Speed to Proficiency     Creating a sustainable competitive advantage

Next-Big-ThingI see articles every week that have “the future of learning” in them. It may be gamification, micro-learning, social learning, device agnostic content, learning paths, etc. I believe that none of these are the future of learning, because within an organizational context, there are really three different goals we are trying to achieve – often simultaneously.

Pretty much every article I’ve read on “the next big thing” or “the future of learning” forgets the distinction between compliance, professional development, and capability acquisition. In point of fact, the tools and processes described are usually great for one or another of these three, but not for all.

Instead of trying to figure out what the next big thing is, I advise my customers to plan for how to address these three different yet important training requirements.

  1. Compliance.
    Most Learning and Development (L&D) departments are required to show that managers have had sexual harassment training or SOX training. Depending on the industry, there may be 20+ courses that an individual is required to take. Often the purpose of these courses is litigation risk management.
  2. Professional development.
    Enlightened Learning and Development departments are very aware that human capital is the most important resource the organization has, and that facilitating employees to be self-directed, life-long learners will pay dividends in the end.
  3. Capability acquisition.
    Capability acquisition is the task of ensuring that workers have the knowledge and skills to do their jobs effectively. Some capabilities have relatively simple requirements, e.g., preparing a Subway sandwich according to store guidelines. However, many roles that are critical to the organization require that workers have complex sets of higher order skills. Often, knowledge workers need to be able to utilize processes and procedures that constitute the “secret sauce” of the company, whether this be a specific sales methodology, a certain approach to customer service, or the use of specified guidelines for underwriting an insurance application.

Compliance can often be addressed adequately through traditional training courses launched by the Learning Management System (LMS), especially if the learning objectives relate to simply being aware of laws, regulations, policies, and procedures.

While this seems pretty self evident on its face, it provides a rationale for why those who suggest we can do away with Learning Management Systems and formal training courses are incorrect. Informal learning that is not tracked and reported on simply doesn’t work for compliance training.

Professional development is an area where new approaches to learning can flourish. Many writers point out, correctly in my view, that a transition to self-directed learning can make professional development opportunities much more robust. Many of the newer “post-training” approaches to learning are great for this, including micro-learning (e.g. short videos), curated content, informal learning, knowledge bases and performance support systems, rapid eLearning, communities of practice, etc.

Capability acquisition, especially for complex jobs, is not something we want to leave to chance. Perhaps I’m just old school, but I believe that this is an area where the right Instructional Design and delivery can drive speed to proficiency that creates a sustainable competitive advantage to the organization. Training for such jobs requires more than simple content presentation; it almost always requires active engagement in which the learner assimilates new content, and has the opportunity to practice new skills – often in an environment where learners can learn from other learners.

However, such jobs are seldom mastered in a time-limited training event, and post training reinforcement and coaching is often helpful or necessary to lock in new skills.

Approaches such as structured social learning, serious games, simulations, and scenario-based learning can go well beyond narrated PowerPoint “eLearning” to build skills, and learning paths can help to sequence instruction and include post-training reinforcement and coaching.

Although many of my respected colleagues would differ with me on this, I believe that relying on self-directed and informal learning to drive to proficiency leaves too much to chance. We hope that managers will then “polish off” workers’ skills; however, hope is not a method.

As we decide (a) what approaches we will use to learning, (b) the skills we need Learning and Development professionals to have, and (c) the technology that will support us, we need to consider how we will support all three of these different but important requirements.

First published at https://elearningindustry.com/stop-with-the-future-of-learning

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There’s “stuff” and there’s “conversations about stuff.” And it’s the conversations that are the heart of collaboration.

A few years ago, we were helping a F500 customer develop their Vice President’s Leadership Program. It used an action learning model, and featured a 9-month project where each team would brief the company’s executive committee on their recommendations for new markets.

Collaboration between team members was essential – and the ability to collaborate was in fact one of the desired outcomes of the program.

Teams brainstormed on ideas. They divided up research tasks and reported results back to the group. They decided on a new market together. They determined how this would be presented to the executives and once again divided responsibilities for the creation and delivery of the presentation.

However, the team members were distributed across North America! The could only meet face to face three times during the nine months due to travel restrictions, and one of those meetings was to make the presentation.

