Go From Box-Checking To Engaging: SMS Training That Actually Works

Go From Box-Checking To Engaging: SMS Training That Actually Works
Claire Ealding
May 3, 2021

The pursuit of knowledge is a never-ending endeavor in aviation. It is a process many of us can enjoy, allowing us to become better and more confident at our jobs. Unfortunately, aviation training can sometimes also become an activity that we dread.

In fact, one of the most valuable training courses that we can take, annual Safety Management System (SMS) training, can sometimes feel more like a box-ticking burden than valuable education.

When asked to think about your experiences with SMS training, you might recall an alphabet soup of regulations, jargon, and buzzwords. Some might recall it being an academic presentation with little application to your real-world duties. In other words, SMS training can often feel like a waste of time.

Fortunately, there are a few simple ways to take the theory-laden subject matter and create a meaningful and engaging SMS course. And at AvBrite, we’ve developed SMS training courses tailored to individual learners to help them get the most out of this critical training.

But first, let’s explain why practical SMS training is so necessary.

Why does SMS training matter?

Any flight department that operates (or intends to operate) a Safety Management System is expected to provide SMS training to their employees, as per ICAO regulations. But regulatory requirements aside, the incentive to provide quality SMS training extends beyond box-checking. SMS training, when done right, can also yield measurable safety improvements in the way an organization operates and does business.

SMS training helps cultivate a “just safety culture” at an organization. Providing SMS training to all staff, regardless of their position, enables them to become part of an organization's safety goals and adopt a safety mindset in their day-to-day activities.

Without participation from frontline employees, an SMS will struggle to function, and the organization may fail to make any meaningful safety improvements. Numerous studies have shown that one of many barriers to reporting safety hazards is “lack of training about the purpose and importance of reporting” and workers being generally unclear about their roles and accountabilities when it comes to safety [1, 2].

A course that emphasizes the importance of the frontline employee within an SMS, in friendly and easy-to-understand language, goes a long way to help assuage fears about voicing concerns. Employees who are empowered to report hazards and share their concerns with the company can help become part of the solution to fixing problems.

Similarly, SMS training dedicated to managers and supervisors should also address how to create corrective actions while also preserving the integrity of their organization’s safety culture. Years of research have shown that safety reports will not be forthcoming if employees fear retribution or if their concerns regularly fall onto deaf ears [3].

So how do we ensure that yearly SMS training captivates the learners and translates into lasting changes in on-the-job safety behaviors?

Making It Customized

One of the biggest inhibitors to effective learning can occur when the learner experiences a disconnect with the training material. When the learner cannot relate to the subject matter, the opportunity to learn is lost.

ICAO recognizes this issue and requires that SMS training be tailored to the learner as much as possible [4]. However, the tendency in aviation training has been to focus most content on pilots and managers. Focusing solely on a few positions marginalizes many other aviation professionals who are also equally responsible for ensuring safety, such as ground crews, flight attendants, mechanics, dispatchers, and so forth.

Every organization is unique, too. Depending on the nature of the business, each flight department may run its SMS differently or use one of many different SMS software providers. But with generic training, it can be difficult for the learner to take their new-found knowledge back to their place of work and use it with their specific tools and software.

So how is it possible to tailor training content to such a wide array of roles and organizations?

The Fix

For training to be accessible to a wide array of individuals, it needs to be customized. Primarily, a good course will try to design content and scenarios around different job roles and, whenever possible, utilize subject matter experts (SMEs) to bring those scenarios to life.

SMEs are a valuable asset for crafting compelling and relatable role-specific scenarios. They can provide insight into some common real-life problems and even use actual data to create realistic scenarios. An SME can also fact-check scenarios and advise if it’s plausible or too exaggerated. And they can help to strike the right balance when it comes to the level of details in training scenarios.

Below is a screenshot of how we use interactive “tiles” so that the learner can click on a tile and see a hazard from a variety of different job role perspectives.

SMS Training - SMS Fundamentals 1

A customized SMS course should also allow learners to put their training into practice with the actual software they’ll use in their day-to-day job. When training programs integrate real-world instructional materials and tools, students can more easily apply what they learned in their workplace [6]. (You can read more about our latest customized SMS course at the end of this blog!)

Exercises tailored to the software and organization are a great way to make e-learning content more relevant and meaningful. Customization gives context to the training and equips learners to not just pass the final quiz, but to make lasting safety improvements in the workplace.

SMS Training - SMS Fundamentals - VOCUS SMS

Making It Understandable

When it comes to safety training, it is important to bridge the gap between the academic and real-world spheres. Safety Management Systems can be so entrenched in regulations, safety science, and policy that it can sometimes be challenging to translate that into plain English.

However, if an SMS course hasn't taken the time to distill complex subjects and jargon into easy-to-read and bite-sized content, it can frustrate the learner and interrupt the learning process.

