Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Untidy, Disorganized, Unexpected Learning Works! - Tip #112

Impacts of Task Analysis and Needs Analysis in Microlearning
What is Task Analysis?

Task Analysis is one of the oldest foundations in the training practice. It means several things to many professionals. Essentially, it is the process of analyzing how a task is accomplished. The analysis covers all factors that are necessary to perform a job such as physical and cognitive skills, duration and frequency. Some of the original proponents of traditional task analysis or behavioral task analysis were Munsterberg (1909), Gilbreth (1909), Taylor (1911), Conrad (1951) and Crossman (1956).

Associated concepts accompanying Task Analysis are:
  • Chaining: Burrhus Frederic Skinner is credited for the term “chaining.” He theorized that when a given response produces or alters some of the variables that control another response, a “chain” is formed (The B.F. Skinner Foundation, 2014). A complex task is broken down into small units. Each step or link strengthens the next step and response. Chaining leads to mastery of the task.
  • Training Needs Analysis or TNA is the process of identifying training needs in an organization for the purpose of improving employee job performance.
  • Task Analysis has contributed to successful solutions in complex training as demonstrated in military, healthcare, heavy industries training, complex simulation, and recently in designing products such as the UX design (Interaction Design Foundation, 2016) and software (Bass et al. (1995) that enhances day-to-day experiences.
The Remnants of Task Analysis Gone Wild?

Task Analysis evolved as part of training and learning science because of the need to identify the activities that learners needed to be trained on. In complex situations it demands extensive new knowledge acquisition. In these cases “front-end analysis” is a must.

With Task Analysis comes some practices that have gone wild or out of control. The following are anecdotes that we often hear and observe:

“Learners must learn the step by step process.”
“Learners don’t know what they don’t know.”
“Training must be based on needs analysis.”

In today’s high-speed environment and connected workers and learners, does task analysis accelerate or impede learning on the go or learning on need, a way or method we call Microlearning?

Consider These Reflections

“Learners must learn the step by step process.”—The Barista—Self-Correcting, Learning and Doing

In the practical world, when problem solving is the mode of work on the job, learning step by step—although it sounds safe and soothes the comfort level of trainers and designers—does not necessarily happen or is unreal. Admittedly, there are steps that are so closely linked they must be learned and applied in sequence or simultaneously. Technologies in embedded tips, solutions, guides and references enable the learners and workers to find the steps and knowledge, almost instantly without having drilled down in formal or previous training. The error-correcting process of tools makes it possible for a learner to fix the problem and correct the actions before submitting the final action (Quinn, 2009). Learners are doing and learning at the same time.

Microlearning and micro-actions, on the other hand, facilitate the trial and error and simultaneous learning and doing method.

“Learners don’t know what they don’t know.”—Untidy Learning and Experiences
Task analysis helps create a very clean, clear and well-defined training structure and plan. In the real world, most learning activities are untidy, disorganized, random, disorderly and do not follow a plan. When trainers say “Learners don’t know what they don’t know” they are missing a key ingredient in worker performance—that learners and workers have experience—whether low or high—and they bring these experiences into their work. The workers may not perform a well-defined task based on the “ideal” work condition, but they perform (Pink, 2011).There are so many invaluable implicit knowledge on the job, which no amount of formal and structural task analysis can capture.

A Microlearning plan helps capture the informal knowledge that forever would be lost without allowing untidy experiences and learning to be captured.

“Training must be based on needs analysis”—Wishful Thinking
After working with hundreds of clients and thousands of learning professionals in my workshops, I have the distinct impression that we see an increasing number of learning programs that fail the test if they are subjected to the classical training needs analysis process. One of the key reasons is that a significant amount of content is not task-based but rather more informational. Additionally, the volume of knowledge and rapid change provides less incentives to follow a formal training needs analysis process. We should not feel guilty if we fall into this trap. It is good to reflect that perhaps the formal needs analysis is being replaced by such methods as a dynamic collection of rated content, instant insights from learners while at work and growing a need for Microlearning—making content smaller—so workers can use it quickly to match a need. I think this has some relationship to what Michael Allen describes in his book "Leaving ADDIE for SAM." This is what we would call instant application of learning. We now see learners grabbing a tiny lesson to quickly solve a problem. This is, to my mind, a response to a need of learning, which skips formal learning needs analysis.


Microlearning is veering from traditional task analysis, which emphasizes formal and hierarchical learning (institutionalized setting), and toward a less formal setting. Although Microlearning breaks down complex tasks into segments or units, there is no need to learn these units in sequential order. In this sense, it can be concluded that in today's learning environment, Microlearning encourages that learners jump, skip, learn and apply what they can at the point of need.


The B. F. Skinner Foundation. B.F. Skinner Science and Human Behavior. 2014

Interaction Design Foundation. Task Analysis a UX Designer’s Best Friend

Bass, Andrew et al. A software toolkit for hierarchical task analysis. Applied Ergonomics, 26(2), April 1995, pp. 147–151

Clark Quinn. Ignoring Informal. 14 October 2009

Krüger, Nicole. Micro-E-learning in information literacy. 31 May, 2012

Reinemeyer, Erika . Edward Lee Thorndike (1874–1949). May 1999

Ray Jimenez, PhD
Vignettes Learning
"Helping Learners Learn Their Way"


  1. Thanks for another great post, Ray!

    I agree that traditional task analysis is often not the best use of time for instructional designers. Really, formal task analyses are more likely to be conducted by technical writers - the people who create the formal (i.e., approved / official / legally compliant) instructions for work processes, including the operation of equipment and software. These instructions are later condensed into job aids, etc., that provide the just-in-time performance support.

