What ID/Learning Theories Work for Executive Audiences?

Jan 04, 2018

We have an amazing opportunity to develop a program solely for an executive audience and want to hear from experts (like you!) on which Instructional Design learning theories work best? What assumptions can we make off this audience? What activities are deliver the most impact? PDFs? Self-discovery? Social?

6 Replies
Dave Goodman

Congrats on designing for the executive audience - a very hard group of people who do not like learning unless it is of their own choice. There was an IBM HR Report 2-3 years ago that listed only 20% of executives (at most) will participate in a learning program. From a design POV, it must be relevant immediately, based on real case studies or uses senior cases from Harvard, Stanford, UPenn, PriceWaterhouse, DeLoitte, etc. In terms of theories, you might want to consider David Kolb solely because he has a built -in reflection element in his learning. The audience must reflect on what the learning means to them and their company, how it might impact the business, how they will actively participate in applying the learning etc. It should also scaffold on an active business issue that they have experience with and can grasp it immediately. Good luck. Tell us how you made out and any results or lessons that you learned during this learning program.

Christy Tucker

David Merrill's First Principles of Instruction is a theory I find to be fairly all purpose, partly because Merrill was trying to distill the best ideas out of multiple theories, the ones that kept popping up in the research and in multiple systems.

You'll notice that the principles line up well with what David Goodman posted above. David, I don't know if this was what you had in mind when you wrote your post, but it demonstrates this.

  1. Problem-Centered: Learning is promoted when learners are engaged in solving real-world problems.
  2. Activation: Learning is promoted when existing knowledge is activated as a foundation for new knowledge.
  3. Demonstration: Learning is promoted when new knowledge is demonstrated to the learner.
  4. Application – Learning is promoted when new knowledge is applied by the learner.
  5. Integration – Learning is promoted when new knowledge is integrated into the learner’s world.


Merrill has written a full book on this, but the paper above will give you a place to start.


Dave Goodman

Katie - McKinsey just published their "What Executives Are Reading" at https://www.mckinsey.com/global-themes/leadership/what-ceos-are-reading-in-2017?cid=other-eml-ttn-mip-mck-oth-1801

you may want to have this link available and scroll through it as a quick side resources. People like to compare what they are reading with others around the globe.

Bob S

Hi Katie,

First... congrats indeed.  Not an easy task to secure buy-in for this.

While relevance is certainly important (always), but in my experience the most important factor is time/mind-share.  These are extremely busy people with driven personalities. So just getting them to put down their phones, email, last minute meetings, and the like to focus on development  is a huge hurdle. This is why the most successful exec-level programs I've seen were done as ILT-type events.

Securing CEO/Pres buy-in and having them (ghost) write a note to the Execs stating the expectations and required commitment to the program/event can be really powerful.

Hope this helps!


Dave Goodman

Are the executives truly C level people and are they co-located in the same building or are they dispersed? That answer might drive your delivery choice. As Bob stated, these learning efforts for executives are best face to face with real life, corporate related case studies during which they interact with each other, solve problems, offer solutions, discuss/debate with each other, etc. Try to create individual teams and do not attempt to have a single person placed on the spot to answer - they may need to save face if their answer is wrong. Create a design/delivery plan 1-2 pages and discuss it with your client sponsor since that person will know the culture and environment of the client. Are the executives C level people in a mid - large corp or are they from a smaller organization? Even though both groups may be "executives", the larger the corp the greater are their expectations for the time they are contributing in participating in the training. Create your first training to be outstanding and you will have a client for years to come. Regards.

This discussion is closed. You can start a new discussion or contact Articulate Support.