For Richard Silkes of Sherwood Consultants in Fairfield, good training is good business, and the two must be intimately intertwined to ensure a company’s success. “Some people describe training as an event,” he says. “From the get-go, you want to make sure that key people in the business view instructional design as one of the contributors the company’s growth and competitiveness.”

Silkes defines instructional design as a systematic approach to creating training or a learning experience that effectively and efficiently meets the needs of both the organization and the learners. “It’s a partnership between the trainer, the business owners, and the learners,” he says. “The goal is measurable — to improve performance in ways that generally increase an organization’s efficiency or effectiveness or both.”

Instructional design is a systematic approach to training, says Silkes. Its advantage is that it is focused on results. It is generally cost-effective and time-effective, is integrated into the business, and is suited to the abilities of the trainer as well as meeting or exceeding the needs of the organization and the learner. The disadvantages are that it takes time, especially at the front end, and requires multiple resources within the organization.

Silkes offers a workshop on “The Agony and Ecstasy of Instructional Design” on Thursday, February 9, at 8:30 a.m. to the North Jersey Chapter of American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) at NECA-Whippany. Cost: $195. To register, call 973-263-5455 or visit www.nnjastd.org.

Sherwood explains that the process of instructional design has five intertwined phases:

Analysis. Often people think training is the answer that will cure everything, but of course it’s not. Only careful analysis will uncover what is really needed. “If I do up-front analysis,” says Silkes, “the rest takes care of itself. If I skip it, shame on me, because I didn’t do due diligence. When I do it right, everybody’s on board.”

“Be a business partner, not a resident academician,” says Silkes. “A trainer should start inquiries as close to the top of the organization as possible.”

Ask the important questions about the total business: What are the challenges and what are the current and future opportunities? Opportunities might include a new line. Potential challenges could be new competition, new machinery, or a decrease in sales. Does the current team have the knowledge and skills necessary to either meet the challenges or pursue the opportunities?

While it is vital to ask questions, Silkes says that there is one question that trainers should never ask: What training needs do you have? The answer should come not from the client, but from the trainer’s analysis of the issues his organization is facing.

Review performance data. The data will reveal the nature of the problem and how important it is to the organization. A trainer must look at real data — weekly sales reports, profit and loss statements, staffing reports, weekly and monthly sales figures, and even maintenance data. “Be the Sherlock Holmes of the organization,” says Silkes.

Ask yourself: What is the difference between what performance results should be and what they are? What are the consequences of any gap between the ideal and the real? How much is the problem costing the organization in lost sales, time, and productivity? What will happen if nothing is done to fix it?

If the problem is deemed important, figure out its cause to see whether training can fix it.

Look at individual performers. One question to ask is whether an individual could perform as expected if his or her life depended on it? If the answer is yes, then the person can, in fact, do the job with the current level of skill and knowledge, and it may not be a training problem.

See whether the problem can be fixed without training. “Before I go near a knee-jerk reaction to training,” says Silkes, “I ask whether we can we modify the task to make it simpler and easier.”

Another thing to investigate in the case of a performance gap is whether an individual is being punished for performing correctly. Consider a situation where a person completes a job that required working day and night for two weeks, and then the boss says: “You did such a great job, I’m going to assign you this responsibility from now on.”

No, this is not a job that can be performed on a regular basis. The problem is not training. It’s out of control expectations. In other cases, an employee or department may be floundering as they try to complete conflicting assignments given to them by multiple supervisors. Again, don’t look to training to solve this problem.

Collect data to confirm there is a problem. Use interviews, a focus group, direct observation, indirect observation, looking at performance data and work indicators, a questionnaire, a survey, or some combination. “I want to make sure that if we ascertain there is a problem, I am contributing to fixing the right problem,” says Silkes.

The next step is to analyze the job where the problem exists. A job is a group of related of activities or responsibilities, and the trainer must develop a comprehensive list of tasks for each responsibility. Often a job description may be outdated, because technology or regulations have changed.

Make a list of job tasks, indicating which ones are “drop-dead” important. Perform a task analysis, looking at how people perform specific activities within the job. For a sales representative from a pharmaceutical company, for example, a designer would look at tasks like preparing for a cold call or a return visit, or reviewing progress.

Determine measurable standards for the task. What does it look like when the task is performed at an extraordinary level?

Establish the resources necessary to do the job. What knowledge, skills, and materials are required? Are other colleagues involved, or can it be done in vacuum?

As an alternative, the designer can analyze competencies, that is, those behaviors demonstrated consistently by an organization’s top performers. “These people constitute the epitome of success within the organization,” says Silkes, “and one only wishes their behaviors could be cloned.”

Instructional designers can then break into manageable learning chunks what separates the top performers from the average ones: What knowledge, skills, and prior experience are keys to success? What challenges do they face, and how do they handle them? What are the tricks of the trade?

With a good idea of how the task can best be performed, the instructional designer needs to turn his attention to designing a course of instruction. This involves development, implementation, and evaluation.

Any instructional design must take into account the fact that learners are adults. They bring a great deal of experience to a workshop and usually have much to contribute. “If I don’t tap into their experience, and instead create a lecture or a monologue, it’s at my peril,” says Silkes.

Adults in the business world like to focus on real-life, here-and-now problems, not academic situations. They are accustomed to being active and self-directed, and want to have that “Ahah” experience where they discover an answer for themselves.

Adults need an environment that is both challenging and supportive. Remember that you are asking adults to take risks as they practice skills among peers, and they may not be comfortable doing so. They need materials provided to them in manageable chunks. They need to know WIIFM — what’s in it for me? What’s the benefit of taking time out from my job to attend a workshop?

They sometimes need to be encouraged to share. Silkes likes to tell people that “your experiences have given you something it’s important to share — something you do might really help the person next to you, so share what is working.”

In designing learning experiences for adults it is important to set specific objectives. Silkes suggests one to three objectives for the entire program and for each module. “At the end of the workshop, what is it I want people to leave with, very specifically?” asks Silkes. He recommends creating these objectives with specific action verbs. For example, reduce the number of customer service complaint letters and increase the number of complimentary letters; increase sales; and reduce tardiness on the job, absenteeism, or overtime.

In doing the training, the facilitator should not be in the limelight, but rather should be holding the spotlight and shining it on each individual by asking questions, encouraging contributions and risk-taking, and respecting the experience that people bring into the program.

Silkes has been in organizational development, training, and executive coaching for 25 years. After graduating from Brown University in 1973 with a degree in American studies, he stayed on for a master’s degree in teaching. He then taught behavioral sciences in a Greenwich, Connecticut, high school, where he both developed curriculum and served as a master teacher, supervising interns. In the early 1980s, he went into a doctoral program at Columbia University that involved looking at non-school settings as an educator.

While in school, he hooked up with a training and development company that created programs in leadership, customer service, and sales. He spent a number of years on the corporate side in organization development and training with the Macy’s specialty store division and then with the Melville Corporation, a billion-dollar footware retailer. For the last several years he has been with Sherwood Consultants.

Some methodologies work better than others, depending on the group and on the lessons to be learned. Possible activities include case studies, skill practices, discussions, debates, practical applications, and instruction followed by on-the-job activity and a discussion of what did and didn’t work.

“The last thing I want is for the vehicle I choose for learning to become a barrier or impediment to learning itself,” says Silkes.

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