Thursday, April 30, 2009

Why your Training team needs Versatilists.

I wrote recently about Learning Generalists and the importance of growing them as part of your team. Many months back, Gartner coined the term - Versatilist.

"Versatilists are able to apply a depth of skill to a progressively widening scope of situations and experiences, equally at ease with technical issues as with business strategy."

When I wrote about the Learning Generalist, I actually meant a Generalizing Specialist/ Master Generalist as the industry understands it these days. There are obvious benefits of having these people on your team:
  • Its easy to redeploy these pros based on changes in business requirements or strategy.
  • They lend balance to your team -- allow you to achieve more with a small team. For eg: a training team may not need a graphic designer or an e-learning specialist for a long time; a learning generalist on the other hand can play this role for a short time, reducing your costs and increasing your flexibility.
  • Most importantly, they help you mitigate people risks - if you have a fair number of generalists in your team, you don't run the risk of your projects coming to a stand-still because one person got run over by a truck. You have others that can don the mantle of the person who is sick, on leave, on a sabattical, becoming a mother, or leaving the organization. Your team is more responsive to change, and you generally face less stress.
So the next person you hire for your training department -- try finding out if she tends to specialize in just one area or is she versatile enough to pick up just about any work in your team! I'm sure you'll end up hiring your A player!

Why "Rapid" is a word your clients will like.

I love the word "Rapid". I recently wrote an article on "Rapid Instructional Design with Powerpoint". Rapid is good, because Rapid is fast. Something that customers (internal/ external) have trouble understanding, is that an off the shelf program can often be "one-size-fits-all-but-fits-nobody" and hence may not create the desired results and that sometimes a custom training program is needed, to achieve a learning objective. If they do understand the need for custom design, they often have difficulty in comprehending why it will take someone 100 hours to develop instructional content.

"Isn't the material on the wiki already?
Cant you copy paste it into a Powerpoint by the end of this week?""

Its difficult to quantify the importance of the time spent on instructional design to a customer, because time=money and there's really no way of proving that developing that instructional content has any impact on "money". Its a catch 22 situation for learning professionals to either sacrifice quality in their instructional content, or to live with a customer that's unhappy with their turn around time.

This is where the word "Rapid" works really well for me. There are few principles that any kind of Rapid development rests on:

Learning is a process, not an event

Tom Kulhmann's recently written quite a brilliant blog post to indicate how learning is more a series of events that a single "big bang" occurrence. With that wisdom in perspective, it makes sense to create multiple, small, low cost learning opportunities than it is, to create a really high cost, seemingly perfect training program. Its important to know that learning is an experience and not a commodity, so believing that you can achieve it through the transactional act of a single training event is really being unrealistic.

While I've grown in my career as a facilitator of face to face events, I've learnt that a face to face training program is a disruptive influence. It means that someone has to organize logistics, it means that people have to leave their daily jobs and spend time in a training room. Then again, if you go by the "conscious competence model", training can only:
  • move people from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence;
  • OR move people from conscious incompetence to conscious competence
Its well nigh impossible for individuals to move to a stage of unconscious competence because reaching this stage takes practice in real situations; it takes experience; and it takes a genuine interest for what you do. I cant think of a program that can do that!

Now don't get me wrong, instructor led training has its time and place and is obviously more appropriate than others in certain context. What I'm trying to say is, that Instructor Led Training (ILT) is not the same as learning. Learning needs other, more regular, less disruptive events to support classroom training.

Design and Content will evolve over time

Design can't ever be perfect. An ideal course evolves over time. The usual tendency with course design is to throw the kitchen sink at a few hours of learning. If you're designing a course, the key things to ask yourself are:
  • What do participants need to be able to do at the end of this course?
  • What's the minimum information they need, to be able to do this?
  • In what scenarios will they apply this learning?
  • How can I model these situations in my classroom/ self paced learning environment?
By asking yourself these questions, you're making learning worth the time and you can keep your course design simple. If you're designing ILT, then yes you need to make the course repeatable by:
  • including instructions on how to run the course;
  • direct speech for what you need to say;
  • standard questions/ standard responses;
  • AND tips and tricks;
The fact is, however that most of this is information that becomes explicit only at run time and information that evolves with time. There's no way you can predict standard responses to your socratic delivery -- so why bother with that part of design? When you're first designing a course, you have little idea of what can go wrong before you do a dry run - so why document that now? Is there a simple way of creating instructions, without making the whole process cumbersome? Can you get by, if you were to just polish up consumer (participant) facing materials and wait until the first run of the course to create reusable trainer artifacts?

Questions like this help in making the course development process more iterative than monolithic. It helps get learning out quicker, it helps customers realize value soon and it makes you look like a rock-star!

