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The Three Advisors No Learning Designer Should Be Without

Written by John Marshall

It’s one of the most common pitfalls of learning design: you build a full curriculum, devoting time, technology, and creative resources, only to find that the language, format, assessments, or some other detail doesn’t reflect your stakeholders’ expectations for the course.

The reasons behind this can be infinite. Maybe you focused too heavily on the motivational aspect of the training and were too light on details. Or maybe you didn’t enlist the right person’s input when describing a new product for a launch. Even worse, your positioning of the training might have made sense to you without fully landing with your learners—either leaving them confused or unmotivated to learn more.

This experience is frustrating, but it can be avoided. One of the founding principles of design thinking is the willingness to postpone solutions until you know that you’re solving the right problem. And that applies equally to the design of learning experiences.

The only three advisors you’ll ever need

At Grovo, we preempt this kind of misalignment by finding three distinct types of advisors for our trainings upfront: Vision Setters, Knowledge Owners, and Learners.

With every project, we meet with each type of advisor for a full debrief before we lift a finger to start developing the actual materials. This way, we can think systematically about who we’re building the training for and what notes it has to hit to be successful.

 Vision Setters: Your beacon when setting the target

Vision Setters are your ultimate deciders. In all likelihood, the Vision Setter is the one who commissions the training in the first place, and it’s their team’s performance that will be impacted by the training. Often this person (or group of people) is the head of a functional department, or they own the L&D function at a given company.

You’ll look to Vision Setters to define the gap in performance that must be closed, describe the desired knowledge, skills, and attitude the learners should develop, and ask for any expectations around the format for delivery (e.g., do they want cute animations and light-hearted music to lighten up the topic, or perhaps a job aid with definitions for the most technical concepts?). This will ensure you’re headed in the right direction before you go any deeper.

How to prepare for a vision setting meeting: Do your research ahead of time. Prior to the first meeting, ask the Vision Setter for documentation of existing training material. Are there slide decks or training one-pagers used in the past? Alternately, where can you find industry knowledge on this topic, or examples of other trainings you should emulate?

What you’ll take away: You should plan to walk away from this meeting with a SMART target to address in the training (e.g., “100% of sales managers will be able to speak authoritatively about the new product by November 30″) and enough information to start scoping out a list of lessons. The Vision Setter should also point you to your next stakeholder: the Knowledge Owner.

Knowledge Owners: Your source of truth

With the Vision Setter, you’re playing a role similar to a therapist (“Tell me about the problem in your own words”). With Knowledge Owners, you’ll be closer to an investigative journalist.

Knowledge Owners—also known as Subject Matter Experts, or SMEs—are your contacts on the inside. These people live out this topic in their day-to-day work, and they’re the ones who will ensure that you get the content right, meaning the details are accurate and the context is positioned authentically. You’ll go to the Knowledge Owner after you’ve drafted a working curriculum structure, and you’re ready to flesh it out with details, examples, and points of clarification.

In most cases, Knowledge Owners are less senior than Vision Setters, but not always. For example, if a new methodology has just been developed by a senior member of a team, it may be your job to tease these details out of that person.

How to prepare for your Knowledge Owner: Carefully document your gaps in understanding. This is your time to get the details you need, so use it wisely. Have your list of lessons ready, and be willing to test out the sequence with them and identify what information should go where.

Here’s a useful tip: in many cases, Knowledge Owners are trainers themselves. In the case of e-learning, you may be commissioned specifically to translate their existing content into something that can scale, removing the need for an in-person presentation. If this is the case, put yourself in the shoes of a learner as much as possible. Ask your Knowledge Owner to give you their full presentation as they would to a new hire. Take notes copiously—envisioning where your each piece of information will fit—and prepare to ask clarifying questions copiously to make sure you’re keeping up.

What you’ll take away. Two things: information (the “stuff” that will go into the lessons) and context. You should come out of your knowledge sharing session with a clear understanding of the topic and how to position it.

Learners: Your chance to test it in the field

Your last step—and the step most likely to be overlooked—is to talk to your third type of advisor: the Learner. This allows you to catch those small nuances in the Learner’s relationship to with the subject and uncover feelings that might not have been apparent to your Vision Setters and Knowledge Owners. For example, if it’s a new process or workflow you’re rolling out to the team, this is you chance to ask Learners what they know about it and if they have experience using it. Even small questions like these can open up a goldmine of detail that might not have come through previously.

You should plan to bring some type of prototype of your curriculum to your Learners at this stage —whether it’s a list of lesson names, a sample script or copy outline, or even a storyboard. This way, you can ask your Learner to react to something and describe their feelings and reactions in real time. This will help orient you around their perspective and allow you to check assumptions that you’ve brought to the training thus far.  

How to prepare for your Learner: The best way to prepare is to pick the right mix of Learners and the right setting to interact. Large, conference-type situations are less helpful—for example, days when a 30-person team is having their monthly meeting. Instead, opt for small groups of five to ten people. You can even set up a one-on-one meeting to get a more vivid sense of one person’s take on a subject.

Be sure to choose a cross-section of different Learner profiles, too. Include new and seasoned employees, employees who feel positive about the training, and those who are skeptical— whatever mix reflects the broader pool of people you’re designing for.

What you’ll take away: Simply put, you’ll get the honest feedback that can make or break your training, advice on what types of messaging resonates with them, and what types miss the mark.

Taking the time to split up your initial discovery process requires commitment and patience. After all, it’s human instinct to want to propose solutions right away. But by identifying your three types of advisors—and the areas where their advice carries the most impact—you’ll be set up to solve the right problems as soon as you put pen to paper. This saves you time in the long-run, and allows you to start developing the course with confidence that it will be a success.


What are some steps you never skip when creating your own training? Let us know in the comments!