How did they work together? They used three tools: The telephone for synchronous conversations, WebEx for synchronous meetings, and a robust discussion forum for doing the work. Individual topics within the forum organized their collaboration:

  • A topic for general conversations
  • A topic for maintaining records of meetings
  • One topic for each research area
  • One topic for follow-up ideas and discussions about the market area they finally chose
  • One topic for each section of the report, where drafts were posted, read by others, and comments made

We can characterize this collaboration as consisting of conversations for action around shared content. But the heart of the collaboration was not the documents (the content). Brainstorming, decision making and planning were done via conversation. Documents were the result. In fact, even the preparation of documents was conversational in nature, as drafts would be prepared, discussed, reviewed, and enhanced.

Having run a 100% virtual company for 15 years and launched any number of online business communities of various types, I have come to believe that conversations for action are at the heart of collaboration, not shared documents that anyone can edit and comment on. I’ve also come to believe that synchronous technologies are great for meetings, but fundamentally, meetings are not where the work or collaboration happens. They are bookends that frame the work. The majority of collaboration in distributed teams happens asynchronously, and the right tools need to be available for this. More on these tools in another post.

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spam-smallI was reading some posts in LinkedIn and ran across one on how to use LinkedIn groups to add value to your business. Written by a marketer for other marketers, one of the things the author recommended was scheduled auto-postings in groups. I find this practice disgusting and I have zero respect for companies that promote and use it.

Companies and their shills using these techniques are ruining LinkedIn’s communities. In community after community, marketing spam takes the place of interpersonal interaction – i.e., the essence of what communities were designed to be and promote.

The original notion of these communities is that they would offer venues for (in my case) Learning and Knowledge Management professionals to exchange ideas, share knowledge, and build professional networks. This is the essence of this type of this type of online social network – or as LinkedIn prefers to call it, community.

And there’s nothing wrong with building your reputation by participating in such communities; and there’s nothing wrong with offering resources to others. Unfortunately, that becomes a slippery slope.


I’m currently participating in half a dozen great discussions in LinkedIn groups, several of which I started. I’ve started some with a simple question. I’ve started others with a controversial position or question that is then backed up with a blog post; however, I try to ensure that people can discuss the topic without having to read the supporting post.

There’s a middle ground that I also participate in occasionally, posting a link to a webinar. I’m conflicted about this, because it doesn’t really promote community, and I do it only when (a) I am at the top or near top in being a group contributor, (b) 75% or more of the other recent posts are links out with no discussion, and (b) most importantly, I am offering the webinar primarily for the professional development of attendees and not simply to sell some product or other. But as I say I’m conflicted, and I respect the communities that disallow such posts.

The posts that I abhor are ones that

  • Are click bait, the purpose of which is simply to get you to click on their link
  • Are dishonest, with titles that promise or suggest the author is taking a substantive position on a professional issue and wants to start a discussion, but are then thinly veiled ads for their LMS or eLearning production services
  • Are not even authored by the poster, who is usually a director of marketing at the company
  • Are posted, presumably by an auto-poster, in scores of groups over and over, or better yet
  • Are posted multiple times – one after the other – in the same group.

I counted 40 posts in a row in one LinkedIn community by the same person – all click bait for a product pitch.

It’s the tragedy of the commons, and if these auto-posted click baits aren’t reined in, fewer and fewer professionals will come to LinkedIn communities that aren’t tightly moderated. It’s a disgusting marketing practice that people use to selfishly put themselves and their product promotion ahead of everyone else.

As a consultant, one thing I’m trying to do is to make note of companies that I see doing this over and over, and ensuring that when I help implementors to choose vendors, I specifically mention this type of practice and companies that do it to them.

How does everyone else feel about this? What do you recommend doing about it?

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collideI wrote a blog post called News Flash: A LOT of work is boring the other day. A colleague responded and said, “Hopefully the boring task is connected in some way to a greater purpose, such as to one of the missions or goals of the company.”

Perhaps I’m just in a weird mood this morning, but that got me thinking. In that other post, I took the example of claims processing as a fairly boring task. In this case, the company’s communications department could weave together a narrative that by processing claims quickly and accurately, they are helping suffering claimants get on with their lives.

Unfortunately, in this case, the SVP of Learning that insurer once said to me, very frankly, that claim adjusters are trained to find any reason they can to deny or limit the payout on a claim. When you think about it, that makes sense if the purpose of the claim process may be to add to short-term shareholder value by limiting the amount the company has to pay out. But it may not sit well with the individual claim adjuster or processor. So trying to motivate the person to learn by appealing to underlying values may be a losing proposition.

