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Task Analysis Diatribe

Task Analysis is perhaps the most fundamental skill of any Instructional Designer; without which instruction, training, performance improvement are rendered mediocre at best. Are we not in the business of producing instruction on how to perform, how to do something? Well then, let's look at the anatomy of tasks.


Task Hierarchy

Sometimes we instructional designers work in a backward manner. We start where you and your organization wish to end. We start with the performance your organization needs to achieve. One way we do this is through a task hierarchy. Consider a bank manager who must process the previous day's overdrafts each business morning.

Have you ever bounced a check? What happened?

Schematic1 illustrates what comprises daily overdraft processing at a particular banking operation. Notice there are knowledge, skills, rules and systems involved. There are some decisions to make as well.

What ever shall we do?

Let's understand the task hierarchy schematic.

We begin with the performance ability we wish to achieve. Then we determine what must be the case directly prior to that achievement. We then proceed in like fashion for subsequent achievement items.

  1. What is the last thing one does before overdrafts are processed?
  2. What happens before overdrafts are submitted?
  3. How are payment and fee decisions determined?
  4. Which policy or rule applies?
  5. What does one need to know or do before the task can begin?

Working backwards from the end-performance, producing a task hierarchy, results in several benefits for the instructional designer: Types of content are identified; knowledge areas, skill sets, tools and resources. Instructional sequences and strategies can be formed and assessed. A media-mix is suggested.

An interesting sidebar to this activity is the discovery of what further to investigate. Are you not wondering how that overdraft system really plays out? How about that rule-set?

It has been my experience that most systems and rules are not as straight forward or comprehensible as one might want. Hmmm...to ponder.


task hierarchy schematic.
Schematic 1. - Sample Task Hierarchy.
Task Procedure

As we prepare to design an instructional treatment, we consider the following about the known task hierarchy and form an accessible procedure. Schematic2 illustrates an example.

Notice the task procedure is an inverted and condensed form of the hierarchy. This schematic alludes to a possible instructional sequence based upon observations and consultations.

We also assess the task importance, frequency, difficulty and error potential. These attributes allow us to determine the number and type of learning interactions and strategies required for proficiency. Consider the following attributes of overdraft processing:

AttributeRating (scale 1-5)Description
Importance5Impacts the organization
Frequency4Performed daily
DifficultyLearn3Difficult due to complexity
DifficultyPerform1Easily performed once learned
ErrorPotential1Low error once learned

Errors of system performance may need to be considered. Errors associated with improper policy application should be addressed.

What do the task attributes suggest to you?

In the case of overdraft processing, we know the frequency: DAILY. We can guess the importance: MONEY. What would you consider the most difficult aspect of the task? Where might errors occur? Why are task results and related tasks important? Could you build a troubleshooting scenario from this and the schematic?

Perhaps in order to answer such questions, we need to know more, much more.

task analysis schematic.
Schematic 2. - Sample Task Procedure.

Conclusion, for now...

It seems the task analysis only generates more questions! This is true. And this is good.

Don't you want to know more? Our craft is to ask questions, clarify procedures, discover obstacles, all in order to fashion instruction that ensures performance, engages learners and impacts the organization. Task analysis just gets us started.

But wait! Where are the objectives? Don't we start with objectives? Not to worry.

We have a good idea of what is involved, enough to construct a working performance objective. However, you will want to analyze further each task component before you fashion your final objectives. And you will want to know more about your audience proficiencies with the overdraft system and knowledge of overdraft policy.

How do I do all this?

You will need to have non-hostile access to the items given in your hierarchy and procedure. Consider the following activities with which to complete your task analysis and commence the instructional design:

Some other items to consider as you persevere in learning them folks out there...Content types determine instructional strategies. Consider the following types of content and how you might design instruction accordingly. Which content types apply to overdraft processing?

Content TypeDescription
FactA bit of information that is true and that can be observed.
ClassificationThe grouping of like items together and separating them from unlike items.
ConceptNotions, ideas, thoughts, or opinions of a topic. Simple definitions are considered Concepts.
ProcedureA set of sequential steps to complete a task.
ProcessAn arrangement of tasks among disparate groups explaining how the groups interact over time.
PrincipleThe underlying premises and rules of function. These remain consistent, no matter what is happening.

Some even more items to consider, the Moments of Learning Need, (Mosher & Gottfredson, 2011). What interventions and strategies might you plan and develop for overdraft processing given these moments? Would an online help system address some of the moments?

Learning MomentDescription
For the First TimeThe root level knowledge and skills with which to achieve the task within acceptable limits or constraints.
Learning MoreAdditional knowledge and skills with which to complete the task, e.g. anomalies, further practice.
ApplicationWorkplace performance using newly acquired knowledge, skills and abilities.
When things go wrongTroubleshooting and resolution using acquired knowledge, skills and abilities.
When things changeRe-application of modifications to procedures, methods, rules, systems, etc.

If you are unable to construct the anatomy of the tasks you are charged with training, then you are at the mercy of out-dated source materials, the hearsay of disinterested parties, competing agendas, politics of incompetence. Oh! like all my projects!

Stay tuned for a sample instructional treatment...