Saturday, December 18, 2010

I'm Sorry - Training isn't a Bad Word

"We're dropping use of the word 'training.' Replacing it with learning?
Training materials? Training materials? We don't need any stinking training materials
Training is a turn off! Learning is what I go for. Training is what you do to me. Learning is what I do for myself
I hope "training" is discontinued on an ongoing bases - requirements change.
More sunset laws for training programs. What we did yesterday/last year differs from now and tomorrow."

Those are some of the comments I heard on a recent lrnchat. It seems to me that training is fast becoming a taboo word. In several other conversations, I've often people quite agitated very mention of the word. I agree that a lot of training that we've seen is not just ineffective, but an absolute waste of time. That said, bad training doesn't mean that training is bad; just like a few bad cars don't make all cars bad. Now, if you follow this blog you'll know that I'm of the view that training isn't a solution for all learning problems. On the other hand, I still believe that training does have a place in the corporate world. In fact training will continue to hold it's place for a long time to come. I write this post in defense of training and to make my case for the fact that it is not a bad word.

We're beating up on an old definition of training

A lot of the criticism for training seems to stem from a very outdated understanding of what training really is. We seem to beat up on the 'sage on stage' mode of training. Frankly, most serious training practitioners adopt more of a 'guide by the side' approach. To tell the truth, some of the best training I've seen in the recent past, involves a lot more meaningful interactivity than elearning page turners. And when I talk about interactivity, I'm talking about modeling real world tasks. Now, I don't believe you can use classroom training to make sea changes in behaviour. At the same time, I can tell you that effective classroom training can raise as much awareness as some of the high quality elearning you'll see across the world. I request practitioners of technology enabled learning to research modern training methods before criticising a mode of teaching that most of us don't practise anymore.

Training can be an extremely Social process
At ThoughtWorks University, we've stretched training to being a very social process. In fact, we use technology quite liberally, we sprinkle in elearning for the purposes that it makes sense. We rely on communities of practice and social learning to stretch beyond the best practice education that elearning provides. Through a blend of technology and SME led facilitation, we've simulated a workscape that lets individuals learn while at work and creating real value for the organisation. I call ThoughtWorks University a training program -- it embodies what a modern induction experience should look like. The fact is that we've evolved training to be what it can be in today's world. If there are some programs that aren't evolving, we need to help them change. The slow pace of change however, doesn't make the world of 'training' ineffective.

Don't Underestimate the value of Presentation Skills
There's no saying how valuable great presentation skills are. I write about this almost untiringly, because this is a skill that excellent trainers bring with them. When driving change, elearning and technology enabled media helps a lot, but nothing works like person-to-person contact. Short, 30-45 minute training sessions, powered by excellent presentation skills can be an excellent, low cost, yet interactive approach to build awareness. A traveling roadshow of select, highly skilled presenters can be significantly cheaper and more effective than a multi-million dollar multimedia extravaganza which may not have a huge shelf life. Think about it, your trainers are not ready to be extinct yet!
The role of trainers is changing. As Jane Bozarth once famously said, "Trainers won't be replaced by technology, they'll be replaced by trainers who are willing to use technology." That's all that's likely to happen. On that note, I request that we hold back our criticism for training and realise that it has a small, yet important place in corporate learning strategy. That's my only defense for what looks like a dying competence - I hope you see my point. Do let me know what you think, by commenting on this blogpost. One way or another, I'd like to hear your views.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

We Need to Save our Tigers

My blog has a focus - learning and education in the enterprise. I do my best to not divert from this focus. Unless of course, there's something I really feel strongly about. First things first, there are just 3200 odd tigers left in the wild today. Of those about 1400 odd tigers are in India - most people believe this country to have the best chance of bringing the tiger back from extinction. First things first, I'm not a natural conservationist. I'm more an inspired wildlife enthusiast. I'm inspired by my friend and colleague Chirdeep Shetty, who has spent several months in the forests doing his bit to help with tiger conservation. Recently Chirdeep did a moving presentation about tiger conservation and his message has stuck with me. The least I can do is to echo Chirdeep's words and do my individual best to save our tigers. If by the end of this article, you feel that this is important enough, do what you can to spread the word and make a difference.

Why Care about Tigers?
The tiger is an apex predator. If nothing, my school biology lessons told me that nature is a game of balance. To save a creature at the top of the food chain, you need to save the members of the pyramid under it. Which means that you save prey animals, plants, scavengers, insects, birds and every other piece of our bio-diversity puzzle. Let me outline a few reasons we absolutely need to care about this issue:
  1. Saving the tiger saves the bio-diversity of our forests. The moment tigers go extinct, we'll see an overpopulation of prey species, followed by a destruction of plant species, followed by several other snowball effects.
  2. Saving the tiger saves our forest areas. Tigers are territorial animals and need between 20-80 sq km of forest land per cat. Each tiger saved leads to 50 sq km of forest land saved.
  3. Saving the tiger saves our rivers. In India, 600 river sources reside in our forests. The day forests go away, the reservoirs go away too! What will we do without water?
  4. Saving the tiger helps medical research. The forests are a home to various plant species that are important ingredients in alternative medicine. When the forests disappear, where will we get new medicines from?
  5. Saving the tiger helps employment. India in particular gets millions of dollars of revenue from wildlife tourism, purely centered around the tiger. The day the tiger disappears, the money and employment from this activity will go away. Where do we employ the thousands of people working in wildlife tourism?
  6. Saving the tiger is a question of national identity. The tiger is our national animal. It makes heaps of sense to save our tigers, lest we lose our national identity.
I could keep going on about this issue, but I guess I'll stop there because those are really good reasons. If nothing else, we can't let one more large predator go extinct - where's our humanity?

What Threatens the Tigers?

In recent years, tiger populations have been shrinking. From over 100,000 tigers in the world at the turn of the previous century we've killed most of them to leave just over 3000 on the face of the earth today. Tiger populations face several threats today, including but not limited to habitat loss, human-animal conflict and territorial fights. Shekar Dattari's amazing movie - The Truth about Tigers outlines the several issues that plague the tiger's survival today. The single biggest threat to the tigers today is organised poaching. Worldwide demand for tiger parts, where a tiger skin can fetch upto $25,000 is a death knell for the big cats. The biggest concentration of demand is in China and Tibet, where tiger parts for medicine and as a sign of luxury and status is wiping out tiger populations from all over the world, particularly India. The South China tiger is near extinct. The Balinese and Javan tigers are extinct. The Sumatran tiger as well as the Indo-Chinese tiger and Siberian tiger are struggling. The demand is so high that a poor Indian struggling to make ends meet, can earn Rs.50,000 (about $1000) in the black market for supplying a tiger skin. That's life changing money and is a big enough risk for a poor man to take. As long as the demand continues, the killing can't stop.

