Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

6 August 2009

Complicit Clients

Clark @ 8:00 AM

I regularly rail against cookie-cutter learning design, boring elearning, etc.  I like to blame it on designers who don’t know the depths of learning behind the elements of design, and perhaps also on managers who don’t work to ensure that the learning objectives are tied closely to meaningful business outcome.  And I think that’s true, but of course there’s another culprit as well: clients who just ask for the same old thing!

I regularly work with a couple of partners who use me when there’s a need to go to the ‘next level’, whether it’s to mobile, pushing the engagement envelope, or working more strategically (that’s one of the way I help clients, too).  However, too often they’re just asked to turn content into courses, and the clients don’t care that the learning objectives in that content are too low-level, too knowledge-focused, completely abstract or de-contextualized, and generally not meaningful.  Now, my partners generally push back a bit, trying to help the client realize the value of a deeper design, but many times the client doesn’t want to put any more money in, doesn’t want to think about it, they just want that course up with a quiz (even with a pre-test!, *shudder*).  And my partners will go along, because creating elearning is their business and they can’t just turn away work.

And I’ve heard that from in-h0use departments as well.  As one of the attendees at my strategic elearning workshop a couple of months ago said, the managers from other business units say “just do that stuff you do” and don’t want any deeper thought into it.  They want it fast, based upon the content, and apparently don’t care that it isn’t going to lead to any meaningful change.  Or don’t know the difference. Hey, they learned that way, so it must be OK, right?

However, I think we owe it to the learners, to those clients, and to ourselves to start educating those clients, internal or external, about good learning.  You’ve got to know it yourself first, of course, but once you’re doing it anyway, there’s really no extra overhead at the first level.  But you want to start pushing back: “what’s the behavior that needs to change/”, or “what decisions do they need to be able to make that they can’t make correctly now?”  And, we need to ask “how will you know that it’s changed? What are the metrics that you’re trying to impact?”  Once you’ve got them thinking about measurable change, you have the opportunity to start talking about meaningful impact and good design to achieve outcomes.

Frankly, you can’t complain about relevance to the organization if you’re not fighting to achieve better outcomes, ones that matter.  So, educate yourselves, improve your processes, and then fight to be doing more meaningful stuff.  Hey, we’re supposed to be about learning, and marketing our services is really about good customer education! Get them educated, and get to be doing more meaningful and consequently rewarding design.


  1. Great post, Clark. As learning professionals, we should be conscious of identifying opportunities to help others learn, including and maybe especially, our clients. We’ll probably never get away from the people who want us to churn out projects just to say they have them, but that doesn’t mean we can’t continue to challenge and educate, or to try to design those “churn” projects to be as relevant and effective as possible.

    Comment by Koreen Olbrish — 6 August 2009 @ 9:22 AM

  2. Dealt with this on the contracting side. Contrary to popular belief, the client wants your help. The hot water I got into every time I engaged in logical conversation with the client, intent to educate, really bugged me. It’s an unpopular practice.

    It was also an unpopular practice in government, but we’re getting used to it. Our stance is now… If the client insists on a solution without knowing what the problem is, it’s our job to work harder to convey the importance of discovering the problem – or to walk the other way, whichever comes second.

    It’s easy for me as a government employee to offer resistance to another internal client. It’s what government does to external clients, it’s only natural that this practice spreads within:) Seriously though, if we aren’t challenging assumptions and demanding proof support for decisions we are wasting our time.

    Since instituting the practice of creative discourse and challenge as a precursor to discovery, the process has become much more fun for everyone involved. I think we make assumptions about boundaries in many cases that are easily resolved with strategic communication and solid logic.

    Comment by Steve Flowers — 12 August 2009 @ 6:27 PM

  3. Koreen, yes, sometimes we have to do our best despite the clients ;). Of course, I reckon once it’s been refined and practiced, good design isn’t really any more costly (except for extending the experience).

    Steve, I like the “creative discourse and challenge”, how do get it instituted? I suppose making it part of the ‘process value we add’ proposition pre-sale and talk about the benefits just from that part of the process (coming ‘free’), you might get some buy-in. Appreciative inquiry, perhaps.

    Thanks for the feedback!

    Comment by Clark — 13 August 2009 @ 4:46 PM

  4. We are considering both the end product and the process a campaign. That campaign starts with a hard sell and solid argument (including some crafted marketing collateral). At the early stage it’s about influence, at least the appearance of confidence, and committed change leadership. We’ve been successful so far and some of the folks started as tough customers (No effing way crowd).

    It’s also about a packaged WIFM. We go in with a strategy for discovery, and in some cases a strategy for solution, that almost always includes byproducts that have value to the stakeholder and the stakeholder’s minions.

    It’s not machiavellian, but it’s close. We open with most of our cards on the table. Clear and open communication about the stakes and the history of pitfalls usually closes the deal in one meeting. It’s tons of fun and it breaks the chains that tend to make projects with me-centric partners ‘unfun’.

    Comment by Steve F — 13 August 2009 @ 7:33 PM

  5. Hey Clark,
    I just read this blog. Great post. Made me laugh, too, as it’s so true.
    It can be challenging to push back, especially when your clients, or, stakeholders think
    they know a lot about effective traing, while, in fact, they DON’T.
    However, I agree that we owe it to ourselves, the business, and, especially the learners,
    to advocate effective learning solutions instead of, well… the crappy ones.

    Comment by Mirjam — 25 August 2009 @ 2:37 PM

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