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

2 September 2009

Learning Experience Creation Systems

Clark @ 1:31 PM

Where do the problems lie in getting good learning experiences? We need them, as it’s becoming increasingly important to get the important skills really nailed, not just ‘addressed’.  It’s not about dumping knowledge on someone, or the other myriad ways learning can be badly designed.  It’s about making learning experiences that really deliver.  So, where does the process of creating a learning experience go wrong?

There’s been a intriguing debate over at Aaron (@mrch0mp3rs) Silver’s blog about where the responsibility lies between clients and vendors for knowledge to ensure a productive relationship.  One of the issues raised (who, me?) is understanding design, but it’s clearly more than that, and the debate has raged.

Then, a post in ITFORUM asked about how to redo instructor training for a group where the instructors are SMEs, not trainers, and identified barriers around curriculum, time, etc.  What crystallized for me is that it’s not a particular flaw or issue, but it’s a system that can have multiple flaws or multiple points of breakdown.

LearningExperienceDesignSystemThe point is, we have to quit looking at it as design, development, etc; and view it not just as a process, but as a system. A system with lots of inputs, processes, and places to go wrong.  I tried to capture a stereotypical system in this picture, with lots of caveats: clients or vendors may be internal or external, there may be more than one talent, etc, it really is a simplified stereotype, with all the negative connotations that entails.

Note that there are many places for the system to break even in this simplified representation.  How do you get alignment between all the elements?  I think you need a meta-level, learning experience creation system design. That is, you need to look at the system with a view towards optimizing it as a system, not as a process.

I realize that’s one of the things I do (working with organizations to improve their templates, processes, content models, learning systems, etc), trying to tie these together into a working coherent whole. And while I’m talking formal learning here, by and large, I believe it holds true for performance support and informal learning environments as well, the whole performance ecosystem.   And that’s the way you’ve got to look at it, systemically, to see what needs to be augmented to be producing not content, not dry and dull learning, not well-produced but ineffective experiences, but the real deal: efficient, effective, and engaging learning experiences. Learning, done right, isn’t a ‘spray and pray’ situation, but a carefully designed intervention that facilitates learning.  And to get that design, you need to address the overall system that creates that experience.

The client has to ‘get’ that they need good learning outcomes, the vendor has to know what that means.  The designer/SME relationship has to ensure that the real outcomes emerge.  The designer has to understand what will achieve these outcomes.  The ‘talent’ (read graphic design, audio, video, etc) needs to align with the learning outcomes, and appropriate practices, the developer(s) need to use the right tools, and so on.  There are lots of ways it can go wrong, in lack of understanding, in mis-communication, in the wrong tools, etc.  Only by looking at it all holistically can you look at the flows, the inputs, the processes, and optimize forward while backtracking from flaws.

So, look at your system.  Diagnose it, remedy it, tune it, and turn it into a real learning experience creation system.  Face it, if you’re not creating a real solution, you’re really wasting your time (and money!).


  1. Right on the money, Clark. The fight against the one offs and isolated intervetions rages on in my org with no end in sight.

    I’ve been fighting the micro-silo effect for many years but it’s recently been reignited, inspired, and validated by your recent writing here. I’ve heard ‘ecosystem’ repeated by more than one of the folks I’ve been chatting with. And many of my illustrations have been infused with some of the essence of your ideas.

    Synthesis for vision, for problem solving, and for change are the tough nuts to crack where I’ve been. It’s tough enough to get most folks to understand holistic problem solving for a specific skill or set of skills. Taking a system view on a larger scale is something we are capable of in conversation, but less so in action. I’d imagine that this also applies to most other organizations.

    On the design subect – where I raised your dander earlier in the day:) I think ID is too broad a role label, particularly when a significant number of ID’s don’t (and can’t) design solutions at more than a simple or reductive level. Maybe it’s time to stratify a set of certification tracks that require proofs of individual contribution. Team-based is how we work, but it makes measurement and proof of personal capacity very difficult. When the lions share of decisions are mapped and, in some cases, made by the ID they’ll need to be a significant force of talent in the equation. Empathy and the ability to synthesize are key.

    There are very few masters of craft in our field. Perhaps there is an opportunity for the bright lights to take a limited number of folks on as apprentice so these limits might be slowly overcome? I could use it and would rather pay for some tutilage from a master of the craft than someone on the full time assembly line (that is not to say that some full time sages aren’t masters of the craft.)

    I’ve also suggested affinity evaluations to steer folks in the direction of interest and capacity. Frankly, problem solving isn’t for everyone and problem solving verticals don’t always crosswalk. It would serve folks well to know where their affinities align before spending significant time and money on a long and specific education track.

    Comment by steve — 2 September 2009 @ 6:27 PM

  2. Steve, yes, that bigger vision is hard for some to encompass, let alone instantiate in orgs. It’s a number of things, including culture, perspective, goals, vision,… Glad to hear that you’re getting some traction evangelizing (and thrilled if it’s the ‘ecosystem’ metaphor that’s taking hold).

    And on mentoring, I too sense that there’s some potential for mismatch in the available solutions (higher ed, the society offerings), but haven’t put together a solution. Mentoring is one idea I had (short of an individual trying to get accredited to offer degrees :). However, it might be hard to get the org to pay for it if it isn’t ‘benedicted’. Any ideas? I’m happy to explore.

    Another thing that could be valuable in the broader picture is a mechanism where some of the top minds could spend time together to brainstorm how to ‘move’ the field in some positive directions: process, system, awareness, etc.

    Comment by Clark — 2 September 2009 @ 6:55 PM

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