Monday, August 30, 2010

Think Workscapes, not Training

A few days back I watched a pretty awesome video by Nick Shackleton Jones about the Affective Context Model. Nick told a great story about the importance of the affective context - the emotional metadata that allows us to connect and remember various pieces of information. Nick's also written a splendid article about this very topic for those who want more detail. Nick's video was a great illustration of why push-type learning tends to be ineffective and why despite our best efforts, learning is never effective unless an individual feels a strong, apparent need for it. While a huge portion of our training budgets goes towards creating the content for learning, we seem to ignore that people learn only when they see a strong need. As I've mentioned earlier, context trumps content in the modern L&D world, and as L&D professionals we need to be able to create a work context that allows knowledge workers to learn when they experience a strong desire to do so. As instructional designers, we need to workscape our training programs so they can provide our learners the affective context around which they can pull and retain information themselves.

Last month, Josh Bersin wrote a thought-provoking blog post about how, despite all the advancements in technology and the Gen X/ Y debate aside, the way people learn hasn't really changed. He made some really simple, but astute points:
  1. Mastery (not in Dreyfus terms) means being able to apply knowledge - until someone performs a task themselves, they don't really learn it.
  2. People learn by doing.
  3. The purpose of training and development is to accelerate this process - and yet we don't pay adequate attention to 'workplace learning'. We're still stuck in the classroom paradigm.
  4. Management and leadership drive learning in an organisation. L&D has little control over workplace practices; a true learning organisation learns even beyond the traditional boundaries of L&D and it's the responsibility of the management, leadership and really everyone in the organisation to drive this culture.
I've found some of this thinking extremely motivating in the context of my new found fascination for workscapes. In today's article, I want to share with you my thoughts around why we need to evolve towards full-blown workscapes as against a purely course focussed approach. Hopefully some of my thoughts will resonate with your own and I'd love to hear how you feel about this topic.

Recognising False Elegance
I grew up in this industry doing a lot of standup training. I still do a lot of that. I've done a fair bit of elearning and I've seen and created some great courses and some awful courses. I've grown to believe that we live in an age of false elegance. Hear me out. Some of us have made it almost an art form in the way we engage and entertain people. Our training sessions just flow by and people seem so entertained, happy and involved that it's no wonder they rate our programs highly. In fact we make the experience so pleasant and memorable that they do amazingly well in the post-training assessment as well. Coverage is hardly a problem - we cover 95% of our target audience. Yet, when it comes to retention and eventual transfer of learning to the workplace, most of this amazing learning investment is lost.

Take the story further and we automate our flawed training processes by creating 'engaging elearning'. People love the slot games and tic-tac-toes that we add into our elearning courses. Best things ever! We now train 100% of our people at a third of the cost and quarter the time. In fact, we throw in bonus courses and still save ourselves a lot of money. Guess what, we still can't make a difference to the bottomline. The really effective elearning is where people actually practice real-world tasks, but we have little time for that post our fascination with card games and flashy animations.

This is what I call false elegance. Our solutions look really polished and slick, but under the surface they do precious little. We need better approaches and a renewed focus.

We're Living in Chaos
Dave Snowden's landmark work on the Cynefin model will remind you of your workplace. As it turns out, traditional elearning and training focusses on the 'Simple' domain of Cynefin. There are clear cause and effect relationships and therefore it's easy to determine how you can respond to problems in this domain. Definitely easy stuff to teach. With the fast changing nature of business, only simple, repetitive processes fall under this domain. Most knowledge work falls under the Complex, Complicated and Chaotic domains, where we our answer for causality is a broad, "It depends...". If your job is to train knowledge workers, think of how many times you say those words in a classroom versus giving a clear answer and you'll realise how little of what you teach falls under the Simple domain.

Our obsession with training however has meant that we try to dumb down chaotic problems by trying to break them into several best practice solutions. We then try to find an attractive package for this collection of pseudo-best-practices and push them down the throats of our unsuspecting learners through meaningless games and activities which have no relation to the real world. I'm not surprised people find it difficult to apply classroom learning to their day jobs.

We need On-Demand Solutions
"We have built our education systems on the model of fast food. This is something Jamie Oliver talked about the other day. You know there are two models of quality assurance in catering. One is fast food, where everything is standardised. The other are things like Zagat and Michelin restaurants, where everything is not standardized, they're customized to local circumstances. And we have sold ourselves into a fast food model of education. And it's impoverishing our spirit and our energies as much as fast food is depleting our physical bodies." - Sir Ken Robinson

Have you ever thought of why your employees access Google more than your intranet? Or why new employees seem to use your learning tools more than the grizzly old consultants? It's because on-demand is the real buzzword we should have been thinking of all the time. Information in context, trumps instruction out of context. The power of Google is in being able to provide answers to people's current problems and needs. A new hire doesn't want to look silly in her new job, so she does all she can to get up-to-speed with her new job. She's happy to go through badly crafted materials on your intranet because it answers her emotional need to feel competent. Isn't it ironic then that we focus all our efforts on creating entertaining sessions and pretty elearning when a similar effort to meet people at the point of need could potentially reap greater rewards?

