The Ethics of Designing Training

When you think about the ethics of designing training courses, your first thought probably drifts to courses about iffy topics. Nobody’s going to design a course about how to rob a bank, and unless there’s an eLearning black market that I don’t know about, it will probably be difficult to find someone to develop you a course about how to embezzle money from your company.

But that’s not what this article is about. It’s not about whether the topic of the training resonates with your personal code of ethics. Vegan professionals might not design training for hunting associations, and pro-life professionals may not design training for abortion clinics. That’s their prerogative.

This article is about the ethics of the profession as a whole. In fact, as Cathy Moore points out in Map It:

Instructional design isn’t a profession because we don’t have a code of ethics. Creating courses on demand is as unethical as prescribing antibiotics on demand. Yet it’s so widespread that it has become the standard in our field. (384)

And she’s right. We don’t have a code of ethics. In large part, we design courses, workshops, and flashy, gamified microlearning modules because that’s what our clients are paying us for (or what the higher-ups at our orgs are asking for).

If we’re to maintain the integrity of our field, then this needs to change.

Wait, what’s the problem?

When we design courses just because we’re asked to, it shows a disregard for the consequences of our actions. It’s unlikely that anyone will die or get seriously injured due to an unnecessary eLearning course, but it’s just that: unnecessary.

Think about the time and money wasted: our time spent designing the training, the learners’ time spent taking the course, and the organization’s budget bankrolling the project.

Why would I design training that's a waste of time or money?

Oftentimes, we design and develop training without either conducting a proper analysis or ensuring that a proper analysis has been conducted. Pushing training at an issue without conducting a proper analysis is like playing darts in a dark room. Likewise, failure to evaluate training is like tallying up your score without turning the lights on. When we design training like this, the odds that it will be successful are so low that we likely wind up wasting everyone’s time — including our own.

I’m not saying that training doesn’t help. Employees can often extract value from corporate training if it’s relevant to their jobs, especially if it’s practice-based. However, there are far less expensive, more effective, and faster-to-implement solutions that are overlooked in favor of courses and workshops. Think job aids, email sequences, and curated resources.

It’s a problem when:

  • We design courses without identifying what’s causing the performance issue
  • We push courses at issues that have better solutions
  • We force people to take training that isn’t going to help them perform better

Let’s ensure that we do the up-front analysis work before developing a “solution.”

But the training I design is learner-friendly!

We can design a beautiful, technically-sound eLearning course that uses a conversational tone and immersive visuals, but if we aren’t addressing a performance issue, then the course isn’t going to help the organization. If the content doesn’t consist of practice activities for high-priority tasks that employees need to perform on-the-job, then the course (likely) isn’t going to help the employees.

The bottom line is that it’s unethical to push courses to perceived problems just because we’re told to. Our training design decisions should be guided by a proper analysis, and many times analysis reveals that training isn’t the best (or only) solution. To determine how close we are to hitting our mark, we need to evaluate the effectiveness of our interventions and adjust them as necessary.

So, that’s enough about the problem. What do we do about it?

Design solutions, not courses.

No matter what we call ourselves — instructional designers, eLearning developers, or training-slinging ninjas — we need to use a performance consulting mindset. This means that we need to focus on the solution to the business need - not on the course that needs to get built. Here’s how we can do so:

  1. Conduct a thorough analysis to identify the business goal and performance issues.
  2. Ideate solutions to the performance issues and make recommendations accordingly.
  3. If training is part of the solution, design practice activities for high-priority on-the-job tasks
  4. Monitor the interventions and evaluate their effectiveness with all data at your disposal.
  5. Improve the interventions based on your findings.

Learn more about identifying the business goal.

Wrapping up

Professionals should abide by a mutually agreed upon code of ethics, but we don’t have that code of ethics in the field of instructional design. The biggest ethical dilemma that plagues our industry is the course mill mindset; we churn out courses to throw at problems that courses will not solve.

The solution is a performance consulting approach that relies heavily on analysis and evaluation.