Monday, May 31, 2010

One Trick Pony or Problem Solving Consultant?

I'm a foodie and I find a lot of inspiration in my food. A few days back, I went to watch Shrek Forever After 3D at a multiplex. As you'd expect, after the superlative 3D show, I was hungry so my wife and I headed to the multiplex food court looking for a meal. I settled for a bento box at an Asian stall. The bento is a Japanese concept, but the stall filled the box with things like Chinese black bean chicken, Korean Kimchi salad and good old Indian Manchurian. Woah! That was an interesting fusion -- a Japanese bento box, that held Chinese, Korean and Indian food! The meal was surprisingly good as well.

The contents of the bento box set me thinking. If a set of interesting food concepts can combine to create a meal that just works, then why can't we combine different methods of learning to create a learning experience that just works? In my experience I see a lot of fanaticism in certain circles -- elearning exponents can't look beyond their trade; trainers swear by the classroom; informal learning geeks scoff at the LMS and novices just follow the loudest fanatic.

I think our current workplaces have room and the need for everything. The presence of a social learning platform doesn't mean the LMS is obsolete; the presence of elearning doesn't mean training stops forever and virtual worlds don't mean that people stop meeting each other forever. In today's post, I want to explore if we really need to be such deep specialists or if shallow generalism is more the order of the day.

We can't be 'One trick Ponies'

Let's face it, traditional methods of creating learning aren't going to cut it for the enterprise -- if we just left them on their own. OTOH, newer methods of learning have their own deficiencies - either the practice isn't 'mature' enough; or people aren't ready or they just doesn't answer specific use-cases. In such a situation we need to adopt a 'horses for courses' approach, where we pick the best approach for our objectives. I'm currently spending most of my time on ThoughtWorks University - our graduate consultant programme. We're adopting a mix of approaches to design the program.
  • We're using elearning before and during the course, to help students build a theoretical foundation for their roles.
  • We're using formal training for topics that require generative discussion and a collaborative exchange of thoughts and ideas.
  • We're creating a workscape for the remaining duration of the course - students will participate on a real life project and learn while at work. Learning will be incidental to the job and in the context of work.
At ThoughtWorks University, we're not harping on the tools that we want to use. The fact that we're using Moodle, Facebook, Articulate, communities of practice, wikis, Mingle or Google Apps, is only incidental to our purpose -- getting graduates to be effective consultants. We're extremely proud of the tool/ practice agnostic approach we've taken to the course and we're hopeful that this'll be a raging success. My personal hope is that discussions in the L&D community focus less on the technology and more on the real problems we're trying to solve. If the tools are good enough, they'll come to the party as well.

Technology is Valuable when it's Not Cool Anymore

There are good reasons why rapid elearning seems to have become a rising phenomenon. A part of it has to be the fact that tools like Powerpoint are ubiqutous now -- you can take it for granted that people have Powerpoint on their computers and are familiar with it. The fact that most people can work on Powerpoint means that most people can create elearning - you get the drift. This is the strange paradox of technology, especially when it comes to LnD - technology is valuable when it ceases to be cool.

"What matters here isn't technical capital. It's social capital. These tools don't get socially interesting until they get technologically boring. It isn't when the shiny new tools show up that their uses start permeating society. It's when everybody is able to take them for granted. Because now that media is increasingly social, innovation can happen anywhere that people can take for granted the idea that we're all in this together."- Clay Shirky

In April, the Learning Circuits blog asked a question about keeping up - how do we stay up to speed on all the latest stuff? It's one of the discussions I deliberately decided to not follow. If you watch Clay Shirky's talk above, you'll see how he talks about the power of technology when it becomes mainstream. One of the things I've realised, despite being a 'shiny toy' guy, is that the most powerful tools are the ones everyone's familiar with and has access to.

Think about it - the 3D movies like Avatar and Shrek 4 can revolutionise entertainment; not yet though, because its expensive both for the makers and the viewers. On the other hand mainstream technology like SMS is far more powerful - take a look at what RapidSMS has done to revolutionise UNICEF's work in places like Africa.

In a similar manner, the market for Moodle as an open-source LMS is picking up because it's so ubiquitous - it's running every school around the corner and also huge universities like the Open University. OTOH, at least in India Twitter isn't yet mainstream. Even though there are interesting uses for Twitter in learning, the vast majority in India still needs time to reap the benefits. Twitter needs to be mainstream.

So before I wrap up the topic of tools, I'll request that as L&D professionals we give up our fascination for the latest tools. We need to keep our eyes out for the latest and greatest, but we need to exploit mainstream technology and focus on solving problems as against implementing the coolest tools.
  • Technology is not valuable when it's cool, because it's still not widely adopted.
  • Technology is not valuable when there's hype, because the cynics still exist.
  • Technology is not valuable when there's a craze, because business will still be conservative in it's outlook.
  • Technology is valuable only when you can take it for granted; take the press, the telegraph, the phone, the radio, the television, the internet and in coming years - social media.

Rising above Specialism and Tools

If corporate education budgets were unlimited, then teams would be huge and we could have specialists for each little purpose. I guess, we'd still struggle to solve the problems we encounter each day, but I'm happy to believe that we won't. Unfortunately that's a utopian state very few of us enjoy. Most of us have limited training budgets and we've got to make do with small teams and high expectations. This puts a huge responsibility on each of us to be as useful as we can for our organisations. In such situations if we choose to stick our ground as trainers, instructional designers, information architects, knowledge managers, or whatever our fancy specialist title may be, we're missing the big picture of our organisations' problems.

If L&D has to merit a seat at the decision-making table with executives, then we need to rise above our specialities and our fancy for our favourite tools. We need to demonstrate a strong understanding of our organisations' problems and also know the most practical (not the coolest) way to get to our goals. I like to believe that I'm a consultant to my employers and my job is to fix problems and help my employers achieve their business goals. I don't mind specialising; in fact I feel all of us need to be specialists in something or the other. All I'll say is that we need to spread ourselves across various skills other than our speciality to make meaning at work.
I believe our roles as L&D professionals are fast undergoing a change. I'm not sure it's enough to sit in our corners and wait for work that suits our skills. We need to evolve our skills to the work we get. What do you think? Am I making sense or am I going absolutely bonkers? I'd love to know what you think. Let me know by commenting on this blogpost - I'll look forward to hearing from you.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

LSG Webinar - Choosing the right social and collaboration platform for learning

Aah! I finally made it to this one. Had a busy afternoon till now, but now it's webinar time. Today's LSG webinar is by Jane Hart, one of the world’s leading experts in social and collaborative learning. In today's webinar she's promised to examine three platforms explin what they can and cannot offer. I'm kinda interested in what could be a low-cost Ning replacement. I've also got a blogpost planned on this topic - keep your eyes peeled if my blog interests you. This is my third time with Jane - she's amazing and she's especially nice to me online so I'll do my extra bit to record her webinar properly. She blogs at, btw and if you aren't following her already, please start following her @c4lpt. She's the best source of wisdom about social learning, IMO. So take it away Jane - give us all you've got.

Craig's asking me about whether I have my superman outfit on -- don't know about that Craig, I'll do my best!

Jan'es asking us whether we're just curious about social learning or are we looking for a Ning alternative or if we're just evaluating platform. Looks like there's a huge mix of people and needs - and a lot of curiosity. Hmmm.... anyways, here are the liveblogged notes.

