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Going Mainstream

By Reuben Tozman / February 2012

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Comments (15) Instapaper

I have an axe to grind with the eLearning industry. There is an on going discussion that began well before I started working as a practitioner in eLearning about the slashing of "training budgets" when times are tough for organizations. We talk about this, we acknowledge it, we experience it, and we do our best to let the world know that we have a lot to offer. Practitioners took up the argument that eLearning was a great workaround to the budget issue since you can lower your costs for deploying training and get great ROI, as calculated by our own special ROI calculator. We have speakers about this, we have books about it, we have special tracks in conferences about it—but has it changed anything?

People working in our field are creative, educated, experienced, and extremely professional. They know a lot of about communication theory, learning theory, and some can even program virtual environments. We're really good designers and have best practice guides for delivering eLearning across a multitude of environments and platforms. We're inquisitive and… well you get the picture. We are all very talented.

So what axe do I have to grind? Well the only people that really care about our deeply talented pool of professionals and the wonderful things we can do for an organization is ourselves. It bothers me that we have an ROI model that we whip out to our bosses in case our value gets questioned. It bothers me that we have a learning management system that collects data that is useful for itself. There are frequent discussions about "engaging students," and yet there is widespread recognition that most of what we do is "page turner" type quality. It bothers me that we bemoan our situation as outsiders to an organization, yet we choose not to remodel ourselves.

That's right fellow eLearning professionals, my axe to grind isn't with our organizations, it's with us. We are broken and we refuse to see it.

We choose to think that we have a special place in an organization because we can "design" the hell out of content. Learning content you see is very different than mere "information" and "information" can never be training or learning. Content needs the skilled hands of an instructional designer before it can become useful, right? Learning portals, authoring tools, LMS, LCMS are all ours, even if our organization already has Web content management systems, Web authoring tools, Web analytics etc. These are our tools, because we're special. But please stop thinking of us as being separate from the core business operations. (Can you detect the sarcasm?)

It's time to stop thinking of ourselves as a special entity in a business and recast ourselves as part of the overall operations of a business. It's time to be part of the accountability system for whether a business succeeds or fails. It's time to give up the "training" gig and become part of operations. Some of you may be saying that it wasn't you who placed yourself in HR or training. That may be true, but when was the last time you were able to do a BPM (Business Process Map)?

Businesses are always looking to streamline operations and that ultimately means changing the performance of the team to achieve more with less. It means businesses bring in different tools, systems, and technologies and insert them into the system to help streamline one process versus another. Businesses are all about performance and they will do anything to get the best performance out of its team to maximize their results. Those of us in eLearning talk the talk about performance; doesn't this seem like a perfect fit?

It is a perfect fit! But it's up to us to evolve and change how we interact with our host organizations. First and foremost we need to become systems thinkers. We need to move our analysis work to business analysts and begin to look at the systems in which people work. We need to do this because businesses operate as a distributed network, and our job isn't training individuals, our job is about strengthening the network. Having more skilled, knowledgeable people is part of it, but the focus for the knowledge and skills needs to be about the contribution to the network. A perfect example of this is too often found in leadership training. I have seen countless leadership programs all focused on the qualities and characteristics of leaders, and very few of them about applying those skills to the organization where the "leaders" work, and even less applying those skills to the organization to help the system perform.

The next change required is to stop talking about "performance support" as though it were a job aid or a little something you use to support a training effort. We need to start talking about performance support as though it were the very essence of what we do and look at training as something that may be used when required. We also tend to use performance support to talk about "just-in-time" training. In the world of business process mapping and systems thinking, everything is "just in time." All of our interventions need to come when required as dictated by the system. The questions we need to continually ask ourselves are how do we strengthen the system? What interventions and when will lead to better performance of the system?

At a very practical level this should influence how we design our learning materials, both from a tools/technology viewpoint and from an instructional design viewpoint. At a tools/technology level we need to learn how to reuse content that already exists within our organizations and not duplicate it. The duplication of content means an organization needs to manage the various instances where the content appears so that it can update as required. Think for a minute about all the data on how rapidly content changes? Think about the extraneous effort you put on your organization when you take existing content and duplicate it because you need to redesign it. We need to rethink the use of tools and look at tools that will help our organizations streamline how content moves between people and business units. We also need to think through the whole "redesign" of content for "training" purposes.