Training seeks to solve tomorrow's problems using yesterday's wisdom. I'm not saying yesterday's wisdom is not valuable - indeed it is. All I'm saying that our work is changing in a way that yesterday's wisdom can only guide decision making for the new problems we'll face tomorrow. Our approach has some fundamental drawbacks, which Tony Driscoll very eloquently describes as the seven scary problems of our status quo. To me, it tries to overcomplicate what could be a very simple solution e.g. connecting a newbie to an experienced coach, or finding her some advice. We need to simplify our approach and move the availability of training and education to the workplace.

We need Diverse Solutions
We're beyond the point where a single solution can solve all performance problems. People learn iteratively and over time and when we look across learning paths for a capability/role, we'll notice that different outcomes need different learning solutions. More importantly, as Sir Ken Robinson says, "It's about customizing to your circumstances, and personalizing education to the people you're actually teaching." So, the model of courses needs to almost give way to learning suites. I remember my colleague Jason Yip saying he attended "Getting to Yes" training that he really benefited from . OTOH, a little Al Gore talk on TED has spurred me to learn so much about the climate crisis eventually leading me and my wife to support movements such as 350. And while learning styles don't really exist, there are two truths about learning:
  1. people have different learning preferences and workflows (not VAK - sorry);
  2. and different topics merit different treatments
The key operative word is 'different' and we need to be able to craft diverse learning solutions to be able to cater to our audience and our organisational capabilities.

Deep Specialisation in Business, Diverse L&D Skills

If whatever I've said until now is true - our age of chaos, the need to bring learning to the workplace, and the need to be diverse; frankly, it's really difficult for a 'generic' L&D consultant to achieve all this, without a strong appreciation of the business. The evolution of the modern L&D professional has to be in the direction of specialising and generalising at the same time. This is a bit of an oxymoron, except that learning professionals need to specialise in their organisation's business and generalise in the L&D space. This makes it easy for us to create contextualised solutions for the business that make absolute sense, as well as pick from a plethora of tools that this age has put at our disposal. Fortunately this isn't impossible - we just need to shift from our 'trainer' mindsets. As we open our mind to the possibilities, we'll realise that:

Our training departments aren't dead - they're reborn. All we need to do, is wake up to the reality of our modern world and revel in the options it has given us today. Workscaping can happen at every level - your next training program, your team, your office, and your entire organisation. The key is to think lean and find the most effective and yet the most timely ways for people to learn in the context of their everyday jobs. That's when we can evolve to being true learning organisations.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section of this post. Don't be bashful, drop in a line or two!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Good Facilitators are Good Servants

As a facilitator, I realise that I'm interested in some of the things that no one really cares about. These things however are the things that make a very silent difference to a group's collaboration and learning experience. For example, I like to come in early in the morning to ensure that a training room is set up in a pleasant clean fashion. When arranging a meeting or a workshop, I like to not just ensure that there are enough stickies, index cards and pens in the room, but also that it's easy for people to pick up one of these tools and participate. When facilitating an open space, I like to ensure that I set up the agenda wall with explicit instructions and a clear indication of venues and time slots.

I like getting the whiteboards clean and keeping the right flipcharts on the wall. When facilitating, I maintain an invisible presence so I can help people out only when they need me but not be a barrier to the decision making or discussion process. Sometimes that means getting a projector in place or bringing in stationery or even picking up trash from a corner. These are boring, mundane tasks which most people may find frivolous and will most often neglect. I guess I am a facilitator because I am happy to be a servant to my group and do this work.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Agile is not...

It was a great week at the Agile 2010 conference and it's very exciting to see that we're almost moving to an age of Agile pragmatism - what some will call post-modern Agile. It's often surprising to me how many misgivings and naivety gets attached to Agile. As Agile gets more and more mainstream, conferences such as Agile 2010 set the ground for the community to converge and discover best of breed approaches. I was fortunate to meet many interesting people and I must say the talks I went to, lived up to a very high standard as well. I've picked up a bunch of reflections from the conference and from those I want to quickly write up what I think Agile is absolutely not and I'd love to hear from you if you think I'm wrong.

