Negotiating Out “Nice-to-Know” Information

As training developers, our job is to make sure our students get exactly the information they need to meet the desired performance and business results. That means including what they need and, just as importantly, leaving out what they don’t need. It’s our responsibility to our students to make sure we aren’t wasting their attention and time with unnecessary information. Truly unnecessary information is easy to cut. What’s far more dangerous is the “nice-to-know” information—the information that’s somewhat related and mildly interesting, but not necessary for achieving the performance or business results. It can sneak in if we aren’t diligent, and if a SME is adamant that it be included, it can be very difficult to negotiate out.

Projects often kick off with content conversations with SMEs where they tell you everything the students need to know. That is, everything they THINK the students need to know. SMEs know a lot (that’s why they are Subject Matter Experts), and they often want to include all of that wonderful knowledge in the course. But adult learning in a business environment isn’t about KNOWING, it’s about DOING (or not doing) something with that knowledge.

So while a SME is waxing philosophic about the history of X, the theory behind Y, or the reason the company decided to do Z, a little voice might go off in your head saying, “I don’t think the students really need to know this.”

So what do you do?  First, let’s look at the wrong answers.

Wrong answer #1: Include the information because the SME says so. After all, they are the experts, right?  Well, they are the experts about the subject matter, but YOU are the expert about training. You need to do your job and lobby/cajole/persuade/negotiate for what your students do and don’t need.

Wrong answer #2: Ask vague questions to change the SMEs minds. Have you ever tried any of the following?

  • Do they need to know this?
  • Do we need to include this?
  • Is this important?

The questions are extremely subjective and are usually met with an equally subjective answer of “yes.”

So what’s the right answer?  Ask a better question. Ask questions that focus the SMEs attention on on-the-job performance. Try these questions instead:

  • Can you give me an example of when this would come up on the job?
  • What would be a situation in which this would help them [insert business result or performance goal here].
  • Would there ever be a situation where they’ll need to rely on this information?
  • What would happen if someone DIDN’T learn this information?

There are two main benefits to these questions.

Benefit #1: These questions shift the focus from information to performance. They can quickly yet subtly get your SMEs thinking about how students will USE the information. I’ve often worked with SMEs who wanted to include everything but the kitchen sink! Time after time, we’ve been able to turn the discussion around with just a few performance-focused questions.

Recently I was talking to a client who needed to revise a course on landmine safety that was too long. It included some “nice-to-know” information about the history of landmines. After a few minutes discussing these questions, everyone at the table was in 100% agreement that the section needed to be cut. When you focus on performance questions, it almost becomes a no-brainer!

Benefit #2: After these performance-focused questions help you determine what’s most relevant, they can also help you present it in a way that’s relevant and applicable to the students. When you know how certain information relates to a person’s job performance, you are better able to put that information into meaningful context for the student, design practical activities, and emphasize the right points.

If you were wondering why something needed to be included, there’s a good chance your students will wonder the same thing. Asking the right questions help you eliminate the information they really don’t need, and make it clearer why they need it and how they’d use the information you do include.

What techniques have you found effective for negotiating out “nice-to-know” information?

Diane Elkins
Diane Elkins leads Artisan E-Learning, a custom eLearning development company specializing in the use of rapid- development tools. Diane has been in the eLearning industry since 2001, speaks regularly at national conferences about eLearning, and is co-author of the popular E-Learning Uncovered book series.

4 Responses to “Negotiating Out “Nice-to-Know” Information

  • Excellent points, Diane! One of the problems SMEs typically suffer from is the curse of knowledge — where they can’t remember what it was like not to know what they now know. And so they take for granted that everyone should have the advanced level of knowledge and context about the subject that they themselves do.

    I think your focus on moving the SME to consider performance and application is the key.

  • Jan Degan
    5 years ago

    Just starting to learn this new approach to learning! I really like the “focus on performance” as the underlying theme. I’ve been a student and teacher in healthcare for years – creating programs, etc. Now I am a partner in an on-line education company – in the security industry. This just seems so valuable to me because our programs are required – and are all performance-based, yet we’re giving them a boring package. This is exciting to me to enable us to revamp. I also think creating the courses will be a lot less boring for us! Thanks a million!

  • Viacheslav
    1 year ago

    Excellent points. This is what I have put in my notes for the future Instructional Design job. I had a huge experience in training taking as a learner and sometimes I met a lot of information that was not really important to me. Thus, this was resulted in taking this training for a longer time. As a result I was not motivated in this training and I’ve just skipped several section. This is why these questions are important before “production” training development.

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