Thursday, July 7, 2022

Saying "Yes" With 13 Smart Questions

Image Source: Pixabay

As performance consultants, we are often called upon when "training" has already been established as the proposed "solution" to the performance problem. We hear requests like: 

"We need training on ABC. Can you do it?" 

In such a situation, we are expected to act quickly and be responsive to the needs of the stakeholders knowing fully that "training" may not be the solution after all! Our first reaction as performance consultants is perhaps to say, "No! Training is not the answer to all performance problems." 

But is there another way to respond? 
In one of his many blog posts dedicated to Joe H. Harless, Guy W. Wallace talks about how Joe taught him never to say "No" to training requests and instead say:

“Yes – I can help you – and I can help you even more if we can do a little analysis first!”

Joe Harless was the originator of the term "front-end analysis" (FEA) in his book, An Ounce of Analysis Is Worth a Pound of Objectives, originally published in 1970 (Harless, 1975).

He believed that analysis is more effective at the front rather than at the end. What he meant was that it is helpful to analyze the problem before developing a solution rather than to only conduct a back-end analysis, i.e. training evaluation. 

Joe Harless explained that the purpose of conducting a front-end analysis is to ask a series of “smart questions” in order to prevent spending money on unnecessary activities, to come up with the most appropriate solution(s), and to produce desired performance outcomes and that front-end analysis is about money, first and foremost. 

"It's about how to spend money in ways that will be most beneficial to the organization and the performers in that organization. It is also about avoiding spending money on silly things like instruction when there is no instructional problem; or training everybody in everything when you can get by with training fewer people in a few things; or flying lots of trainees in for a course when a send-out checklist would do." (p. 229)

Harless (1973) shared 13 smart questions to be asked during a front-end analysis:
  1. Do we have a problem?
  2. Do we have a performance problem?
  3. How will we know when the problem is solved?
  4. What is the performance problem?
  5. Should we allocate resources to solve it?
  6. What are the possible causes of the problem?
  7. What evidence bears on each possibility?
  8. What is the probable cause?
  9. What general solution type is indicated?
  10. What are the alternative sub classes of solutions?
  11. What are the costs, effects, and development times of each solution?
  12. What are the constraints?
  13. What are the overall goals?
The underlying assumption of conducting a front-end analysis is that training is not always the answer. These 13 questions offer a job-aid. These are not the exact questions to be asked and will need to be modified to make them specific to the problem/challenge being analyzed. However, these questions can help begin a conversation and help analyze the problem to identify the underlying issue(s). 

Here is a video of late Joe H. Harless being interviewed by Guy Wallace as a part of Guy's HPT Legacy Series. Joe Harless was the first in the series. ( 

The HPT Video Series was started by Guy in 2008 as a means of sharing the diversity of HPT Practitioners and Practices in the workplace and academia. The full set of videos, over 160 can be found here. ( 

I have been following Guy's work on improving performance since I started working in the learning industry in 1999 and I was humbled and honored to make the HPT Series list at #154 in April 2022 (

Monday, May 2, 2022

Designing for Unpredictability of Use

"It is Raining Umbrellas!" by Taruna Goel (Underbrella at Bill Curtis Square, Vancouver March 2019)

A few days ago, as I was researching more about the practice of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), I came upon an intriguing idea related to designing for "unpredictability of use". It isn't the first time I have heard it or read about it, but this time around, I approached it with a UDL lens as a way to be more inclusive in the design of learning experiences.

Do you think about the unexpected use(s) of the learning products/ services you create? Do you imagine how your “learning product” may be reused, reshared, or remixed in serendipitous ways? In my effort to learn more about this idea of the unpredictability of use, I ventured into a few compelling reads, and here are some highlights that were uncovered from that exercise:

Liesbeth Stam, Peter-Paul Verbeek, Ann Heylighen, Design Studies, Volume 66, 2020, Pages 54-81, ISSN 0142-694X, 

"Anticipating use entails a continuous testing of solutions between specificity and openness. Seeking a balance, these architects repeatedly ask themselves how open their design can be, such that it can still support specific use practices (e.g., meeting colleagues, recording or editing video's). And vice versa: how specific can they be in imagining use such that different interpretations (e.g., by users or the client) remain possible? These questions are explored continuously. To foster particular social outcomes, architects develop specificity into their designs. To deal with the unpredictability of use architects aim to create open designs.

The more specific the design (focus), the more difficult it is for a building or space to respond to the unexpected and unforeseen – i.e., to diversity of use(r)s as well as changing contexts, e.g., related to social and technological change. So designs need to be specific, yet simultaneously ‘open’."

