Friday 28 May 2010

ID - Instructional Design or Interactivity Design in an interconnected world?

Maze - iStock - small

Instructional design is not only seen as a core competency for learning and development/training specialists, but it’s a huge industry, too. Most learning vendors tout their ‘expertise in instructional design’ as a key reason as to why we should engage them to produce learning content. If we do so, then almost invariably their approach is around developing content in an ‘instructionally-sound way’ to produce a set of ‘learning interventions’.

I have a real problem with this approach and the thinking behind it.

It simply isn’t appropriate for the needs of the 21st century knowledge industry, and is arguable even more inappropriate for those whose work is carried out with their hands rather than with their minds.

Let’s Forget About Events

Undoubtedly instructional design is crucial if the mindset is learning events – modules, courses, programmes and curricula. However, if the mindset has stretched beyond event-based learning to where most learning occurs for workers, which is in the workplace at the point-of-need, where process-based learning serves best – and where learning through doing and learning as part of the work process happens, then ID takes on a whole new dimension.

From Content to Activity

The vast majority of structured learning is content-rich and interaction-poor. That’s understandable in the context of a 20th century mindset and how learning professionals have been taught to develop ‘learning’ events. But it simply isn’t appropriate for today’s world.

For years we’ve been led to believe that ‘learning’ meant acquiring knowledge. If knowledge acquisition is the end-game, then the logical conclusion was to provide information that could be turned, whatever the magic employed, into knowledge in the recipient’s head. Believe me, the old idea that data becomes information which in turn becomes knowledge and finally transmogrifies into wisdom has been debunked years ago. We use our knowledge and experience to interpret data and information. Wisdom comes to a few only after years of experience.

These days we’re a little better informed about what constitutes learning. It’s not that there have been fundamental discoveries in the field. There have been a few, but we’ve also spent more time observing learning in action. And ‘action’ is the key word. It’s become clear that learning is about action and behaviours, not about how much information you hold in your head. If we train our dog, or our goldfish, we can observe learning by the fact that the animal can do something it couldn’t do before the training started. If their behaviour isn’t modified then we can only conclude that they haven’t learned. We have no idea of knowing, of course, but it may be that the dog ‘knows’ what it should do (‘’sit, now!’) but, for reasons known only to itself, can’t (or won’t) execute the action.

Ebbinghaus and All That

Knowing something doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve learned it. Challenging?

Let’s test this hypothesis. I attend a course on how to use my company’s new CRM system. The instructor (or virtual instructor delegated into an eLearning course) steps me through the various processes and delivers the learning content in an engaging way. I even have an opportunity to try things out on a ‘training system’. At the end of the course, I take an assessment. I pass with flying colours.

The training has been successful and I’ve learned. Right?

Not necessarily. What I’ve done is managed to retain information in short-term memory. Even if I’m successful in transferring this to long-term memory - and it’s likely that most won’t transfer. Dr Ebbinghaus’ experiment revealed we suffer an exponential ‘forgetting curve’ and that about 50% of context-free information is lost in the first hour after acquisition if there is no opportunity to reinforce it with practice.

I’ve only learned (or learned successfully – I don’t know what unsuccessful learning is – can someone please help me out with that?) when I can use the CRM system without constantly asking for help or referring to some documentation. And it’s almost impossible to achieve this without having the experience of using the system/tool. And I have no hope of learning without plenty of practice. Experience and practice are two of the main ways we change our behaviours and learn.

The Value of Real ID

If experience and practice, rather than knowledge acquisition and content, are the drivers of the learning process, what do Instructional Designers need to do to be effective?

The need to become Interactivity Designers. That’s what they need to do.

My colleague, Clark Quinn ( knows a thing or two about designing learning experiences, having been a leading expert in the field in both academia and the business world for some years. Clark talks about learning experience design. He provides good explanations of his thoughts and approach here and here.

I find both Clark’s learning experience designer and also the term interactivity designer helpful because they move us beyond instruction to where the real meat of learning is, to actions and interactions, experiences and conversations.

Unlocking the Power of Experience

Each of us holds hundreds of experiences inside our heads that can be used to improve our own performance and the performance of those around us in both formal and informal learning environments. We just need to figure out how to tap into those experiences – that’s where the skills in interactivity design come in.

Good ID will result in the design of experiences that can build capability and learning far more quickly and effectively than by filling heads with information and ‘knowledge’ and then hoping that will lead to behavioural change.

We need designers who understand that learning comes from experience, practice, conversations and reflection, and are prepared to move away from massaging content into what they see as good instructional design. Designers need to get off the content bus and start thinking about, using, designing and exploiting learning environments full of experiences and interactivity.

As they do this they’ll realise that most of the experiences and interactivity they can draw on will occur outside formal learning environments.

Sunday 9 May 2010

Less is more: A different approach to L&D in a world awash with information


This post appeared on the site last month.  I’ve re-posted it here for people who don’t choose to register on the TZ website.



Charles Jennings argues that the adage 'access to knowledge is power' is more fitting in today's information-swamped world.

"In 2009, more data will be generated by individuals than in the entire history of mankind through 2008. Information overload is more serious than ever."

Andreas Weigend, former chief scientist at writing in the Harvard Business Review, May 2009

Andreas Weigend knows a thing to two about data and the social data revolution, about its impact on business and its role in information overload. In his job at Amazon he had to be smart about using information if he was to help his employer make best use of the vast volume of the stuff that was arriving in its data centres every few seconds.