What Can We Do to Save the Tigers?
Saving tigers takes steps both at the micro and macro level. There's always the question of political will, international cooperation and the skill of forest officials, when it comes to save this magnificent beast. It's easy to believe that we can't influence such big things. That said, every large movement has small efforts that count. Here's what I think all of us can do:
  1. Be a responsible eco-tourist: It takes less than Rs 150/- (about $3) to visit a tiger reserve like Ranthambore. By discovering our natural heritage, we understand our animals better and can offer constructive solutions for their protection. Our photographs make for great stories to tell our families and to bring them into the conservation fold.
  2. Raise your voice: Repeat yourself and speak untiringly about the welfare of our tigers. It's not enough to say things once and to then let the drama unfold. Make a presentation to your colleagues, blog about the issue, tweet, talk to anyone who's willing to listen. Awareness about the issue helps our tigers in a big way. Raising international awareness stops the demand for tiger parts. Raising local awareness creates a voice that's big enough for our politicians to listen to and demonstrate their will.
  3. Donate to the cause: I'm so pleased that NDTV's tiger campaign has been able to raise enough money to buy Rapid Response Kits for almost every reserve of significance in India. I've made a donation that I could afford. Every little bit counts, so don't feel overwhelmed by the size of the problem. If you can afford it, buy the 2011 cats calendar and help conservation. There's also the Dakini Tiger Campaign. There are several ways to donate, find the one that you like.
  4. Volunteer your help: I'm volunteering a month's time next year, to any tiger saving effort that can use my time. I'm yet to receive a response, but I'm sure I'll get one by the time I'm ready. WWF India gives you a fantastic opportunity to volunteer your time to save our tigers.
  5. Be responsible in the use of natural resources: Firstly, do not buy any illegal animal products regardless of how small they seem. I've seen people wear tiger teeth and claws. It seems like a small thing, but that comes from another dead tiger. On a more daily note -- we need to find ways to use less paper. In an age of electronic media, we're in a place where we can bring down our paper usage in a big way. Let's find ways to reduce our timber usage - I understand having teakwood furniture feels good, but let's think of the trees we cut to get the awesome furniture in our homes. That leads to a smaller habitat for the tiger!
  6. Keep the faith: We can't save the tiger if we don't believe we can. We need to believe in the power of democracy to make change. We need to keep creating the pressure via our social networks, newspapers and news channels. If we can force our governments to show the right kind of will and protect the tiger, the numbers are likely to multiply quite fast.

I feel very passionately about saving the tiger and I'm touched by the efforts of the Aircel-NDTV team and the amount of momentum I've seen on the Twitter stream today. I've seen a huge number of educated Indians get together as a collective for something that seems like a national event. This is the power of democracy and an example of what a large group of people can do if we can put our minds to it. If you don't feel convinced by the efforts of a certain group, please find a way to do something yourself. Just don't be an armchair critic.

I want to end this post with a quote from the world's largest (and one of it's most ancient) epic - The Mahabharata. Let's remember that even our ancestors understood the benefit of saving our tigers. It's time we understood the benefit too.

“Do not cut down the  forest with its tigers and do not banish the tigers from the forest; the tiger perishes without the forest and the forest perishes without its tigers”  - Mahabharata, 400 BCE

Saturday, December 11, 2010

What constitutes a Social Learning Culture?

I've often thought of social learning as a very culture dependent phenomenon. A few weeks back I read an interesting article by Thierry de Baillon, his conclusion being - we don't need more social platforms, we need more human companies. A lot of social software marketing seems to suggest that the tools will change the world. Unfortunately, as we've seen on several occasions, usable tools have nothing to do with adoption. On the other hand, I also see quite an amazing culture at ThoughtWorks. We don't have the richest infrastructure, yet we seem to juice out our humble tools. Adoption doesn't seem to take forever - it seems like you can take just about any tool, paste it on this company, and things will just work! Well, maybe things are not that easy -- but facilitating social learning in ThoughtWorks does seem far easier than other places. In today's blogpost, I want to explore why social learning at our company seems to succeed. On the way, I want to uncover a few factors that are likely to make a social learning culture tick.

A Culture of Questioning

At ThoughtWorks, no question is taboo. A company that started from our founder, Roy Singham's basement, people seem to feel comfortable questioning just about anything in the company. When I joined the company I was quite surprised to see what I thought was the apparent lack of regard for authority in this organisation. People seemed to have no fear questioning the chairman, the CEO or anyone else in the company. It seemed that no 'best practice' escaped the "Why?" question. What I thought of as a sign of disrespect in those days, is really a culture of healthy disruption. A big smell in organisational cultures, is when people follow an individual or a practice blindly. A culture of questioning is a great way to drive conversation and helps establish the relevance of a view or a practice in a specific context. In person, or online, these discussions seem to build up like magic. I must say this starts right from the leadership, who encourage questioning. I've rarely seen anyone who feels offended because someone questioned their wisdom.

Questions for you to ponder over:
  •  Does your company leadership actively encourage questioning?
  •  Do people question best practice when applying it to different contexts?
The Need for Complex Problem Solving
When I joined the company a few years back, I used to get a really common answer for every question I asked. "It depends..." most people would say. The reason for this is that we're a consulting firm and our problems at each client are quite different. The way we apply our skills and practices really depends on the context of the project. It makes a lot of sense to reach out to other ThoughtWorkers to find solutions to our problems because they're relatively complex consulting situations. That seems to be one of the reasons that our communities have a significant amount of activity. Social learning in my opinion isn't a recipe for all seasons. People collaborate only when there's a need to - the problems need to be complex enough to demand more than one head. If you're looking to consult in a relatively simple environment, maybe it requires simpler solutions. Consider elearning or training in such environments, because maybe the environment doesn't need social software.

Questions for you to ponder over:
  • Do people in your environment have a natural need to collaborate? Are two heads better than one? Or do too many cooks spoil the broth?
  • How do people collaborate on a daily basis? How will social software support this collaboration?
Inviting Diversity and Feedback
My colleague Pat Kua writes quite eloquently about feedback. You'll notice from his recent presentation at Oredev, that feedback is something a lot of us feel very strongly about. In fact, I feel feedback is a way for all of us to grow, almost on a daily basis. Feedback is also a way for all of us to refine our ideas. Scott Page, in his book The Difference mentions how the power of diversity helps complex problem solving. By inviting feedback for our thoughts and ideas, we're inviting diverse perspectives and heuristics to solve the problems we face. By involving a diverse enough group, we're likely to reach a better solution - if you're to believe Scott Page. A social learning culture thrives when people don't fear feedback. This is when people ask other people to be part of their ideas.

Questions for you to ponder over:
  • How often do people share feedback in your organisation? What are the safety levels like?
  • How comfortable do people feel when inviting new opinions for their ideas?
  • Do people innovate in isolation? Or do you see groups organically coming together to put new ideas into action?
Passionate People
"Most writers, including myself, talk about this stuff and stress the ability of the people is really important. While that's true it misses out the fact that it's not just about ability - it's also about collaborativeness." - Martin Fowler

If there's one thing that really makes me proud to be a part of this company, it's the fact that I work with some of the smartest people on the planet. We're better known as Martin Fowler's and (more recently) Jim Highsmith's company. That said, Martin and Jim are only the torchbearers for an organisation where "You can never be the smartest peson in the room.", as my colleague Sudhir Tiwari says. While Roy's social experiment was about being a home for the best knowledge workers - a collective of smart people brings some interesting side effects. Smart people, who are genuinely passionate about doing the best they can at their jobs, naturally collaborate. Being genuinely smart, they don't feel a sense of insecurity involving other smart people. Working in a group that has a high density of smart people means that you have the best chance of finding solutions from your colleagues. Most importantly, smart people know how to learn - if being social is a way to do that effectively, they'll jump on it at the first opportunity. Our success as a learning organisation comes from the fact that we're built on more a social model, than a business model.