Agile is not about wasteful process
We never do things for the sake of doing things. Every piece of work we do needs to seek out some value for the customer. As we get better at doing agile, we need to question ourselves about the value of pretty much everything we do. For example one of the biggest wastes I see are in agile iteration planning meetings (IPMs). In traditional IPMs, the entire team gets together and discusses the stories they'll play in the upcoming iteration. They then re-estimate all the stories, task them out individually and then place the individual tasks on the card wall. This takes ages for the meeting to get over. I question the value of reestimating stories -- if you don't have an estimate for your story then there's no reason why it should be in scope for the iteration. If you do have an estimate for the story and none of the assumptions from the time of the estimate have changed, then why reestimate?

I feel similarly about groups of people tasking out user stories - there's no better example of design by committee than this. Ideally we should be performing activities just-in-time, otherwise we just create inventory on our card walls. IMO the best time to task out a story is when a pair of developers picks it up from the card wall and starts to work on it.

In a similar manner, I feel that teams need to be a lot more efficient about retrospectives. Retrospectives are valuable when the team has meaningful discussions about the problems they're facing. However most retrospectives seem to spend most of their time just brainstorming issues. I can say that for many retrospectives I've facilitated - so I'm not free of blame! A team that really cares about continuous improvement needs to generate retrospective discussion items continuously. In the recent past, I've tried to initiate the brainstorm much ahead of the actual retrospective meeting, so the team has a prioritised list of issues they'd like to discuss. I've used tools like Google Wave (soon to be discontinued) and Google Moderator for this. This makes the retrospective meeting itself hugely productive and we get a lot more done by way of discussion.

These are just examples of waste we create on projects and that we can easily avoid -- I've generally observed that if I feel hugely uncomfortable about an activity or feel it's a 'necessary evil', there's definitely waste somewhere. That's a sign to refactor our team processes.

Agile is not about indiscipline
"Agile is about doing things that make our life simple. That doesn't mean that doing these things itself is easy." - Akash Bhalla, ThoughtWorker

I love that quote by my colleague Akash. We often mistake the fluidity of agile practices for a lack of discipline. As it turns out, Agile requires significantly more discipline and team commitment than traditional projects. The idea is a to practice good habits to an extreme. So just because we have user stories, doesn't mean that we don't track conversations related to them. User stories are a placeholder for conversations, but when those conversations do happen, we need to be diligent in tracking them. The card wall is everyone's responsibility, not just the project managers. It takes great discipline to be responsible for updating the status of your work on the card wall. That's our commitment to our team. In a similar manner Agile teams need to be fanatical about communication. Very often the lack of colocation becomes an excuse for not communicating frequently. Yet there are some of us who ensure that we communicate so frequently and with such a high degree of quality, that distribution almost never seems like an issue. This again needs discipline, because it means that apart from doing the easy part of communicating with our colocated team-mates, we also take the pain to communicate with those at a different site.

Agile is not about a lack of vision
Agile isn't all about eliciting a bunch of stories and delivering them in blind incremental fashion. We talk about delivering stories in the order of highest priority for the customer, but the fact is that a customer is making very poor guesses when looking at a flat list of user stories. Somewhere someone needs to spend time discovering the big picture of the project with the customer. This means seeing the project as a whole while iterating through development by delivering increments that slice through all streams of functionality. This is why Jeff Patton's story mapping approach is so popular for being able to envision your product. It tells the story of the application, though even that is only a step in the larger scheme of product discovery. The user experience of the application can't happen at a story level. Somewhere, someone needs to set the vision for the application's user experience so the entire team has a vision for what they're developing towards. As Jeff says, "Discovery and delivery are inseparable." Stories in isolation deliver no value - they deliver value as part of shippable software and the team needs to have a collective vision of what each shippable increment will do. As the product owner on ThoughtWorks University, this is what I set expectations for with my development team.

Agile shouldn't be about dogma
Last but not the least, agile is not about dogma. As I've expressed earlier agile is all about delivering value to the customer. We often become very dogmatic about practices when the practices really are only a means to an end. For example, I feel that standup meetings don't HAVE TO BE a standard practice on an Agile team, especially across distributed teams. If it's about communicating status, then the team's card wall should do that on a continuous basis. If the card wall isn't up-to-date, then that's a huge smell. If it's about removing blockers, then that should happen continuously as well - that's the reason why we sit at one table, in a team room. If it's about public commitment, then again, that should happen continuously by communicating across the table as often as we can. In a time where we can use tools like Yammer to create a continuous stream of information about a project, I tend to think of standups as ceremony for the sake of ceremony and IMO, an outdated practice.