Learning internalizes On the Job and informally

In most consulting engagements what we really do, is create learning. The engagements that work are the one's where we understand learning to be a continuous process and hence we create mechanisms for people to to learn in informal situations. 1-o-1 coaching, mentoring, lunch and learns, tiny tasks as stepping stones, big visible charts, open spaces, microblogging, wikis, collaborative workspaces, e-learning -- they all take less time and continuing effort than the coordination of a big bang classroom session and they help internalize learning over time.

Giving yourself the opportunity to create these light-weight learning experiences will allow you to relax a little more on your actual course development and will help you generate far more value for your customer, in far lesser time -- I mean rapidly.

So my suggestion for the next time you're trying to solve a learning problem is to think of the learning process first and then think how you can bring in the word Rapid to create value quicker for your customers.

If you like this post, you may also like my other articles:

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Easy ways to create your elearning templates

Putting together an e-learning/ presentation template in Powerpoint or Keynote can be quite easy. What most of us struggle with is color combinations. There are a couple of tricks I like to use, to build my designs.

a) Use a color schemer: Color schemers are easily available for all platforms and generally make decisions around color combinations an absolute no brainer. I use Color Schemer on my Mac and the way I use it, is to specify a starting color and then I just let it tell me what colors will go well with it.

b) Mimic a symbol from popular culture: For example you could pick colors off a US flag if you were creating a module/ presentation for a government agency or on American history, that's your safest best - red, white and blue! I used this very example to create a little fictitious demo of an airline's features. Check it out and let me know what you think.

c) Use a website/ web application that you really like: In the example above I've used Caty's design studio (below) as inspiration. All it took was the creation of a custom shape in Keynote, a few drop shadows here and there, a character from Design Comics and I was done.

I've found these to be easy ways to start designing a template/ look and feel of an e-learning module and sometimes even a presentation. Especially when you're short of experience, getting some inspiration always helps.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Experiences with Elearning on the Mac

Its a bit of a pity that there are "no good rapid-elearning tools" (take this with a pinch of salt for now) for the Mac. When it comes to Windows of course, there's quite a wide array of tools in Articulate, Raptivity, Mohive, Captivate and what have you. Yes you have Powerpoint on the Mac, but given the fact that you can't convert .wmf files into drawing objects, its greatly limited in its graphics editing and authoring capabilities.

I must say however, given that you can still run Windows through a virtual machine and run your favourite rapid e-learning tool on top of it, being on a Mac is a bit of a blessing in disguise. I use Articulate to create elearning, and it packs a huge punch into your extremely familiar Powerpoint interface. I run this off my virtual machine and it usually doesn't take much time to create templates like this, or an elearning course structure as you see below. (More about this in a future post, perhaps.)

I like to build out my scenarios in Presenter 09 and I reserve my Quizmaker usage only for situations where I need tracking. There are a couple of reasons for this:
  • Presenter 09 gives you a lot of flexibility with branching, the ability to reference the same screen multiple times and of course, editing and creating graphic scenes is much easier.
  • Second of course, Quizmaker 09 is woefully slow on my virtual machine, so I have good reason to avoid it unless I really need it.
So that's how I author my elearning on my Mac. If you look at the image above, you'll notice that a scenario spans a number of slides/ screens and it can become a little confusing to manage locks and branches. So here's why I say having a Mac is a blessing. Keynote 08 (not 09) has the ability to generate a single SWF file for a series of slides. What this does for you:
  • you dont have to manage 20 slides in Presenter 09 to build your scenarios - just create an SWF in Keynote and drop it into Presenter 09;
  • test out your scenarios separately from your actual module, so you know exactly how things work for you.
Here's a really fast paced scenario that I put together in Keynote. You can easily drag and drop this into Articulate and it works just fine! Its useful to remember though that Keynote 09 doesn't have this feature anymore, so you should perhaps retain your Keynote 08 installation. With that said, Keynote 09 has some great cinematic features that you can use to create pretty decent Quick Time movies which you can then convert into flash using a tool like video2swf.

There's no denying though, that elearning on the Mac is a bit of this and that and needs some maturity and again support from companies like Articulate. In the mean time, here are some tools I highly recommend for your elearning journey on the Mac:
  • Keynote 08 - Creating Flash output;
  • Keynote 09 - Creating high quality Quick Time Movies;
  • Screenflow - Doing screencasts and screen recordings;
  • Little Snapper - managing and annotating your screen captures
  • Skitch - To quickly do some basic editing with your images
  • Photoshop/ GIMP - to cut out characters and do some other advanced image editing and post production
  • Beedocs Timeline 3D - to create amazing 3D timelines
  • WireTap Studio/ Garage Band - to record and edit narration and audio
  • Pulp Motion Advanced - to create highly visual photo tours
  • IMovie 09 - A really powerful, desktop movie creator
  • and of course Parallels: To run the Windows applications that have no equivalent on the Mac (yet.)
There's also a bunch of stuff I haven't used yet, but hear highly of: If anyone reading this blog has tried these, please let me know.

