Nine Challenges for the Learning Department (Based on Masie’s Learning 2012)

In late October I attended Elliot Masie’s Learning Conference. I’ve blogged extensively about each individual session, but want to use this post to lift out the larger themes that I saw at the event and to ask the corporate learning departments a few challenging questions that relate to these themes.

Personalized Learning

A few years back Wayne Hodgins and Eric Duval started talking about the Snowflake Effect. They gave examples of media channels providing personalized offerings (think and could see this coming for learning too. Every learner is different (just like a snowflake) and has individual needs. Richard Culatta did a talk on personalized learning that resonated with his audience. He had a simple definition of what it means to personalize: you need to adjust the pace, you need to adjust the learning approach and you need to leverage the learner’s experiences and interests.

I would like to pose the following challenge to the corporate learning department: For every learning experience that you design, do you ask yourself: How would I design this if I had an audience of one?

Mobile and Video

The two hottest technologies at the conference clearly were mobile and video. Mobile learning technology is still in the early stages. There was a lot of debunking and few excellent or even interesting examples. I guess you could say that mobile learning is in the “through of disillusionment” from the perspective of Gartner’s Hype Cycle.

Video seemed to be further along the curve as there were many more concrete examples of video being used for learning (my personal favorite was how Masie kept connecting “over video” to people who were standing in the room next door). I was disappointed to see that most debates were very practical (e.g. about what equipment to use and how to create good quality audio) and often did not discuss how best to use video in learning. The practical debates occasionally lacked a bit of depth too. I didn’t hear anybody talk about searching, annotating and indexing video for example.

A few challenging questions for the corporate learning department: Have you invested in a platform to deliver video? Can this platform deliver to mobile devices? How do the videos get (socially) contextualized? Is there a way to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) into the company, are you connected with the team that works on this?

Do-It-Yourself or Self-Directed Learning

Marcel de Leeuwe and I hosted a workshop on this topic and created the website I was pleasantly surprised to see that other were also talking about this shift.

Two trends are pushing this forward:

  1. Many companies are turning into information companies with knowledge workers doing complex tasks. These knowledge workers are the only people who can understand their job (barely!). This makes programmatic (i.e. curriculum based) learning offerings designed by others largely ineffective.
  2. The world is incredibly connected and the tools for collaboration can, for all practical purposes, be considered to be free. People can organize their own learning groups.

My challenge to the learning department is the following: Which of the five DIY imperatives (devolve responsibility, be open, create experiences rather than content, provide scaffolding and stimulate reflection) are you practicing?

IT Development Methodologies for Learning Content Development

I attended two sessions that explicitly talked about IT development methodologies applied to learning content development. One was about using hackathons and the other about Agile. There is a lot of inspiration to be found in how people write software that can be applied to how people develop learning (yes, I do understand the irony of this if you compare this to the previous point: but I still think designed experiences are useful for many occasions). If you look closely at the principles behind the Agile manifesto, then you see how easy these can be translated to learning: learner satisfaction by rapid delivery of useful learning experiences, welcome changing requirements (even late in development), learning experiences are delivered frequently (weeks rather than months), sustainable development (able to maintain a constant pace), close and daily co-operation between business people and developers, face-to-face conversation is the best form of communication (co-location), projects are built around motivated individuals (who should be trusted), continuous attention to technical excellence and good design, simplicity (the art of maximizing the amount of work not done) is essential, self-organizing teams, and regular adaptation to changing circumstances.

So here is my challenge for the learning department: Do you know and understand the cutting edge IT development methodologies like Agile, Scrum, Extreme programming? Have you thought about how these could be applied to your learning development process?

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

At the beginning of the year barely anybody had heard about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Today this seems to be the hottest topic in the educational technology field. Any Masie attendee that hadn’t heard about MOOCs before they came to the conference certainly had heard about it by the time they left. I attended an interesting session by Curtis Bonk. Audrey Watters has probably done the best write-up so far on how they work and what they mean (don’t miss all her other posts on the Ed-Tech Trends of 2012). I also enjoyed this podcast with Arnold Kling which discusses some of the issues with how MOOC in their institutionalized form work.

I want to create two different challenges for the learning department around MOOCs. The first one is based on the approach by the big universities (xMoocs): Have you thought about how the principles behind MOOCs around scaling the normal educational process can be applied to your company? Could this be an efficient way to scale a 20 person classroom to a 2000 or 20000 person “classroom”? The second challenge comes from the original MOOCs (cMOOCS): Can you create a corporate course which is divergent, distributed, virtual, exploratory and scales at the same time? What would that course be about?

