Do you work in the training industry? Here's something you can't ignore.

For those of you that know me well in a professional capacity, you’ll know that when you ask me about our consultancy, I’ll tell you it has three distinct USPs. First, our facilitators, trainers and executive coaches are expert learning professionals with a deep specialist area of knowledge – we hire them for their commitment to their craft and subject matter expertise; second, that we have a global reach, but with an Asia specialty and finally, that we bring a particular type of magic and fairy dust to all the learning solutions we deliver for our clients, no matter how big or small the brief.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been reminded about why having an expert instructor, rather than a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ trainer, is so absolutely critical in adult learning and that what I’m seeing in our industry means that alarm bells are positively deafening me right now.

For a few years now, we’ve been delivering design thinking training, workshops and design sprints with clients across Asia. But delivering in this field is a great example of where you will always be a learner yourself and where you can never have enough knowledge, hear enough expert opinion or be inspired by enough fabulous case studies. So in preparation for a busy 2022, we decided we needed to sharpen our own saws and we have joined up with the best in the business - The Design Thinkers Academy, London, to do some learning of our own.

My colleague, Dawn Isaac and I, are part of a diverse team of 50 or so bright minds from companies such as HSBC, Arup, PWC and Orange, spending 8 full days on a design sprint with sustainability at its heart. The challenge has been set for us by the Carbon Trust in the UK, where our design test focuses on looking at how we might encourage businesses to use less wasteful products and services to reduce climate impact. Sustainable challenge is an area we’re seeing more and more of our clients focus on as they turn their attention to the environmental commitments that their companies have made, aligned with additional industry and national targets.

So far, we’ve been treated to a smorgasbord of expertise. Well actually, it’s more like a carefully designed tasting menu, orchestrated by Programme Director, Susana Quast Osorio and overseen by the design guru himself, David Kester. Using the double diamond as our framework, we're working through this design challenge with insightful masterclasses from world class experts to guide us – here are just a few examples.

We’ve dug into AI with (the breathtakingly clever) FT journalist Gillian Tett; were encouraged to think about systemic perspective with Simon Gough; been prompted to explore tensions for sustainable business with Dave Caygill; spotlighted top tips for ethnographic style research with Becky Rowe and my favourite so far – creativity – breaking patterns and looking at happy accidents with Arne van Oosterom (slight bias, as Arne is our home group’s lead facilitator, but he still rocked the show). This is just a short list of a much longer ‘who’s who’ of the design thinking world that we are learning from right now.

The intended consequence of such expertise gathered for our edutainment is clear and obvious. As a design team, our minds are buzzing and my own thoughts are on overload – ironically, these being the conditions for when we often do our best work and just in time to step into our ideation phase. The cleverly scheduled ‘perfect timing’ for this, is not lost on me.

As I hit the hay last night after our midnight finish, my thoughts circled back to my own strongly held belief of, ‘to give your learners value, you must have a true subject matter expert running your programmes’ and does it really matter? Given we are now in a world where anyone can gather a group of people together on Zoom with a slide deck and a scripted facilitator guide and call it ‘training’, it’s a fair question. But when I consider just how blown away I’ve felt over the past couple of weeks on this workshop, I figure it's the depth of expertise around me that’s made the difference and that has made this learning experience not only stand out – but make me want to do something different as a result of being there. The experts we’ve listened to over the past couple of weeks live and breathe the concepts and ideas they share. They walk their talk daily, are obvious practitioners of what they speak on and the way in which they answer really tough listener questions, reminds me they have no script. Because they don’t need one. Because this is what they do. Because this who they are.

Too often, organisations know that this is gold standard facilitation. And many say that they want this from external providers for their own corporate learners – when I’m paying an external service, I’d want that too. To be fair, for their top 1% of leaders, they usually deliver it. They bring in the big names or they call up a business school, but for the general population, as much as there is time spent crafting the perfect ‘facilitator profile’, the reality is that often, this gets conveniently pushed into a side draw when the niggly subject of cost is put on the table. Expert is always more expensive than amateur and here I would argue, you get what you pay for. But is there a greater cost to NOT hiring the expert in the long run?

