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ATD Blog

Instructional Design Is a Vital Capability for TD Professionals

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Instructional design, one of the 23 capabilities in the Association for Talent Development’s new Talent Development Capability Model, is an essential element of an effective learning effort. It includes the creation of learning experiences and materials as well as the analysis and selection of strategies, methodologies, and technologies to maximize the learning experience and learning transfer.

Few would argue that a well-researched strategy supported by sound systems thinking is the cornerstone of a learning organization’s success. The question now is whether typical instructional design methodologies (for example, ADDIE and SAM) include sufficient systems thinking to ensure that learning is linked to organizational (and learner) needs and goals. Consider TD processes’ efficiency and effectiveness at identifying and meeting organizational needs then translating them into specific changes in employee skills and behaviors.

According to Ethan Sanders, a Virginia-based TD professional and president of Sundial Learning Systems, associate professor of organizational psychology at the University of Maryland, author, and former ATD staffer, systematic instructional design must address three essential drivers of learning:

1) Cognition: Ensuring that the design of learning supports how the brain processes, retains, organizes, and recalls information

2) Learner Motivation: That learners see immediate relevance to content and believe that learning new skills will improve their lives

3) Environment: That learners receive constant encouragement to apply what they have learned


Knowledge and Skills

Instructional design is part of the Developing Professional Capability domain and covers a broad range of knowledge and skills. Along with having knowledge of ISD models and processes, instructional designers need knowledge of:

  • Needs assessment approaches and techniques
  • Instructional modalities (for example, classroom learning, blended learning, massive open online courses [MOOCs], gamification, multidevice and mobile learning, and virtual reality simulations)
  • Methods and techniques for defining learning and behavioral outcome statements
  • The criteria used to assess the quality and relevance of instructional content in relation to a desired learning or behavioral outcome
  • Methods and techniques for planning, designing, and developing instructional content
  • Types and applications of instructional methods and techniques (for example, discussion, self-directed learning, role playing, lecture, action learning, demonstration, and exercise)
  • How design thinking and rapid prototyping can be applied to the development of learning and talent development solutions
  • How formal and informal learning experiences influence or support individual and group development

Instructional designers need skills in:

  • Developing learning and behavioral outcome statements
  • Designing blueprints, schematics, and other visual representations of learning and development solutions (for example, wireframes, storyboards, and mock-ups)
  • Eliciting and using knowledge and information from subject matter experts to support and enhance learning
  • Selecting and aligning delivery options and media for training and learning events to the desired learning or behavioral outcomes
  • Designing and developing learning assets (for example, role plays, self-assessments, training manuals, job aids, and visual aids) that align to a desired learning or behavioral outcome

ISD at Its Best

To demonstrate instructional design in action, Sanders points to a learning initiative at one organization that builds mission-critical leadership capabilities statistically tied to performance. It is cohort-based, capability-based, blended, and highly dependent on social learning components.


The initiative provides roughly 80 hours of learning during a 90-day period and is based around a single capability (such as decision making or collaboration). Each curriculum employs classroom, online, peer-to-peer, and social learning methods. Included are on-the-job resources and exercises that learners apply with their managers. A separate manager curriculum promotes employee development.

The course is positioned internally as a “cool” program rather than a “must-attend,” and participants are selected by lottery because demand exceeds capacity.

“Today’s conventional wisdom would tell you that this program could never succeed,” says Sanders. It’s too lengthy and classroom-intensive, and it minimizes online delivery. Yet the experience instead demonstrates the erroneous assumptions about learners that can be made by TD departments that haven’t examined the actual drivers of employee engagement and passion, he warns.

“If you consider today’s consumer experience movement, which has since led into ‘employee experience,’ the next logical iteration for our field is ‘learner experience.’ As TD professionals, we must discover what learner experience is like beyond Level 1 data,” explains Sanders. “If we do so, I think we will be shocked about the number of erroneous assumptions we make about learners.”

About the Author

Paul Harris is a freelance writer in Alexandria, Virginia.

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