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 Last.fm) 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 doityourselflearning.org. 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?

9 Questions for All Learning Professionals in 2011

This week I needed to create a small presentation which could help learning professionals do some forward thinking. I decided to repurpose an earlier keynote given to the Dommel Valley group (you can find that presentation here), strip out many of the slides and record a voice-over including cheesy sound effects.

Please find below 9 non-exhaustive things I see happening in corporate learning in the near future and 9 questions that every Learning Professional in 2011 should ask themselves based on these points. I realise that the presentation might feel rushed (it had to fit in 15 minutes) and that many of the points need more explanation to be sensible to the average reader of this blog. However, I do hope that these questions could prod at least a few learning professionals into action.

If the embed doesn’t work, find the slidecast on slideshare or download the PDF (2.6 MB).

Towards a Reflective and Collaborative Learning Culture

Last week I wrote a small teaser on learning for the team that I work in (mostly consisting of IT professionals, rather than learning professionals). I realized that some of the things I wrote could be interesting for this blog’s readers too. So here goes…

Learning culture has high business impact
Bersin & Associates have recently written an interesting report on the business impact of having a good learning culture. They define a learning culture as

The collective set of organizational values, conventions, processes and practices that influence and encourage both individuals and the collective organization to continuously increase knowledge, competence and performance.

Using a solid research methodology they identified key best practices that affect business outcomes. The most influential practices all center around empowering employees and demonstrating the value of learning. According to Bersin, it is management who has the biggest role to play as they have the most influence on these cultural practices. Their research showed

[..] that learning culture (represented by the 40 High-Impact Learning Culture practices) directly accounts for 46 percent of overall improved business performance as measured by the business outcomes examined [..]

Learning agility and innovation are the two business outcomes that benefit the most from a strong learning culture.

Many organizations have productive employees, but 98 percent of organizations with strong learning cultures have highly productive workforces.

That should be enough of a business case to try and strengthen the learning culture in any business.

Fast pace of change: activities and methodology over content
It is a cliché, but we really are working in an environment where the pace of change is ever increasing. Working with learning content that has taken months to produce will only be relevant for skills that do not change much. That content will not help in keeping knowledge workers up to date and will have little or no business impact.

An alternative is to focus on methodology and activities rather than on content. How can we change the things we do, our behavior, to create a culture of learning and more reflective way of collaborating? How can we truly embed learning? Trying to answer that question will require a very conscious design effort.

Leveraging the teaching paradox
There is a terrible paradox in teaching: by the very nature of the process it is the teacher who learns the most. Learning is most effective when creating something for others to experience  (see the explanation of constructionism here or this great article about the death of the digital dropbox). That is the reason why I love to present and also why I write this blog. If we want our employees to learn we have to put them into the role of teachers too.

Turning consumers into producers
You can overcome the teaching paradox by making sure that instead of asking people to consume content (i.e. going to a course from the SkillSoft catalogue or listening to a webcast by a senior learner) you ask them to produce content. Unfortunately for you, I have learned way more by writing this blog post, than you will ever learn by reading it. In fact, if I was allowed to give a single piece of advice to people designing a learning intervention, I would tell them to turn their participants from consumers into producers. They should ask themselves the following question: What am I asking them to make?

So how do we do all this? Here are four ideas that align with the above and that could be done immediately in any global organization with virtual teams.

Microteaching

Microteaching

Planning and creating collaborative one-pagers and microteaching events
Each week of the year a team of two could be made responsible for creating a one-pager about a particular topic. These one-pagers could give very factual information about the work we are doing (e.g. How are our three main learning systems integrated? Which five learning innovations have gotten the most traction in the past year and why?) or they could be more meta: talking about how we do our work (e.g. What is the best way to do a virtual meeting? Which 10 things should we stop doing today?).

Maybe one-pager is not the best word for this. It could also be a diagram, a video or a virtual role play, as long as it can be presented and understood within five minutes. Each month you could schedule an hour with the team in which the four or five one-pagers of that month would be presented by its creators to the rest of the team. The content itself is not important (you can let people choose their own topic and provide a list of suitable topics on a wiki for the less creative), but the methodology is. I would propose the following “rules”:

  • Each one-pager has a question as the title and is made collaboratively by two people. It is not allowed to do any work on it by yourself.
  • The two people are matched semi-randomly with a skewed bias to virtual collaborations and pairs that haven’t worked together before.
  • The presentation of the one-pagers is done virtually using a microteaching methodology with an active start (3 min.), an exercise (6 min.), a discussion (4 min.) and a look at how to continue (2 min.).

Narrating your work
In virtual teams it is hard to know what all the people in the team are doing. It is therefore also harder to learn from each other and find synergies in the work we do. A well-known way of battling this problem is through a concept called narrating your work. Each person in the team writes down what they have been doing in a couple of sentences. They should be asked to do in a regular interval (i.e. daily, three times a week, weekly) this three times a week. Microblogging technology is the ideal candidate to support this kind of process.

This will not only help the team in doing their work better and more efficiently, it should also help in making it a better team through the ambient intimacy that it creates.

Increasing the effectiveness of webcasts
Most teams in global organizations have a webcast with senior leaders every couple of weeks. These are usually not very interactive affairs: they are more about knowledge dissemination than about knowledge creation. Although there is sometimes space for questions at the end, it is often the case that the usual suspects speak up and discussion on topics barely scratch the surface.

One way to change this would be to have mini-jams (see here for IBM’s way of doing jams) before each webcast. It could work like this: 48 hours before the webcast the topics of the webcast are made available, any documents or presentations are shared and a couple of key questions are posed to the team. The team then spends the time until the start of the webcast discussing the questions. Each topic will have a moderator who is there to guide the discussion and tease out participation. It will be expected of each and every team member to participate and give their view. Microblogging tools, once again, would be good to facilitate this.

As a result it should be possible to make the webcasts shorter and spend the time in them addressing the issues that showed to be contentious or in need of clarification during the jam.

The power of video in interaction
The most powerful of our senses is vision. Technology has finally caught up with our innate ability and can now help us in using this sense in virtual teams. To facilitate working together as a virtual team, you should have the ambition to try and use video in all our your virtual meetings. This would mean the following:

  • Everybody in the virtual organisation needs to have a laptop with a built-in webcam. If they don’t have one now, we make sure that this gets changed as soon as possible.
  • The software to create video calls should be ubiquitous in the organization, it should be easy to use and be supported.

These are just examples…
There is a lot more that we can do: I would really like to have your input on how to really re-design the way we work and learn!