Transforming From Instructional Design To Learning Experience Design

Transforming From Instructional Design To Learning Experience Design
Summary: The secret is out – the learning industry as we know it is about to change. Will you be ready? Here’s what you need to know about Learning Experience design.

What You Need To Know About Learning Experience Design

The tide is turning on the learning industry as we know it. A radical, perhaps even seismic, change is on the horizon - and that’s a good thing. Clearly, technological and design innovation has forever changed the workplace, so it only follows that how the work gets done, and by whom, has changed too. Organizations are beginning to recognize and acknowledge that the traditional, hierarchy-based management structure that has gotten them this far may well have reached the limits of its effectiveness. They are now looking for new ways and new models that will enable them to become agile and more customer-focused. More than ever before, they are in search of new and better ways to collaborate, innovate, and grow. One of them is Learning Experience design.

How The Work Gets Done, And By Whom, Has Changed

At the forefront of this wave of structural change is the concept of a “network of teams”1 in which companies build and empower interconnected, highly flexible, project-based teams that work on specific business challenges as needed. By restructuring to a network of teams, organizations can quickly deploy resources in response to shifting business conditions. Functioning across disciplines, this flatter networked structure supports knowledge sharing, collaboration, and innovation in a way that more traditionally hierarchical and siloed structures cannot.

The repercussions of an organizational sea change of this magnitude are significant. Organizational development interventions have taken on greater importance, with 9 out of 10 leaders rating organizational design as a top priority this year2. As the workplace adapts to a new, more collaborative and networked structure, it must also adapt to a new type of employee who seeks new ways to continuously “join, learn, contribute, and grow"3 at work. This new type of employee is very aware, as noted learning commentator Josh Bersin recently told Forbes, that the learning curve is indeed their earning curve.

Photo by rikahi at It comes as no surprise to Learning and Development (L&D) professionals that learning opportunities are among the strongest drivers of employee engagement and strong workplace culture, and of critical importance to organizations. In order to attract new talent, an organizational strategy must encompass and expand their total value proposition to employees.

To stay competitive, some organizations now offer employees more avenues for training, “stretch”, and developmental assignments, and more coaching. Forward-thinking organizations realize that to retain their key employees, they not only have to re-think how employees can best be developed, but also how to deliver the learning tools these employees will need to stay current.

Executive leadership across every industry has taken note of the growing interest in employee learning, and many are expanding the Learning and Development function. For years, Learning and Development has maintained a lower profile, but I expect that this will change as it achieves more prominence and funding as organizations commit to an engaged and sustainable workforce. Today, leadership is increasingly relying on Learning and Development teams not only to help them stay competitive, but also to take on more responsibility for the organization’s financial performance.

Instructional Design As We Know It May Never Be The Same

The flip side of this is that Instructional Design (ID) as we know it may never be the same. Our jobs will very likely change, and what we need to do is going to change too. Instructional designers may be more like “instructional architects” who look at how entire systems operate, and who must integrate each learning component as part of an overall end-to-end user learning experience. We should be prepared to engage in more big-picture thinking involving the entire system in which learners and learning will function, while our role as performance consultants will greatly expand.

Like traditional performance consultants, we’ll be charged with improving productivity and performance, but with the added dimension of thinking about how users will experience the instruction we design. There’s already a title for our new role: Learning Experience (LX) Designers, who, according to Josh Bersin, will "focus on facilitation, information architecture, and audience analysis – not just learning design and development"4.

Our Role Will Be Less About Building Modules And More About Curating The Learning Experience

Eventually new organizational structures will integrate learning across disciplines and job functions, and Instructional Designers will likely be asked to help with the design. This means we can expect to work with the business at a deeper level to insert and align instruction within the organization as a whole. Just as an embedded journalist travels with the military, this new Instructional Design role may eventually even become embedded inside individual business units. This may also involve incorporating elements of people analytics across multiple dimensions such as each role, team, structure, goals, infrastructure, standards, and performance. However, there’s even more for us to think about. As Instructional Design takes a more empathetic, human-centered approach to learning, Learning and Development teams will likely be tasked with aligning solutions to specific business needs – and in ways we’ve never had to do before.

The Good News, Of Course, Is That We Still Get To Be Designers 

The good news, of course, is that we still get to be designers, although our solutions may be markedly different from what we’ve done until now. We will be swimming in some new and perhaps even faster lanes. As the concept of traditional event-based training loses prominence and popularity, the days of episodic learning will likely come to an end. We’ll be designing learning solutions that’s part of an à la carte, self-serve, social, mobile and ongoing process that goes “beyond internal programs aimed at developing people to innovative platforms that enable people to develop themselves5. We can expect to be working with knowledge management, information architecture, and business analytics, and this might be merely dipping our toes in the water.

Luckily, Instructional Designers have a head start on all this change. Organizations are now recognizing something Instructional Designers have known all along; namely, that design thinking can positively impact workplace learning. Design thinking:

  • Considers not just how the work is done or how performance objectives are met, but how things can be made to work better across the entire business6.
  • Works toward user-empathetic, holistic learning experiences that consider and leverage the best of learning theory and science, people dynamics, and technology to deliver maximum return.
  • Means transforming our current mostly linear methodology into a more multi-directional approach.

We Are Going To Have To Perform Better, And Soon

Leadership’s emerging new appreciation for design thinking couldn’t come at a better time, too; because not only can the learning industry perform better, but we are going to have to perform better, and soon. This isn’t to say that this paradigm shift will occur overnight. This transformation will take time for organizations to address and implement as it evolves. So while Instructional Designers shouldn’t panic quite yet, they must also realize that they may need to step up their game as we are called upon to practice what we preach. Fortunately for Instructional Designers, we are uniquely equipped to meet the coming challenge, in part because we already know the value of continuous learning and innovation, and in part because the same skills we use today will be just as necessary for the LX designer of tomorrow.

Yes, it’s coming - Learning Experience design is an unprecedented opportunity for us to learn, grow, collaborate, and contribute. I can hardly wait.


End Notes:

  1. General Stanley McChrystal et al., Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World (New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2015
  2. Deloitte University Press Global Human Capital Trends Report 2016 Copyright © 2016 Deloitte Development LLC. All rights reserved.
  3. Different by Design: The Fabric of the New Organization, Josh Bersin, 4.28.2016
  4. From eLearning to We-Learning: Lessons Learned,Josh Bersin, 6.17.2011
  5. Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, Tim Brown 2009
  6. What Happens When Design Thinking Meets Data? Better HR, Klein Aleardi, 6.8.2016