The Fix

To make the complex subject matter relatable, we begin with regulatory language to provide a baseline of knowledge (this makes up perhaps 10% of the course). We use the remainder of the course to explain the concepts in everyday language and apply them in real-life (90% of the course). Beginning each topic with the “regulatory basis” -- or word-for-word ICAO language -- helps keep learners rooted in where it all comes from.

Also, getting the learner’s head around academic subject matter itself is a hurdle that can be leaped over with the help of stories and scenarios.

It is essential to use the training to share stories about the particular contexts in which a person works, the specific problems that may be encountered, and how these problems can be addressed. Learners seem to resonate more with these practice-based stories than with theory-laden perspectives.

SMS Training - SMS Fundamentals 2

SMS Training - SMS Fundamentals 3

Making It Muscle Memory

According to psychologists, the human brain forgets information it recently learned if not immediately placed into practice. Learners may finish annual SMS training but then go weeks or months without applying the knowledge they’ve gained.

The Fix

Once the subject matter has been introduced in the appropriate context, the learners can be presented with a real problem or decision requiring them to apply what they’ve learned.

Creating interactive quizzes and problems within the training course gives learners a chance to flex their “grey matter.” They also provide them with the room to get things right and wrong in a safe space without affecting their training record.

Feedback is essential, too. When revealing the “answer” to the problem, instead of simply telling the learner they made the right or wrong choice, try showing them the consequences of their choices. This is often more meaningful and effective because it allows them to visualize what would happen in real life.

We do this throughout the courses by asking, “what can you do?” and offering solutions.

SMS Training - SMS Fundamentals 4
SMS Training - SMS Fundamentals 5

Another way to solidify knowledge through practice is giving the learner a chance to show off their new skills helps keep learners accountable between training visits! This can be accomplished during recurrent SMS by asking learners to reflect on the year just gone. How many reports did they submit? Were risk controls effectively applied in the flight department, and if so, how many? How do they compare to other individuals or organizations?

Making It Accessible

Don’t ride on the coattails of mandatory training. Ask, “If this training wasn’t mandatory, why might someone want to take it?”

The Fix

Leveraging the latest in online software, like the one we use at AvBrite, is an excellent way to breathe life into mandatory training and lighten the learner’s cognitive load. By keeping the interface simple, clean, and intuitive, the learner can focus their attention on the subject matter.

More content doesn’t always mean more learning is taking place. Breaking up heavy text with interactive maps, tables, drag-and-drop, and tabs makes the data visually more accessible.

SMS Training - SMS Fundamentals 6
SMS Training - SMS Fundamentals 7

The training should be accessible regardless of the devices that the learner might possess. For this reason, learners can take our SMS courses on laptops, tablets, or smartphones.

Custom SMS Courses Built Exclusively For VOCUS, By Polaris Aero

If the burdens of dull SMS training sound all too familiar, here’s some good news: putting yourself or your flight department through a custom SMS course with interactivity is now possible. AvBrite has developed a custom course to help flight departments and frontline workers utilizing VOCUS by Polaris Aero learn SMS principles while also learning how to apply these principles in the day-today.

We have split up our customized SMS training into different courses for two general learning groups: frontline workers and safety leaders.

SMS Fundamentals: A Practical Approach to Safety. Designed for frontline employees, SMS Fundamentals guides the learner through a thoughtful and practical safety journey. Employees will learn how to become the organization's most important safety asset. Employees will also learn how to help enhance their organization’s safety performance.

Advanced SMS: A Course for Safety Leaders. This course is designed for everyone who seeks a deeper understanding of safety management, Advanced SMS guides the learner through the safety journey from a leader’s perspective.

This course is ideal for supervisors, managers, and high achievers. It is also recommended for frontline personnel in departments with advanced auditing certifications.


Safety Management System (SMS) training has looked very similar for the last few decades. Fortunately, AvBrite’s SMS training is about more than just ticking compliance boxes. It’s about teaching aviation safety effectively enough to transform employees from passive participants into safety leaders.

If you would like to learn more about our current SMS training courses, or just have a question about SMS training for your organization contact us today!


  1. Gong, Y., Song, H., Wu, X. & Hua, L. (2015)  Identifying barriers and benefits of patient safety event reporting toward user-centered design. Safety in Health. 1(7).
  2. Flight Safety Foundation (1997) Cabin Crew Safety. September - October 1997. Vol 32, No 5.
  3. Siewert, B., Brook, O., Swedeen, S., Eisenberg, R. and Hochman, M. (2019) Overcoming Human Barriers to Safety Event Reporting in Radiology. RadioGraphics. 39(1).
  4. International Civil Aviation Organization (2016) ICAO Annex 19. Safety Management. 2nd Edition.
  5. Nickerson, R. S. (1999). How we know—and sometimes misjudge—what others know: Imputing one's own knowledge to others. Psychological Bulletin, 125(6), 737–759.
  6. Cook, S. and Brown, J (1999) Bridging Epistemologies: The Generative Dance Between Organizational Knowledge and Organizational Knowing. Organization Science. 10 pp 381-400.

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