Speed to Proficiency     Creating a sustainable competitive advantage

Archive for October 2015

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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Teaching-Writing-smallThere are a lot of jobs where people need to write accurately, behaviorally, concisely, and completely. As a professor, I was responsible for ensuring that psychology majors acquired writing skills. I did so by having them write short papers. I would review them with specific feedback, and require that the papers be rewritten. As an author, my copy editors would do the same for me. This isn’t rocket science. The way to teach writing is to have learners write.

Unfortunately, this is not possible in an eLearning course. It’s almost impossible in a virtual instructor-led course, and it’s difficult at best in a face-to-face instructor-led course that doesn’t meet repeatedly over time.

If, however, we are muddy enough with our learning objectives, we can pretend that we are teaching people to write when actually we are familiarizing them with the rules of good writing or teaching them to recognize problems in writing samples. Neither of these teaches people to write.

Within the context of organizational learning, this is a problem. In my view, it’s a big problem.

We can’t keep pretending that if we throw out enough YouTube content, MOOCs, and narrated PowerPoint, supplemented with content library and VILT courses, we are preparing people to be ready to do their jobs.

Teaching writing involves having people write. This can be done with a blended learning program or learning path that includes activities over time, but I’m not sure how else one can do it.

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LMS Bolt-ons

bolt-onBolting on social media or content management to an LMS is vastly different than integrating these features.

If an LMS says it supports informal learning, social learning, content or knowledge management, or performance support, these features need to be integrated, not bolted on. Why – and how can you tell the difference?

An integrated feature has the same user experience. The screen has the same standard features in the same standard places, enabling the user to use the feature without learning a new interface.

Features work across the platform, when a feature is integrated. There is one help system that addresses all features, and the search function looks through all content on the system (i.e. courses, discussions, and content).

Features interact with one another. Courses may have attached forums. Content can be attached to communities or courses. Users can start discussions with other users about how to best use information found in a performance support or knowledge base document.

There is a single point of user management. When adding a new user to a group, or identifying a user’s role, the user’s permissions to communities and content should all be granted in the same way that their permissions to courses are.

There is a single point of reporting. Completion of courses, participation in communities, and resource utilization should all be tracked and displayed on integrated dashboards.

If an LMS simply bolts on these features with simple APIs, the user experience is disjointed, and administrator’s experience can resemble the Dante’s seventh circle of hell. The end result is that the features are not used.

(If you’re interested in more information on this, sign up for the free webinar: Beyond the LMS: 21st Century Learning Systems, October 6 at 2:00 eastern.)

Your thoughts?

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no-training-smallWe need to match the medium to the massage, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan. So when is instructor-led training appropriate, v. using eLearning modules, informal learning, or simple performance support tools?

  • When content is in development. If you must teach users how to use a new computer system that is still in development, there’s nothing worse than developing the same eLearning module two or three times.
  • When developing the skill requires it. If you are teaching a person to give an effective presentation, and part of the skill is their body language and voice tone, it’s pretty hard to have them practice the skill and get your feedback if you aren’t face to face.
  • When small group interaction is important. When teaching a mid-level leadership class (perhaps on the best way to create a work breakdown structure for project management), it’s often useful to have a case study, or other small group activities that allow learners to learn from other learners. Unless your LMS and corporate culture allow blended social learning activities together with content, you may want to facilitate this with ILT (instructor-led training).
  • When expert Q&A is important. Some subjects, like working with troubled employees, have lots of tricky situations where there may be alternative right answers, or least bad solutions. In law school, the Socratic case study method is often employed. In cases where much of the learning comes from Q&A with the instructor, it’s handy to have – well – a live instructor.
  • When building relationships is a goal. In cross-functional high performing leadership training, one goal is sometimes for future leaders in different disciplines to get to know each other and build relationships that will help them partner in the future. Again, in such situations, it’s handy if the can have lunch together.

This is not to say that much (or perhaps even most) face-to-face and web-based classes can’t be converted to eLearning, or even done away with altogether (in favor of performance support tools and access to colleagues who can show people best practices on the job). But we cannot simply throw away instructional and social interaction in a rush to take all our training online.

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babyinbath-smallThere is a distressing trend to leave social learning out of training – especially when that training is delivered online.

Sometime we pretend to include social learning in eLearning with “ask the coach” buttons. Personally, I find these worse than useless. They take a half dozen softball questions and have a learner-avatar ask the question of a coach-avatar, when they could simply embed the answer in the training itself. That’s not Q&A. A question is a learner asking for a concept they didn’t understand to be explained using different words or examples. A question is a learner asking how a concept applies in their ‘unique’ situation. An answer should be a live human being providing adaptive response to the question.

If we go back to how the best face-to-face training programs are conducted, it’s not 100% lecture. In fact, I’d suggest it isn’t 50% lecture. Social activities include breakouts, Q&As, case studies, and all the “break times” where learners chat with each other about their work.

If we want to provide true instruction rather than simple content presentation – the poorest form of “training” – we must use a blended approach and use synchronous or asynchronous technologies such as web meetings, discussion forums, or even the venerable conference call to allow learners to learn from the instructor and each other.

I don’t know about you, but I used to learn 90% of what I retained from the social activities in training, not the lectures. Let’s not throw out the social baby the bathwater as we move classes to eLearning modules.

Adapted from Speed to Proficiency: Creating a Sustainable Competitive Advantage. (c) Bill Bruck, Ph.D., 2015 (paperback and Kindle)

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