Key Elements of Your Learning Content Strategy, Pt. 2

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5958374472_aacefb108a_bIn Part 1 of this three-part post, I discussed content organization and structure when formulating your overall learning content strategy. In this part, I’d like to discuss the role of authoring and delivery platforms, and their impact on your strategic and tactical implementation.

Too often instructional designers move straight to authoring, and begin “assembling” their course right away. This is not surprising, because the businesses we support are often moving at a fast pace, and many of us juggle multiple projects simultaneously all the time. Sometimes, we want to “just get it done”. Working in this manner, however, can create a firehose of course content that can become redundant and lead to fragmentation and loss of productivity for your and your audiences.

Your focus, instead, should be on creating less content — content that is clear, simple, succinct and “elastic” — able to bend to the learner’s context. This content should also be in a format digestible by anyone in your target audience, anywhere, and on whatever device they have with them.

Easier said than done. Especially with looming deadlines always on the horizon. One of the biggest drivers affecting how you design and develop content revolves around your available resources. We can preach all day about the “right thing to do”, but if you don’t have access to much beyond what you can get done yourself, you live with what you have. Like we were told years ago, “You go to war with the army you have.”

This is the primary reason so many L&D teams are creating training in a non-elastic fashion — creating reams of content married to proprietary systems and/or content that is silo’ed away from similar content that already exists. You are only the sum of the skills of your team. Years ago, a typical “CBT” development team consisted of skill-specific resources, including graphic artists for both user interface and production graphic tasks, instructional designers focused on designing content for learning, rich-media experts for animation, rendering, video and audio, and an editor and quality assurance person. Running the show was a dedicated project manager and technical liaison for the implementation. Now, with the proliferation of “rapid authoring tools” many L&D functions are “teams of one” — in many orgs, access to a graphic artist and/or media producer is a luxury that’s just not available. In light of this, and with constrained budgets, there are tweaks you can make to “level up” and start producing training content that gives your audiences what they really need. Before you think I’m about to suggest the latest version of a new authoring tool, step back. I’m not suggesting that at all. An authoring tool is the last component in your toolbelt that you need to worry about. I’d like to hear that you’re close to becoming “tool agnostic” — you want to be flexible enough so that you can pivot and change tools when your needs change. Let’s step back and consider how you can make a change in your overall content strategy to set yourself up for becoming free from the chains of proprietary authoring systems, and move beyond redundant, non-elastic content.

First, it’s important to consider how your team(s) perform their work. You should begin by investigating these processes:

  • System and systemic requirements

    • There is no “holy grail” when it comes to systemic constraints. Each system has its own unique challenges. How your system functions is a design challenge. You need to work within that system to affect the change you’ll need to see so that you can appropriately implement the needed change. You may need to consider changing how you think about what you do, before you can begin to change how the system operates.

  • Development workflows

    • Take a deep-dive into how your team goes about their development process. Pinpoint the areas that provide the most pain. Look at who the main players are in those areas. Do you need different skillsets there? Do you need to add/subtract people from the mix to move things along quicker? What’s working well across the process flow? How do you take what works well and duplicate it at other key points?

  • Content and app versioning control

    • Tricky, yes. But you need to reach higher outside of your silo, and take a look across the landscape of your organization to see where you can leverage other systems and infrastructure to make it easier to create, share and distribute content. There’s probably a lot going on that is duplicative and there’s probably a lot you can easily cut-out. Building relationships across other functions that also generate content can help you to leverage what’s already being created. For the assets your team is creating, conduct the due diligence to appropriately add metadata and versioning to it. Stop the train for a little bit so that you can build a process that will comfortably make your content more usable as you add to it.

  • Modifying and updating content

    • If your team members are working locally on their own hard drives creating content, ask yourself the fundamental question of “why”. The cloud is too convenient and easy to not be leveraging it. At the very least shared content repositories are critical. I urge you to consider a content management system (CMS) — but one that can integrate well into your team’s workflow.

  • Searchability

    • Successful content development relies on the ability to curate “source of truth” content, develop new content, and integrate contextually relevant information to provide deeper meaning. The ability for your team (and, ultimately, your users) to discover and trust content is critical.

  • Metadata

    • I mentioned this above, but I recommend you take the time to create a tagging system that works not only for your team, your organization, but one that works for your company and takes into consideration wider industry-specific

Although you’re an instructional designer, you’re also going to have to wear different hats that span many domains if you want to appropriately establish workable methods for content creation and dissemination. Those may include IT, editorial, social community moderator, even digital curation — which is an entire profession on its own. If you have these available resources, you’re several steps ahead of the game. If not, it’s OK, but you’re no longer going to be a one-trick pony. Oh, and did I forget visual design? Yeah, there’s that. And let us not forget accessibility, multiple devices, and data tracking. Whew. And you get paid how much?

The good thing is, our elders gave us a workable model. It’s called ADDIE. I know a lot of us moan and groan about “old-school ADDIE”, but every profession needs a methodology, a way forward. A framework. Although what you do when “creating learning” often varies, you vacillate between three big buckets:

  • Analysis

  • Design & Development

  • Implementation

Yeah, you really do. Too few of us are not focused on the E (evaluation), and that’s too bad. However, more than likely you have chosen tools and platforms that help you achieve the framework within which you work. Which is probably the ADDI one. Right? You may think you’re Agile. You may think you’re neither. The reality is, what we do is a lot like making biscuits. You pinch them from the flower, one by one, put them in the oven, and wait til they’re edible. It takes what it takes. So you may not sequence your steps the way others do… but there are just certain steps you have to perform. I don’t advocate either ADDIE, Agile, or other methods that consultants or academics come up with. Whatever works for you is good enough. When I do what we do, I create prototypes. I iterate between them, and I try to get feedback and make things better before I go forward with the “final output”. That’s a little bit of Agile sprinkled in. You do what you can do. Regardless of the authoring tool and/or platform, think of this: every deliverable you create encompasses two things: the strategy behind WHY you’re creating it, and the strategy behind making it consumable by those you’re creating it for.

Take those two elements as your foundation, using whatever framework or process you have, and then break down your tool or app into what it does to help you deliver. It may be Microsoft Word for storyboarding (or Google Docs), PowerPoint for prototyping, Lectora for assembly, etc. Focus on what the tool or app brings to the game and leverage its strengths.

Authoring is the act of assembly. You’re bringing together multiple media types into a cohesive experience. Delivery is the act of enabling your audience to consume the experience. Maybe that’s via an LMS? A webserver? Inherent in this duality are your needs and your learner’s needs. It’s a balancing act to preserve a usable experience between the two. Off to the side is the role of the CMS, or the system which serves the content (or makes it available to you). It’s kind of a trifecta if you will. At the end of the day, you want sustainable, flexible content objects that resonate for the businesses you support, while at the same time providing a meaningful learning experience.

Landing on the right combination of tools, apps, and platforms requires removing ambivalence about what you really need to get done, obtaining a deep understanding of the limitations of what you can actually achieve given your constraints (and we all have them), and recognizing the basics of how each element in the framework you work within functions.

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