In a similar manner, we need to overcome the dogma that for effective collaboration, you need colocation. For effective collaboration what you really need is the discipline and the passion to communicate. Folks like Keith Voos and Bill Krebs have provided empirical evidence to prove that we have reached a point where technology can help bridge geographical distances. So, the next time we feel we're being prescriptive with our process, we need to think again and ask ourselves if we're going through a practice only because that's the way we did it in the past. The world is evolving and so should Agile.
I'm no Agile guru. In fact, at the conference I introduced myself as an Agile nobody. I do however have strong views about practicing Agile effectively through my association with ThoughtWorks in India and with ThoughtWorks University. I may be wrong in what I've said on the blog and one way or the other, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Do let me know by dropping a comment or two on this post.

Monday, August 16, 2010

5 Things I've learnt about Training and Presenting from Disney

The last week has been absolutely incredible. The Agile 2010 conference seemed to be heaps bigger and better than last years conference and that seems to be a continuing trend. I was able to deliver a solo workshop on "Making Feedback work in Your Teams", to a packed house. More on that later, but the best feedback comment I got was, "I could listen to Sumeet all day!". Well, whoever wrote that, thank you! I'm sure if you do spend a day listening to me, you'll quickly realise how awful I can sometimes be. I spent a significant amount of time chatting with Martin Fowler - which may seem surprising, given Martin's a fellow ThoughtWorker, but then he's been busy writing his book, so we haven't seen him in India much recently. And I had Esther Derby walk up to me at the end of my talk and call me her ally, which was particularly heartening - thanks Esther for being a valuable participant in my workshop! I'll be particularly delighted if I could someday join forces with Esther and deliver a joint workshop on feedback in Agile teams.

But today's blogpost isn't about the conference and Agile. Today I want to share with you one of the most magical experiences in my life and what I've taken away from it as a learning and development professional. So, some context - the conference was supposed to happen in Nashville, Tennessee. Unfortunately Nashville was hit by one of the biggest floods in many years and that made us move the conference venue to the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort. At first I was a bit disappointed - I'm not one for amusement parks and in fact, I passed up my first opportunity to be at a Disney World in Hong Kong because I don't really care for the rides. "Just another amusement park.", I thought. Then again, I don't like sitting in a hotel when I'm in a new place and if I was going to be in Orlando, I had to go to Disney World if only for the record. Having spent time at the four major Disney World parks, I now have a completely changed opinion. In that itself, I've learnt a lesson to never judge a book by it's cover. The magic of Disney World is something for you to see to believe. If you don't like amusement parks, my words will have little effect on you, but I know that if you do chance upon this amazing place, you'll understand why Disney World is such a popular destination. Each day that I visited the place, I felt a strange heart warming happiness - unlike anything I've ever felt before. I felt like a child once again and yet I didn't find anything childish. There were important lessons for parents, children, professionals - in fact, I kept relating the way Disney does their business with the way we should train and present. Today, I want to share with you what I've learnt about my trade from these dream merchants.

Keep things Simple
"I am interested in entertaining people, in bringing pleasure, particularly laughter, to others, rather than being concerned with 'expressing' myself with obscure creative impressions." - Walt Disney
Disney movies maybe an elaborate affair in production, but for the audience, they're incredibly simple stories and morals to digest. If you think of any movie, you'll realise that the storyline revolves around a simple moral. Finding Nemo is about parents letting their children take chances and for children to realise why their parents care. Tinkerbell teaches you to believe in yourself. Toy Story and Up are about friendship, loyalty and the spirit of adventure. There's not a tale in the Disney cabinet that takes effort to understand. I love this, because the simplicity of Disney movies make them memorable for not just youngsters, but also grown ups.

It's a lesson for trainers and presenters - simplicity takes effort. Simplicity is not equivalent to being simplistic. It takes great creativity to powerfully express an idea and yet make it easy to understand. I have never forgotten how Crush the turtle from Finding Nemo says to Marlin, "You never really know. But when they know, you'll know. You know?". I'm not a parent yet, but that's a great parenting lesson right there - it comes halfway through the movie after a significant amount of storytelling. The key is that Disney took the pains to tell a story that would make that message stick. And stick it has. When we do our presentations and training, what's our simple message that will always stick through? It's food for thought, isn't it?

Set a Theme

"We like to have a point of view in our stories, not an obvious moral, but a worthwhile theme. ... All we are trying to do is give the public good entertainment. That is all they want." - Walt Disney
Disney World's success is in being the world's first theme park. It's not just an amusement park with rides, it tells a story. So while Magic Kingdom is about making dreams come true, Animal Kingdom is about celebrating our planets biodiversity. If Hollywood studios is about celebrating backstage action from our favourite movies, Epcot is about education, science and innovation. Every corner of these parks, stays true to it's theme. Steve Jobs, one the best presenters of our era, does this with uncanny predictability. For example when he keynoted Macworld 2008 to announce the Macbook Air, he started off with the theme, "There's clearly something in the air today." To this day, it remains one of his most memorable keynotes in the way he introduced his latest family of notebooks.

