Speed to Proficiency     Creating a sustainable competitive advantage

CAT | Learning design

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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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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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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