Saturday, September 05, 2009

Instructional Designers need more skills than just writing!

Today is Teacher's Day -- as a coach, trainer and learning professional I feel really proud every day this year. This is a career I'm deeply passionate about and each time I think of it, I strongly feel that I wouldn't have traded this for anything else! In the recent past, Patricia Carlin has taken charge of ThoughtWorks Bangalore and her evangelist leadership where she's actually spending time training consultants, strongly reinforces my belief in the mantra of Leaders as Teachers. More on that later!

Today's post however is about one of my pet-peeves. Very recently Rupa Rajagopalan wrote about how instructional design is a profession very similar to technical writing. While my thoughts resonate with a lot of what Rupa usually writes, I strongly believe that Instructional Design is less of a writing job and more of a consulting job. I've written earlier about how Instructional Designers need to leverage SME's better and the more I think about iterative design and development, writing increasingly becomes a secondary skill for Instructional Designers. The ability to think through a learning problem, understanding learning styles, people patterns, (NLP anchoring) and the overall ability to consult and problem solve is so much bigger for me than the transaction of writing. As a matter of fact, I expect every professional in a learning organization to have plain english writing skills.

So, my expectation from an Instructional Designer is very different from the standard "should be able to write a script/ design document"! I love Garrey Reynolds' recent post about the 10 tips to think like a designer. Here are some of the skills and knowledge I expect Instructional Designers to be able to display.

Consulting Skills

At ThoughtWorks we believe that everyone's a consultant, regardless of the role they play. We're a technology firm, but there's no reason why internal training organizations or learning and development firms should not think this way. In his book Flawless Consulting, Peter Block defines a consultant this way: "A consultant is a person in a position to have some influence over an individual, a group, or an organization, but who has no direct power to make changes or implement programs." As designers we can only make clients use our expertise, but we have no direct power to make changes. Yet as learning professionals, we're constantly changing things - the way people learn, the way SME's think, implementing new programs and what have you. Much of what separates a successful consultant from an unsuccessful one is their ability to work with customers and to help them improve themselves and their organizations. Some of the most important consulting skills in my opinions are:
  • Relationship Building: - Dale Carnegie's How to win friends and influence People can be a starting point to build this skill.
  • Problem solving & Decision making: - the Problem Solving 101 by Ken Watanabe is a great book to start off on this skill.
  • Presentations: - The Mckinsey Mind calls presentation skills the killer skill. I tend to agree. One of my favorite books in this area is Garrey Reynolds' Presentation Zen named after his blog with the same name.
  • Influencing: Linda Rising has written a great book on Influencing Patterns. Its called Fearless Change - I strongly recommend it for all Instructional Designers. Kerry Patterson's Influencer is a great book too.
  • Negotiation: A skill often confused with Influencing, I look at Negotiation being transactional as against Influencing which happens over a period of time and is a more strategic skill. Getting to Yes and Beyond Reason are great books to learn more about this skill.

Teaching Skills

Being a passionate facilitator, I know how much the experience has helped me in becoming a confident designer. An effective designer needs to practice all four of the traditional learning skills:
  • coaching;
  • facilitating;
  • training;
  • presenting.
As an instructional designer your biggest strength is knowing how people learn. If you've spent all your career just talking to your computer, you perhaps need to go out there and teach in a traditional environment to understand various mindsets and various learning styles. Also, if you've focussed all your career just building training for one medium, you tend to get stuck in a box - I tend to see elearning designers wanting to do everything within elearning. Its important to remember that there's still a place in this world for coaching, mentoring and people contact and there are still many situations that necessitate human contact. Its an important skill to be able to find the right learning experience for the given learning problem and teaching has helped me think through these solutions with great ease!

Analysis Skills

I'm not a big fan of traditional training analysis of "Death by Matrices" infamy. I prefer analysis techniques that are visual, tactile and involving. To that end I prefer that Instructional Designers use Back of the Napkin techniques to understand performance problems. I prefer that they use Action Mapping instead of writing out learning objectives. I strongly recommend that Instructional designers communicate instead of writing scripts. Most importantly I prefer that just like when building user-centric software, designers build learner centric elearning by using wireframes. In the recent past I've become a devotee of tools like Balsamiq Mockups, which help you create wireframes very quickly which you can collaboratively build with your customers/ SMEs. See below for a worked out example:
The Mockup
The Final Screen

Learning Skills

This is where I tend to lump every other skill that people say ID's should have. So knowledge of tools, understanding of evolving theories, neuro linguistic programming, domain knowledge and what have you, fit here. When you put smart people together, great things happen. I expect a smart consultant with great consulting skills to be able to pick up these skills with ease. Just like they say in sport - "Form is temporary, class is permanent.", I say "Tools are temporary, intelligence is permanent".