Themes allow our brains to relate items of information to each other. Our brain stores related information in contiguous areas, firing more neurons which eventually leads to better retention. Dr John Medina's book on Brain Rules is a fantastic text on how our brain works and even he says, "Our brain pays attention to patterns." So create that pattern by setting your theme and watch your audience sink into the experience.

Entertain before you Educate

"Your goal is to entertain, not only inform. The funnier you are, the more people will know you're smart because it takes great intelligence to be funny." - Guy Kawasaki
I spent a lot of my time in Epcot, Disney's educational park. I was particularly amazed at how Disney has gone to great lengths trying to make education fun. I wish I'd experienced this as a kid - I would have taken a stronger interest in science. Each ride was not just fun, but it was memorable. On Mission Space, I learnt how astronauts have to train to go on outer space missions. On Soarin I learnt about California and it's beautiful landscapes. On Living with the Land, I learnt how new ways of making agriculture more productive. On Test Track, I learnt how car manufacturers test their vehicles. On each of these rides, I learnt a little bit but had heaps more fun. Our brains are conditioned to remember interesting events. To create strong memories, we need an affective context. Disney creates an affective context on each of their rides and shows and I think if I can find use for some of the things I've learnt, I'm unlikely to forget these experiences.

As Dr Medina says, "The brain doesn't pay attention to boring things, and I'm as sick of boring presentations as you are." That statement is quite conclusive in that we need to do more to make our topics interesting and fun for our audience. Hiding behind the excuse that a topic is dry isn't enough anymore; in fact, it's a waste of time. If we care about our topics enough, we need to find ways to make them interesting. Sometimes it's not easy and we need inspiration. Hans Rosling's fun talk on an incredibly dry topic, is testimony that this is possible.

Create an Immersive Experience
"Until a character becomes a personality it cannot be believed. Without personality, the character may do funny or interesting things, but unless people are able to identify themselves with the character, its actions will seem unreal. And without personality, a story cannot ring true to the audience." - Walt Disney
One of the key things I noticed with the Disney World experience is how committed the entire crew is to ensuring that you're totally immersed in the experience. When you enter the haunted mansion, it's not your ride that begins, your attendant emerges saying, "Your time has come." When I got onto the Kilimanjaro Safaris, it wasn't about getting onto a jeep - it was about going on a two week trip and keeping your eyes out for poachers. The attention to detail is so minute that when you take the train from Rafiki's planet watch, you don't go to the Africa exhibit, your attendant sees you off to Harambe village in Africa. The Asian exhibit has moisture affected walls just as you'll see in India; a dhobi ghat with clothes strewn across the steps just as you'll see at many places in our country. All the Disney characters stay true to their mannerisms, every moment of the day. For long everything felt so real that I believed I was walking through a real life Disney movie!

The immersive experience creates hugely memorable experiences. The race to find the poachers, the quest for the Iguanadon before asteroid impact on earth, the extreme g-forces when our rocket took off from the space station, have created a huge impression on me, which I'm unlikely to forget. This is a crucial lesson for trainers in particular - we learn lessons where we're kinesthetically part of an experience. As Nick Shackleton-Jones often mentions - it's ridiculous to think about learning as just knowledge transfer. The trainer of the future, inspires and involves learners in an experience of co-creation through storytelling, scenarios and simulations. Our approach with ThoughtWorks University has been a step in this direction.

Performance Counts

"Fantasy, if it's really convincing, can't become dated, for the simple reason that it represents a flight into a dimension that lies beyond the reach of time." - Walt Disney
At Disney World, the show takes precedence over everything else. Perfectionism is the name of the game and you'll notice that they've gotten so good with their shows that they know how to run them without fail, each time. They don't put a step wrong, whether it's Donald's walk, Mickey's wave, the fireworks at Magic Kingdom or the Jammin' Jungle Parade. It appears they've practiced so hard that to improvise is never a chore. The flawlessness of execution is something for you to see, to believe me. The result is a perfect show that'll ring in your memory for years to come. As practicing experts, we're in a similar situation when we teach or present. We can choose to go out there and play it by ear, or do our audience a favour and practice diligently. There's heaps we can learn from the art of public performance, and we owe it to our audience to give them the most engaging, interesting and entertaining learning experience possible. The thought about performance also reminds me that Disney doesn't overdo live performances. If there's something that could be a recording, then they just leave it that way. For example the briefings for the rides - they seem live, but they're not! This is yet another lesson for us - never do a live demo if it doesn't add significant value. It's a recipe for disaster, creating an additional point of failure for your presentation or workshop. This is not to say you shouldn't do anything live. You just need to be pragmatic about what's valuable and what's not.
It's tough to write all about my Disney experience in words. Call me shallow, corny or cheesy - there are 17 million others like me in this world! I loved being at Disney and learning about Walt has given me heaps of inspiration for the next few years. I guess it should suffice to say that I'm almost a new, refreshed person after my time at the parks.

