The Single Source Method for Designing with Unstable Content

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As instructional designers, we consider a variety of factors before selecting delivery methods for training: business needs, learning audience characteristics and locations, available technology, learning objectives, development budget, and deadlines to name a few. Another factor to consider is how likely it is that the content is going to change during development or after launch. Certain content types are more prone to changes than others, including:
  • Systems
  • Regulations
  • Policies
  • Procedures
  • Products
  • Services
  • Training on just about anything that is still under development or review
If your training includes any of these content types, spend a little extra time at the start of your project to determine how likely it is that the content will change and how those changes could impact your design and development. If you feel the risk of content changes is high, consider using The Single Source Method to mitigate those risks.

The Single Source Method

If your goal is to keep course maintenance easy on your time and budget, and you know the content is likely to change, you should:
  1. Avoid delivery options that require high production times and costs (e.g., high-end video, simulations).
  2. Create single-source material in a format that is easily updated (e.g., PDF, website) to house all unstable content, and design materials that reference—but do not quote—it. (For instance, the facilitator guide might say “Turn to page [xx] in the [source document] and review the [xx] section. Then, answer the questions in your participant guide on page [xx].”)
  3. Support your training with facilitators and/or subject-matter experts who can offer guidance, coaching and feedback that reflects content changes.
  4. Develop low-production assessments (e.g., exams) to support learning objectives, regardless of content stability.
This is The Single Source Method, and if you use it you should only need to update the source material and assessments when content changes arise. All course instruction and activities—whether online, virtual or in a classroom—should remain unchanged because they do not quote any unstable content.

Recommended Delivery Options

This method works best when facilitators are available to provide coaching and feedback that reflects and reinforces the latest changes. As a result, the following four delivery options top my list for unstable content:
  • Instructor-Led Training
  • Virtual Instructor-Led Training / Webinars
  • Coaching Programs
  • Learning Portal with Subject-Matter Expert Support
As content changes arise, schedule train-the-trainer sessions to keep facilitators and/or subject-matter experts informed about what content changed and how it impacts their guidance, coaching and feedback during the course.

Case Study: Regulation Training at a Financial Services Company

Due to new regulations that hadn’t yet been fully defined by government, a financial services company was tasked with updating a large library of policies and procedures, as well as a new-hire curriculum for its financial services consultants. Knowing the content was going to change, the company housed all policies and procedures in an easy-to-edit website that consisted of simple text and graphics. Then, they hired a team of instructional designers to create instructor-led training materials that referenced—but never quoted—specific sections on the policies and procedures website. The course materials included nearly 100 deliverables, including facilitator guides, participant guides, and assessments. The design team used the following strategies to mitigate the impact of content changes across the deliverables:
  • Facilitator guides: Quote stable content (e.g., “Excess contributions include the following …”), but reference the source document when teaching unstable content (e.g., “Turn to page [xx] of the [source material] and list the excess contributions in your participant guide.”).
  • Participant guides: Quote stable content only. For unstable content, insert references to the source material, activities where learners reference the source material to answer questions or complete a task, and lines for learners to take notes.
  • Assessments: Develop assessment questions to support the learning objectives, selecting stable content over unstable content as much as possible.

A Caveat for Smaller Segments of Unstable Content

Not all training that includes unstable content requires The Single Source Method. For instance, if only a small segment of your training content is unstable, consider presenting just that piece using formats that are easy to develop, such as:
  • Job aids
  • Quick reference guides
  • Websites with basic text and graphics
  • Podcasts
  • Webinars
  • Low-production video

Changing Content Requires a Change in Design

The next time you are asked to select a delivery option for a course, don’t forget to determine how likely it is that the content will change. If you deem the content unstable, consider using The Single Source Method and avoid expensive delivery options, create single source material that is referenced in the deliverables (but not quoted), and support the training with facilitators and/or subject-matter experts who can provide up-to-date guidance, coaching and feedback.      

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