Designing for the ISD Life-Cycle – as Measured by Return on Investment and Economic Value Add

from an article I originally authored and shared publishing credits with former partners and employees that was published in ISPI’s Performance Improvement journal – August 2002 – that I am bringing out and dusting off as it – lamenting about ADDIE – has been covered in other Blogs recently – including – and thanks to Don Clark for the link in his Big Dog, Little Dog Blog!

Designing for the ISD Life-Cycle – as Measured by Return on Investment and Economic Value Add

What Are the Typical Problems and Complaints About ISD?

The April 2000 issue of Training Magazine didn’t start the whining and complaining about ISD; it only raised the complaints to another level of our consciousness. The following summarizes the 4 major complaints that the Training Magazine article “The attack on ISD” brought forth and our first response to each.

• ISD is too slow and clumsy to meet today’s training challenges
Yes, ISD’s pace is glacial in an Internet world demanding speed and adapting to constant change. Statements like “the analysis itself will take a month and a half” make our clients and critics lose patience. But ISD can move quickly, deliberately, and systematically. Our approach, the PACT Processes for T&D/ Learning/ Knowledge Management – and we are sure others’ – is very visible, predictable, repeatable, and systematic (after hundreds of applications that prove it). It is “lean.”

• There’s no “there” there
This questions whether there is an instructional “technology” for training in the first place, because too often people have learned from “stuff” that was created in processes that didn’t follow the ISD-ADDIE model. We disagree. What did they “learn?” Did they become aware? Were they entertained and slightly enlightened? Were their expectations low in regard to knowledge or skills to be transferred? Do you want your airline pilot or surgeon to be taught in a non-structured, non-systematic approach?

• Used as directed, it produces bad solutions
Yes, too often ISD begins without a business purpose in mind, and therefore can be applied poorly. Or it overreacts to a fraud, like designing for “learning styles” (a concept easy to like but thoroughly debunked by actual research), resulting in wasted effort and time. Or it breaks the learning process into ridiculously tiny increments and forces unnecessary exercises and assessments.

• It clings to the wrong world view
It suggests that ISD arrogantly assumes a “stupid learner” that needs constant handholding in learning anything, and then designs instruction to the lowest common denominator. But that’s if the “product” was intended to teach to the lowest common denominator, either because that’s where the bulk of the learners were, and/or the enterprise simply couldn’t afford multiple versions, or the ISD’er didn’t know how to chunk it and create multiple entry points in the “learning process,” or the deployment method wouldn’t allow for that. We don’t think that “it” clings to the wrong world view.


While we disagree with most of these blanket statements, and because we know that not all ISD approaches and practitioners are truly alike, we know there is some truth in these for many of the ISD approaches we’ve seen in action, or seen in the results thereof.

One of the authors of this article has been in the T&D field since 1979 as an internal supplier, and then an external supplier, to fairly large enterprises. In total, the four of us have more than 62 combined years in this profession (as of 2002). Those complaints in “The ATTACK on ISD” resonated with us, too, because we’ve heard them before. And it wasn’t always done politely or nicely by those bringing these issues to our attention. Sometimes it can be downright embarrassing, and it can often hurt. The truth can do that.

Other similar issues brought to our collective attention by meaningful ISD customers over the years include

• Content of the product line elements (ILT, WBT, OJT programs, etc.) may be redundant across programs while still leaving critical gaps in other important content – how much of your content are “Enabling Knowledge/Skills” versus “Performance How To’s” – or “Competency-focused” and not specific to the Learner’s Performance Context?

• It is costly to produce the T&D in the first place, and even more costly to maintain

• T&D is costly to deploy

• It is impossible to predict development schedules and costs and then predict return on investment (ROI)

• The look and feel of the T&D varies across the product line, and chunks of potentially shareable T&D aren’t designed with reuse in mind.

Again, we agree with much of what’s been generalized about the majority of ISD methods.

But this attack on ISD presumes that there is only one ISD model/approach being used. That, of course, is ridiculous! In a department of 10 ISD’ers, we too often have encountered 10 different ISD approaches in use.

These varied ISD approaches are typically not predictable in terms of the quality of the T&D outputs produced, or their costs and schedules, and they are not in control. They are often not very visible processes for T&D management or for T&D customers. And therein lies the rub. Too much variation in the ISD processes being used, a bad thing we all should have learned from the ongoing global quality movement.

But we think that there is even more to complain and worry about than just these.

What Are the Additional Problems and Complaints About ISD?
We think that too often these typical complaints are only scratching the surface of the really big issues (problems/opportunities) that we ISD’ers, our functions, and our enterprise’s face.

We, and others, see those “bigger fish to fry” being

Blanketing versus targeting ISD efforts – Too often the focus is on providing T&D opportunities for everyone. By not getting aligned with the enterprise leadership and working on specific, critical strategic and operational needs, sharing with the customer and leadership stakeholders, and forcing the tough decisions regarding priorities and resource allocations, ISD efforts and resources are wasted on low-value projects, with little chance for significant ROI for the shareholders.

