New job aid summarizes action mapping for teams

UPDATE: The new version of the job aid is available for download from this big action mapping graphic.

Original post from May 2016:
I’ve drafted a job aid that summarizes the entire action mapping process. You can download it as a Word doc here. (Did it download as XML gibberish? Here’s the quick solution.)

Use the job aid with your client and subject matter expert to show them the process at a glance, from the initial analysis of the problem to the rollout of the solutions.

The aid is intended to help everyone on a project do the following:

  • See at a glance what their responsibilities are and when they’ll be required
  • See that your role is not “convert content into training”
  • Focus on solving the performance problem, not delivering an information dump
  • Use an agile approach based on prototypes and outlines

Snippet of action mapping job aid

The job aid is a draft. Help me improve it! Please comment on this post with any suggestions you have, or send me a private message.

The job aid mentions some tools you can use at each step. Here are two of them:

Goal template: You’ll find the template and some tips in my post How to create a training goal in two quick steps.

Problem analysis flowchart: You can download it and see how to use it in my post Is training really the answer? Ask the flowchart.

I’m working on an activity-design planner that will help you ask your SME the most useful questions so you can design realistic challenges. I’m also working on a template you can use for a project outline, which could replace the traditional and often rigid design document. I’m hoping to release these with the book, and when they’re ready I’ll be sure to announce them in the blog.

What do you think? What would make the job aid more useful for you?

Scenario design course scheduled for November

There are still seats available in the November session of my hands-on scenario design course. The courses usually sell out, so you might want to register now if you can.

Do you work in a course factory? Do you care?

Are you a cog in the course factory, or are you a performance consultant? Where do you or your clients fall on the following spectrum, and where do you want to be?

(Feed readers, there’s a table here! It might appear at the end of the post in your feed reader.)

Course factory


Performance consultancy

My job is to create training. ————– My job is to improve the performance of the organization.
I shouldn’t question the client’s decision to provide training. ————– Since my job is to help the client solve their performance problem, I need to determine if training really is part of the solution and identify what else might help.
The only thing I ever design is training. ————– I might design job aids, create help screens, identify ways to streamline processes, encourage managers to provide stretch assignments, push for better communication tools…
My goal is to transfer knowledge. ————– My goal is to solve a performance problem, and the best way to do that isn’t clear until I analyze the problem. Maybe it has nothing to do with knowledge.
The best way to transfer knowledge is to push information at people so they’re all equally exposed. ————– If information really will help solve the problem, I look for ways to let people pull it when they need it. Training might not be necessary at all.
Training is an event, like a one-time course or workshop. ————– If I decide a practice activity will help, it might be just that — an activity, not a course, delivered in any format, maybe in a live session, maybe as part of a “try it when you want” collection of online challenges, and preferably as part of a series of activities spaced over time.
Once the training has been delivered, I’m done. ————– If the performance measure has improved, I’m happy, but I’m not done. I need to talk to the people affected by the project to find out what’s working and what isn’t.
When I finish one project, I wait for the next request to come in. ————– I notice problems and suggest solutions before someone asks me for help, because I know what my organization is trying to accomplish.


Two opposing sides?

Industry gurus have been pointing out for some time that L&D needs to stop being a course factory and become more of a performance consultancy. Sometimes they express their opinions with such zeal that it can feel like they’ve divided us into two irreconcilable groups: We’re either marching onto the bright consulting field waving the flag of the latest workplace learning model, or we’re stubbornly hiding in the basement, cranking out irrelevant courses.

Cranking out the courses in the basement factoryI agree we need to become more of a performance consultancy. In fact, I think some new models of workplace learning don’t go far enough, at least as I understand them. They correctly and importantly remind us that people learn in a million ways, regardless of our “help.” They give less attention to making sure that learning will actually solve the problem.

If we’re going to be performance consultants, we need to identify all barriers to performance. We can’t assume that knowledge and skills will help.

I also don’t think we’re divided into two opposing groups. Instead, I see a spectrum.

I’ve talked to many people who want to leave the course factory behind but have trouble seeing how they could actually do it. Some have to fight their organization to take just one step because their job title is literally “Course Producer.” To climb out of the basement, they have to drag the dead weight of their department with them.