In the COVID era, as the world jumped online, a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ trainer with a deck and a script can become reasonably adept at talking at a class of learners. Despite everyone’s best efforts and arguments otherwise, virtual training often feels a little more one directional for both trainer and learner, no matter the pleas to ‘please keep your cameras on and resist the temptation to multi-task in the background’. For those screaming at me right now that I’m wrong – you never have a classroom learner sat behind a partition catching up on their email whilst you’re trying to engage them in conversation, do you? And interestingly, dual screens in a virtual class makes the ‘read the script’ cheat even easier for some trainers to get away with. This often allows them to rack up certification after certification in a multitude of different topics like collecting Scout badges and whereas the list of topics they can deliver for you is a mile wide, their knowledge is (less than) a generous inch deep.  

So is it therefore incumbent on you, the client – who wants a fabulous learning experience for your people, to ask tougher questions of your external learning providers? Where is their evidence of expertise? How do they inspire changes of behaviour through the real cases shared and discussed (and I mean one that they experienced, rather than read from their script)? What am I actually paying for here, that self-paced videos couldn’t deliver just as well?

Humanity has been on a rollercoaster for the last 18 months. The likelihood is, it’s not going to change significantly soon. Many of my facilitator peers and associates have used this time to rethink who they are, what they love in their lives and then have (sometimes dramatically) overhauled what they are offering professionally. I’ve had many refreshing conversations with people excitedly sharing that they intend to put 100% into this OR that. But not this AND that.

And I both applaud and support them wholeheartedly. In the external trainer/ coach/ facilitation industry, I truly believe that the future of learning belongs to the expert facilitators, real SME trainers and niche coaches.

So how do we make this new reality happen? What is our responsibility to ourselves, our profession and our clients? Here’s what I’d like to see everyone who facilitate, trains or coaches in our industry think about and do.

  1. As learning professionals in this field – we must up our game and sharpen our saws. Choose 1-2 topics that you are truly passionate about, seek out mentors and go learn from the best you can afford (and expect to pay, that expert learning isn’t free for a reason).
  2. When you’ve gathered your knowledge, write a research paper, a book, a blog, make a podcast series, put an e-learning course on a public platform – but find your niche of expertise and then take your niche even further. You want to be a coach? Great – but what coaching specialty and subject are you choosing? What right do you have to claim expertise? How up to date is your knowledge?
  3. I get this one is tough to do, but you have to be brave enough to only accept client briefs for your chosen topics. And only those topics. Don’t be side-tracked by the briefs that don’t belong to you. They don’t build your expertise and your personal brand that will emerge if you choose expert.
  4. Join up with others who believe this too. If you’re a company of one, become an associate for any of the reputable larger training consultancies, who will only hire expert associates. And steer well clear of those who welcome your previous list of 12 different softskills with open arms. We often get requests for specialist work and so might be looking for people like you. At our own consultancy, Black Dog Consultants, we will always chat to people with strong, experienced facilitators or coaches at the top of their game and we have many other friends in the industry we can connect you to as well, so reach out to us and people like us and tell us what you specialise in. We will listen and we will support you in whatever way we can – get in touch if you'd like to schedule a chat about working with us.
  5. If you do get a brief that isn’t within your carefully curated sweet spot – pass it on to someone in your network who it does fit. Yes, I know, brave again, right? You are giving away revenue and yes, initially, you might feel a pinch from that financially. But if you refer the work on, it will come back to you when they refer work back to you. This is the way a virtuous circle works and I promise you, it is alive and thriving amongst the experts in our industry, but you will need to be an expert to truly benefit from this.

For organisations, it means supporting and encouraging your learning departments, talent functions and HR business partners to be equally brave. If you are commissioning the training, commit to sourcing experts for your briefs and question the true efficacy of ‘stack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap’ workshops run by trainers with a deck and a script. Start demanding more from your providers and if the ‘happy sheet’ is the extent of your due diligence, then it might be time to up your game too. Here are some easy suggestions to get you started.

