Plain English is just as important in Analysis as it is in the Design and Development of learning solutions.

In the past few days two things crossed my desk and set me thinking.The first was a blog by my good friend and colleague Clive Shepherd. He wrote:

“As a learning professional, it’s absolutely vital when you’re taking a brief from a project sponsor that you ask the right questions and are persistent in making sure you get a clear and satisfactory answer”

The second was a link to a short video by the excellent and down-to-earth Robin Hoyle who has managed to distil the entire process of setting a learning and development into 6 A’s. Robin’s A’s form the framework of a strategy; they stand for:


I won’t elaborate on this – you can hear the man himself explaining them if you follow this link.

What I like is the simplicity of these two pieces of advice. Both are sincerely striving to simplify a thought process that is anything but simple.

Clive proposed a list of essential questions for analysis.

Arranged in a logical order the questions are set within four headings:

  1. Need
  2. Learning requirement
  3. Learners
  4. Logistics.

(It is heartening to see one of my own attempts at simplification – the 3 L’s – used in earnest in this way and forming the basis of the analysis phase for the More Than Blended Learning design model.)

To set a strategy that works, or to solve a defined problem it’s not good enough to be driven by your own whims, aspirations or prejudices. You need to get at the nuts-and-bolts realities of the organisation you are serving. It is rather a good strategy to ask some rather good questions. Clive’s list and Robin’s A’s seem to cover the right areas of enquiry, but what are the “right questions” to ask, and does it matter how you ask them?

First on Clive’s list is the question:

What goal is this intervention intended to support?

Followed swiftly by:

What does this target population need to be doing in the future that it may not be doing now if this goal is to be achieved?

Robin’s first A is Aim and his second is Audience.

Picture yourself as a busy manager, a nuts-and-bolts pragmatist, fretting over some kind of problem or challenge at work. How will it feel if smart consultants arrive with their clipboards and a script, and begin to sound as though they are reading from a textbook with a foot firmly wedged in your door? Terms such as performance requirement and target population and intervention may be very precious to us as L&D pros, but perhaps there is a risk that we might be using them as “thieves’ cant” to prevent the non-professional from fully understanding what it is we are trying to do on their behalf. Even deceptively simply words such as aim and audience are loaded with a special meaning that may not match what is in the heads of our clients and customers. Ask any two managers to define the word “aim” and there is every chance you’ll get three different answers!

I like plain words and simple models; they make it easy for me to understand complex ideas and manage complicated procedures such as “Needs Analysis.” Above all they help me to get on the same wavelength as the people I believe I am trying to help through learning and development strategies and products. I have seen both Clive and Robin at work, and I have heard them speaking about their beliefs and approaches. The magic they perform is definitely not all about running through a list of prepared questions. Nor is it truly about persistence – a double edged sword that can leave a blunt gash in a relationship if it crosses the line over to dogmatism and nuisance!

Onlookers often see more of the game than the players do. Clues are there to be found, but we shouldn’t expect them to emerge naturally just because we ask a set of questions, especially if those questions are too formal or rigid in style and tone. Robin and Clive are highly experienced and respected analysts. What they do is quite subtle. It may be difficult to notice and describe, and so it’s not that easy for a novice to copy. Somewhere in the things that a manager has to say to them, or perhaps on the walls, in the choice of books on the client’s shelves, in the working environment there are clues as to what makes a business or part of a business tick, and to what might be getting in the way. Whether someone does, or does not offer you refreshments can reveal more about the deep beliefs and values of a team than anything pressed in aspic or etched in stone on the walls.

a bloodhound is a different beast from a dog-in-a-manger

I often think of a performance consultant as a soft, sentimental gumshoe detective, seeking out all the clues; going where the action is, sniffing the air and making genuine attempts to sense the real factors that shape what’s going on. But beware – a bloodhound is a different beast from a dog-in-a-manger. It is important to remove from your mind any preconceptions about either the problem or the solution.

I am not arguing against checklists, but I do feel there is some risk that the questions themselves might direct the lines of enquiry along pre-drawn lines. There is also a risk that an analyst/designer is so focused on their own questions that they neglect to listen with an open mind, in a forensic manner and with proper attention to the answers. I know many well-shod consultants, who make a good living with their models and matrices, balanced scorecards Johari windows and the like. The tools that have always served me best are a seeing eye, two very well pinned-back ears and some good plain English.

In the 1970s TV detective series “Columbo” the lead character would make some telling remark after the prime suspect thought the conversation was over. Typically he would tart to walk away, and when the suspect felt relaxed and relieved, the detective would turn back and say, “just one more thing.” What followed was always very revealing. In performance consultancy too, some of the best are “pick-up” and “follow-on” questions, and the “Columbo Close”. And that’s where I’ll finish for now – with a classic “Columbo Close”. Here it comes:

“Oh by the way – did I mention that I have a good store of my own favourite questions for analysis? I’ll sort through a selection and share then as Part Two of this posting.”

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