10 criteria for selecting the 'right' platform

Here are some of the criteria Jane mentions we should think about when selecting a platform:
1. Purpose: How will it support learning?
  • Will it be a formal learning community?
  • Will it be for a PLN/.
  • Will it be a group space
  • Will it be a file sharing network?
  • Will it be an enterprise wide social and collaboration platform?
  • Will it be an external platform?
2. User Functionality - What should it do?
  • Social Networking
  • Communication - messaging, discussion, chat
  • Sharing - links, resources, etc
  • Sub-groups - open or closed collab spaces
  • Collaboration Tools - blogs, wikis, microblogs, etc
Ning seems to be good for most stuff here. Don says that Ning is great for bulletin board style stuff but not project collaboration.

3. Closed or Open Source - Can you look under the hood?
4. Hosted or Installed - Can you host it within your firewall? Do you have to be on the cloud?
5. Data ownership and export - If you do have stuff on the cloud, do you have an NDA on your content and can you choose to not expose your data? Can you move data out of the platform?
6. Terms of use - What kind of work does the platform allow you to do on it?
7. Ease of set up - Ning scores highly on this
8. Ease of customisation - Ning scores fairly highly on this as well
9. Ease of use - and Ning scores well on this too! Yaay! but it aint free anymore! Damn!
10. Cost - Jane's reading my mind here. So the question is -- is it free? Is is commercial only? Is there a choice of plans?

There's obviously the bunch of pros and cons beyond these parameters that you should consider. I for one won't restrict myself to a matrix, though a matrix like this will be really useful for you to make your initial evaluation. I like this Jane!

Jane's 3 social learning platform demos

So what platforms are you going to show us Jane? There's heaps of names going around in the chat area. Ok hold your breath!

Platform1 - is a great Ning replacement. It actually allows your to migrate your Ning network which is kinda cool. And you can create your own little YouTube if you'd like. Some interesting pieces of functionality:
  • Wikis
  • Blogs
  • Social Networking
  • Calendar
  • Video
  • Filesharing
  • Chat
  • Groups
  • Media sharing
  • Facebook Integration - it actually pulls your information from Facebook profiles (very nice)
Jane's started off a site here. Should be a nice place for inspiration. I'll take a look.

Platform2 - Socialtext

Socialtext is an enterprise class social learning platform. It offers a variety of features including but not limited to:
  • a desktop client that allows you to microblog - I think it's called Signals;
  • microblogging;
  • wikis
  • shared spreadsheets - ala Google docs
  • there are a range of socialtext and third party widgets to extend your social platform
  • closed groups if you need them - though I'm not a big fan of them
One problem with signals is that it doesn't support hashtags. BTW, my desktop sharing has died.

Platform 3 - Elgg

If it's Jane speaking you've got to expect a mention of Elgg. I actually like Elgg a lot and it got mentioned on Hanif's webinar. It has a whole bunch of good features:
  • widgets
  • social networking
  • blogging/ microblogging
  • open-source
  • closed groups
  • control over CSS and eventual look and feel - this is one place where elgg scores a big win
  • granular access control - user and admins can exercise a high level of control of what people can see. This is a good feature from the privacy standpoint.
The great thing about elgg is that it's hugely extensible given all of the plugins from the community. There are heaps of examples on Jane's website in case you want to look up stuff.

So now for the side by side comparision:

  • is a good social platform. Social Text is a great enterprise collab platform. Elgg scores in both areas
Closed or Open Source:
  • is Open Source, though clunky when you download it. You can host or install it. Socialtext is Open Source as well, though outdated in that version. And then you can host and install it (SocialText appliance). Elgg however scores as being open source and being a hosted and installed version at the same time.
Data ownership and Export/ Tems of Use
Here's a table from Jane's presentation.

Here's a table from Jane's presentation.
Cost has a variety of plans, Elgg is free, but you need config effort and Social Text has a free version but you'll perhaps need a plan to make the most of it.

That's a fair comparision. That was a whirlwind session, really dense in information and quite insightful. I've struggled to keep up I must say. I'm now going to tune into the QnA. Jane's gone ahead and put up all this stuff here. Thanks Jane!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Here are 6 Tips to make your Rapid Elearning a Success

A few days back I ordered a large meal at a restaurant. Unfortunately, the food tasted awful - really awful. My first thought was to curse the chef - not for one moment did I think of complaining about the ingredients. A strange thought came to my mind. A bad chef with great ingredients, can still produce an awful meal. Given great ingredients, a good meal depends on two things:
  • the recipe you use;
  • and the skill of the chef
Applying that analogy back to elearning, a great course depends on:
  • the right instructional strategy/approach/design;
  • and the skill of the design team
After a few years practicing rapid elearning, there's something I've learnt that I want to share with you.

"Rapid elearning is not about cutting corners with design. Rapid elearning is about quickly translating great design into a working product. Rapid or not, bad design can never result in a good product."

I don't know how insightful that quote is, but it's something that expresses the reasons for my excitement about rapid elearning and my responses to it's criticism. Finally, good design is most likely to lead to a good final product. In today's post, I'm going to share a rapid elearning demo with you and share some tips to make your project a success. I've used Articulate Studio '09 to create this demo, so a lot of advice applies to that platform, though I think most tips will translate to other Powerpoint based elearning too.

Click here to view the demo

This demo is about a fictional travel company that may want to train it's equally fictional travel counsellors. Of course, it's only a part of what could be a complete elearning module, but I hope it gives you a flavour for the advice I'm sharing on this blog post. So without further ado, here are my tips.

Be Task centered not Content centered

So often we instructional designers blame our clients for the bad products we put out. I feel we need to be more responsible for our work. Our clients are not designers, so we shouldn't expect them to know what's the best way to design elearning. I don't deny that we often have difficult clients, but I guess that's where the art of consulting comes in. Take a look at the articles here and here for some inspiration on how you can make wonders happen even with the toughest clients.

Despite all the excellent thinking that we see online though, most elearning still seems to be very content focussed. More often than not, it's content, content, content followed by a quiz. OTOH I like the approach of plunging learners into a real world activity, providing 'information' on-demand and only if necessary. Contrary to what we want to believe, flash-based elearning isn't the greatest medium for reading. It definitely is a great multimedia platform for interactive content. And interaction isn't about clicking around and rollovers -- it's about making people do close-to-life work in a safe environment.

So for your next elearning module, consider how you can adopt an activity focussed approach to elearning. Cathy Moore's action mapping approach is a great way to kick off your design process. You will still need to add information only pieces - consider creative ways to architect this information.

Create Exploratory Navigation

We need to treat our learners as adults and do our best to give them the freedom to pick out the information they need. Most importantly, the real world doesn't give out information in a linear sequence. People seek out information based on the demands of the task on hand. Now, we can design challenges that make people pull the information from a state of pain. In our demo, there's a lot of information about lodging, flights, sightseeing, the customer's preferences etc, that we're making the learner pull. In traditional design, these would have been consecutive slides of information. In our exploratory mode, you possibly still have the same number of slides, but you design the learners experience to be more autonomous. Take a look at these excellent tutorials from Tom Kuhlmann that'll teach you how to create exploratory navigation:

Mimic the Real World

How do your learners perform the task you're teaching, in the real world? Do they use an application? Do they browse a number of websites? How can you try to simulate that as closely as possible in your elearning? Modern rapid elearning tools like Articulate allow you to bring the web into your course. You can use such capabilities to simulate research using a web based tool. Alternatively you can use tools like Camtasia/ Captivate to create software simulations. And if you want to give your learners a limited sandbox to play with, think of how you can use Powerpoint's hyperlinking features to mimic the real world. In my demo, I haven't done too much of this though you'll notice I've brought in screenshots from Travelocity, Expedia and Kayak to give learners a flavour for the real world.

Exploit your Slide Masters

As in programming, in elearning we should follow the DRY principle - "Dont Repeat Yourself!".

