Archive for April 2007

We are privileged to work with a number of companies who are known worldwide for their expertise in specific areas of management, sales, technology, and service delivery. Many of them have been recognized as “best of class” – sometimes for decades – in delivering training in their unique approach to what they do. What they all have in common is that while their world-class training has historically been delivered face-to-face, their customers are now asking them to deliver portions of it online, and yet to retain their ability to customize the training when required.

Many of these companies – who do not have a core competency in online learning – are looking towards an LCMS-based approach to help them in this transition. On the surface, a learning content management system (LCMS) seems to be exactly what the doctor ordered. We believe that this is an approach that will not, in fact, create the world-class online learning programs they aspire to, and would recommend instead what we call the blended “last mile” approach.

The LCMS Approach

The LCMS approach has several attractive benefits, but also some costs associated with each.

Create content: One of the first things that strikes the buyer is that you can create content right there within the tool. It’s one stop shopping.

Manage content: Better yet, content is stored centrally with version control and often check-in/check-out, so teams of developers can work together, and content can be easily modified to meet individual customers’ needs.

Map objectives:  To customize your courses, you can create a number of small learning objects that each map to a learning objective, and then automatically assemble them into a course.

Adapt content: Best of all, pre-tests can be developed that will then automatically construct courses and modules that focus on exactly what the learner needs.

This approach is especially attractive in what we like to think of as “the Home Depot” type situation, where (a) you have thousands of topics that you need to manage training for; (b) there is a lot of churn in the information; (c) the information is very straightforward (often vocabulary, concept and procedures), and thus (d) the learning objectives are at the lower end of Bloom’s taxonomy – listing benefits, describing features, and recognizing appropriate uses.

The LCMS approach has more problems when you have a core set of content consisting of more sophisticated concepts, and you need learners to use higher order critical thinking tools such as making choices based on reasoned argument, generalizing from a set of given facts, making predictions, drawing conclusions, and the like. This is because the strengths of the LCMS approach also contain its weaknesses.

  • The strength of the LCMS is its ability to create an “atomic” view of the subject matter, where the overall topic is broken down into small units that can be combined and recombined at will. While this is appropriate for the “home depot” type situation, it is not at all clear that many sophisticated sets of IP can be disassembled in this way.
  • Specifically, if you attempt to break down your IP into a large number of small modules, the resulting “molecular”-type products may be more page-turning in nature.
  • The content created in the LCMS can often only be edited in the same LCMS; thus locking you into one tool (remembering that most organizations switch their LMS every 3-5 years…)
  • There are several fundamental assumptions that may not map well to higher-order learning.
    • There is a one-to-one correspondence between learning objectives and learning objects.
    • The best way to teach a set of learning objectives is to teach them one-by-one with a set of learning objects that can be assembled on the fly.
    • What is to be taught is something called “content” – often content that has “right and wrong” answers, as opposed to teaching the adaptive application of fundamental principles to complex real-world situations.

A blended “last mile” approach

An alternative to the LCMS approach is what we call the blended “last mile” approach, and is useful when the following conditions are met:

  • You have a body of intellectual property (IP) that you wish to transmit to others.
  • This IP consists of a set of core principles and a set of practices around the effective application of them.
  • Mastery matters. It is important that people be truly proficient in applying their skills and knowledge in live situations. This implies that they be able to use such critical thinking skills as analyzing, evaluating, abstracting – and that they be able to not only apply standard procedures, but adapt them or develop new ones in “edge” situations.

In situations like this, we’ve found the following to be effective:

  1. Standardize the teaching of principles. Keep your core IP standard – the vocabulary, concepts and procedures; the underlying principals, the thinking frameworks, and the like. Find the best way to teach this, and devote some real resources to doing it right.If the instruction will be delivered at a distance, consider high-end eLearning, using scenario-based training with social simulations and the like. If interpersonal skills are central (as they are, for instance, in teaching sales), consider a program which minimizes face time by teaching concepts via eLearning, then a face-to-face workshop for call skills.

  2. Modify the interactive aspects of training. Start with a bank of model activities: case studies, worksheets, incident analyses, small group discussions, stretch assignments, and action plans.Customize these activities to go the “last mile” of training, making them fit your customers’ unique situations, employing their unique metaphors and jargon, addressing their markets, and integrating their workflow.

