Guide on the Side – A Model for Training and Improving Performance

Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O’Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries‘ highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute’s programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms “Life in Progress,” which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art. She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters International and is active with the American Society for Training Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her “free” time to various non-profit and civic activities. Always open to new ideas, Marie can be reached at:
[email protected]

Training, as most people think of it, is about building specific skills. The utility and connection of training to the workplace is implied. Professional trainers have another take on training which they dub performance improvement. Here the focus is on solving performance problems to achieve business results. Performance improvement encompasses skills training but also considers other issues as well, such as does the organizational structure (decision making, supervision, feedback) support the workflow and are the environmental working conditions (equipment, light, interruptions) appropriate. The concept of “performance improvement” is often an easier sell to management and trainees than “training” because the emphasis shifts from the person to overall performance of the organization. Whether you elect to offer traditional training or performance improvement, the Instructional Systems Design (ISD) model will be a useful framework.

The ISD model, sometimes alternatively called Instructional Systems Development Model, consists of five phases, usually described as analysis, objectives, design, delivery and evaluation. This training model is a systematic approach to managing human capital. The phases interrelate and form a continuous cycle.

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Analysis, also called needs assessment, is about pinpointing the gap between the present situation and what the situation ought to be. There is no perfect way to do needs analysis. It depends on the circumstances and the resources and whether the performance barriers appear to evolve from behavioral, environmental, organizational or external regulatory sources. Needs assessment is often a validation of what is already known and helps to get support for the proposed training.

Experienced trainers enter the ISD cycle at the needs analysis phase, starting with the design of an instrument (needs assessment tool) to collect and interpret data concerning performance–at the individual, group or organizational levels. Assessment tools can be surveys, questionnaires, observations, interviews or a combination of investigations. Smaller organizations may use the more informal tools of observations and interviews but they need to document the assessment process so it becomes an integral part of the ISD cycle and can be used as a foundation for both the evaluation and objectives phases.

Sometimes a decision maker in an organization pre-determines a need for training but savvy trainers always review the analysis data before moving on to determine the training objectives. Why? Because intuition-based training interventions often identify symptoms rather than root causes. Plus training is not the solution to all performance problems. Close to 80% of performance barriers are environment-related. Developing job skills will not improve these organizational issues:

  • Employee lacks necessary equipment
  • Job description does not match the job
  • Employee has wrong qualifications for the job
  • No incentives to improve
  • Employees are inadequately supervised
  • Job progress is not monitored for immediate feedback
  • Policies are out of step with expectations
  • Manager has a hidden agenda
  • Job procedures are out of date and do not support the process
  • Design of the organization thwarts productivity
  • Staff is not authorized to make related decisions
  • Lack of organizational leadership.


Analysis determines who needs training and what skills or performance improvements are indicated. Objectives set the parameters for the instructional design and help achieve the appropriate learning outcomes.

Trainers often use the SMART acronym for objectives: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. An example of a well stated objective is “Read and input 11- and 12-digit account numbers, at 80 numbers per minute with an error rate of less than 1%.” General statements like “Learn Windows 98” or “Understand how to use Shepard’s” are poor objectives because the objectives are too vague.

In many smaller environments, there is often a question of mixed audiences. For instance, a law firm is about to roll out its first intranet. All staff will need to be trained to use the knowledge management system but not at the same level nor for the same applications. Support staff and legal staff will each have a specific set of operations they must know to do to their work. Even though the topic may be the same for all groups, the training objectives will be different. While elements of the design may be re-used, the performance goals, exercises, and task contexts will be unique for each staff group. It is usually best to train each group separately.


Choosing the appropriate instructional technology and sequencing the learning experiences to accomplish the objectives is the design phase. How can the necessary knowledge, skills and attitudes be transferred to the learners? Professionals, who train only occasionally, often default to a lecture for the sole technology without examining a lecture’s functionality. Learners learn skills best when they can practice and actively connect what they already know with what they are about to learn. Lectures put the learner in a passive role and assume that everyone learns best by listening when in fact more people learn best by seeing and doing. Some alternatives to the lecture are demonstrations, hands-on, discussion, exercises, and simulations. (See Guide on the Side A Structure for Designing Instruction in Five Easy Pieces// )

There are now many communication media options so that the choice for time and place of learning no longer has to be in a training room, away from work. Instead instruction can be at the point-of-need (when and where needed) and build on the “teachable moment.” Design can include an electronic performance support system, online tutorials, instructions embedded in equipment, or immediate online feedback. Distance learning via TV satellite, teleconference or Web page are options. (See Guide on the Side Teaching and Training in the Fourth Dimension// )

In addition to the lesson plan for learning outcomes, design also includes a variety of other techniques to break the ice, to create learning communities, to bond with the learners, and to accelerate learning. Design includes the post-instruction support: manuals, job aids, templates, guides, and mentors.

Part of instruction design is the logistics, including the selection of training facility, media, equipment, time, set up, refreshments and food. If possible, test the design after it is developed with a small group of the learners.


Delivery is about implementing the instructional design. It involves a number of presentation and human relations skills: learning people’s names, varying communication styles, establishing credibility, keeping a sense of humor, varying the pace, keeping on schedule, not being thrown by the unexpected changes in the facility or equipment. Most trainers use an instructor’s manual, to keep on schedule, sequence the events correctly and organize topics. The instructor’s manual includes all the materials distributed to the learners plus instructional annotations. The agenda and the trainer(s) name should be in a easily accessible permanent place: grease board, a flip chart, a handout materials. Overheads are not good for the agenda because the information disappears.


The evaluation phase actually begins with needs assessment. These questions should be asked in the beginning. Who in the organization will be in a position to evaluate whether performance has improved? Learner, supervisor, manager, CEO, customer, or related department head? How will success be measured? Fewer errors, increased profits, more output, quicker turn-around? What is the best interval to evaluate? One week, two months? Evaluations done by the learners at the end of the training, evaluate how the learners feel about the learning experience but it is too early for them to know how the training will impact their job performance. Sometimes people are trained and go back to the job only to find that the work environment does not include key equipment or systems to implement the training.

Evaluations are frequently considered a form of needs assessment. They suggest additional areas for performance improvement as well as how to streamline and modify the training evaluated.

More Information

Readers who want more depth and detail about the ISD model or any of the five phases can find an abundance of books and articles on training and performance improvement. Two excellent places to look for publications on learning technologies are:

Posted in: Guide on the Side, Training