Questions for you to ponder over:
  • "A players hire A players; B players hire C players" - Guy Kawasaki. Are you hiring the best people you possibly can?
  • "Yet, if we don’t have passion in our work, we will have a very hard time enduring the growing pressures that we encounter. An interesting thing happens when we pursue our passions: We actually seek out more challenges. Rather than viewing them as sources of stress, we view them as opportunities to get better faster. " - John Seely Brown. How passionate are your people about their work? Are they seeking out new challenges? 
  • How good are you at maintaining a high talent density in your company? How do you weed out mediocrity?
  • How do your best people connect? How can you model those connections using social software?

I started out thinking this was going to be a really short article. Turns out that this is one of the longer posts I've written in the recent past. I try my best to ensure that this blog is not about my employers or my current job, but in some situations I just can't help bringing in my immediate experience. I hope the ThoughtWorks story can help you find ways to cultivate a social learning culture in your organisation. I want to point out another article by Lars Hyland, that should be helpful in building the right kind of culture to support social software. And by the way, I'd love your feedback -- let me know how you feel about the thoughts I've presented in this blogpost. Did you like them? Did you hate them? Just let me know!

Monday, December 06, 2010

ProProfs Quiz Maker - A Quiz Engine worth Looking at

A few months back I received a complimentary educational license from ProProfs Quiz Maker Pro - an online quizzing engine. I haven't had the time to look at it until now and I think it's high time I repay the favour by ensuring that I can at least give you a high-level review of the tool.

First things first - ProProfs seems like a really easy to use, fairly intuitive quiz engine that beats the pants off quiz engines in popular LMSs like Moodle. Here's a quick blow by blow account of what I've found in the hour that I played with the tool.

User Interface and Ease of Use
ProProfs claims to be the world's easiest quizmaker. I'm not too sure about that, though I can say that it is very simple to use.  You can edit quiz settings and add quiz questions from a single page. The fact that the page doesn't refresh each time you add a new question, means that you can get the bare bones structure of your quiz up in minutes. I do find the rich-text editor of the quiz engine to be quite limiting though, particularly because it lacks an HTML view for power users. I understand that this is not such a big deal for most quizzes, but for someone like me who is likely to fuss about how the quiz looks - creative controls are a big plus.

Quiz Authoring Capabilities

Proprofs allows you to author two types of quizzes - a scored quiz and a personality quiz. The scored quiz is what it says it is; an academic knowledge check. The personality quiz is more like the Facebook quizzes that we all seem to keep taking. Frankly, with the amount of research it takes to be able to create meaningful personality quizzes, I don't recommend this to the average instructional designer. That said, if you were keen to see an example of what I created in 10 minutes - here you go.

So moving to what most instructional designers will do with this tool -- scored quiz authoring. I am particularly impressed at how easy it is to create a quiz using ProProfs. I created this quiz in seven minutes flat! A great part of the design of this tool is that the interface doesn't look like a Boeing cockpit. You have limited options in there, but they're definitely the most common options that instructional designers look for.

What I would like however is more options for question types that are conscpicuously absent - such as matching and sequencing. I'm also not a big fan of knowledge checks. I like constructing assessments in form of scenarios and ProProfs does miss branching features sorely. I hope these features come up in future versions of the tool.

Reporting and Visualisations
ProProfs displays pretty standard, no fluff reports and visualisations for its quizzes. You can download the reports to Excel and do all sorts of manipulations with them. The tool also gives you pie-chart and bar-chart visualisations for your quiz statistics so you can get a quick snapshot of the results. In general, no much to complain about for an online tool.

Interoperability and Other Extras

As you'll notice from the picture above, ProProfs allows you to share a quiz (or your quiz results) on popular social networks. It also gives you embed codes that you can place on your blog or website. I was particularly interested in the embed codes because I wanted to check if I could embed a ProProfs quiz into an Articulate project. Unfortunately the tool said I needed an upgrade to specify custom sizes for the embeddable gadget. I thought that was a bit strange, and I couldn't quite see the rationale. Otherwise the interoperability itself has no problems. The embeds work quite nicely on wiki and blog software. Here's a simple html page with the embed.

In addition, I'm sure you've noticed the nice little certificate that you can generate for the people who take your quizzes. If that's something you wanted to generate for your students -- well all I can say is that ProProfs makes it really easy. 
So that's all I wanted to tell about this new tool I've just taken a look at. While it does lack a few features, I think the pricing is quite reasonable. $9.97/ month for business and $3.97/ month for education seems quite reasonable to me, especially if they can maintain a fast pace with upgrades. The tool's free for personal use, just in case you want to check it out.

I hear they're also doing a promotion so you can win a free license. I'm not sure how you can win, but I guess if any ProProfs people are reading this post - please drop the details in the comments section. If you've tried the tool, please feel free to fill in any blanks that I may have left in this review. I'm sure it'll help provide a well rounded perspective on the application.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

#Lrnbk - A Twitter Book Club Experiment

(Image courtesy - Patrick Gage)

Do you read interesting books on learning and find wonderful snippets you’d like to share with your social network? Do you wish you could share far and wide? Did you ever wish you could discuss your reading experience with others? Do you like sharing book reviews? Do you like hearing from others who are reading a book that’s next on your list? Are you a learning professional looking to be part of a social experiment?

If you answered “Yes” to any of those questions, then you might be interested in what I have to say.

Here’s a little social experiment that we’d like to try. Who is we? By the royal “we”, I’m referring to Sahana Chattopadhyay and me. So here’s the back story. Over the last few weeks, we’ve been redefining the way we read, using our Kindles. For those who follow either of us, you’ll notice that we’ve been sharing on twitter, interesting snippets from the books that we read. Here are my items and here are Sahana’s. While we’ve been doing this in an ad-hoc fashion, we thought there could be a method to the madness and our inspiration was the hugely successful lrnchat.

So here’s what we’re suggesting. If you have anything to share about a book on learning, share it on twitter using the hashtag #lrnbk. Simple enough? No rules, no restrictions - just share whatever you feel is worth sharing, as part of your learning experience.

Possible Questions and Answers

What intellectual property rights should I be careful about?
When sharing excerpts from a book, please honour the author and the publisher’s copyright. Usually, sharing quotes and excerpts for the purpose of commentary, criticism, research, study and reporting are OK under the principle of Fair Use. Given twitter’s 140 character restriction, you should be on the right side of the law most of the time. The Kindle naturally protects the authors rights, by ensuring that it shares only a small section of your highlights.

What kind of stuff can I share on the hashtag?
Here are a few examples of what could go on this hashtag:
  • interesting quotes from a book
  • your observations when reading a book
  • your questions about a book that you may or may not be reading
  • book reviews
Then again, I’m limited by my imagination, so stretch yours and let’s see how far we can take this!

How do I share directly from my Kindle?
Sharing from your Kindle is very simple. Here’s how to set up your Kindle to share your notes and highlights.

