Internal vs. External Trainers: Some Further Thoughts

A commonly used strategy to support user adoption is classroom training. Classroom training can be designed in a variety of ways, by emphasising different design factors. One of those design factors is the choice to use internal trainers or external trainers. There is a short analysis of this design factor in my book, User Adoption Strategies 2nd Ed. (2012), which says (page 144):

For organizations with their own training group, an internal trainer will front up on training day and deliver the training material. Internal trainers may already know some of the people they are training, so their ability to engage and personalize the material is much greater. External trainers can be hired when internal trainers are not available, or when the material requires a depth and breadth of expertise that calls for someone special. Remember, however, that internal trainers have a different outcome in mind than external trainers. For internal trainers—at least the good ones—the outcome is greater understanding and competence for the employees at the organization. For external trainers, the outcome is to deliver the class and get paid well.

There are some very hard lines drawn in that paragraph, and while it works at the level of broad strokes, there are some nuances that should be explored. In recent months I have had the opportunity to talk this issue over with numerous delegates at the User Adoption Strategies public seminar. Here’s some of the ideas we’ve been discussing.

Defining the Ideal
The ideal person (or persons) to run a classroom training session needs at least four characteristics:

  1. The skill of facilitating learning, rather than just reading out the slides.
  2. The ability to build relationship and rapport with those attending the classroom training session.
  3. The internal knowledge of the organization to make the classroom training session relevant to the work the attendees are doing.
  4. The external knowledge of other or similar organizations, and how they are effectively using new collaboration tools and approaches in their work.

In broad terms, internal trainers are likely to get a pass on #2 and #3, but struggle with #1 and #4. On the other hand, external trainers are likely to get a pass on #1 and #4, but struggle with #2 and #3. What can you do to mitigate this?

Upskilling Internal Trainers
One strategy to mitigate the lack of capabilities by internal trainers, in addition to choosing them carefully in the first place, is to take a deliberate approach to increasing their capabilities. Recently I heard of an organization that leverages the local community college to provide training to the trainers, to upskill them in the processes of teaching, learning, and assessment (which the community college offers as a standard qualification / certificate). The organization paid for their internal people to take the core content required to effectively run a classroom session internally, and for those staff that wanted to take their learning further, there was a way of doing this (I don’t recall whether the organization provided additional funding or not). It’s a win for the organization (better skilled internal trainers), it’s a win for the employee (increased competence in running a training session), and it’s a win for the attendees at a classroom training session (better quality training).

A related strategy is to encourage (and fund) internal trainers to attend relevant conferences in the areas on which they are providing training. This would help with gaining a wider perspective (#4 above). For example, if your organization is using Microsoft SharePoint, send your internal trainers to some of the more business focused SharePoint conferences where various case studies are presented about how organizations are making use of SharePoint. By listening carefully, taking notes, and asking good questions, they will be able to deepen their knowledge of the wider picture.

Upskilling External Trainers
For external trainers, the need shouldn’t be to increase their competence in how to teach, train, and facilitate learning. If they can’t do that as an external party, find someone else who can. The big need for internal trainers is context – what’s going on inside the organization, and how they can make the training relevant to that. I believe ultimately this is about briefings, discovery, and small initial explorations. The brief for the external training providers should be clear about what’s happening inside, so they can make the training fit for purpose and relevant. The selected external trainers should be given some time to engage with people to learn more about what the words in the brief actually mean – this means providing space for their own discovery and sensemaking. And finally it’s about making the most of initial explorations, where external trainers need to be carefully thinking about what is and isn’t working during initial training sessions, debriefing, and revising their material or approach based on that. Training sessions from external trainers should get iteratively better each time it is presented, as a result of greater context, examples, and connections inside the organization.

Collaboration Opportunity
I have spoken about internal vs. external trainers to this point, but clearly there is a third path available too. If you have internal trainers who are passionate about what they do, strategically engage with external trainers to provide complementary capabilities. Structure a longer term engagement where both parties can work together, and where the external trainer is also operating in a skills-transfer mode to internal people. It’s helpful to think about the either/or when working it through, but in practice it doesn’t have to be that way.

Your Approach?
How do you approach this at your organization? How have you walked or embraced the line between the two?

One thought on “Internal vs. External Trainers: Some Further Thoughts

  1. Michael, I came to this as a trainer who has worked both as part of the internal delivery team, but over the last few years as an ‘external’ only. There is no doubt in my mind that the most successful engagements have been where the client has agreed to a proper fact-finding and pilot phase (including, very importantly showing help desk/IT what the training will be and getting their agreement and buy-in) before rolling out to users. But in my experience few companies do that, expecting you to train to the brief only, without time for exploration etc.. The user community may get trained to use the software, but are less likely to go away knwling how this might help them in their work

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