  1. If you’re looking for a facilitator for a specific brief and no one is springing to mind, look for facilitators with a clear voice on a professional platform like Linked-In or any platform associated with the expertise you are looking for. Look for what they blog about? What does their website say they specialise in? Who recommends their work (and for what?) Talk to them and ask them about the work they do. What was the extent of their role in delivering that piece of learning – did they write it or just deliver it? Most greatfacilitators write and research their own work and can evidence this.
  2. Go to your networks. Ask people who are tough to please training-wise and ask them for recommendations. Don’t forget to ask people outside your own organisation for examples of who has come through their doors and wowed them recently. This is especially important if you’ve worked in your organisation for a long time, as you may find yourself a little blinkered, or your list of names limited.
  3. Consider contacting a consultancy who is known for having a wide and diverse faculty of their own. Look for consultancies with almost zero head count, but have demonstrable, long-term relationships with trusted associates. Consultancies with many head count trainers have mouths to feed. They may tell you what you want to hear to win the gig so they can pay their staff. Buyer beware.
  4. Ask for a demo - maybe at a team meeting you’ve got coming up (then you get other feedback from your team too). Ask the facilitator to do a 20-30 min slot for you as a quick Masterclass, introducing something about the topic they claim expertise in. For a real expert, this won’t phase them. All the speakers on the Design Thinkers Academy course got a maximum of 20 minutes to speak – they picked 1-2 key messages and delivered them well. There you’ll get to see if they can operate without a moderator and what cool bits of tech they use to engage virtual audiences. Make sure you ask them some questions about their topic that only an expert would know the answer to. Putting them under a bit of pressure means you see the additional value they add to the learners. It would, of course, be a big ask of someone to invite them in face to face for just 30 minutes or so, but if they are local and they want the gig, they may say yes. Be professionally courteous and offer a small honorarium for this work – at the very least give them travel expenses and schedule the session at a time when they can meet you over a coffee too. How they interact with your people outside the classroom can be very revealing. And critically, make time to give them some good feedback sharing what you enjoyed about their session and ideas of how your learners could interact with them even more.
  5. If the person isn’t right. Say no and keep looking. Remember, you want gold standard, so go after gold standard. If they are a good fit for your organisation, but not right for this gig, then let them know you’ll add them to your little black book and keep connected professionally. Let them know it’s ok for them to reach out to you once in a while too.

Like everything in life, we can all think of a great set of reasons why we don’t do the above. Nothing I have said is rocket-science, right? It’s common sense, so why isn’t this common practice?

There are many reasons. Learning administrators who due to staffing cut-backs find themselves in charge of choosing faculty without knowing what ‘good’ looks like; vendor management companies with shareholders or procurement departments with targets, pushing hard on margins for the ‘cheapest’ option and then at the end of the day, we are human and fundamentally crave safety and can get lured into opting for ‘easy’- a repeat call out to the trainer who delivers ‘all’ your training.

I think it’s going to be interesting when training goes back to being face to face (when and how much will surely be the topic of another post I’m sure!) That’s when the ‘jack-of-all-trades’ may really find themselves exposed. The safety net of the script in front of you on your screen is gone. Suddenly there will be a group of live bodies, not separated from you by muted technology. They will demand greater interactivity, be more willing to speak up to ask their own tough questions and remember, there’s no mute button on those tough to please delegates - they will sniff out a lack of expertise from the back of the coffee area, before you can even say ‘good morning’.

So it’s code red for the training industry right now. And the biggest question is – can you be brave? Brave enough to choose a niche and stick to it as a trainer, facilitator or coach and brave enough to maybe choose to do less training, but that’s of a much higher quality, because you commit to only engaging with an expert, if you’re an organisation.

I’ll sign off by asking you to share your opinions on this topic. If you’re a trainer, facilitator or coach – what are your views of choosing ‘niche’ over trying to offer everything and what is your chosen area of expertise (yes, go ahead – grab yourself some free PR). If you’re an organisation, what are your challenges in this braver world I’m proposing? How can trainers and consultancies like us, help you overcome those challenges and deliver the gold standard training we are all looking for, for our precious workforces?

Working together I believe we can stop the alarm bells ringing and bring an expert-focus back to this industry. But it’s going to need external learning professionals AND organisations to make these subtle changes to their selling and buying behaviour - to make this happen, both sides have to be at this party. So my question is, are you with me?






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