Do I need to have a Kindle?
Absolutely not, though a reading device does make things a bit easier. If you have a paper book, feel free to share your thoughts via twitter all the same. If you wrote a book review for something you read on another ebook, just link it on twitter. The device isn’t the key - sharing is!

If you want the a bit of the Kindle experience but don’t yet have a Kindle, you can download the Kindle app onto your PC or iPod. While you can’t directly tweet from here, you can add notes and highlight the sections you like. Then, you could just link it on twitter.

How can I keep up with all the tweets on the hashtag?
Firstly, don’t pressure yourself to keep on top of everything. Share when you can, read when you can. With that said, if you did want to know what’s going on - we’ll publish a twitter paper each week. We’ll also ensure that we publish weekly transcripts to the lrnbk blog. Fair enough?

So if that excites you enough, what’s holding you back? Let’s start sharing! Want more details? Post a question on twitter with the hashtag #lrnbk. If you have better ideas, share them on the hashtag too -- we’d like for this to be as easy as possible, so bring your thoughts to the table. And if you like this idea, be sure to tweet about it -- all good ideas need word of mouth publicity.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Perils of an Email Centered Strategy to Social Learning

A few days back Nikhil Nulkar and I were discussing the need for social media in the enterprise. After all, we still have the original killer app of the internet - email. As Andrew McAfee says, "Email is freeform, multimedia (especially with attachments), WYSIWYG, easy to learn and use, platform independent, social, and friendly to mouse clickers and keyboard shortcutters alike." McAfee is right, and let me add that email is easy - it's the one thing everyone knows about and looks at. It's personalised - everyone sets up their inbox the way they want. And most importantly it tends to be the de-facto standard for a lot of people to receive work alerts and manage their professional workflows. Mailing lists are one of the first forms of social collaboration on the web, and sophisticated groupware like Google Apps make searching easy. So why do we need social platforms in the enterprise?

I know Nikhil and I try quite hard to articulate what we see as the obvious benefits of going beyond email. In today's post I want to say why email is not enough, if you're looking to build a connected, learning organisation.

Collaboration happens across a spectrum
"When you don't know what you don't know, you should hang out with people who may already know."
I recently read John Seely Brown's book - the Power of Pull. If you've followed this blog in recent weeks, you may remember that I was privileged to meet him at DevLearn 2010, where he kicked off the conference with a keynote on a pull based knowledge economy. Brown looks at collaboration across three separate levels, which I view as part of a spectrum. When people know what they don't know, they want the opportunity to access knowledge by either searching for it or asking other people. This is where email and search can come in handy. The trouble is, that often people don't know what they don't know. This is where Brown talks about the concept of a spike - concentrations of talent around the world. He talks about how musicians gravitate to Nashville and how software engineers go to Bangalore or Silicon Valley. When you're in the area of innovation for a field of your choice, you learn accidentally. The stream of information around you creates the phenomenon of serendipity.

The most important part of the collaboration spectrum however is co-creation. A groups that just generates a lot of conversaton is what I call a "hot-air community". The talk needs to culminate in some action. When people discover new ideas, concepts, tips and tricks -- all this needs to come together in some form palatable for new members of the community or even those not part of the discussion. The value of a community's knowledge economy is in the useful work that it's members put out.

It's not all about the content
Mailing lists generate a lot of content. Questions and answers, interesting musings, controversial views - they have it all. As someone on mailing lists for ages, I've always struggled with the lack of context though. Let me explain. An answer on a mailing forum isn't enough. I could search through an archive and find that answer, but the metadata around it is what matters. For example, how valuable was that answer? What kind of other topics does that conversation relate to? Who wrote this response - what is her role, what are her interests? Where else does she contribute? How can I get to see more of her contributions?

Context gives us the answers content cannot. I've written earlier about the importance of metadata on enterprise 2.0 systems and frankly - email doesn't provide the metadata we need to provide context to our conversations. We need rich metadata and people profiles to augment our conversations.

The walls are not the truth

Mailing lists are an example of walled gardens. Just because you have a mailing group for developers doesn't mean that only developers have the answers. Emergent practice needs divergent thinking. As Scott Page says quite eloquently, diverse groups of smart people outperform an alpha group of specialists when the problem they're solving is sufficiently complex. So, if the only representation of an analyst community is a mailing list of people, then we run the risk of assuming the mailing list as the people who have the answers. This is often not true, because answers can often come from the most unexpected sources. Conversations need to be out in the open, to give solution providers the best chance of finding the problem they can solve.

Membership doesn't indicate subscription
Personalisation is key aspect of getting the most out of our public internet experience. Even if I subscribe to a mailing group, I may not care about everything everyone in the group says. Mailing lists lock people into a stream of communication that they may or may not like to subscribe to. I can say for myself that I usually just value a few people's voices. On the public internet I filter my input by following only the people and conversations that I'm interested in. I look through activity streams and jump into conversations through a matter of choice. I think of it as being akin to sitting by a flowing river -- I don't need to drink all the water in it. I just dip my toe when I feel like it. Email doesn't allow following people or following interesting conversation. This is where the Facebook activity stream paradigm comes in handy. I get emails, but only when I join a conversation. In fact, I can control what kind of alerts my activity streams generate for me, not the other way around. Control emerges from informed choices - rich profiles, followership, tagging, etc.

Email integration is key to engagement but not the end all

I believe centering your learning strategy purely around email is a mistake. Andrew McAfee clearly mentions that people's resistance to move beyond email and groupware comes from what Richard Thaler has called the endowment effect - we value what we have significantly more than newer items, especially if the new item will substitute what we already have. McAfee also mentions that email is a channel technology - designed to keep conversations private. Web 2.0 technology such as wikis, blogs, media sharing, microblogging however are platform technologies. "They accumulate content over time and make it visible and accessible to all community members." I also argue that beyond the content they provide far more context around what you see. Now this is not to say that we need to ditch email and move on - that would be a change management nightmare. The key is to leverage email in a manner that it draws users to the platform. Simple transition paths like being able to contribute via email, are crucial. That provides a simple transition path for those resisting change.
While backward compatibility with email is a challenge at a lot of Enterprise 2.0 projects (from the look of it), I find it surprising how little I use email in my personal life. I mostly stay in touch with people over Facebook and Twitter. The fact is that I keep putting off all emails I need to write on a personal level. It's way too heavyweight for the way I like to communicate. In my immediate team, we exchange very few emails because we mostly stay in touch over Yammer. We end up using Yammer and use email only for channel oriented communication.

Am I downplaying the benefits of email? I'll be curious if we'd have been keen on email if the de-facto standard of the world was collaboration platforms. I seriously doubt it. What do you think? How are you getting over the email problem?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Several Nuggets of Wisdom - Recapping my Breakfast Bytes at DevLearn

At DevLearn 2010, I ran a couple of Breakfast Bytes on Social Learning and Elearning. A breakfast byte is a freeform discussion on a specific topic amongst a bunch of interested people. In my view, a lot of Open Space rules apply. For example, "Law of Two Feet" - if you don't feel you're getting enough value out of a conversation, then use your two feet and move to another place. "Whoever comes are the right people" -  the people that attend are the ones who genuinely care about the discussion and that's more than enough. "Whatever happens is the only thing that could have" - while breakfast bytes may have an agenda, people drive the conversation. If something happens, it's the group driving it - we take it in our stride and keep moving on. And "When it's over, it's over" - we do the topic and don't do the time. As a corollary, if it's not over, it's not over and often participants will carry on the discussion in hallways, over dinner and over drinks. Of course, sometimes breakfast bytes will start 0710 instead of 0715 and end later than planned -- "Whenever it starts is the right time." Spirit and creativity don't run on the clock!

