Interview with Karen A. Feeley, MBA, PMP

Karen A. Feeley

Karen, please tell us a little bit about yourself, about your company Comprehensive Learning Solutions, and your work with IFC.

KF: Although I had an MBA specializing in Training and Development, I got my real, practical education in training when I worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers. It was there that I learned the benefits and practical realities of following the training lifecycle methodology.  During my eight years there, I worked on every phase of the training lifecycle, primarily for Fortune 500 companies that were implementing new, enterprise-wide software systems and the accompanying new business processes.  Developing and delivering training for a system and business that was under development required using an iterative development style, careful coordination with all team members, a structured project management approach, excellent communication skills, and a flexible and pragmatic attitude toward problem-solving. 

Sharpening these competencies prepared me well for my next big career step, which was building the training department of a small, consulting company that served US government clients.  As a department director, I learned about the world of freelance consultants, contracting, recruiting, and  marketing. As a project manager and a lead instructional designer, I worked on projects focused on Human Resource Management issues, like communication skills, performance management, and employee satisfaction surveys.

After a while, I decided that I was on the wrong side of the consulting “fence,” and left that company to form my own business.  In 2009, I founded Comprehensive Learning Solutions It was the second best decision of my life.  (The first was marrying my husband!)  In 2012, I started consulting for IFC. 

I feel incredibly lucky to be working with the IFC team for so long for several reasons: 

  • They are a great group of people with whom to work.  Everyone is so nice and smart! 
  • It gives me a chance to combine my career experience with my youthful aspirations of working in the field of cross-cultural communications and international development.
  • It has given me the opportunity to see the world and to achieve one of my life goals: to work in other countries. 
  • The work is personally fulfilling and I can see how what I do makes a meaningful and tangible impact on the lives of individuals and the world at large. 

I believe that one lives on through one’s legacy.  If my legacy is that I’ve helped people improve their lives and learn new skills while enhancing global food security, and if I’ve increased the chances for peace by helping to bridge gaps of understanding between people of different cultures, then I think my time on this planet will have been put to good use.  Working with IFC helps me achieve my larger life goals while I help others achieve theirs.

Tell us about your greatest career achievement.

KF: One of the projects of which I am most proud is working with the IFC on Bayer Crop Science’s "Feeding A Hungry Planet" project.  The project started in the Philippines with the goal of transforming 100,000 Filipino subsistence rice farmers into “agripreneurs.”  My contribution was to create two multi-day courses on basic financial management and one course on how to train adults. I then trained their master trainers on these active learning methods for adults and on the content of these financial courses. 

Prior to our arrival, most training in the agricultural sector relied either on demonstrations or lecture, usually by a highly educated agronomist talking to a marginally educated farmer.  In addition to training farmers on good agricultural practices and financial management, Bayer innovated training in the Filipino agricultural sector by teaching 1,000 trainers at more than 300 partner organizations about the same principles and methods for training adults that are encapsulated in IFC's Guide to Training and Principles for Learning

Of course, once you learn how to train more effectively, you do not just return to the old ways of boring lectures.  Therefore, these 1,000 extension workers, NGO trainers, government trainers, and academics  continue to use these methods to train their participants on other subjects, too, thereby raising the quality of training throughout the country. The program has been so successful that it is now being replicated by Bayer Crop Sciences in Southeast Asia and Africa. 

What do your clients and participants of your training programs value the most?

KF:  I think the answer is the same for both groups: pragmatic solutions that work.  The Guide to Training gives the best practices for how to do training right. However, the reality is that not every client can afford to follow all of the best practices all of the time.  Sometimes, because of limited resources, time constraints, cultural considerations, or other issues, circumstances prevent following the theory exactly. The skill that an experienced business learning specialist brings to the project is knowing how to modify the theory to meet the client’s needs without sacrificing quality or effectiveness. That is part of what makes training design, development, and project management an art, and not a science.

As for participants, they want to walk out of the classroom (whether it is a physical or virtual one) with new skills and knowledge that they can immediately apply to solve whatever problem motivated them to come to training in the first place.  They need to have the necessary skills and knowledge but they also need to believe that they are capable enough to apply the solution.  That only comes through practice.  Participants need to struggle with a challenge, try the recommended approach, and successfully achieve the desired result to really understand the issue.  That’s why practice and activities are so important:  they build skills, wisdom, and confidence.  If participants do not feel confident doing what they have just seen or heard, they will not try it back in the “real world.”

You  have been in this business for over two decades now and have taught on almost every continent.  What advice do you have for those who want to make training their career?

KF: Don’t be afraid to try something new.  We don’t learn or grow by repeating the same old thing.  We learn when we go boldly where we have never gone before.  That could mean developing training on a topic with which you are not so familiar, or it could mean accepting an assignment on a phase of the training lifecycle on which you have not done much work before.  It could also mean learning new tools or software that expand your repertoire for delivery methods.  The more skills you have, the better a solution you can imagine, and the more valuable you become as a training professional.

Don’t be afraid if your career path looks a little more like a wiggly line than a straight line.  All these experiences are transferrable and make you more desirable in ways that you might not imagine - you might not always know exactly how your career will coalesce, but the more experiences you have, the more likely that you can steer it in the direction you want.

What resources do you use to design learning programs?

