Reflecting on South by Southwest (SxSW) 2012

SxSW: The Place to Be (photo CC-licensed by Debbs)

SxSW: The Place to Be (photo CC-licensed by Debbs)

It has been a few months since I attended SxSW in Austin. Time to do a bit of reflection and see which things have stuck with me as major takeaways and trends to remember.

Let me start by saying that going there has changed the way I think about learning and technology in many tacit ways that are hard to describe. That must have something to do with the techno-optimism, the incredible scale/breadth and the inclusive atmosphere. I will definitely make it a priority to go there again. The following things made me think:

Teaching at scale

One thing that we are now slowly starting to understand is how to do things at scale. Virtualized technology allows us to cooperate and collaborate in groups that are orders of magnitude larger than groups coming together in a physical space. The ways of working inside these massive groups are different too.

Wikipedia was probably one of the first sites that showed the power of doing things at this new scale (or was it Craigslist?). Now we have semi-commercial platforms like WordPress.com or hyper-commercial platforms like Facebook that are leveraging the same type of affordances.

The teaching profession is now catching on too. From non-commercial efforts like MOOCs and the Peer 2 Peer university to initiatives springing from major universities: Stanford’s AI course, Udacity, Coursera, MITx to the now heavily endowed Khan Academy: all have found ways to scale a pedagogical process from a classroom full of students to audiences of tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands. They have now even become mainstream news with Thom Friedman writing about them in the New York Times (conveniently forgetting to mention the truly free alternatives).

I don’t see any of this in Corporate Learning Functions yet. The only way we currently help thousands of staff learn is through non-facilitated e-learning modules. That paradigm is now 15-20 years old and has not taken on board any of the lessons that the net has taught us. Soon we will all agree that this type of e-learning is mostly ineffectual and thus ultimately also non-efficient. The imperative for change is there. Events like the Jams that IBM organize are just the beginning of new ways of learning at the scale of the web.

Small companies creating new/innovative practices

The future of how we will soon all work is already on view in many small companies around the world. Automattic blew my mind with their global fully distributed workforce of slightly over a hundred people. This allows them to truly only hire the best people for the job (rather than the people who live conveniently close to an office location). All these people need to start being productive is a laptop with an Internet connection.

Automattic has also found a way to make sure that people feel connected to the company and stay productive: they ask people to share as much as possible what it is they are doing (they called it “oversharing”, I would call it narrating your work). There are some great lessons there for small global virtual teams in large companies.

The smallest company possible is a company of one. A few sessions at SxSW focused on “free radicals”. These are people who work in ever-shifting small project groups and often aren’t very bounded to a particular location. These people live what Charles Handy, in The Elephant and The Flea, called a portfolio lifestyle. They are obviously not on a career track with promotions, instead they get their feedback, discipline and refinement from the meritocratic communities and co-working spaces they work in.

Personally I am wondering whether it is possible to become a free radical in a large multinational. Would that be the first step towards a flatter, less hierarchical and more expertise-based organization? I for one wouldn’t mind stepping outside of my line (and out of my silo) and finding my own work on the basis of where I can add the most value for the company. I know this is already possible in smaller companies (see the Valve handbook for an example). It will be hard for big enterprises to start doing this, but I am quite sure we will all end up there eventually.

Hyperspecialization

One trend that is very recognizable for me is hyperspecialization. When I made my first website around 2000, I was able to quickly learn everything there was to know about building websites. There were a few technologies and their scope was limited. Now the level of specialization in the creation of websites is incredible. There is absolutely no way anybody can be an expert in a substantial part of the total field. The modern-day renaissance man just can’t exist.

Transaction costs are going down everywhere. This means that integrated solutions and companies/people who can deliver things end-to-end are losing their competitive edge. As a client I prefer to buy each element of what I need from a niche specialist, rather then get it in one go from somebody who does an average job. Topcoder has made this a core part of their business model: each project that they get is split up into as many pieces as possible and individuals (free radicals again) bid on the work.

Let’s assume that this trends towards specialization will continue. What would that mean for the Learning Function? One thing that would become critical is your ability to quickly assess expertise. How do you know that somebody who calls themselves and expert really is one? What does this mean for competency management? How will this affect the way you build up teams for projects?

