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Educating & Challenging Stakeholders on Instructional Design Best Practices


GeraldBy Gerald Matykowski, Inside Sales Manager

I have in-depth conversations with instructional designers (IDs) and ID managers on a daily basis—many invariably turn to frustrations related to “selling” instructional best practices to stakeholders and higher level decision makers.

Here are some common challenges I hear in my conversations:

  • Promoting new design/development approaches to jump-start a large project
  • Selling action-based interactivity up the leadership ladder
  • Convincing SMEs that learning ‘to do’ is more effective than teaching a folder full of content
  • Moving beyond a ‘check the box’ approach to compliance training
  • Getting approval to present a single prototype before an ADDIE design sign-off

What Language Do They Speak?

Let’s face it, we don’t often get the response we hope for when we propose or attempt to initiate ‘new’ techniques to create ‘serious’ e-learning. Promotion of higher level interactions, SAM vs. ADDIE, or doing vs. knowing can fall on deaf ears. Stakeholders approve the budgets and timelines of e-learning projects―they also often have established notions about what e-learning should look like which often conflict with an ID’s vision of best practices. Frustration builds each time we encounter ‘executive speak’ and/or a content-centric page-turning mentality. 

Challenger Strategies

If this has been your experience or you simply want to increase your influence with executives, there are new insights that you can leverage to improve your effectiveness. The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation, by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson, Corporate Executive Board (CEB), offers valuable research and insights into strategies that educate and gain influence with prospective customers. If you are thinking, “Hey, I’m not a salesperson. This doesn’t apply!” Stop! IDs and ID Managers can also employ Challenger methods to gain better influence with stakeholders, SMEs, and executives on the methods and practices necessary to create lasting learning. 


There are far too many useful principles in The Challenger Sale to address in a single blog entry, but let’s take a look at a few of the basics. For the record, selling higher interactivity or changing a well-established ADDIE process to an executive is a complex sale. This ‘complex sale’ is what makes The Challenger Sale meaningful for IDs.

Here are a few terms and definitions covered in The Challenger Sale:

  1. High (Star) Performer – In The Challenger Sale, Dixon and Adamson define a Star Performer as an individual sales person who consistently exceeds expectations in a complex solutions sales environment (2011, p. 12). 
  2. Sales Rep Profiles – CEB Research identified five profiles. Two of the profiles have the greatest impact for this discussion:
    1. Relationship Builder – Normally considered to be a preferred profile because they build strong advocates in the customer organization and get along with everyone (p. 18).
    2. Challenger – The new finding in the CEB Research, this profile understands the customer’s business, loves to debate, and pushes the customer (p. 18).

Gaining Influence with Decision Makers

The Challenger Sale is based on solid research―something that we IDs value. The most interesting result of the research tears down some long-held beliefs about what influences buying decisions (in our world, decisions on ID models and tools). Two general observations that can be valuable for IDs trying to sell ideas to executives are:

  1. Don't be afraid to challenge your stakeholder's assumptions and educate them on alternatives. Only 7% of ‘Relationship Builders’ become Star Performers while 39% of Challengers become Star Performers. Challengers keep a ‘constructive tension’ in their interactions to educate and help the ‘prospect’ learn important facets that they have not considered about their world (p. 25-26).
  2. Don’t expect that executives will agree to a new tool or best practice on its own merits. It’s very likely that the person who is making buying decisions about proposed or new instructional design tools and processes sees very little difference between your favorite best practice and the status quo. CEB Research shows that only 19% of buyers stay loyal to a vendor because of the product and service delivery, however, 53% of those surveyed reported buying from a vendor because the sales person helped them navigate options and avoid potential land mines, which are two critical Challenger attributes (p. 47). In other words, how we influence is actually more important than what we are “selling.”

Challenger Profile Applied To Educating on Best Practices

Corporate Executive Board’s (CEB’s) Research identified six attributes that set Challengers and Star Performers apart (p. 23). Let’s look at each attribute and how it might apply to influencing decisions around funding increases or ID best practices. As an example, increasing the budget for a scenario-based anti-SPAM and Phishing learning program can be a significant challenge for IDs. 

