June 2011


One of the first questions stakeholders ask in the learning development process is, “how much training credit are we going to give for this?”  This is actually one of the last questions I ask when developing a training solution.

Non-developers ask this question first because they are usually accountable for creating training opportunities that will help employees meet their annual requirements or because they have to fit the training into a larger program.

Developers ask this question last because it places the emphasis in the wrong place, limits the design process, inhibits creative thinking (yes training development requires creativity), and because it is impossible to answer at the beginning of the process.

In Chapter 9 of Designing Successful E-Learning, Michael Allen describes a process he calls “backgrounding.”  This is an information gathering stage that occurs before the actual design of a training solution begins.  In this process he suggests some key questions you SHOULD be asking first regardless of the format of your training solution.

  1. Is there really a human performance problem? This is similar to standard 5 of ISPI’s performance standards which I wrote about here.
  2. Is the problem caused by a lack of ability to perform?  Cause analysis is standard 6, which I wrote about here.
  3. What are the determinants of behavior?  “People do things for reasons.  Their reasons may be built on misconceptions, fears, and lack of confidence, desire to fit in and behave like everyone else, perceived strengths and so on.  To be successful with a learning intervention, instructional designers need to identify the primary determinants of the behaviors that need to be changed.”

When I am “backgrounding” a project I want to know what result we are trying to achieve, what problem we are trying to solve or what opportunity are we trying to address.  ISPI uses the acronym RSVP to describe this process.

R – Results
S – Situation or context
V – Value
P – Partnerships

The answers you get when backgrounding a project will focus your efforts and greatly increase your likelihood of success.  Forcing a topic (assuming it is the right topic) into a predefined time-limited box will greatly impair your design and development effort and may cause you to miss your target altogether.

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In their discussion of The Neuroscience of Leadership, Schwartz and Rock say that focus, or attention, plays a critical role in how we use our working memory on a daily basis.

50 years ago people were not using much working memory.  Now people are required to use their working memory all day.  Every time you get an email with a challenge you’ve got to sit down, you’ve got to think about it, you’ve got to make a decision.  Email is a classic working memory situation.  You’ve got to hold the ideas in mind.

At the core of their findings is working memory.  Working memory is a limited resource that is easily distracted.  Since our days are filled with distractions we need to be intentional about how we manage our time.

In addition to affecting how we use our working memory throughout the day Schwartz and Rock say that “attention has huge power to change the brain.”  In other words, learn.

Performance support systems provide a great way to get the most of our working memory.  They improve productivity by reducing the amount of information a person has to retain.  An example of a performance support system is a search warrant writing tool I  co-developed.  The image below is of a screen where the user inputs information about a person named in a warrant (click to enlarge).

This screen uses filtering to narrow the focus on required information about a person involved in a particular case.  By eliminating unnecessary fields, the user is able to input information with confidence instead of deciding what is necessary or appropriate.

With repeated use, the user will gain confidence and change the way the approach warrant writing.  This is a change in the hardwiring of the brain, which is what it wants to do.

Try saying the color of every word, NOT the actual word, you see in the image above. (Source)

How’d you do?  When I first tried this I thought I was doing pretty good until I realized I wasn’t doing it right.  The second time required a conscious effort to follow the directions and do it right.

According to a neuroscience study by Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz and David Rock, cited in chapter 8 of Michael Allen’s Designing Successful E-Learning, our brains try to “hardwire” as much as possible to preserve working memory, which is limited.  Hardwiring preserves this precious resource and enables us to be more efficient when performing common or repetitive tasks.

The problem arises when we are asked to change hardwired behavior.

Schwartz and Rock say that insight is the key to changing hardwired behavior.  To gain insight and individual must first be aware of a new behavior and reflect on it.  In the reflection stage an individual shuts out external stimuli and focuses on internal processes.  Through this process of reflection the brain actually is rewiring itself.  When the rewiring is complete, adrenaline-like substances are released bringing on a euphoric feeling.  Have you ever had an “a-ha” moment?  This is the reason why it is so satisfying.

According to Schwartz and Rock, the role of leadership is to help others develop the most useful hardwiring.  Michael Allen is concerned with the actual process of rewiring.  In Dr. Allen’s words,

change or even just the prospect of change engages area of the brain that consume high levels of energy.  Instead of running idle, letting lower brain centers work in familiar patterns, change alerts and excites the prefrontal cortex.  This can be pleasant and constructive.  Working at optimum levels, the prefrontal cortex teams with the amygdala, the center of the brain that’s important for visual learning and memory, so that learning and effective decision making can occur.

But the prefrontal cortex is easily stressed and overloaded.  When the circuit breaker pops from too much excitement or concern, the prefrontal cortex again enlists aid from the amygdala, which is also (here’s the kicker) associated with feelings of fear and aggression.  Now in a defensive mode, the brain works to escape unfamiliar circumstances, return to easy running, and cool off.  Even if the escape is to old familiar behaviors that are known to be undesirable, the brain has protected itself, relaxed, and cast off the pain of the unfamiliar. (emphasis mine)

This brings us back to the introductory exercise.  I don’t know about you but it felt like I was consuming high levels of brain energy during that exercise.  I am not anxious to do it again.  Is that how learners feel when we participate in our e-learning or other events?  How can we create an environment that is conducive to effective learning?  That is the subject for another post.

If you build it, they will come.

That’s a famous line from the movie Field of Dreams.  But does it apply to e-learning?  In chapter 7 of his book, Designing Successful E-Learning, Michael Allen says probably not.  How often do we assume that the mere presence of an e-learning program, or any course, will attract an audience?  I accept that some responsibility lies with topic selection but the design plays a significant role as well.