This is to say, that if you can create something once and reuse it, then don't create it again and again. Let me explain. When you design immersive scenarios or exploratory interfaces, you're quite likely to have slides that repeat the same visual elements. If you duplicate those visual elements across your screens, you're likely to have a really huge file that takes ages to load. Instead if you have a master slide that contains all these repeated elements, then your screens load faster and the entire elearning experience improves considerably. Most importantly, you can make your changes on the master slide to make changes to all the slides that use the same layout. As a result your production time goes down as well. Here's a video from Tom that shows how can use master slides to work efficiently towards your elearning.

Design Challenges, not Assessments

Elearning and particularly rapid elearning assessments just have a bad rep. After a pile of slides that do nothing but provide information, the last activity people want is a quiz that rates them on how much they remember. Instead we need to design challenges that helps people practice a skill. In our example, we are asking the learner to recommend a flight, a hotel and sightseeing to the customer. It is an assessment of sorts, but it's more an opportunity for task practice. Who do you think will be a better travel counsellor? Someone who goes through a fact check? Or someone who has practiced being a counsellor with five customers? Articulate Quizmaker is one of the best quiz engines in the market these days, and there's heaps you can do to exploit its power. Here's a boatload of community tutorials to help you become a pro with creating effective challenges in your elearning.

Be Visual

Let's face it -- people like to explore things that look nice. If your elearning course looks ugly and amateurish, then it isn't going be very inviting for your learners. The good news however is that you don't need to be a trained graphic designer to produce stuff that looks good. Take a look at all the amazing visual design tips that Tom's put out on his blog -- Powerpoint is your best friend to do:
  • layered graphics;
  • masking;
  • vector graphics;
  • and quick fix graphic effects
So the best graphics tool is the one you already own. The next time you're struggling with visual design ideas for your course, take look at the wonderful community tutorials here and here. Linda Lor recently put out some ideas for a fresh look in your courses. And here's a fairly popular presentation on visual design basics that I created a few weeks back. And remember, the right kind of themes can help you create a consistent look for your entire course. Here are a few tips to create high-quality themes for your elearning.

Well, those are the ideas that have worked for me when creating elearning. I have a huge problem with uninformed criticism for rapid-elearning tools, because I think rapid elearning will pave the way for timely elearning in the enterprise. Bad elearning is well, just bad elearning and it has nothing to do with whether the tool is rapid or not. If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy my other posts on similar topics. I'm also keen on knowing your thoughts about this post and what you think works when producing rapid elearning. Please let me know by commenting on this blogpost. Just so you can dissect my work, here are the source files:
And btw, Tony's character comes from elearningArt - the best source on the web for elearning character packs.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Training Mag Webinar - Learning Project Charter in 45 Minutes?: It's Important and CAN be Done!

Now let me confess, I didn't know of Lou Russell until I joined the Training Mag Network. That's because I often overlook authors from some of the books I casually pick up. Lou's better known in the community as the author of The Accelerated Learning Fieldbook. She also heads up Russell Martin Associates. Today's topic actually interests me primarily because I find the title catchy. I'm no expert project manager and in fact I'm crap at it. That's why we need people like Krishnan Nair. That said it's a skill I'm always interested in, particularly from the learning and development perspective. Having worked for ThoughtWorks and having been an ardent follower of Cathy Moore's action mapping approach, I've usually done my project 'charters' in a highly lightweight fashion. I'm keen to know about what Lou recommends however and that's the motivation behind attending today's webinar. So Lou, I'm all ears!

These are live blogged notes from the webinar. Lou confesses to being a shiny object person, like me. She talks about her techniques as things that allow her to stay focussed without the need for save the world heroics.

Lou says that you should be able to do a good enough project charter in 45 minutes or less and you particularly need to answer why you're doing the project in the first place. You're actually drawing up a draft and a placeholder for conversation. It's a best guess for what you're trying to achieve and then you need to keep evolving the vision with stakeholders. If you spend more than 45 minutes for this -- you're perhaps doing something wrong.

So what are our deliverables?
  • Business Objectives
  • Scope
  • Project Objectives
  • Risks/ Constraints/ Issues
  • Communication Plan
  • Governance
"Project management is only about communication -- anything that doesn't communicate, is not useful!"
In Lou's school, she talks about the following steps to manage a project -- it's a bit linear, though I know this is fairly well followed in the PMP community. In fact Agile or not, most projects still look like this.
  1. Define - This is where we're focussing today.
  2. Plan - Scheduling, resourcing, budgeting
  3. Manage - feedback, managing progress, negotiating for resources, resolving differences
  4. Review - final delivery, support, (post mortems/ celebrations)
"Bad news early is good news."

While you can't discover all the bad news upfront, it's nice to be able to find ways to identify stuff early. Fair enough, though iterative development can help surface issues through the actual act of executing the project. That being said, a great project inception is an auspicious start to your project.

For the purpose of this session, Lou is introducing a fairly typical case study. Here are the key points about the case study:
  • We're creating a one hour elearning module to teach people to fill out an expense form.
  • There's already a one hour, Powerpoint based instructor lead course in place.
  • We need to add voice overs, interactions and a knowledge check (Why??).
  • We're using Articulate.
  • We'll adminster the course using our LMS (hope it's not crappy).
  • We have an SME for the project and the accounting department is paying for it.
Let's now try to answer some of the questions likely to arise using Lou's techniques

Business Objectives - Using the Greek Goddess IRACIS

Business objectives are one of the following and that's where the IRACIS mnemonic
  • Increase Revenue
  • Avoid Cost
  • Improve Service
So what's our objective - we want to avoid cost of inaccurate travel expense filing and form usage which could lead to rework from the accounting department. For this, all we need to do is distribute a 1 hour module to the entire community. (Ambitious, but OK - I'll play along).

That said, the project sponsor decides the business objectives -- so the idea is to ensure that we don't send a blank slate to them. A better idea is to try and take a stab at it and send that across. There may be more than one business objectives, but it's perhaps a better idea to pick out one with the project sponsor and determine the one that's most important. A good question is, "What made you call us?".

If you don't have a business objective, then you perhaps don't have a reason to do this project.

Establishing Project scope

Lou introduced this matrix for PMs to try and establish project scope. For example, the sponsor will provide budget/ time and will need status of the project. OTOH, the SMEs will provide us the form for the course and common mistakes and we'll provide them drafts. As you fill this out, you'll develop a complete list of what you need and what you need to provide. This gives you a fair list of items you need to provide.

I'm a little sceptical about this being a definition of scope though, because I feel it creates a list of artifacts, but not necessarily scope -- I look at it as the breadth and depth of the project. I guess however that the comments section may provide more detail for this.

But then, now Lou's showing us a nice diagram that illustrates a give-get relationship with various stakeholders on the project. I still am a scope management bad-cop and on my projects I'll be a little scared if we called ONLY this scope. That said, we have a whole bunch of things to go through, so I may be jumping the gun!

A good tip from Lou - don't depend on communication you can't control. Keep that as a nice-to-have, try to influence it, but don't count on it?

Another good tip -- when you draw out communication channels, don't oversimplify the picture. Draw every communication channel separately - avoid double headed arrows since they avoid accountability. Hmmm...

I like this, because this kind of analysis already starts to give us a bit of a communication plan and a list of responsibilities on the project.

"Keep things hand-drawn, so no one assumes it as a done deal." Things need to be open for change.

Develop Project Objectives

Once you've got your above diagram/ matrix ready, then you can develop your project objectives. This is basically to determine the project level goals like:
  • Every student takes a post-test for course completion
  • The module should be compatible with the LMS
You can also mix in Learning objectives with this -- I don't really like learning objectives any more, though I think you can mix action mapping with this approach.