With that context, let me quickly recap some nuggets of wisdom that I really liked, coming out of each of my Breakfast Bytes.

Social Learning Patterns

I proposed this session with the aim of eliciting patterns and antipatterns around social media in the enterprise and to also see how people were using social media at work. Here are some little bits of the discussion that are really interesting.
Vampires, Werewolves, Holy Water and Silver Bullets - What Myth are you Busting?

My second session had  a crazy working title though Brent changed it to "Understanding and Dealing with Elearning Myths". My hope was to have a discussion that focussed on some myths that people either believed in or had busted or were struggling to combat. I think our discussion veered in a slightly different direction, but that was fine because I think it was excellent conversation all the same. The fact that this group had Cammy Bean, Neil Lasher and Tom Kuhlmann in the room, meant that we had enough juice for a refreshing chat.

Our discussion started off with some myths that people brought out. We couldn't get to all of these:
  • Elearning? People don't learn that way.
  • Mobile Learning is all about the iPhone
  • People come to work and not to socialise.
  • Powerpoint Sucks.
  • People go to work not to play games.
  • Compliance training should be in PDFs.
A few cool thoughts that came out of the discussion were:
  • We first need to define the scope of what elearning means. Neil argued that elearning has a much larger scope from the time we defined it. Any learning enabled by technology is elearning. Everyone uses Google for example, so the assertion that people don't learn using technology is definitely a huge myth.
  • Neil further asserted that we need to eschew the 'Next' button - frankly the tool tip says "Click Next to Continue". In that case, why don't we just call the button 'Continue'? This drove a few peals of laughter!
  • Our discussion then moved towards the notion that "Powerpoint sucks". I have some strong views in this space
  • Moving back to the topic of resistance we talked a bit about the ills of the course factory approach. John Seely Brown's keynote had focussed on flows of information over stocks of knowledge. The approach of creating course after course is flawed. We need to go to our audience, ask what they need and deliver that fast - that's where rapid elearning has it's value. Ask the BBC! More importantly, we need to question the value of every course we need to create. What's the shelf life? Can a conversation suffice? Can coaching on the job help? Is it really a skills and knowledge problem?
  • I shared my experience with ThoughtWorks University. A bunch of links on an LMS don't encourage anyone. It's not just enough to create good content. People like social context around content. At ThoughtWorks University, we do our best to facilitate elearning through forum discussions, one-on-one coaching and guidance and by using that to drive better discussion face to face. It's almost like you need a vibrant community around your content.
  • We then came to the point about compliance training. Neil mentioned that most compliance training could be a quick PDF tip sheet with a signature sheet. We don't need to create expensive elearning. We can do the simplest thing that works.
  • We also talked about the flip-side. Compliance training in organisations is a time when you have a huge number of eyeballs looking. This is a time for L&D departments to put their best foot forward and use this as a branding moment. Can we get people excited about learning by making this mandatory training an exciting experience?
  • The topic of games in elearning raised a few eyebrows. Almost everyone agreed with Byron Reeves' points from the keynote, though Cammy raised an interesting point. If someone's job sucks, can you really make it any better by dressing it up to be a game? Isn't that like putting lipstick on a pig?
  • We also talked about slot games, jeopardy and tic-tac-toe in elearning. A gaming mindset definitely challenges the brain, but a whiz-bang game to just dress up a course and make it engaging isn't really a great idea as most people agreed. While Tom was kind enough to say these games may have some place in elearning, he definitely advocates designing for applying than for recall. His tip was to try and design courses that model real life actions as far as possible. 
  • At some point we also discussed that we don't need to do everything inside a flash based course. There are several other ways of creating engagement. We need to think beyond the course and think about social media, rich media on the internet, coaching, etc as opportunities to change performance.
  • We wrapped up the discussion talking about Cathy Moore's action mapping approach as a way to create inexpensive, yet lively elearning that actually mimics real world actions. I've used action mapping as a way to drive out design outcomes for instructor led training as well, so I really like this approach. There are times when to get a stakeholder to understand the value of designing this way, you may need to reconstruct a course from scratch. You can then show both courses to your stakeholder and have them choose what's the more engaging way to learn! It'll take some of our time, but will perhaps help us be more succesful as designers. The Harvard teaching for understanding framework is also quite a nice way to think through your design approach.

So that's it! This ends my reporting responsibilities from DevLearn. I apologise for slacking off with these recaps - work's been quite hectic and the fact that I'm heading off on leave in a few days just makes things even tougher. For those I met at the conference - I'm really grateful for your company. In fact, I'm humbled by the great work I saw and the passion that most of you exude. It's been a pleasure!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Mobile Learning - 7 Interesting Patterns

Over the last two DevLearn conferences, the big buzz has been around Mobile Learning. While the thinking around this was far more mature this time around, a lot of the initial conversations still seemed to be around porting existing elearning courses onto mobile devices. Of course, the presence of pioneers such as Neil Lasher, Judy Brown, Ellen Wagner and others has helped clear the air around mobile learning a bit. I think at the recent conference, it was pretty clear that mobile learning isn't exactly 'elearning on the move'. Nor is mobile learning all about the iPhone, though the images on this post might make it seem like that. To confess, I've gotten interested about learning on the go ever since I got an iPod - and that's not even a mobile phone! In that, you might already realise that there are several different degrees of mobility. The heterogeneous nature of the mobile ecosystem today brings a bunch of challenges with it:
  • Varying form-factors of devices - screen sizes vary across several mobile devices.
  • Varying platforms that bring the challenge of compatibility across devices. Droids, iPhones, Blackberry phones and Symbian phones are as different from each other as chalk and cheese.
  • Varying degrees of internet connectivity; from 4G connectivity in the USA, to absolutely limited connectivity in Africa and most of Asia.
  • Varying platform capabilities - not everyone has an iPhone or a Droid. In fact my curent phone is so worn out that I can't even see the keypad.
These challenges aside, mobile learning is a storm that's coming especially with feature phones and smartphones becoming a common phenomenon across a lot of the modern workforce. I'm by no means an expert in this space - just a commentator. I have however, been observing a bunch of patterns with mobile learning that could become the norm for how this practice evolves in the enterprise. In today's blogpost (which I anticipate could be a tad long), I want to outline some of these patterns and invite discussion on what you think the future of this space could look like.

Learning Apps
Having an iPod has opened me up to the world of mobile apps and I've been looking for learning applications like a hungry cat. My device has several applications that will teach you something or another. For example I use an application called Presenter Pro that's a free download from Rexi Media. The app is a little pocketbook of wisdom on making better presentations and has examples, exercises and quizzes that'll keep you engaged. In a similar manner I've got an application on my iPod that's all about Delhi and is helping my wife plan a trip at the end of this year. An app about Yoga poses has become my anytime, anywhere yoga instructor in a pocket. Apps are starting to get so ubiquitous that it's led Clive Shepherd to ask if they're the future of elearning. I personally think apps have a long way to go on that front, because not everyone has a smartphone. Even if they did, an app based strategy is risky and costly given the development skills your team will need and the number of platforms that dot this space. Apps definitely have some place in your learning strategy of the future, but I guess it'll always tricky if you put all your eggs in this basket.

