Archive for February 2012

To Everything
There is a season
And a time to every purpose, under Heaven

Pete Seeger’s lyric from the famous folk song Turn, Turn, Turn speaks to the raging debate about formal learning versus informal learning that has a lot of buzz in workplace learning professionals’ communities.

We believe that there is a time and place for formal learning and a time and place for informal learning.  The challenge is figuring out when to use these different approaches.

To set the stage, first a few operational definitions from Quality Research International’s Analytic Quality Glossary may be helpful.

Formal learning is planned learning that derives from activities within a structured learning setting.

Informal learning is learning that derives from activities external to a structured learning context.

In the realm of workplace learning I would argue that the goal for all formal learning ought to be that the learner is able to demonstrate they can apply the new knowledge and skills on the job (some compliance stuff excluded).

How does the learning architect decide which types of situations are most appropriate for informal learning methods/approaches and which types of situations are most appropriate for more formal approaches?  In my experience the answer is very simple:

“When the organization can not afford to leave the development of the desired level of capability to chance – formal learning is required. “

In other words, formal learning is needed when one hears things like:  It is critical to the business that people master (fill in the blank). (e.g. new business process skills, leadership skills, the fundamentals of their new job, product knowledge, etc., etc., etc.)  by (fill in the blank) time. Of course, it goes without saying that, if the needs analysis determines that the lack of knowledge and skills is not the issue then formal learning is not the solution.

In conclusion, there is a time and place for everything.  The time and place for formal learning is when:

  1. The knowledge and skills are critical to the business
  2. People need to get right the first time
  3. Development of capability is time sensitive
  4. You can’t leave the learning to chance.

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Helping Managers Succeed as Coaches

Most of us who work in the area of blended learning know that the best results are gained when learners receive competent coaching throughout the learning process.  The coaching can be provided by the learner’s manager or by a subject matter expert (SME) if the content of the learning program or course requires that.  However, even if the coaching is being provided by a SME, having the manager involved in the learning process can make a big difference in the quality of the results gained.

Manager involvement in the learning process has many positive rewards.  For one thing manager involvement lends significant credibility to the program or course.  As we all know, people pay attention to what their manager pays attention to.  Also, managers are in the best position to guide the development of capability in the direction most needed by the business.  Additionally, by providing coaching to the learning program, managers can get a view on the developmental needs of their employees that they may not have any other way.

Anyone who has developed and implemented programs requiring manager coaching knows full well how difficult it can be to get and sustain the needed level of involvement.  Many times coaches start out full of enthusiasm only to have that enthusiasm fizzle out part way through.  This, of course results in the fizzling out of learner effort as well causing the program to, at best, not produce all the results desired and, at worst, fail altogether.  More importantly, however, it gives a very clear message to learners that managers do not consider learning particularly important.

There are many reasons for this dwindling of effort on the part of coaches.  The most frequent one, of course, is that managers are very busy and it becomes easy to let the coaching slip.  Another reason that I have found is that many times managers are not certain exactly how to coach a learning process.  They can be uncertain how to phrase their feedback or they may not feel that they are able to determine what is good work and what is not.  And furthermore, many managers do not see being involved in this kind of development work as part of their job.

I have found over time that there are some things that can help to make the coaching process both quicker and easier on managers and more effective for learners in the long run.

  • Make sure that the program is tied to a recognized critical need of the business.  Clarify how it is targeted on producing specific and specified changes in business results
  • Solicit senior level sponsorship.  Getting your manager/coaches’ boss to act as executive sponsor with an agreement to provide him or her with regular periodic reports on the progress through the program of both learners and coaches can do wonders to encourage coach performance
  • Make coach certification and feedback on appropriate learning activities a requirement before learners can move ahead to the next activity.  This causes learners themselves to prompt coaches for a response.
  • Institute an identified program manager who regularly reviews learner progress and coach performance and sends emails to both when a learner is falling behind.
  • Develop coaching guides.  I have found this last one to have the biggest impact on increasing manager/coach sustained performance.  Coaching guides can be outlines and/or samples of what excellent work would contain so that coaches have something to reference.  The guides may also contain scripted feedback for work that is missing points or is off track.

Everything we do to build an organizational culture in which managers see the development of employee capability as a critical and mandatory part of their overall responsibility to the organization will increase the effectiveness of all learning processes.

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No, No, ANYTHING but Video!

In Connecting the dots between informal learning and video, Kim Benton attempts to make the case for why more learning resources need to be in the form of video.

Excuse me while I run from the room screaming.

But first, let me offer my screaming credentials. I’m sold on the value of video, used judiciously. I’ve even blogged about it here.
Used injudiciously, however, it is counter-productive.

Benton argues: When someone searches for information on that portal, what do they find? Reference documents. Articles. Contact info for their subject expert. A slide deck. A voice over or podcast. Same answers apply to someone that wants to share information for the rest of the community to learn from. They put together an updated slide deck, write a few words about an article they want to share, perhaps you invite them to record next week’s podcast.

These resources are not as effective as video resources. Here’s why:

Cisco estimates that 50% of all internet traffic will be video traffic by the end of 2012 and it has already surpassed the amount of peer-to-peer traffic on the web (that’s to say that video already accounts for the statistical majority of all internet traffic).

Why do you suppose that is? Can we infer from this that video is the preferred medium for communicating today (aside from being in the same physical room)?

I think we can.