Establish Risks/ Issues/ Constraints

This is the time for you to determine a few things:
  • Size of the project -- How big is this relative to projects you've done before?
  • Structure - How volatile are the requirements? What's the likelihood of change?
  • Technology - How well do you understand the technology and procedures?
Remember the higher the risk of these factors, the more you're going to spend time on the project as a manager. And these factors could be different for different teams.
Lou put's out this table to record risks and to maintain a risk log. This is quite similar to what I've seen and used in the past. This is something to keep revisiting through the project, so you can keep looking through your risk log, see their current status and look at whether you need to get your mitigation strategy in place

Document Constraints

There's the age old project management triangle:
  • Time
  • Cost
  • Quality/Scope
One of the things that could be useful to determine up-front Lou says, are the constraints on each front. What's the constraint on cost or time or scope or quality? To me quality is not-negotiable, though I guess this means that you have some tolerance about known issues, etc.

Plan communications

Ask yourself:
  • Who will you communicate with?
  • What do they want to know?
  • What communication format and frequency is best?
  • How much time do you have?
No news is bad news! So communicate often and in time!

Establish Change Management Plan

This is where you decide who takes care of which change. For example who deals with change in budget and schedule? Who takes care of changing requirements? And finally who deals with quality issues?

This could be quite useful in deciding responsibilities on a project as well. Hmmm... I like this more than I expected.

So, this is 45 minutes not badly spent and despite my sceptism for most traditional project management, I must say Lou's tips did make overall sense, because she focussed so much on communication. I like communication. 

"Anything that can go wrong will go wrong!" - Murphy

An experienced project manager manages risk well and communicates well - is what I think Lou was trying to paraphrase. Yes, I like that -- that's being a realist.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Changing our 'Trainer' Mindsets

I am a trainer by profession. I know there are war cries in the industry to just get rid of the training department completely. I agree and I disagree. Jane Bozarth's landmark quote remains at the back of my mind.
"Trainers won't be replaced by technology. They will be replaced by trainers who are willing to use technology.”
So am I really a trainer? I call myself a learning generalist - training is one of the things I do in order to create learning. Oops, isn't learning a dirty word? Let me rephrase then - training is one of the things I do to improve workplace performance. For simplicity however, let me use the word 'learning' for this article.

Fortunately enough, there's room for all types learning. Unfortunately though, in an age of Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, we still have to create a mindset change. As I've said earlier, training cannot be the only way to create learning. In fact I believe that "A single mode of education sans informal learning, is the waterfall of the learning world." For knowledge workers, all I can say, is that you need to learn to learn or lag behind. For L&D and HR professionals however, I ask that we look at our situation with a sense of pragmatism. Training CANNOT be the solution to all our organisations' problems. Let me tell you why.

We don't have the Skills to do all kinds of Training

"Unless you know everything about everything and have practical experiences in everything, you can't teach everything!"

Unless your training budget runs into millions of dollars a year, you're perhaps like me. You run a small team and you get subject matter experts (SMEs) to come and train with you whenever a need comes by. Why do we need SMEs? Well we can't teach someone about business analysis, if we have no experience of being business analysts. We can't teach someone about CRM if we don't understand the topic. You get the idea!

And so we need SMEs. As it turns out, your SMEs are SMEs because they're really skilled at their job. They are always in high demand and it's never easy to get an SME to design, develop and deliver a course with you. What happens then?
  1. The business comes to you with a training need.
  2. You need an SME.
  3. The SMEs are in high demand.
  4. They can spend only so much time with you everyday, to design the course.
  5. By the time you either get a full time SME or finish work with a part time SME, your problem has almost passed you by.

We don't have the Bandwidth to Manage all kinds of Training

Not everyone knows how to train. Training itself requires a fair amount of skill. You need to be confident with presentation skills, public speaking, facilitation and the art of using training tools. If you can't do the training all by yourself and your SME doesn't have the experience of training, you need to train your SMEs to train. This is what we call teacher training or 'train the trainer'. Don't get me wrong! I love doing this stuff, but it takes time and effort.

So you then need to add some more time to train the trainer and watch the problem pass you by a little more.

We can't 'Train our way out' fast enough

By the time we're about to fix an outdated problem with training, we have another training need on hand. We wait for an SME again, spend weeks designing a course, train the SME and again get back into the vicious cycle of training that solves outdated problems. As Neil Lasher would say, "Training departments are left just chasing their tails."

Don't jump to the conclusion though. If you think I'm about to say that elearning is the silver bullet that solves these problems, you're wrong. I have a bigger problem with our generic approach of creating courses to solve problems. Elearning is great for repeatability, but it has pretty much the same problems with SME availability, development time and time-to-market. Yes, rapid elearning does solve part of the problem, but that's not enough. We need to solve seven scary problems with today's status quo.

Workscapes, not Training are the need for today's Enterprise

"Organizations must stop thinking of learning as something separate from work. The further we get into the Knowledge Age, the greater the convergence of working and learning. Workers in a workscape learn by solving problems, coming up with fresh thinking, and collaborating with colleagues. They donʼt learn about these things; they learn by doing them. Workscapes are not a new structure but rather a holistic way of looking at and reformulating existing business infrastructure. They use the same networks and social media as the business itself." - Jay Cross
We need to integrate learning with work. When we create an environment where people learn all the time and can find solutions to their problems in the same context where the problems emerge, the need for training starts to reduce. The goal however is not to do away with training. The goal is to ensure that we have a workplace that learns so efficiently that we train only in the situations that really merit strong, collaborative colocation and facilitation. Think about the benefits of being able to focus your efforts effectively, by just creating the right context for learning. Think about creating value for your organisation everyday, than waiting for months to see value. I would love to articulate how you can do this, but Jane Hart has done a far better job in explaining how we can plan for different types of learning in the enterprise.

Let's focus on Context, not Content

If we really have to be effective as L&D organisations, we need to move from our preoccupation with content and focus on the context. Strategically and tactically, context trumps content in the modern L&D world. Think about it.
  • We need to create the context for knowledge sharing in the enterprise so that sharing ideas, thoughts, tips, advice becomes a part of the culture. This connects experts to the rest of the workscape. Think - enterprise 2.0.
  • We need to create the context for collaboration not just in teams but also beyond. How can we ensure that people know how to be a team, irrespective of geographical boundaries and distance? What are your watercooler conversations worth?
  • On a daily basis we need to create the context for people to 'learn how to learn'. Even when doing training, it's critical that we reinforce this message about learning to learn. People learn iteratively and if they don't know how to exploit a rich organisational ecosystem, they're very likely to lag behind. Teaching people to learn is crucial when setting them up for success. After all, it's important that everyone knows what an important part informal learning plays in their professional lives.

I'm still as passionate about training people as I was when I started my career. I have however, gotten more pragmatic with time. I have seen glimpses of how little improvements in the workplace and work systems can make a positive change in people's approach to learning.
"You need to think about your stuff more than you think, but not as much as you're afraid you might." - David Allen
While David Allen's quote comes from a different topic, I think it holds very true in the context of our professions. It's perhaps a good idea for each one of us to stop our training factories for a while and think about what we're trying to achieve. Do we really need the heavyweight approaches that we're using today? Can modern, lightweight, yet highly effective technology provide us the edge to achieve our goals at the right pace? How do you feel about the transition to workscapes? How do you feel about being generalists as against training specialists? I'd love to know what you think -- so please comment liberally on this post. I'll look forward to hearing from you.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Elearning Guild Webinar - Enterprise Collaboration: Are you 'envolved'?