  1. Offers unique perspectives
    Suffice it to say that plenty of IDs offer executives ideas for change because ‘it is the best way’ and ‘it has become the industry standard.’ Few ‘influencers’ open discussions by getting the executive curious about alternative ways to accomplish training goals. Decision makers are more eager to learn about what can help them solve their problems (reducing corporate exposure to spear phishing), not to simply make a change that, on first glance, appears to be a needless cost increase.
  2. Has strong two way communication skills
    An ID is especially adept at asking probing questions, listening to responses, and guiding toward a mutual goal. Relative to the IT security challenge, what discussion points and questions might you pose to a decision maker to help them to consider their perspectives on expected training outcomes?
  3. Knows the individual’s value drivers and 4. identifies economic drivers of the business
    Executives focus on the business of the business. The purpose of any given enterprise is to execute strategies that result in profit—things like finding and mining oil and gas, or manufacturing cars that sell, or creating new and healthy convenience foods. The president of a major financial services company recently told me that when it comes to training, his major concerns included ‘squeezing expense ratios down and eliminating needless discretionary spending.’ An executive might be charged with feeding and developing a leadership supply chain or compliance to IT security practices. You can’t influence an executive unless you are able to speak in terms of their Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). You’ve got to connect their value drivers with your initiative before you can get their attention and consider alternatives.
  4. Is comfortable discussing financial implications of projects (specific ID best practices, models, and tools)
    This topic is broad and is far too complex to discuss in this post. I recommend that you visit our website and review case studies that show significant business impact and Return On Investment (ROI). The AutoNation case study is especially applicable because there are so many results that had a positive impact on financial performance for AutoNation. Do your homework, find a case study or two in your industry, and be ready with numbers to show how a small investment can reap big ROI rewards. Relative to IT security training, what is the cost of a security breach for a retail company? If 60% of employees across the enterprise are opening trial SPAM and phishing emails, what value would your decision making executive place on reducing that number to less than 10%? ID best practices, new interactive models, and more dynamic tools can have a significant impact on employee performance and productivity. Find out what senior organizational leaders consider to be their KPIs and be ready to help them learn how to overcome skepticism of a new approach with training/learning.
  5. Can pressure the customer
    This is a simple concept but difficult to employ. To put it simply, Challengers take their prospects and customers ‘out of their comfort zones.’  “Done well, a teaching pitch makes executives feel sort of sick about all the money they are wasting, or revenue they’re missing, or risk they are unknowingly exposed to” (p. 23). If you help an executive accept that another method might be required to address these concerns, you’ve got them listening and considering your alternative.

The Challenger Sale is a very thorough exploration of how Star Sales Performers gain influence. If you are challenged with influencing a learning industry executive to adopt new ID models or tools, or aspire to become a learning industry executive, I recommend that you read this book not from a sales point of view, but as a guide to gaining influence and successfully selling best practices in your enterprise.

I invite you to share your own frustrations and challenges in a comment below. We will explore this topic further in future blog posts.


Dixon, M., & Adamson, B. (2011). The challenger sale: taking control of the customer conversation. Portfolio Hardcover.


About Gerald:

Gerald Matykowski is the Inside Sales Manager at Allen Interactions. He holds an MA in Curriculum and Instructional Design, was co-founder of LearningByte International and founder of Anilor Learning Systems. Over the course of his career, Gerald has designed learning programs for Fortune 500 companies including sales and telesales programs for small and mid-sized firms.

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Four e-Learning Design Practices to Leave Behind


by , vice president - training & marketing | @rhillsites

Richard Sites, vice president - training and marketingThe red, gold, and orange leaves are beginning to fill trees and landscapes. Pumpkins, hay bales, ghosts, and other scary decorations are showing up in front yards. It’s the time of year when the seasons change from the warm, sunlit days of summer to the short, cooler days of fall.

Many of us look forward to the changing of the seasons, particularly autumn. Behind us are the long, hot days of summer and in front of us are the ever-cooling days of fall and winter. The changing of seasons means we have to change how we dress, the sports we watch, and the events we plan.


(Since I live in Florida, seasonal change really has more to do with changing our clocks than anything else, but who’s asking!)

Like the leaves shedding from the trees, perhaps it’s time we also think about letting go of some of the ways we approach our work. The design and development of e-learning has been changing over the years. Today, we have an opportunity to do so much more, and to offer such wonderful and engaging learning experiences to learners. Therefore, I’d like to offer four key aspects of “last season’s” e-learning design we should leave behind.

1. e-Learning design starts with content.

Ok, I can hear a lot of people scoffing when they read that one. “Of course I don’t start designing with content!” But I also know it is highly likely many e-learning projects began with the receipt of a set of three-ring binders, followed promptly by a request to, ”create some training on this.”