Dr. Allen suggests that applying traditional instructional design to e-learning focuses too much on simply presenting information and passing a test to achieve its full potential.

Much contemporary instructional design is based on behaviorism or retains at least a strong flavor of it.

Simply get people to respond as we wish, provide knowledge of results as a reward, and practice until correct responses meet criteria.

Unfortunately, this approach, while quite effective with mice and pigeons to “teach” them relatively simple behaviors, has not worked well with humans.  It does not embrace the complexity of human thinking, emotions, motivation, and the powerful effects of the environment in which people behave.

Dr. Allen’s solution is to incorporate the Stages of Change model into instructional design.  This 6-step model below acknowledges that most people do not want to change or don’t see the need for change.  Since the goal of e-learning is to bring about change I believe Dr. Allen’s solution has merit.


In Dr. Allen’s revised approach, an e-learning course should include pre-instructional material.  He specifically warns against giving the learners a reading list.  Pre-instructional activities focus the learner’s mind on the need for behavior change (pre-contemplation), focus on the problem and consider solutions (contemplation).  What is traditionally considered formal instruction does not begin until the preparation stage.

You may ask, “what can I do to focus my learners on needs and solutions?”  One of my favorite ways to focus a learner is to give them a problem to solve.  Working on the problem can point out to the learner what he or she knows (and doesn’t know).  The great thing about e-learning is nobody has to know what the outcome is.  Introductory activities focus the learner on the subject matter, reveal learning opportunities (pre-contemplation) and motivate the learner to continue with the course.

In the rest of the chapter Dr. Allen address informal and blended learning.  Both are useful ways to introduce and follow-up on learning.  I’m not going to cover everything in the chapter.  Go out and buy the book yourself.  You won’t regret it.

Seth Godin posted an insightful entry on customer and co-worker interaction today.  In it he observes, “when you do your work on someone else’s schedule, your productivity plummets, because you are responding to the urgent, not the important, and your rhythm is shot.”

How many people are dependent on someone else’s schedule?  My guess is higher than it has to be.  One reason is because we aren’t effective communicators.  We use email when a phone call would be faster.  We make a phone call when we don’t need an answer right away and email would get us the same information.

We allow ourselves to be interrupted by email, phone calls, etc (Notice I say “allow.”  Reading email and answering the phone are choices).  According to a Microsoft and University of Illinois study referenced in unclutterrer.com ‘it takes 17 minutes “for a worker interrupted by e-mail to get back to what she was doing.”‘  If this is true for email, to some degree it is true for phone calls, impromptu visits, and any of the myriad other interruptions you deal with every day.

What can you do to manage your interruptions? 

First, create a to-do list and follow it.  Having things written down will help you stay focused and provides evidence that you are getting things done regardless of how crazy your day gets.
Second, set priorities.  This is respectful of your time and others.  If you are less productive because of interruptions it stands to reason your co-workers are too.  Before you pick up the phone or pop over to someone’s office ask yourself if this is the best time or even necessary.  How else or when else can you get the information that will be less intrusive? 
Third
, manage your email.  Don’t check it constantly.  Set aside time throughout the day to check it.  When you aren’t checking, close the window so its not tempting you.

From a organizational perspective, interruptions should be rare and short when they occur.  Circumstances cause us to be bad time managers from time to time.  These should be exceptions.  Every day should not be endless string of blind corners and crises.

If every work day is unpredictable consider the causes.  What regularly interrupts the flow in your workplace?  Do you feel pressure from others to respond or provide information?  Not everything can be priority 1.  Have you ever met with you co-workers to prioritize communication?  What is really urgent?  What is critical to your business?

In chapter 6 of his book Designing Successful E-learning, Michael Allen describes 4 elements that contribute to effective instructional design.

Meaningful learning experiences

If the content is not meaningful to the individual, the learning will not be able to assist in the learning process.

Notice his perspective here.  Dr. Allen views the learner as a partner in learning not merely a consumer of content.

The learning will have trouble maintaining focus, practicing sufficiently, and being able to apply learning outcomes if any occur.

Does anyone set out to create learning that is so boring that it can’t keep their audience’s attention?  Of course not.  But if you can’t keep their attention how can you expect them to attain the learning goals?  My advice, don’t take your learner’s attention for granted.  Consider what aspect of the content is important to them and use that to gain their attention.  Once you have earned their attention you can focus on other aspects they may not be as interested in or aware of.

Memorable learning experiences

Learning activities must make a lasting imprint on the learner if behavior subsequent to instruction and posttests is to be improved.  Is there sufficient impact, perhaps through imagery, surprise, amazement, practice, or other devices to help learners retain what they’ve learned?

That sets the bar pretty high from what I have seen in e-learning.  Have you thought of surprising or amazing learners with e-learning?  What would that look like?  Dr. Allen points out that this “isn’t just about novelty.”  Surprising someone may be memorable but it doesn’t translate to learning.

Motivational learning experiences

Learners must have motivation to learn, or they won’t, and learners must have motivation to transfer their learning to actual performance, or they won’t.

How often do we ask if our participants are motivated to learn?  We assume they are, but are they?  What will motivate a person to apply what they’ve learned?  They’ve completed the lessons.  They’ve passed the test.  They’ve earned their continuing education credits.  But will they change how they do their work?  Will they think differently?

Measurable results

Although the 3 Ms provide design direction, they are just the means to the Big M; what we really want is measurably improved performance that begets needed results.  We’re not talking just about posttest scores here, but an authentic ability to perform more effectively after training.

Dr. Allen is making a big assumption when he writes that everyone reading his book wants measurably improved performance.  If you adhere to ISPI’s performance standards then you understand the importance of measurable performance.  If this is a new concept for you, read here.