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Marc My Words: Why I Hate ADDIE

by Marc Rosenberg

March 11, 2014


by Marc Rosenberg

March 11, 2014

“Some learning and development organizations make ADDIE work by taking it in a more flexible direction, with less focus on process and more on outcomes. But for too many organizations, ADDIE is the law. Sure we must analyze performance problems, design great learning, and get it developed. We must implement it seamlessly and cost-effectively, and we sure better know if it’s working. But there’s more to it than five boxes and a few arrows.”

My July 2012 column, “Why I Hate Instructional Objectives,” caused a lot of consternation. Some readers understood my point, but others were rather upset. To them, the article was near heresy. Nevertheless, it was a great discussion. So, at the risk of causing another uproar, I’m at it again.

I hate ADDIE.

(If you don’t know what ADDIE is, see Figure 1.)

Figure 1: The generic ADDIE model we’ve come to know and love (or hate) 

Well, I don’t actually hate what ADDIE stands for—a systematic, professional process to develop effective and efficient learning programs—but I am concerned that strict obedience to a single process puts blinders on us, hindering our ability to see alternatives. Here’s why.

ADDIE can be too sequential

Not all ADDIE models are explicitly linear, in a graphical sense. Some are circular, some are square, and some are even three-dimensional. There can be dozens of steps and sub-steps. I’ve seen an ADDIE model take up seven two-inch binders! Some models have arrows in one direction and some have arrows pointing everywhere. Even with so many iterations, perceptions of how to use ADDIE are primarily sequential.

Who says that analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation should be done in lockstep order? Shouldn’t we consider evaluation earlier, and circle back to revise what we have done based upon testing, rapid prototyping, or a more agile methodology? Of course. Yet strict adherence to ADDIE sometimes causes people to eschew the next phase until they have done, signed off, and put to bed the last one, even if they think otherwise. This can be very inefficient and costly, but more importantly, it can lead to a lack of divergent thinking on how a particular course should be put together.

ADDIE often focuses on compliance rather than results

Many organizations rely on ADDIE-type models to verify that all the steps of the design and development process have been completed, not necessarily whether the right decisions were made. This may make process folks happy, but it is also unfortunate. When process trumps product, watch out. Creativity and out-of-the-box thinking get lost as the true intent of ADDIE gets hijacked to support a bureaucratic compliance process. When management is more interested in whether all the boxes are ticked than what learning strategies are employed, or if they worked, and when evaluating actual course effectiveness waits until the first offering, when changes are costly and organizationally more difficult to make, you get what you might expect: lots of courses with hundreds of pages of exacting ADDIE documentation, but in the classroom, or online, everything looks pretty much the same.

ADDIE can be painfully slow

It can often take months to produce ADDIE-compliant documentation, not to mention ADDIE-compliant courses. Who has that kind of time anymore? Compliance has its virtues, but speed isn’t one of them. How much time can you devote to an overly formal, structured process, requiring lots of non-courseware documentation? If this describes your work, how can you make it go faster, without jeopardizing quality, and, if you can, does this change your methodology to something newer and more adaptive?

Design is often the stepchild of ADDIE

Can you really use a sequential, step-by-step process to design high quality training? Yes, the process can prescribe what you should do: writing objectives, asking questions, providing practice, etc., but how well those design elements are actually implemented is as much art as science, and as much experience as process, as any good instructional designer will tell you. Instructional design and ADDIE are not the same thing; instructional design is much more, and we get into trouble when we confuse the two. Creativity, heuristics, experience, best practices, trial and error, experimentation, and even informed hunches play a role. You won’t find them in most ADDIE applications. And, as we are discovering, this problem can be exacerbated in an eLearning project.

ADDIE can inhibit non-ADDIE thinking

Perhaps the biggest concern about ADDIE is that it’s been blasted into our heads, and into our practice for so long, we may not just take it for granted, but take it for gospel. “ADDIE is how we do it; it’s how we’ve always done it; and it’s how we’re going to do it in the future.” Spoken or unspoken, is this a healthy attitude? Does it limit our agility to respond to changing learning needs? Does it move your organization, or the field forward? If you rise up to innovate, would the process slap you down? In our drive to make our design process simple and consistent, have we inadvertently made it too simplistic and too rigid (they are not mutually exclusive)?

ADDIE comes trippingly off the tongue. It’s easy to explain. It’s easy to document. It looks good on our posters, flowcharts and design manuals. It’s comfortable; perhaps too comfortable. This is a question every training organization should ask. Is ADDIE serving our needs well? Are there pieces missing? Would we benefit from a more adaptable approach?

Some learning and development organizations make ADDIE work by taking it in a more flexible direction, with less focus on process and more on outcomes. But for too many organizations, ADDIE is the law. Sure we must analyze performance problems, design great learning, and get it developed. We must implement it seamlessly and cost-effectively, and we sure better know if it’s working. But there’s more to it than five boxes and a few arrows … much more. So let’s keep the good parts of what ADDIE represents but throw off the shackles that hold us to the belief that the ADDIE way is the only way.