Many e-learning projects begin with the organizing and sorting of corporate documentation, PowerPoint files, and instructor or facilitator guides. And, why not? These types of materials have been used for years to train people. Plus, organizations have already invested time and money in the creation of these documents. Why wouldn’t you take advantage of reusing this material? To start with, engaging, context-based learning challenges are not about conveying content. They are about providing learners the opportunity to perform the tasks which need improvement. They are about giving learners realistic situations to learn and practice. Most of these situations (if not all of them) are not in your corporate policy documents or even content-based instructor-led courses.

Engaging e-learning starts with performance—not content. Content is helpful for reference. So leave behind the three-ring binders and start designing performance-based learning events.

2. Storyboards are useful for communicating design.

Storyboards are so last season! With the creation of rapid development tools and the countless design tools available, the thought that we, as designers, can only describe our designs in a written form is worth challenging. Storyboards harken back to a time when designers had to give very clear specifications to a team of developers in order to build e-learning. Presentations were made to senior management on overhead transparencies. Instructional scripts were written for instructors to present to learners in a classroom environment.

These things are no longer limitations for us. Neither is the idea that design teams should attempt to communicate engaging learning events in written documents. More importantly, storyboards neglect the opportunity for us to elicit the insight which comes from reviewing a working e-learning event or interaction. Most of us have realized the best and most insightful comments come during the review of the final product, not the reading of a storyboard.

Leave behind the notion that storyboards are a good, or even appropriate, method for communicating the power of interactive learning events. (Prototyping is a much better strategy, in case you were wondering.)

3. Prototypes are draft versions of the final course.

Prototypes are used to discuss and debate design, rather than for taking steps toward the development of an instructional product. However, prototypes are often seen as the initial steps of development. This approach to prototyping likely will increase the reluctance to dispose of a design that is ineffective, thereby limiting the power of a prototype.

Prototypes are quick representations of the interaction or learning event for design teams to use to discuss what could be done better or differently. Iterations of a prototype are used to demonstrate the changes that can increase the accuracy of the learning event, not the revisions needed to become a more complete product.

As mentioned earlier, storyboards are an ineffective strategy to communicate the action in an interactive learning event. But if prototypes are only used as initial steps to development, they too can limit opportunities to adjust and iterate towards a more effective design which best represents the performance required of learners.

4. Templates are helpful in the design of e-learning.

Templates are helpful in the development of e-learning, not the design. Design should be based on what the learner needs to do in order to perform the task better. While there are countless template-based e-learning options out there today, it is not an effective strategy to direct the design of a learning event toward an existing template.

Templates are pre-designed activities. There are countless numbers of templates available because there are basic information needs that we all come across. If your design works within a supporting template, then certainly make use of it. But designing with a template in mind means the focus is on reducing the effort of the designer/developer and not improving the learning event for the learner.

Make use of templates when you can, but be very hesitant to focus specifically on a template during the design process.

So what do you think? Are these worth leaving behind this season? Since this is a very brief list of the many things that we should consider leaving behind us this season, maybe you can think of some e-learning design and development practices that would be better left behind. Let me know your ideas in the comment section below. And have a happy autumn!

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Instructional Design: Make the Switch to Interactive e-Learning


by Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist | @ethanaedwards

Ethan Edwards | Instructional Design | Interactive e-Learning Examples | Creating Interactive e-LearningI’ve taught the ASTD e-Learning Instructional Design Certificate Program for a number of years now. One of the greatest takeaways for the participants, I have found, is how empowering it can be to realize the significant impact each of us can have as designers when we take on the central instructional design challenge: creating an environment and an experience in which the learner will gain some knowledge or skill more effectively and efficiently than he or she could without the instruction.  That’s my common-sense definition of what instructional design is. 

Unfortunately, many organizations completely overlook that aspect of designing instruction—especially when the instruction is intended for online delivery.  I find that in many cases instructional design has been downgraded to simply word processing and formatting as existing documents or presentations are transferred to a web-compatible format.  Or, that enriched media e-learning is little more than an elaborate decoration that doesn’t change the experience in any central way. That interactivity rarely rises above the useless task of repetition of presented information.

Design is transformative.  Design has to tear the content apart and restructure it with the learner AND the capabilities of the delivery mechanism in mind.  Design can’t be a cookbook solution.  Different content domains will require different instructional approaches.  Different delivery environments will create unique challenges and opportunities for the learner to interact with the content and challenges at hand. 

