Saturday, December 18, 2010

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

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

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

We're beating up on an old definition of training

A lot of the criticism for training seems to stem from a very outdated understanding of what training really is.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

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

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

Sunday, December 12, 2010

We Need to Save our Tigers


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

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

What Threatens the Tigers?

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 11, 2010

What constitutes a Social Learning Culture?

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

A Culture of Questioning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 06, 2010

ProProfs Quiz Maker - A Quiz Engine worth Looking at

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

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

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

Quiz Authoring Capabilities

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

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

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

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

Interoperability and Other Extras

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

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

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

Saturday, December 04, 2010

#Lrnbk - A Twitter Book Club Experiment


(Image courtesy - Patrick Gage)

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

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

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

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

Possible Questions and Answers

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

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

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

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

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

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


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