A Simple, Proven Way to Design Any Type of Training

A versatile eight-step approach to helping employees learn.

August 8, 2002

There are as many instructional-design models as there are package deals to Europe. For my taste, many are too basic (e.g., the three-step models), while others are much too elaborate (e.g., the 20-step models with arrows going every which way). If you happen to agree, you may find the approach I use and recommend to be the happy medium you've been looking for.

It works for all major categories of training, including executive/management, marketing/sales, and technical. It's applicable to virtually all modes of delivery, including online, traditional classroom, on-the-job training, and blended learning (a combination of modes). And it can get you from point A to point B in the safest, most efficient manner I'm aware of.

Unlike most other models, which display major steps as cryptically labeled tasks, this model consists of a set of important questions. Since discussion around key questions is ultimately the way an instructional-design team explores learning needs and scopes out solutions, the rationale for a question-driven model should be apparent.

A close-up look
Each step of the recommended approach is elaborated upon below. The steps are strategically sequenced, enabling the design team to: 1) focus on one task at a time, 2) use the output of each step to facilitate the completion of the next one, and 3) apply checks and balances to safely stay on track throughout the process.

1. Is training really the answer?
The training director of a financial-services company told me about a department that had received, in one year, extensive training in team-building from two qualified consulting firms. Less than four months after the second consulting firm delivered its program, the department manager approached the training director for the name of another firm he could try.
After a brief discussion, the training director asked: "If the lives of your employees depended on it, do you think they could effectively apply what they’ve learned about team-building?" His reply, "Well, yes. They definitely know what to do and how to do it. The trouble is, they don’t do it consistently."
Performance gaps can result from any combination of factors (e.g., lack of know-how, confusion over priorities, no accountability, insufficient incentives and rewards, etc.). One quick way to determine whether training is warranted is to get an answer to the kind of question the training director asked. Only if it is decided that target audience members couldn’t perform properly "if they had to" should you proceed to step two.
2. What background information do we need to collect and from whom should we get it?
Questions must be asked to fully understand target-audience characteristics: what participants should come away with as a result of instruction; any anticipated constraints on the design, development, production, delivery, evaluation, and maintenance of the training; and a host of other matters. People in a position to answer such questions (e.g., managers of the target audience, a sampling of target audience members, subject-matter experts, etc.) should be identified and interviewed by the design team, using a comprehensive set of pertinent questions.
3. Based on the data collected, what exactly does our audience need to know, do, and feel as a result of the training?
By answering the question "Upon completing the training, what exactly do we want our audience to know, do, and feel?" a list of specific outcomes (i.e., learning objectives) results. The objectives (formally drafted by the design team) are passed to project stakeholders, who review them for clarity, accuracy, and comprehensiveness. Only after the learning objectives are approved should the design team proceed to the next step.
4. In order for our audience to come away with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes specified, what content should be addressed?
For each of the approved learning objectives, this question is asked: "In order for the audience to be able to attain this particular objective, what content must be covered?"
The output -- after the question has been answered for all of the learning objectives -- is a detailed list of topics, subtopics, and components of subtopics analogous to a textbook’s table of contents.
The items listed should be sequenced in accordance with how they would actually be presented in training. Finally, an "Introduction" unit (including a listing of its subtopics/components) is added to the front of the content outline and a "Conclusion" unit (including a listing of its subtopics/components) is added to the end of the content outline. The accuracy of the content outline should then be confirmed by a subject-matter expert(s).
5. What’s the best way to get each item of content noted across to our audience?
Appropriate learning activities are chosen for each item of content (i.e., topic, subtopic, or component of subtopic) based on what’s known about the mode or modes of delivery to be used, the audience’s likes and dislikes of various learning activities, and anticipated constraints (all data gleaned from step one).
For each element of content, this question is asked: "What’s the best way to put this across to our audience?" Each learning activity is noted next to each element of content (as listed in the previous step), along with the estimated time required to complete the activity. When completing this step, it’s important to be keenly aware that some learning activities that seem perfectly appropriate may in fact be perfectly unsuitable.
For example, several years ago the national director of a major accounting firm asked me to drop all references to role-playing in a design document I was preparing for his firm’s managing-partner curriculum. I was surprised by the request and asked him why. His reply: "They don’t take role-playing seriously. We’ve tried it a couple of times. It bombed each time. Now they’ll have no part of it." The lesson: Each target audience must be viewed as unique. What works beautifully with audience members in one firm may fail miserably with their counterparts in another.
6. Looking at our "snapshot" of what is to be covered and how it is to be covered, how can we encourage the transfer of learning from the place of study to the place of work?
At this point, having produced a "Content/Learning Activities Outline," the design team should be well positioned to determine how the manager of a participant can encourage his/her on-the-job application of the information outlined. Prior to training, the manager could, for example, review the course’s learning objectives with the participant and discuss their relevance to his/her particular developmental needs.
After training, the manager and participant might discuss, fine-tune, and commit to implementing an action plan drafted by the participant during training. Additionally, a second look at the "Content/Learning Activities Outline" -- from the standpoint of ensuring learning transfer -- might reveal additional opportunities for skills practice and the distribution of quick-reference tools (e.g., checklists, templates, and memory-joggers) for on-the-job use. The transfer of learning strategies should include methods beyond those referred to above. For example, it might be linked to a person’s compensation. Note: Though these learning-transfer steps are crucial, they are missing from many models. Unless learning is successfully transferred from the place of learning to the place of work, there can be no return on investment.
7. How can we determine the effectiveness of the training?
Formative and summative evaluation strategies are described next. Formative evaluations have to do with checking the quality of training before it's finalized, using dry runs and pilots, for example. Summative evaluations have to do with checking the quality of the training after it's been rolled out. This can include everything from doing an assessment after class to gauge the amount of training that sank in to determining the impact of the training on the corporate bottom line. In this step, the specific strategies to be used are briefly described under the headings "Formative" and "Summative."
Because so many instructional-design models indicate that evaluation strategies should be determined promptly after writing learning objectives, it’s important to explain why the recommended model addresses evaluation after the specification of training content, learning activities, and transfer of learning strategies.
By virtue of outlining the training from start to finish, design teams become familiar with the body of knowledge, skills, and attitudes to be ultimately assessed. This familiarity, in turn, facilitates their identification of the full range of opportunities for evaluation. For example, the outline for a course on presentation skills that indicates participants would be videotaped making a presentation at the beginning of training and again toward its end, reveals an excellent evaluation opportunity in the form of a before-and-after comparison of performance.
Further rationale for addressing evaluation strategies late in the instructional-design process can be found in answering this question: "Should testing strategies determine what goes into a course (i.e., "teach for the test"), or should learning objectives (i.e., the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to be acquired) be the determinant?"
8. When it comes time to create learning materials, how can we avoid reinventing the wheel?
In addition to providing a snapshot of the training to be later developed, the "Content/ Learning Activities Outline" represents a sort of shopping list for directly relevant materials that may already exist in one’s organization or elsewhere. Here the design team searches for pertinent reports, articles, books, videos, CDs, and training programs that can potentially save time, money, and effort. Prepackaged e-learning lessons related to any number of the training’s components may also be available and can be searched via the Internet. The result of this step is a listing of what’s available and what’s lacking.
Whenever delivering training to corporate human resources and training professionals at Fordham University, I ask this question concerning the search for existing learning materials: "Why is this the last step, instead of one of the very first steps in the design process?"
The correct response holds the answer to why a lot of training fails to live up to expectations. It’s simply this: Unless you know who your target audience truly is, what specifically participants need to come away with, the types of learning activities most likely to resonate with them, and the answers to a host of other vital design questions, any selection of existing learning materials is likely to prove a waste of time, money, and effort.