KF:  I think there are four main categories of resources for designing programs:

1. The Guide to Training and Principles for Learning provide excellent checklists of tasks, questions to ask, and tips and best practices for each phase of the training lifecycle.  For less experienced training professionals and those who are managing projects with a training component, these lists can guide the project plan, task lists, and quality assurance of training projects.  More experienced training professionals can use the lists as confirmation that everything has been properly considered. I really like the supplements for gender equity and working in fragile, conflict, and violence-affected situations (FCS).  While many books exist on how to create good training, they usually assume training is happening in developed nations with stable electricity and internet and societal attitudes that assume gender equity. In many emerging market areas those assumptions are not valid. The Guide to Training is the only one out there that both enumerates the challenges of training in emerging markets and provides practical, how-to ideas for addressing those challenges.

2. Client-provided source material and subject-matter expertise may be relevant depending on the course subject. Much of the training I do is client-specific (not designed for the general public).  In these situations, the challenge is to translate what is often very technical or poorly written information into something that is easy to understand and interesting enough to keep participants’ attention. 

3. Independent research usually supplements client-provided materials. When I design training or prepare to deliver training, I try to put myself into the mindset of my participants. Usually, they are new to the topic. Conversely, the source material is written by people who are so familiar with the topic that they often forget what beginners do not know. This material often does not include basic but important information, such as definitions or reasons why something is important to do. I read books and magazines and search the internet to find these answers myself. That reduces the burden I put on subject-matter experts and uses their time for the more complex questions. They also seem to respect that I have the basic knowledge and so become more willing to spend time with me. 

4. Personal knowledge and experience comes in handy especially for the less client-specific topics, such as train-the-trainer and basic business management skills. Having written several courses on these topics and having already done the research, I already know that information. I can rely on it to create training materials more quickly. I still check what I’ve written with the client or subject-matter experts because best practices change and cultural differences can impact recommendations. I also use my personal experiences as fodder for examples, activities, and case studies. I sometimes fictionalize them to create unidentifiable but realistic examples. Finally, I even bring one of my hobbies into the course design. I enjoy playing board games. Many of these can be re-imagined into fun training activities. As one mentor said to me early in my career, “You are only limited by your imagination.”

How has COVID-19 changed training?

KF:  COVID-19 is a game-changer.  We are living through one of those historic moments where everyone can realize that they are experiencing a historical pivot point.  Most of the time, changes happen in a more subtle, evolutionary manner and after a while, we reflect back and say “Things really are different now.”  This pandemic, on the other hand, is forcing rapid changes in how the world works. The longer it stays around, the more likely these changes are to become permanent. 

Training is no exception. Physical distancing requirements and travel bans are making classroom training obsolete.  Sure, there is no substitute for face-to-face interactions for some types of learning, but the more we are forced to come up with creative alternatives to accommodate the changing circumstances, the less necessary face-to-face is going to become. One of the few positives of the pandemic is that it has unleashed a sea of creativity, including in the training world. We are seeing new uses for old technologies and new technologies for old practices. 

An example of new uses of old technologies is the use of electronic bulletin boards or chat rooms.These have existed for over 25 years now. However, now they are becoming much more commonly used to enable group assignments in multi-day, virtual courses. In the days before virtual training, a course might have included a homework assignment where groups of four worked together in the evenings to discuss and complete a homework assignment. Now that discussion happens virtually in a chat room or bulletin board. The nice bonus is that the trainer can now see exactly who has contributed how much to the discussions. In the past, the trainer could only see the final product but not the interim activity. That led to the “slacker” problem, where one participant did virtually nothing and let one or two other team members do the majority of the work.  Chat rooms with recorded written conversations make it much harder to be a slacker and get away with not contributing.

An example of new technologies for old practices is new tools for collaborative brainstorming. In the pre-COVID days, a team might come together in a conference room to brainstorm a strategy using chart paper taped to the walls, sticky notes, and markers.  Now new digital technologies allow you to collaborate in real time with remotely located team members. Instead of relying on one person to move the notes around the chart, anyone can move the notes at any time, even concurrently with someone else.  In other words, the tool adapts the old brainstorming practice for the digital age.

I fear that as people get more comfortable with the new digital frontier, they are going to be more reluctant to come together in a classroom once COVID is no longer an issue. Similarly, I fear that companies will question the need for the expense of having people travel to a location, providing lunches, and printing materials when everyone was able to survive and thrive without it during the crisis.  I say “I fear” because I think you lose some of the spark and connection that happens when people come together. And I love to travel and train people, so I worry about losing that aspect of my job.

Lightning Round Interview Questions

Your life motto (or favorite quote)  “Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers” by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Your favorite classical composer –Tchaikovsky

Your favorite pop singer or band – Bruce Springsteen (I’m from NJ, so it’s pretty much required!)

Your favorite artist  Picasso

Top countries or regions that you would like to visit one day that you have not seen yet  Tibet/Nepal, Greece, Turkey, Denmark and Scandinavia

The sports you play  Skiing, bicycling, walking, swimming, white water rafting, and kayaking

Your hobbies  Reading, traveling, going to the theater (movies, shows, concerts), scrapbooking

Who did you want to become when you were a child?  I’ve always had many interests and they changed quickly.  I’ve wanted to be lots of different things:  doctor, lawyer, diplomat, anthropologist, archaeologist, actor, and –my favorite in retrospect – a “professional bride”, so I could wear the pretty gowns.