Are Instructional Designers Making Themselves Irrelevant?

March 28, 2014

How PowerPoint Is Ruining Higher Ed, Explained in One PowerPoint via @slate

— Dawn Poulos (@dawnpoulos) March 7, 2014

I've read a lot of articles about the disadvantages of PowerPoint—how it stifles discussion, critical thinking, and thoughtful decision making—but no article conveys the agony of sitting through a slide presentation better or more humorously than this one. Once you have read it, it will become clear that "PowerPointless" applies to any learning environment, not just higher education.

This excellent anti-presentation got me thinking about how much training today is actually delivered via PowerPoint. The answer is, over 50%, through instructor-led and virtual classrooms and another 22% through rapid authoring tools that convert PowerPoint presentations to eLearning. So what does that mean for the poor instructional designer when over 70% of the learning they create delivers poor customer experiences?

The easy thing for an instructional designer to do is to rely on simple instinct and maintain the status quo. Staying with a certain concept or product because it has performed adequately or even well in the past makes sense, at least on the surface. The problem is that expectations, both from learners and business stakeholders, have changed dramatically. Being static means being stale, and for instructional designers, stale content is the fastest road to irrelevancy.

Accepting that your current method of creating learning content isn't meeting the needs of your learners is an extremely difficult thing to do, but it's the only thing that drives change. We recently spoke to the L&D group at Nielsen—the measurement company famous for letting the world know what consumers watch and buy—who shared with us their moment of truth regarding the need for change and the incredible journey they took to change the way they design and develop content.

An LCM...what?

When Nielsen realized that they needed a new set of tools and processes for developing their content, they didn't know what an LCMS was (it stands for "learning content management system"). What they did know, however, was that they had specific business problems to solve and that those problems weren't going to be solved with a new PowerPoint template or yet another rapid eLearning course. So Nielsen adopted a brilliant mindset and approach to creating content:

"We realized that an LCMS would really meet our needs and that we needed to implement it. The approach that we took was we don't know what we don't know yet, and so we decided to start small. We picked two small pilot projects—really taking that agile approach of starting with these small projects—a small core team of people, and the view that we will learn best by just trying to do this. So basically, we didn't do a lot of training. We kind of just jumped in."

Keeping an open mind allowed Nielsen to shift their mindset from courses to bite-sized learning that could be easily consumed and delivered in a myriad of ways. So, as they started thinking about content as small granular objects (like Legos), they experienced a series of "Aha!" moments that changed forever their notion of what content can be to their learners.

"Aha!" Moment No. 1: Reusing Content is a Game Changer

When you're a global organization operating in a dynamic environment, such as Nielsen, the ripple effect of a manual cut-and-paste process can bring an organization to its knees when things change or a new brand is introduced. What Nielsen realized was that instead of spending its time raising the bar for its learning content, the vast majority of its time and resources were spent just maintaining and updating its PowerPoint slide-ware. Here is their experience moving to single-source authoring environment that enables reuse:

"So that's what we did [single-source], and it actually amazed and surprised us. I don't know if you've had this reaction, but initially, when our designers went in, they were like, ‘Oh, you know, it's not as nice or it's not as interesting as some of the other tools we've used,' but we got over that learning curve, and what we published really wowed the business in the speed at which we published. Even though we were in pilot mode, we actually got some stuff out there in different modalities to the business faster than we would have otherwise, and they were very excited about the quality of the learning and the content that we published as well. So we felt that that was a huge win."

"Aha!" Moment No. 2: I Can Share My Content Outside the L&D Organization

Content created by rapid authoring tools locks that valuable content inside of an eLearning course. And that's a shame because the ability to leverage content across the enterprise is what drives performance. What if other functions were able to reuse relevant pieces of your training content for their own purposes? Here's Nielsen's take on the subject:

"With reuse, we started to think about our content much differently, instead of in the silos. For example, this overview that we're doing for this particular product curriculum could also be part of new hire onboarding. Or, wow, not only could it be used for a new hire onboarding, we could also put it in executive onboarding. You know what? It actually would be good for everybody on the sales force to have a general idea of some of it to understand other products across the portfolios. And so, as we started thinking about the content more broadly, it really made us re-think how we authored that content."

Aha! Moment No. 3: Collaboration Lets Us Deliver Better Content Faster

When content resides in the cloud as Lego building blocks instead of full courses on an instructional designer's desktop authoring tool, collaboration and non-linear content development reign supreme. For Nielson, it fundamentally changed the way content is developed and delivered to their users:

"Now that our content is in the cloud, we realize that we can collaborate and work in a different way, in that we can have multiple designers working on the same content at the same time. Instead of having three designers working on three different curriculums that would each take three months, we can actually put multiple people on the same curriculum and publish a curriculum each month for three months. The last curriculum still hits the business at the same time, but the other two are early, which, as you can imagine, stakeholders just love."

Aha! Moment No. 4: Yes, I Really Can Personalize Learning Content

The first step on the path to learning personalization is the ability to matching relevant pieces (Legos) of learning content to individual learner profiles. This sets the stage for the holy grail of personalization: a one-size-fits-one learning experience. For those L&D organizations that rely on PowerPoint and rapid authoring tools for content development, personalization is nothing more than a pipe dream. For Nielsen, it's quickly becoming a reality:

"Now, I can reuse content; I can configure it; I can pull these [Lego] blocks together into new content, which is great because it allows us to do something we could never do before because it was just too inefficient, which is that we can personalize our content. And now that I can personalize my content, I need to know better who my audience is, and so we started adopting personas. We started thinking about really who is our target audience and how do they want to see the content? When do they want to see it? How much of it do they want at one time? This has really been impacting how we're designing things."

Aha! Moment No. 5: Structure Provides Flexibility

Efficient content reuse means that instructional designers will need to take a more structured approach to content development. The prevailing thought among designers is that structured development will limit them in terms of creating interesting and engaging content with varied layouts. Though it seems counter-intuitive, structure doesn't limit creativity; it actually enables you to go further. Let's see what happened with Nielsen:

"One of the things that we learned is that we need to put a tighter structure around our content. That's kind of a tough one, in that, as a designer, it's a very creative process, and they need to let go of some of that. But in the past, we spent 80% of our time just putting the content in and we then spent 20% of our time around the stories, examples, and the rich activities and exercises that we could do. But if we put the structure and these templates around the content and really standardize, then we can flip that. We spend 20% of our time getting the content in and 80% of our time on the stories and the rich activities and how this applies to my job, which we feel adds more value to our learners. So we're really excited about that."

What the Nielsen case study tells me is that instructional designers are nowhere near irrelevant. In fact, they have the opportunity to be rock stars. It simply takes the courage to break out of old mindsets and embrace the unknown. You're probably not going to get fired by using PowerPoint or rapid authoring tools, but you're also not going to provide any extra value to business stakeholders by using them either.

To download the Nielsen case study click here.


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