How to document your design
The design process should ultimately result in a document or blueprint that neatly organizes the various outputs. The document is crucial for the accurate, efficient presentation of the training design to stakeholders who will approve it. Further, the approved document is later used to guide the creation and/or adaptation of all materials needed to implement the training. Major sections of the instructional design document include:

  1. Course Title
  2. Purpose Statement
  3. Audience Description
  4. Duration
  5. Prerequisites (if any)
  6. Learning Objectives
  7. Constraints *
  8. Content/Learning Activities Outline (Note: This section is the longest, providing a blow-by-blow description of the training from start to finish.)
  9. Transfer of Learning Strategy
  10. Evaluation Strategy
  11. Content Sourcing (What We Have vs. What We Need)

* In the design document, the Constraints section should precede the "Content/Learning Activities Outline." By being aware of constraints -- before reviewing the outline -- stakeholders are better able to recognize why certain learning activities, time frames, etc., indicated may be less than ideal.

Any other sections that are needed to clearly and comprehensively communicate one’s design, including project-management documentation, should be added.

Why this model can work for you
Whether you're designing a curriculum, course, one-on-one coaching session, or any other type of learning experience, the recommended model can provide a proven-effective framework for instructional design.

Even if you plan to use outside consultants to help design and develop the training you have in mind, work independently through the model’s eight steps. By doing so, you can better understand the true scope and requirements of your project from the get-go, communicate what you have in mind efficiently and effectively to all internal stakeholders and outside consultants, select the right outside help (if need be) to take your design to "the next level," and be in a far better position to confidently lead and manage your entire project team to a successful implementation.

My own lessons that were learned designing training in a variety of corporate settings have given rise to the model described above. It strikes just the right balance between the overly simplistic three-step models and those that are needlessly complex.

Workforce Online, May 2002 -- Register Now!