Fourth and last webinar for the day, is yet another Elearning Guild webinar. This one's a real life case study for enterprise collaboration by Lisa Choi, Beth Branick and Wendie Whelan from Advantage Sales and Marketing. I like experience reports because while the experts and evangelists cry themselves hoarse, they are often a bit oblivious to real challenges. So I chose this session over the other concurrent webinar so I can hear what other people's experiences are in the field. My live blogged notes are likely to be a bit weird given it's so late at night! My hands are kinda wobbly!

So what's their story? First things first. What stops people from implementing social media?
  • You build it, but people don't use it - 13%
  • Execs don't buy -25%
  • Unable to track
  • Losing control -10%
  • Don't know where to begin - 30%
Good stuff - 50% had already implemented their stuff.

The beginning of their journey

They took the right first step -- they didn't call it 'social networking'. They called it enterprise collaboration. Good job! Social always throws up the wrong connotations. They were aiming to:
  • cultivate informal learning environment
  • drive new levels of innovation
  • allow collaboration
  • create organisational memory
  • supports accelerated pace of knowledge change

How they piloted

They piloted social media using ACES (Accelerated career excellence in sales) their career management program for sales staff - generally college graduates. Some stats:
  • 12 recent college graduates
  • 12 mentors - 5 month mentor role
  • 25 Program support associates
  • 100 peer trainers
So the challenge was to build searchable knowledge basess, provide collaborative environments, to create a tool for long term connections, to be a one-stop shop for formal and informal learning and how they can have a role based community as against being a program based community.

The tools they used

They used Sharepoint at ACES but they took it beyond being just a document repository. They seem to have pulled Sharepoint to it's limits and made it work properly like a social networking application. The positioning was easy since it was only limited to the use of the program -- so that way they got over the 'get exec buyoff' hurdle.

How they took it to the next step

They took this concept to their org-wide career management tool called enCompass - built on Cornerstone LMS. Things seemed to fall into place because their talent management vendor was coming up with a proper enterprise social media tool. It however didn't feel very useful to integrate one more tool into their entire app infrastructure. So they thought hard and nailed down the obvious benefits:
  • Communities
  • Associate Profiles
  • Blogs
  • Reporting
  • Discussion Forums
  • Search - without this I think any social platform is dead
They first dog fooded the product by creating their community. I like this -- if you can't convince yourself that it works, then you can't make a case for anyone else. They wanted the community to be self-monitored. So they went ahead and collaboratively create a set of guiding principles for participation on the community. The guiding principles were the indication that the project was ready to unleash on the masses.

What next?

They went ahead and combined the formal and informal elements of the course in one place using the Cornerstone LMS. To do this, they brought in their ACES program into Encompass - this way they were able to make the formal and informal learning elements operate and exist in the same context.

How did they measure success?

They didn't have a clear definition of success, but they definitely knew that it could be valuable. But as they started to run reports they saw the levels of participation. In two weeks they had about 807 page views and a huge number of ratings -- so obviously there was a high level of participation to start with. So they asked themselves:
  • Did they need to play a more active role in the community? Community Management, listen, listen!
  • How could they build additional informal learning activities?
    • They started a blog asking people what they were learning. People started to respond and that set the snowball rolling.
    • They started guiding activities such as putting up a video and then generating an activity from it.
  • How could they leverage communication outside the platform to increase usage? They leveraged email to keep people connected into the informal learning platform. People are still bound to email -- you need to wean them off. No need to fight it.
  • How would they define success? Their biggest parameter for success was usage and they started to restructure their platform to tune it to maximise usage. e.g. moving recent posts to the top of the page. The idea for them was to give people an ability to express themselves and as long as people could express themselves enough, they were happy.
The cool thing Lisa mentioned almost at the end was that they conformed their site to being what their users wanted it to be not what just they wanted it to be. I like that.

Key Learnings

  • It's ok to lose control - be flexible
  • Understand your audience - each community is unique (as long as you don't create walled gardens IMO)
  • They feel that program and project based communities can be a good place to start. Yes, as long as they're open and accessible from one single entry point.
  • Don't try to conquer the whole company -- small successes may actually create a bigger snowball. (makes sense -- again, I'll argue the openness)
Lisa, Beth and Wendie are almost a year into this programme. They're going into phase 3 of their ACES program. They're still asking themselves how they can keep the community engaged. They've got their 'alumni' that they still want to keep involved. They're poised to make this one of the standard delivery methods for their programs. They're actively working with business units for additional communities to get involved with this stuff. They are using this as a selling point with new clients and customers. Their customers are always concerned that the people they're hiring are trained well and the innovative approach helps the clients feel convinced that they'll do their stuff well. Yes, I think that's a very easily ignored aspect of innovation in learning.

I like the stuff these ladies are doing. Somethings I have a different take on, but in general, they're on the right track. Good stuff. I'm very sleepy and I know some of my writing may be disjointed - so pardon me for that. I guess late night gives me a bit of an excuse to be off colour.

Elearning Guild Webinar - 101 - Social Media in e-Learning: Ur Doin' It Right

Third webinar for the day. I 'm now attending the Elearning Guild webinar on 'Social Media in e-Learning: Ur Doin' It Right'

The speakers are:

Mark Oehlert, Defense Acquisition University
Koreen Olbrish,Tandem Learning

Here's the guild's intro to the session:

"Organizations looking for ways to capitalize on the potential of social media, and wanting to leverage it for learning, often don't know where to start, or how other companies have successfully incorporated social media for learning.

Participants in this session will learn how companies large and small have integrated social media into their e-Learning initiatives, and how that has changed the way people work and learn. Participants will get great case-study examples of successful social media integrations for learning. They will also gain exposure to the lessons learned from these integrations, and specific instructions on how to get started in their own organizations."

Mark is a well known social media and gaming expert in industry circles and Koreen's blog about virtual worlds, games, simulations and everything about learning 'experiences' is one that I follow regularly. I trust what these people say -- so this session should be worthwhile. Let's see what comes out.

Mark starts off with some stage setting/ intros - well I know you guys! You don't know me, but oh well! And damn, I get logged off! So what social media tools do people use?
  • 54% Twitter
  • 77% Facebook
  • 3% Myspace
  • 22% Delicious
  • 14% Google Wave
  • 14% Flickr
  • 50% Youtube
  • 3% Ning
Ok the webinar is a bit slow right now, but I guess it'll pick up pace soon.

So what are the big ideas?

  • What we would do if we had a blank slate? - We seem to be really wrapped up in legacy issues of restrictions etc. We need to think about the problems we're trying to solve, figure the right solution and then work backwards from there.
  • Correctly estimating the impact of technology - our fascination for technology alone needs to be more pragmatic. So dropping the hype and opening our eyes to the transformative effect of technologies is a good step.
  • We vs Me - What's the dollar value of not letting social media in the organisation?
  • Culture & Change Management: It's not about the technology it's about culture, it's about managing the change. You need to balance the fear, control and trust factors in the entire game.
  • Transmission loss: How will we improve the efficiency of the organisation and also your own learning organisation?
  • Think big. Start small. Move fast. -- Hmm not sure I agree with start small. Ask Andrew Mcafee.

Case Study #1: The Wind Turbine Company

The company wanted to create a performance support network for a dispersed population of turbine techies. So they used Yammer to create a secure network to share information in real-time. Now they save 3-5 million savings in terms of turbines staying up. So they reduced the 'Transmission Loss'. Ah! That's a good case study!

