Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Who have you left out?

When you're designing training courses* do you ever give any thought to the people who aren't going to participate? No, of course not, they're out of scope. The question I put to you is, should they be?

I've been attending an early stage pilot of a new module in our leadership training programme. As is customary with these things a senior member of staff was on hand at the start and end of the day to put things in context**. When he came in at the end he'd been listening to participants' feedback for only a few minutes when he interjected.

"You're all referring to managers. You're not managers. You're leaders. Managing is the old way of doing things. We need you to lead."

Now, you can rehash the old managers vs leaders debate endlessly***, but the outburst struck me as significant for a particular reason, following, as it did, the course facilitator's reminder that 70% of people who attend such training will try to put what they have learnt into practice, but will give up. Why? Because changing habits is hard.

The idea that this person-higher-up-the-structure had referred to wasn't new; it was the message from the previous stage in our training programme. Everyone in the room had learnt this once upon a time, but they'd forgotten it. They'd fallen into old habits. What's more they had been taken out of the workplace in small groups to be told this, then sent back to their desk without those around them knowing that things were supposed to be different. Job titles, importantly, didn't change either.

What is called habit at an individual level is, at a group or organisational level, called culture. And, being the social animals that we are, by and large, what goes on around us is what we find ourselves doing in order to fit in. Culture shapes habit. This ain't rocket science, or remarkable insight, it's what we all know. As a smart person once said, "culture eats strategy for breakfast."

So if you're launching a major cultural change, like for example getting people to adopt a new terminology or change the way they communicate, it's not enough to only inform some of your people, even if you expect them to be the ones to model the change, you need to inform everyone. And what's more, it may not simply be enough to tell them, you may need to help them understand why, so they'll feel included and won't simply ignore the change.

So how would I approach a cultural shift like this? 

For one, I wouldn't work with slowly rolled out face to face training, just touching necessarily small numbers at a time. You need everyone to go through it quickly together so its impact is felt simultaneously. And I wouldn't bank on a short touch course to create a lasting effect, you need to reinforce the message over time. For me, a MOOC would do this better than many alternatives - you can always back up key bits with face to face if it is important and genuinely can't be done digitally*4. 

And I wouldn't limit messages that are key to the lasting success, like changes in common vocabulary, to some elect group; throw it wide and tell everyone. It needn't be the same message, in fact it's probably better that it isn't, but you need to get everyone's buy in and some times you need to start something from the centre to achieve that, rather than scattering seed and hoping to reap beautiful blooms some months from now. 

* Okay, call it "learning experience" or whatever. 
** I'm always impressed with how much time our top level leaders will give to these things - he'd wanted to stay all day but had been banished by one of the project leads for fear of influencing the day.
*** I've got a number of problems with it: you don't need staff to be a leader, leaders don't do day to day stuff - they have lieutenants for that, and so on...
*4 and that's a whole different story.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

3 mysterious "features" of the LMS experience that ruin them for me


I've been working with LMSs for a long time and with everyone there are some common moans. Here are a couple that leapt out at me today. Remember, my experience is in large corporate LMSs, often from big global providers. Yours might be different. I hope that it is - I've certainly heard good things about some companies' offers. By all means enlighten me in the comments.

1. "Timing out"

A perennial problem, my LMS booting me out after a period, usually unknown, seems to afflict me on whatever LMS I'm working on. I've fiddled with settings and tried to get to grips with this, but it seems a standard feature. Security is often invoked as a justification, but what exactly is being secured is beyond me. In a couple of cases, where the LMS is bolted on to a HRIS (HR Information System) you often find the parent HRIS timing out while you are in the LMS. Data is often okay, but it's annoying anyway, especially since this is usually ignored in the interface.

2. Launching content in a new window

One of the bread and butter calls to LMS support, new users are always caught out when the pop-up blocker kicks in and stops content open in a new window. Why? Because almost nowhere else in the Internet user experience do pop-ups feature (I can only think of one - banking. Oh, and the pop-out radio iPlayer. That's it). Scorm seems to be the reason for it. Hateful. In a world of content consumed on pages like YouTube, this just seems an anachronism.

