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 The presence of a social learning platform doesn't mean the LMS is obsolete; the presence of elearning doesn't mean training stops forever and virtual worlds don't mean that people stop meeting each other forever.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.


Joe Deegan said...

Thanks for the great post. I think the role of "Generalist" in corporate training is highly under valued. I agree that there is no one tool perfect for the job and it takes a generalist who has knowledge of all areas to evaluate which format will be most effective. I saw the job title "Learning Solutions Architect" somewhere and I think this is what we need to see more of.

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