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Nuts and Bolts: When Training Works

by Jane Bozarth

April 6, 2010

Column

by Jane Bozarth

April 6, 2010

“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.”

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 http://blog.learnlets.com/?p=1489. 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.


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Jane, you're destroying 3/4 of the income stream for those of us in the "consulting business" here. It's a closely kept secret among us outside pros that most of the stuff that people hire us to do has nothing to do with training at all, and (in reality) little or nothing can be done with our training hammer.

But we've got children to feed, Rolexes to buy, and Ferraris to get serviced -- so we head right in and develop comprehensive programs for our clients. Everything except some kind of assessment program to see if things really improve after we're gone.

Thank goodness no one knows about you, and won't read this anywhere. Our secret is safe and the jobs will keep coming.
Everyone, the "dickcarl" who commented is the same Dick Carlson mentioned in the first paragraph of this piece. I'm afraid some who don't know him are missing the humor: I appreciate the kind private notes, but I promise he meant this in fun. I have said for years that we needed a drippy sarcastic font for this sort of thing, but alas have not yet found one. Thanks for the good wishes. I am off now to find some more secrets to reveal... ooh, I know! Here's one: Trainers often use the 'parking lot' technique to weasel out of having conversations they don't want to have...
Jane
Yes, "Dr. Jane" and I are good friends. She is well known across the larnin' community, and (despite her admission of knowing me) is respected highly by one and all. I would in no way seriously accuse her of trying to damage my income stream. Her support of PowerPoint alone will ensure that my pugs will continue to be fat and happy.

And anyone who believes that an independent Instructional Designer wears a Rolex in his Ferrari might be interested in buying this signed headshot of Malcolm Knowles I've got for sale...
Gee, Jane, the excerpt at the top almost makes me believe you should set your pen aside and help revive a struggling ISPI chapter. We need more of this type of conversation amongst our professionals. Thanks for keeping the conversation out there in public. Oh, and about the ISPI chapter, I'll be contacting you. Scot May
Great conversation to continue, but I think some may (or already did) over-react. I can't agree more with the concept that if your only tool is a hammer every problem or opportunity looks like a nail. But I also think that most learning consultants, performing due diligence (necessary and sufficient), will recognize that during Analysis, if training is not (or only part of) the solution, we will make the appropriate recommendations to our clients or managers. Then, and only then, will we commit to design, develop, implement, and evaluate the solution(s).

Compare this to one basic premise of adult learning: we tend to focus on and extract those few nuggets we find the most useful and applicable to each of us, from every learning experience we encounter, then discard (or at least temporarily shelve) the rest. It should be no different when applying the ADDIE model. If and when analysis indicates different, non-learning solutions are appropriate, we should feel obligated to accurately share the results, our interpretations, and recommendations.

Is ADDIE the be-all, end-all of our existence? Gee, I sure hope not. I refuse to be painted into that corner. But I will use whatever works from that tool box, as well as others I've picked up along the way, and strive for success with my clients and business partners.

And an additional "thanks" for including figure 1; great reference and very relevant to the entire talent management process.
The Rolex comment was a dead giveaway.
But the article is right, too often the perceived solution is to train everyone east of the Mississippi and south of the Mason-Dixon Line (at least for those of us in the southeast). In the nuclear power industry, ADDIE is the hammer that fixes everything, but we can use your cocktail napkin tool to avoid going there in the first place. Thanks, great article.
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