  3. Move from a training event to a learning process. Use a learning delivery system like our xPERT eCampus to deploy the blended program. To reduce time to proficiency, ensure that 50% of seat time is spent over several weeks applying skills on the job with feedback and coaching, using the customized activities you’ve developed above.

The result can be a program that reduces time to proficiency by applying your core IP to your customers in customized ways, while minimizing the expense of modifications and rolling out a truly world-class learning program.

How can I get started?

There’s a right way and a wrong way to go about creating such a world-class learning program.

The right way is to have a master game plan in place before moving forward.

The wrong way is to create basic (read cheap) content initially to get started, with the aspiration that once that’s in place, you’ll improve it and add on the more advanced pieces.

Unfortunately, that’s a little like thinking you’ll start with a dinghy, and then add on the additional sails and a few feet more length to turn it into a racing sloop. The dinghy is what it is, and if later you want to build a sloop, you need to start from scratch.

The critical mistake you can make is by starting with the wrong platform (an LCMS rather than a delivery platform), the wrong content (simple page-turning eLearning that address single simple learning objectives v. sophisticated social simulations that teach a suite of objectives at once), and most of all, the wrong design (LCMS-based content v. proficiency-based blended learning); all of which lead to the wrong commitment of resources, vendors, and budgets – which are then much harder to change in the long run.

The Pareto time principle is nowhere more true than in situations like this. Spending 20% on the front end can literally save you 80% on the back end. Start by teaming with a firm whose solutions architects share your vision for the world-class training you aspire to create, and who can create a road-map that shows you the route to take to get you there.

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Apr/07

27

Goal Tending

goaliglovesOne of the things I find most fascinating (and frustrating) about games is that typically you’re not modeling an external goal-set, but are creating one out of whole cloth — and thus one that the potential user must find attractive, engaging, and fulfilling.  It sets a whole new bar on software “usability.”This observation by my friend Mike Sellers, a long-time game industry exec who is chief alchemist at http://www.onlinealchemy.com/, got me thinking about the issue of identifying goals, and how this process becomes more complex when one is involved with getting individuals to align in the service of organizational goals.When we’re selling software, the first set of goals we need to meet are those of the people making the buying decision.

The buyers’ goals may, or may not be in alignment with the goals of the people who will be asked to actually use the software.

In the case of collaboration software and training software, disconnects of this sort may result in the successful sale of a license or hosting contract followed by a project which never quite gets off the ground.

The thing is, unlike those in the gaming industry, we e-learning and collaboration folk are charged with facilitating the process of our users getting real work done.  Our users are being paid to serve actual goals.  So we are relieved from the daunting challenge of creating goals, but this also means we really need to resist the all-too-frequent temptation to simply imagine we know what those goals are and what participants need in order to fulfill them, and thus “create an external goal-set of whole cloth.”

Often, this means we need to do some actual research into just what the goals of the people doing the work are, how those align (or fail to align) with the goals of the organization, and figure out just how much change management needs to be baked into the processes of launching  administering, and participating in a new community space or training program.  In order to achieve an alignment which results in greater productivity for the organization through a process which feels attractive, engaging, and fulfilling for the people who are doing the heavy lifting, we really have to have a good understanding of the environment in which these folks operate, so that our model of the external goal-set bears some actual resemblance to the one already in place. 

One of the things I find most fascinating (and frustrating) about games is that typically you’re not modeling an external goal-set, but are creating one out of whole cloth — and thus one that the potential user must find attractive, engaging, and fulfilling.  It sets a whole new bar on software “usability.”This observation by my friend Mike Sellers, a long-time game industry exec who is chief alchemist at http://www.onlinealchemy.com/, got me thinking about the issue of identifying goals, and how this process becomes more complex when one is involved with getting individuals to align in the service of organizational goals.When we’re selling software, the first set of goals we need to meet are those of the people making the buying decision.

The buyers’ goals may, or may not be in alignment with the goals of the people who will be asked to actually use the software.

In the case of collaboration software and training software, disconnects of this sort may result in the successful sale of a license or hosting contract followed by a project which never quite gets off the ground.

The thing is, unlike those in the gaming industry, we e-learning and collaboration folk are charged with facilitating the process of our users getting real work done.  Our users are being paid to serve actual goals.  So we are relieved from the daunting challenge of creating goals, but this also means we really need to resist the all-too-frequent temptation to simply imagine we know what those goals are and what participants need in order to fulfill them, and thus “create an external goal-set of whole cloth.”

