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What Got Us Here Won’t Get Us There – A Conversation with Trish Uhl

Richard Sites, vice president client services, Allen Interactions, co-author of Leaving ADDIE for SAM

vice president of client services & co-author of Leaving ADDIE for SAM
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Uhl, Trish 
Trish Uhl
Owl's Ledge 
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I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce you to a colleague of mine, Trish Uhl. 

As CEO of Owl's Ledge, a learning and performance and project management consulting firm, Trish travels the world speaking, coaching, and consulting with people and organizations about “professionalizing the learning profession” through the adoption of professional standards and skills-based assessment.

Trish and I met last year when we each presented at the ASTD-Memphis Employee Learning Week conference.

From dishing on training design and development, to pontificating on performance, we’ve kept the conversation going from Memphis to Malaysia, from ASTD to Training Magazine (and other training-related events in between) and we’ve decided that the dialogue would be richer, and even more lively, by adding other voices—like yours!

That being said, I’ve captured our conversation in a series of blog posts, starting with the one today.

Join us! We would be delighted if YOU—our learning-pro peers—dialogued with us on the state of the training industry and the learning profession; specifically, on what has changed and is changing for those of us who design learning (and, subsequently, for our peers who deliver training). Share your thoughts in the comments below!

RICHARD: Trish, we have discussed so many things about training and development over the past months, from content to processes to certification. One thing you say that always gets me thinking is, “What got us here won’t get us there.” I absolutely love how succinctly this describes our current state.

So tell us: What do you mean by that?

TRISH: Well, Richard, there are lots of critical transitions happening in the world of learning right now, and I believe we need a coalition of champions raising its voice in a chorus of “tough love” because…YES! What got us here won’t get us there.

What do I mean? I mean, it’s no secret, right? We’re at a point in time where we’ve spent years contending with a down economy in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. We’ve had training budgets slashed and training staff downsized. Our training departments have been viewed as cost centers, rather than investments in the vitality, development, and growth of the organizations we serve. 

We’ve had to do more with less—leverage technology, cut costs, go global, compete globally, keep overhead low, stay current, get things done (GTD), AND—simultaneously, somehow—drive positive organizational outcomes by improving human performance.

In many, many places, it’s not working. We are adrift, rudderless—without orientation of up, right, down, left, or center. The question is, WHY? Why are things so “out of whack?”

Let’s take a look at the evolution of adult learning theory—starting with Behaviorism from the early 1900s (yes, I said 1900s—the BEGINNING of the last CENTURY!).

Behaviorism looks at delivering training in a traditional classroom based upon prescribed objectives. “Learning” (conditioning, really) is achieved through the use of outside stimuli. Ultimately, mastery is measured by determining whether or not the learner has achieved the desired behavior.

Think about how the principles of behaviorism influenced training design and delivery in the early 20th century. Behaviorism provided the framework for who we were.

As trainers, we were experts in front of the classroom, dispensing our knowledge, expertise, and experience to the participants primarily through lecture. They, in turn, sat on their hands, smiled, and passively took it. (This is important! This means that is what our audiences EXPECT training to be! And some folks get horribly upset when you mess with their expectations, like, when you, say—design training to be more interactive. They, quite literally, don’t know how to act because it’s so far removed from their experiences and expectations.)

As instructional designers and course developers, we carefully designed for this method of delivery. And it served us well for ~ 100 years in the Industrial Age, when work was simpler, straightforward, and solutions were well known. Back then, an employee’s job was to show up on time, act as “order takers,” and execute on whatever they were told to do, whenever they were told to do it, according to how they were told to get it done.

But, what worked in the early 20th century is not working for us now in the throes of the 21st century. Now, we’re trying to fit this model and make it work in a world which is no longer the same. We attempt to take a subjective-centered approach to figure out creative ways to cram in as much content as we possibly could in ever-shrinking amounts of time. We’ve all been here: “Can you take this week long class and do it in two days? Can you do it in one day? Can you run just a 90-minute brown bag lunch.”

RICHARD: Trish, I see what you mean by “What got us here won’t get us there,” but we live in a world where people still equate delivering content with training.  People—even those in learning and development—believe providing content is training (whether they admit it or not).

So we, those members of the tribe, need to have an understanding of how the beliefs of others impact our work. As we attempt to shift from designing content-focused training to performance and behavioral-focused instruction, we must recognize we will meet resistance to 21st century theories, methods, and models simply because they don’t match people’s habituated mental models.

TRISH: Yes, Richard, correct!

The problem is compounded by the fact that our sponsors (those who pay us to design and develop the training) expect it to be content-centric; and our audiences (those who receive the training we’ve designed) expect to remain passive as the training is inflicted upon them.