Evolution of the interface

Everybody was completely focused on mobile technology at SxSW. I couldn’t keep track of the number of new apps I’ve seen presented. Smartphones and tablets have created a completely new paradigm for interacting with our computers. We have all become enamoured with touch-interfaces right now and have bought into the idea that a mobile operating system contains apps and an appstore (with what I like to call the matching “update hell”).

Some visionaries were already talking about what lies beyond the touch-based interface and apps (e.g. Scott Jenson and Amber Case. More than one person talked about how location and other context creating attributes of the world will allow our computers to be much smarter in what they present to us. Rather than us starting an app to get something done, it will be the world that will push its apps on to us. You don’t have to start the app with the public transport schedule anymore, instead you will be shown the schedule as soon as you arrive at the bus stop. You don’t start Shazam to capture a piece of music, but your phone will just notify you of what music is playing around you (and probably what you could be listening to if you were willing to switch channel). Social cues will become even stronger and this means that cities become the places for what someone called “coindensity” (a place with more serendipity than other places).

This is likely to have profound consequences for the way we deliver learning. Physical objects and location will have learning attached to them and this will get pushed to people’s devices (especially when the systems knows that your certification is expired or that you haven’t dealt with this object before). You can see vendors of Electronic Performance Support Systems slowly moving into this direction. They are waiting for the mobile infrastructure to be there. The one thing we can start doing from today is to make sure we geotag absolutely everything.

One step further are brain-computer interfaces (commanding computers with pure thought). Many prototypes already exist and the first real products are now coming to market. There are many open questions, but it is fascinating to start playing with the conceptual design of how these tools would work.

Storytelling

Every time I go to any learning-related conference I come back with the same thought: I should really focus more on storytelling. At SxSW there was a psychologist making this point again. She talked about our tripartite brain and how the only way to engage with the “older” (I guess she meant Limbic) parts of our brain is through stories. Her memorable quote for me was: “You design for people. So the psychology matters.”

Just before SxSW I had the opportunity to spend two days at the amazing Applied Minds. They solve tough engineering problems, bringing ideas from concept to working prototype (focusing on the really tough things that other companies are not capable of doing). What was surprising is that about half of their staff has an artistic background. They realise the value of story. I’m convinced there is a lot to be gained if large engineering companies would start to take their diversity statements seriously and started hiring writers, architects, sculptors and cineasts.

Open wins again

Call it confirmation bias (my regular readers know I always prefer “open”), but I kept seeing examples at SxSW where open technology beats closed solutions. My favourite example was around OpenStreetMap: companies have been relying on Google Maps to help them out with their mapping needs. Many of them are now starting to realise how limiting Google’s functionality is and what kind of dependence it creates for them. Many companies are switching to Open Street Map. Examples include Yahoo (Flickr), Apple and Foursquare.

Maybe it is because Google is straddling the line between creating more value than they capture and not doing that: I heartily agree with Tim O’Reilly and Doc Searl‘s statements at SxSW that free customers will always create more value than captured ones.

There is one place where open doesn’t seem to be winning currently and that is in the enterprise SaaS market. I’ve been quite amazed with the mafia like way in which Yammer has managed to acquire its customers: it gives away free accounts and puts people in a single network with other people in their domain. Yammer maximizes the virality and tells people they will get more value out of Yammer if they invite their colleagues. Once a few thousand users are in the network large companies have three options:

  1. Don’t engage with Yammer and let people just keep using it without paying for it. This creates unacceptable information risks and liability. Not an option.
  2. Tell people that they are not allowed to use Yammer. This is possible in theory, but would most likely enrage users, plus any network blocks would need to be very advanced (blocking Yammer emails so that people can’t use their own technology to access Yammer). Not a feasible option.
  3. Bite the bullet and pay for the network. Companies are doing this in droves. Yammer is acquiring customers straight into a locked-in position.

SaaS-based solutions are outperforming traditional IT solutions. Rather than four releases a year (if you are lucky), these SaaS based offerings release multiple times a day. They keep adding new functionality based on their customers demands. I have an example of where a SaaS based solution was a factor 2000 faster in implementation (2 hours instead of 6 months) and a factor 5000 cheaper ($100 instead of $500,000) than the enterprise IT way of doing things. The solution was likely better too. Companies like Salesforce are trying very hard to obsolete the traditional IT department. I am not sure how companies could leverage SaaS without falling in another lock-in trap though.

