Saturday, February 27, 2010

Elearning on a Shoestring - Produce content in 10 hours, and a budget of $ 0.0

First things first. I could really get into trouble with my wife if she reads this post. Let me explain. I was having a conversation with one of my friends about elearning and the associated costs and I almost laid a wager to say that you could produce quality elearning in a relatively short time on a pretty low budget. Now this is something all of us (at least in internal teams) have had to go through haven't we? Someone comes to us with an urgent request for creating elearning and gives us all of $100.00 to work with! I've felt like 'old mother hubbard's bare cupboard' in such instances.

So, let's come back to my wife. I decided to take on the challenge and give myself 10 hours on a Saturday and a budget of $0.0 to build an elearning module. Obviously it's a bit of stretch to call my work top-class, but given the time-constraint I placed on myself, I'm happy to have a first-cut which I guess I can easily show to an internal client if necessary. Now if my wife was to know that I was doing elearning work in all the (long) breaks that I took yesterday, from helping her around in the house, from watching movies and from following the India-South Africa cricket match; she is going to be livid. So, you and I have a secret to keep. If we're agreed on that, then let's start breaking down what I did and how you can do some similar things.

Course Specifications

Creative Commons License

Sharing Effective Feedback by Sumeet Madhukar Moghe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License.
Based on a work at
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at

I decided to build a course on Effective Feedback because this is something I continue to need at work and is in line not just with some conference submissions I've been making, but also with a webinar I'm doing in April (more on this later). I don't consider myself to be a subject matter expert, but I guess it's a topic I'm fairly passionate about, so I played the role of the SME as well. A few more details:

Course Duration: Approximately 25-30 minutes
Tools Used: Articulate Studio '09
Course Location: You can access the course here and you can download the zipped, offline version here.
Development Time: 10 hours

How I Aggregated Content

Given my time constraint, I decided that I was going to have to trim down my research in a big way. So I decided to repurpose some of the content I'd used in the past, to deliver face-to-face presentations and workshops. One of them is what you see above and the other is here. I also used a lot of Patrick Kua's writings, since I found his blogposts to be a very astute assessment of the skills behind effective feedback. That gave me a fair amount of existing content to repurpose and helped me move forward very quickly.

How I Designed the Course

I decided that I was going to keep my course navigation mostly linear. I also decided I wasn't going to do anything hugely fancy with the course. I took the approach of sketching out a few mockups (like the one above) using Balsamiq, to give me an idea of where I wanted to go with the course. I also did a few quick sketches on paper to draw out the flow of topics in the course. I must say, I could do some more work on the design and language, but I'm postponing that to another iteration. The key for me was that I didn't want to detail out every screen. The fact that I was using a rapid tool meant that if I had the general flow and navigation thought through, I could move through the development in a fairly quick, iterative fashion.

How I obtained Media Assets

Media assets for your course are always likely to put a drain on your budget and I had none! I decided to go cheap and use free media assets. Here's what I did.

Myths about Rapid Elearning

So, with all that in place, I was able to put together this elearning module on feedback, which you're free to download and use for non-commercial purposes. My aim with this experiment was to bust some of the myths associated with rapid elearning in particular. I'm not going to say much more than what's on the link, but I do want to reiterate that Rapid elearning doesn't have to be CRapid elearning. Rapid elearning doesn't mean that the speed will kill your quality.
  • It means that if you spend a reasonable amount of time designing and planning the right approach, you now have the tools to reach an implementation quickly.
  • It means that you can go through several iterations of the course with your clients.
  • It means that the cost of change for your courses remains low.
  • It means that your dependence on programmers and costly tools remains low and you can empower your teams and SMEs through a familiar tool and familiar interfaces.
  • It means that you can respond to your organisation's learning needs faster and effectively, as long as you have the willingness to put some thought into your design and learning strategy.
If your approach towards design remains sound, then coming up with something really creative isn't tough! Sometimes a little inspiration can help.
What did you think of today's blogpost? Hopefully, you'll never have to build a course with no budget and with 10 hours to finish it, but my hope is that you can respond to similar situations with increased confidence in the future. My course is still a work in progress (and I can share the source files if you'd like), but I'd love to hear some feedback about that as well and maybe get some free QA! As always, your comments will help me in a big way, so please comment liberally on this post and drop me a line if you'd like. Till next time, ciao!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

For heaven's sake, avoid Slideuments! Here's how...