Books and Documents
My Kindle has revolutionised the way I read, and the availability of reading applications for Kindle books on PCs, Macs and mobile phones has made my learning extremely flexible. In fact the reading experience on the Kindle is so social that it gives me the opportunity to share my thoughts about what I'm reading, with my social network - anytime, anywhere.  Then again, the notion of bookclubs becomes far more interesting with Kindles. You can have upto six separate devices connected to one Amazon account. Which means that the books, bookmarks, notes and highlights also sync across the devices. This has interesting implications for learning in the enterprise. Devices like Copia seem to be built for enterprise book communities from the ground up.

Also, the ubiqutous nature of formats such as PDF makes portability almost a non-issue across devices - that makes iBooks my favourite application on the iPod. In fact, online applications like Project Rome make PDF a far more interactive format than what we've known it to be. Is this a low cost entry point to provide low-cost, high-quality mobile learning to our workforce?

Podcasting and Portable Media
At DevLearn, I had the pleasure of meeting Inge De Waard, who has really pushed the envelope of elearning by taking mobile learning to South America. Now who would think that continents with limited connectivity options could support the high-quality, video based learning that Inge's team created for medical professionals in this location? As you may be able to glean from the slides here, the idea is quite simple. The health care workers all have iPhones, because these are significantly more convenient to carry around than laptops. The videos come from a freely published podcast on the iTunes store. To get around the cost of 3G connectivity, the institute of tropical medicine have gone ahead and provided these health workers with Airport Express wireless routers that they can use with their home broadband connections. That allows them to download the videos on their iPhones and access them on the move. For a health worker on the road, the big challenge is to have the ability to keep charging their device - video takes a lot out of your phone. So these guys have solar chargers for their phones - now that is clever! Given how effective video can be for showing demonstrations, introducing scenarios and short educational lessons, this is something that could be another low-cost, yet effective way to get learning onto the mobile. Don't know how to create a podcast? Here's a tutorial.

Social Media on the Move
My favourite use of mobile phones is to ensure that people stay engaged and connected with each other to learn socially. A lot of public internet applications already have feature phone and smartphone interfaces. I'm talking about applications like Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin. This apart, enterprise social software like Jive and Yammer have full fledged interfaces on the major smartphone platforms. The advantage of mobile connectivity for social learning is that it really starts to make learning an anytime, anywhere process. For enterprise social software, this takes away a huge barrier to participation - people can get answers to their questions, see interesting information emerge and co-create knowledge on the go. The key for success in my opinion, is to ensure that you pick social software that already provides mobile access. That reduces your deployment time in a big way and you can focus on the people angle of social media instead.

Game Based Learning
I was greatly influenced by Byron Reeves' keynote at DevLearn 2010. Byron mentioned the power of games in creating engagement and driving learning and Richard Culatta followed up with a pretty outstanding lightning talk on 9 reasons why you should throw out your online courses and start using games instead. While I think Richard's perhaps a bit too radical, I really liked his arguments - particularly how games encourage mastery by immersing individuals in a performance context. I think all games teach something or the other. For example the game you see in the photo above (Trainyard) is a great way to learn about analytical thinking and problem solving. It gives you the safety to fail until you succeed and in fact you get the see the consequence of every decision you make. There isn't always just one way to solve a problem, which is pretty cool because it encourages individual thinking. I could keep going about why Trainyard's so cool, but I think you should learn from an expert instead.

The gaming pattern is an interesting one to use for learning on the go, though I think heterogenous environments could make it quite expensive. Having said this, I think there are inexpensive ways of engaging people. Alternate reality games like the Zombie Apocalypse and Dr. StrangeLearn should be quite simple to port to a mobile web format that is cross platform, yet engaging.

Performance Support
One of the highlights of DevLearn 2010's Demofest was Neil Lasher's Phone2Learn. While I couldn't attend the demo myself, I know from the crowd I saw around Neil, that this was one of the stars of the show. The concept is quite interesting. Neil has gotten mobile learning back to the basics -- all mobile phones carry voice and Neil wants to leverage that basic capability. He's propagating the idea of a learning conversation and the concept of "Just-too-late" learning. Often we realise the need to learn only after we start working on something and don't know how to finish it. This is the "Oh Sh*t!" moment that drives a lot of modern day learning. What if you could pick up the phone and just ask someone how to solve your problem at this point? Neil's system facilitates this learning conversation by harnessing the latest in voice technology.

In Neil's words, "The most natural way to learn. Ask for what you need and have someone explain it to you as and when you need it and at a pace you can absorb."

While it remains to be seen how popular the concept of learning conversations becomes, it seems evident to me that this has a lot of value in environments that include innumerable small transactions. Performance support definitely has it's place in the workplace -- Neil's concept is a creative example of extending this approach to mobile devices.

The Mobile Web
In April this year, Paul Clothier wrote a very interesting article about Mobile Learning on the iPhone. Paul mentioned how easy it can be to create a mobile formatted website using simple tools like iWebKit. At DevLearn, Judy Brown showcased a mobile learning primer from ADL, which is what you see on image above. This is nothing but a simple website formatted for mobile access using iWebKit. For teams that have limited budgets and are looking to provide short, bite-sized chunks of learning over a mobile, this could be a good way to optimise for the form factor of the devices. What's more, this pattern could be cross platform and is unlikely to require a huge chunk of change to port across devices. Nice, huh?
Those are the patterns for mobile learning that I see from my experience. What other patterns have you been seeing? Do you have some revolutionary ideas to facilitate learning on the go? Let me know by commenting on this blogpost. That'll go a long way in making this article complete!

Monday, November 08, 2010

Enterprise Social Learning Needs Porous Walls

I was at DevLearn 2010 last week - I had a great time presenting and I learned from some true masters. Conferences like this are a great experience in terms of actually meeting people in your personal learning network and getting to know them first hand. While talking to a lot of industry colleagues out there, asking them questions and answering some of their questions I wondered why I was doing this. Why was anyone doing this? Don't all our companies have their own walled gardens of knowledge? Aren't they walled for a reason? Was I doing the right thing by sharing information? Was everyone else doing the right thing? These questions led me to think that there's perhaps a few fundamental realities that we're missing with the whole enterprise social learning practice. I briefly spoke about this to Charles Jennings after Jane Hart's wonderful session outlining the state of learning in the workplace today, and here's what I had to suggest to him.

People are Already Sharing Out There

We're born with the fundamental desire to share and learn from peers. We're also a lazy race of animals. We like to get the best possible results from the smallest effort we can invest. So when we need results developers ask questions on stackoverflow, learning professionals go to lrnchat and everyone of us goes to Google. When possible, we share ideas at conferences than in team meetings. In fact, I know quite a few people who wait months to come to a conference so they can find solutions to their problems. The truth is that if a problem has more eyeballs looking, then it has a greater chance of finding a solution. That's a mathematical fact, not just because of the sheer numbers, but also because of the huge power of diversity. The empirical evidence is stacked in favour of sharing more openly, yet organisations choose to hide information behind a firewall. The few times that people look inside their organisation for learning, is when the knowledge is specific and proprietary to the firm. Given that most firms are not the only ones that operate in their space, these instances are far and few in between. This explains the low uptake of enterprise intranets.