Resource constraints as an innovation catalyst

One lesson that I learned during my trip through the US is that affluence is not a good situation to innovate from. Creativity comes from constraints (this is why Arjen Vrielink and I kept constraining ourselves in different ways for our Parallax series). The African Maker “Safari” at SxSW showed what can become possible when you combine severe resource constraints with regulatory whitespace. Make sure to subscribe to Makeshift Magazine if you are interested to see more of these type of inventions and innovations.

I believe that many large corporations have too much budget in their teams to be really innovative. What would it mean if you wouldn’t cut the budget with 10% every year, but cut it with 90% instead? Wouldn’t you save a lot of money and force people to be more creative? In a world of abundance we will need to limit ourselves artificially to be able to deliver to our best potential.

Education ≠ Content

There is precious few people in the world who have a deep understanding of education. My encounter with Venture Capitalists at SxSW talking about how to fix education did not end well. George Siemens was much more eloquent in the way that he described his unease with the VCs. Reflecting back I see one thing that is most probably at the root of the problem: most people still equate education/learning to content. I see this fallacy all around me: It is the layperson’s view on learning. It is what drives people to buy Learning Content Management Systems that can deliver to mobile. It is why we think that different Virtual Learning Environments are interchangeable. This is why we think that creating a full curriculum of great teachers explaining things on video will solve our educational woes. Wrong!

My recommendation would be to stop focusing on content all together (as an exercise in constraining yourself). Who will create the first contentless course? Maybe Dean Kamen is already doing this. He wanted more children with engineering mindsets. Rather than creating lesson plans for teacher he decided to organise a sport- and entertainment based competition (I don’t how successful he is in creating more engineers with this method by the way).

That’s all

So far for my reflections. A blow-by-blow description of all the sessions I attended at SxSW is available here.

Looking Back at Learning Technologies 2010

Learning Technologies

Learning Technologies

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the 2010 Learning Technologies Exhibition in London. In many ways this event is very similar to the Online Educa in Berlin (e.g. most Berlin exhibitors were in London too and the conferences shared a keynote speaker). There are two main differences: Learning Technologies seems to draw a slightly less international crowd and it focuses more on the world of corporate learning. In this post I want to capture the people I met and the technologies that I looked at. What caught my eye?

Mobile Learning, Social Media and Serious Gaming
Those were the three buzz words that most exhibitors thought would sell their services best. I made it a point to enquire with any exhibitor who used any of these terms in their marketing and found out that most of these claims were very hollow. For example, I talked to a developer of mobile applications who told me they would gladly convert all my existing e-learning content into a mobile format (why would I want to take something that does not take advantage of its medium and move it over to a medium where it fits even less well?). Another one on the ridiculous side of the effectiveness scale was the vendor that showed me a screenshot of an internal social networking site where people could do a daily crossword. Honestly? Where is the first vendor that can show me a scalable mobile learning event/application that can only work because it is delivered through a mobile Internet enabled, location aware phone with a camera? The medium is the message right?

Technology Companies versus Content Development Companies
Luckily there were some exceptions to the rule. I thoroughly enjoyed talking to the knowledgable people of Caspian Learning. They have developed a serious gaming platform (Thinking Worlds) which utilises Adobe Shockwave to deliver single user 3D virtual worlds in the web browser of the participant. I have been a participant in an excellent course that used their technology and was very curious to see what the authoring environment would look like. After a solid demo I came away very impressed. The way that scenarios can be created and managed looks wonderful. I believe it is fair to say that Caspian’s technology is good enough to enable a new way of designing learning events. The ball is now in the court of learning designers (I like that better than “content developers”), they have to explore this new technology and have to learn a whole new set of skills. Authoring is easy, but how do you design effective scenarios? The field is very immature in this respect. Here is a demonstration video of a game made with their engine:

Caspian’s business model is interesting too. They consider themselves a technology company foremost, and not a content development company. Their business development efforts are spent on finding content partners. They already have a deal in place with IBM and I wouldn’t be surprised if companies like Accenture, Tata and NIIT will follow soon. This is the perfect way to make your business scale and it will allow you to focus on developing your technology (managing technical people like programmers is fundamentally different from managing learning consultants).

