Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Using a Skills Hierarchy to Organize eLearning Content

By Dean Hawkinson

Imagine that you have been assigned the task of creating a series of eLearning courses to teach a particular job. In addition, this job is quite complicated with numerous skills and tasks that need to be taught. Imagine that this job is so extensive that you just don’t know where to begin.

Your first step, of course, is to elicit a team of subject matter experts (SMEs) to assist you in completing a task analysis to determine which tasks must be taught and eliminating other tasks that either are not relevant or are “nice to haves” but not required. Once you have compiled this list, where do you go from there? If you begin developing your material simply from this list, you may be missing a critical step.

This post is going to introduce you to a Skills Hierarchy. A Skills Hierarchy is a process by which you and your SME team take a list of required skills and determine the proper order in which to teach these skills. For example, suppose you are teaching new sales associates how to use an established sales process to determine the correct solution for the customer. Before teaching them HOW to sell, they would need to learn the basics of the products that they are selling in order to use this sales process. This is where a Skills Hierarchy would come in handy. It is making sure you do not “put the cart before the horse,” as the old saying goes.

The Skills Hierarchy Process

I was involved in a team that developed a Skills Hierarchy for a re-design of a large new hire curriculum for call center representatives. This is the process we followed:

  1. We began by writing each skill or task on a post-it note. We ended up with a LOT of post-it notes, but stay with me…it will make sense shortly.
  2. We gathered in a conference room with a very large whiteboard and wall. You will need plenty of space.
  3. We placed the post-it notes on the board and used erasable markers to draw arrows proceeding from each step, showing the pre-requisite skills and how each one led to another skill. Using post-it notes made it easy to move them around as we discussed the hierarchy.
  4. We worked as a team, listening to each other’s viewpoints and ultimately deciding on the right order of the skills for the curriculum. We started with what we all agreed on, and then worked on the items where there were differences of opinion. We ultimately agreed on a final order that would make sense for our audience.
  5. We had one team member use Visio to capture the flow so we could have an electronic file to use as we moved into the development stage.


Here are a few important things to keep in mind as you complete a Skills Hierarchy:

  • Don’t try this alone! Involve a team of SMEs that really understand the job. For the new hire curriculum, the team consisted of trainers who had taught the previous curriculum and knew the job. Diverse perspectives are very important as you discuss the order of the skills.

  • Establish ground rules up front - identify some guidelines for handling differences of opinion or other conflicts within the group so you can ultimately reach agreement on a final order.

  • Use Post-it notes - If you have several groups within the training, use different colors to represent each one. With this curriculum, we had two different groups who had some skills unique to each one and some that were shared. Using different colors helped keep it organized by group.

  • Use Visio or other flowcharting software - Using Visio to capture the hierarchy as you work on it will give you a completed record of the hierarchy to use to communicate to your client group as well as use for a guide as you develop the material.

Using a Skills Hierarchy can be a very useful tool for a complicated job that requires numerous skills and tasks to be taught. For our curriculum, we were tasked with a complete re-write, which provided us the opportunity to “start from scratch” and really do a deep dive into all the skills necessary for the job and ultimately how they should be taught. Using this approach resulted in our representatives being better prepared for the job, knowing that each skill built on the previous one. At the end of the day, this exercise laid a solid foundation for this curriculum re-write.

Have any of you had experience using a Skills Hierarchy? Please share your experiences!


  1. As one of the SMEs in the project you used as your example for this article, I think you did a GREAT job of explaining the process. That was a fun and very valuable learning experience for the entire team!

  2. Dean,
    I appreciate the manner in which you outlined the workflow process that your team followed. It appears that you used the brainstorming technique to elicit a lot of information at the onset of your discussion,and then used a visual technique to gradually narrow your focus. I am interested in the manner in which you initiated the conversation regarding setting of ground rules, how did your group identify the most important rules? How was the subject intially introduced? I agree that it is critically important to establish group norms at the beginning of the process especially with regard to respectful interactions and truly listening to each viewpoint without judgement. Great job with this article! BEMIE@MA

  3. As far as ground rules, my experience on this team and in other teams/classes I have been a part of, is to use the group to establish the ground rules. Instead of me as the facilitator "telling" the team the rules, I start with a blank slate and ask the team to come up with the ground rules. It is a great team activity, and it ensures that your group has input and knows that we ALL came up with the rules together. My experience is that people are much more inclined to follow ground rules that they came up with themselves!


Thank you for your comments.