Training and Instructional Design
(Damocles to Dionysus!)

The Story of Damocles, Dionysus, and the Sword of Damocles

Here’s a story that many of you must’ve heard before.

There was a king whose name was Dionysus and like all kings he used to be surrounded by sycophants, who would flatter him no end. Among his courtiers was an exceptionally brilliant toady whose name was Damocles. Now Damocles made it a point to butter Mr. Dionysus up at every little speck of opportunity.

“Oh Dionysus the Greatest of the Great rulers of the very land of ours (Syracuse, incidentally,) your palace is magnificent!” he would rant. “Oh Dionysus, the scion of the most powerful Syracusan dynasty, the opulence that I’ve seen here is incomparable,” Damocles would chant!

So one day Dionysus decided that enough was enough…and he invited Damocles over. Damocles arrived right in time, strutting like a decorated peacock, expecting the unexpected. The unexpected did happen… at least twice that evening. Dionysus asked Damocles whether he’d like to own that fabulous palace with its fabulous contents and experience the feeling of being rich, firsthand?

“Oh yes! Oh yes…yes…yes,” babbled Damocles. This was an unexpected bounty! So Dionysus pronounced Damocles the lord of the whole palace and whatever it contained! Damocles was so happy that he pirouetted on his toes with his hands stretched out and leaped high in the air as Dionysus watched him with an amused air.

Later when Damocles was finally able to contain his happiness, they sat down to dine. Lovely nymphs danced to heavenly music. Handsome men and beautiful women served them the food! Candles stood in ivory-gold stands casting a golden glow over everything in the room while they feasted on delicacies that were awe-inspiring (and of course, mouth-watering!)

Everything was fine…until Damocles saw something unnerving in the reflection thrown off the polished surface of the golden plate…there was something hanging over his neck! He gingerly looked up…there sure was something – a sword that hung right over his neck with a horsehair! Suddenly he lost interest in everything…all that he remained aware of was that shiny sword hanging over his neck…the sword that could fall off any minute to…”

“So…Damocles,” said Dionysus, “you know now how much I enjoy what I have. Power, affluence, and position they all come with a sword that hangs over your head all the time!”

Damocles was so tensed that he couldn’t comprehend anything; he continued to stare up, as he sat in the golden throne paralyzed with fear!

Cicero originally told the Roman Philosopher this little story that I just retold! He too had read it in a book, so you see, the history of borrowing stories for making a point dates back to a long-long time. But that’s not the point that I wish to make by telling this story. In fact, this story makes a very strong point about the trainer’s vulnerability in the current training scenario. It tells us that each trainer has a Damocles sword hanging over his or her neck; and that no amount of monetary or esteem rewards can remove the chances of that sword falling down!

Trainers and the Sword of Damocles

We call this sword “change.” Most who work in the “Learning & Development” divisions would know that “development” refers to the continuous skill enhancement process that each of has to go through, in order to make sure that we stay viable.

The Good, Old, Rusty Days of the Past

I can recall the days when the “Learning and Development divisions" were called “Training Departments” and when a Trainer could relax by being good at a certain set of skills all his (or her) life. Things changed. I think that the primary catalyst in this change has been the Internet. The Internet gave people and option to upgrade their skills almost on a continuous basis…and some of these people were trainers too.

Let us see how the change took place.

Then it all Changed!

Most trainers have excellent…almost magnetic personalities. They have a great presence on the dais; and they speak really well. Now these competencies are behavioral and have been developed through years of practice. With these skills in place, differentiation between trainers becomes a function of their knowledge. Unfortunately, due to the nature of their profession and its requirements, Trainers tend to pick knowledge-bits of diverse kinds. Thus they end up with a shallow reservoir of knowledge, which isn’t enough to support them through changes that require strong conceptual skills.

Over the last many years, while conducting Instructional Design Courses and training programs, I’ve interacted with many trainers. I’ve learned that most trainers are smart, bright, and willing to learn. However, many prefer jargons to concepts and terms to application. Their preference originates from their past experiences. They’ve seen their participants being impressed with their huge collection of examples and if you’d pardon my use of the term, jargons!

I believe that intelligence can be channeled in productive as well as non-productive activities; and I firmly believe that if you really want to do well in life, you must build your life on a strong foundation that runs deep. Interesting bits of information such as the new and the in terminology, are decorative elements that help make your trainings interesting, but the effectiveness of a training program is another matter altogether!

How to Stop being Damocles?

I know that I’ve spoken about something that we don’t often talk about…but I hope to reach your inner, real self. I want you to review your learning priorities to determine whether you’ve been channeling your intelligence in the right direction. I believe that if you want to transform every training program of yours into a learning dream, learn instructional design and use it to make your training programs powerful. I suggest this to you because I’ve seen it transform me. Let me tell you how it helps me.

I am in love with this fantastic discipline, and no, I am not a theoretical person. It is the practicality of instructional design that enchants me. I love to apply instructional design, without diluting it…in its raw essence. I’ve seen it work! For me instructional design is not a collection of theories and models, it is a living discipline, which breathes through its application! For me, it changes form with each project. When I commit mistakes (of course, I do) I map them to the ID schema that I have in my mind – and I improve the future trainings and courses that I work upon!

Do I go scouting for definitions and terminology? No I don’t…my passion for instructional design captures the terminology and I form my own definitions as I move through content creation. Those definitions stay with me, because I formed them. Do I scamper around on the web trying to find icebreakers and training games? No, I don’t. My love for instructional design has made my learning go deep; and so instructional design helps me create my own stories.

I don’t say that I wouldn’t squirrel away a great anecdote if I came across it…I would…I have enough of the trainer-bug in me…but I won’t go crazy trying to find the right one! I’d rather write a story that would suit my purpose better! How? I would use instructional design! Thus, I would strengthen my ID skills further and further…until the Damocles Sword disappeared, or my neck became ough enough to break the sword when it falls over it.

Instructional Design - The Armor for a Trainer's Neck!

I know it from experience…there is no substitute for knowledge that runs deep…and for us, the trainers, the knowledge that should run deep within us, is that of instructional design. Why? Because in the economic climate of today, a trainer can’t just train on one kind of content…you need to keep the subject matter diverse – so ensure that you become a master of weaving any type of content into a training tapestry that takes the audience’s breath away!

The decision of course is yours. What’s that hackneyed old saying – “You can take a horse to the water, but you can’t make him drink.” I guess we must be talking of an adult horse here, because this is exactly what andragogy says, albeit a bit positively. “Adult learners display self-direction. They prefer to set the direction for their own learning.” But yes, there is something that I would like to say here…humans are smarter than horses! We prioritize.

So set your priorities. Decide whether you wish to find the right armor for your neck…for the sword shall continue to hang over your neck as long as you continue to dream of becoming Dionysus; great, powerful, and affluent. You’ve got to toughen up – you’ve got to stop being Damocles – you’ve got to become Dionysus...who could keep his peace of mind despite the sword.

In my opinion, there are only two ways to win your peace of mind back – either become an island or toughen up…let your knowledge of instructional design run deep, and let it guide your training programs towards audience satisfaction.

- Author: Shafali R. Anand


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