Training: getting to lean

Cathy Moore wrote the other day about elearning bloat, though it’s clear that she doesn’t think bloat’s limited to elearning. She includes this parody as an example:

Cathy’s thoughts on cutting out extraneous material make a lot of sense, although she’s well aware that the client doesn’t always see “appreciation of the history of telephony” as “extraneous.”When I began my career in instructional design, my manager sent me to a workshop on programmed learning. This was 1977, before the personal computer; “programmed” meant design that included interaction and feedback — delivered mainly on paper. As we built our workshop projects (small lessons), the workshop editors critiqued and prodded us toward leaner and leaner materials.


Imagine it’s costing you $50 per word and $100 per image. Why is it worth spending the money to have that word there? What evidence do you have for including it?

The “evidence” question stemmed from the workshop’s belief in developmental testing: trying out even very early drafts on typical learners, and using any difficulties they experience to help shape subsequent drafts.

In other words: if someone can complete your lesson right off the bat, you don’t know if you’re just as talented as all get-out, or if the person knew that stuff all along.

A real challenge in corporate/organizational learning is: what can we expect the learner to know, and what can we ask the learner to do? I believe that people learn best when they work with material that connects to some desire or need that’s important to them.

If I have to submit my expense reports via Excel, or if I have to do performance reviews for my staff via some arcane system, then regardless of my preferred learning style, I’m going to learn at least enough to get my work done.

Some time back, I wanted to create a coaching guide to help supervisors encourage people to apply job skills they’d learned in a series of workshops. I’d been fiddling around with using CSS, but my desire to create an online, interactive guide pushed me to learn enough to make the guide work.

This frame of mind can have amazing effects on on-the-job learning. When I got back to my job after that programmed-learning workshop, I tackled the problem of helping people learn Amtrak’s reservation system. It had scores if not hundreds of computer entries, most with several options.

You used the availability entry to find out train schedules between two cities — departure, arrival, train number, days of the week, services on board, and so forth. If you’re in the mood, think about what you’d want to explain to someone about such an entry. Then click through to part two and see what I eventually came up with.

3 thoughts on “Training: getting to lean

  1. That’s a great example of using examples rather than explanation. I think one of the challenges we face is that teaching in such an efficient way can be seen by some as a threat. It takes skill and thoughtful design to create lean materials, but some people are emotionally invested in making the simple seem complex. The sage on the stage is unlikely to happily step to the side and let the example do the talking.

    Maybe one way to avoid threatening the expert is to make the SME an interview subject, not an author. If the SME doesn’t invest time and ego in writing about the subject, they’re less likely to protest when you boil down their Very Important Details to 2 quick, self-evident examples.

  2. Cathy, I’ve always thought the programmed learning workshop did a lot to help me not be the Sage on the Stage.

    When you’re developing self-study materials (which is more and more how training looks), you’re not going to be there when learning happens. The “programmed” part didn’t mean regimented (or wasn’t supposed to); it meant designed to increase learning.

    Combine with the lean approach advocated by Dale Brethower and Geary Rummler, and you’ve got something.

    To borrow from Elmore Leonard’s rules for writers, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

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