Lara McKinnon: Always Explain Why

Aug. 7, 2014

Lara McKinnon’s best advice for new instructors is to focus on the conversation. McKinnon, instructional designer at SOS Intl, loves the “light-bulb” moment.

“Taking a student from the ‘deer caught in headlights’ to the ‘ah-ha!’ moment is very rewarding,” she said.

McKinnon creates instructional custom experiences for SOS Intl, a company that provides NERC compliance training. The company offers training and consulting to the power industry, rigorously tracking and interpreting NERC reliability standards for system operations.

In developing training material, she said that source content for compliance training can be quite procedural, lengthy, and seemingly unexciting. “But, the story behind the regulation or requirement is never boring. Always explain why and bring your audience into the narrative,” she said.

When developing a custom training experience for a client, McKinnon uses the ADDIE model and determines the current state and needs of the learner, defines the end goal of instruction, and creates an assessment that will assist in the transition.

“My clients are experts in their field. They have lived the big picture for so long, breaking items into smaller trainable parts can be a challenge. Procedures are full of details but, unfortunately, short on explanations,” McKinnon explained. “Striking the right balance takes a great deal of collaboration and trust. I feel I have done my job well if the course is able to present just enough of the details the big picture understandable but not overwhelming.”

McKinnon recently produced custom training online courses for renewables and wind energy for a large utility in North America.

Working as in instructional designer now seems like a natural progression of her career. For 16 years, McKinnon worked uninterrupted as an instructor, training all ages in everything from health education to software applications. When the economy declined, she was laid off from her job in late 2008. She immediately started networking with her local American Society for Training and Development chapter, where she found a great support group, but few job openings. In early 2009, she attended several career reinvention seminars.

“For me it all came down to helping people connect – job skills, ideas, and even relationships. It was eye-opening to realize I was not limited to my previous job titles,” she said. “With this new understanding, I took full advantage of my professional organization. While there were few openings for trainers, there seemed to be abundant work for instructional designers, and I had been designing or modifying training content from the beginning.”

McKinnon now has 15 years of experience in instructional design and tells other instructors or training developers (including clients) that compliance training is most effective when it is authentic and representational of the current state. This can be particularly challenging, she said, when developing online content because elements that help personalize training, like company name, job titles and requirements also have a high probability to change. According to McKinnon,

  • To protect yourself from having to reinvent the wheel every time, design with substitution in mind.
  • Plan for both reduction and expansion of lists so you are not boxed in visually when your three most important items suddenly expand to four.
  • Provide a strong overview of requirements, but reference as many of the details as possible.

“I am currently working with a client to update several online modules. It is particularly gratifying to know these design decisions have shortened the revision cycle,” she said.

McKinnon enjoys her “dedicated and talented co-workers and some really great clients who value training and appreciate her efforts on their behalf.”

She connects well with people, putting herself in their shoes. “Remembering what it feels like to learn something new is fundamental when developing ideas to help bring those concepts to others,” she said.

“I love walking in other people’s shoes, at least figuratively.  Whether it’s through a friendly conversation, a thoughtful discussion, or a great book, I love the journey.”

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