In my quick chat with Gavin Cooney from Learnosity I advised him to pursue a similar strategy: the core competences of his company are their technical skills (I call them “Asterisk plumbers”) and their ability to find strategic partnerships (not that he needs any advice, I am sure his business development skills far outshine mine!).

Some companies seem to sit on the fence when it comes to being a technology or a content development company. LearningGuide Solutions has an Electronic Performance Support System (EPSS) and develops content for it. I believe that EPSSs could be a very efficient way of getting people up to the task with a piece of software. The demo of their product left me underwhelmed.  They have been on the market for quite a while now, but their LearningGuide does not seem to have evolved past a an improved version of an online help system. The granularity of the context sensitivity was disappointing, the authoring has no version control and there are no social features. Wouldn’t it be great if people could write their own tips with the guides? How come LearningGuide has not kept up and emulated some of the functionality that platforms like Get Satisfaction have?

Learning as a Managed Service
I was interested to know whether any vendors would be able to deliver a large part of the learning function (at least the technology and support for the technology) as a managed service. I talked to two vendors:

I asked the people from Learn.com why they keep winning the reader’s choice for “Best Enterprise Learning Management System” category of Elearning! magazine (“Is it because all your customers get a free subscription to the mag?” wasn’t really appreciated). The first answer came from the sales guy: “Because we guarantee Return On Investment”. I don’t even know what that is supposed to mean, but they seem to think it is relevant (check out the relentless Flash-based ROI counter on their site). Luckily the next guy had a more sensible answer: Learn.com has all of their customers on the same code base and has a rapid development process for this code. This means they are able to deliver new functionality and fixes faster than corporations would be able to do for themselves. According to them they have the authentication problem solved and are able to integrate with HR systems like SAP through a mature web-services based architecture. They also had really smart answers to my questions about reporting. One thing I appreciated was their support for all web browsers: it is not often that somebody can promise me support for IE, Opera, Firefox and Safari without blinking. I always take that as a sign that technicians might be in charge instead of marketeers.

Another company that I checked out was the Edvantage group. This UK based business has signed a couple of large contracts recently. They deliver a completely integrated content development and delivery street through a Software as a Service solution. In that sense they are similar to Learn.com.

I would be interested to hear from anybody who has some real world experience with either of these companies.

Moodle Everywhere?
Moodle has become ubiquitous. It seemed that about one in four stands at the exhibition had something to say about Moodle. You can see that this is very market driven (open source finally has become cool), as a lot of the exhibitors had no idea what they were talking about.

My personal favourite was somebody from Saffron Interactive whom I asked about their social networking offerings. Their whole stand was adorned with logos from Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. I was wondering if they maybe had thought of a smart way to integrate these services into learning offerings. She showed me a couple of screenshots of something that looked a bit like Ning and told me they created social communities for their clients. She then proceeded to tell me that the platform they used for this was Moodle and that an implementation of Moodle in general only takes three(!) days. I love Moodle, but I would never use it to create a social community and to make Moodle look like her screenshots takes a lot more than three days. I had to move on after that.

A very impressive Moodle offering came from aardpress. They have invested a lot of their programming talent (months and months of work) into creating Moomis, a set of tools that fills some of Moodle’s gaps for the corporate learning world. Unlike the corporate Moodle solutions that I have seen so far (e.g. ELIS), Moomis is not a set of successful open source projects that are integrated into Moodle. Instead, all functionality is created inside Moodle itself, using Moodle’s libraries and its add-on architecture. This had advantages on the usability side, but could have disadvantages on the side of functionality (i.e. it is hard to write a very rich tool from scratch). aardpress (they don’t seem to want to capitalise their name) is hard at work getting Moomis ready for Moodle 2.0. I hope they are successful in turning this into a sustainable project and maybe even collaborate a bit more with Moodle HQ in developing this type of functionality.

In the conference part of Learning Technologies there was a small meeting of corporate Moodle users that I crashed into in its last 15 minutes. I am glad I did, because I met Mark Berthelemy there, who I had only seen on Moodle.org before.