I could keep raving about the number of applications on the Mac that make life so much easier. The only drawback is the lack of an integrated suite like Articulate Studio 09 where you can do so much from within one application suite. I've put in my request for Articulate on the Mac here. I guess if there's enough noise, then they may just come up with a Mac version. Lastly, I recommend that any elearning developer takes a look through the slideshare document below, to see the amazing number of high quality tools that are available across platforms, to make elearning content generation so easy.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Using your presentation tool to generate Flash movies

One of the key things to remember with Rapid E-learning is that your favourite presentation tool can now become a movie, animation production studio. Of course, its not going to give you all of the flexibility of an industry standard tool, but you sure can get reasonable mileage for your e-learning modules.
Here's an example (right click and download) of what I did with about 15 minutes on Keynote and its important to know that you can do the same thing quite easily on Powerpoint as well.

So remember, if you were concerned about not having Flash programming skills to create engaging e-learning for your firm, think again. You're limited only by your own creativity.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Using Images effectively in your presentations

I've written earlier advocating the use of high-resolution digital images/ stock photos instead of tired, overused clipart. Sometimes stock images just don't fit the context of your organization or are way too expensive or just are a set of unfamiliar faces that have nothing to do with your company. In such cases its best to use your own high-res digital pictures. That said, I have a few thoughts about how you use these images in your presentation.

I often notice presentations where images are dropped in randomly and make the slide look like the stickered door of your hostel room! I'm using a picture of our Managing Director (Sitaraman) to illustrate how this often happens. If you see the slide above, the image is a stark contrast to its background and the entire visual looks like a bit of a collage of unintegrated information. I like to usually let images blend in with the background as you see in the reworked slide below. Now all that I've done is extracted Sita from the background using the Extract filter. Now if you don't have Photoshop, you can easily a free application like GIMP to achieve the same results. This approach gives you great flexibility.

You can now reuse the same photograph in many different contexts and not have to take separate photographs to achieve the same effect. As you can see below, its now as easy to place Sita at a Train station as it is to place him in a ThoughtWorksOffice environment. Of course this requires a little more work to get into an industrial style publication, but for the purpose of a presentation/ elearning, this is good enough.

Image dropped into an office context.
Image flipped and dropped at a metro station

There are of course times when you can't find a hi-res picture and the image you have just pixelates way too much when you blow it up. In such cases, its difficult to integrate it with the rest of the slide and you need to make it stick out. One of things I like to do is make it look like a scrapbook or as if I push-pinned up the picture to my door or stuck it up with tape on my wall. If you think of the metaphor of putting up real pictures to show people in a group, this is exactly what you'd do, right?

Here are a few examples:

Presentation tools such as PowerPoint and Keynote usually have elements/ styles such as these built in. Alternatively, you can use an online image editing tool like Picnik to creat the right kind of effects for your images. For those of you using Powerpoint, Microsoft online has loads of add on elements such as pushpins, tape, etc to add pop to your images, so really achieving the right kind of effect for your slides isn't impossible. What you can achieve is limited only by how far you wish to go and your own creativity. Just remember the purpose of putting the image in there and remember the slide is one integrated visual - not a set of disjointed elements.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Join our team @ ThoughtWorks

Being a ThoughtWorker is uber cool. Find out more about us at

Here's an opening for an Elearning and Instructional Design Specialist. We're looking for a top notch Instructional designer with the following attributes:
  • About 4 years of experience in designing highly interactive elearning and ILT courseware.
  • Very strong inclination towards technology, expecially open source tools.
  • Very strong grounding in visual design and the ability to work without a specialist graphics designer. This translates into:
    • rudimentary knowledge of graphics/ image editing tools.
    • solid experience with page layouts and understanding color palettes.
    • experience with 3D modelling tools will be a plus.
    • experience with Flash programming will be a plus.
    • experience with virtual worlds will be plus
  • Understanding of teaching frameworks and models such as the Harvard TFU, Blooms Taxonomy, etc
  • Experience in evaluating training on various levels of Kirkpatrick
  • Ability to lead a team through a new elearning initiative.
If interested, please contact me with your resume. Samples of your work or a quick prototype of what you can do with Articulate or equivalent rapid elearning tools will be really fab! Point me to your blog if you write one. Look at the Rapid Elearning Blog ( ) for ideas on the kind of person we're looking for.

