PM Chronicles # 3: So, Who is Mager, and Why Should I Care, by Fred Parker

Note: In honor of the passing of Robert F. Mager, this episode of the PM Chronicles is posted slightly out of sequence.

In the PMs office at the weekly review meeting. Present are

  • PM (Performance Manager)
  • LT (Learning and Talent Development Coordinator)
  • TC (Training Coordinator)
  • HG (Hired Gun Consultant)

PM         I am curious. You have talked about Robert Mager now and then. We got several copies of his Six Pack. And now I see that he has passed away and a lot of people are praising him.

TC          Yeah. So, what is the big deal about Robert Mager?

Criterion Referenced Instruction (CRI)

HG         Very simple answer – Criterion Referenced Instruction (CRI).

TC          I think I have heard of that, but I don’t think I understand.

HG         CRI has also become known as Competency-Based Training (CBT) and Performance-Based Training (PBT).

TC          Ok, that helps. Please go on. What is so special about CRI?

HG         You have probably heard me say before that I believe most people intuitively know how to do training and don’t even know it.

               Let’s think about this for a minute. One of you tell me how you would train a child to ride a bicycle.

PM         That’s easy. You buy a bike. Have them sit on and help them stay upright until they can ride by themselves.

HG         Do you provide any kind of job aids?

PM         Do you mean like training wheels or something?

HG         Yes, that could qualify. I have even seen parents remove the pedals at first so the child can learn to balance while walking the bike around.

               Ok, let’s look at what we have. Do we have an objective?

LT           Sure, ride the bike.

HG         Do we have objective criteria or standards to measure success.

LT           Yes, can they ride the bike by themselves without falling over?

HG         Good. Do we have some kind of final test or assessment, let’s call it a skill check?

TC          Sure. Show me how well you can ride your bike.

HG         Final piece, do we have training methods that will prepare the child to pass the skill check?

PM         Of course, walking behind holding them up, training wheels, whatever.

HG         There you have it. CRI in a nutshell, and you already knew it.

               Let’s look at the pieces in CRI terms. First, you have a measurable objective with known criteria.  Next you have a skill check for the child to demonstrate their ability. Finally, you have a training package that will get the child from the objective to the skill check.

“The proof is in the pie.”

HG         Parents do this all the time. Suppose a child brings home a pumpkin and wants to make a pie. The parent coaches them through the process and tastes the pie at the end.

               CRI is always pass or fail, but the plan is that everyone will pass.

PM         So where does Mager come in if it is so simple.

HG         Mager’s genius, like most genius, was to point out things to us that are right in front of our face that we didn’t see before. It is almost a whack-upside-the-head kind of thing. Whack, “I knew that already.

               That is both the simplicity and the magic of CRI as developed by Mager. He formalized the learning / training process we already use, wrote it down so we can follow it deliberately rather than by accident. CRI revolutionized training for everyone willing to apply it.

LT           I notice that Mager published in the early 1970s, so why is most of the training I see, whether online or in classes and seminars so bad. Sometimes it seems the trainer is more concerned with entertaining us with flash, whiz-bang, special effects than actual training.

               I often am left feeling, well that was kind of fun, but did I learn anything?


HG         In my experience most people who try to call themselves trainers do not have the discipline to follow the CRI methodology. They seem to think there is some silver bullet, instant way to create effective training.

               The hard news is that there is no easy way to do effective training. It may seem simple, but it is not easy.

TC          So where does that leave us with fancy technology.

HG         We will get into great detail later on about technology and elearning kinds of things.

PM         Where did you learn CRI?

HG         It started in the Marines. The US military adopted the core of CRI around 1977. The military also does some things differently than Mager, but that is a story for a different day.

               Also, I was a Mager course manager. I conducted Mager’s core workshops for several years.

TC          What are those?

HG         One is called “CRI.” It focuses on course design, including task analysis and writing objectives.

               The other is called “IMD,” for Instructional Module Development. As implied, IMD focuses on course development.

PM         Are we about done with the theory for today? We still have procedures to write.

HG         Just a couple more comments for right now.

               Back to the technology question. Mager’s IMD process has ten steps for building a class or module. Step number 5, just before you draft the module is to select appropriate media / technology. By that point you already have your objective, skill check, and criteria all identified. Only then are you ready to select the media or technology that will enhance the learner’s progress.

               Too many people try to start with the technology without really knowing where they want to go. That leads to LT’s comment. It may be fun and feel good, but it rarely is effective training.

               Last comment. As far as I know, Mager was the first to use the term “performance objective.”

PM         We can get into that later. For now we need to move on.


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Thank you.

Fred Parker is the Director of Course Design and Development at Fred has half a century as a Performance Management Consultant designing, developing, and delivering performance-based training including all manner of technical training, individual development soft skills, and basic leadership. Clients include all sizes from a local sandwich shop to the military to fortune 500 multinationals. Now Fred is converting previous ILT courses to remote delivery courses available on our web site.

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