If you've worked for half as long as me I'm sure you would have already noticed the incredible importance Powerpoint seems to assume in our corporate lives. I'm also sure that you've received dozens of .PPT reports, agendas, project charters and documents in your working life. So much so, that it doesn't even seem wrong anymore! Let's take a step back -- what kind of a tool is Powerpoint again? A presentation tool. And why are we using a presentation tool to create awful documents? In today's post I want to address the practice of slideumentation, while keeping in mind people's motivation when creating such artifacts. A few clarifications:
  • Have I ever created a slideument? YES many times
  • Do I work with people who create slideuments? YES
  • Are people who create slideuments stupid? ABSOLUTELY NOT. On the contrary they're the most intelligent people you'll meet
  • Does ThoughtWorks have slideuments? YES, we're not perfect, are we?
  • Does this blogpost represent a ThoughtWorks viewpoint? NO, these views are mine and mine alone!
I hope that the FAQ ensures I don't lose any friends for writing this blogpost. With that said, lets proceed.

Why Slideumentation is just wrong!

A couple of days back I chanced upon this video. It's a fairly hilarious take on how to avoid slideumentation. Garrey Reynolds of Presentation Zen fame has said enough about why slideumentation is just bad, but let me give you my reasons of what I consider slideumentation and what I dislike about them.

"Slideuments are documents we create in a presentation tool. Slideuments are often created for a dual purpose -- to share over electronic media and to present in front of an audience. Often, we create slideuments only because it's apparently easier to create documents using slideware. In such cases, we don't even present the slideument. We only send it across over email or put it up on slideshare or discuss it at a table with our bosses."

I'm not going to define slideuments further -- I'm sure you get the idea. But as you may have noticed from my definition, we end up creating slideuments for two reasons:
  1. We have slides that we need to present and also share with people who may miss the actual presentation
  2. We wan't to quickly create a 'visually interesting' document using an easy to use interface.
Don't worry, very very smart people create slideuments. Hillary Clinton's one of them. So let me first tell you why slideuments are a bad thing in my opinion:
  • If your reason is #1 (above), then remember that if your slides can stand without you, your talk is kinda redundant. You might as well save people some time by sending them an email, writing a nice document (I'll come to this in a bit) or by putting up a blog post! Remember that your audience can read faster than you and if your slide says everything you needed to say, then you're not being much of a presenter, I'm afraid.
  • If your reason is #2, then you have plenty more reasons not to slideument:
    • Slideuments full of bullet points are documents most people will never read. Ask yourself -- how many such documents have you picked up and read from the first slide to the last?
    • Slideumented reports hide complexity. To be very frank, bullet points are nothing but headings for more detailed information. Slideuments generally include only these headings. What about the details? It's complexity that's hidden somewhere at the back of your mind. By creating a slideumented report of your work over weeks and months, you've stopped all of that information from becoming explicit. What would have otherwise been a table of contents is now a many page report. Needless to say, this is a recipe for disaster.
    • Slideuments encourage bad presentations. You might create the slideument only for a reading purpose, but someone is likely to use your slides and create 'Death by Powerpoint'!
    • Slides generally operate at a much lower resolution than documents. Slideumentation creates extremely low quality documents that generally don't portray your professionalism.
So, that's my case against slideuments. If you search for slideuments on Google, I'm pretty sure you'll see a lot more criticism.

3 Parts to a Presentation

So, if we're agreed that slides are slides and that they shouldn't be able to stand without our narrative, then where does all the valuable information go? Garrey Reynolds says that you should consider three parts to your presentation:
  1. The Visuals: These don't have to be slides. You can do presentations in many different ways. If you do use slides however, they should contain simple visuals that explain the topic you're talking about at the time.
  2. Your Notes: Of course, you need to have some notes handy just in case you miss a point here and there. All slideware tools have a notes section built in, where you can enter your notes about the topic on hand.
  3. The Handout: This is where you can add additional detail. So if there's a complex chart add it in here. If you want people to refer your talk after it's over, then provide them a handout. Your handout should be able to live without you. Your slides should not.
I cannot possibly tell you all there's to know about presentations, inside this blogpost. So I strongly recommend that if there's only one book you read about presentations, please read Presentation Zen and start to follow the Presentation Zen blog.

Use a Word-processor for Documents, please

Now for the more difficult part - creating interesting documents. Now you'd think that this is a simple task, but apparently not. People seem to use Powerpoint as page-layout software more than a presentation tool. The pity is that the tool was never designed for the purpose and has some obvious failings when it comes to dealing with large amounts of text.

So first things first -- you can create very interesting documents in just a few clicks using your good old word processor. Take a look at the documents in the image above. Those are templates from Microsoft Word! Now the next time you want to send a Powerpoint file as your 25 page report, think of how your favourite magazine would represent the same information. Then, select a template from your favourite word processor and start filling in the details. After a few rounds of working with templates you should be able to create your own stuff and lend your own brand to your documents. Here are a few tips on what kind of document you should create for some standard purposes.