Is this an isolated example, or do many workers face situations where their personal values are not in sync with what constitutes doing the job “well” in the eyes of the line of business owner? Ignoring sick cattle in a slaughterhouse… Passing a weld or seal in a space shuttle that is marginal…  Denying a claim because of the letter of the law… Not reporting violations of civil liberties because it would buck the system… Working on a research grant that obviously has a political agenda…

What does this semi-rant have to do with learning and development? I guess it’s this. Often I read descriptions of motivating employees for training that seem aspirational in nature, and don’t match with the reality I see day to day. In my original post, for example, I suggested that the claim adjuster’s job was boring, and this needed to be taken into account in creating a training and development program. Now I’m also suggesting that talking about how important this job is may not be a “fix” for this, as it calls into question underlying values and may provoke an internal response of “bullshit.”

I guess my conclusion is that if we use interventions that rely on the internal desire of employees to be all that they can be and that assume that they are as motivated as we senior level consultants are, we may be fooling ourselves.

Or perhaps I just put too little sugar in my coffee this morning. What do you think?

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boring-smallMy great grandfather made bricks every day. My grandfather held down three jobs to put mom through college. My dad worked at a civil service job he cordially hated – when he had a heart problem that permitted a medical retirement, he refused to have a retirement ceremony – he never went back in the building.

Most of the claim processors I train do not get a tremendous amount of personal satisfaction from their work. They don’t get a lot of pay for it, either. Work is something they do for eight hours to pay the rent, so they can then live their lives.

I’d even hesitate a guess that there are a lot more workers like this than there are workers in fulfilling, interesting, high paying jobs within most enterprises.

It’s weird to me that in the learning field, we talk so much about knowledge workers, about creating positive attitudes towards ones job, about making content that is compelling and interesting. We talk about Enterprise 2.0 and the flattening of the organization. About collaboration and knowledge sharing.

Since the 70’s, we’ve been bombarded with “find your dream,” “follow your passion,” and somehow led to believe that fulfillment and financial sustainability will follow.

We don’t talk about my dad. We don’t talk about the claim adjusters I train. I believe that thinking about these folks and their phenomenal world has gotten way too little attention in our field.

How should this influence our practice?

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assimilateOne of the primary things I think about in designing learning experiences is the word assimilation. Assimilation is a term popularized by the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, and refers to the process of digesting information or experiences to incorporate them into our existing cognitive structures. I like the word digest, because – like with food – we must actively chew the information up in order for our minds to digest it; otherwise, most of the nutrition is lost and the majority of the new information simply eliminated (so to speak).

Assimilation is an active experience – in fact, it’s the psychological reason why we need to have learners actively involved in the learning process.

Without it, instruction is only broadcasting content and hoping learners absorb it.

And hope is not a method.

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electronic-coach-smallSometimes I see “coaches” in higher-end eLearning modules. For instance, there may be some circles with pictures of “coaches” in them. Each coach is there to answer a question. That answer may be text, or a talking head video that allows you to spend two or three minutes listening to what you could have read in 20% of that time.

Using them makes me think of talking to a brain-dead Siri. They are a failed attempt to simulate a live human interaction with another live human being. And honestly, I don’t see the point.

Why are they there? I guess that the answer is that it makes the eLearning more “interactive.”

Interactive. That’s an interesting word. It used to mean people interacting with people. Now it refers to people interacting with computers – or computers interacting with each other, I suppose.

The thing that’s missing with these electronic pseudo-coaches is a human interaction where you ask the coach a question and you receive an adaptive answer to your question. Then you ask another question and what ensues is, well, a dialog.

Enough with the pseudo-coaches. If the question is important enough to post a stock answer, then build it into the eLearning module. There’s no reason you need to have a fake coach answering a pre-programmed question. It’s a parody of a human interaction does not really humanize the situation. All it does is to allow you to market your product in a different way.

Worse, by suggesting that you’ve built coaching into the product, it might appear to the uninitiated that you’ve checked of the coaching checkbox, so nothing further needs to be done, and perpetuates the myth that all training can be done via eLearning modules.

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microlearning-smallI’ve been seeing some posts that suggest that micro-learning is the future of learning.

I certainly agree that micro-learning, curated content, “bite sized” learning and other forms of JIT (just-in-time) learning are extremely useful. Always have been, always will be. They may even be the shiny object that we will all chase after this month.

Is this the “Future Of Learning?” Not so much.

