Deeper Design: Working Out Loud

Written By

Clark Quinn

August 24, 2016

So, what do you do after you’ve put up a thorough blog series on deeper learning design? That was the question facing us, the ’vators (me—the Quinnovator—and the Learnnovators: Ravi Pratap Singh, Srividya Kumar, Anil Narayan, and Nirmal Ranganathan). The answer was to practice what we preach and develop a course! Yet it couldn’t just be a course, so considerable work was involved just to get started.

And so we began

Some things were implicit: We would jointly do the design, and Learnnovators would do the development and the hosting. In addition to being tightly integrated in the design process, I would be evaluating the outcomes at various stages, but the media production, coding, and site development would be Learnnovators resources.

We also made one clear commitment: We were going to do this “out loud.” That is, we were not just going to release the course, but also document the thinking that went into this course.

At this point, the question arose as to whether we should share this info as we go along or at the end of the project, and for a while, we toyed with the idea of sharing as the project was developing, taking into consideration ideas from the community. But then, this would turn into a crowdsourcing effort and jeopardize our intentions for the project—baking best principles into the course and sharing them with the community. And we wanted the story not to have too big a gap between installments, as we wanted to create a compelling experience about the development as well. So we decided to share at the end of the project.

First things first: getting organized

One of the first things to establish was how we were going to work together. On principle, I agitated that for most decisions, we should try to come up with our own ideas, share them, and negotiate a solution. And if we don’t have answers, we prototype and test. That process has been followed more or less throughout the project.

There have also been shared and separate duties. I have been responsible for the rough frameworks for design, while Learnnovators has fleshed them out for review and refinement. It’s been a common occurrence for me to represent something in some way, lob it over, and have them come back with insightful questions and suggestions. At other times, they’ll mock up what they’re thinking, and I’ll (virtually) red-pen it up or create my own versions.

I proposed a project breakdown (Figure 1) that started by identifying the objective and the concept, which would get rendered into a concept document that we would refine and agree upon. From there, on principle, we’d develop the final practice, and then the associated other practices and concepts, examples, introduction, etc. We’d storyboard, then move to development stages, with regular reviews. And this has happened, for the most part.

Figure 1: The project breakdown

Tools and topics and process

It was also a given that we’d use Articulate Storyline. It’s a tool the team members were familiar with, and it’s competitive with the best tools out there, so we were likely to be able to do anything we wanted to do. We were willing to go beyond if needed, but one of the goals was to make this seem doable by others.

Learnnovators: “We briefly dabbled with the idea of using BranchTrack for the role-playing scenarios, and though it is a useful tool, it didn’t support underlying rule-building or other question types that we were likely to use. So we quickly dropped it and reverted to Storyline.”

So what topic? We didn’t want to do something ordinary. We could’ve done a course on something that already exists: occupational health and safety, or negotiation, or something. The problem we recognized, however, was that we’d be competing with other work, which we’re loath to do to other companies; we aren’t going to sell this. And we didn’t want something mundane.

The criteria about what to cover included several constraints:

  • It had to manifest as decisions to make
  • It had to have a clear concept to guide those decisions
  • It should be something people might get wrong

This list should hold true for any reasonable course (if it has these, I can quietly guarantee we can make it engaging). Except, of course, for rote knowledge that absolutely has to be in the head, which is when we use gamification.

We brainstormed topics, coming up with things like packing tips, robotics, or business ethics. For the latter, we brainstormed having a challenge to move up in the company, ethically. While edgy, however, these have already been done. It had to be something different.

We looked at our previous experiences: fire safety, working in consonance with company values, or software process. Again, these have been done—at least fire safety and software process. As for company values, it would be hard to get a shared set that everyone could comprehend.

Just to share the process: We have had regular calls, AM Pacific time, PM India time. They’re often short, because we share materials via email and chat in between, so it’s usually clarification. These initial discussions took a bit longer because we were getting to know one another. Ravi, the co-founder of Learnnovators, took the lead on their side and added in his partner in the company, Srividya. Then, as we got further into design, Nirmal and then Anil joined us.

At last, consensus

It took several calls to go through the options. Eventually, one of the topics that came up was the New Social Business. This resonated because it’s something that there’s not likely to be a course on and it’s something that we are fans of (obviously: I’ve written a book on the topic for L&D, and Learnnovators has interviewed a number of proponents).

We looked at two ways that this could manifest. One was “the Learning Organization” (from the David Garvin, Amy Edmondson, and Francesca Gino article I’m fond of, not Peter Senge’s; see References), and the other was a view that included four component topics:

  • Supporting the flow of information (based on “The Coherent Organization” from the Internet Time Alliance blog)
  • Meaningful work (based on Daniel Pink’s book Drive)
  • Working out loud (drawing on the work of Harold Jarche, John Stepper, and Jane Bozarth)
  • A learning organization culture (from Garvin, Edmondson, and Gino’s Harvard Business Review article on the topic)

We settled on the last.