There are lots of insightful voices on the state of instructional design models, like Allison Rossett and Michael Allen. There’s even a compilation of articles and posts on this debate. So now it’s your turn. Agree, disagree, or have a new perspective? Have at it.

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Arg...I get tired of industry experts slamming a process that does nothing by itself, meaning it is the practitioners of the tool who are at fault. ADDIE is a great process and effective. There is no fault in and of the process itself. It's like blaming the big or small car for issues it causes when it is a person who chooses to use that tool who needs to better consider other tools that are/can be more effective for the learner.
Hi Marc,
I kind of agree with ronphelps. It is almost the same as everyone blaming PowerPoint, rather than the users.

The U.S. Armed forces have been using ADDIE quite successfully since the end of the Viet Nam war to train their people to operate in very complex environments. While it was first a linear model, they changed it in the mid 80s to a non-linear model. This picture is the latest version of their non-linear ADDIE model (TRADOC Regulation 350-70):

Like other models, it has evolved over the years:
I'll cite one other problem with ADDIE: it *assumes* a course, and makes it easier to create a learning solution when a performance support or an informal/social solution would be more effective.
I am not against anyone disliking ADDIE, as long as they are able to suggest a good alternative, workable, method of producing e-learning; one that works for both the experienced and the inexperienced. This is the point. Anyone new to e-learning production will need a system to work to; preferably one that is proven.

Then they need guidance on how to apply it. Mark is right here; ticking boxes without assessment of the outcomes is ludicrous. So train those who do it!

However the constant apparent need for speed in production of e-learning is a concern. Perhaps the question we should ask is to whom the ADDIE system appears slow?
If learners do not learn what is required could it be hurried Development? Or when learners complain about the naivety of the course; skimped Analysis (or an “informed hunch”?)? Or is the impossibility of dealing with irrelevant subject areas down to poor Design. Or the frustration of inoperable links a result of hurried Evaluation.

I wonder who will be blamed if the course is ‘wrong’? Certainly it will not be management, even though they applied the time pressure.

What I fear most is that management will lean on articles like this to justify their demands for more speed, less cost, etc. As Mark says, “when process trumps product, watch out.”
Hurrah, Marc. Your expressed concerns that "a strict obedience to a single process puts blinders on us, hindering our ability to see alternatives" is on point. I concur with the explanations and think that anyone unable to see beyond the simplicity and tried process model called ADDIE does a disservice to the business of learning, which is really about knowledge transfer and acquisition in forms that serve the purposes for which the "content" is really intended. The reality is that our digitally disrupted world means that we have to work harder at making learning content smart. I adopted the models evolving from a group of folks that think more about "intelligent content engineering". The variables contributing to how learning happens go so far beyond the thinking of adherents to strict instructional design and commitment to "ADDIE" as to be ridiculous. Wake up. Learning professionals are contributing to some of the worst instances of silos of content found in organizations today. They along with LMS technology are rapidly becoming the biggest culprits in diminishing the value of content in their organizations. I hate being such a hard-case, since I was one of you. However, the digital world eclipsed you. The work that I am doing today with clients is breaking down the silos and developing collaborative content strategy initiatives where there is a collective and comprehensive view about what content has to do for an organization. It's always about the content consumer. And, its always about the combined business and individual needs (aligned) that will produce the most value and benefit for the organization. Forget ADDIE. Think intelligent content engineering.
Who said ADDIE had to be followed with "strict obedience?" I have been using an ADDIE-like approach for over 20 years, designing and developing learning solutions of various kinds. I've found that a flexible, not-always-linear approach to the sound principles of ADDIE have been just fine. IF after "A" you discover that it's not really a learning issue, then try performance support or so other solution. "A" or any other stage can take as long as or as little time as is appropriate given the circumstances. ADDIE should not be viewed as a rigid structure but rather an adaptable approach--as adaptable as your imagination.
Good read. All too often ADDIE is (mis)used to create the illusion that one process fits all, and to instill the false sense of security that processes are being followed and quality maintained. In reality, course developers / instructional designers / SME's are wasting most of their time on reverse engineering their project administration to meet the needs of ADDIE's excesses, leaving very little time for innovation and quality learning products.
I think if applied literally, ADDIE is all of the things mentioned above. It can be overly constraining.

If you use it as a loose guideline to keep you on track and refocus your efforts when you may be at a sticking point, it is much more effective.

I use ADDIE when I am feeling overwhelmed and need a base to come back to and regroup. In other words, if I feel my efforts are starting to spin out of control, Ill step back and look at it from an ADDIE base, and it typically helps me see what I may have missed, and where I still have yet to go.
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