Case Study #2: #Lrnchat

About 26% of the respondents in the survey haven't participated in #lrnchat. Having been someone who kept track of all the #lrnchat tweets because I can't participate that early in the morning, I know #lrnchat can be really useful. I know it's a really, really useful and a persistent communications channel. So at a really low cost, you now have a very powerful community that continuously collaborates usefully.

Case Study #3 Tandem Learning

Tandem - Koreen's company is a small organisation that needed to share and collaborate on multiple client projects with nationally dispersed employees. So they use multiple social media tools, Base Camp, Yammer, etc to allow visibility and access to relevant data and allow real-time client-focussed updates.

Now their projects are trackable anywhere, anytime! They're able to share client requirements in real-time as well. Koreen, you should try Mingle! I'll be happy to give you a tour and you'll never go back to Basecamp. Koreen also mentions Rypple as a way to get feedback from your peers. I'm going to look this up - thanks Koreen! Someone mentioned this amazing visualisation tool for Twitter. Here's Mark's map from the tool.

Case Study #4 Defense Acquisition University

Mark's organisation - more than 10,000 people! So this thing does scale, as you can see. So the DAU is a large corporate university within Department of Defense. They needed to know new channels to reach their customer base and internal faculty. They have wikis, blogs, Yammer and several other platforms internally.

As a consequence, internal micro blogging capability is being used by almost half of the staff/ faculty with no outreach at all. Content owners are bloggin and the community contributes to the knowledge base. The cool thing with tools like Yammer is that since people can use it for free you can go ahead and make the business case when it gains momentum. That's where tools like Social Text and win because they have a free, low entry barrier start. I now understand the point about starting small - Mark isn't talking about creating walled gardens. He's talking about starting with no ego and no huge fanfare.

Case Study #5 Boston College

Boston College is a traditional resident college was being pushed by student expectations to incorporate more 2.0 tools into the classroom experience to make things more engaging. They've deployed an enterprise class social media suite (SocialText!) and as an outcome they now have relevant news feeds, have the ability to extend classroom experiences beyond the class and engage with additional writing and learning experiences. The cool thing with social media is that the experience of education never has to stop. People can maintain connection with their universities, their classmates, future students, faculty even after their university experience is long over. The possibilities from here are immense. People can learn from each other by critiquing, helping each other.

I love these case studies -- we haven't quantified the value of this stuff too much, but this is great starting evidence for CLO's to sit up and take notice. Good stuff guys!

So the starting line is - Think big, start small, move fast. Mark I now understand. We need to get over the human issues - the IT issues are easier to solve. I agree - good webinar.

LSG Webinar - Social learning on a shoe string

Back to my webinar reporting business for this afternoon. This Learning and Skills Group webinar is by Hanif Sazen of Saffron Interactive. BTW, for those who're interested, Saffron Interactive write a very good blog here. I have completely gotten hooked to social and collaborative learning though I think we need to be careful with the 'social' word. Anyways, Hanif's talk is about how we can create our own social learning platform 'without falling on our faces or breaking the bank'.

While I don't have to go through the rigmarole of doing this stuff at ThoughtWorks - we already have a pretty robust social learning infrastructure; I can imagine today's webinar should be very useful for most L&D professionals.

So with this, I'll begin my live blogged notes to cover a session that promises to be really useful and timely for the kind of world we've stepped into as learning professionals.

The big question -- why should we be looking at Social Learning today?

Lots of answers to this one:
  • 70% of learning is informal
  • It's power and impact
  • Relevant and contextualised to work
  • People learn from each other
  • It ties to modern technology and makes learning more effectivel
  • We're in an increasingly mobile world
  • Lot's of pressure to do things quickly
  • Generational change in the workplace
  • Growth of social media in recent years
I can't type as fast as people are going.

When facing information overload, making it impossible to keep up -- social learning can help manage the load.

We're being driven to be more agile and add value -- this means we need to work smart.

We are increasingly mobile - yet we need to collaborate.

Right you are, Hanif!

So, what is social learning?

Very simply put, it's about learning from each other -- and we do this already. The workplace is the best place to learn because learning is contextualised to your current situation. Practitioners make the best teachers, because they know the 'real' ways to get things done. As someone's already said, "Information out of context, trumps instruction out of context."

On a shoestring, though?

Most of our tools are new, most models are new, most organisations are very early on in their journey so from that perspective we need to manage the risk of these projects. So the shoestring comes in so that you can put something up without risking in everything based on industry buzz.

There are heaps of free tools:
We could go on with the list.

Saffron's take on Social Learning

Hanif showed us what they've come up with using Elgg, at Saffron. Seems to have heaps of features:
  • User Profiles - to understand who does what and what are they good at?
  • Blogs
  • Social Bookmarks - for generating collective wisdom (ala delicious)
  • File sharing
  • Social Networks
  • Groups - great for communities of practice
Of course, this can all seem very basic, but then Hanig showed us the Wiley faculty network, which does a heap of custom stuff like finding mentors, attending workshops/ classes and all that a publisher that Wiley looks for. Very interesting stuff!

Swatch is another great example of using Elgg to create something really usable, pretty and successful. Their site is a nice way to connect with the external world. Wow! I knew Elgg was great, but not this great!

For the umpteenth time in the day another of my favourite tools gets mentioned - Yammer. We're using Yammer quite successfully and at my team, we've done away with standups because of Yammer and we use this greatly for knowledge sharing.

Something Hanif brought up was around using external tools like Linkedin to build your company network using group features. I think this is something we should do more and more. The most important thing to remember is that these tools are mobile friendly -- so the more we use these, the more we can help people learn in the short time spaces they have. This is obviously arguable given learning requires commitment. That said, doing assessments, showing video, status updates, etc can happen using mobiles. Why make it difficult -- social media should make our life easy!

Building Vibrant Communities

According to Hanif, the key to doing this is around 6 major points:
  • Address a business need - if you cant articulate this, it's perhaps not worth it!
  • Consider the organisational culture - not every culture can sustain things like this with existing culture. How can you help make collaboration a part of your culture? What evangelism and nurturing will your communities need?
  • Use the term 'knowledge media' not 'social media' - Andrew Mcafee's said this too!
  • Involve stakeholders
  • Find some champions and 'just do it'
  • Measure and learn - everyone's learning and you need to adapt quickly with what works and discard what doesn't work at the right speed.
We're obviously driving towards some great benefits:
  • Research and agility -- we find solutions faster, we learn faster
  • Talent Management - you can soon start to recognise your best people and spend less time on archaic performance management processes
  • Driver for creativity -- people learn from each other, so they are likely to build on each other's ideas and raise the innovation quotient of the company.
Hanif's tips for success:
  • Start on a shoestring
  • Find and communicate the business need and benefits
  • Use it as part of a blend -- you don't want to put all your eggs in the social learning basket. That may just not provide the breadth your audience needs. There's a place for fomal learning, elearning, virtual classrooms and everything else.
Good stuff from Hanif in general - mostly a social learning primer, but definitely an hour well spent especially seeing everyone else's views about this stuff. I feel validated in some way for thinking the way I think.

LSG Webinar - Emerging learning tools you can't afford to miss

This afternoon, I'm attending a Learning and Skills Group webinar by Julie Wedgwood - where she plans to share with us an amazing new suite of tools that has caught her imagination, demonstrating how they work and why she's been using them.

I've never been to any of Julie's past events but given how well known she seems to be in the UK's elearning community, I'm quite keen to hear what she says.

These are live blogged notes from the event and as always I'll do my best to capture the proceedings with some of my views thrown in for equal measure! Julie promises to focus on tools that'll help us with our changing roles as trainers - being facilitators, graphic artists, animators, designers, and every new aspect of our jobs.

So here's a quick list of the tools that Julie showcased today.