Ahlam Ammar Sharif, Frontiers of Architectural Research, Volume 9, Issue 1, 2020, Pages 106-118, ISSN 2095-2635,

"This paper implies that designs and users are co-created by the ways they interact, which means that the success of designs should not be determined by how they align to specific uses but by how they are adaptable to the multiplicity and unpredictability of use. 

Designs could be recreated by uses in different ways, making them more livable. Designs could further uncover new potentials because of the creativity of their usage. In the case of museums, users could be mistakenly expected to interact with an artwork in specific ways.

On the contrary, users bring new potentials to the building while inviting different types of interaction. Accordingly, designs should be adaptive to and flexible for different categories and functions to invite more users and stimulate their creativity with respect to the ways they interact with the building." 

Steve Vinoski, Verivue

Steve opens his article with a powerful quote: “Engineer for serendipity. —Roy Fielding” Taking an enterprise architecture perspective, Steve asks:

"If we’re wise, we never assume that serendipity will come along just in time whenever we need it. So is it really possible, as Fielding suggests, to make a given situation more amenable to serendipity? Is it feasible to arrange the primary elements of an area such as enterprise integration in a way that encourages the "development of beneficial applications that the enterprise architects never dreamed of? 

The more specific the service interface, the less likely it is to be reused, serendipitously or otherwise, because the likelihood that an interface will fit what a client application requires shrinks as the interface’s specificity increases. 

Highly specialized interfaces inhibit general reuse because only purpose-built clients can invoke them. Should requirements change — and they will — modifying such highly specialized services and clients to fulfill the new requirements can be costly because of the high degree of coupling between them."


All of this is to say that there is an important relationship between design and serendipitous use. Even though we design things based on what we know and what we might imagine happening in the future, it is still a lens that’s based on trying to solve the problems we are facing now. But knowing that the future may not be anything like the present, if we don’t design for serendipitous use and unpredictability, our designs have failed from the get-go.

Needless to say, we can’t plan for all possible uses. But what we can plan for is to create those opportunities and spaces for the unpredictable to happen. Infact, I’d say that designing for unpredictability is a critical part of designing for inclusivity.

Perhaps, as learning designers, we can do more to explore how serendipitous knowledge exchanges happen and how designing for unpredictable use nurtures these kinds of opportunities. We need to think about what can we do to allow, enable and nurture the reuse and repurposing of the “learning experience” in other ways. What kind of systems, processes and techniques can we use that allow folks to customize and personalize the learning experience in ways that they find most meaningful and valuable?

The two key ways I have found I can do this are to:

  • involve a range of stakeholders in the design process including the learners, and 
  • give learners the choice and voice in exploring and participating in the learning experience by providing a variety of ways to develop skills and competencies in ways that meet their specific interests and needs. This can mean anything from simply unlocking course navigation to more complex choices about what resources to explore and how best to assess their own learning. 

Essentially, when we design for the unpredictability of use, we give back the learners some control of how they want to engage and learn and more importantly, how they want to represent and express what they have learned. 

When Roy Fielding said “Engineer for serendipity", he juxtaposed two very contrasting ideas and did it in a beautiful way. And that’s the balance we need to constantly strive for: designing for and making things specific and at the same time, allowing for and enabling unpredictable and accidental use.

Monday, April 4, 2022

Becoming an "Expert Learner"

Photo by: Taruna Goel

Essentially, the goal of education has shifted from knowledge acquisition to learner expertise… becoming an expert learner is a process, not a fixed goal.” ― Anne Meyer, Universal Design for Learning: Theory and Practice

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) defines "expert learners" as learners who are resourceful and knowledgeable, strategic and goal-directed, and purposeful and motivated. The UDL framework is about guiding learners to become better learners. So, the expertise that we seek here is not in the subject area being taught. Instead, it is the expertise associated with #learninghowtolearn and doing it strategically and purposely. As some would say, it is the "mastery of learning" rather than the "mastery of knowledge". 

As described in the video by CAST (See References), among other things, expert learners:

  • Set goals
  • Make choices about learning
  • Reflect on their learning 

In the book, Universal design for learning: Theory and practice, Meyer, Rose, and Gordon (2014) note that expert learners are not created in a vacuum. They argue that expert learners require expert teachers who need to be expert learners themselves. They go a step further and highlight that learning environments need to support, encourage and nurture the goal of learning expertise for all.

As L&D professionals, teachers, instructors, facilitators, we need to approach our learnability and learning expertise as a continuum. And a big part of becoming an expert learner is to view learning as a process, not a product.


UDL & Expert Learning (Video)

UDL Practices of Expert Learning by CAST (Document) 

What is an expert learner? (Blogpost)

Meyer, A., Rose, D. H., & Gordon, D. (2014). Universal design for learning: Theory and practice. Wakefield, MA: CAST Professional Publishing. (Book)