In the title of this post, I asked, “Do you care?” Most people I’ve heard from care. They know that cranking out courses on demand doesn’t meet the real needs of the organization. They just need help finding a way out of the basement.

For a lot more about why we need to move toward performance consulting, see The Business of Corporate Learning by Shlomo Ben-Hur. Jane Hart has a recent series of blog posts on what she sees as a stark division in L&D, starting with this post. In this interview, Donald Taylor sees the L&D world as divided not into two sides but four regions on a quadrant.

Looking for feedback on my book

If you’ve read this far, you might be interested in giving me feedback on my upcoming book. Map it: The hands-on guide to strategic training design offers a step-by-step process to help training designers leave boring courses behind and instead find the best solutions to performance problems. It’s action mapping all grown up. I’m looking for 30 people to read a PDF version and complete a survey about it, so I can make the book as useful as possible.

Map It helps you find non-training solutions to problems. And when training is part of the solution, it helps you design challenging practice activities that can be provided in any format, not just in courses or training events. It shows you one way to start climbing out of the basement and to bring your client or boss with you.

I’ve been using it with my scenario design courses and plan to publish it in early 2016.

I’m looking for a cross-section of my intended audience to be beta readers. If you’re interested in participating, please fill out this quick demographic survey. (Thank you, everyone who responded; the survey is closed now.) From the responses, I’ll pick 30 people to receive a PDF version of the book. The first survey requires your email address so I can send you the book if you’re chosen; the second feedback survey will be anonymous.

If you just want to know when the book is published, sign up for the announcement list. You’ll get an email when the book is available, which should be in early 2016.

Finally, before we go back to our places on the course assembly line, let us sing in solidarity with our fellow workers who are hauling out the data on the Xerox line.

Factory worker photo by Howard R. Hollem. Public domain; US Library of Congress.

Field guide to action-mapped materials

Is that an action mapped course?What does an action mapped course look like?

Action mapping has grown in recent years to apply to all types of training design and performance support, not just elearning. It’s a process, rather than a style of product. It should rarely result in just slide-based elearning, because the method focuses on solving performance problems, and one lonely online course rarely solves any problem.

With that huge caveat, I’m sometimes asked what an action mapped course looks like. It might look like this:

  • It was created to help you develop skills that you actually need on your job.
  • The course is part of a larger solution to a real performance problem. Other parts of the solution might include job aids, changes to processes, more attention from your manager, a monthly discussion session…
  • The material is aimed at you, in your job, not at “everyone who might ever work at Acme.”
  • It feels like a stream of activities, not a presentation interrupted by an occasional quiz.
  • You’re plunged into an interesting activity, not first “prepared” with an information dump. You pull the information you need in order to make a good decision. You control how much information you see. (See this approach in action at my Learning Technologies session in London on Feb. 3.)
  • The decisions you’re required to make are the same as the decisions you face on the job — real decisions with consequences.
  • You’re allowed to draw conclusions based on the consequences of your choices. You’re not immediately told “Incorrect!”
  • If you prove that you can make good decisions about Situation X, you’re allowed to skip ahead to Situation Y. You’re not forced to “expose” yourself to all the information.
  • You’re treated like an adult. For example, no one reads the screen to you.
  • There are no flying bullet points, applause from invisible crowds, or dinging bells. The material is interesting because it’s challenging and relevant, not because someone went to the bling store on 70%-off day.
  • The course isn’t a one-shot deal. For example, additional activities are provided over time, whether as elearning or in other formats, because few problems can be fixed by a one-time mini-course, no matter how well designed it might be.

This checklist can help you evaluate the action-mappiness of training materials.

Book excerpt: Compare the traditional approach with action mapping

To see how action mapping changes our approach to design and creates a different type of activity, you might read this PDF excerpt from my upcoming book. It compares how two different designers approach the same project.

In the story, Tina Teachalot thinks her job is to design a course. She uses a weak version of ADDIE and produces the type of course we’re all familiar with. Anna Action von Mapp thinks her job is to solve the client’s problem. She uses action mapping to create a more varied solution. Part of that solution includes self-paced activities that plunge people into challenges with optional help.

