Beginning to ask questions

Today I was at a team meeting. The majority of the team I belong to are described as, and classed as ‘developers’.  In the view of our customers, this implies they are essentially publishers who will put ‘the solution’ provided by the customer onto the intranet. As I’m one of the ones on the team who’ve made the transition to being regarded as a consultant I was asked to help the others to begin that transition.

I started by asking what kinds of request gave them that sinking feeling that ‘the customer wants X but it doesn’t feel right’ and what happened if they challenged it. The requests cited tended to be ‘put this workbook online exactly as it is’ or ‘make this interactive – you know, things to click, animations etc – make it interesting’. When they gave any alternative suggestions that involved a change of content or a different approach they got ‘too bad, it’s been signed off’ or ‘yes but it has to be live next week’. The internal team, being a non-chargeable resource, doesn’t feel its voice is listened to with the same attention as, say, an external developer charging many thousands of pounds.


I started by saying that we can’t blame customers who are asking for what they think elearning is – a linear tutorial with multiple choice questions either at the end or in the course of the screens. They ask for what they’ve seen before. So we begin by trying to open the door to questioning. Our manager suggested ‘What we’ve done before for something like this was …’ or ‘What we would usually do for a task like this is …’; once the door is open probe for what the real need is. Since expertise is often presented in terms of categories (or, less favourably, jargon) it helps to have a few categories at your fingertips such as:

  • a specific change in performance or behaviour
  • raising awareness or a general understanding (a push message)
  • an easy to use repository of reference material (a pull resource)
  • some form of measurement or assessment
  • a safe roleplay/practice environment
  • a tick in a compliance box with no real interest in the results
  • raising the profile of a particular manager

As Clive Shepherd has said, the methods of learning haven’t changed, just the media. If the customer has a training background you can use that to explore the methods they’d use if this were face to face. If a specific change in performance is the aim, Cathy Moore’s Activity Mapping can help stop it turning into an information onslaught. But first you need to gradually gain the credibility to be allowed to question. Some customers welcome a bit of engagement, some see it more like a copy typist suggesting a wholesale rewrite of my cherished report.

Our managers stated that as a fallback we have standards and aspirations to be a Centre of Excellence so they support us in not scribing to the web stuff that should be rewritten, restructured or rethought.  I hope I’ve helped giving them some of that confidence.

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