If you are like us, you often have business managers approach the training department with requests similar to these:

  • “We need a two-hour workshop on team building.”
  • “I need my employees to know XYZ so our [desired output] will get back on track.”

Nowadays, if you are the designated developer for ad hoc online training, such requests could not only presume the content, but also online delivery.

Notice what’s being asked—and not asked—in both requests: the client has already identified the solution, and that solution is based on what the client thinks the employees need to know. What’s not being addressed, at least at this point, is the desired performance, or what employees need to do.

A typical request

Managers, executives, and other clients often come to the training department with the solution to a perceived problem already in mind. This is not surprising, since such folks are action oriented. But these presuppositions can derail the instructional design process if a truly effective solution is what the client desires. Even if the request is not to solve a problem, but rather to introduce a procedural or systems change, it is tempting for such clients to build a laundry list that they believe the course should or must address. Further, these lists may include things that are already available at the worksite in the form of written procedures, manuals, or today, in electronic form as support systems.

While responding to the laundry-list approach may temporarily satisfy the client, it may do little to solve the underlying performance problem or successfully introduce a change. And it becomes quite inefficient if topics are added in a laundry-list style without describing the behavior needed for successful performance or assessing the time it takes to address them in training.

Early in our careers, we found ourselves trying to explain ISD to clients. We wanted to emphasize the importance of a needs assessment, explain some key design elements, and discuss the nuances of implementing and evaluating the training. This was our mistake.

Managers and executives are action oriented. Solving problems is what they do—quickly. They don't want to hear about the nuances of instructional design or why we need to spend the time parsing a task or job before designing the training for it. Typically, these clients will discuss their laundry list, the number of people they want trained, and the timeline or schedule. This excludes the wisdom of focusing on employees’ performance. What is often missing in such conversations is the dialogue that seeks:

  1. Potential explanations for current performance
  2. The desired performance outcome(s)
  3. The level of quality expected, compared to current performance

Knowing vs. doing

In our experience, most business managers don't really understand how training and instructional design work, nor should they at the level of an ISD (instructional systems design) professional. Although they are adept at managing the business, some clients may not intuitively understand that by focusing on what they need their employees to do vs. what they think they should know, they will move much more efficiently to the solution they’re after.

In the past, when we tried to explain why the focus should be on performance and not “knowing” certain information, it was hard to hold the client’s attention long enough to get to the punch line.

According to J.E. Hunter, clients often make a very common assumption, that if employees know certain things, they can and will do them. Research evidence as well as ISD practice demonstrates that knowing supports doing but as G.M. Alliger and E.A. Janak note, knowledge alone does not ensure that employees will do anything differently (see References).

Let’s talk about performance

So how do we direct the conversation to performance and not knowledge?  Enter the Do—Know—Access triangle (Figure 1).

Figure 1:
The Do—Know—Access Triangle

Nearly 20 years ago Mark Teachout (one of the authors of this article) was in a meeting with a senior executive, an open-minded new client, who was requesting training. After listening intently to the client’s description of his department and challenges (this also included the laundry list), Mark drew the Do—Know—Access triangle on a napkin to facilitate what became a very productive discussion. Importantly, this simple diagram helped to shift the conversation and differentiate these three concepts, ultimately leading to a very successful client relationship.

Teachout and Hall (see References) first described the use of this triangle as a means of focusing the conversation on these three concepts, away from the old conversations described above.

First we focus clients on what employees need to be able to do to be successful on the job. This avoids premature knowledge-only solutions that are not linked to the specific performance changes desired. Once we gain agreement with the client on what employees must do, we can then determine what they need to know versus what they need to access through job aids or performance support systems in order to do the job. These distinctions help to overcome the expectation that a list of topics will be taught, independent of performance expectations. Again, there is often an expectation on the part of clients that simply imparting knowledge to the individual will change his or her on-the-job behavior and improve performance. Usually, there is a need to focus and refocus the attention of others on the desired performance and business results expected from the training program. This simple yet powerful approach helps to manage client expectations and provide a sharper focus on the desired performance expected as a result of the training while avoiding a common pitfall of focusing on knowledge only. It also helps to avoid including knowledge-based instruction that is available in performance support systems.

Importantly, this shifts the conversation to what employees need to do, rather than what they need to know. Second, it highlights the potential availability of information already available at the worksite and thus, perhaps not necessary to teach. That is, it distinguishes support information that can be accessed on the job from actual training that is necessary.