    That being said, there are a great many work tasks in countless career fields that absolutely must be performed in a specified sequence.

    A surgeon can't just choose to insert the step "Suture the incision" anywhere he/she likes during an operation - that step belongs at or near the end. Same with a nurse changing a patient's wound dressing, a lab technologist crossmatching blood, and any number of other tasks performed by healthcare professionals.

    It's not just healthcare: Truck drivers need to inspect their vehicles before they get on the road, not later, and some items need to be inspected before starting the engine / some only afterward. Chemists and other researchers know to follow a set process in order to ensure valid results. A cashier can't ask the customer for payment before ringing up their purchases. Steelworkers, miners, machinists, chefs, ...

    The list goes on and on where people need to follow an established process for their job, not "jump around" to what they think they need to be doing. And this doesn't even address efficiency - i.e., how to complete a given task to minimize cost and maximize profit. Really, the number of jobs where an employee has license to DIY their task flow is probably pretty limited, at least in my experience.

    While micro-learning and performance support are helpful to recall details later, IMO there is a distinct advantage when a "newbie" learner follows the same sequence of tasks that they will need to follow later. It helps them organize their knowledge and begin building good habits from the start.

    At a higher level, I wonder if giving employees total freedom to learn in the sequence they choose wouldn't eventually have an unintended consequence of leading them to believe that they can just skip steps in their actual job tasks?

    I don't see this as a "generational" thing - I think everyone enjoys the satisfaction of a job well done, and in many (most?) cases, it will take both traditional learning and micro-learning to get there.


  2. Kim, Thanks for your reply. I truly appreciate your insights.

    I wholly agree with you that task analysis has its place in training design. This is foundational. Sadly, we see many done properly.

    You are right, there are plenty of work that are musts as step by step in the process.

    In fact most jobs are done following steps. However, at the moment of need, when steps don't work, workers find solutions to fix or change the problem.

    Although step by step are the way we teach people, in actual situations, workers may have some experiences or approaches that we never cover in the step by step training that they discovered to be important to do in their own situation. A good example would be for example in step 5 of steps 1 to 6, the bearing does not fit and the training has not covered that the bearing has been changed recently, hence, it does not work. In this step, therefore, the worker must find or solve the issue on the spot.

    Similarly, a surgeon follows steps, but each case present its own different case. A gallbladder may be remove following steps, but what happens when there is bleeding and complications?

    There are steps to most jobs, and we design training to cover all steps. But in our design sometimes we become too rigid and focus on the step by step without helping workers think that things may be different on the job.

    In some industries and work where workers are highly technology assisted, this becomes prominent. Software developers follow steps, but they learn mostly as they discover how to learn things (somewhat fumbling through.)

    I once interviewed a scientist about the process of adjusting a GPS when they launch a rocket to deliver a satellite. Mostly, the computers run the system, but the corrections and troubleshooting and problem-solving becomes a discovery and trial and error process.

    As we see more work becomes routine and technology assisted, I sense we will continue to need step by step training, but the need for more micro-actions will be needed for problem solving and troubleshooting and critical decisions.

    Micro-Learning is not a substitute to step by step training or tasks, it simply suggests that conditions of rapid change, complex environments, workers need to think and act quality, learn and find answers to help them deal with real issues on the job, might it be within the steps, outside of the steps, or without the steps.

    Furthermore, each step can be made tiny learning units (micro) so that learners can jump an go back to them easily when they need them on the job. Today, most programs limit or present constraints to this flexibility. May be this inflexibility is rooted in our desire to train on step by step, and yet make it difficult for learners to access knowledge as they "jump around" while they are solving problems on the job.

    Thanks, Ray

  3. "... helping workers think that things may be different on the job" - wow, what a great point. Strict step-by-step training may not add a lot of value above what's contained in written instructions, whereas workers need to be thinking about how to generalize information and apply it in varying contexts. Well-designed courses / curricula will do this. Since I took your (valuable!) workshops on scenario-based and story-based instructional design, my company has included those formats in our learning strategies to convert several whole curricula into 5-10-minute "snippets," and more and more of our clients are requesting this bite-sized strategy. Your posts and webinars are hitting the mark and making an impact, because it's so obvious that micro-learning.simply.works.

  4. Kim,

    Wow, That's a great insight and feedback. This is why I keep on writing blogs and running webinars. I want to bang my head to the wall and hopefully I learn from others.

    Thanks for sharing. Best, Ray

  5. This makes me think of Immersion Training. Sometimes the learner has to dive into the job and the learning happens naturally on demand!

  6. This makes me think of the value of Immersion Training for some job tasks. Sometimes the learner must dive in and the on demand "Micro - Learning" occurs naturally.


Welcome! Sharing your comments is very valuable learning experience for me and others. Thanks!