Often, this means we need to do some actual research into just what the goals of the people doing the work are, how those align (or fail to align) with the goals of the organization, and figure out just how much change management needs to be baked into the processes of launching  administering, and participating in a new community space or training program.  In order to achieve an alignment which results in greater productivity for the organization through a process which feels attractive, engaging, and fulfilling for the people who are doing the heavy lifting, we really have to have a good understanding of the environment in which these folks operate, so that our model of the external goal-set bears some actual resemblance to the one already in place.

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Apr/07

26

Where have all the bloggers gone?

We were looking at our eLearning and Knowledge Management blog rolls, and it seems like about a third of the folks who were very excited about blogging in the eLearning space have not posted to their blogs in three to six months.

Wonder what’s up with that?

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Apr/07

19

What is “Participation”?

rowersJacqui Cheng over at Ars Technica notes that voyeurism still rules the web 2.0 world.  She refers to a speech this week by Hitwise analyst Bill Tancer at the Web 2.0  expo in San Francisco:

According to the report, only 0.16 percent of YouTube’s total traffic is made up of users who upload videos. Similarly, only 0.2 percent of Flickr’s regular users are there to upload photos. Wikipedia was the only “Web 2.0” type site in the report that had decent numbers, but even its participation was relatively low at 4.59 percent of visitors adding or editing Wikipedia entries.

This is pretty terrific news for people who are trying to drive page-views – it seems just a few contributors are enough to attract a sizeable viewing audience.

It’s a little less encouraging for folks who are trying to build vibrant social and collaboration spaces online, however. Good conversation and good teamwork require a balance of give and take.  In its absence, what we end up with is more akin to lecture or broadcasting.

It’s useful to be aware that the default behavior in online space is viewing, not posting.  Armed with this knowledge, we can, from the very beginning of a new space, put in the extra effort and planning which is required to set a tone which makes clear that in our space, full participation is expected, and that to fully participate is to contribute regularly.  Common strategies we can employ include:

  • Charging community/project managers with regularly contributing topics for discussion or analysis
  • Explicitly requesting input from participants, by name, on issues being discussed (There are probably a dozen posts each week in our internal space which end with “Val, Dianne, thoughts?”)
  • Publicizing accomplishments of participants in the space in venues outside the space. (We were stuck on the project until Dennis posted this great idea in the collaboration space!)

Highly participatory online space is an achievable goal. But like most efforts to overcome inertia, it requires some energy input on the front end!

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Apr/07

13

Communities 2.0

I cannot say enough good things about John Hagel’s Communities 2.0 post. It’s a longish article, but well worth the read, both for folks who are actively involved in creating virtual communities and for those just trying to understand what communities are and how they can be used to further business interests.

One of the things I like best about the article is the differentiation of virtual communities from other virtual spaces. According to Hagel, virtual communities involve

  • establishing connections on electronic networks among people with common needs
  • so that they can engage in shared discussions
  • that persist and accumulate over time
  • leading to complex webs of personal relationships and an increasing sense of identification with the overall community

These elements allow them to evolve shared meaning, trust and motivation in a way that differentiates them from other sites like social networking sites, content aggregation sites and electronic markets.

Readers familiar with our philosophy of communities may recall that one of our rallying cries is “collaboration is about people.” To that end we’ve tried to create heuristics for our communities that revolve around people and relationships, rather than just content and structure.

As our customer base has grown and found new ways to apply our software to their particular challenges, we’ve certainly added features that reflect more social networking and content aggregation, but I believe that it’s our continued focus on the people aspects of community that make us a premier choice for virtual communities.

Check out the posting and tell us what you think!

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Apr/07

12

Codes of Conduct

circleslashThe current flurry of interest in the idea of a code of conduct for bloggers is a bit amusing to veterans of community building on the Internet.  The issues being raised now about the costs freedom of expression exacts have been well-known since the days when Usenet News first gave anyone with an Internet connection a global platform for self-expression, way back in 1979.

It seems to me that where it is not possible to establish shared norms for what constitutes acceptable conduct, what exists falls something short of a community. It may be a network. It may be a universe. But if you can’t define what bad behavior looks like within it, and you can’t kick people out of it for failing to refrain from bad behavior, what you’ve got is something which lacks an essential element of community: shared culture.

