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Growing Talent Development Firms: 9M Design

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

A couple of posts ago I wrote about the difference between the primary instructional goal of educating versus training, the former focused on acquiring information and the latter on changing behavior (or the knowing versus doing dichotomy). In that post, I noted the approach to delivery is likely to be different depending upon the program’s content. The question remaining, however, is whether the underlying criteria for good instructional design is different in these two cases. I would argue regardless of the content of your products or programs that the hallmark of strong instructional design is a group of underlying elements that should be incorporated across all of them.

Over the years, many industry pundits have proposed several critical criteria for developing high-quality learning solutions that make a long-term difference. That is, they engage the learner in ways that move them to either acquire new knowledge or change their behavior and subsequently apply it to their job performance. I think these criteria have evolved with the addition of several that meet today’s workplace needs. I would characterize them into three buckets: the admired, the desired, and the required. And thus, the 9 Ms of solid instructional design.

The Admired

In the early days of instructional design, when it was becoming as much an art as a science, developers would typically use three M words to describe the most important elements of high-quality, admirable design. To this day, they are still used to evaluate how well-designed a learning experience is. And, they stand as absolute foundations of solid instructional design as it integrates the content and the experience.

Meaningful: Are the learning materials and experiences relevant to the current job and organizational context? Do they relate to the task requirements, the specific geographic locale, and the represented industry? Can the learner relate to what is being taught?

Motivational: Does the experience provide a reason for learning? Is there a clear connection between what is being taught and how it can be used on the job? Does it make sense and give purpose to the learning? Does it reinforce existing policies, processes, and procedures used in the organization? Can the learner see and understand the reward for completing the learning as it relates to improved job performance?

Memorable: Can the information or skills be readily called forth when necessary? Does the learning experience include meaningful hooks, making it easy for the learner to immediately apply to the job what has been taught?


The Desired

In addition to the three foundational elements of good design are three other desirable, but not always attainable, criteria. Yet, many organizations are increasingly calling for them to be part of their learning experiences.

Magical: Is it interesting enough to engage learners in the experience and keep them there without complaint? Does it facilitate a memorable, and thus more likely to be applied, experience? Does it include a multimedia approach to drawing on all the senses? Does it offer unexpected surprises that further excite and motivate the learner?

Measurable: Does it meet the organization’s need for proof that the learning experiences are delivering results? Have measurable learning outcomes and their accompanying metrics been conceived at the outset of the learning process, and are these transferrable to real-world performance? Has an evaluation process been instituted to collect feedback on performance improvements both at the individual employee and organizational performance levels?

Mastery: Although admittedly often difficult to assess, has top performance been defined by the organization? Is excellence being measured and tracked? What systems and processes are in place to ensure learners can readily apply what they have learned to their on-job performance? How can relative achievement of goals be evaluated across employee groups?


The Required

During the last several years, the talent development industry has changed in many ways. A large part of this change was due to the introduction of technology to learning delivery as well as improvements in understanding the science of learning and its impact on designing learning experiences. As a result, some new criteria are readily being required to address these advancements as well as the changing workforce demographic.

Mobile: Are the components of the learning experiences readily available and easily accessible? Can the learning experiences be accessed anytime, anywhere, and anyplace? Have they been effectively configured using the most modern technology to create comparable learning experiences from classroom to digital environments? Have appropriate blended learning experiences been created to take advantage of matching the best modality with the desired content?

Micro: Have short-spurt learning sessions been created to cope with a general decrease in learner attention spans? Are the learning experiences formatted for small-chunk learning? Can uninterrupted streaming capacity work for all mobile devices?

Mandated: Have learning experiences been configured to meet the standards of required knowledge and skills? Which learning formats are best for mitigating legal and financial risk? Are compliance requirements in areas such as ethics, harassment, and safety integrated into the learning agenda? Have technical skills certification training requirements been integrated into the organization’s curriculum? How can mandated learning be measured and tracked to ensure it is meeting its objectives?

As noted, there are many instances for which these nine criteria overlap and even seem to be extensions of one another. That is, they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if every learning experience created met these criteria at a high level, whatever that looks like? But, if these nine criteria can serve as a guide for the design of such experiences, it is likely the results will be more productive in meeting the needs of the learners and their organizations.

What have you done to ensure these criteria are incorporated into the design of your products and programs? Which do you feel are most lacking and what can you do to integrate them into the delivery of your learning experiences? Of these nine criteria, which do you feel are the strengths of your products and programs and how can you leverage them even more?

About the Author

Steve Cohen is founder and principal of the Strategic Leadership Collaborative, a private consulting practice focused on business strategy and development. A 40+ year veteran of the talent development industry, largely on the supplier side, he has demonstrated a proven track record for building equity by growing top and bottom-line performance for eight different consulting enterprises in the education and training industry he has either founded and/or led. He has been called on to consult with numerous firms needing strategic planning guidance, business coaching, and board advisory services.

His latest book is The Complete Guide to Building and Growing a Talent Development Firm.

He can be reached at: 952.942.7291 or [email protected] or at his website:

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