I do not contest that there are instances when content needs to be reinterpreted into different media and different design paradigms. Flight simulations or immersive learning for when mistakes have a cost that merit the redesign are examples for when we need to take content and redesign it into something else simply because the benefits for doing so far outweigh the costs (not necessarily monetary).

That being said, all too often instructional designers put on their "special" hat and redesign content into "learning content"—wrapping content in games and scenarios. Again, not a concept I am against, but consider the system for a moment. Wrapping content in a story means that access to that content required in the moment of need is now wrapped in an environment in which a person has to read a story to access the content. I would also argue that all too often the redesign does not significantly impact the learning outcome. One lesson I learned and remembered well as a graduate student in educational technology was that the single most important factor in whether content was learned or not in an organizational setting was whether it was mandatory for the content to be learned to begin with.

For the record, I am not saying never redesign, never build games, never create problem based or scenario based learning. I am asking you to consider its contribution to the business.

The system dictates necessity. We need to start building strength in the network and looking at our job very differently. If we do need to build a game to generate experiences with content, then there needs to be a positive impact on the system. We can do this people. After all we are eLearning professionals!

About the Author

Reuben Tozman is the CLO and founder of edCetra Training. He received his master's degree in educational technology from Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, and has worked as an instructional designer, a project manager, consultant, and product manager within a variety of organizations. Tozman began his own company within the learning services industry that quickly gained recognition for its ability to implement true single sourcing strategies. He has always been passionate about advancing learning technologies beyond convention and has instilled in his company a thirst for creative research and development activities around semantic Web technologies. He regularly contributes articles to industry publications and is a frequent speaker at industry events.

© 2012 ACM 1535-394X/12/01 $10.00

DOI: 10.1145/2129230.2129232


  • Mon, 13 Feb 2012
    Post by Reuben

    Great comments all. @Mike - I totally appreciate that I've called out eLearning Professionals and that in itself may be calling out a small segment of who needs to be called out and that the use of 'eLearning Professional' already points to an 'elearning' solution. That being said the article was for eLearn Mag :) One of my favorite stories of late was a Loews case study where a 'training' problem was solved through marketing. The solution for Loews wasn't to have better trained employees but more knowledgeable consumers. I'm not saying that 'training' isn't necessary. I'm only saying that it must be a fluid part of operations and thought of in the context of making the system go. @Kevin - I don't think all hope is lost of you wrap content in a story. And I'm with you on the difference between effective use of stories and simply adding stories because someone heard stories were 'engaging'. As for busting the chops of leaders, most training leaders did not get where they are because they have any experience in 'training'. Most of them are there by chance and are using their position as a stepping stone. This of course ain't gonna sit well with people, but from my experience its true. Its the instructional designer however that owes it to our audience to rethink what we can provide. @Christiana - Thanks for sharing and I love it!! @Holly - I think part of the problem is trying to be all things to all people. A well trained instructional designer IS a systems thinker. They know how do to a task analysis, break things down and match solution to part. This is all about moving that thinking to the next level and providing value to our organizations.

  • Sun, 12 Feb 2012
    Post by Mike Petersell

    Great, thought provoking article. As I read it there were some things I agreed with and others I took exception to. The overall feeling it left me with is that my department is on the right track. There are some things we recognized long ago that we have put into practice such as: not creating learning artifacts when we can just point to existing tools and content that are already being used by the business, and that performance, not learning is the end game.

    That being said, the article speaks to us as "elearning professionals," which is limiting the definition of what we do very narrowly. I define myself as a workplace learning professional. Maybe that too is limiting. Perhaps I should be in Workplace Performance or Enablement. When my team members are wearing the hat of an "elearning professional", it means we have already determined that formal learning is required to support the business need. When that is the case (usually something new is introduced or a major change has ocurred), we do often write stories to give context to learning. Isn't it better to put content about a the capabilities of piece of office equipment that a salesperson needs to sell in the context of a customer profile so they can relate it to need rather than just having them learn what it can do on its own?

    I do agree with your point about the need to move work to business analysts. Last year we restructured our learning department into Centers of Expertise (COEs) and a Shared Services pool for design and delivery. I lead the Instructional Designers in the Shared Services group. The COEs are staffed with Learning Consultants who own the relationship with the business so they can be analyzing the needs on an ongoing basis. This has been a tough change for my instructional designers. They do come to the table early on when a project is emerging, but they are struggling with there being another person playing such an important role; one that they previously played. But this has worked well and they are beginning to see the value in this approach.