In this article, I just want to hint at how transformative an open approach to instructional design can be in your own work.  As a baseline, I’m proposing a bit of content that is not, strictly speaking, a piece of e-learning, but it is certainly intended as instructional writing and is delivered via the web.  It is rather a great website in its clear presentation of content.  Indeed, even without interactivity, I think it is actually a lot better than many more formal e-learning lessons.  Take a quick look at it here. As you can tell with a quick glance, it’s a short “page turner” about how a three-way light switch works.  Did you read it?  Did it make sense?  Do you think you really learned anything?  Even with that relatively clear and concise presentation, I bet that very few of us learned much from it.  Whatever design was involved was focused entirely on the content and not at all on the learner. 

What happens when you start designing for the learner?  Well, you immediately end up thinking about what the learner is doing instead of what you are telling them.  Compare what you learned from the first version we just looked at and this interaction, built in ZebraZapps:

Suddenly the heart of the instruction is all about what the learner is doing and not what the “teacher” (the internet) is presenting.  Creating these interactions must be at the center of the instructional designer’s activity.  The content writing is necessary but secondary to the interaction.

This example is by no means ideal, but I wanted to show how even the simplest approach to creating an experience for the learner changes the whole foundation of the learning event.  The instructional designer should refine and extend the interactivity to introduce a sense of challenge and purpose as suggested by this revision:

Of course, there are details that would need to be worked out—better feedback for incorrect attempts, more complete reference resources to explain the content if necessary, etc.—but the value of the lesson has just been magnified several times over as a result of the instructional designer’s craft. 

I challenge you instructional designers out there to embrace the possibility of transforming you learners through your dedication to creating learning experiences.  If you are interested in enhancing your own design process, consider joining me for a webinar “5 Critical Design Activities for Creating Impactful e-Learning” on August 5th.

Laugh All You Want


Mary-Scott Hunterby Mary-Scott Hunter, vice president - client services

Knock, knock.

Who’s there?

No one. Corporate standards deem humor to be inappropriate in the workplace.

I am constantly amazed how often humor is shelved as an instructional strategy. You heard me — instructional strategy. In our striving to gain and maintain learners’ attention, you would think that developers of e-learning would relish an instructional strategy that has mass appeal, creates happy pheromones in learners, promotes integration of information, and remains absolutely free. 

But not so.

Years of stern disapproval from legal, regulatory, and even the boss’s boss have successfully trained learning professionals to turn a blind eye to the awesome powers of hilarity. The standard disclaimers are, ‘Not everyone finds the same thing funny,’ ‘Who can say what’s truly amusing,’ and ‘Humor can veer into the inappropriate.’ All of these statements are true and yet none justify excluding this powerful instructional strategy. At worst, they point to the need for evaluating the humor included, not outright exclusion.

AllenInteractionsMSHumor22013Thankfully, some corporations understand that tapping the funny bone works. In November of 2012, Delta Air Lines released two new safety videos, those irritatingly familiar do’s and don’ts reviewed while the plane prepares for departure. (Both versions appear at the end of this article.) In each version, I count roughly 14 jokes.

Mind you, Delta isn’t the first to add humor to their safety videos. Searching on YouTube will reveal other hilarious entries from various airlines. The difference seems to be (in my opinion at least), is that while those other videos try to create something hilarious, Delta chose to use humor instructionally to emphasize their message, not mask it with laughter.

You’d think that for a serious topic (furrow your eyebrows whenever you read the words ‘serious topic’) like airplane safety, executives would steer clear of humor. I picture a gaggle of senior executives arguing around a conference table.

“We can’t,” says Jenkins. “I’m all for humor, but not when it’s a serious topic.”

Oh Jenkins...humor is appropriate in a wide range of circumstances when you know how to properly apply it. The secret is to use humor as an instructional strategy, not create a stand-up comedy act. Using Delta’s charming videos, I’ll articulate a couple useful guidelines for utilizing humor in training.

1.  Use Humor to Underscore Main Points

During Delta’s video, when reminding passengers to pay attention to all posted signs, the camera turns toward the signs we’d expect: keep your seatbelts fastened, No Smoking, etc. Then, Delta-branded signs for “No Squash” and “No Juggling Chainsaws” gently come into focus.

Our humorless executive, Jenkins, might argue that a passenger would never get chainsaws past airport security. Jenkins! You’re missing the point. The learning emphasized paying attention to signage and underscored the message with gentle absurdity.