Type of DocumentSuggestionExamples
Quarterly/ Monthly/ Annual UpdatesTry a newsletterHere are are a couple of examples from Microsoft Word:
ReportsTry Toyota style A3 Reports. Limited to an A3 size sheet, these reports are an example of simplicity in action. The thinking behind A3 reports is:

"If you can't express it in one page, then it's perhaps not worth expressing."

Obviously this means two things:
  • You need to put in serious thought to simplify your report. I mean simple - not simplistic.
  • If your report is simple and visible on a single page, then it'll perhaps be much easier to read for the people who eventually see it.
Here's example template. Contact me for specific examples.
AgendasIf you're sending out an Agenda for a meeting, perhaps a simple one page document will suffice, but if you're keen on trying something fancy, then try the events template from your word processor.
Here's an example from Microsoft Word.
Project Plans/ ChartersPlease, please, please don't pass around project plans in Powerpoint.
  • Its tough to keep track of changes and at some point somebody will have an out of date document;
  • There's always hidden complexity that you're bound to overlook
Instead, try a project wiki. When you have to present reports, try the A3 format. When you have to make a presentation, make a presentation with simple visuals. When you need more detail, keep referring back to your project Wiki.
There are quite a few wikis available on the big broad internet:
  • Mediawiki is the wiki that powers the internet
  • TWiki is a popular wiki that satisfies a number of enterprise use-cases
  • Wikispaces allows you to create a free wiki without the nightmare of hosting and maintainence.
  • Confluence is my favourite wiki and is a full fledged enterprise knowledge sharing tool.
Announcements/ EventsLast but not the least, if you're making announcements or creating a slideument to describe an event, please try a brochure. They're professional, easy to create and extremely good looking.
Here's an example from Microsoft Word.

As you might have guessed by now, I'm a sucker for good presentations and I just can't stand the misuse of good presentation tools! I hope my post today was helpful to you in some way. Please let me know what you think, by adding your thoughts to the comments section of this post. I understand this is a controversial topic, and I'm perhaps sticking my neck out for trouble, but I just can't help expressing myself on this topic.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Conference Updates

A few pieces of news that I hadn't posted yet. Firstly, I'm speaking at the XP2010 conference in Norway this year. The conference is from June 1-4, 2010 and I'm presenting the following workshops:
Second, I'm participating in RubyConf India. I don't know what my level of participation will be like, but you can be sure to find me there, doing something or the other.

And the last bit of news for now, is that I've submitted two proposals for Agile 2010 in Nashville, Tennesee. The two proposals are:
  1. Facilitating Dialogue in Situations of Conflict - with Rixt Wiersma
  2. Making feedback work in your teams
I need your feedback for those proposals, so I can do my best to find a speaker's slot at Nashville. So if everything works out fine, I'll see you at Agile 2010 as well - fingers crossed!

5 Simple Ideas to give an Edge to your Induction Experience

A few months ago, I wrote an article about empowering learners in your induction program. The thoughts I shared at the time were around the various components of an induction program. My points in that post were also around the value of considering a pull based approach for upskilling your new hires. A few days back Michelle Dineen asked a question on the Learning and Skills Group about accelerating learning for new employees and making their transition into their new roles, smoother. So, while I did reply to that post using my own experiences, in today's post I want to share some ideas consolidating some of the interesting work people around the globe are doing to make life easier and more effective for new hires.

The way I look at the process of Induction

If you look at the picture above, you'll see that I consider Induction to be a multistep process:
  1. Orientation - which covers the standard stuff for people to understand the ecosystem of the company; people, policies, benefits, systems, etc.
  2. Context Setting - which helps people understand the culture and identity of the company; history, values, USP, brand image, business model, etc.
  3. Competence Building - which helps people pick up the technical skills they need for their jobs.
  4. Project Onboarding - which helps people ease into their specific team, department, section or project.
As you'll notice, I've experienced learning to be a continuous process, so I believe that people will need an opportunity to keep building their competence as a result of ongoing challenges that they face on their projects. So here's a secret about me -- I don't believe in elearning, social media and the like because they're cool or because I think they can be cheap or maybe reduce the cost of training. All those are fair benefits, but I believe in these modes of learning because they provide continuing opportunities for people to support their own learning. The ideas I showcase today, are therefore a way for you to empower your learners in their performance situations.