Parallel Social Universes need Common Sense Aggregation

"People's time is a zero sum game." - Mark Oelhert, Defense Acquisition University

The drive to mimic social software in the enterprise is a well intentioned one. Having said this, I believe it's a mistake to create parallel social universes in the enterprise. For example, a lot of enterprise 2.0 implementations see a blogging, social networking and microblogging system behind the firewall. Now there's nothing wrong in setting up this infrastructure as long as it leverages existing contributions on the public internet. What happens instead, is that organisations put up this social infrastructure and then expect employees to start blogging, 'tweeting' and networking within the firewall. Again, if someone's already doing this on the big broad internet, there's no incentive for them to contribute on the puny intranet. Think about it -- why would a blogger with an established following of 3000 readers, put in a new effort to blog internally where at the most a 100 people are likely to read her blog? And why would she risk putting her ideas on a platform where her identity is likely to die the day she leaves? Now you can coerce your employees into contributing to your enterprise social infrastructure, but that takes autonomy out of the motivation game. On the other hand, if we could harness the contributions people already make to the web - their blogs, their twitter feed, their delicious bookmarks; we not only leverage the collective intelligence of our workforce, we provide people with recognition for their individuality.

Porous Walls are the Way for the Future
The open source economy makes for an interesting way to tame complexity. When an organisation open source's software, there's not just an interesting business reason behind it, but also a few interesting technical reasons. Think about free development capacity for your software. How about a few new features added for no extra cost? Well yeah, you'll discard 90 contributions to get the 10 quality commits, but free work is free work! How about having people find and fix your bugs for free? This is an extended team, at little or no cost. Now of course, most organisations choose to keep some software proprietary to maintain a strategic advantage, and that's the reason that organisations are likely to keep some knowledge proprietary as well. This said, the vast majority of discussions on company forums are hardly about proprietary knowledge.

Just as we would open source software, isn't there a case for us to open up discussions and knowledge sharing beyond our firewall, limiting only confidential discussions to be within the company? Like open source, this has it's practical benefits and then, early movers have a strong branding advantage just like early movers in the open source space. As walls of the enterprise social network start to become porous this is likely to drive two way knowledge traffic for our organisations. Some of this traffic is likely to come from people we don't even employ! We need to think about the potential of such an approach and before we start to obsess over risk, we need to understand that this is an existing phenomenon. Whether we choose to facilitate it or not, this is already happening. I don't disagree that this requires a fair degree of social media education for our people, but I believe this is an effort well worth our time.
My conversation with Charles Jennings ended on the note that I see a Stage 6 on the Internet Time Alliance's workplace learning diagram. It's a step beyond working collaboratively and co-creating in a workscape. It's about transcending organisational boundaries and embracing a state of porous walls. In my view it is a state of the world that's more in tune with reality. People are already sharing their expertise in the wide open. We can choose to be blind to that and fight the web in a battle we can't win. Or we can be pragmatic and exploit this intellect.

What do you think? Am I going bonkers? I'd love to hear what you think of my hopes for the future of workplace learning. Don't be bashful and leave your comments here -- it's been a while since I heard from you.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Virtual Villages: Cultivating a Shared Practice Community

I am an absolute fan of Tom Kuhlmann and I can't resist the opportunity to participate in his session about Virtual Villages: Cultivating a Shared Practice Community. Tom really knows about this stuff, given the immense success of the Articulate Community. If there's one person you can learn about this from, it's Tom and of course his team. The Articulate community is a pretty cool place -- it doesn't have the snarkiness. You go for help and you get help immediately. There's heaps of content out there and it's one of the most useful places to learn. The cool thing is that people aren't rude to you and there aren't draconian rules.

What's a community
Community is the place where people share what they know and learn from each other. There are perhaps 150000 registered users on the group. If you take the spammers out of the community and the lurkers and you have 80,000-100,000 active users. You have lots of active users, but Tom's point is that numbers doing make a community, because 80,000 people doesn't mean that 80,000 people are sharing, sometimes it's only a small percentage. 

How does a community work?
The community is a place where people want to learn and they want to get to an expert who can help them learn. Tom started to engage with the Articulate community for his research project and started to contribute on it with no strings attached. He gave himself of being the expert who wants to find people who want to learn. Tom learnt a lot about the mechanism of the community process from this experience and from his research. When Tom joined Articulate, he was looking for people who are really passionate about helping people - David Anderson and Jeanette Brooks are folks who really dedicate their work lives in helping people. They are really special people. So a community is a place where:
a) someone wants to learn something;
b) someone is willing to help

The important thing here is that you don't make draconian rules, and you do the best you can to give away your work. Proprietary stuff makes it difficult for people to share. So while the community is all about building expertise, the new learners feel attracted to the community by their expertise. The Articulate community has a reputation model where they have MVPs -- honouring people's contribution to the community. This recognition often makes great contributors to become obligated to contribute and drives greater contributions from them.The key to a community however is that you want to ensure that while you promote the experts, you also make it easy for the new guys and avoid an elitist mentality. Tom gets a lot of traffic because the Articulate community makes communication and sharing easy using the technology they have available.

Technology is an enabler, but remember communities are all about people. Communities aren't all the same. A Volkswagen community is going to be different from a church community which is different from a software development community. The difference means that we need to structure every community differently. The truth about communities and this is a rough estimate:
  • 95% just want quick tips and tricks
  • 5% are conversing and active
If the 5% don't exist, the 95% don't appear to get the help. OTOH if the 95% aren't around, then the 5% who want to belong don't have a reason to be there.

Making your Community Work

Tom is now telling us about a few tradeoffs you may need to make when structuring your community:
  • High Fidelity/ High Convenience: Sometimes you may not have the coolest community but you give people a huge amount of convenience in finding stuff. OTOH, you may actually go for a high-fidelity and quality of communication to go for a little less convenience. Remember this is a balance not always just a choice.
  • Social connection/ Pragmatic Connection: How are people engaging? Are they engaging for the fact that they want social connections? Or are the out there because they want to be able to get most use out of the community
  • Community Experience/ Practical Help: People become part of communities often to belong and feel part of a sense of worth. On the other hand people other people are looking for a quick set of tips
Remember the cheap disposable phone does similar things to a status symbol phone. The audiences they meet are different though. My mother wouldn't care about an iPhone, but I care about it heaps. Remember that a community is an organic process. Think of your community as a tree -- your experts are the root and the others are the fruit. You want the fruit, but you won't have it if you don't tend to the roots. So whatever you can do to make your experts get more and more involved, will help you build a better, stronger community. Your experts will build the engine that brings other people in.

Remember that there's an overwhelming amount of information out there. You need community management and that has two clear roles:
  • For people who need quick, practical help, you need someone who is curating interesting information and brings interesting information to the surface.
  • For people who wish to belong, you need someone who is a connector and keeping the experts interested.
"You can't make people love you. You can only love them yourself!" - Tom Kuhlmann

People don't care about Articulate. All they care about is getting their jobs done. The community is not about Articulate -- so the team doesn't sell the tool on the forums. It just helps them get stuff done. On your companies community of practice, you can do this same thing by finding out what they care about and focus on that rather than focus on what you want to do. Don't focus your community of practice on the cool aid - focus on real work that people care about. See how you can help someone's team be more than the team that they have available to them. The community needs to make people successful.