A Quick Fix for Amateur Photos

A good picture is worth a thousand words and given how cool digital photography is turning out to be, it's more an more available - though very few of us are good photographers. So how do you make your photos look better on slides, elearning, etc. So what tool did Julie show? One of my current favourites - Poladroid. It's a great tool to create vintage style polaroid pictures. You will see some of these on my blog posts and demo elearning modules. Mywebface and Zwinky combined with Poladroid, can be a potent combination. Polaroids - don't have to be 'posh' as Julie says -- they just need to be real.
A great new tool Julies showed was Shape Collage, which can just convert a bunch of pictures you own into a collage of the shape of your choice. And the output looks just great.

Message Posters

Who doesn't like to do posters -- but if you're like me then you perhaps suck at it. So if you want to create a motivational poster, Big Huge Labs has an online app called Motivator. And then again, the output may not blow you away, but I guess the fact that you can make things really quick makes it very useful for a lot of people.

Colour scheme tools

Big Huge Labs has a colour schemer too, but then I like Kuler much better and on my desktop I like Color Schemer studio and Pixie. Obviously colour coordination lends a huge amount of professionalism to your presentation. I've written about this on my recent blogpost as well, so this is handy advice.

Screen Annotation Tools

Julie demonstrated this screen annotation tool called Mouse Shade -- on the Mac I use Omni Dazzle. They're great to annotate the screen when recording screencasts or doing application training or even doing some special effects during presentations. They're definitely two great tools that you should have depending on which platform you're on.

Free Tools for Accessibility

Some tools that I couldn't keep track of especially amongst Julie's accessiblilty tools list:
  • Rapid Set
  • Spr-Ort
  • Orato
  • Sonar
  • Big and Chunky Mouse Pointers
  • Mousekeeter

Finding Tunes to play in Elearning or Training

Julie showed a great site called Television Tunes for you to find and use the kind of tune that you want for training and to use in your courses. You should get a broadcast license to use them for yourself. You can get a broadcast license by asking PRS for Music. It's a great way to get social culture into the classroom, help people relax and takes the edge off some of your difficult subjects. Please check the legal statement before you use these PLEASE!

Creating Animation Sequences

I'm sure what I'll see here: another of my favourite free tools - Xtranormal. Julie, you've won my heart by promoting my latest favourite tool.I recently put up a demo with this on a previous blogpost.

Creating Simple Props

Often you'll need props to create the right kind of environment in training - for example a 'Britain's got talent' style buzzer maybe! Julie told a very interesting story of how she used this kind of a prop -- you should make Julie tell the story. I'll be no good with it. You can get your own stuff from I want one of those. Very very interesting!

Julie's webinar was so fast paced, that I got a lot out of this session. Some of the other tools I love are:
If you want to get in touch with Julie follow her on Twitter or over email.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

TrainingMag Webinar - How to Create No Lecture Webinars

This evening I attended a TrainingMag Network  webinar by Ray Jiminez - Chief Architect at Vignettes Learning. Ray was addressing the topic of creating 'Lecture free Webinars'. Webinars are great. They save time and accelerate learning.

However, boring lectures kill webinars. Most webinars are extensions of talking heads clicking their PowerPoints to death. No wonder many learners multi-task and drop out.

Ray's aim was to cover methods to make webinars really engaging for their participants. The session page promised to cover a whole bunch of things including but not limited to:
  • How to avoid the trainer "diarrhea of the mouth disease"
  • How to prepare your lessons to focus on learner actions
  • What types of pre-webinar and post-webinar activities must take place
  • Designing your lessons without lecturing but instead letting learners discover
  • How to ask questions that help learners discover answers
  • Which exercises deliver learning experiences instead of lectures
These are live blogged notes from what I expect to be a really interesting session -- I hope to make the most of my late night participation.

With over 300 participants this has started to be as interactive as a webinar can get. Ray promised not to make us hear him preach. Most people want to be interactive webinar leaders because that helps them connect with their audience better. Hence the topic of no-lecture webinars makes sense, huh!

Is it really possible though? The funny part is that the folks came up with hundreds of ideas to make this happen within the space of a few minutes! Here are the initial survey results.

With all that intelligence set aside, webinars still create:
  • Interactive Dreaming
  • Interactive Multi-tasking
  • Interactive Drooling
  • Interactive Puking (huh?)
They're all interactive but unfortunately they're bored, uninterested, unattentive and unengaged.

Introducing Medusa

The lecture in webinars is 'Medusa'. It's like an answer looking for a question, says Ray. Well that's intriguing to me -- it seems like people don't know how to ask questions. And a lot of people don't want to ask questions as webinar leaders. We create answers but we don't seem to investigate the state of pain that the answer addresses. We don't think of the audience's objectives for our presentation when we frame our spiel.

Unless you connect with the person's context, there's no connection and as a consequence there's little learning. So questions are at the key of interactivity -- if we think through the questions that drive to our answers we sow the first seeds of interactivity.

What's effective interactivity?

The good medusa - questions help your audience relate to, interpret and apply your answers. So instead of just saying what we want to say - how about thinking through the real life context of your learners? How about placing them in a real life context and give them a scenario to deal with? Or how about you have them discover the answers by just leading them using your directed questions. Ray used a really nice example of a Times Square bomb situation to illustrate the value of questions to lead people to the eventual knowledge you want to share. Good tips, but I'm still waiting for what I don't know yet. Ray's now showing us a similar example from an Ethics and Leadership scenario.

Why Stories/Scenarios though?

I'm a big fan of this approach, because it's real life, it tugs at people's emotions, and it's contextualised to people's situation. There's a good reason that Donald Trump's 'You're fired!' statement is so popular. It generates interest, it's real, its exciting.

Fortunately, there's heaps of tools -- polls, chat, whiteboards, breakout rooms etc. But what's the objective? In my opinion -- the objective is to get people to change their performance in the workplace. So all of the tools are fine -- but if the exercises don't link the context to the content, they don't make any sense at all. What makes sense is when these tools create the context similar to the work context of your learners.

How do deal with the lecture in Medusa?

Focus on questions to relate, apply and interpret the answers that you're providing in your webinar. So Ray's point was generally around a few key ideas:
  • Study the context of your audience.
  • Think of why what you'll say will even matter to your audience.
  • How can you create your webinars such that they ask questions of your audience?
  • How can you structure these questions so they mirror your audience's work context?
  • How can you sequence these questions so they automatically lead your audience to the answers you're providing?
I think that's pretty useful advice for anyone that teaches in any context.

Good stuff -- I thought it was kinda elementary, but for one hour of my time to hear ideas from 350 people, it was more than worth my time. I strongly recommend the TrainingMag Network webinars to anyone in the L&D profession. Thanks Gary and thanks Ray!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Here are 7 Thoughts for you to Whip your Slides into Shape

Who doesn't want their slides to look beautiful? I bet each time you've seen a professional looking presentation, you've wished deep within that your presentations look just as good. In my last three blogposts on the topic of presentations, I covered:
Till now, I've focused my articles primarily on the act of planning your presentation. The majority of the questions I seem to get however, are around the aesthetics of presentations. Now let me say this -- beauty is important. Regardless of what anyone may say, a beautiful presentation creates an inviting package for your well thought out story. Think about it -- why do people get drawn to Macs? Why do the videos with the most attractive thumbnails usually get the most hits? Why do products with the most attractive packaging get great sales? Why do we usually notice the well designed billboards? Yes, beyond a point you need substance to keep you hooked -- but the point I want to make is that presentation matters and beauty matters. I could go on, but with this I rest my case about the value of beautiful slideware.