Idea #1 - Try an Induction Portal

In July last year I was on a webinar by Lars Hyland of Brightwave showcasing the induction portal (or rather the pre-induction portal) for Sky - a major home entertainment provider in the UK. The portal allowed new hires in various roles to start their induction even before joining Sky and they could go through self-paced elearning courses on company values, organisational structure, core product knowledge, health and safety in an environment that was engaging and representative of Sky's brand. There are some obvious advantages of the approach:
  • Your new hires have an opportunity to interact with your brand much earlier than the date of joining. With an intelligent application of design thinking, you could have inductees salivate at the prospect of their first day at work!
  • You can ensure that new hires complete certain elements of training even before they join the company. As a consequence, you can reserve the time you earlier spent in induction, for more valuable activities which perhaps can happen only in a face to face environment.
  • And most importantly, you reduce time to competence in many areas -- people can get up to speed with the requirements of their job much faster than in the case of classroom only education, given the unbridled access to these tools.
For the full article, click here. For an example of such a portal take a look at Vestas World.

Idea #2 - Provide your New Hires with continuously Reference-able Material

At DevLearn 2009, I met Bill Corwin. Let me first tell you that Bill is who you'd call an absolute demo-god! At the Demofest in the conference, Bill was showcasing his work on the company's Employee orientation programme. Armed with tools as humble as a simple video camera, Powerpoint and a bunch of advertisements and videos from marketing, Bill set out to create what seemed like a really interesting way of orienting employees to your organisation. Bill was in a situation where he found new starters drinking from a fire-hose in what used to be a 4-5 hour orientation programme. There was just too much to take in during that short time. So Bill decided to reuse the classroom training assets to create an online orientation programme that employees could take at their own pace, when they need it.

"And it’s easy for them to revisit things if they want. By design, the training doubles as a reference tool for all 4,500 of our North American employees. In fact, 61% of our trainees use the course after their initial training, to look up information as needed."

Bill's work is an example of simplicity in action. You'll notice that none of the materials would have taken too much programming skill to create. On the other hand the skill required was that of resourcefulness and content aggregation. If you take a look at the video above, you'll see that the program is designed with a very personable feel to it. People have videos of real people introducing the topic, the content is simply presented and it's no surprise that the number of learners who are confident they can find the HR info they need has jumped from 59% to 90%. I look at it as an excellent way of making your new hire orientation extremely effective.

Read the case study here.

Idea #3 - Give them Learning Paths to chart their own Learning Journey

While it's legitimate to ask people to learn on their own, it's tough for new hires who don't know what they don't know, to seek how to know what they don't know! Confused? Let me try again. It's fair to ask people to take charge of their own learning. That said, new hires are really keen to do well in their new job and get through their probation with a sense of success. Without a sense of what people expect from them in their jobs and what skills they'll need to meet those expectations, self-learning can become similar to a wild-goose chase. To tackle this, we're using an approach driven by Learning Paths. Very simply, a learning path is nothing but a chronological representation of an individual's learning journey from Novice to Expert in a specific job role. The idea is that you can hand a new hire their learning path at the start of their job in the company. From that point on, the electronic version of the path can be their entry point to seek out learning resources on the LMS, the organisational wiki or social learning platform. So yes, learning remains self-driven but has some tangible outcomes that the new hire can work towards. In coming weeks, I may just publish a case study that will illustrate real life examples of Learning Paths in action.

Idea #4 - Provide them a Career Coach

When you're new to a company and you need guidance on what your career should look like, it's never enough to look at a microsite or a set of documents or even the very engaging elearning module. You need someone to talk to; someone who can guide you through your career moves in the company. In your initial days at the company, this could be the person that makes you feel comfortable in the organisation. As you go on, this person connects you to others in the company, guides you through your learning journey and help you deal with the feedback you're recieving. As time progresses, this person can be your guide and advocate for career movements in the company and can again guide you to find the right people and resources to help your learning in your new role. In general, we call this role the career coach or the personal development coach at ThoughtWorks. We've had this support for quite some time now at the company and most people tend to swear by the support they get from their coaches.

Idea #5 - Strengthen your Project Onboarding Processes

Lastly, I come to the oft-neglected aspect of Project Onboarding. We need to remember that people can't know everything before they come onto a team or a project or even a department. There are many things that we learn only when we see them in a performance context. This is where project onboarding is crucial. According to my colleague Pat Kua, "The main goal of a new person is to learn about the larger context. They seek out things they should know about, start to understand the domain specific vocabulary, and begin to work with the team and the work culture. The more complex the project is, and the larger the number of people who join, the longer this phase can last."