Feel free to recommend people you see fit for this position. This job is based in Bangalore and the salary should not be a problem as long as we find the right candidate. I envision this to be a role that takes strong leadership in determining our learning strategies in coming years.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Microsoft Illustration Styles for a Consistent look and feel in your document/ presentation

I usually advocate the use of stock photos, amateur photography in documents and presentations. That said, I cant deny the need for high quality illustrations to add pop to your imagery and visualization. I like Microsoft Online for the fact that they provide meta-files that you can group, ungroup and regroup to create custom images. This said, we don't want our images to look like they were created by completely different artists. So I've learnt to look for specific styles to keep the look and feel of my document consistent. The way to seek out thousands of editable graphics is to go to Microsoft Office Online and search for images as I've done below:

Here are some of the styles I recommend for your documents/ presentations/ e-learning modules. Some I admit are more retro than the others and may not appeal to your taste, but oh well!

1Filename: j0230758.wmf Keywords: boys, calls, children ... File Size: 17 KB
15Filename: j0287436.wmf Keywords: attorneys, courthouses, courtrooms ... File Size: 40 KB
68Filename: BS01319_.wmf Keywords: aquatic sports, divers, diving boards ... File Size: 16 KB
148Filename: j0412608.wmf Keywords: business, business concepts, businesses ... File Size: 19 KB
487Filename: j0240607.wmf Keywords: computers, computing, entertainment ... File Size: 8 KB
588Filename: j0280857.wmf Keywords: females, government, law enforcement ... File Size: 33 KB
707Filename: j0251579.wmf Keywords: broadcasts, communications, DJs ... File Size: 16 KB
792Filename: j0237326.wmf Keywords: 8 balls, balls, behind the eight ball ... File Size: 58 KB
802Filename: j0240397.wmf Keywords: business, businessmen, businesswomen ... File Size: 22 KB
925Filename: j0334218.wmf Keywords: furnaces, industry, maintenance men ... File Size: 9 KB
1268Filename: j0365658.wmf Keywords: business equipment, businesses, businesswomen ... File Size: 19 KB
1280Filename: j0437938.wmf Keywords: business women, independence, individuality ... File Size: 7 KB
1278Filename: j0406262.wmf Keywords: dumbbells, fitness, free weights ... File Size: 16 KB
1295Filename: j0387150.jpg Keywords: computers, computing, laptop computers ... File Size: 27 KB
1358Filename: j0396204.wmf Keywords: businesses, computers, laptop computers ... File Size: 17 KB
1366Filename: j0397412.wmf Keywords: business metaphors, business women, businesses ... File Size: 6 KB
1370Filename: j0397786.wmf Keywords: announcements, bulleting boards, bulletins ... File Size: 9 KB
1382Filename: j0428291.wmf Keywords: accomplishments, achievements, business metaphors ... File Size: 6 KB

1402Filename: j0415800.wmf Keywords: beverages, coffees, drinking ... File Size: 15 KB
1441Filename: j0415858.wmf Keywords: business, business concepts, businesses ... File Size: 10 KB
1445Filename: j0415926.wmf Keywords: beach chairs, computers, laptop computers ... File Size: 7 KB
1449Filename: j0412024.wmf Keywords: audio, DJs, electronics ... File Size: 18 KB
1450Filename: j0430051.wmf Keywords: apples, bites, biting ... File Size: 6 KB
1461Filename: j0415524.wmf Keywords: blessings, Catholicism, Catholics ... File Size: 73 KB
1511Keywords: Asian, brides, carpool, cars, clothes, couples, greet, grooms, honeymoons, Korea, men, persons, tuxedoes, wedding cars, wedding dresses, weddings, women
1534Filename: j0433690.wmf Keywords: athletes, balls, hands on hips ... File Size: 33 KB
1540Filename: j0431585.png Keywords: check mark, check marks, checklists ... File Size: 11 KB
1541Filename: j0433939.png Keywords: avatars, business, businesspeople ... File Size: 31 KB
1549Filename: j0434189.wmf Keywords: athletes, balls, Europe ... File Size: 21 KB
1568Filename: j0438093.wmf Keywords: briefcases, buildings, business people ... File Size: 151 KB
1576Filename: j0437721.wmf Keywords: abstracts, backgrounds, buildings ... File Size: 115 KB
1580Filename: j0438177.wmf Keywords: anime, bins, children ... File Size: 15 KB
1592Filename: j0440221.wmf Keywords: African Americans, African descent, book clubs ... File Size: 18 KB
1593Filename: j0440215.wmf Keywords: activities, athletes, athletics ... File Size: 4 KB
1597Filename: j0440017.wmf Keywords: athletes, balls, football ... File Size: 24 KB

All in all, I find Microsoft illustrations quite flexible when it comes to their use in documents and presentations, particularly because I'm not limited by the original composition and context of the images and that I can actually choose to combine element from different images to create the custom scenes that I want. Again, its important that these images are used in a consistent fashion so that your audience gets a uniform look and feel that doesn't ever look like a forced collage!

Read more about this in Tom Kulhmann's post here.
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