Going undercover

Written by AbduNaser Shhub on 1 May 2013 in Features

AbduNaser Shhub discusses whether using an undercover trainer can help learners get more from a training session

Once upon time, I walked along a famous street in London and saw a crowd gathered around a street vendor. He was selling perfume. He held a sample in his hand and invited the crowd to smell. "This well-known perfume costs only a fraction of the same kind in big shops," he declared. The crowd was enthusiastic about his offer and they were buying the perfume in large numbers.

Later, I learned that the vendor was cheating. The content of the sample bottle was not the same as the content in the other bottles. Also, most people in the crowd around him were indeed his undercover partners pretending to be passers-by and customers. Through their enthusiasm, they were trying to persuade other innocent people that the perfume was worth buying.

Now, did I fall in the trap and buy the perfume? I'd rather not say, but that is not the point. I must admit, and you would probably agree with me, that the vendor's technique in influencing people to purchase was pretty clever.

Years later, here I am, thinking of using the same technique in training. What if we use an undercover agent to help the trainer in delivering a successful training session? The role of the undercover agent is to influence trainees in a positive way and make them more proactive during the training session. I know that some people may consider such approach as deceiving or unethical, but why not use the concept if it is going to help in the learning process?

The question is to what extent the undercover agent can contribute in the training delivery. Over-contribution can sometimes lead to negative consequences. If trainees suspect the role and real identity of the undercover agent, it will not play well with them. The contribution of the undercover agent to the training delivery must be carefully balanced for the concept to achieve its goal.

Here is another funny story that I heard when I was a child. A man lived in a small village and he was well known by his fellow villagers for telling lies. Whenever he told them news, they would not believe him. One day he decided to hire a fellow villager as an undercover agent to support his claims.

At the beginning, the partnership went well and the agent supported his partner whenever the latter reported false news. One day, our man told his companions that he saw a flying snake. Of course, his companions did not believe his story and the undercover agent kept quiet this time and did not support him.

Once all the companions had left, the man wondered and asked his undercover agent why he did not support him in front of them. The undercover agent told him that their agreement was struck on land and therefore would not cover upper space (referring to flying objects).

In the next section of this article, I will show how you can use this technique through an example of delivering a classroom lesson. Through eight intervention points, I will demonstrate the effectiveness of this technique. I will also briefly discuss its ethical aspect.

Example: lesson plan

Lesson title: Purchase order

Lesson description:  Developing and delivering a classroom training course for employees on how to create, display, change and approve purchase orders on an SAP system

Performance dimensions: Gain the necessary skills to perform the following tasks:

  • create a new PO
  • display and change the existing PO
  • approve a PO
  • generate PO reports
  • troubleshoot PO issues.

Project training goal: The training team's goal for this project is to deliver high-quality training to the company's end-user population

Target audience: Company employees

Duration: Ninety minutes including breaks.

Opening activity

Topic: Class introduction and expectations.

Duration: Twenty minutes

Terminal objective(s): Participants will be able to master new skills that are required for using the new process of procurement

Enabling objective(s):                  

  • recall the old process for service procurement
  • explain the new process and know the difference between the new and the old processes of service procurement.

Material: Participant manuals

Lesson exercise

Topic: Create and approve purchase order

Duration: Forty five minutes

Enabling objective(s): Perform tasks that are required to procure services

Material: Participant manuals

Contribution of undercover agent

Let us see now how the undercover agent's intervention can make a difference in the training delivery. I will show the intervention through various stages of the training session. The lesson structure is designed such that the role of the undercover agent is incorporated. The seat location for the undercover agent in the class is important. I recommend he be at the back for monitoring purposes.

The intervention by the undercover agent in the training session (see Table 3) can help trainees to improve in their interest in the training subject and engagement in the lesson activities.

Table 4 shows a classification of trainees in accordance to their interest and engagement.

In the first quadrant, trainees, prior to coming to class, do not have much interest in the subject and, consequently, they will probably not be much engaged in the course activities. Their lack of interest in the subject can be due to various reasons, for example the training subject is not related to their job tasks, opposition to implementing a new process (against the change), or any other reason. Dealing with such issues is beyond the scope of this article.

In quadrant II, trainees are interested in the subject but they are not motivated enough to be engaged in the course activities.

Trainees in quadrant III do not have much interest in the subject, yet they are fully engaged. A high standard of training delivery can be a reason for this segment of trainees to be attracted to the lesson and be more engaged in the class activities.

Quadrant IV is the ultimate goal. We want all trainees, if possible, to be highly interested in the subject and be highly engaged in the session.

The intervention by the undercover agent can most likely benefit trainees in quadrant III (low engagement, high interest). Once identified, these trainees can be encouraged to participate actively and helped when needed during the exercise activities.

As for trainees of low interest, the possibility of intervention by the undercover agent is probably limited. Nevertheless, the concerns of these trainees should be addressed whenever possible during the training session.

Ethical aspect

The ethical question of this concept will come up from the moment the undercover agent is introduced. In what capacity should the agent be introduced? Table five shows the options and their corresponding impact.

If the undercover agent is introduced as an ordinary trainee (which is simply not true), the score for the truth is low. On the other hand, the score for the training impact should be positive. But what if trainees discover that the undercover trainer is not a trainee after all? How this will affect their perception, trust and respect for the trainer?

If the undercover agent is introduced as a co-trainer (which is true in this case), the score for the truth is high but the score for the training impact is low. This will defeat the purpose of our technique and the training session can be considered to be delivered by two trainers.

A middle way between the two previous options is to introduce the undercover agent as a future trainer under training. This statement is true up to a certain extent and the training impact will most likely be positive. He still has to attend the training session and complete the required exercises.


Placing the undercover agent among trainees is definitely a plus. Sometimes, trainees learn more from each other than they can learn from the trainer. This is especially true when they all actively engaged in the lesson's activities.

The role of the undercover agent is not to replace or undermine that of the trainer. Instead, his role is to supplement the trainer and help to strengthen the training.

Through several interventions, the undercover agent is able to have an impact on the training and make it more valuable:

  • at the beginning of the training session, set the stage for the lesson expectations
  • help to break the ice between the trainer and trainees
  • help to create and promote environment of learning
  • identify trainees who are interested in the subject but not fully engaged in the class
  • offer a helping hand to struggling trainees
  • help to guide trainees through the lesson stages
  • draw attention to common mistakes and how to avoid them
  • summarise what was learned and suggest a plan of implementation back on the job
  • list the support and help available after the training.
About the author

AbduNaser Shhub is a training consultant at Saudi Aramco. He can be contacted at nshahub@gmail.com

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