These perspectives are even more entrenched than we sometimes realize because we—instructional designers, trainers, learning professionals—forget that people expect training to mirror their earliest experiences with education.

Simply put, people equate training with the educational experiences they had growing up. They expect training to look and feel like how they were taught.

As social media guru, Jane Bozarth (aka the World's Oldest Millennial) has observed in her work, people will continue to hold these mental models and have these expectations until they have no longer grown up with this educational model.

Baby Boomers and Gen Xers were educated using a behaviorist approach, and as such, they were conditioned to believe that “learning” means recitation and rote memorization.

You and I fall into this group. We were rewarded in our academic careers by learning how to sit still during content-driven lectures. We were tested on knowledge recall and basic comprehension—“In what year was the Magna Carta signed? Who was King John of England?”

As such, we follow (old) training models based on antiquated and outdated teaching models. 

RICHARD: So, if the foundations of our profession are built upon this type of behaviorist, content-driven training, are there other legacy structures we’re dealing with as well? 

TRISH: Yes! Lots!

For example, simple, common models that we use today—like ADDIE—are phase-by-phase linear processes where you complete one phase then “fall” into the next.  

We gravitated toward ADDIE and its attendant methodologies because it was akin to how the world worked in the Industrial Age. The problem is, the world doesn’t work like that anymore.

The Industrial Age is over.

The world has changed; work has evolved. Hierarchical top-down control has been replaced by matrices  (cross-functional workgroups where leadership prays every day for nimble, adaptable, responsive teams). People spend less time in their day-to-day focused on routine, standard operating procedures and more time on the unstable complexities of cross-departmental project work.

Yet we haven’t changed; we’re still using the same old tools.

“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” as Abraham Maslow said,

Our “hammer” worked just fine in the stability and routine pace of the Industrial Age—but those days are long since over. We are in constant states of chaos, complexity, and change. Our “new normal” is a VUCA world – volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Work is dynamic, with shifting priorities that require problem solving as situations continue to evolve.

To survive, we have to think on our feet and respond appropriately to challenges as they present themselves. There is no more waiting for someone “from on-high” to come downstairs and tell the worker bees what to do, how to do it, and when to get it done. People need to figure it out on-the-fly. They need to be INNOVATIVE.

That’s how people survive; that’s how organizations will remain vital and competitive.

“Work is no longer ‘pre-figured,’ it is configured,’” to quote Fred Nickols.

RICHARD: Again, Trish, you have pinpointed the key issue. Our processes don’t adequately support what we should be, or could be, doing. 

Whenever I write or speak about SAM (Successive Approximation Model), someone always says, “This is the same thing as ADDIE.”

While there are many differences between the two approaches, the key difference is that ADDIE (or whatever process you are following and calling ADDIE) does not start with the goal of changing learner performance.

Widely used instructional development processes are, instead, centered on the dissemination of content. The outcome of these processes is often boring, content heavy “training” that concludes with a multiple-choice quiz.

And why?

This type of “training” is easy to build and simple to track. It allows for everyone to give their two cents on the words being used and for learners to demonstrate their “completion.”

But this type of instructional self-validation does nothing for learners or performance improvement. These “courses” never come close to answering the question learners most want answered: “What does performance look like for me so I can be successful at my job?”

Therefore, there’s no value, other than the false pretense that, yes, someone can check a proverbial (or literal) box and say that “training” was provided.

TRISH: AGREED! But, what’s happening today is even worse than that, Richard!

Mobile learning guru Sarah Gilbert (meLearning Solutions) and I recently talked about exactly what you’ve described!

Sarah pointed out that not only do these types of courses typically end in useless (and meaningless) multiple-choice quizzes, but learners are “on to us.” They often review the quizzes first, then go back through the “course” to ferret out just enough content to be successful in selecting the correct answers on the quiz questions to get a passing score.

It not only accomplishes nothing of value to the organization; it also insults our learners’ intelligence, wastes their time, discredits real training programs, and, frankly, discredits real training professionals.


TRISH: Yes. Ouch. It’s time to for all of us to come together and start having real conversations rather than pandering to the status quo. It’s time to start actively and honestly “slaying the sacred (and antiquated) cows.”

What got us here won’t get us there.

We need to get rid of what no longer serves.

RICHARD: Agreed. Wow—lots to talk about!

Trish, in the next blog post, I’d like to get your thoughts on why we continue to hold these assumptions in our industry when we should know better.

On that note, we should put out a call-to-action to our training & development and learning-pro peers—we want to hear from YOU!

Please use the comments section below to let us know what you think!

  1. How has the role of the instructional designer or trainer changed for you in recent years?
  2. Does continuing to design and deliver training using a behaviorist, content-driven approach provide anything of value?
  3. Which instructional design models are you using? Why?
  4. How are you designing or delivering meaningful, memorable, motivational learning moments?
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