have to start and stop?
4. Make it practicable
For your training to stick, the user also needs the ability to apply, practice and test what they’ve learned, and also get feedback. By giving users the permission and opportunity to fail in a controlled, low-risk environment, you help them overcome the fear of trying (and perhaps failing). Methods to help users practice include role-play exercises, simulations, and progressive trials (where a user tries just one part of something new).
Often, simply providing a list of realistic ideas on how or when to incorporate a new bit of knowledge can help users “see” opportunities to try out their new learning. For example, if you think your users will be hesitant to try a new technique because it may throw off their schedule, suggest they try it on the last few calls, customer visits, or tasks of their day.
Within the practice environment, build in formal or informal ways to give your users (and you) feedback. This can be as robust as formal reviews, testing, or metrics, or as simple as ad hoc monitoring, exit surveys, or post-practice discussions.
As you’re working to develop content that users can practice, here are a couple of questions to ask:
- How can you help users overcome their fear of trying?
- How can users start to incorporate what they’ve learned into their day?
Building and deploying relevant, absorbable, flexible, and practicable knowledge is just one way to help give your organization and teams more clarity and prepare them to tackle the change and complexity around them. To learn more about other ways we help our clients defeat confusion, visit Six Clarity Methods.
Nancy Herzing is a design strategist and shareholder at ThoughtForm. She has helped many clients, from Fortune 500 corporations to small start-ups, in knowledge building efforts both large and small.