Setting the Right Performance Goals for Learning Programs

In our last blog post, we covered the first step of the BALDDIE instructional design method—identifying business goals with measurable KPIs to link to learning initiatives. Now it’s time for the second step, which is identifying what the workforce needs to do differently or better to drive those KPI and achieve that goal.

As we explained in our overview of Cathy Moore's action mapping model, this step is absolutely vital. Unless you, the instructional designer, know what learners need to do, there’s no way that you can instruct them.

Yet this step is also one of the hardest parts of instructional design. That’s because you may not have any idea about what people need to do to achieve the goal (and sometimes the business doesn’t know either). So what can you do? Let’s explore these issues in more detail.

Good performance goals are super important.

Too often, even when a business goal has been identified, learning programs aren’t designed with a clear plan of how that goal will be achieved.

We pull together whatever content seems relevant to the goal and build it into a course in the hope that if people are more generally knowledgeable about a subject, they’ll do better. As expected, there are a few problems with this approach.

Problem 1: If it looks familiar, it may get skipped.

People generally know how to do their jobs and are probably already aware of the content you’ve provided. So even with the fanciest or most impressive delivery, the learning experience is likely to be boring because the content is nothing new. Your learners will lose attention.

And even if you include new content, you risk learners being so bored by the time they get to it that they just skip over it—along with the rest of the course.

Problem 2: Without setting a target, they won’t know where to aim.

This makeshift kind of approach is unlikely to have a significant impact on the business goal because it’s not targeted to do so. Unless you tell people what to do differently, they’re unlikely to change how they work.

And if you don’t know what they need to do, there’s no way they’re going to magically figure it out after taking your course.

Problem 3: It’s hard to connect the dots if they’re miles apart.

You need clear performance goals in order to test and prove the impact of training on the business KPI (which you should have identified in the step discussed in the last blog).

If you can show that the training led to a change in behavior or an improvement in skill, and then that change or improvement led to improved KPI numbers, that’s good evidence the training had a positive impact.

On the other hand, if you’re only able to show that people completed the training and the KPI number moved, it’s very difficult to prove that it was the training that led to that impact.

Good performance goals are super hard.

Why is such an important step—setting the right performance goals—often missed? Well, because it’s hard.

As an instructional designer, you probably don’t have much, if any, practical expertise in the business area you’re trying to improve. So even when you're given a business goal, it’s understandable if you don’t know what people need to do differently or better in order to achieve that goal.

You’re also pressed for time. You’ve been brought in at the last minute to create some training, and if you don’t start making it soon, you’re not going to hit the deadline.

There’s no time to research how people need to improve and the changes required to meet the business goal. You need to pop out a rapid-authoring course yesterday!

But this is a mistake because of all the problems we outlined above: You’ll create boring content that doesn’t have an impact and is difficult to evaluate. Isn’t it better to take the time to create properly researched learning programs that work, than to rush out several programs that don’t?

3 ways to create (good) performance objectives

In the game show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” contestants must answer a series of questions, each taking them closer to the million-dollar jackpot.

If they don’t know the answer, contestants have three lifelines to help them narrow down the correct answer: Ask the Audience, Phone a Friend, 50-50.

These lifelines are a good analogy of three approaches you can take to determine appropriate performance goals.

  1. You can ask the audience, your learners, for help. You may have existing data or anecdotal evidence to identify some of your top performers in terms of the business KPI you want to drive. Go and talk to them, observe them doing their jobs, and figure out what it is they do differently that leads to their success. Identify the secret sauce recipe that you can build your training around.
  2. You can phone a friend. In the game show, contestants can call friends who are experts in various categories. As you determine what people need to do in order to meet the business goal, one option is speaking to experts who have already achieved the same goal(s), perhaps even at another organization. These experts might be people within your organization, or may be external consultants.
  3. Finally, there’s 50-50. In some scenarios you may be working on something new or innovative. As a result, there may not be a well-worn path to success you can follow. Your audience might not know how to improve, and there may not be experts to ask for guidance. In this case, you just have to make an educated guess and try something. And pilot programs along with robust tracking, monitoring, and learning evaluation are especially important so that you can identify as early as possible if your strategy is not working and then try something else.

Up Next: Learning outcomes for experts

You’ve identified your business goal and documented performance outcomes for what learners need to do to meet that goal. Now it’s time to identify the learning outcomes. We’re going to assume that if you’re reading this blog post, you already know how to set learning outcomes. For that reason, we’ve titled our next blog post “Learning Outcomes for Experts.”

And at the risk of (as our friend Andrew Downes would say) teaching grandma to suck eggs, we’re going to share some tips on writing good learning outcomes to support the performance and business goals you’ve identified.

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