The key that opens the door (to more efficient needs assessment)

We have used this approach for more than a decade in our roles as ISD professionals and consultants. We have found it to be like a key opening a door. Clients are unlikely to be interested in the nuances of ISD, but we have seen them immediately grasp this diagram with the action word DO at the apex. We have found that this simple approach fast-forwards conversations that were previously drawn out, and avoids some potential mistakes by both parties. When you show the diagram and use the question, "What exactly is it your employees need to do?" it adds focus and helps you and your client to get to the point. Then when you explain that not everything needs to be trained or memorized or internalized—that's where the know and access come in. Time after time we have seen the light bulbs coming on just a few sentences into the conversation. When this happens, the ISD professional gains credibility and builds trust with the client.

Involve the managers in design

The Do—Know—Access triangle also engages managers in the design of the training. When they realize that the less costly and practical option is to trim unnecessary knowledge and to access information at the worksite in the form of a job aid or electronic support versus learning (knowing) during a training course, then they become fully engaged. They quickly see that the combination of training and support mechanisms can be a more efficient use of time and resources, while maintaining the focus on doing the job correctly.

An investigative tool

In fact, the second author often uses the following approach to see what people are currently accessing. When he goes to a manager to begin a training intervention he likes to stroll through the corridor and see what kind of sticky notes or crib sheets people have on their computer or cubicle wall, because these memory-joggers often indicate information to which they need ready access. This preview may or may not be useful in the first meeting, but it will certainly come in handy when leading the manager through the Do—Know—Access conversation.

On-boarding struggle?

A final note: New employee orientation (NEO) is sometimes a good example of the laundry list- or wants-based approach. In several companies where we have worked or consulted, executives often want to solve current operational issues by addressing them in new employee orientation. The conversation often goes something like this: “We need to make sure everyone knows about this—let’s be sure to add it to NEO.”  And so the NEO agenda steadily grows until someone finally feels that new employees are spending too much time in NEO when they’re needed on the job.

Focus on performance

What we suggest instead, and what we have seen done marvelously in some organizations, is to—you guessed it—focus on performance and not on a revolving door of guest speakers, each of whom gives a PowerPoint presentation on their topic of expertise. Assuming most new employees will be receiving some level of training for their actual job, what do they really need to learn in NEO? (Keep in mind that if NEO is nothing but verbal presentations then the retention rate for that information is probably low, anyway.) That is, what will new employees need to do their first few days in this organization?

One thing is to help them confirm they made the right choice in coming to work here. Another is to indoctrinate them in the corporate culture, hopefully by example rather than by telling them what it is. Each employee will be making judgments as they settle into their jobs. You can’t possibly predict all the situations they’ll encounter, so it is vital that they learn and buy into the overarching culture, which in turn will guide them when they hit those gray areas. (And, of course, they will be told to check with their manager when in doubt.)

Useful and effective

So the Do—Know—Access triangle has been a useful tool for designing new employee orientation. We have seen some cases where, in light of the too-common fire-hose treatment in the first few days at work, employees get a brief personal indoctrination and then complete the rest of their NEO in short, well-timed online modules that are spread over a few weeks or even months. This way the new employees have some time to gain some context in order to better assimilate some of the things they need to learn.

To summarize, we have found the simplicity of the Do—Know—Access triangle has a double benefit. First, it focuses on important distinctions that become almost immediately intuitive for the client. We have seen the client’s tendency to focus on a laundry list of topics evaporate. Second, because that tendency evaporates, it enables us to devise prudent solutions much more quickly and effectively, and with the client on board as a partner. Now what could be better than that?


Alliger, G.M., and E.A. Janak.  “Kirkpatrick’s Levels of Criteria: Thirty Years Later.” Personnel Psychology, Vol. 42, No. 2. 1989.

Hunter, J.E. “Cognitive Ability, Cognitive Aptitudes, Job Knowledge, and Job Performance.” Journal of Vocational Behavior, Vol. 29, No. 3. December 1986.

Teachout, M.S. and C. Hall. “Implementing Training: Some Practical Guidelines.” In J. W. Hedge and E.D. Pulakos (eds.), Implementing Organizational Interventions: Steps, Processes, and Best Practices. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2002.