Training Highly Technical Topics Can Be a Challenge



Providing training in technical topics is often the perfect storm; where highly skilled and qualified learners combine with a detailed and complicated technical syllabus. How do you ensure that you cover all aspects of systems, software, policy, procedure and the operational environment AND keep the session interactive and engaging?

My experience in technical environments over a number of years has led me to identify five essential factors for creating training in complex technical topics. If any of these factors are lacking, it affects the quality of the final product.

1. Close Teamwork

Building strong relationships within the business is key to working together as one team. To build these relationships, we must understand the business. Equally, the business needs to understand the merits of using an adult-learning approach and a range of learning delivery methods to train knowledge and skills.

For the learning to be successful, learning professionals should provide the training expertise and the business area should provide the subject matter expertise. Access to someone from the right business area with the appropriate technical knowledge for each development project is a good start.

Subject matter experts (SMEs) gain most of their expertise procedurally and deliver training declaratively. More often than not, the SME's focus is on the content and not the learner. The use of learning professionals for technical training rather than solely using subject matter experts ensures the development of effective learning materials.

Although I advocate the use of learning professionals, it's vital to continually develop managers' and SMEs' understanding of the learning process.

2. Clarity around Roles

People involved in developing learning solutions need to be clear about what is expected from them. Ensure the best use of people's time and expertise by having a clear and detailed briefing about everyone's role. This must be done right at the start of any project.

Here are examples of what should, as a minimum, be covered in a briefing:


  • Provide content, activity input and contribute to animation storyboarding, i.e., animations.
  • Provide feedback during design and development of resources.
  • Supply and provide access to existing resources footage, animations and imagery as required.
  • Test resources for ambiguity, clarity and effectiveness.

Instructional designers

  • Work with SMEs and training instructor to design learning structure, activities and resources.
  • Write content and activities according to learning outcomes.
  • Incorporate changes from reviews.
  • Review module.

Training instructors

  • Ensure adult learning principles are adhered to.
  • Ensure learning solution aligns with organisational culture.
  • Manage the business project team.
  • Manage the project scope/quality (including variations to the scope) agreed in project plan.
  • Manage the project milestones and costs.
  • Test resources for ambiguity, clarity and effectiveness.

Although every role involved in a project is not listed here, it's important to make sure that each person understands their role and what is expected from them. Getting this right from the start helps clarify where everyone stands and saves time and money.

3. Strong Instructional Design

It's a challenge to manage the amount and complexity of technical content and apply adult learning principles to create a coherent programme that is interactive and engaging.

The ADDIE instructional design model (Analyse, Design, Develop, Implement, Evaluate) gives a robust, structured process with the flexibility to adapt and generate creativity. Emphasis must be put on the first two steps, especially when working on technical content.

ADDIE Model of Instructional Design

ADDIE Model of Instructional Design

Analyse: This phase is key to a successful outcome. Time is spent to collaboratively analyse with experts on learning and business needs, business goals and audience, and how it will be evaluated.

Design: This phase often takes considerably more time compared with non-technical topics. It's important not to start the Development phase until there is a clear and sure answer as to what the learner experience will be. This frequently includes carefully storyboarding the deliverables as part of the design and deciding on the delivery method (for example, concept animations to demystify and simplify information).

Develop: This phase is usually straightforward, with no surprises. It also means that subject matter experts have a clear 'place' to contribute the content and a good idea of the level and pitch of the content.

Implement: This phase provides access to different ways of delivering the learning. It can be done via print or online, in-house facilitators or workshops. It involves thinking about the best way of implementing the learning to the required audience.

Evaluate: This is an important phase, as it shows how well the training worked and if the business investment was worthwhile. There is a range of support to evaluate learning effectiveness (for example, use of assessments).

4. Strategic Use of Blended Learning

Blended learning is often crucial when developing technical programmes.

The key point in using blended learning is to know what delivery methods will support the particular learning experiences and outcomes you're aiming for.

The use of animations and simulations for content that is particularly complex can be beneficial. Facilitated workshops engage participants and create a highly interactive learning environment promoting discussion and opportunities for system-based practice. The use of preliminary work to get the participants to start thinking about the topic and how it relates to their role can increase the effectiveness of workshops. Self-study is valuable for learning about content just in time, on the job.

Whatever blend of learning you use, ensure it's right for your learners. Think about the advantages and constraints of each learning method and what will be required to keep the delivery effective.

5. Commitment from All Levels

For any learning programme to succeed, we must have buy-in from all levels of the business.

Commitment from senior management ensures that learning is an integral part of the business.

Training must be respected and seen as an important business enabler - allowing people to perform their best. Managers need to encourage staffs to learn and maintain their knowledge and skills. Managers and team leaders must encourage their staffs to apply their learning back on the job.

Getting commitment from all levels is directly linked to the relationship you have built with the business; the stronger the relationship, the bigger the commitment.

Copyright © Darshan Shetty

About the Author
Darshan Shetty

Darshan Shetty holds a Graduate Diploma in Human Resources from Open Polytechnic of New Zealand and a Bachelor of Engineering - Computer Science from Mangalore University, India. He has over eight years' experience as a learning professional in New Zealand. Darshan's experience includes working in tertiary, health and energy sectors.

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