Identifying Needs: Quick but not Dirty

Prima Worth is a large IT organization based in India with a global presence. Each IT project is managed by a team of 5 to 6 Project Managers who report to a Program Manager. The duration of each Project is around 18 to 36 months. The Program Managers report to Sharad Gupte Delivery Head, Projects.

Sharad has requested for a meeting with Prima Worth’s L&D Head, Pradeep Mandke. Sharad is having grave concerns over how his Project Managers manage and handle day-to-day, informal feedback with their project teams.

 “Pradeep, I need you to design a ½ day module on feedback for my PMs” begins Sharad after the initial pleasantries are over. “Sure Sharad, We can. Tell me more. What is the problem?” Pradeep responds. Sharad offers a quick description of what he believes to be the problem. He explains to Pradeep how PMs are not well versed with the idea of day-to-day informal feedback. Sharad emphasizes to Pradeep that while the quarterly review is important and has its own place, it is the day-to-day, informal feedback that saves the day. It helps keeping a check on minor discipline issues, tracking deadlines and quality related issues.

“Sharad, I’ll have a team member take this up immediately. Meanwhile…” Pradeep explains that he will need time to plan a quick study before the program is actually put together. Sharad is tempted to raise an objection to the ‘study’. Deep down he believes that the study will be a waste of time but holds himself back. Instead he promises that he and his team of PMs will give whatever time is required for the study. After discussing possible launch dates for the program, the meeting between them ends.

(This scenario is fictional and sketchy, written only for driving the main idea of this post.)

Most L&D professionals might relate to this scenario. A request for a training program from the line or from a business, where the problem, its solution and the training need are already drawn up clearly before L&D is brought in. The line manager or the business is all too often confident about the need. And I am sure in many cases their conclusion may be spot on. But I feel that is no reason to skip or avoid or assume that a Needs Identification (NI) exercise is not required. If nothing, a NI exercise provides validation of a training need.

In the scenario described above, a NI exercise will determine the ‘real’ need that leads to minor disciplinary and quality issues.  Pradeep’s team must conduct a NI exercise that may either validate Sharad’s conviction or provide new information about the reasons for daily discipline issues amongst team members.

The most practical way forward to gather information about the real issues around daily discipline would be to talk to Project Managers and other stakeholders like team members, Program Managers and Sharad. Of course, this ‘talk’ would need to be planned as a series of interviews with members from each role. The focus of this post is on the importance of interviews as a quick, practical way forward to a good NI exercise. And interviews are made up of questions. At the heart of good interviews are good questions. Nothing deep, not even remotely insightful can come from a question like “What challenges do you face while giving informal feedback to your team members?”

Crafting good questions needs time and the Questions Grid – a framework of different question types you can ask get to the heart of the matter. Just like you need different types of tools to do different tasks, you need different type of questions to ‘dig’ out relevant information from your interviewees. The Questions Grid does just that.

The Questions Grid

The Questions Grid

The question types on the X axis are obvious. But here’s a quick definition of the question types on the Y axis.

Role-specific Questions: Questions that reveal more about the role

Technical Questions: Questions that reveal technical aspects of a role

Problem-based Questions: Questions that reveal specifics of a problem in the role that the employee maybe encountering at that time

Situation Specific Questions: Questions that reveal more about a situation in which the problem occurs and in some cases, a situation- specific question maybe similar to a problem-based question

The Questions Grid is a tool for generating questions and needs to be as a part of a quick, but not dirty 5-step NI process.

Step 1: Decide the information you want to dig up through the NI exercise. Do your best to put it down as a NI goal statement.

Step 2: Your goal statement of step 1 will help you determine the roles you need to interview. This is a good time and place to decide the sample size of your respondents.

Step 3: For each role you will interview, use the Questions Grid to plan and phrase your questions appropriately.

What you need to do is pick and choose from any question combinations that you think will best elicit the information you seek from your respondents. For example you may need a couple of situation-specific probing and clarifying questions for the Delivery Head or a few situation-specific open-ended questions for the Project Manager.

With your NI goal, roles and questions in place, you have a simple but robust NI plan in place. You may also now fine-tune details about the mode of the interview, the time to be allocated to each interview and how you will record the answers you will receive for each question.

A real, jargon-free NI plan can quell apprehensions that managers like Sharad may have about the ‘study’. Most cynical stakeholders may see a value of asking well prepared questions and may actually encourage a NI study the next time around.

Step 4: Execute your plan. Record responses. Make sure you do not record an interpretation of the responses.

Step 5: Publish your findings. Express your findings in clear unambiguous terms. A format we find useful in expressing a need is the 4W Format. Who – describes your audience, What describes the skill or behavior the audience lacks, When describes the specific conditions under which the skill or behaviour is absent and Why describes the reasons for the lack of that skill or behaviour or both. Here is what the format looks like:

The 4W Format

The 4W Format

The result of a NI exercise becomes concrete and specific when expressed in the 4W Format. Stakeholders involved in the project find it easy to agree or disagree on something stated with specificity. A clearly articulated statement like this can take a needs related conversation to another level altogether.  Once agreed upon, this needs statement can serve as a starting point to define a clear specific learning goal or outcome.