On a sidenote, please drop in a comment to let me know how you found today's article. If you're in Bangalore, do catch me for a coffee and I'll show you some of the pictures from my visits to Disney. I'm in Chicago as I write this post, and I'm missing the place already. I could stay there forever!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Save 76% - Joys and Pitfalls of using Virtual Worlds for Remote Teams

Travel budgets are under pressure. Traditional 2d collaboration tools help, but may not engage our minds or convey as much information as 3d virtual worlds. Many companies, universities, and government bodies are using virtual worlds for collaboration. But what are the pitfalls? Bill Krebs or "Agile Bill" and Keith Voos spent some time at Agile 2010 delivering one of the coolest talks on virtual worlds. His introduction slides are horrible (I'm sorry), but I'm a big fan of Learning in 3D so Distributed Agile in Virtual Worlds really does seem like the thing to do!

We're all global - everyone has someone with a colleague in a different timezone or different country. Relationships drive productivity - that's what Agile development about. Teleconferencing is a thing of the past - out of sight, out of mind and it gets terribly unfair when some people are face to face and others are remote. Webcams are ok, but a noisy medium because of all the stuff going on in the background. Global team face travel budget slashes and while we love face to face, we need to find better ways of communicating when we're not face to face.

The (virtual) office of 2015 will have:
  • spatial audio (so you know when someone's speaking from your left or right);
  • a sense of proximity (so you can feel people sitting close to you);
  • shared interactive objects (which you can program);
  • and a sense of presence with your team mates which is invaluable.
Again, this is NOT better than face to face -- but this is definitely the best substitute. I get upset hearing, "Oh, but nothing beats face to face.". Yeah that's true, but do we sit on our haunches when we don't have face to face?

Saving Money
Bill showed some interesting metrics. He ran an estimated cost for a face to face conference and the cost differences with the virtual world were quite phenomenal. As against 60k for the face to face conference, the virtual conference cost just about $8.5k. Yes, there's some starting trouble, but apparently once you get used to it, it's quite a lot of fun for people who get to know this thing. The big thing for me is how we save paper, reduce our carbon footprint. There are tradeoffs, no doubt - but here's a way to collaborate often without the headache of costs, travel, time lost to travel, labor, food, etc.

Some case studies:
  • State Farm Insurance - saved over $1 million by using virtual worlds
  • Agile Dimensions - Saved 76% by using virtual worlds.
  • Univ of Washington - Demonstrated this technology to the White House!
Problems with Other Approches
The problem with webinars, despite the fact that I love them, is that it doesn't create virtual presence. It encourages multi-tasking and isn't a medium supportive to total immersion. There's some information loss from face to face. Bill believes that we're close to 85% of face to face effectiveness with virtual worlds. Keith is a lot more bullish than that - he thinks we don't lose much. Our virtual world participant from Pacific time, Pamela, says we'll miss the smell, but there are things like highlighting, etc. which improve communication in some way. I'm still a bit sceptical of those who believe that they can 'train with slides' in these environments. That is just crazy - if you have to facilitate in a virtual world, then it needs to use co-creation capabilities to set up activities that are far more intense than face to face.

You can keep as many big visible charts as you'd like on your virtual world walls. People can collaborate on documents and spreadsheets in realtime from within the world and the technology's getting better each day.

How does Agile relate to Virtual Worlds?
I liked examples that Bill showed on how to Estimate in 3D. He showed their University of Washington course with their visual kanban boards and work in progress within the world. He also showed us the Agile Factory where it was interesting to see 'Team Feet', a way to do planning poker in 3D environments.

The technology has still to cross the chasm, but we need to persist with it to get better and be where we need to be in 2015. It's a bit like Agile - new now and a silent revolution, but will be the norm in time to come.