How much is enough?

This raised the issue of scope: How much were we going to try to address? For both principled and pragmatic reasons, we decided that this should be 20 to 30 minutes of learning “experience.” On principle, we didn’t want to bore people, and practically we had to constrain the resources expended.

We also wrestled with what representations or deliverables to use. I suggested that we start with Learnnovators’ existing tools and look for ways to use (or modify) them as part of the learning process. I was impressed by Learnnovators’ initial document, because it’s inherently oriented around performance consulting, seeing what the real problem is, and ensuring that it’s a course that’s needed. These are definitely “best principles” that I’ve seen with few other organizations, and it was refreshing. So I worked within it, but then we went beyond.

Another issue was whether to pre-assess our learners. I’ve generally been against pre-testing unless it’s used to the benefit of the learner. We didn’t really want to use a pre-test here, because we’re exposing good principles of design and we’re likely to sprinkle different things in different sections. And it might have been nice to use it to collect data about what people thought, but we realized that was extraneous to our goals. So we nixed that.

Pulling the core content together: the Internet Time Alliance

As we fleshed out the topics, it became clear that we didn’t want to get into copyright issues. This was an inflection point for the project. At the time, I was deeply involved in the memorials for the late Jay Cross, whose seminal work on informal learning was a catalyst for much of this. This prompted an idea to use the Internet Time Alliance (ITA), a group Jay had pulled together (consisting of Jane Hart, Harold Jarche, Charles Jennings, and yours truly) as the source for the materials, as a tribute to Jay. This was well received by Learnnovators and the ITA.

We considered using some well-regarded pre-existing ITA material: Harold’s Personal Knowledge Mastery, Charles’s 70:20:10, and Jane’s Modern Workplace Learning. All are rich sources of insight, but broad and with considerable overlap owing to the tight working relationship. Instead, I asked them to take on one of the four areas above, and they graciously agreed. Jane stepped up for “meaningful work,” Harold was chosen as the source for “working out loud,” Charles took on “the learning organization culture,” and I took on “the flow of information.”

As a consequence, I wrote blog posts for each article based on the work of my ITA colleagues and posted them on my blog. As the project was still in stealth mode, it wasn’t clear except to Learnnovators and the ITA that these posts would be the core of the new course.

With this established, we had the content. Now it was time to flesh those out as decisions with misconceptions. This was the beginning of the design component. So, from there, we started working to detail these out into modules. We started with the flow of information.

Thanks and appreciation

I want to give explicit thanks to Learnnovators for having the fortitude to invest their resources to make this happen. It was a great experience working with them on the blog series, and it’s rare to find a company willing to commit efforts to do something of this scope. At this point, we don’t quite know where we’re going to end up, but so far it’s been a hoot: valuable interactions and a rewarding experience. So kudos to them for the courage and foresight.

Learnnovators: “And, we would like to thank Clark in return, for agreeing to spend the kind of time and effort needed for this project—from the beginning, we have been meeting online at least twice every week.”

To be continued … please follow the “Deeper Design” articles here in Learning Solutions Magazine over the next three weeks. I will continue the narrative of the way we designed the course (to be released at no cost to participants the week of September 12) and the development issues we encountered.


Bozarth, Jane. “Nuts and Bolts: How (and Why) to Show Your Work.” Learning Solutions Magazine. 6 May 2014.

Bozarth, Jane. “Nuts and Bolts: Narrating Our Work.” Learning Solutions Magazine. 7 August 2012.   

Cross, Jay. “The Coherent Organization.” Internet Time Blog. 4 July 2012.

Garvin, David A., Amy C. Edmondson, and Francesca Gino. “Is Yours a Learning Organization?” Harvard Business Review. March 2008.

Hart, Jane. “Modern Workplace Learning: A resource book for L&D.”

Jarche, Harold. “Personal Knowledge Mastery.” Harold Jarche: Adapting to Perpetual Beta.

Jennings, Charles. Workplace Performance.

Quinn, Clark. “Coherent Implications.” Learnlets. 17 December 2015.

Quinn, Clark. “Learnnovators Deeper eLearning Series.” Learnlets. 8 October 2015.

Quinn, Clark. “Making constructive conversations.” Learnlets. 23 December 2015.

Quinn, Clark. “The Case Against Pre-Testing For Online Courses.” eLearn Magazine. November 2008.

Quinn, Clark. “Work with purpose.” Learnlets. 30 December 2015.

Quinn, Clark. “Working and learning out loud.” Learnlets. 22 December 2015.

Pink, Daniel H. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2011.

Stepper, John. John Stepper’s Blog: Working Out Loud.

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