Now before I go further, I want to state the corollary to my above point. No amount of beautification can make a bad concept look good. I find beautifying a poor story to be the equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig. So please, please, please think through your story before you slam slides together. With that said, let me go through some simple tips that should help you whip your slides into shape.

Think AIDA when Sequencing your Visuals

The AIDA lesson is one that most marketeers and advertising professionals seem to swear by. Very simply put, the idea is to follow a four step process to selling as you can see above. When designing your presentation, think of your visuals as a sequence of AIDA chunks. To capture attention try some of techniques here. Follow up with a compelling, visual description of how your concept can help solve your audience's problem, make their life easier or help them achieve what they want to achieve. To wrap things up, provide your audience an undeniable reason to believe you. And then do what good advertisements do -- let your audience know what to do next. Remember how they say, "Rush to your nearest ____ store!". Try the same thing with your presentations. End each AIDA sequence with a strong visual that helps your audience remember what they need to do to follow your wonderful advice. Wrap up your sale by reiterating actions from each of your AIDAs.

Think 'integrated visual' NOT 'collection of elements'

Very often the boardroom style of presentations tends towards being slideuments. I find most presentations to be a collection of elements dropped onto slides. As a consequence, your slides start to look less like attention grabbing billboards and more like collages from your hostel dorm. I've written an article about this earlier - it should help you create integrated visuals and avoid the amateurish collage look. A few tips that'll help you design your slides effectively.
  • Think of your slide as an image not an information radiator.
  • Try to convey no more than one concept per slide - that'll help further to make your slide look like an image.
  • Make objects blend into their background - think of how different elements play with each other. What's the connection? What's the purpose?
  • Unless there's a very good reason, don't arbitrarily plonk a picture onto your slide, just for decoration. If anything, it's likely to detract from your key message.

Use 'Full Bleed' Images

Going with the previous tip about creating integrated visuals, one of the easy ways to do this is to use full bleed images. Instead of using a low resolution image or a scaled down high resolution image, consider using a full screen image. There are a couple of advantages to this:
  1. You usually leave no ambiguity about where you're leading the eye.
  2. You force yourself to remove excess text and provide only headlines on your slide.
(2) is especially important because this helps you avoid slideuments. As you can see above, I've provided an example of a slide which has a scaled down image and a lot of text. On the right, I've reworked the same slide to include a full bleed version of the image with just a headline. The remaining text can go into the notes section of the slide - so you don't miss your speaking cues.

Bonus Tip: When you compose your full bleed images, try bleeding part of your image 'off' the screen. This creates an illusion of large size and generates a lot of visual interest as well -- after all, it's interesting to imagine what's not on screen. Here's an example for you.

Lead the Eye

Call me a control freak if you will - but I'm not shy of saying this.
"Good visual design is when you can control where the eye is looking."

Designers will tell you about several ways to lead the eye, but here are a few simple ideas you can use:
  • If your slide has people on it, then the eye usually looks at the people first. Then the eye looks at whatever the people are looking at. So, always ensure that your people are not looking out of the slide because then you know what's likely to happen.
  • People notice things that are different. So use contrast to highlight what you want people to look at. Here are some ideas:
    • On graphs and charts, highlight the key statistic in a contrasting colour.
    • On complex images blur out or decolour the parts you're not talking about, focussing only on the elements you're explaining. This is what I call 'de-noising' your image.
    • Size is a great indication of contrast. Increase the size of elements that you wish to focus on -- this will create contrast to lead the audience's eye.
  • Follow the rule of thirds. Here's an excellent article about composing images using this rule. While the domain is photography, the advice is equally valid for presentations. Take a look at the example above as well.

Appreciate Typography

Font Conference from Andy Shaw on Vimeo.

Font's have personalities of their own and I daresay, the wrong font could convey an entirely unintended personality for your presentation. I find it surprising how we neglect typography in our presentations when it could easily play a starring role. Take a look at this video from Brian Hoff (courtesy Tom Kuhlmann). You'll notice that at many points during his effort, Brian was very close to what he wanted, but he kept going to get perfection. In the end the result speaks for the effort. You however can go with a few simple tips to start with.

The first thing you need to know is the difference between Serif fonts (Times New Roman/ Baskerville) and Sans-serif fonts (Helvetica/ Arial/ Gill Sans). In general serif fonts play well in documents with a lot of text -- you'll see a lot of these in newspapers and well written reports. These fonts however don't play very well on billboards and screen presentations, particularly because these mediums don't capture the detail that well. So if you're creating slides, your best bet are your sans-serif fonts. Now there's obviously some debate about this -- all I'll say is that once you select a font, ensure that you pick sizes that even the last row can read.

A few other tips to help you use type effectively on presentations:
  • Don't use fonts from more than two families on one slide.
  • Use handwritten fonts to simulate labeling on images or to convey informality.
  • Use comic fonts to simulate conversation - particularly on comic bubbles.
  • Avoid artsy and grafitti fonts unless you're creatng a visual that merits their use.

Celebrate the Power of Whitespace

Just because there is space on the slide, doesn't mean that you need to fill it all. The above picture on from Garrey Reynolds, illustrates the Japanese principle of 'hara-hachi-bu' which simply means 'eat until you're only 80% full'. Originally a rule to healthy living, Garr extends this rule to presentations and talks about using only 80% of your slidespace. There's good reason for this. The effective use of whitespace helps lead the eye towards the elements you've deliberately positioned on the slide. I can't be more eloquent than Garr about this principle, so here's an excerpt from his book Presentation Zen Design.

"Contrast is indeed fundamental to good design, and without whitespace, good contrast cannot be achieved. The leading cause of the lack of contrast is clutter. Too many layers of visual complication make contrast weak, even if it exists. White space allows for real differences to be created, emphasized and noticed. Space allows for elements -- such as text, images and lines -- to breathe. Just like life itself, it is this invisible breath that sustains and empowers. In this sense then, we can say that without space you are dead. Embrace empty space."

So ensure that you leave enough space for your design to breathe and resist the temptation to clutter the slide with all you have. Try splitting concepts across slides if you notice clutter - remember extra slides don't cost any money!

Understand Color Schemes

I have to confess that I suck at understanding colour combinations. So I rely on software to help me create meaningful color schemes for my presentations. All of us like to see well coordinated colours and as they say, "If you have never seen anyone coordinate their clothes badly, then you are probably the one who chooses bad color schemes for your outfits!" On that cheeky note, let me tell you what I do to coordinate colours for my presentation. I use a colour schemer to help me generate a theme for my presentations. As you'll notice from the above image, I've taken a representative picture of my topic and used that to generate a colour scheme that gives me a pallette to play with. Once I have this pallette, I can play around with shades and tints as long as I keep the hues consistent. My favourite color schemer these days is Kuler (above). Garrey Reynolds has written an excellent article about using Kuler, so I'm going to shut up for a change.

Before I give up though, I want to point you to some excellent colour schemes that already exist in Office 2007. You can find them on your design menu and I really like the work Microsoft has done on them to actually give you some ready to use themes for your presentations.
So that temporarily brings me to the end of my recent series of posts on presentation skills. I'd love to know what you thought of them. Did you find them useful? Or did you find them too elementary? Would you like more such blogposts in the future? Your feedback will help me tune the content of this blog to be more useful for you. So let me know what you think by adding to the comments section of this blogpost. Next week, I'll be back to commenting about the changing role of trainers in the post-modern workplace. And btw, I know that some presentations just seem 'beyond us'. As I've said earlier, all you need is a bit of inspiration - I recently found this amazing site that allows you to download excellent presentations to help you learn from some of the best designers around the world.
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