Experiences at State Farm Insurance
State Farm is using Teleplace since October 2009. They've experimented with multiple environments in recent years. They finished their project 9 months earlier than they'd planned, which sounds very very cool. Couple of pitfalls:
  • Second Life is a social tool, so be careful in how you introduce it in the enterprise.
  • Develop the right code of conduct in the world.
  • Involve your legal team to know about ownership of information, and other issues.
State Farm now uses Teleplace for their Agile training and coaching. They have a separate community for this initiative to provide ongoing support to the organisation. Their projects have dispersed teams, offshore communication needs and are highly collaborative through their virtual worlds. Keith mentioned that his relationships with his teams have become so strong that despite not being face to face he's such great friends with his offshore counterparts that they've invited him to their weddings. He's seen performance improvements in leaps in bounds where developers who were about to be thrown off the team have turned a corner given the huge leap in collaboration abilities.

There were lots of testimonials Keith showed from his experience - all good experiences. You can see the testimonials and the pros and cons on the slide-deck above.

There are some pitfalls to the approach, though the benefits are immense:
  • Bandwidth.
  • Initial learning curve with collaborating this way.
  • Graphics cards, because some netbooks don't just have the capability for this stuff.
  • Of course, there's the usual issues with Firewalls.

You can contact Agile Dimensions for help with this stuff. Looks like they have a lot of experience with this.

Monday, August 09, 2010

ThoughtWorks University - The Story of our Success

"TWU is the only place where you're happy to fail - an awesome program meant to prepare a person for challenges ahead." - - Student Quote

A testimonial like that from a student, makes my day. Over the last few months you've heard me make references to the new avatar of ThoughtWorks University (TWU) - our graduate training program. If you were ever to walk into a ThoughtWorks University term in full flow, it will look nothing like a training program you've seen. People working at dining table like set ups. Laptops and pairing monitors all around, a client who doesn't let up, index carded walls tracking progress for the project, and a team completely abuzz with activity. You'll feel like you've walked onto a proper software delivery project. That's been our motto for version 2.0 of TWU - work is learning, learning is work. I'm ecstatic to share with you how we've workscaped this training program, to help fresh graduates learn the ropes of technology consulting by being in the thick of real action. But before that, some context!

The History
"An all round learning experience from people with very unique and distinctive skill sets. An unforgettable 6 week experience!" - Student Quote

TWU is something most ThoughtWorkers are extremely proud of. An incredibly successful program, Kraig Parkinson started it in 2005 when we called it the Global Boot Camp. Every grad that we hired all across the world had the opportunity to travel down to our most vibrant office in Bangalore and attend six weeks of training with the best consultants at the company. As it turned out, 'Boot Camp' wasn't a really popular word with immigration personnel, and every now and then graduates got held up at the airport asking if they were undergoing any military training! So, after a round of brainstorms we decided to rebrand the program as ThoughtWorks University and ever since, the name has stuck.

TWU started off as a really strong academic program, run by our consultants for our consultants. The target audience for the course were our graduate developers, business analysts and quality analysts. Our curriculum had three distinct parts to it. We had four weeks of shared curriculum, common to all the roles. We then followed this up with a week's discipline specific curriculum and finally a week's project simulation for the students to apply all that they'd learned. As you can imagine this was a really intense program where despite our best intentions we were pushing heaps of knowledge onto our students. Learning isn't knowledge transfer and our program lacked the affective context that students needed to be able to learn and remember effectively.

The Catalyst for Change
"I felt the trainers were great, and running a long simulation has given me the confidence for beginning work soon. These six weeks made me even more excited to be a ThoughtWorker." - Student Quote

Somewhere in 2007, my friend, colleague and past TWU trainer Patrick Sarnacke had an idea. While people enjoyed the five weeks of training, they seemed to learn the most in the project simulation. Not surprisingly, because they failed miserably in the project and failure's a great catalyst for learning. So Sarnacke said, "If people learn the most during the project simulation, then why can't we simulate a project for most of the course?" Of course, we then shrugged our shoulders and said to each other, "We've got a lot of material to cover - so this is never going to work." And so, the idea never took off until late 2009 when I went around interviewing (on camera) past students and trainers of the course asking what they found most valuable in the course. The answers I got were fairly unanimous. Most people pointed out the following elements as the most valuable:
  • The project simulation, since they could see every practice in action and learn how to really do things.
  • The discipline specific curriculum, since that's what they could apply immediately to their roles.
  • The social interaction amongst grads and trainers across the globe, because that's where they serendipitously learned from each other.
  • The individualised coaching that they got from the trainers, since we tailored it to their needs.
Hmmm... surprise, surprise! Not many people said they found the five weeks of classroom training crucial. It seemed from the feedback that real work was the biggest driver for learning. Back to Pat's question then.

If real work provides the best context for learning, then why not create a learning program where learning is a consequence of working on a real project?

