Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Who are Instructional Designers? The existential dilemma...

Apologies for a long post but it is one of those where I was internally debating and had to resolve this conflict with myself…

1. Post objectives:
  • a. To gain personal clarity on the role of an ID in a business/corporate training setting
  • b. To pinpoint a few critical skill sets required of an ID
  • c. To summarize the different tasks of an ID during a PLC
2. Post type: reflective, discursive, open ended
3. Acronyms used:
  • a. ID = Instructional Design
  • b. BA = Business Analyst
  • c. PS = Performance Support
  • d. PLC = Project Life Cycle
4. Similar post in this blog: In Response: Accidental Instructional Designers #dl09--Part I

5. Comments on other blog(s) regarding qualities of an ID: Perfect Behaviour

6. Typical ID Resume I came across on www.Naukri.com that really made no sense. I have tried hard to ignore the painful lack of Parallelism in the bullet points! Can we blame anyone for either undervaluing the function or becoming glassy eyed by the jargon thrown at them…?
Role: Instructional Designer:
Exp: 5-9 yrs
Qualification: Any Graduate
Job Profile:
1.The candidate should understand instructional design theories and models and should effectively apply them to develop eLearning content.
2.You should analyze client requirements, assess learner profiles, and design teaching/learning models that are tailor made for the target audience.
3.You should have a minimum of 2-3 years of experience in a corporation, educational institute, publication house, or journalism.
4.You should have experience in designing curriculum based products.
5.Professionals from the E-Learning industry are preferred.
6.Soft skills: Good communication & written skills.
Quote from Harold Jarche: Skills for learning professionals
“Today, active involvement in informal learning, particularly through web-based communities, is key to remaining professional and creative in a field. Being a learning professional in a Web 2.0 world is becoming more about your network than your current knowledge.”

Note: For the purpose of this post, I have approached the ID function from the perspective of online training.

The ID debate raised its head once again in one of my conversations with my colleague. The conversation is not new—it has been played out across various platforms and networks. Blog posts have waxed eloquent about the roles and functions of an ID. Comments have flown back and forth faster than one can say Jack Robinson. The role models of the ID community like Dr. Karl Kapp, Cammy Bean, Connie Malamed, et al have shared their thoughts. Yet, the debate continues. The business world still glances at the role of an instructional designer with skepticism. The belief that writing skill is tantamount to an ID’s skill still abides. And as technology advances and Web 2.0 phenomenon becomes firmly entrenched, the ID's role becomes even more complex and thus nebulous. Who are these people? Where do they all come from? Where do they belong?

Some of the questions—and pertinent ones indeed which helped me a great deal—that my colleague posed were:

1. How will you convince a business organization that ID is a necessary function when designing learning solutions?
Many organizations are investing in Authoring Tools like Articulate and Captivate and strongly feel that their SMEs who have in-depth knowledge of the subject can deliver the e-learning courses. I have attended a Captivate Training session where many attendees were SMEs from different orgs.

2. What does an ID do that a Business Analyst (BA) cannot do?

Wikipedia has a page devoted to the role of a BA and there are umpteenth other websites that define the role too. A BA’s role today seems to be as volatile and evolving as an ID’s.

Some relevant reads:
i. What is a Business Analyst?
ii. Duties of a Business Analyst
iii. Rethinking the Role of Business Analysts: Towards Agile Business Analysts?

3. Is Instructional Design a specialized function? If yes, in what? They seem to be doing a whole lot of things.
Have tried to answer this in the post below.

4. Are IDs generalists?
Yes; because “facilitating learning” is a general function that impacts all areas of an organization. An ID must be a generalist to be able to see the big picture, spot the larger patterns.

The questions set me thinking—partly because in spite of being passionate about my chosen field of work—I could not really defend it with rationale. And it has taken me quite a while to summarize all that I feel in this post.

Some questions that raced through my mind were:
Is the ID function under-valued because the field welcomes almost anyone to its fold and allows them to develop the skills? Would it be appreciated more if becoming an Instructional Designer was restricted to those with valid ID certifications/degrees? I am not so sure.I had written a post along similar lines some time back called New Skills for Learning Professionals.

The more I reflected I realized that an ID’s role is an amalgamation of a number of functions. During the life cycle of a project, the ID function involves:

1. Business Analysis with a focus on how training/performance support can impact the bottom line. This comprise:
  • Organizational gap analysis
  • Strategic needs analysis
  • Performance and task analysis
  • Understanding the ROI
  • Target audience analysis (psychographics, demographics, etc.)
  • Spotting where knowledge flow is being bottle-necked and opening up those channels
  • Interviewing all stakeholders (CIOs, training heads, HR representatives, line managers, team leads, technicians, engineers, SMEs, et al) to gather all the perspectives
  • “Training” all stakeholders so that they understand the positive implication of training and PS
2. Solution designing with a goal to bridge the gap through performance support, training, designing of a “learnscape” which may involve creating both formal/informal learning opportunities, suggestions for collaboration tools, PS solutions, and much more in this world of Web 2.0...

