For several years now I’ve offered a class called Instructional Design for the Real World. It grew out of my experience in grad school, shortly after I’d taken a promotion to head up a government agency training department. I was spending a lot of time dealing with HR staff and subject-matter experts who believed that “presentation” was “training,” so I enrolled in a master’s program in training and development—mostly to help me learn to articulate rationale and ideas to those outside the field.

Good intentions, unrealistic advice

The program required a number of instructional-design courses and I was often one of the only working training practitioners in class. Sometimes the sacred-story-version of our work made me laugh out loud. A couple of my favorite comments from textbooks:

  • “Increase the credibility of your program by insisting that a member of senior management be present in every session.”


  • “Do not rush the needs-assessment process. Managers wanting good solutions will give you all the time you need to explore problems and underlying issues with all stakeholders.”

More recently I’ve seen quick-bite infographic type items offering similar unrealistic advice. Like:

  • Don’t forget to get buy-in!


  • Ask subject matter experts to summarize content!

As if these were one-off short steps. For many of us, these are matters that take far more energy and time than does actually designing anything. For instance, that magical goal to, “Get buy-in!” might involve talking through years of history with a topic or attitudes toward the subject matter, or otherwise getting at the root of resistance to a new approach or technology, all while navigating the politics of the people involved. And in the real world: You may not always get there. (An aside: The suggestion to “Get buy in!” as a single quick item reminds me a bit of the South Park Underpants Gnomes, whose business plan was: 1. Collect underpants. 2. ? 3. Profit.)

Better tips for the real world

A few tips I offer for “real world” work:

  • Before you design training, find out whether it’s even a training problem. Often it’s the manager who needs training in managing employee performance. And in a horrifying number of instances you’ll likely find it’s a hiring problem that could have been prevented in the first place. See for more.
  • Needs assessment: Managers and others who request development of a course often have no idea how employees actually spend their day. Try your best to assess the target audience before moving on to an instructional solution and find out what else is going on, what training they’ve already had, and whether they think they need training. See
  • Design: Don’t get so caught up in wordsmithing objectives that you forget what the experience is supposed to achieve. I once saw incredibly expensive custom “timesheet” training with a bunch of downright poetic, gloriously worded objectives—that covered everything except, oops, how to actually complete your time sheet.
  • Beware of academic objectives. Do you want your stockbroker to describe three types of investments, or prove that she can take a sum of money and make more money with it? This is a deviling problem, as academic objectives are so easy to write content for, and create bulleted slides about, and write multiple-choice questions on. Try to get past that to the often-harder matter of teaching, and assessing, actual performance.
  • Recognize constraints. Even the most creative organizations will make you work within budget, or stick to branding guidelines, or work with some particular software, or with staff who must be involved. Find out where the negotiable points are; if you need it, seek out some self-study in negotiation skills. The need for that across a career is something I find sorely apparent among many newly coming to the field.
  • Make evaluation iterative. Don’t wait until there’s a pilot to find out you need to go back and tweak. Test out activities as you go. Verify timing and resources needed. Stop and say: Will this solve the problem? Is this really relevant to the issue? Consider the expensive timesheet training mentioned above. Why didn’t anyone step back at that phase and just say, “The point of the training is for a worker to learn to complete the new time sheet. If the employee achieves these objectives, will she be able to do that?” The money and time and effort saved in taking a 10,000 foot view of the objectives in the aggregate—including that of the employees whose time was wasted on bad training—would have been well worth a 15-minute conversation before moving on to development.
  • There’s no such thing as fidelity. Know that you can build it specifically for experienced nurses, and someone somewhere will assign it as mandatory for all the custodial staff. Know that you can require prework and someone will waive it. Know that you will NOT require prework and someone will add it as a requirement even though what they include only repeats—or conflicts with—the program you created. Do your best to communicate to keep that from happening, but keep it in mind as you’re building the course.

I’m sure experienced practitioners will have more ideas to add, and look forward to seeing comments about that. Newer folks still looking for “nuts and bolts”? Beware of advice that’s too good to be true and promises of steps that seem too convenient. It’s called “practice” for a reason.

From the Editor: Want more? See Jane at DevLearn!

At DevLearn 2014, October 29 – 31 in Las Vegas, Jane will be presenting sessions in the Innovation and Social Learning Tracks:

Session 310, Wednesday, October 29: Ignite! Meme-ing the Future of Learning: This panel, hosted by David Kelly, includes Jane Bozarth, Cammy Bean, Joe Ganci, Chad Udell, and Jeannette Campos. Technology has brought us tools that have changed our lives forever, and it has also brought us memes like Socially Awkward Penguin and Grumpy Cat. In this session, these two worlds collide as the experts on the panel use today’s memes to explore the current and future state of learning.

Session 706, Friday, October 31: Show Your Work: A Management Perspective: Narrating our work, or “working out loud,” offers great potential for connecting talent pools, capturing tacit knowledge, and reducing rework and duplication of effort. But how does it provide value to a business or an organization? In this session, you will gain a clearer understanding of what “showing work” means, explore the value of narrating work from the point of view of management, discover why it is critical to business outcomes, and learn how to encourage more people to narrate their work.