I belive that an ideal instructional designer is easily one of the most skilled professionals in the learning world. For years we've undermined this career by setting the bar really low. As we start to explore various modes of learning, I believe instructional designers will lead us in the road to learning innovation. While my post may generate controversy in certain sections, I hope that I can create the realisation of how important this profession is and that we can start growing these skills above all else in our ID teams.
Did you like my post this week? Please comment freely to let me know what you think. I love instructional design and you may want to take a look at some of my other posts on the subject here.


Sreya Dutta said...


Again a very informative post. I so agree with you on every point. IDs do need to have better analytical skills and an ability to get to the bottom of the subject rather than mere writing skills. Thats when an ID adds value to their job.

Thanks for writing this out. I'm glad to have someone support my thoughts!


Paulo Caroli said...

Awesome post!
I love your quote: "Tools are temporary, intelligence is permanent".

Sumeet Moghe said...

Thanks guys! Glad you liked the post.

Sahana said...

Great post! Having been a traditional, classroom teacher before entering the field of e-learning for a large part of my career, I appreciate all that you have written.

Andy Janning said...

Very well written analysis of the different skills that are required of workforce learning professionals!

Judy Harper said...

Hi Sumeet. Great, thought-provoking post. I agree that Instructional Designers need more skills than just writing; absolutely true. However, "technical writers" (not a truly descriptive name) also do a lot more than simply transcribe technical and engineering documentation. A professional technical communicator works with SMEs, analyzes user needs, and designs elegant, effective communication solutions that help individuals and organizations accomplish tasks, reach goals, and get necessary work done.
Having worked as both an Instructional Designer and a Technical Communicator, I can say that both fields, at their best, involve creativity and the use of wide-ranging consultative, analytical, educational, and communication skills.
The end products, as Rupa said, are different, but the skills required are very much the same.

vasan said...

Liked it Sumeet. I felt that a lot has flown from the heart.

The important point I like to pick from the post is "I belive that an ideal instructional designer is easily one of the most skilled professionals in the learning world. For years we've undermined this career by setting the bar really low".

This to me is the root cause for the perception error of Instruction Designers are primarily content writers. I would like to see lot more customers asking for ID's to to design and test the learning effectiveness with users and train writers than just ask for their writing skills.

sflowers said...

I'd actually prefer if focused ISD's didn't write content:/ The skill development for a good writer is different from that of an educational technologist.

I would truly prefer that a journalist with plenty of writing experience, the rigorous feedback regiments, and a healthy hobby writing short stories, poetry, etc.. over an ISD that probably isn't going to be packing excellent writing skills. And nor should an ISD NEED to have excellent journalistic tendencies or creative writing skills. Excellent communication skills - yes. Excellent problem solving and synthesis skills - yes. But we tend to load up on the ISD role and it turns into a 'jack or jill of all trades' that really doesn't master (or even have acceptable competency of most.)

IMO, there are too many ISD's in most organizations. This has contributed to the dillution and the waste of capability.

If we were to allow ISD's to focus on strategy, on problem solving, on the ways people acquire skills (all that edpsych and cogsci stuff ISD's go to school for) we wouldn't be wasting the resource encouraging designers to learn new media tools, pick up bad programming habits, or tolerating less than stellar narrative in packaged output.

Those things said, I like the list. The design world view dovetails well with all of the characteristics you have listed.

David Grabstald said...

I think being able to find a job is just as important as the points you make in your post. Quite interesting!

NJ said...

Images are not visible.

Nilesh Joglekar

fda presentations said...

What a very detailed article, I'll be sure to share this for sure. Thanks.

Christopher Pappas said...

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Have a wonderful day,
Christopher Pappas

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I love your quote: "Tools are temporary, intelligence is permanent"

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