The Future State of Capability Building in Organizations: Inspirations

CC-licenced photo by Flickr user kevindooley

CC-licenced photo by Flickr user kevindooley

I have been involved in organizing a workshop on capability building in organizations hosted on my employer‘s premises (to be held on October 20th). We have tried to get together an interesting group of professionals who will think about the future state of capability building and how to get there. All participants have done a little bit of pre-work by using a single page to answer the following question:

What/who inspires you in your vision/ideas for the future state of capability building in organizations?

Unfortunately I cannot publish the one-pagers (I haven’t asked their permission yet), but I have disaggregated all their input into a list of Delicious links, a YouTube playlist and a GoodReads list (for which your votes are welcome). My input was as follows:

Humanistic design
We don’t understand ourselves well enough. If we did, the world would not be populated with bad design (and everything might look like Disney World). The principles that we use for designing our learning interventions are not derived from a deep understanding of the humand mind and its behavioural tendencies, instead it is often based on simplistic and unscientific methodologies. How can we change this? First, everybody should read Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language. Next, we can look at Hans Monderman (accessible through the book Traffic) to understand the influence of our surroundings on our behaviour. Then we have to try and understand ourselves better by reading Medina’s Brain Rules (or check out the excellent site) and books on evolutionary psychology (maybe start with Pinker’s How the Mind Works). Finally we must never underestimate what we are capable of. Mitra’s Hole in the Wall experiment is a great reminder of this fact.

Learning theory
The mental model that 99% of the people in this world have for how people learn is still informed by an implied behaviourist learning theory. I like contrasting this with George Siemens’ connectivism and Papert’s constructionism (I love this definition). These theories are actually put into practice (the proof of the pudding is in the eating): Siemens and Stephen Downes (prime sense-maker and a must-read in the educational technology world) have been running multiple massive online distributed courses with fascinating results, whereas Papert’s thinking has inspired the work on Sugarlabs (a spinoff of the One Laptop per Child project).

Open and transparent
Through my work for Moodle I have come to deeply appreciate the free software philosophy. Richard Stallman‘s four freedoms are still relevant in this world of tethered appliances. Closely aligned to this thinking is the hacker mentality currently defended by organizations like the Free Software Foundation, the EFF, Xs4all and Bits of Freedom. Some of the open source work is truly inspirational. My favourite example is the Linux based operating system Ubuntu, which was started by Mark Shuttleworth and built on top of the giant Debian project. “Open” thinking is now spilling over into other domains (e.g. open content and open access). One of the core values in this thinking is transparency. I actually see huge potential for this concept as a business strategy.

Working smarter
Jay Cross knows how to adapt his personal business models on the basis of what technology can deliver. I love his concept of the unbook and think the way that the Internet Time Alliance is set up should enable him to have a sustainable portfolio lifestyle (see The Age of Unreason by the visionary Charles Handy). The people in the Internet Time Alliance keep amplifying each other and keep on tightening their thinking on Informal Learning, now mainly through their work on The Working Smarter Fieldbook.

Games for learning
We are starting to use games to change our lives. “Game mechanics” are showing up in Silicon Valley startups and will enter mainstream soon too. World Without Oil made me understand that playing a game can truly be a transformational experience and Metal Gear Solid showed me that you can be more engaged with a game than with any other medium. If you are interested to know more I would start by reading Jesse Schell’s wonderful The Art of Game Design, I would keep following Nintendo to be amazed by their creative take on the world and I would follow the work that Jane McConigal is doing.

The web as a driver of change
Yes, I am believer. I see that the web is fundamentally changing the way that people work and live together. Clay Shirky‘s Here Comes Everybody is the best introduction to this new world that I have found so far. Benkler says that “technology creates feasibility spaces for social practice“. Projects like Wikipedia and Kiva would not be feasible without the current technology. Wired magazine is a great way to keep up with these developments and Kevin Kelly (incidentally one of Wired’s cofounders) is my go-to technology philosopher: Out of Control was an amazingly prescient book and I can’t wait for What Technology Wants to appear in my mailbox.

I would of course be interested in the things that I (we?) have missed. Your thoughts?

Nintendo and Why User Training is Dead

Properly designed software shouldn’t need any instructions let alone require a training on how to use it. Designing software properly is actually a hard problem. We are getting better at it slowly.

Nintendo is the leader of the pack when it comes to designing software in such a way that it needs no instructions. I have had a Nintendo DS for a couple of months and am amazed at how excellent some of the Nintendo titles are. I consider a game like WarioWare: Touched! to be a work of art. The amount of creativity and wackiness that is encompassed in these mini games in unrivalled.

On the Wii I have been playing the best game of my life (my gaming history started with Sopwith and Frogger): Super Mario Galaxy. Please watch the trailer of this game:

Watching the video you will have noticed the complex manoeuvres that Mario does. He swims (on a turtle-jet of course), he walks on a ball, jumps of walls, rides a stingray, makes back flips, does double jumps, flies like a bee, etc. As a user you do all these moves with nothing more than the joystick and a single button. You don’t have to read a manual to start playing.

What design principles make this possible? In Mario Galaxy I noticed the following five:

  • Progressive revelation. The game starts simple. All the levels only require a very basic mastery of the controls. As the game progresses you will need to learn more and more controls.
  • Just in time delivery of an explanation. The game doesn’t teach you all the moves in one go (through some sort of tutorial). Instead it will have a pleasant little creature who will be there to explain a skill right when you need it. These creatures are very unobtrusive (unlike Clippy) and are only there when you need them.
  • A safe environment to practise. The first time you need to learn the new skill you will be in an environment without any adversaries and without any time pressure. This way you can focus on what you need to learn.
  • An obstacle. You will only be able to finish the level if you learn the new skills. This way the game ensures you will be able to progress later on and will not get frustrated.
  • Repetition with variety (sometimes getting gradually harder). Doing a particular jump once could have been an accident. The levels are designed in such a way that you will need to show your mastery of the skill multiple times.

It will not be easy to design all software according to these principles. A program like AutoCAD doesn’t have a quest or levels and is arguably much more complex than a Mario game. Even though it is hard, it is possible to radically change the interface of these programs and enable people to be productive without much training on how to use the program. Instead you could spend more time focusing on how to be creative with the software. Take a look at Google SketchUp as an example:

For learning events it is much easier to take these principles into account in your design. We are currently probably pretty good at progressive revelation, at repetition and maybe at building in obstacles. We do not focus enough on delivering just in time and on providing a safe environment for our learners.

Please be inspired by Nintendo!