  • Sat, 11 Feb 2012
    Post by Christiana

    Where I work, one of our curriculum developers left in November. The same day her resignation became official, I emailed our director and pitched him an idea. It was to not replace her with an instructional designer but with a business analyst from another area of the company. He took me and the department manager to lunch that day for us to discuss. I advocated for the switch and we hired her!

    As the training department, we had been on the receiving end of her knowledge transfers, technical writing, scope statements, process maps, and products her studio delivered based on her analysis work with our customers. We knew she had mad skills for organizing, presenting, communicating. I said that I could teach her our software and, what I felt were slight differences between business analysis to develop a product for the customer and instructional design analysis to build training on that same product. I also felt that she could bring a different viewpoint of usability and what the customer wants to our team.

    It's been about a month now and she's already bringing changes in the way we operate and approach work. After reading Reuben's article, I'm even more proud that I advocated to change the role.

  • Sat, 11 Feb 2012
    Post by David Glow

    @Kevin perfectly states it:

    "My contention is you can wrap a story around ANY learning."

    And, I hope that my comments weren't mistaken to mean that hope is lost when wrapping learning with a story. I don't believe that at all. In fact, to make things "sing" you have to develop a compelling story (in most cases) that resonates with the users.

    My challenge is this: so often we so deeply embed stories with a lot of learning assets, that we constrain it's use in different contexts. I think with a little intelligent forethought, you can have both cases. You have some generic content that can be easily added to, appended with or embedded in a larger story for unique contexts to make it really work.

    My favorite examples of power of stories vs great learnings or raw data come from Presidential speeches. Have you ever noticed that no matter how powerful the baseline information (e.g. impact of the current economy) and the sheer power behind the numbers and statements that can be made, that it is almost always the personal accounts/stories used to drive the point? Good example of good data that can be used across a lot of contexts, then particular stories used to resonate strongly for unique groups. I think "just the data" would make it too generic for it to hit home with most folks, or if the general data was too embedded in a personal account, folks not in that same context may feel "so how's this apply to me?" I call knowing how to find that balance and split that difference some design acumen. ;)

  • Sat, 11 Feb 2012
    Post by Holly MacDonald

    Good article and debate.

    I *really* like the concept of performance support as the overarching framework, and it's often how I approach things. I don't build "courses" for clients, I build solutions, and have at times told them they didn't need training at all, to spend their money on other things instead of training.

    There is a lot of consulting required to shift thinking to performance solutions instead of prescribed training (gamed-up, storyified or whatever).

    I wonder if this is just hard to do at an industry level? The role of an instructional designer may be really different for each organization. We may be versatile, but I am not sure that we can be all things to all people. Or, maybe we need to define specializations at an industry level?

    Not sure, but some interesting things to ponder.


  • Sat, 11 Feb 2012
    Post by Kevin Thorn

    Wrapping a story around learning confines it to an individual and not learning for the sake of organizational performance. I agree with that.

    You also pointed out in your comment that people can learn 30% of what they need to know on their own. Some probably more. Not disagreeing, but you're suggesting once you introduce a story all hope is lost. Existing content gets retooled all the time in organizations without regard to benefiting the system and in most cases does not involve a story. That's an org strategy debate. One has to be cautious (instructional designers), though as 'storytelling' and 'learning design' are two separate disciplines and not an easy thing to blend effectively.

    As David mentioned, designing learning for the system doesn't fall on the shoulders of the individual IDs rather the leaders who design organization's training strategy.

    My contention is you can wrap a story around ANY learning. Yet, the problems I see are those who attempt to 'storyize' learning content similar to how some think they're 'gamifying' it by adding a Jeapordy game. That's a problem instructional design and for yet another conversation.

    Just like the fight we're all in that elearning is not the answer to all training gaps, nor will a story fit all situations (less actually).

    In an offline conversation we had, you mentioned the "decision to create a story has to be overall beneficial to the system and not the individual. In business our goal isnt to have learned employees its to have productive employees and the most efficient profitable system possible."

    Totally agree with you and this is a much needed conversation and thank you for kicking it off. I'll stand next to you spreading the word as long as we put it at the feet of the organization's leaders and not bust the chops of the IDs just doing what they're told. THAT is an entirely different conversation!

  • Fri, 10 Feb 2012
    Post by David Glow

    @Reuben- agree 100% But I think we can probably all agree quickly that courses and putting it in LMS lockbox paradigm isn't the best for how folks learn and orgs need to support performance.

    Yet, how are IDs being developed and what level of effort, and even the conversations about development go to these elements vs the real needs to help the organization perform?