Should we fret it sends a mixed message about signage and how some might seem silly? No. The absurd signs are ridiculous enough that there is no confusion with real world signs, nor would it cause internal angst for learners as to which signs are worthy of consideration.

2.  Choose not to use Humor

The Delta videos are not a series of non-stop gags. These videos aren’t trying to win 100,000 hits on YouTube. They use humor to emphasize situations, rules, and reactions. They avoid humor when it interferes with the instructional message.

For example, humor is not used at all when instructing on how to fasten seatbelts, attach an oxygen mask, or during the pilot’s final message. Why not? I believe the creators were cognizant of the learning outcomes and affective impact. Nobody wants to see their airline pilot play ‘the clown.’ We want to trust and rely in the confidence of pilots, not be wowed by their Robin Williams’ impression.

When fastening seatbelts and attaching oxygen masks, Delta has an investment in learners performing these tasks correctly, flawlessly. Their instructional designers (I believe) said, “Not here. Humor must not interfere with the steps and correct demonstration of those steps.” Good for them. Half of using humor as an instructional strategy is deciding when to hold back.

3.  Use Humor to Emphasize Sameness or Differences

When asking, “Are you comfortable performing the tasks necessary in an exit row,” two of the three row mates, identical twins (dressed identically) respond in a monotone, “Yes.” The third gentleman winces slightly and says, “Not really.” He leaves and is immediately replaced by another exact replica of the first two. The twins, it turns out, are triplets.

While chuckling at the exit row trio, several instructional points got validated: everyone has to say yes or no to their responsibilities in this row, it’s okay to decline the responsibility, and all three must be equally up to the task. I’m not suggesting humor theorists write a 12-page paper analyzing this exchange (humor theorists = murderers of humor), but I can appreciate that Delta once again used humor to enhance teaching points.

Similarly, when talking about putting ‘smaller items’ under the seat in front of you, the camera shows an absurdly tiny suitcase, smaller than the size of a pop can. The absurdity contrasts the point being made and makes me think of all the times I have witnessed row mates shoving and kicking full-sized duffle bags in an attempt to make them ‘fit’ under the seat. Delta just tricked me into considering ‘what is small? What would fit? What is appropriate for that space?’

Kudos, Delta, for making me consider implementing your guidelines. That’s what you wanted from your learners all along.

4.  Laugh at Ridiculous Situations

We all encounter ridiculous situations in our world — at the supermarket, other Moms at daycare, and gasp, even at work. We can laugh at their (and our) foibles without laughing at the people themselves. It’s called self-effacing humor.

While stating that the airline patrons may experience turbulence, the camera cuts to two young girls playing the popular wooden blocks game Jenga on top of their tray tables. As the plane experiences a few bumps, their eyes dart with alarm to the clattering, wiggling tower they’ve constructed as they realize their impending doom.

It’s hilarious.

Who plays Jenga on an airplane?

Nobody — which is why it’s damn funny. We’re not laughing at the girls. In fact, we share their dread that the turbulence will prematurely end their block-stacking game. We laugh at the absurdity of playing games of precision and balance in an environment almost certain to be tumultuous.

Delta found a way to laugh at a ridiculous situation while emphasizing a reality of the world of flying we all hate:  turbulence.

Isn’t it possible that your work environment/training situation has ridiculous moments? Don’t you think your learners know this? Don’t you think they’d eagerly welcome the empathy and recognition when those creating their training acknowledged life’s absurdities?

Win some points with your learners and show them you get their wacky, difficult challenges.

5.  Have Fun

Remember the senior executives sitting around a conference room table arguing about whether to incorporate humor? Bless their vision and faith for saying ‘yes’ eventually. But they probably weren’t the ones who came up with the many goofy jokes that work.

The people who created humor in the Delta video clearly did so with an eye toward the instructional goal. But they also were people who like to play. You can’t create humor or find appropriate humor without actually having fun. Appropriate workplace humor is a byproduct of confidence, skill, and boundaries.  When your team gets all three dimensions, you can play. You can laugh.

If your folks aren’t having fun brainstorming humor as an instructional strategy, chances are it’s not that funny. 

6.  Test with Users

In the end, you test humor the way you’d test any instructional strategy — with end users. If they think it’s funny, it is. If they think it’s not, then it doesn’t support the learning and you must remove or modify it. Count on your learners to tell you the truth when it comes to humor. It’s one topic where each of us considers ourselves an expert. 


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