Tuesday, December 8, 2009

What makes a great instructional designer?

Yes, I'm officially late to the party, but there's been a great discussion going on courtesy of an initial blog post by Cammy Bean, and great follow up discussion and posts by smart folks including Sahana Chattopadhyay, Brent Schlenker, and Karl Kapp.

To sum up in my own words, there's not one flavor of "instructional designer" and most of us who call ourselves by that title have ended up here through a mix of accident and intention. Some of us come from business backgrounds, technology backgrounds, some of us from education and teaching. Some IDs were subject matter experts who were tapped to train others in their organizations. Very few, if any of us, went off to college saying "I want to be an instructional designer!" And likely as a result of the long and winding road to becoming IDs, we all have interesting and varied backgrounds that inform how we practice instructional design.

Sure there are some commonalities...we all know what ADDIE is and we're all familiar with Bloom's taxonomy. But our process, our day to day responsibilities, and certainly our perspectives, are very, very different.

I've been so bold as to claim "instructional design is dead" and I've tried to explain my perspective on why. But as much as there is variation and possibly role confusion to our collective detriment in our profession, there are brilliant people who I meet every day who exemplify the best of instructional design. Here's a few of the characteristics I look for whenever I go a-lookin' for a great instructional designer...

  • Ability to conduct complex situational analyses in relationship to learning: if nothing else, IDs should be able to walk into a situation, assess if there is a learning need, what it is, analyze the intended audience, the resources available, and figure out what exactly needs to learned to address the existing knowledge or skill gap. No, its not easy. But if you can't do that, you're probably not an instructional designer by my definition - you're probably a writer or a developer. 
  • Technology-savvy: this one might draw some debate, but I would argue that in the current business environment, any good instructional designer should able to make technology recommendations to support learning and justify the need and cost to the organization
  • Talks business and doesn't throw around ID "lingo": this ties into Cammy's assertion that maybe instructional design might be better delivered through a business school. Business executives don't care about ADDIE or instructional models or even adult learning principles. They care about their business issues and how training initiatives will help address them. Good instructional designers don't talk about the theory much--its ingrained in their process.
  • Understands the difference between practice and assessment: I can't tell you how many conversations I have with clients where I say something like "you COULD measure that, but then it would be assessment and not practice. What is the goal of the learning experience?" Its basic but telling...I've met way too many instructional designers that agree to measure everything at the expense of the actual intent of the training.
  • Measures success by performance improvement: so, we all know there are things like SCORM and knowledge assessments aren't going away any time soon. But whenever possible, good IDs fight to measure how learners' behavior changes as a result of a learning experience. Its a really telling interview question, to ask a prospective ID how they prefer to assess the success of their learning programs.
  • Passionate: Its not much of a surprise that I'm a learning geek, and I think other learning geeks are pretty cool. In any profession, passion for what you do usually makes you a little bit better at it, because you care more. Don't let this be confused with ID snobs...the main difference between snobs and geeks? Geeks always want to learn more about what they are interested in...snobs already think they know everything. Guess who makes a better instructional designer?
  • Fights for a place at the table: You know what's the most annoying phrase I hear from instructional designers? "I can't." MAYBE that's true. But more often, these instructional designers aren't fighting to be heard, aren't positioning themselves as essential leaders in their organizations, or simply haven't tried to make the business case to implement innovative, large-scale solutions that they have identified as solutions to their organizations' problems. Any time I hear "I can't," all I see are red flags.
  • Has a little "sales lizard": its a special set of skills to be able to see the right design and the right tools to address a learning need. It takes another whole set of skills to be able to sell the right solution to stakeholders and business execs.
  • Sees the forest and the trees: Some instructional designers are really great at designing a specific solution for a specific problem, but have a hard time looking at the big picture to see if the specific solution is the right solution. 
  • Knows when to hold 'em: look, we all have to eat. And sometimes, you have to know when to just shut up, put your head down and give 'em what they ask for. Good instructional designers know when all of their knowledge, expertise, selling ability, data, evidence, etc., is just falling on deaf ears. No, we should never settle for designing ineffective or crappy solutions, but neither should we be expected to bang our heads against brick walls. Business savvy, I believe is what the kids are calling it...
So, do I think you need a degree in Instructional Design to be a good ID? No. Do I think some formal training helps? Yes. I like Cammy's suggestion that ID programs might be better delivered with a business degree. But ultimately, its not the degree that makes the ID...its the vision, the leadership, the creativity, the flexibility, and the ability to apply all of their "formal" knowledge about learning in varied and ever-changing business contexts. 


  1. This is fantastic! Thanks for sharing your views. It gives me a better understanding of what to expect from being an instructional designer and who wouldn't be passionate about it when the ultimate aim is to assist people to learn and being contented when learners are able to apply what they have learned into their daily activities.

  2. Very nice perspective. I agree with this perspective and specially the point on the business executives. Business today really does not bother about the methodology et. they want it fast and what is the ROI..will it let's say reduce attrition :)

  3. Am I mistaken in thinking that this article is based around the assumption of an ID working in a business oriented organisation (as opposed to an educational organisation)?

    My observation is based on dot points 1 and 3.

    Thanks for the article.