3. Lack of customisation, general ugliness

More an outcome of my experience working with large corporate LMSs, I suspect, but there's always something odd about interacting with LMSs that takes me back several years. I think it's perhaps because UI designers were rarely a part of early LMS development and the way in which the systems were originally structured, leaving them look like clumsy VBasic front ends to Access. Having since worked with very customisable CMSs like WordPress or even Moodle, I find the way in which elements on a page are rigidly applied, and even the fonts imposed, takes me back to 1999.

Aw, so I promised 3. I thought of two more while I was at it...

4. Dreadful labels appearing in the user's view

Codes, labels, filenames. These are all things the user rarely seems to know, but which often crop up somewhere in the user's view as they navigate around. I appreciate sometimes it's useful to have a definitive reference to what you are looking at, but this kind of thing should be hidden until needed. If you do need to foreground some peice of information that is important, make sure it's user intelligible.

5. Mystery navigation

In almost every LMS I've worked in, I've found myself stumbling across user features that I'd not known were there months or even years after I started working with it. That's partly because as a learning designer most of my interaction is with the back-end, but if we're honest that's probably only slightly less often than most end users, so they are probably in a similar situation. It's an element of feature creep, I suspect because most LMS companies are reactive in developing features, rather than proactive, so it's incremental changes to the underlying system rather than thinking up something entirely new. I fear if it had been up to them, LMS developers would have delivered us somewhat bigger, somewhat quicker technicolour horses before thinking up the Model T Ford, if you catch my drift.


In this day and age, would I ever buy an LMS? I'm not sure I would. At least, I'd have a very long list of hygiene features I'd be looking at before I considered one.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Elearning. L&D's hard to kick habit?

I was talking about elearning design with a colleague recently and we wondered briefly what constraints we had on ourselves that we ourselves imposed.

  • Scrolling seems so self-evidently the right solution to lots of text, yet lots of authoring tools are predicated on a fixed screen format of design that not simply encourages the text 'n next approach to learning design.
  • Similarly, a lot of elearning follows an eerily family format of a couple of screens of text, perhaps with a non-essential, thematically linked image or two, perhaps sprinkled with "engaging" click-to-reveal interactions then a question.
  • It's quite normal to see all sorts of audio controls on the chrome of the player, despite the fact that Windows has separate volume controls, as do most computers (on dedicated buttons), speakers and many headphones.

Now clearly, I'm creating something of a straw man here. There are lots of people (our team included) who no longer see elearning in these terms and have not problem designing solutions that are quite different.

  • It's my suspicion that the fixed screen harks back to PowerPoint, either in the design of the "rapid development" tools that mimic it (Storyline is but one example) or in a literal interpretation of scripts written in PowerPoint.
  • Audio controls seem to be an artifact of trying to create standalone "learning apps" that remind me of the sorts of CBTs put out on CD-ROM in the earliest days of my working life on versions of Windows that weren't as slick as we're accustomed to now.

These vestiges of a bygone era are by no means something that solely afflicts elearning. There are strong cognitive biases in all of us that encourage this - we enjoy the familiar and resist change consciously and unconsciously. Colleagues in IT or finance will doubtless tell similar tales of how "we've always done it this way" thinking holds back developments there. Much like the default solution to any "L&D problem" being "a course".

But go to an off the shelf provider, or indeed, some bespoke elearning design companies, and something constrained by some or all of these vestiges of a time since past will be what you get. And your learners won't thank you for it. They won't say anything. They'll just ignore you.

Microsoft invented the tablet computer, but they made it like Windows because they've always made things like Windows. People ignored it. When somebody else came along with a fresh new take, the iPad, people loved it*.

So win your learners gratitude and appreciation by trying to think differently. Think about what you have at your disposal now, not what your elearning forebears had once upon a time, and create a kick ass modern solution to your current problem.

*granted, there were other elements like the size of batteries and processors that made a better design possible, but bolted on to a modified desktop UI, the iPad would have not been the success it was with iOS aboard.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Drunk at work? No, just resting...

I know I don't get enough sleep. I really struggle with it. There's always so much churning around in my head that it takes quite a long time to fall asleep, and once there, I am prone, like very many, to waking in the middle of the night with the mixer still on, seemingly only able to drift off once again just before the alarm sounds...

