One of the most-discussed sessions at the Learning Solutions 2010 conference was “The Great ADDIE Debate,” a conversation about the 21st-century relevance of the ADDIE process model (Analyze-Design-Develop-Implement-Evaluate), so often employed in instructional design. (For more on “The Great ADDIE Debate” see Clark Quinn’s blog post at Clark hosted the debate along with Steve Acheson.)

The trouble with ADDIE

My own concern about ADDIE is that it is so often understood as some standard specific to “instructional design” rather than as a generic model for planning most any process. As noted by instructional designer Dick Carlson, ADDIE is appropriate for everything from designing instruction to building a strip club to planning the invasion of a foreign land. My issue with it harks back to the old adage, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” That is what I often see as the concern with those who employ ADDIE as if it were the only choice: If the only tool you have is ADDIE, you tend to see every problem as a training one. Many trainers and designers employing ADDIE begin with the assumption that there is a training problem, so they move right into analyzing the specifics, and then they design and deliver the instruction. There are lots of tools to support practitioners in the analysis phase, from skills checklists to task analyses. Few lead to asking, though, whether training is indicated at all.

Getting ADDIE sorted

For today’s discussion, let’s take the unit of interest as the individual worker. Often, in my world, the conversation begins when a supervisor calls and says, “____________ needs training.” Here’s an item from one of my books, one of the tools I use most often in my own practice, and one I draw on at the beginning of such conversations. (See Figure 1.) I’ve found this an excellent discussion tool in sitting with the person making the request, sketching it out as we talk, as something of a “cocktail-napkin” activity. It is the first-cut approach to answering the question, “Is training really needed at all?” I will usually start the conversation with “Tell me about _______. Has he performed OK in the past? What’s your sense of his desire to perform? Does he seem to want to work?” From there I can guide the conversation toward root causes and, when indicated, toward considering alternatives to training.

four grids: babadjob/badfit, motivation/boredom, resource problem, obstacles, and TRAINING

Figure 1: “Is it a training problem?” (Grid adapted from Bozarth, J. (2008) From Analysis to Evaluation: Tools, Tips, and Techniques for Trainers. San Francisco: Pfeiffer. As noted in text of that book, the original source for this image is unknown. )

Quadrant A: Employee doesn’t know how to perform and doesn’t seem to want to. This points to the classic wrong job fit/bad hire problem. Red flags: The employee misbehaves in new hire orientation, is in trouble the first week of work, or on her second day as “File Clerk” is complaining about the … filing. Training will not make the person more inclined to learn or to perform. Do you send them to training anyway, and maybe more of it? There’s an old trainer joke about whether you could train a turkey to climb a tree. The answer? Probably, given enough time and resources — but it would be easier to just hire a squirrel.

Quadrant B: Employee knows how to perform, doesn’t seem to want to. This is often where we see requests for “refresher” training. If the employee has been doing a task correctly for five years then he knows how to do it, so there’s no point in sending him back through training. You may be looking at a motivation problem (including a bad boss), boredom, or distraction rooted in personal troubles. At any rate, training won’t fix the issue, and forcing an employee to attend may even exacerbate the problem.

Quadrant C: Employee knows how to perform, and seems to want to, but the desired performance just isn’t there. Probably a resource problem: supplies, obstacles, including a bad boss. Does the worker have the key to the supply closet? Access to the subject-matter experts? A classic example of this comes from Whirlpool (as reported in Snyder & Duarte’s Unleashing Innovation): after investing piles of money in “creativity” workshops, the company realized that the problem was not that employees lacked creativity, but that organizational processes, bureaucracy, and people blocked it.

(An aside, relevant to the situations above: In my own experience, it is as often as not the supervisor making the request who really needs the training – in managing performance problems.)

D: Employee doesn’t know how, but wants to perform. This is the only time training is indicated. Do you have a motivated worker? One who wants to learn and perform? There you go. Training. But here’s a complication: Even in this situation, a training program may not be the right answer. If you’re dealing with straightforward tasks, rarely used skills, or performance that relies on facts not easily remembered or subject to change, then a job aid or performance support tool might be better than a training solution. More on that in a future column.

So before whacking at a presenting problem with the ADDIE hammer, stop and examine whether training is even the answer. Talking honestly with managers about real problems will help pave the way toward real solutions. No one is served — and the training field is often tarnished — by delivering up instruction that doesn’t fix the problem.