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.