To measure your community's success, think of what your fruit is:
  • is it the number of people?
  • is it the number of experts on it?
  • is it the amount of content you have?
  • is it the number of conversations you have?
Do be mindful that you avoid cliques, negative commentary, erratic norms and forcible community building. Think of how you'll grow as your community gets bigger. Create a way for people to get what they need. How can you share your expertise. BTW, Tom mentions WebJunction as an example of thriving community that you can also learn from.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Learning Culture Makes a Big Difference

I am participating in David Mallon's session at DevLearn where he's talking about the importance of learning culture in building a high impact business strategy. Now I must tell you that I'm a big fan of David and his talk last year gave me a lot of inspiration in creating ThoughtWorks' learning strategy. He is one of the best analysts you'll meet in the L&D space. Bersin is a great research organisation that you need to definitely know about and perhaps even be a member for and they are Josh Bersin's company -- he's an absolute god in this industry.

The research from David talks about data from 425 organisations worldwide. This is a very important topic for us. There's a force for transformative change in the learning function and the business at large today. The Business climate is changing because of growth, the economy, globalisation, etc. The workforce is changing with it's mix. The technology is changing at an astronomical pace and the organisational dynamics are affecting HR and L&D decisions in a huge way. We have a very different workplace and workforce today.

One of Bersin's pieces of research is called Talent Watch - this is about Leadership in HR and Learning. The top challenges for 2010 have been around pressure to cut costs, the need to accelerate innovation, growth and global expansion. This has implications for us as learning professionals. Do we have the skills to thrive, now that we're coming out of a downturn. Do we have the next generation of leaders in place? Are we prepared for scaling and growth. 44% organisation are focussed on new products and services. 52% are seeing accelerating growth in the current environment.

Why are some organisations better than others?

Today's topic however is about learning culture. What is it that enables certain learning organisations to do significantly better than others? The short answer is:
  • alignment with business
  • doing effective things
  • doing things efficiently
We contribute in three ways:
  1. Skills and Competency Development
  2. Talent and Capability Development
  3. Learning Culture Development
Increasingly talent needs drive learning organisations. High performing organisations are 3 times more likely to have a strong learning culture, reveals David Mallon. Remember that this is part of research from over 425 organisations! But what in the world does a learning culture mean?

Learning culture is driven by business outcomes. Bersin has studied ten performance measures for this:
  • Productivity
  • Innovation
  • Learning Agility
  • Workforce Expertise
  • Time to Market
  • Market Share
  • Customer Responsiveness
  • Customer Satisfaction
  • Customer Input
  • Cost Structure
What drives the learning culture?

But even all of what I've written doesn't answer what would drive a strong culture of learning? Bersin has come up with a High Impact Learning culture model and includes a few values:
  1. Building Trust - jow do we rely on people to learn from each other?
  2. Encouraging Reflection - do we value reflection and learning from our mistakes?
  3. Demonstrating Learning Value - how does the organisation demonstrate that learning is an important thing?
  4. Enabling Knowledge Sharing
  5. Empowering Employees - learning happens when we take risks and step out of the box? Is making mistakes and failing fast a good thing? How ok is the organisation with failure - because this leads to bigger successes down the road.
  6. Formalising Learning as a Process : Learning is not an event, it's a process. How does the organisation support continuous learning?
We need leadership and management to drive the ability to learn, the motivation to learn and the acquisition and application of knowledge and skills.  Here are the top 10 practices (of the 40) we need to focus on:
  1. Leaders are open to bad news.
  2. Asking questions is encouraged.
  3. Decision making processes are clearly defined throughout the company.
  4. Employees frequently get tasks or projects beyond their current knowledge or skills level in order to stretch them departmentally.
  5. Employees in the organisation have influence over which job tasks are assigned to them.
  6. The organisation values and rewards employees who learn new knowledge and skills.
  7. The organisation values mistakes and failures as learning opportunities, and provides structured opportunities for reflection.
  8. The organisation believes that learning new knowledge and skills is a valuable use of time.
  9. Employees generally believe the learning and/or developmental opportunities offered by the organisation to be of high value.
  10. Employees in the organisation take active part in their own personal development.
Most of this doesn't count as stuff that we control as L&D and this goes with my argument of ensuring that L&D partners with leadership, management and HR to ensure that we have a strong learning culture. Doing these things has strong value, because strong cultures = high performers. David is showing us some crazy ass graphs that prove this with empirical evidence. This isn't just about learning - this is good, sound business strategy.

Most of the surveyed innovative organisations do most of the things that you see in the top 10 list above. Do you want your organisation to be innovative?

Examples from the Real World
Cisco has a leadership development program. Cisco has a strong action learning approach to Leadership Development. This means that we learn the best to have a real world problem to solve. Cisco runs their program for 15 weeks and is a mix of formal and informal learning. The first 2-3 weeks is about self-directed learning. The second phase which is about 9 weeks where they actually work in a group to solve existing business problems. Phase 3 is all about feedback and development planning. It's a highly prestigious, and everyone wants to be part of it. Everyone's talking about it and the model is getting transferred to other programs as well.

ING Direct is an 'unbank' that wants to be low-cost and high touch. The CEO is always talking about learning and the fact that the people who are learning are the absolute rockstars. This is an example of leaders promoting learning and demonstrating learning value. The Orange Code of ING is all about learning as a culture.

Kelly services, one of the world's best recruiting firms invested in a good onboarding program and reduced turnover in a huge way. Strategic onboarding not just aids learning but creates a sense of connection to the company.

Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland integrates knowledge sharing program and processes with their organisation's objectives. They've got some of the most innovative social learning programs that you can think of. They've integrated knowledge sharing with performance management and they've made it a core competence for many in the company. They've constantly rewarded people for participation. They have collaboration days to actually help people to have extra time just to collaborate and learn from each other. The encourage employees to see knowledge sharing as a leadership development opportunity. This is an example of how the organisation believes that learning new knowledge and skills is a valuable use of time. Learning is part of the DNA of the company.

We need to be looking at learning culture as the foundation for our learning strategy. Bersin has a great piece of advisory research for this.

Getting started
David has some excellent suggestions for us to get started with developing learning cultures. This is golddust, read carefully:
  1. Make learning strategic - integrate it in support of capability development
  2. Make a belief in learning part of the organisation's culture of leadership.
  3. Make a great first impression for learning. Use onboarding programs to encourage employees to take personal responsibility for learning.
  4. Make full use of captive audiences. Use required training activities to prove the value of the organisation's learning offering and strengthen the L&D brand. This is a good lesson for stuff like compliance training.
  5. Make work educational. Use embedded learning like feedback, customer feedback, stretch goals,  job rotation and retrospectives.
  6. Make knowledge sharing an organisational habit
  7. Make performance management a driver of development. Think coaching and development.

Yet again, an awesome session by David, I like his sessions a lot and I thought it was a pity that some people left early.
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