The State of Instructional Design
The conversation erupted on social media, as it has before, about the state of affairs in the field of Learning and Development, or L&D. The conversation was generally about how we have all been committed to changing the practice of L&D for years, yet we were having much the same conversation all over again. Less than a week later, Andrew Jacobs wrote very similar thoughts.
We talked about the decreasing importance of certifications: what good is being certified in methodologies that dont address the needs of the modern workplace? We shifted to blended learning, with Brent Schlenker making the point that blended solutions are simply good solutions; theres no need to give that solution a name. Shannon Tipton added, We want to make this whole learning thing so difficult but its not. Of course, Shannon is right. When employees take responsibility for their own learning, it happens quite effortlessly. Its when we, as an industry, assume responsibility for ensuring that others learn something in a specific way that things become difficult. This is where the discipline of instructional design comes in.
At that point in the conversation, I flashed back to a single anonymous comment made in response to a presentation I delivered at a conference a few years ago about a formal/social learning experiment Id run: I thought you were going to present a whole system of social learning. Never mind that I had delivered precisely what was described in my abstract, the thought that social learning as part of a formal educational program could be made into a turnkey system flabbergasted me. At its core, the comment screamed, Just give me a recipe I can follow.
And that led me to think about instructional design (and L&D as a whole) as its often practiced today: practitioners want solutions they can implement. Unfortunately, the workplace and its workers are changing rapidly. Implementable solutions depend on many factors unique to each individual workplace. What succeeds in mine may not succeed in yours. Because technology and the ways that workers learn continue to evolve, what works well today may not work at all in five years time.
A course of a different color
Long before personal computers made their way into the workplace, there was a need for training. Workers needed to learn how to follow established processes, operate equipment, and pass along unique knowledge from experienced workers to new entrants. It really wasnt very complicated. The needs analysis was often obvious, as were the design choices. What wasnt efficiently learned socially within workgroups was addressed by training, either in the form of printed materials or led by an instructor.
Today things are more complex. Through all the legitimate buzz about learning with others through social media, the ubiquitous Internet search, and a wealth of educational opportunities outside the workplace, workers still need training, and unique knowledge still needs to be passed down from the experienced to the new. The challenge now is how best to do this when, at the same time, employees are also nearly always working as work and life become fused. Because work moves at the speed of the Internet, so too must workplace learning opportunities.
Perhaps its tempting to blame the design process for failing to produce effective solutions, but I would disagree. Whether a training professional subscribes to the ADDIE model, theSuccessive Approximation Model, or a model of their own making, these are just frameworks that embed sound project management principles. Ultimately, however, a design must emerge, and it seems the design space has become so complex that many dont understand or appreciate all the options available today. Approaches may continue to include mentoring or traditional instructor-led options, plus the latters online counterpart, e-learning. They may also include online social components, performance support options, Internet-based resources, internal proprietary content, video, learner-produced content, and much more. In addition, L&D professionals must consider a variety of other factors, including pressure to minimize absence from the workplace to attend courses, fixed or shrinking budgets, the concomitant pressure to build maintainable solutions, and a highly mobile workforce.
If I had a hammer
If only designing an optimal solution for the workplace were as simple as knowing every possible alternative for a given knowledge need or performance gap and then choosing the best blend of approaches. Even awareness of virtually all possible approaches is insufficient, and it seems all too often solutions are chosen for reasons of convenience or comfort. While frustrating, I completely understand. People know what they know, and theyre comfortable doing what theyve always done, especially under stressful situations with tight budgets and timelines. Once someone has become expert using a particular tool, whether its bullet-point slides and lecture, classroom facilitation skills, a fully featured elearning production suite, or a rapid development tool, they tend to use it to the exclusion of all other solutions. This was described several years ago during a conversation between David Kelly and Reuben Tozmanin this way: If your only tool is a hammer then every problem looks like a nail.2
Instructional design for the workplace of today and tomorrow needs to be intelligent and responsive to the needs of workers. This will mean finding ways to reach beyond the confines of what each of us know or what weve done. Its impractical to have deep knowledge in every possible approach to training in the modern workplace, but specialization leads to the hammer in search of a nail scenario. What are we L&D professionals to do?
Just do it
First and foremost, we need to acknowledge our own limitations and accept that there are other ways to train employees than using what weve used in the past. Then we must expand our teams to include others, often from outside the L&D department, with new ideas and experiences. Depending on the nature of the work and whether it can be shared, it also helps to engage others outside the organization to get an even broader perspective.
This in no way suggests we give up responsibility for developing effective formal workplace training. Quite the opposite, it remains our responsibility to lead training efforts, but we have to make sure were addressing those problems for which some form of training is the most appropriate response. Then we need to keep our teams focused on the validated skill or knowledge gaps and bring sound adult learning methods to bear. Ultimately, its not the approaches that are new, just the technology used to facilitate them. The training products remain ours but, properly done, we will have a substantially better first product than working alone and develop buy-in from all of our cooperators along the way.
I often say this fast-paced, mobile, social, and self-directed learning era is no time for those of us in the Learning and Development field to be lazy. I dont mean to imply we are lazy, but I do suggest that its time to significantly step up our game. There is no best recipe for success, no one-size-fits-all solution. We alone cannot bring all solutions to the table, just as we alone cant make workers in our organizations learn. A collaborative mindset helps us to succeed.
Ultimately, we need to do something different from what weve been doing. Just do it, take calculated risks, experiment with different approaches using intelligent choices developed with others and learn from the results. Otherwise we will simply continue to talk about what needs to be done. As Albert Einstein said,
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.