Neurological Research

Most learning profesionals don’t spend enough time looking at how our brains work and how that could be used in designing learning experiences. A few years ago John Medina wrote a very readable book translating the current state of brain research into actionable insights:


This year’s Masie conference had two keynote speakers that have created popular science books riding on top of the advances in neurology: Susan Cain on introversion and Charles Duhigg on forming habits. After reading my posts on these, Bert De Coutere connected me to Tiny Habits, a brain science inspired approach to changing behaviour.

Another challenge for the learning department: How many of your design heuristics are based on opinion, mimesis or history rather than on brain science? How do you keep up to date on the latest developments in brain science?

Focus on Cultural (and Organizational) Change

Even though I can’t pinpoint a session that I attended on this topic, I could feel how a shift towards organizational dynamics rather than personal dynamics was underlying many of the discussions. Learning in corporations often is about changing the behaviour or attitudes of large groups of people (I propose to rename the learning department to “the indoctrination department”). Making the organization rather than the learner the unit of change would change many things.

Even though it is early days for this, I would like to put out the following challenge: Imagine that your job is not to make an individual competent, but to change the culture inside an organization (e.g. maybe to become more innovative or to go from a “service provider to a consultative mindset”. What will you do differently?

Data as a Mystery

Learning analytics is all the rage. Also at the Masie Learning conference. Nigel Paine said the following for example:

Data is important. You should have the data from your organization and try and get some insights from it. Most people never take the trouble to go through the data.

I have serious issues with the current approaches to learning analytics:

  • Learning analytics is nearly always seen as a top-down initiative that can be used to steer and manage. I believe it should be used as an empowerment tool to speed up and enrich the feedback cycle for learners (also see my post on a talk by Erik Duval).
  • Everybody seems to be focused on capturing as much data as possible and using fancy (preferably iPad enabled) graphing and dynamic visualization technologies. Nobody seems to be asking interesting questions that can be answered by analyzing data.

My challenge to the learning department is related to that second point: What interesting (and difficult) learning related questions can you get an answer to, now that data capturing and visualization tools have become ubiquitous?

Patents and Licensing

I was shocked to hear Elliott Masie talk about a patent troll in the learning technology space. An article by Steven Levy in this month’s Wired gave me some more ridiculous examples. The law is important and if you don’t think about patents, copyright and trademarks then they might come and haunt you later on.

Very few corporations think about the license that they use for their learning content. Often the copyright of any work will just be with the company and all rights will be reserved. This might not be the best or smartest thing to do. Creative Commons licenses are one of the enablers of Open Educational Resources. Creating OERs could lead to much more flexibility around corporate content and might even create synergies in industries that can transcend individual corporations. This is a dynamic space with interesting debates (see the discussion on the non-commercial clause for example ,via Downes).

This is probably the most “advanced” challenge in this post: Have you thought about turning your learning content and courses into open educational resources (OER)? What could be the business case for OER in a corporation?

I would love to hear from you which challenges you’ve decided to pick up. Will you please share them in the comments?

Closing Session of Elliott Masie’s Learning 2012

The last general session of Learning 2012 started with thanking all the people who were involved in producing the conference and making it happen. I have to commend Elliott Masie and his team for putting together a truly amazing event. He himself does seem to be an incredibly reflective practicioner and thus a great role model for other learning professionals.

The first speaker for the day was Greg Urban (from University of Pennsylvania) via live video connection. As an anthropologist he talked about why culture is important in corporations. Culture in the most modern sense of the word is whatever gets socially learned and socially transmitted. Urban thinks that learning isn’t about individuals. He thinks that from an anthropological perspective it actually is organizations that are learning. Individuals get their notions from the group: every individual is born into a culture. So this can also happen inside organizations. He has come to realize that organizations are “little tribes”. Masie asked Urban how a culture gets created in relatively new organizations. Urban’s main research interest is what forces move cultures. One important force is inertia (the fact that you have been doing it in a particular for a long time), another key force is entropy. An important concept to understand is “meta-culture” or reflexive culture, culture that looks back at other culture. This is important when creating a new company: it will have to come from there. The last force is the force of interest. He does believe that culture can be influenced, but you can’t just pick it up and change it to something else. Urban also gave us a couple of takeaways:

  • Be a little suspicious about the official statement of the company about what their culture is and compare it to how it really is.
  • Pay attentions to emotions and to stories (and maybe the rituals).