Time for some Soul-Searching
"TWU provided us with a safe environment in which we were free to stumble, to question, to observe, and to learn. I will never forget my experience here." - Student Quote

So my team and I acknowledged it was time to get back to the drawing board. Our big challenge was that we had five weeks of coursework to still complete. As we started to go back and analyse our coursework, we realised a few things:
  • Sometimes, in the attempt to make training engaging, we spend 3 hours teaching things that take 10 minutes to just explain simply.
  • Behaviour takes time and experience to correct. A lot of our consulting coursework (17 hours or so), focussed on changing behaviours through training. This was hugely ineffective; students forgot most lessons by the time we got to the project simulation and made the same mistakes we warned them against. Feedback and coaching during the simulation could have been a much better way to help students learn these lessons from a state of pain.
  • As a company, we have very few best practices. If you look at the Cynefin model and then compare the constantly changing ThoughtWorks ecosystem to it, most of our practices are either emergent or novel. So while we tried to project a simplistic picture of our practices, it took real world experience to learn how things actually work. No wonder, our most common answer to students was, "It depends!"
  • Last, but certainly not the least - learning out of the work context can tend to be hugely ineffective. For example, in a classroom it can take hours to explain how ThoughtWorks estimates projects and plans releases. It's a really controversial topic at times. OTOH, if you were to bring a newbie into a group estimation meeting and explain what we're doing, you could get that person onboard in a matter of minutes and they would just get it. So some topics were best suited to on the job learning.
So we critically evaluated every part of our curriculum; even parts of it which we'd painstakingly created ourselves. For each part, we asked ourselves, "What if we don't teach this at all? What's the worst that can happen?" Turned out that the worst that could happen was that people would learn from their experience on the project. Why didn't we think of this before?

Look Ma - No Training!
"The lessons learned through project simulation could never be taught in a classroom." - Student Quote
So, after much chopping and changing, we decided that our course would be two weeks of training and four weeks of project work for the developers and one week of training and five weeks of project work for the BAs and QAs. We decided to limit our training to the bare minimum skills and knowledge the grads needed to start working on their project. A large part of that training was an introduction to the ThoughtWorks ecosystem, our culture, values and principles -- something that none of us can do without.

We also created several pieces of elearning to help students gain some basic skills when they needed them. Coupled with a social learning platform and a 6:1 student-coach ratio, we were looking at a program that focussed heavily on individualisation as against an experience that was one-size-fits-all-but-fits-nobody. Even with the elearning, we ensured that we were pragmatic in partnering with external content providers whose content met our quality standards.

How it Went
"I think four weeks of project was very helpful for the learning of the team. I think the end of week two and the beginning of week three was a time when the team was excited, nervous and overwhelmed. I think only two weeks of classes is good. A skill TWers need is learning when they start on a new project. I think the best way to do that is through experience - with good learning sessions when needed. And I think the last week was when we all actually realised what we had accomplished." - Student Quote

TWU XVII was the first formal run of ThoughtWorks University 2.0 and what a ride it's been! As expected, and as the quotes until now may tell you, information in context trumped instruction out of context in a huge way. The project was an environment for students to fail in safety. Failure created the need for people to learn and a catalyst for us to coach and teach. A real project environment also allowed students to learn to learn. After all, if we did training sessions all day, how could they deliver an application to the customer? So, a lot was down to the students being able to figure things out by themselves and learning from each other. Teamwork was the order of the day.

While interactions with customers helped students hone their consulting skills, working with each other, overcoming arguments helped them strengthen their interpersonal skills. Facilitating learning lunches and doing Pecha-Kucha's helped them practice their presentation skills in a safe and fun environment. Open Space sessions helped them define their own learning agenda, as against being captive to a predetermined schedule. In the final week of the project, which I unfortunately missed - the students took leadership of the project and the trainers just stood back. That week saw the students come together and put up their most outstanding performance. Wonderful things happen when you just let go - and it was almost like the time when a bird lets her children fly. In an environment where they could pull learning just when they needed it, the students amazed their trainers. I'm not exagerrating one bit when I say I'm proud of what the students have achieved and I'm proud to be their colleague. As one of the grads said, "We've made a product which we're proud of."
Our success with ThoughtWorks University has been the proudest achievements of my professional career. I think it's given me significant evidence about how people learn and has reinforced my beliefs about modern learning and development. It's been great fun sharing this experience with you and in future months, I hope we can make this experience better, faster, stronger. I'd love ideas from you on how we can do this - a lot of what we've done on the course is inspired by great ideas from my personal learning network and I'm sure I can lean on you for more such ideas. I'd also love to know what you think of today's blogpost, so do drop in a comment or two while you're here.

Photo Credits for this post -
JK Werner and Pat Sarnacke (the visionary pose!)
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