So when my colleagues in the CSR team arranged a lecture by Dr Vicki Culpin of Ashridge Business School on the topic of sleep I was one of the first to sign up. Quite simply, it was one of the best talks I've attended in a long time.


Culpin is a very engaging speaker, and as the string of letters after her name will attest, immensely qualified. This gave her a great mix of both style and substance. Speaking to the first of two "sell out" audiences in the lecture theatre at our Bristol office, the first part of Vicky's talk was a simply presented lecture backed up by artfully simple slides presenting eye-catching facts that enabled her to elaborate on her subject.
Adults who regularly sleep fewer than 6 hours per night may have a four times greater risk of stroke symptoms 
Reduction of sleep by only 1.5 hours per night for only one night can result in a reduction of daytime alertness by 32%
Perhaps the one that made a big impact on the group was the revelation that 17 hours of sustained wakefulness can lead to performance impairment equivalent to drinking two glasses of wine. To put it another way, if you've been on the go since 6am (easy enough when, say, commuting to London) by 11pm you're as good as drunk (even without hitting the FGW buffet carriage bar on the way home), so forget about working late to finish that report for the next day - you just won't be able to do it justice. In our context, financial services, this was considered a very real risk end-of-quarter or end-of-year results time when our actuaries/finance department can be working incredibly hard to get the numbers together.

The real value of Culpin's expertise, however, become all the more apparent in the the second half or more of her talk. She parked PowerPoint in favour of responding to questions from the keen, and unusually alert audience. I won't list everything she said, but here are a couple of key points that I scrawled down:
  • The Tablet menace is real. The reported harm from blue light in flat screens is a very real phenomenon and, by virtue of its similarity to natural light from the sun, interferes with the melatonin production in our brains, making sleepfulness harder to achieve. Ditch your iPad, phone or even flatscreen TV at least an hour before bed. Related to this, if you do wake at night, try to avoid switching the light on for the same reason.
  • Exercise does have a useful effect on improving sleep, but it should be done at least an hour and half before bed time. One way the body recognises the need to rest is a raised body temperature, which exercise of course achieves, but another way to fool the body into thinking it has exercised is to have someone blow on your cheeks. No, I didn't fully believe this one either, but Dr Vicky was quite adamant about it.
  • With my son about to hit his teens, I perked up my ears when someone asked about teenagers and sleep. They can need up to 12 hours a night, but for other reasons, at precisely the same time they are likely to be going to bed ever later. In particular, phones, tablets and gaming can be very detrimental to their sleep patterns at a very important stage in their brains development - particularly in light of sleep's value in learning.
  • A sleep cycle is about 90 minutes long, with a short period in light sleep, then a longer dip into deep REM sleep. If you are going to nap, try to avoid going in to deep sleep unless you have time to get a full cycle done, as waking during the REM cycle can be quite unpleasant and disorientating (you know how you feel when having to traipse out of a hotel after fire alarm goes off). One trick for getting a nap without going too far is to hold a set of keys. At just the moment you begin to drift from light sleep into deeper sleep, your muscles relax and you drop the keys. The noise should wake you up.
There was loads more that I could relate, but I would suggest that if you want to know more then the best you can do is look to get your company to book Dr Culpin. Given the risk of damage to your business that a load of people behaving as if they are drunk might cause, you should be able to get a solid case together.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Optimism - L&D's vice

With election fever gripping the nation (ahem), I've been thinking a bit about polling and it occurs to me that we are subject to some of the same errors that cause pollsters eggy faces after the election - you know, where the media outlets start their witch-hunt to find out why the predicted outcome didn't match the one we got.

One of the standard tropes for communiques from companies and organisations of all sorts involved in L&D is the line that "we expect to see a growth in area x" in the next 12 months, using the old approach "everyone else is doing it so you should too".

If reality matched the shiny future projected by the results of these surveys, then L&D would be a rude state of health, perfectly aligned with the needs of business, skillfully blended solutions at every turn, making the most of advanced online tools and, well, you know, yada-yada-yada...