Performance Impact – performance is often understood in the most generic terms, perhaps driven by a generic competency model, which is true enough on the surface, but won’t get most people to superior performance levels.

Generic models cause ISD’ers to create generic products, with little chance at real impact back on-the-job. Communications skills, presentation skills, or problem solving skills apply very differently for shop floor workers, their bosses, the sales force, the process engineers, the ISD’ers, and the company lawyers and accountants. One-size-fits-all products don’t have a prayer of impact compared to targeted content (with perhaps some shareable components/objects). The costs of lost opportunity of really impacting on-the-job performance, because the content and design did not focus ultimately on someone’s real job performance requirements, can be significant.

Reuse of content – too often instructional content is not designed to increase sharing where appropriate, and for nonsharing when unique content is needed. Even in multiple targeted communications skills training products for varied audiences there are common content pieces/chunks/objects. The costs for not improving reuse capability due to how T&D gets designed; and to do so without “watering” the content down to some vanilla extract that again, doesn’t duly impact performance, are also significant and can result in significant additional costs to the enterprise. Imagine if your car didn’t share any components with the cars built by your manufacturer; you wouldn’t be able to afford it because their cost to produce it would be significantly higher. Remember the “platform” design approach that helped save Chrysler in the 1980s?

Development – the costs for developing content are artificially too high due to a lack of available, or reluctance to use, standard but flexible rules, tools, and templates, and to employ a rationale content reuse strategy and approach. The end result can be redundant content that will cause higher “first costs” than necessary and will lead to higher “life-cycle costs,” some of which are explained next.

Inventory – the costs for storing and retrieving content are too high due to lack of a rational, logical “Dewey decimal system” for products and their subassemblies, much like the bar coding SKU (stock keeping unit) schemes in place everywhere in our daily, personal lives. If content exists within your current, total product line, can anyone find it quickly for reuse or maintenance?

Administration – the costs are too high for communications/marketing, registration, scheduling (for those T&D products needing to be scheduled), or ordering (for those T&D products that need to be ordered) because the product line of T&D for any target audience is overlapped, gapped, and a mess in general, and it is hard to present as a unified system of instruction.

Deployment – the costs to deploy the T&D are often too high given the probable returns; and recently when the cheaper, total “e” learning strategy has failed to produce results (for the buyers) we now find ourselves back to a more blended approach, that still too often focuses on low-hanging fruit content that won’t move performance levels higher at an adequate ROI.

Maintenance – the de-centralized ISD systems and processes that typically exist, including the lack of design rules and tools, and the lack of a rationale inventory scheme, will drive up the costs for keeping content up-to-date. But if the content isn’t really improving performance anyway, maybe it’s better left hidden with the hope that any subsequent effort may get luckier; just don’t share that with the shareholders.

These issues greatly impact the “life-cycle costs” for ISD products: T&D/learning products/
knowledge products (which we will refer to as T&D).

While there is “a bevy” of IT tools in the marketplace today to address some of these ISD issues (such as LMS, CMS, and LCMS) they are too often “open data warehouses” for data that you can configure anyway you want to. Again, this permits wide variation to exist, and can ultimately destroy projected ROI.

“Having it your way,” for each ISD’er with their unique approach to ISD, keeps the barn door open and the horses running free. The engineering community addressed this decades ago and “closed the barn door” with CAD/CAM systems (computer aided design/computer aided manufacturing). Additionally, standard parts inventories, design rules, and other tools and templates helped them speed design and ensure greater quality of those designs.

Life-cycle costs include “first costs.” T&D first costs include those costs incurred for developing T&D. And we mean “all costs” associated with T&D development. “All costs” are the incremental costs incurred for “having done something” and take away from the profit on the bottom line. Build it and they will come, but at a cost.

Life-cycle costs include the costs for administering, deploying, and maintaining T&D. These can be significant. And if your up-front ISD processes allowed you to inadvertently build redundant content, then the life-cycle costs multiply even faster and deplete the bottom line greater. Remember, a dollar not spent falls directly to the bottom line.

From a shareholder perspective, this is an ugly reality. It gets even worse if you look at “total” costs.

Total life-cycle costs include “all costs” paid for with shareholder equity that are incurred both inside the T&D organization, and outside the T&D organization for doing “something” T&D-wise. There is the overhead covering the costs for buildings and facilities, utilities, furniture, equipment, phones, etc. And then on top of that, there are the T&D management layers to pay for.

Then there are the “outside of T&D” costs to pay for all T&D participants and their management time, for any time spent in development, deployment, administration, and maintenance; as well as their benefits and all the costs of their management for when they are not doing the jobs that they are on the payroll to perform. There are their costs for planning T&D to meet their performance-related needs, registration and ordering, and participation via classroom T&D and/or via the Intranet.

These costs are incurred because someone made T&D available (inside or outside the enterprise), and someone from the enterprise participated. The shareholder/owners pay for it all. They demand a return, in the short-term, the medium-term, and/or the long-term. You would, if it were all your personal equity that’s being “invested.”

For more on the PACT Processes – see – and the free 404-page PDF book: “lean-ISD” – which covers the PACT Processes extensively.

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