The use of constructs like the Questions Grid and the 4W Format make NI a quick but not necessarily dirty process. In fact both constructs add a great deal of value to NI by virtue of making NI simple, intuitive and a transparent process, devoid of technical or ID jargon that all stakeholders understand.  And when stakeholders understand NI, they are seldom resistant to it.

Continuing our series on quick and practical methods of NI, in the next post we dive into the 4th W called “Why”. How do we determine the cause of a need? Until then…

ID: The Discipline and its Practitioner

This is a fond memory of more than 15 years ago when I worked for a large and on-the-rise eLearning organization.

I was assigned as Instructional Designer for a prestigious project. A couple of days later, a colleague came over to my desk and pointed toward the large conference table on the other side of the huge open-plan office. I saw the entire project team (of ‘my’ project) in the midst of what seemed to be an intense discussion which lasted for over two hours.

After the meeting was over, I went up to the Project Manager and asked him whether he knew that I was the assigned Instructional Designer and why I was not invited for that meeting. He replied quite matter-of-factly “Oh! You were not needed. We were conceptualizing and designing. Doesn’t your work begin after the product is ready?”.

“No” I said.

He reacted “So then aren’t you going to spell check and review language inconsistencies?”

The discipline of ID first made its presence felt in the eLearning space in India almost 20 years back and not everyone understood it very well. At that time, most folks thought that the role of an Instructional Designer was primarily to proof-read and weed out grammar errors, punctuation errors and language inconsistencies. They would at best be required to rewrite the verbs on the Learning Objectives screen, after the screens were ready.

Thankfully, today this is no more than a fond memory.

This post briefly looks at the evolution of Instructional Design and its emergence in Indian organizations with the objective of understanding the discipline and the role of its practitioner as it is today.

It was in the early 90s, when present-day eLearning companies (called Multimedia companies at that time) hit upon a realization. In a team of Programmers, Visual Designers, Graphics Artists and Project Managers and Writers, whose job is it to look after learning? Who would be that person who ‘knew something about learning’? This role would have to be filled in by a perhaps a Teacher, a Trainer or someone who would be able to facilitate learning in absentia. And here began the story of the Instructional Designer.

To fulfil the need of a resource who ‘knew something about learning’, eLearning organizations hired smart people from different academic and professional backgrounds – Engineering, Management, IT, Science and Literature Graduates as Instructional Designers. They were trained internally, mainly on-the-project, by other senior team members well-versed with ID and in some cases even by clients.

Two factors helped the growth of Instructional Design in India eLearning organizations tremendously. The first one being that the presence of an Instructional Designer on a project was a key client requirement. Organizations had to showcase ID capability in order to win projects. They provided direction and focus to internal ID training for the role holders.

The second factor that helped the growth of Instructional Design was the sheer zeal with which aspiring Instructional Designers learned the craft on the job. Unfazed by the lack of formal or even systematic structured training, Instructional Designers picked up the practice of ID pretty much on the job.

A new profession was born in the training rooms of these organizations.  And it would be no exaggeration to say that in India, as well as globally, ID is one such profession that has more self-taught practitioners than qualified professionals.

Now here’s the interesting bit. The lack of a defined ID curriculum or course made this an open field. Instructional Designers learned everything from understanding the pieces of Cognitive Science to Bloom’s Taxonomy. They stepped into projects to give learning design inputs and along the way they wrote eLearning storyboards and scripts, understood Visual and Communication Design, mastered the strengths and limitations of the online medium, dabbled in Project Management and at times even managed clients. With panache.

The role of Instructional Designers has evolved today be like that of a movie director who needs to understand all aspects of film-making in addition to directorial skills. Instructional designers can, if required, hold together the Instructional, Creative, Process-related and Technical reins of learning, and not just eLearning. They have become the go-to people for performance gaps that can be traced to a learning need. They apply principles of cognition, and use their understanding of media and technology to create learning interventions that solve performance problems. And this is just a macro-level view of the skills Instructional Designers  demonstrate.

At the micro-level, an Instructional Designer adds tremendous value to the content being taught. To craft a sound instructional strategy, Instructional Designers first need to understand the subject matter to a large extent possible.  An Instructional Designer must also do the following: chunk content into topics, name them in in a logical and appealing way, layer the content, come up with creative ways of teaching the subject using constructs like Games and Stories, ensure that the written word is culturally and technically accurate.

The skill list does not end here. In addition to all of the above, most Instructional Designers have a keen sense of their clients business, have excellent verbal and written communication and research skills, discuss usability standards with flair, can tell a good animation from a bad one and sometimes make small code corrections.

Today almost 20 years on, there is no ambiguity about the field of ID its practitioner. It is fascinating when you think about it. All of these skills – learned on the job, pretty much on their own.

In keeping with the spirit of self-learning that has defines the discipline of ID and its practitioner, this blog will bring a bit of knowledge, a few resources and mainly a host of insights gained in the practice of this amazing profession.