Given that I've completed a couple such surveys recently, and knowing the people I do, I can see the flaw in this approach: L&D people tend toward optimism. We're interested in making the world, or at least the workplace, better. And moving toward that better future involves imagining us and our colleagues in it, and hoping we'll be there a little quicker than we might actually manage it.

So while we're responding to these requests for information on where we see ourselves in a year's time we may tend toward gilding that future with a bit more budget, or fewer last minute requests for data from the LMS, or more time to talk our clients in to accepting something new and exciting instead of rehashing trusted (but tired?) solutions. With all that in mind we might overreach and fill our window shopping basket with a shinier vision of the future than we might be able to grab.

And what's wrong in that? While we are still thinking of trying new solutions and implementing new approaches we are still engaged with the field, listening to our peers and trying to make things better for the people we are here to serve.

So you know what, while I keep seeing wildly optimistic projections for future uptake of the latest trend, I'll relax because it's a sign that the future is still rosy.

Monday, June 30, 2014

When social is a taxing problem

One of the projects I've been keen to push on with my current employer is extending our elearning provision beyond the isolated horrors of the self-study elearning "course" to more collaborative social opportunities. In this respect we're quite lucky; with our current performance and learning management suite provider we have access to an advanced, mature enterprise social network (ESN) platform that is integrated with current user profiles. Extending access to new users is simply a process of adding that permission to their profile and they are in.

So far, so good. After a few months of softly rolling out to small, targeted groups, we find ourselves gaining traction and on the cusp of embracing a couple of higher profile groups to drive up activity. Best of all, we are now finding that groups and teams are approaching us requesting access to the system. This kind of exclusive, user driven adoption is exactly the kind of thing that we wanted to happen with our low-key social project and augers well for the future, as and when we make a decision on which platform to finally go for (despite the obvious advantages for me as a learning person of choosing one integrated with our systems, that may yet not prove to be best in the collective business interest).

However, it has brought to light one problem that I hadn't foreseen, or indeed, have heard of elsewhere.

As with most large organisations, we have a pool of contract employees that have been drafted in to help in particular parts of the business where we need to be flexible about numbers. One of those disciplines that has approached us for a social platform to help them comprises quite a few contractors. It seems an obvious solution to their problem:

  • contractors and "permies" are dispersed across different parts of the business, isolated from one another in their specific discipline
  • they are technically adept and as a group predisposed to early adoption - the idea of social networking in the work space is not one that, on the whole, would meet much resistance - indeed they are seeking it out
  • it's quite possible a lot of the audience in scope have experience working at other financial services organisations which could be useful and relevant to people on projects across our business (confidentiality and data protection issues notwithstanding).
Unfortunately, our contractor management company have raised a concern over offering ESN to contracted workers. Their legal person wants us to be sure that our social platform won't cause us to fall foul of Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs! 

The notion of the tax man as a barrier to social adoption is entirely new to me. The concern, that we are working together to overcome, is that a social network may constitute a work place feature that might be expected to be limited to permanent employees only. 

The key word here seems to be "social". For example, for similar reasons, contracted workers are not able to attend our summer party as for them to do so would give the impression that they are being treated as regular staff, and as such their status, and the tax perks it carries, would be in question. 

We're fairly sure that with careful management of permissions we should be able to allay their fears, but I'd love to know if anyone else has come across any similar barriers. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

"Enlighten us but make it quick"

That's the cry of Igniteers everywhere. I've attended, spoken at and organised Ignites for (checks date of earliest posts) nearly four years. Since running the first one I've always thought they'd make a great contribution to my favourite* annual exhibition Learning Technologies.

Since then, LT has grown and it's even gained a sibling, Learning and Skills. It's bigger and better than ever. And at last, it has Ignite.

Meet Ignite Learning Technology and Skills, or Ignite LTS if you will.

We're looking for eight speakers to come and enlighten and entertain on our stage for an hour on day one of the exhibition. We'll be videoing the results and sharing them from the official LT YouTube channel!

If you have an idea for a talk, tell us about it. Not so sure? Talk to us on Twitter and let's see if we can't help you refine that idea.


* yes, I'll really confess to that. Until you've taken time off to attend at your own cost you're in the minor leagues of appreciation.