Monkeys with typewriters

Monkeys with typewriters

Wisdom Architects
Another meeting I thoroughly enjoyed was my talk with Lawrence O’Connor from Wisdom Architects. We chatted about implementing learning technology in very large organisations, discussed theories of memory and the Mind Palace 3D iPhone app he is developing. This app will help people memorise better using the time-tested technique of building a memory palace. I find it fascinating how we are both using technology to outsource our memory (my phone keeps all my to-do tasks, phone numbers, etc.) and to help us get a better memory. I am wondering whether we will see more study tools like this app and like eFaqt in the near future.

Lawrence very kindly gave me a copy of Jemima GibbonsMonkeys with typewriters. This book about social media at work is published by Triarchy Press which has a lot of other interesting titles. I really liked Gibbons’ unconventional approach: she went out and interviewed about fifty people that have either changed the face of social media or have run succesful social media projects in companies. The book is divided into six chapters titled: Co-creation, Passion, Learning, Openness, Listening and Generosity. Each chapter starts with a myth and a reality (e.g. Myth: Social networking is a time waster, Reality: Building connections is vital to business). My copy is now full of dog-ears. A couple of the concepts/ideas that I want to explore further:

Here is an O’Reilly quote:

You design applications that get better the more people use them, then the applications that work get the most user data. The winners are those that harvest collective intelligence: Amazon, Google… Google is actually harvesting the intelligence of all users. […]
One of the things that I suggest to any company is what data assets do you own and how can you build new fresh data services against that data? I think a lot of traditional businesses have enormous data assets, they just need a slightly different mindset.

Then there is IBM’s idea of reverse mentoring programmes, where younger employees teach the older staff about social technologies. And a great quote from Clay Shirky:

All businesses are media businesses, because whatever else they do, they rely on the managing of information.

Gibbons formulates an argument that I use often when I try to get people to be more transparent about what they are doing:

Today’s smart businesses are not so much about creating an owning knowledge as about applying and learning from it. If [a company’s] blog posts and research papers are freely available, to be used , re-mixed, mashed up and built upon, that’s fine: the core competence of [the company] lies in the minds and knowhow of its consultants.

The book ends with “30 ways to get social”: great practical advice.

Other Meetups
Learning Technologies really does seem to be the place where all the British e-Learning people come together. It was chance for me to meet a lot of people that I had only met virtually before. I had a good chat with David Wilson from Elearnity, talking about innovation processes and about his research network. I met some of the people from Brand Learning and The Chartered Institute of Marketing with whom I have been working in the last couple of months on a marketing curriculum. I got to shake Rob Hubbard‘s hand and talk to him about his excellent Rapid eLearning Development Course. The only appointment I missed was the one with Jane Hart, maybe next time!

Bersin Executive Roundtable
The day after the event I joined Josh Bersin, Allan Keetch, Donald H. Taylor, Barry Davis, Ghassan Mirdad and Christina Tsirimokou for a corporate roundtable organised by Bersin & Associates. This was a diverse group of people with very different problems, so occasionally it was hard to find some common ground.

We did manage to have a good discussion about integrating talent management and learning. Doing this from a system’s perspective seems to be the holy grail for many organisations. Bersin thought the overlap between these two things is not as profound as most people think it might be. There really isn’t that much integration to do. On the other hand he has seen many organisations crumble under the weight of their completely systemised and integrated competence management systems.

Allan Keetch noted how good talent management systems are important and useful when an organisation is restructuring. I agreed partially with him. We all know that nowadays it is not only what you know, but also who you know that is important. There are barely any talent management systems that take this into account. My employer just went through a restructuring exercise and I am quite sure that my hiring manager had a good overview of my formalised competencies (and those of my competitors for the job), but had no insight into the network that I would bring into the job. As organisational network analysis (ONA) will mature I imagine we will see more and more tools that creates these social graphs automatically based on existing communication and collaboration patterns. (Remember O’Reilly’s quote, earlier in this post?).

Josh Bersin had keynoted on informal learning and it was therefore fitting to have Barry Davis at the table. He works for Creganna Tactx Medical and he believes that learning is working (or is it the other way around?) and that everybody in his company should be a trainer. His organisation is just the right size for his ideas to have a lot of impact. For example, he has managed to “formalise” (“organise” or “facilitate” would probably be better here) the 70-20-10 rule of Charles Jennings.

Finally
I am not the only who has written about Learning Technologies. Jane Hart had some good comments (with a post by Jay Cross in her wake) and Mark Berthemely wrote an extensive post which is very worthwhile to read.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJh464LEDac