Social data

Social data is information produced by anyone. Some originators may be acknowledged experts. Others may simply be passionate about a topic. Either way, the data they produce can provide significant value to others. Amazon has thrived on the back of contributions and recommendations by readers and purchasers. Early on the company found that users often trusted recommendations by other users more than they trusted promotional or 'expert' views. Weigend said "by enabling users to actively contribute such explicit data, succeeded in leveraging knowledge dormant in its large customer base to help customers with their purchasing decisions".

"Being able to find just the right information or source of knowledge at the just right time in the just right context is far more useful than recalling something we’ve learned some time ago and hoping it is still relevant and 'right'."

Other organisations have used this collaborative knowledge sharing extremely effectively. Wikipedia created a transparent knowledge creation environment by allowing open discussion and online collaboration. Many other organisations have rebuilt their customer service models to encourage user communities to share knowledge about problems, issues and workarounds as they have found the 'wisdom of the crowds' better serves customers than a small, over-burdened customer help line.

But Weigend's world was not just about managing information, one of the base metals of knowledge. It was also about managing and connecting people, the caretakers of the gold. In fact it was primarily about connecting people - connecting people and helping them make their own connections between their data so it can be exchanged, made sense of in new contexts and some of it used to develop knowledge, skill and action, often in ways the originator had never thought of.

Implication for L&D: Less is more

So what are the implications of this tsunami of information on the way we go about training and development?

Firstly, every L&D professional needs to cast aside any belief that the more information and knowledge we have in our heads the better equipped we are to do our jobs or live our lives. It simply isn't true in today's world. The old adage 'knowledge is power' no longer sits comfortably in a world where information is swamping us and new knowledge is being generated and becoming obsolescent at rates never known before.

Access is power

Today, access to knowledge is power. And if this also means access to the person or people with the knowledge or the raw information, even better. Being able to find just the right information or source of knowledge at the just right time in the just right context is far more useful than recalling something we've learned some time ago and hoping it is still relevant and 'right'. With the increasing speeds of change and the ongoing knowledge explosion, what we learned three months ago is more likely to be out of date or simply wrong today than was the case even two or three years ago. We're living in exponential times.

Living with dynamic knowledge

As we continue to move from industrial to knowledge-based economies the half-life of much of the information that we use on a daily basis will continue to get shorter. The currency of most of the knowledge we use will have smaller and smaller windows of usefulness.

The implication of this trend for the current content-rich model of training and development that's used so widely today is really profound. In short, not only is less more, but in many cases nothing is better than any at all! That's a difficult pill for many L&D people to swallow.

"The message this sends for L&D is that our jobs as enablers of performance clearly need to change from being knowledge dispensers to becoming learning guides."

But think about it in practice. Is it better to get people to commit information to memory, knowing that it will be short-lived (and possibly out of date when they come to use it), or help them become skilled in the approaches and techniques to find the current, correct information quickly when they need it? Think for a few seconds and it is obvious that the second strategy is the better one. Teach people to fish rather than providing them with fish. What use is there in someone trying to remember their tax coding, when it may change two or three times in a year? Surely it's better simply knowing where to find the current (correct) coding when you need it. Having the metadata and the search skills is far more useful than memorising the detailed information in this and many other situations in the day-to-day pursuit of our work and life.

The message this sends for L&D is that our jobs as enablers of performance clearly need to change from being knowledge dispensers to becoming learning guides. Helping our colleagues navigate their way through information and mis-information. Through what is currently 'correct' and what may have been correct some time ago but isn't any more.

A new focus for training: Forget the ephemera and get down to core skills

L&D needs to move from providing detailed task-based information to helping people develop a core set of useful generic skills that will provide them with the tools to find, analyse and make decisions to act at the point in time they need to act.;

This is a very different world than one focused on producing modules, courses and curricula full of ephemeral information – detailed content that has a relatively short half-life and is unlikely to be remembered in any detail beyond a post-course assessment, even if to that point.

We need to remember Herman Ebbinghaus' findings from 1885 - 125 years ago - that on average we will forget about 50% of what we've 'learned' within 60 minutes if the information has no context and we don't have the opportunity to reinforce it through practice.

The core skills we need

So, what are the core skills we need to help people develop so they can operate in this ocean of information?

To be honest, I don't have a definitive list. But I think I know some of the capabilities L&D should focus on. If we help people develop these, at least they'll be on a solid footing to extract positive and practical use from the volumes of information they come across each day:

Search and 'find' skills To find the right information when it's needed
Critical thinking skills To extract meaning and significance
Creative thinking skills To generate new ideas about, and ways of, using the information
Analytical skills To visualise, articulate and solve complex problems and concepts, and make decisions that make sense based on the available information
Networking skills

To identify and build relationships with others who are potential sources of knowledge and expertise, within and outside the organisation

People skills

To build trust and productive relationships that are mutually beneficial for information sharing

Logic To apply reason and argument to extract meaning and significance
A solid understanding of research methodology To validate data and the underlying assumptions on which information and knowledge is based

Of course there will be other core context-focused skills that people need to learn. They will tend to be complex skills that need lots of guided practice to master.

However, that doesn't change the fact that, going forward, L&D will need to focus less on content and more on developing core capabilities and skills.