Next up was Marhall Goldsmith an executive coach who gives a lot of talks and writes a lot of books and articles. Masie and him have created a set of videos which are interesting from a content perspective (basically Marshall makes the same point using Drucker as we did in our DIY Learning session), but also very much from a process or format perspective. The short videos were easy to create and have a huge value.

Marshall Goldsmith on video
Marshall Goldsmith on video

Next up was Donald H. Taylor to talk about the emerging competencies in the field of learning. He has been in learning and development for 25 years. Anything that describes the skills to do something will need to be simple enough to be usable but complex enough to be useful. He is trying to create a language of skills in our field. The tool is called the LPI Capability Map. The first and most important thing you should be doing is to keep learning. Masie made a case that we need to be ferocious samplers of learning (“Who would eat at a restaurant where the chef doesn’t do a lot of eating and tasting themselves?”). There is so much stuff out there already. Do you really need to make it again? In the new producer role the curation angle should become more obvious. You aren’t creating, you are helping people find what might be useful for them. We have moved from “knowledge is power” to “information is free”. This means our role should change.

The last speaker of the conference was Nigel Paine. What excites him about learning right now is the relationship of learning to everything else. He believes it is moving into the mainstream. Learning organizations have some much impact that companies really can’t do without them anymore. Next, he shared the BBC video story once again. He thinks we should do less learning catalogs, less trying to control and more trying to be open. One tip he gives to everybody in the audience: “Get involved in culture”. From knowing, to doing, to being. There is no chance you can be a learning leader anymore if you don’t understand technology. The most important part though is that you have to be able to relate learning in the language of the business.

Masie added three more important sagely pieces of advice (which I agree fully with):

  1. Engage yourself as a storyteller.
  2. Become experimental: you have to be able to do an experiment without becoming too risky. Don’t do a pilot just as a first step to an implementations, do multiple pilots.
  3. Practice your negotiation skills.

As Masie doesn’t really like feedback, he prefers feedforward, I would like to ask him the following. In the past you asked every single speaker what great book they had read recently. You didn’t do that this year. Would you please do it again next year?

Self Defense: Justifying Your Role

Nigel Paine
Nigel Paine

The original title for this session was “how not to get fired”. Nigel Paine talked about strategies you can use that help you stay relevant and create a bit more security for yourself:

  1. If you make yourself more accountable and more visible, then you make yourself more employable. Don’t run and hide. “I know that name” is very important and a good relationship with your line manager is not enough.
  2. Be pro-active. Where things are getting tough, get noticed more instead of less. Make sure you have an impact. Find people who can sponsor you and who can mentor you. Most people are flattered to be asked to become a mentor. You can even have more than one mentor (but don’t play them off against each other).
  3. Build partnerships outside of your team. Don’t self-limit. Every single meeting is an opportunity to have presence. A lot of HR staff is still totally tactical, it is important to frame things correctly: away from operational towards more strategic.
  4. Data is important. You should have the data from your organization and try and get some insights from it. Most people never take the trouble to go through the data.
  5. Focus on yourself a little bit. People take you at the value you set in yourself.
  6. Governance. Nigel talked about the learning board he created at BBC (chaired by the chief executive). He gave his budget to the board to allocate (people thought he was crazy). Find people from outside HR and Learning to give you some governance. They will help you make decisions that are totally business focused.
  7. Go on a listening mission in your organization.

Somebody in the audience referenced this TED talk by Amy Cuddy:


Another person talked about the book Seeing Yourself As Others Do.

I shared my personal strategy for staying in my job: it is to stay fully employable outside of my organization! I was hoping this session would be about the role of the learning organization as a whole (that might also be in need of self defense I would say), unfortunately it came closer to a motivational speech. You can’t have it all!

Do It Yourself Learning at Masie’s Learning 2012

Marcel de Leeuwe and I hosted a session at Elliott Masie’s Learning 2012 about Do It Yourself Learning. We enjoyed ourselves tremendously preparing for the session and created a special website for the conference:

Why DIY?