But I want to see examples!

Unfortunately, I don’t know of any publicly available examples of action-mapped materials. (Know of something? Please let us know in the comments.) People I’ve worked with have designed solutions for internal use only.

There are good individual activities out there, but we can’t say that they were the product of action mapping because there’s usually no information about the problem they were designed to solve or the reasoning behind the design. They’re simply activities in people’s portfolios or on web sites. You can see a lot of them on my elearning examples page.

One of my favorites of these more generic activities is CameraSim. You learn from the consequences of your decisions. For people brand new to using a DSLR, I’d provide a little more optional hand-holding than the site does, maybe as help screens connected to the controls themselves and optional explanations of why the photo turned out as it did.

To provide another example, I could describe my scenario design course, because that was very definitely action-mapped, but that’s a big project and therefore another blog post. It’s a blend of live and asynchronous materials in several formats, spaced over time, not slide-based elearning.

Photo: Itamar Grinberg, Israel Tourism, edited

Learning & development people unite!

Manifesto for training designers
We, the downtrodden and ignored learning and development professionals of the world, hereby shake off the shackles of convention and obedience and proclaim the arrival of a new order, a new age of enlightenment in which we valiantly defend truth, honor, and our learners by… well, by not being such pushovers.

We refuse to pretend that training is always the answer. When a client says, “We need training,” we don’t say, “Sure! Would you like fries with that?” Instead, we start asking questions.

We require clients to set a measurable goal. We help each client identify exactly how the organization’s performance is suffering and how our project will measurably, observably, provably improve that performance, because we’re here to make a difference, not to put 97,000 PowerPoint slides online.

We rejoice in the power of needs assessment. Oh needs assessment, you faithful but tragically neglected guardian of time, money, and learners’ souls, we welcome you back into our profession and with eager minds ask you for each and every project, “What do people need to do?” and “Why aren’t they doing it?”

We advocate for the rights of the humble job aid, email, and PDF. If the problem is caused by a simple lack of information, we show the client how a nimble solution placed in the workflow can avoid the expense and tragedy of a 107-slide presentation pointlessly read aloud by a talking avatar whose lips really move.

We design activities, not information. When instruction is part of the solution, we don’t preach or present to learners. Instead, we let them practice what they need to do and draw conclusions from that experience like the grownups they are, and for that reason we rock scenarios.

We stand firm in our belief that learners have brains and should be allowed to use them. We fiercely protect our learners’ time, minds, and souls from clients’ whims, information dumps, patronizing narration, “learning styles,” office politics, “motivational” training, SMEs’ favorite details, locked navigation, “awareness,” feeble multiple-choice questions, “knowledge transfer,” “knowledge checks,” academic learning objectives, flying bullet points, and alien abductions.

We are legion! Here are just a few of our noble warriors, in no order whatsoever.

There are countless more brave warriors helping us rise up from oppression and cry, “Doormats? Never again!” Please let us know about your favorites in the comments.

Can we use training to motivate?

In my previous post, I showed a flowchart that could help you find the best solution to a performance problem. Thanks to your comments and questions, I’ve improved the chart to make clear two of my opinions:

  • Training is rarely the solution for low motivation
  • When training could help, it’s best to let learners become motivated through experience (decision-making scenarios) rather than preaching at them (presentations)

First, you might want to download the revamped flowchart. Here’s how the motivation bit looks now:

Motivation section of the action mapping flowchart

I’ve added a new loop that sends you back to the main analysis node because low motivation is usually a side effect, not a core problem. It’s often caused by one of the other three problems in the chart.

  • Environment: High pressure, a poorly managed organizational change, user-hostile software, heavy-handed management … these can all lead to low motivation. Training is unlikely to help, unless you can train away the environmental problem, such as by improving managers’ skills.
  • Knowledge: If the employees who do the data-entry drudgery for the TPS reports don’t know the painful results of their screwups, they’ll be less motivated to avoid errors. For example, we could show them that a rejected TPS record can mean that a client doesn’t get the check she needs to buy medication. If this is included in the results of a branching scenario that we’re also using to practice entering TPS records, then I’d be willing to call it training. However, if it’s just a finger-wagging exhortation divorced from any application, it’s not training in my book.
  • Skills: If I don’t have the skill to quickly and painlessly parametize widgets, I will dislike having to parametize widgets. Give me training!

