Connecting SMEs To Employees: The 5 ID Challenges

Originally published on, October 13th, 2020

By Managing Partner, Richard Lowenthal

Like doting parents, Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) often want to share everything they know. But, content-driven training is more likely to be overwhelming than memorable. Here are 5 ways games can help you bridge the gap between SME expectations and what employees really need to do their jobs well.

Games Help Make Complicated Content Digestible

Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) are often passionate partners in training design. Like doting parents, they want to make sure employees don’t make the same mistakes they did, which often translates into sharing everything they know so that employees can tackle every situation at their job. But the reality is that much information, even when well-intended, results in long, detailed courses that can lead learners to zone out or forget half of what they learned. How can you bridge the gap between an SME’s theoretical perception of what employees need versus the actual boots on the ground information that employees should have to do their job well?

A game-based approach can help you flip the script and start working with SMEs to design courses from the learner’s perspective. Here are 5 common Instructional Design challenges that game-based learning and gamification, integrated within the framework, can help overcome.

  • Challenge 1: Information Overload
  • Challenge 2: Insufficient Learner Input
  • Challenge 3: Forward Engineering
  • Challenge 4: Vintage Development Tools
  • Challenge 5: Time And Budget Constraints

Challenge 1: Information Overload

Think of all the information SMEs believe employees need to know as filling a large ostrich egg and then imagine a snake trying to swallow that egg (not that employees are snakes… it’s just a metaphor.) One day, we may be able to instantly deliver the learning content of that entire egg into an employee’s mind (like Trinity learning how to fly a helicopter in the Matrix). Today, however, the delivery mechanism is more akin to a straw. In fact, as described by Miller’s Law, the human brain can only process seven (plus or minus two) items at a time. How can you deliver the information people need to do their jobs effectively, without overloading their brains?

Young woman having fun playing a game on a laptop

Games Prioritize Engagement And Performance

Games let you scramble the ostrich egg and dish out the information in tastier and more readily-digestible bites. When you give learners a challenge and an opportunity to play, they are much more likely to be motivated and engaged. This amplification of engagement is even more profound when using games as an assessment tool.

  • With their clear structure of rules and defined parameters, games open discussions that help SMEs look at content in new ways. You can zero in on key performance objectives, restructure topics, reduce unessential information, and uncover critical missing steps.
  • Games keep employees’ (aka players’) minds actively engaged, which helps them process and recall more of the relevant information SMEs need to impart.
  • Practice is key to long-term retention, but when was the last time you asked more than 10 questions in a knowledge check? And how many of those questions were relevant, as opposed to quick fact checks? Games often present twenty-five questions or more in a meaningful and memorable context.
  • As the game is played more, you gather an enormous amount of data on individual and group performance. The ability to measure effectiveness and define knowledge gaps is right at your fingertips.

Challenge 2: Insufficient Learner Input

What would happen if your doctor prescribed medicine without asking you about your symptoms? When you see a doctor, take your car to a mechanic, or go to the hardware store, you have an opportunity for direct dialogue with a person who has information to help. But when it’s time to develop a training plan, most Instructional Designers have very limited (if any) time to speak with employees about their needs or to obtain their feedback about the courses that are being developed to help them. As a result, they must rely on the SME’s insight into common needs and challenges, rather than advocating on the learner’s behalf.

Games Open Conversations With Learners

While games cannot bend the space-time continuum to give you more 1:1 time with employees, they can provide a better forum for engaging in a dialogue.

  • Rather than writing (and rewriting) detailed outlines and storyboards, why not ask employees to help you and the SMEs think through ideas for a game? Ask employees about their biggest challenges at work and what a training game meant to help fellow employees might look like. Once you have an overarching workflow or storyline, you can work with the SMEs to fill in the gaps.
  • Create a prototype, then give employees an opportunity to test play your game and give you feedback. You’re likely to have a willing and interested party in that dialogue.

games reverse the engineering process

Challenge 3: Forward Engineering

Have you ever read the End User License Agreement (the EULA) for a software application or online service? If not, you’re not alone. In every single one, there is a prohibition against “reverse engineering—seeing how something works and copying its functionality to make a derivative or improve upon it. It’s much faster, easier, and more efficient to reverse engineer a process than to start from the beginning with a list of requirements and build from scratch. When designing training, the same fact holds true. It’s much more effective to look at job performance and reverse engineer it into meaningful and relevant course material. But training design is often driven by a myriad of other interests and priorities that bump “task analysis” to the end of the line.

Games Reverse The Engineering Process

In essence, creating a game is akin to the root analysis Instructional Designers should always do when building a course. It gives you a framework for guiding SMEs into the mindset of improving job performance rather than sharing content.

  • When you design a game, you have to focus on the end of the game first. Your perspective expands from “what do you want learners to know?” to “what do you want learners to DO?”
  • Once you know where job performance needs to improve, you can look at how to get the employee there. You can work with the SME to reverse engineer the game step-by-step, walking backward.

Challenge 4: Vintage Development Tools  

Timewarp your doctor or mechanic back thirty years, to 1990. They will still know how to cure a patient or repair a car, but they don’t have the most up-to-date equipment to do the best job they can. Instructional Designers are often limited in this same way. Research shows that people learn better when they are actively engaged, but many eLearning development tools crank out courses that have the same level of engagement as they did in 1990—“click next” unidirectional and passive learning experiences. These courses allow Instructional Designers to present all the content that SMEs want to share, but they are often emotionally unengaging and not very likely to lead to effective learning.

Games Move The Needle Toward Active Learning

In the last several years, the greatest advancements in tools that support employee engagement and active education have been in the gaming and gamification space.

  • Advanced, highly polished, though easy-to-use game templates in products like The Training Arcade® allow Instructional Designers to quickly create customized games with more compelling content, which has a long-term impact on employee retention.
  • Social gamification platforms like Arcades™, a premium add-on to The Training Arcade®, gives employees an opportunity to compete against (or collaborate with) each other for recognition and awards, which increases motivation and engagement.
  • Virtual Reality or scenarios in products like Adobe Captivate and CenarioVR® from ELB Learning transport employees into a safe, controlled environment where they can learn and practice new skills in a meaningful and memorable way.

Challenge 5: Time And Budget Constraints

Nutrients, water, and sun. Constrain any of these three things too much and a plant dies. Scope, time, and budget—constrain any of these parameters too much and training will not be as successful as it could or should be. But in training, these parameters are often constrained more than anyone would like. Combine that with the fact that an SME’s time is often limited, and Instructional Designers are challenged to find ways to quickly and effectively connect the dots.

Games Are Faster And Easier To Build Than Ever Before

Over the past decade, computing storage and processing have largely migrated to the cloud. As a result, game developers and gamification companies can use the resources they previously spent on technical infrastructure to create new templates and tools for instructional game design.

  • Several new easy-to-use DIY authoring tools make game design faster and more affordable. A game that took hundreds of hours to create in the past can now be created in mere minutes, and at higher perceived quality than ever before.
  • The cost for hosting and delivering games and gamification services has also fallen, making them well in reach of most L&D budgets.
  • Game-based analytics can be tracked and monitored, and metrics of use and effectiveness can be shared with SMEs and other stakeholders to demonstrate ROI and continually improve the learning process.

Games hold the potential to help Instructional Designers bridge the gap between the SME’s perspective and the employee’s needs. They allow Instructional Designers to drive a performance-focused view of the learning material; establish an effective forum for engaging the employee in the course creation process; encourage the development of active, microlearning or bite-sized content; and enable players to engage with content in active and meaningful ways. Ultimately, they help employees learn the training content much better and provide rich data to measure the effectiveness of any training initiative.

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