Out here in the wild and woolly blogosphere, we do not have such a community. We do have some smaller sub-communities, and they have some standards.  Learning Circuits, for example, will pull my comments to their blog if I use their space to start promoting my product. They are considering developing some statement of expectations for the affiliated blogs which address their “Big Question”, too. But the truth is, while they can decline to link to this blog if I fall afoul of their standards, there’s nothing to stop me from referencing them when I write things they would prefer not to be associated with.  It’s just that I’m unlikely to do so, because I consider these folks my colleagues and I care about my reputation with them. Oh, yeah, and um, my boss, the one who pays me, cares about our organization’s reputation in the industry, too.  I have something to lose by being a jerk.

Interestingly, some of the bloggers who associate themselves with Learning Circuits have come out against the development of a code of conduct for Big Question answerers.  This is also predictable…people tend to react adversely to restrictions added after they’ve joined a group, even when those restrictions are ones they would cheerfully agree to if they were posed as a condition for joining the group in the first place.

One of the things almost 30 years of being able to form communities on the Internet has taught us is that it’s a really good idea for anybody who seeks to set up a new community, online or elsewhere, to have drafted a set of standards to which people who wish to join must subscribe as a condition of joining. It doesn’t have to be lengthy. But it should cover the basic expectations, because experience has taught us that “don’t be a jerk” is not concrete enough to give people who really do want to be good community citizens guidance on how to conduct themselves.

My short list looks like this:

  1. This space exists to serve [insert stated purpose here] Members are to post with an eye toward furthering this purpose. Posts deemed by community managers to be unrelated or counter to this purpose may be removed.
  2. You may not use this space to do anything illegal. (or against organizational policy)
  3. You may not misrepresent yourself here. (Anonymity has its place, a fairly limited one, imho, but persistent identity is a cornerstone for the formation of community.)
  4. You may not attack the character of any participant here.
  5. You may not use this space for commercial purposes of your own.
  6. People who believe themselves incapable of abiding by these requests should choose not to join. People who join and later demonstrate themselves incapable of acceding to these requests will lose their privileges here.

Yah, this list is a little dictatorial. It reflects some hard, hard learning that if you want to attract and keep desirable community members, it turns out that you really do need to have a way to keep (or throw) the bums out.

It will be interesting to see how the blogosphere re-organizes itself around this dawning realization.

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bigquestionTom Haskins paints an intriguing picture in his answer to the Learning Circuits blog big question this month.  He replies to the question “ILT and Off-the-Shelf Vendors – What Should They Do?” with a description of what things are like “now” and the recommendation that given this set of circumstances “Leave a clean corpse” is perhaps the best choice.

I’m not sure we’re really where Tom thinks we are. Frankly, I’m not sure we have good research to prove our sense that  “we’ve gotten far better results from giving us more feedback and less instruction to build skills,”  though I’d like to think we’ll get there.

And I’m not sure we’ll ever be in the place where we can say, as Tom asserts, “Now that so many of us have built up meta skills (for problem solving, changing strategies, collaborating etc) in online and computer games, it seems silly to teach a concept, skill or policy change as if it’s not something everyone can figure out for themselves or team-up to knock out in a jiffy.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a believer in informal learning.  But I think there will always be value in taking time out to figure out where the gaps exist between what people need to know and need to be able to do, and where they actually are.  And there will always be a place for well-designed, formal content, prepared by people who have taken the time to find out what works for adult learners, in the quest to fill those gaps.

Subscribing to RSS feeds, tags and searches is a great way for an individual to keep abreast of what’s happening in her field. Contributing to communities of practice is a terrific way to pass on hard-won expertise.  It’s all good.

But it’s not sufficient. In the frantic, multi-tasking environments in which we all work, there is perhaps a more urgent need than ever for content which is the product of careful reflection about just what is essential, and how it fits into an overall framework.

We think the future of learning is in the engagement of learners with each other, and with skilled facilitators, around that content.

So we aren’t looking to see our friends and colleagues, the content providers, buried just yet. We think we’ll be needing each other for some time to come.

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Apr/07

2

Advice for Working with Stakeholders

stakeholder-influenceBoxes and Arrows has a great article by Michael Beavers on setting up business stakeholder interviews. While he’s focusing on interviewing stakeholders for the development of a Web site or application, much of what he discusses is also relevant to creating online communities.  Pay special attention to what he has to say about identifying influential stakeholders.

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