3. Presenting the solution to all the stakeholders for inputs, guiding/moderating such discussions, simplifying ID concepts and presenting the ROI of it all in business terms.

4. Designing the blue print of the final, agreed upon solution roadmap. This is where a lot of the ID concepts and theories of Andragogy and also Collagogy or Heutagogy (applicable in today’s learning scenario) come into play. This should also ideally encapsulate:
  • The scope of the training program
  • The overall notional learning time
  • The solutions used to support/enhance the assimilation like, scenarios, stories, case studies, simulations, animations, etc.
Note: the solutions should be firmly based on learning theories and not used at random. E.g., a training program requiring a learner to problem-solve lends itself to the Constructivist Approach like the use of scenarios/case studies.
5. Gathering the content relevant for that training program from the SMEs (Wearing the SME's Shoes: Recalling a #lrnchat Session)

6. Designing the content into learner-friendly chunks or creating the micro-design documents.

7. Creating storyboards (documents that will help graphic designers, illustrators, programmers, integrators).

8. Sometimes, turning the storyboards into functional modules using Authoring tools like Articulate.

This means that during the entire Project Life Cycle (PLC), an ID plays a gamut of roles beginning with that of a BA and ending with content writing and sometimes developing. I had to write it down to visualize the span. And I have not even ventured into the depths of design thinking that an ID should understand to be able to effectively represent the content in a multimedia format.

In short then, an ID’s functions involve BA to understanding the concepts of storyboarding during a PLC. And an ID typically begins her/his career with storyboarding and climbs up gradually as s/he gains an understanding of all the different tasks and duties involved.

Can anyone become an ID?
Yes, they can provided they are willing to go through the steps, provided they have a passion for learning.

An ID’s role entails certain characteristics:
  • Have a questioning mind--ask about the learners, the need for the course, the organization's need, about the content, about anything and everything that is remotely connected to the training...
  • Be observant--learn to see the underlying meaning and hear the unsaid, unstated needs when talking to learners, client, project managers...
  • Be analytical--when going through content, needs analysis, organization's goals and business needs...
  • Be empathetic--think from the other person's standpoint...be it the learner, the graphic designers, project managers, and most importantly, the client...
  • Be meticulous and diligent--capture and reflect all observations and analysis in the training programs...
  • Have a strong understanding of instructional strategies--think of the learners taking the course...learners who are super busy professionals and make the course easy for them using the right instructional strategies...
  • Be willing to learn and change and own up to mistakes--this requires no qualifier.

Should IDs be called by some other name?
Probably yes; Instructional Designs are sets of theories that are applied to create sound learning experiences. The role is essentially an amalgamation of BA, and L&D, and Human Capital Management functions. Maybe, it’s time to rename instructional designers to Learning and Development Facilitators Consultants/Strategists. What say?

Go through the slide share: http://www.slideshare.net/cammybean/new-skills-for-instructional-designers


  1. Great post! I think the value that Instructional Designers bring to their craft is structured thinking (see attached). Best, Bill --PS: why can't we automate our services????

  2. Bill, thank you for your kind comment. I would love to hear your thoughts about the role of an ID.

  3. Yes, we absolutely need consultant in that job title. Good stuff Sahana! Keep it coming.

  4. Good one, Sahana. Good summary of the numerous things that an ID does.

  5. Sumeet, Kavita,

    Thank you for the kind comments...

    There are many more stuff that an ID does or needs to know--both explicit and tacit. But the post was becoming too long...left those for another post...

  6. From business standpoint, this post doesn't answer one key point.

    1. What is that one deliverable that IDs are accountable and responsible for?

    For example:
    BA: Requirements Specification Document.

    Solution Architect: Deployment architecture/diagram, Software Modelling, High Level design, Technical Specification Document

    Visual Designers: Visual Style Guide, Brand guidelines document, Animation and Graphic creation

    Developers: Lines of Code
    Testers: Number of bugs/screen

    For ID: Is it Storyboards, training specification document (??), course structure and instruction guidelines/specification or many more.

    If the answer is many more, then it makes the function so generalized that claiming it as specialized skill does not hold ground.

  7. @Vasan: Thank you for the comment and the question. As always, they do make me think.

    I think, for an ID, there are different key deliverable for different phases of the project.

    Some of these deliverable in an ascending order would be, I think:
    Micro-design documents
    Content analysis documents
    Writing standards and guidelines for the project
    Course design document
    Needs analysis document
    And so on...

    And these does make the function a generalized one. An ID requires a variety of skills beginning with analytical abilities, writing and communication, an understanding of business, and so on...

    I agree with you that an ID's skill sets are more generalized than focused on one specific ability.


Thank you for visiting my blog and for taking the time to post your thoughts.

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