One of the Learning 2012 buttons
One of the Learning 2012 buttons

There are a few things happening in the corporate learning world:

  • The business is changing faster than the Learning function can keep up with.
  • Effectiveness of learning is low with constant questions of the Return on Investment.
  • Knowledge work (defined by Drucker as that work that can only the knowledge worker themselves can understand) is so complex that no curriculum can be made that can fit the very personal needs of each professional.
  • There is a high mobility for employees, making it hard to defend investing in them.

At the same time the world is changing:

  • Much of the world is globally connected.
  • Effective tools for collaboration are ubiquitous and cheap.

This means that learners will start organizing their own learning. They will become their own designers and the role of the learning function will have to change.


We thought of five imperatives for the learning function to enable DIY learning and empower their staff:

  1. Devolve responsibility
  2. Be open
  3. Design experiences
  4. Provide scaffolding
  5. Stimulate reflection


To give people some idea of what DIY could look like we listed a set of examples: Self Organizing Learning Environments (SOLEs), MOOCs, Open Space Technology, a Juggling Convention, Yammer, World Without Oil, Uncollege, a virtual reading group and Livemocha.

We are always looking for new examples.

A DIY Manifesto

Through a very energetic process (first collaborative and then argumentative) the group of participants came up with a tentative set of statements for a Do It Yourself Learning Manifesto:

[vimeo 52056127]

A big you thank you to everybody who participated!

General Session on Tuesday Afternoon at Masie’s Learning 2012

John Abele was the first one on stage. He has a background in medicine, but is now mainly focused on collaboration. He is the founding chairman of First. He shared a taxonomy of collaboration:

  • Facilitate
  • Command and control
  • Self organizing
  • Adversarial
  • Mass
  • Crowd Sourcing
  • Cascading
  • Pseudeo

Next he talked about the characteristics of collaboration leaders:

  • Lead without power (cede control to gain control)
  • Manage divas
  • Empower individuals and groups
  • Understand the power of theater

He applied these characteristics to Masie himself, leading to the following slightly hagiographic list: clothing as a court jester, humble self promoter, sharing learning leader, shameless persistence, interview style, frames, sets agenda, digs under the surface inoffensively, uses the power of theater, produces, curates, personalizes well, effusive complimenter, introverted extrovert, shares self reflection, celebrates political incorrectness, amazing connector, genuine, authentic, inclusive (always uses “we”), optimist and benevolent independent (so not part of the establishment).

Next up on the stage was Kevin Oaks from I4CP (which does the bulk of the research for ASTD). He has looked a lot at the difference between high and low performing organizations. They first discussed performance management and the performance review. Nobody really seems to like them. We know that the annual review is not the most effective way to do performance management. Managers need to do these hard discussions on a continuous basis. He sees companies talking about talent risk in the same way as financial risk. Kevin next references this Vanity Fair article about the Forced Ranking performance system at Microsoft. Next question: How do you manage a virtual workforce? This is a new competency of top leaders and we are still finding out how to really do this well. Kevin thinks we should use technology more here. He mentioned an example of a manager who would put a video station in a shared office and a video station in her home office so that people could just walk over to the station and talk to her in a “normal” way as if she was there.

Any blogpost gets better with a Steve Ballmer picture!
Any blogpost gets better with a Steve Ballmer picture!

Elliott Masie loves his Apple products so much that he showed a clip of of the new iPad mini. He is once again interested in the affordances of this particular type of device and buys them before he has a real understanding of those.

Martha Soehren is the Chief Learning Officer for ComCast. She received a spotlight award.

John Ryan is the president of the Center for Creative Leadership. What are some of the top challenges of top leaders nowadays? Suddenly all of them need to become global leaders. The CCL has done research into boundary spanning leadership (the whitepaper is here. They’ve come up with a new assessment tool on the basis of this research: the global six (this hasn’t been published yet). These dimensions are not valuable everywhere in the world: it depends on where you are whether they work. Some of the biggest mistakes that leaders make is that they only focus on people’s performance. You should focus on learning agility (innovating, challenging the status quo, taking risks, performance, make sure you never stop listening). John finished by plugging the WorkLife Indicator.

Could we have a realtime learning center in our own businesses?

The last speaker for the day is from the ISPI (International Society for Performance Improvement: Lisa Toenniges. The ISPI focuses on performance that allows organizations to reach their best business results. She kicks off by saying how training should usually be the last thing you try to improve performance. Nice. She then lists a set of standard performance consulting things to look at.

This whole session felt a little bet too much like an incrowd talking on stage. A pity…