When low motivation can’t be blamed on anything else

I’ve heard several reports of “lazy” workers. “They just don’t want to do it,” the client says. “They don’t care.” [Read more…]

Is training really the answer? Ask the flowchart.

Here’s a flowchart that will help you identify the best solution to a performance problem, whether it’s a job aid, a workflow improvement, training, or something else. It’s based on action mapping, my streamlined approach to instructional design.

First, download the flowchart. Then consider watching the following 8-minute video, which walks you through a short discussion with a client, showing you how some quick questions can save you days of unnecessary training development.

Blurry? Click the little gear and choose HD. Not allowed to watch YouTube? Here’s the video on Vimeo.

What happens after the video?

So far, thanks to our questions, the client has identified ways to:

  • Make important reference information always up to date and available at the point of need
  • Make the rules for flagging easy to scan and apply at the point of need

These are permanent workflow improvements that avoid the need for training. At this point, the only training we’re going to develop is a very compact activity on identifying last names. It could probably be posted on the intranet with a link sent to everyone through email.

If we hadn’t used the flowchart and had simply obeyed our client’s request for training, we’d spend a lot more time developing something a lot less useful. We’d probably create an online course that starts with “Welcome to the course on completing TPS records.” We’d list objectives like, “At the completion of this course, you will be able to enter the correct XR code…” We’d probably “motivate” the learners by talking about the importance of completing the record properly and describing the costs of having our records rejected.

Then we’d tell people what they already know — that they have to log in to the annoying server to see the XR codes. We’d probably walk them through it “to make sure everyone knows how” and lecture them on the importance of using the updated sheet.

To “teach” the rules for flagging records, we’d probably display a chart of rules, give some examples, and then quiz the learners on whether they can remember the information that they saw five seconds ago and which they will forget by tomorrow if not later today. Finally, we’d include a little activity to help them practice identifying last names.

Within a month, we’d discover that people are still printing out the XR code sheet and failing to flag records properly.

Instead, just by asking some questions, we’ve helped the client identify permanent improvements, and we’ve freed up enough time to do a good job on the little name activity. The time that we don’t spend on creating unnecessary training becomes time we can invest on designing much higher quality activities.

What do you think? What did I miss?

How action mapping can change your design process

Happy action mapping users say that the model helps them create lively elearning. But would it fit into your design workflow?

Action mapping makes stakeholders work together to analyze the performance problem, commit to the same measurable goal, and agree to focus on activities rather than information. This can be a big change to the typical course development workflow.

Without action mapping:

  1. The client says, “I need a course.”
  2. You say, “Okay.”
  3. The client gives you a pile of content, the phone number of a subject matter expert (SME), and a deadline.
  4. You create a detailed storyboard or script, getting information as necessary from the SME. The structure of the information determines the structure of the course.
  5. The client and SME approve the script and you go into production.
  6. The course is made available and your job is done.

action mapping for instructional designUsing action mapping:

  1. The client says, “I need a course.”
  2. You say, “Great. Let’s get together to make sure we all understand what you want the course to accomplish.”
  3. You schedule a two-hour meeting in a space with a whiteboard or in a virtual meeting room where you can share a mind-mapping screen. You include the client, at least one subject matter expert, and possibly others from the table below.
  4. In that meeting, you identify your business goal and how you’ll measure success. You also identify the behaviors needed to reach that goal.
  5. As a group, you analyze why the behaviors aren’t happening, confirm that training will actually solve the problem, and identify how the training will be supported by managers, workplace changes, and other improvements.
  6. After the meeting, you work with the SME and possibly others to brainstorm and prototype practice activities for each behavior needed to reach the goal. Ideally, you test the prototypes on learners.
  7. You get approval for the prototypes from the client.
  8. You work with the SME and possibly others to identify the minimum information necessary to complete each activity and decide how it should be provided.
  9. You create a storyboard or script. The content has already been identified in the action map; you’re just filling in the details and arranging the material. The activities determine the organization of the course.
  10. The client and SME approve the script and you go into production.
  11. Once the material is being used by learners, you or the client begins measuring its impact, and you revise it as necessary.