    Thanks for kicking off a much-needed discussion.

  • Fri, 10 Feb 2012
    Post by Reuben

    @David I totally agree in what you've said. I just want to say this isn't a push for reusability as much as its a push to start thinking and acting in sync with how organizations perform. Games, stories, etc are all good things, and might be good for 'learning' but ultimately may or may not help an organization achieve its goals. Learned employees don't automatically translate to employees who help the organization achieve its goals. Designing for the system is completely different than designing learning for an individual

  • Thu, 09 Feb 2012
    Post by David Glow

    I agree with Rueben that too often we feel we are the experts in how something should be trained and too often trap it in a context that doesn't transfer to other uses across the org.

    Content may be king, but context is the kingdom.

    We design superbly (often with stories) for one contexts, but thus, "trap" the utility of the content for this specific application.

    I think the solutions is uncoupling- design assets so a great story can put it in a context for a specific use where appropriate (and I agree strongly with Kevin- stories is one of the most powerful tools for providing context that resonates with the core user). However, assets must also be tagged and "uncontexted" for uses elsewhere in the organization where possible.

    I've worked for 8 years in a gigantic global financial organization. Any core skill- leadership, communications, time management, management development- is overdeveloped in our LMS. Over 67K assets in our LMS. But the basic principles of leadership, communications, time management, etc... doesnt' change that much for each specific business. 80% or more of the content is the EXACT same. But designers often put in very specific branding, language, examples that make the context less usable across other businesses or departments.

    With smart designs and keeping "reusability" at the top of mind, we are able to find opportunities to develop many reusable assets that can travel across all businesses and departments while we also allow areas and opportunities of "contextualization" (or business-specific cases, branding, etc...) for that 20% spin that will really make it sing for each specific group.

    I think the answer is in the middle. Lose too many stories, the training becomes too generic and vanilla for it to really resonate with users. But as I have often seen, if the story is too weaved into the core of the content, you can't transfer some of the learnings to other contexts.

    We aren't trained for this type of design. Most IDs are trained to think at a silo'd "develop course for group X" context. That needs to change.

    And, not only does that apply for context across businesses, but for different modes of use. I have seen far too many job aids that have greater value for use "on the floor" in the business locked within a course behind the moated castle of an LMS completely removed from business workflow.

    We can do better. It isn't as technical or difficult as it seems. It just takes some thoughtfulness and consideration of our users' needs.

  • Thu, 09 Feb 2012
    Post by Reuben

    @Kevin The point being made in this piece isn't about how people learn. In fact, our reluctance to give up the stance that we're experts in how people learn and therefore performance issues handled by 'us' the experts need to be reframed based on our very unique talents is the problem. As members of an organization focused on ensuring the organization performs successfully, we need to stop focusing on how individuals learn and focus on what the organization needs from its members so that it, the organization is performing. In some cases this may mean 'training' and in those cases 'storytelling' may be the answer. But before we propose storytelling, we need to make sure that in reframing content as a story that we're not introducing new problems into the system where individuals may learn but we've created secondary content management issues that ultimately remove any benefits to the system of having trained employees. Did you know that given any subject, people are able to learn 30% of everything they would need to learn on their own with no formal intervention at all? Thats somebody finding answers on their own with no direction and no information about where to get answers. This isn't a question of learning. The problem we face as a community and the reason we aren't part of the core functions of a business is because we care about whether an individual learns and the business cares about the performance of the system.

  • Mon, 06 Feb 2012
    Post by Kevin

    Disagree. Our lives 'are' stories. A lot of what we learn is from the story we experienced when we learned it.

  • Fri, 03 Feb 2012
    Post by Stephen White

    Yes - align learning with business goals. Its not that story telling/scenarios is ineffective (bad, they're good when used appropriately. The key IS being in synch with business flow to develop effective training or learning experiences/Eco-systems.

  • Fri, 03 Feb 2012
    Post by Reuben

    @Denise - Absolutely. The question we have to ask ourselves that we never did before is will what we create simply add to the digital waste that is bogging down our organizations. We need to think about contributing content that helps the system. It can't be about the individual employees anymore.

  • Thu, 02 Feb 2012
    Post by Denise Doig

    Reuben as organizations continue to streamline, those who can improve the bottom line will survive those who don't so long.

  • Thu, 02 Feb 2012
    Post by Guy W. Wallace

    Nice article/rant. I agree with at least 98% of what you wrote - maybe 100%!