Strategic Partnering: Business Requirements for Instructional Designers by Chris Adams Return


Last week Handshaw sponsored a forum with the Instructional Systems Technology (IST) master’s program at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte for HR and learning leaders in the local business community.

The IST program, which graduates instructional designers, needs support from the business communities to place its interns and graduates. The business leaders had the opportunity to help shape the program so that graduates possess the skills that businesses find most important. Thus, the question posed was “What should instructional design graduates be able to do in order to make meaningful contributions in your organizations?”

So, most of the conversation centered around expectation for fairly senior-level instructional designers/technologists in business.

It struck me what a high bar we set for these graduates. For instance, during a discussion of the different roles an instructional designer should be able to fill, this is just some of what I heard:

  • Project Management
  • Client Relationship Management
  • Program Evaluation
  • Change Leadership
  • Qualitative Research
  • Software Development
  • Media Production

Participants also discussed the attributes an instructional designer must bring to the job to be successful. These included:

  • Business Acumen
  • Self-Confidence
  • Tact
  • Creativity
  • Innovativeness

Again, the bar was set high.

Much of this discussion was summarized by the participant who expressed his need for instructional designers to become “strategic partners” to their clients.

Note that his need was not expressed as a lofty goal, but as a basic business requirement for instructional designers. But how can instructional designers and other learning professionals gain the skills to fulfill this requirement?

In Handshaw’s model , (Robinson, Robinson, Phillips, Phillips, & Handshaw, 2015) becoming a strategic partner has three components:

  • Identifying clients who are responsible for the business results of work groups or functions.
  • Building partnerships with those clients through Access, Credibility, and Trust (The ACT approach).
  • Seeking projects that meet the criteria for strategic work.

We cite six criteria that a project opportunity must meet to be considered strategic. They are:

  1. There is a business need.
  2. You (the consultant) have direct access to the true client (i.e., the owner of the business and performance need).
  3. The client seeks performance change or improvement of people in one or more employee groups following the initiative.
  4. The client is willing to share accountability for producing change.
  5. The client will provide you with time and access to appropriate people in order to obtain required information prior to taking action.
  6. The situation focuses on a group of employees and not just one or two individuals.

Again, note that projects meeting all six of these criteria are rare for newly minted instructional designers. So, in conclusion I’d offer this challenge to educators and learning and HR leaders, like those we met with recently in Charlotte: If we want graduates to become strategic partners, expose them to models of strategic work during their studies and involve them in projects that meet the criteria for strategic work during their internships. Doing so, we can build a scaffold that makes our high (but necessary) bar quite a bit easier to reach.


About the Author

Christopher Adams is a performance consultant and instructional designer for Handshaw, Inc. with over 20 years of experience helping clients engage people, apply processes, and implement technology to improve human and organizational performance. He is also a doctoral student at Old Dominion University researching performance improvement.