The above list makes it look like action mapping takes longer, and it will take longer if you’re not doing much analysis now. However, the rest of the process can actually go more quickly than conventional course design. You save time by:

  • Not creating a course when it isn’t necessary or won’t help
  • Addressing only the specific behaviors that need to change
  • Excluding unnecessary information
  • Taking advantage of easily updated job aids
  • Designing activities that test multiple areas of knowledge at once
  • Creating tightly focused materials that don’t waste learners’ time

Who should be included?

The table below lists the four steps of action mapping and identifies who you might consider including at each step. The first two steps can often be covered in one two-hour meeting, if the client and SME are familiar with the learners and the performance problem.

One of the goals in action mapping is to identify what information needs to be memorized (put in the course) and what can be referenced on the job (put in job aids). Often, existing job aids are created and “owned” by someone in a different department. That person might be your SME, or they might be someone else. They need to be included in some of your planning to make sure the job aid can be used as you want, to approve any changes to it, and to offer their ideas about incorporating it into practice activities.

Step Client SME Job aid
Learner Graphics/Flash
1: Set goal Yes Yes Maybe No No
2: Identify behaviors & why they’re not happening Yes Yes Maybe No No
3: Brainstorm practice activities Approve prototypes Help brainstorm or at least approve prototypes Help brainstorm or at least approve use of job aid Provide ideas, feedback on prototypes Help create prototypes
4: Identify necessary info No Yes Approve use of job aid or changes to it Maybe, as tester No

Are instructional designers doormats?

If your client said, “Please create a course about our impossibly complex process,” what would you say?

A. “Hmmm. That process looks really complicated. Is there any way to make it simpler?”


B. “No problem. Would you like fries with that?”

Often we know nothing about our client’s processes, and it’s tempting to think we should never question what they do.

But I like to think that our ignorance gives us a valuable outsider’s perspective that can help our clients improve performance through every means, not just through a course.

Our contribution can include everything from writing job aids to helping the client troubleshoot and simplify their processes.

For example, I was once asked to write a super-whiz-bang Flash course on how to use a client’s internal software. To write the course I needed to learn how to use the software, so I asked for their manual. They didn’t have one. A cheat sheet? Nothing. There was a dense, cryptic screen you could get if you typed “help” and that was it.

I obediently wrote the course. It took eons and cost the client a bucket of money, but I think the most valuable part was actually the PDF quick reference that I wrote in just two hours.

Now that I have more of a spine, I’d propose just starting with the quick reference to see if that removed the need for a course.

But isn’t it risky?

In his post on this topic, Allen Partridge asks, [Read more…]

The big mistake in elearning

Here’s a short presentation that includes:

  • The one powerful change that will make our elearning a lot more effective
  • A quick demo of action mapping
  • A fun example of the type of information that should go in job aids
  • How to get people to stop telling you, “Turn this information into a course”

To see a bigger version on YouTube, click the movie when it’s playing. Can’t access YouTube? Here’s a Vimeo version.

To practice steering your client away from an information dump, you might try this challenge. [Read more…]

How to convert the toughest SME

You want to create an action-packed online experience that revolutionizes learners’ behavior. Your subject matter expert wants you to faithfully reproduce every lovingly polished bullet of their 217-slide PowerPoint presentation. Is there any hope for your relationship?

Everyone knows that in any relationship, it’s the other person who needs to change. So let’s change your SME.

1. Read what they gave you.

Before you do anything else, read all 217 slides. Respect the effort that the SME has put into their work and try to understand what they wrote. And make a note for future projects: Don’t let SMEs create PowerPoints. Ask them for an informal brain dump instead, or an interview, or any other format that they won’t put so much work into.

2. Involve them from the beginning

If you use Action Mapping, include the SME in the very first discussions with your client, when you identify the goal. Ask the SME to help answer these questions: [Read more…]

Scenario design online course

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