The Attack on ISD

Well-known leaders in the HRD field have raised some serious issues concerning the systems model and instructional systems design (ISD) approach that has dominated the field of human resource development over the past three-plus decades. Fourmain charges or complaints are raised concerning the model:

1. The model is too slow and clumsy to meet today’s training needs.

2. There’s no “there” there (hang on, we’ll explain this one).

3. Used as directed, it produces bad results. 4. It clings to the wrong world view.

Concerning the first charge, the argument is that the whole process of needs assessment takes too long for a “speed-maddened world.” When training is called for in ninety days, and HRD profes- sionals say they need that much time at a minimum just to do the needs assessment, the potential for trouble is evident. The biggest problem is argued to be the bureaucratic systems that sometimes develop in training departments, which can produce slow and cumbersome responses to managers’ requests for quick action. Fred Nickols, of the Edu- cational Testing Service, says, “ISD takes too long, it costs too much, and by the time you’re through, the opportunity you were trying to exploit through train- ing has passed you by.”

Second, the ISD model is a “process” model, meaning that it focuses on the process by which effective training can take place. As such, it can be an orderly way to organize instruction to produce consistent results. The problems come when emphasis gets placed on whether all the steps in the process are getting done, versus solving the problem the training was designed to address. The ultimate goal of training should be to accomplish something of value “out there,” that is, in the organization. The question should be asked, “How do you know when you’ve developed good train- ing?” Nickols suggests that, if the only thing you can say is, “It’s good training because it was devel- oped using the following process,” then your prod- uct probably isn’t worth much.

The third charge against the ISD model is that, even if it is used as intended, it produces bad (as in narrow or incomplete) solutions. The primary focus has been on achieving narrowly worded behavioral or cognitive objectives. Attitudes and emotions are often ignored or minimized. Diane Gayeski, of OmniCom Associates, says that “the executives I work with are more concerned with developing a cre- ative and resilient work force than with having employ- ees memorize and play out some predetermined set of steps. We inadvertently may be creating ‘disabled’ learners when we spoon-feed them instructions in an effort to achieve homogeneous outcomes: You know, ‘Upon completion of course, everyone will have learned to behave in exactly the same way.’”

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