Bottom line – we need to do several things in L&D:

  • Compliance (litigation risk management) training. JIT isn’t a help here.
  • Up-skilling people for complex tasks and jobs. JIT is part of the puzzle, but not even a big part.
  • Getting answers to specific questions for a task I have at hand. JIT is ideal.

But JIT isn’t the future of learning. I’m not even sure it’s all that much of a new thing – perhaps old wine in a new bottle?

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ConvergenceThere has been a lot of talk over the years about the convergence of learning and knowledge management; I’d like to provide a concrete example.

Our customer was the 10,000 person IT department of a Fortune 50 organization, implementing a new time accounting/project management system, and extensive policies and procedures for their use.

They faced several challenges. The previous implementation of an early version of the software had failed, and only a small minority of employees were using it. However, failure now was not an option as time had to be accounted in the new version. There was little appetite for eLearning as the past training consisted of 160-slide eLearning megaliths. There were 300+ pages of arcane policies and procedures that had to be taught, which contained many procedures that simply didn’t work. And, of course, the software itself was complex.

Our solution was to first break the learning into small chunks like “start a project,” “close a project” or “create an order of magnitude estimate”. For each we taught the same way – a short CBT teaching principles followed by a demo and simulation.

But the heavy lifting was carried by the knowledge base we created. Its taxonomy followed the steps a project manager took during the life-cycle of a project. Each page was organized the same way. If it was a process page, it contained the inputs, outputs, responsibilities, time frame, and links to appropriate procedure pages. Each page also contained relevant resources, from P&P pages through Excel workbooks to links to appropriate experts’ profiles.

The last learning activity for each “chunk” was a scavenger hunt asking 10-15 questions for which the learner needed to go into knowledge base. Training time was dramatically reduced, as we trained to the tool, which was then persistently available for just-in-time learning afterwards. A spin-off benefit was that when P&Ps changed, the change could quickly be made in the knowledge base without needing expensive re-work of eLearning modules.

The customer was extremely happy with the solution. Not only did learners “take” to eLearning now that it was being done right, but training time was cut by 50% with a 96% completion rate. Manager surveys indicated that they were extremely satisfied with employee’s ability to use the new system. And best of all everyone’s getting paid, so something was done right!

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sponsor-smallIntroducing blended learning to the organization? Here are a few tips I’ve found helpful.

  1. Pick a high value initiative where there is a clear line of sight between a change in capability and a top or bottom line goal; failing that, alignment with a corporate strategic goal.
  2. Start with the executive sponsor. Make sure that she sees the problem, the cost of the problem, and the opportunity.
  3. Ensure, once again, that you did #2 completely and effectively. This is where I see the root cause of a large number of failed blended learning initiatives.
  4. Clearly agree with the executive sponsor on what you need from her for the initiative to succeed. Examples include her letting managers know that she will be personally attending to adoption and success metrics; partnering with peers as required to ensure that SMEs will be available; ensuring that learners will be released for the time required to participate in the program, etc.
  5. Identify (or develop) performance metrics. Partner with sponsors, HR or line managers as needed, but strive to have metrics in place for a level 3 evaluation. The question “how will we know if learners can apply skills on the job” is pretty darned similar to the basic questions that should be asked in performance appraisal, to create partnerships to address this fundamental issue.

Finally, here are a couple architecture-level issues that should be thought through before moving to the design level.

  • Will the program be cohort-based? Cohort-based means that a group of people will go through the blended learning activities together as a group. The important question here is, will it be important to integrate social learning into the design? For example, in such things as leadership instructor-led training, we pretty much always integrate large group discussion and small group activities such as case studies into the design.
  • Will part of the program be real-time?  You can design a cohort-based program that uses discussion forums for a case study, or you can use a classroom environment. For certain objectives like sales call skills and presentation skills, you almost have to have a face-to-face component.
    In either of these cases, the complexity of delivery goes up exponentially. Learners and instructors need to be scheduled, provision made for learners who cannot attend, and managers cry piteously about learners’ absence from work. This then goes back to #2 above – you need to get buy-in from executive sponsors at the least, and line managers as well in optimal situations.
  • Will you incorporate on-the-job coaching and reinforcement into the program? If so, who will identify appropriate assignments (managers?)? Who will provide coaching (managers? coaches? peers?)? Will there be periodic times when learners share what they’ve learned? Again, this may well drive to proficiency much faster, but will add a layer of complexity you must plan for.

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