Keys to the successful design of a corporate training process

Interview with James Goldsmith, Learning Architect/ Business Advisor at Accenture (Chicago, IL).

James has worked at Accenture for 17 years and is currently a Learning Architect and Business Advisor working out of the St. Charles, IL office. Prior to that, he was a Capability Development Team Lead for the Talent Development group and Development Manager for Accenture Learning’s Content Development Center. He has more than 25 years experience in training design, development and deployment as well as program and project management. His interests are to develop strategic approaches to address business capability opportunities and then to lead teams to successfully implement these opportunities.


What are the 10 most important points to consider in the training process that you can highlight after 25 years of experience in training design, development, deployment, and project management?

James J. Goldsmith: It is difficult to limit this answer to just ten points, but here are some ideas that come to mind:

1. Business goals drive learning goals. The learning event is not an end in itself but is a means to an end. It will only be successful if there is a change in performance that leads to the participant successfully achieving the business goal. (As an aside: I’m a corporate developer and I realize that things might be a little different in academia.

2. Get the best possible people for your project team. Spend time on this because having the right team makes all the difference! You want people who are talented, creative, easy to work with and experienced (and what they lack in experience they should more than make up for in good instincts). They should be intelligent, insightful, hard-working, highly invested and have high-quality standards. They should be self-starters, can-doer’s and people who are naturally uneasy if they aren’t adding value.  Find these people and, with their help, you can do anything

3. At least from my perspective, working with subject matter experts (SMEs) is typically the most challenging part of any development project. The reasons why could include:

  • SMEs don’t understand/value what you as an ID bring to the projec
  • Their work on your project is part-time and it is a second (or third, or fourth) priority to their real job
  • They think that all the content they provide is of equal value and should be included in the deliverable, despite its impact to scope
  • They underestimate the amount of work and/or overestimate their ability to complete the wor
  • They are locked into 20th Century learning models and are not interested in using anything but “tried-and-true” techniques from the past

To mitigate these risks:

  • When the project is just beginning, spend time with the sponsor to make sure that the right SMEs are assigned to the project
  • Make sure the SMEs have adequate time to work on the project (sanctioned by their supervisor) and that the work is included in their annual development plan.  They need to be recoginized and rewarded for their work
  • With the SME’s active participation, develop a detailed development plan covering all phases of the project (and spend time discussing the design approach)
  • Establish frequent and regular opportunities to meet and communicate
  • Become the SME’s best friend (optional)

4. When you first start a project, try to brainstorm with as many design-minded people as you can, even if your project seems simple and straightforward. The last couple of years have clearly shown that we all have much to learn about learning so look for opportunities to include new ideas coming out of learning science and industry research. Also, when brainstorming, your first pass should be focused on developing the best possible solution. Don’t worry about constraints like time, money and resources at first but work towards a solution that will best address the business goal. After that solution has been developed, work with the stakeholders to modify the solution based on the realities of budget, timeline and resources. If stakeholders are actively involved, all compromises will be made with open eyes and, if the process is done correctly, the highest priorities will remain intact and be addressed in your final design.

5. Make a template out of any new design you work on. You may be using it again or may want to share it with colleagues.

6. More times than I like to remember, a project has started with the sponsor telling me what to do before we even had a chance to talk about the overall goals or strategy. The first words out of his or her mouth were something like “I want you to build me a three-day workshop and I need it in two weeks.” There are so many things wrong with this! Instructional design is a profession and IDs are paid to consult, not take orders. As an ID, you’ve spent years, perhaps even decades thinking about and applying learning best practices to increase engagement, retention and capability. Your sponsor, on the other hand, may have been thinking about the project since… that morning?  You need to make it clear at the onset that your role is to guide the learning development process and that your relationship with the sponsor is collaboration among equals.  Of course, you also need adequate time to do a thorough Needs Analysis and then build a thoughtful design proposal, etc.  It may take a little time to build up trust and respect you need with your sponsor but it will come after you have had a chance to show the value that you, as an ID, bring to the project by providing a learning solution that is clearly aligned with the business intent.

7. Related to the above, don’t be afraid to push back when it is clear to you that following through on a sponsor or other stakeholder’s recommendation will lead to poor results. It is your responsibility to clearly and dispassionately explain why an alternate approach is preferred. My experience has been that most stakeholders are reasonable and, if your argument is credible, they will agree with your recommendations. After all, they want the project to succeed as much as you do (and perhaps even more so). However, there is the chance that your explanation will fall on deaf ears. If it does, at the very least you will need to document the situation fully (describing the issue, your alternate approach and why you are recommending it, outcomes from the stakeholder meeting, etc.) to explain your role in the situation. In extreme cases, you may even need to remove yourself from the project.  This has happened to me twice in my career. In both instances, I took little comfort in eventually being right in my assessment of the situation, wishing that there were some way to have found common ground with the stakeholder to avoid the inevitable poor outcome.