Pat is someone I consider to be an expert on the topic of onboarding people. As with many other things, his skills are experiential and he knows about this having practiced it on many different teams. Take some time to look through the various onboarding strategies on his blog and his related article on InfoQ. I find all of them to be extremely lightweight, yet practical methods of getting a new person to be comfortable with the context, practices and the working of a project.
Yet again, the ideas on my post are limited by my own experiential wisdom (or the lack of it). What ideas are working for you in your own induction context? I'll be hugely obliged if you shared them with me on the comments section of this blogpost. At ThoughtWorks, we're currently working on a new and improved model for induction and your experiences will help us greatly in our own approach. When we do get done, I'll do my best to get a case study out as long as I can get legal approval.
(A quick clarification -- the career coach role in ThoughtWorks has till date been known as the sponsor. We're in the process of changing the nomenclature, so that it reflects the true purpose of the role.)

Saturday, February 06, 2010

How to effectively architect information for your elearning course

As Instructional Designers, its always a challenge to balance meaningful instruction with information. Cathy Moore's action mapping framework is a great way to create lively elearning that allows you to include just the right amount of information in your elearning course. That said, our SMEs and clients will often say to us things like, "But we need to include _______ in the course as well." or "All that's fine, but they need to KNOW ______ as well."

Its a consulting challenge to make the trade-off between meaningful instruction and information overload in such cases. That being said, there are a few simple strategies that you can use to ensure that your course has the right impact and you can include your client's request for additional information too! Here they are.

Provide information through scenarios

As you may have noticed in my last post, I have a strong preference towards scenario based elearning. Scenarios allow us as designers to present our audience with a real life challenge. Of course, real life challenges are tough to solve without background knowledge and sound instructional thinking can allow us to weave in this important information, without being too top heavy about it. When your audience accesses knowledge from a state of pain, they're more likely to appreciate its value and remember it at their day job. What this makes us do, is think hard about the information that is really of consequence for the performances we target.

Try organising optional information in tabs

Regardless of how hard we try however, there's some information that just is so sacrosanct that it HAS TO BE part of the course. But then, what if this 'valuable' information just doesn't add value to the performance we seek and expect our audience to demonstrate during the course? I've found a middle path, especially when using Articulate Studio '09. You see, Articulate Studio allows you to customise your player to include some of this information in tabs. When we tuck away some of this really 'nice to have' yet apparently 'important' information in tabs, we have one more way to satisfy our clients and at the same time ensure that the course stays lively, engaging and useful. Take a look at this really elementary demo that I put together for this very technique.

Provide your audience with Job Aids

I've always believed that people learn over time and that learning is a process not an event. So its impractical to include roll all of the support an individual needs, into a single course. In recent months I've been surprised to see so many wonderful courses that don't link to any follow up information such as a job aid or performance support. And to think that after all that effort in putting together a great course, it should be really easy for you to put together a one-page summary of how people can perform specific tasks! So my suggestion is to include a few things for people to use as a follow up for your course:
  • a definite action that you'd like them to perform once they're done with the program;
  • a set of people that can help them answer questions if they're stuck;
  • a set of resources and job aids that can help your audience long after they've forgotten your hard-work on the course

Enable supervisors with Job Instruction

One of our problems as elearning instructional designers is that we often forget about other, lightweight methods of creating learning. I believe that people learn a lot from mentoring and apprenticeship. And who better to provide this support than the supervisors themselves? Fortunately we don't have to go down the heavyweight colocated training approach to achieve maximum benefits. In recent days I've become a big fan of the training within industry (TWI) approach of the Lean world. While the TWI set of practices dates back to second world war, the approaches make more sense today than ever. One of the practices from TWI is job instruction. The idea was to help supervisors get inexperienced workers 'up to speed' faster. So they taught supervisors to break down jobs into closely defined steps, show the procedures while explaining the key points and the reasons for the key points, then watch the student attempt under close coaching, and finally to gradually wean the student from the coaching. The course emphasized the credo, "If the student hasn't learned, the teacher hasn't taught".

Job Instruction sheets considerably simplify this activity for the supervisor and its great investment to provide them with such material to support their teams. You'll find some excellent examples of job instruction sheets at this location. Take a look, download the ones you like and start putting together these single sheet plans for supervisors to support your course. I believe the impact could be tremendous. 
One of the things that I'm always curious about is how we can do more with less. What simple, yet high impact methods are you discovering to support learning for your clients or company? Yes, my intention is to steal your ideas and use them at work, but more importantly I'm keen to learn about what's happening across the world in terms of inexpensive innovation in the field of learning. So as always, place your thoughts in the comments section of this blogpost and also let me know what you thought of this article. I'm always keen to hear your thoughts.
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