8. Go outside traditional ID sources to improve your craft. As an example, I am a (very part-time) professional musician. Over the years, I’ve discovered that there are parallels between writing music and developing learning solutions. In particular, you need to be able to quickly jump back and forth from the details to the “big picture” and be able to keep all of the connections active (and editable) while doing this.  When writing music, a question might be, “Should I use strings and brass together at measures 120 – 128 or just strings alone to create the dramatic effect I need here?” For the developer, a similar question could be, “Should I include a mini-scenario at the end of Module 3 or will a series of multiple choice questions suffice to demonstrate mastery?” In both cases, a clear understanding of the overall strategy is needed to make an informed decision at the detailed level. And, when all of the details are combined together, the result is your strategy incarnate. I use ideas from music to help me in my work as an ID but you may find inspiration from other arts, from the sciences, from nature, from the entertainment industry or from any number of other sources. Keep an open mind and you may be surprised at the number of the great ideas you uncover!

9. Develop a sense of humor or, at a minimum, a sense of perspective. My experience is that the work IDs do is surprisingly complex with the potential for many things to go wrong, especially if you aspire to move the learning discipline forward through your work. At times, you could get discouraged (don’t!) and it may seem that your project will never end (it will!). Basically, if you keep at it, you will eventually prevail. Take the work but not yourself too seriously and don’t forget to reward yourself along the way for small victories. If you are a perfectionist, you will likely face some dark days during the development cycle and may have to let some things go to in the interest of budget and schedule. Also, my personal opinion is that no project is so important that it is ever acceptable to alienate your ID colleagues. Take the long view which is that the project will end, but the relationships will continue.

10. One more point (and one that is easy to forget): Have fun!


What are the keys to the successful design of a corporate training process?

Of course, dozens of books written by very experienced, highly competent and knowledgeable people in the learning profession have been written on this topic, and the basics are well documented. A small sample of books I have benefited from include:  The Systematic Design of Instruction by Walter Dick, Lou Carey and James O. Carey; First Principles of Instruction by M. David Merrill; Evidence-Based Training Methods by Ruth Clark; and Design for How People Learn by Julie Dirksen. Of course there are many, many others.

What I would like to do to answer this question is to focus on some of the key developments of what I call “21st Century Learning.” Here are ten trends I have benefited from on recent development project work that, I think, are worth noting:

  1. Big Data (for Learning) – Gleaning the most useful information from Learning Management Systems, etc. to improve learning design, development and delivery. (An enormous amount of data is being generated by LMS’s and similar devices. By identifying the right type of data and then organizing it into useful constructs, we can re-tool our learning products and processes to better meet our learners’ needs.)
  2. Confidence-Based Learning – The application of neuro-biology, cognitive psychology, and game theory to increase participants’ retention of and confidence in their knowledge.
  3. Gamification – The use of game elements and design techniques in non-game contexts to improve engagement and retention.
  4. Immersive Training Simulations – Computer-generated or other environments that mimic real life and enable learning to take place in a risk-free setting.  (Especially useful when life or limb would otherwise be threatened!)
  5. Information Nuggets (reusable content) – The ability to reuse small pieces of information across a wide array of learning assets and for multiple audiences. In brief:  Develop once; apply many times.
  6. Installment Learning – A design and delivery format that can quickly and cheaply provide useful information in a way that can make learning “habit forming.”
  7. Personalized Learning - Highly individualized learning based on a learner’s needs and interests. The learner makes personal choices regarding when, where, what and how learning is achieved.
  8. 21st Century Classroom – A global, interconnected network of collaborative classrooms that incorporate state-of-the-art virtual conferencing and collaborative technologies.
  9. Social Learning – The idea that people learn from each other through interaction, reflection, imitation and modelling (and change as a result).  (More on this in Question 8.)
  10. Video for Learning – The use of inexpensive, low-fidelity video lectures to deliver and build a framework around learning.


What are the challenges for the instructional design industry in 2014?

Anyone working in this field knows that the pace of change is great. It is difficult to keep up with all of the advances in technology, neurobiology and the many other areas that impact the work we do as instructional designers. The recent research in brain and learning has been particularly valuable, poking holes in commonly accepted ideas such as learning styles, left-brain/right-brain dominance and too literal interpretations of the 70-20-10 rule. Trying to keep up with all of the new ideas, tools and techniques available in the learning industry can become a full-time job!


What recommendations do you have when implementing new and innovative tools in the training process?

My recommendation is that you should roll out a new tool the way you would start a new business.  In short, you need a “business plan.” Among other things, the plan should articulate:

1) What you hope to accomplish by introducing the new tool

2) How you will accomplish this

3) Details on the stakeholders and audience for this tool (describing, essentially, what’s in it for them; also, providing a change management approach)

4) The budget and timeframes for the rollout

5) Potential impediments to the rollout (e.g., infrastructure, technology, support, etc.) and steps to mitigate them

6) A cost/benefit analysis, etc.

A careful review up-front can make the actual release much easier.  In some cases, it could head off a disastrous rollout had these steps not been taken.


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