I beg to differ. That millions of people break up their workday by viewing LOLcats, or even TED Talks suggests that video is a preferred medium for consuming entertainment. It tells us just about nothing about what media are the most effective for communication which has as its goal the facilitation of organizational initiatives.

Benton continues: Studies are all over the board regarding how much of human communication is nonverbal – 50% on the very low end and up to 90% on the high end (Wikipedia page on Body Language sites several bodies of research on this). Even for simple messages, we long to see the face on the other side of that message because so much is lost without body language and visual aid. It is just the way we’re wired.

If up to 90% of what you want to communicate [share] [teach] [learn] comes down to body posture, gestures, facial expressions and eye movements, your learning – formal or informal – is not as effective as it could be if it isn’t on video.

But see, that’s the thing. In the corporate training space, most of what we are trying to communicate doesn’t at all come down to body posture, gestures, facial expressions or eye movements. Except when we’re teaching interpersonal skills, like coaching or interviewing, what we’re trying to communicate is conceptual – stuff about where our product fits in the competitive scheme of things, or procedural – just how the cartridge loads properly in that new copier. A video demonstrating someone loading the cartridge could be just the ticket. But a 15 minute talking-head extravaganza explaining the market? No thanks. Give me a Powerpoint with pie charts, please. All that non-verbal gestural communication is great when one is present in person – there’s a lot in how people respond to one another that is transmitted via these channels. But witnessing how someone who is not a professional actor responds to the camera is just not all information-packed.

Video helps us digest more information in a shorter amount of time than other formats

On what planet? Ever try to “skim” the main points in a video? Not possible. Even full length feature films have to cut stuff out of the books from which they are adapted in order to work in the video format. The relative density of content in different formats depends utterly on what KIND of information is being communicated. It’s true I could spend a lot of text and a fine diagram describing cartridge insertion, but a one–minute video demonstrating somebody do it, complete with great audio of what the “click” of proper engagement sounds like will get the message across much more effectively. But to wade through the first 20 minutes of information that doesn’t apply to me to get to the last 10 which does is a whole lot less efficient than scanning a text document is.

Informal learning has so much to do with sharing good information and making it accessible to everyone, but to really tap into that and get the most out of your people and social technologies, you have to make video the center of your informal learning world – by encouraging the creation of it as much as the searching and viewing of it.

Please God, no! I do not wish to watch interminable videos of the CEO pontificating on the vision of the org. I’d love it, though, if she’d participate in a “welcome to my office” blog or discussion forum in which we could ask questions about that vision. Crafting a well-done video takes a lot longer than does crafting a well-written post. My co-workers and I all have stuff to do besides communicate. So let’s use the written word were it is most effective, and save the video for those messages which really benefit from it.

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Last month we talked about how it’s just not possible to get full results from training initiatives if you cut critical corners. This month, I’d like to talk about the corners not to cut if you do not want to leave the development of  new knowledge and skills to chance.

Note to Reader:  The following observations only apply to learning solutions where the learner’s ability to demonstrate the desired level of skill or proficiency in a particular subject or job function is deemed critical to the business by the people paying the bill.  The practices discussed in the following observations are overkill for those learning tasks where simple evidence of having attended or completing a course is sufficient.


3 Observations on Corners Not to Cut

1.  Employ the Learn, Do, Learn Model

  • Almost by definition, the Learn, Do, Learn model requires the implementation of some type of structured social blended learning process that takes place over time.
  • The typical ILT, virtual classroom & elearning one-time events are good for getting knowledge in the noodle and some familiarity with skill sets, but the evidence shows that most of what people “learn” in the typical one-time training events leaks out of the learner’s brain in pretty short order.
  • The nature (structured v. unstructured), length (e.g. one week, a month, 6 months, 2 years, etc. etc.) and type of learning activities (e.g ILT, Virtual Classroom, eLearning, peer group assignments, coached assignments, self-directed, performance support tools, social collaboration, manager involvement, etc. etc) that make up the design of the social blended learning process are a function of the level of capability needed and how fast they need to develop the desired capability.
  • The “Do” part is the most important part of the Learn, Do, Learn model.  If results are what you are looking for, the learner must required, not just encouraged) to apply and get feedback/coaching on their new knowledge and skills on the job.

2.  Enroll Learner’s Boss & Hold The Boss Accountable

  • Like it or not, most people pay attention to what the boss pays attention to.  The learner’s boss taking an active role and being held accountable for expectation setting and reinforcing the learner’s application of new knowledge and skills on the job is crucial.
  • If the organization balks at getting the learner’s manager into the mix the odds any consistent adoption of new knowledge and skills are slim to none.

3.  Monitor & Track All the Players’ Performance

  • The success of these types of learning initiatives requires everyone (i.e. learner, coaches/SMEs and learners’ bosses) does their part.
  • If there is no monitored and tracked on-the-job application, reinforcement and coaching cycle do not count on getting any verifiable improvement in desired capability or ROI from the learning effort.

Hopefully these thoughts have stimulated some thinking pro or con.  I look forward to your reflections and comments.

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Information Week (January 30 2012) has a cover story titled “Why employees aren’t taking to enterprise social networks, and what IT can do to help.” In their social networking in the enterprise survey, lackluster adoption is identified by 35% of the 394 respondents, and when internal social networks are assessed, only 13% say they’re excellent, 25% good, with 37% average and 25% fair or poor. They cite data from Forrester and the Corporate Executive Board to support their assertions.

Why would this be?

Most of the consultants who are proponents of the use of social networking are passionate about it. And this passion is evident in their own use of social media. However, passion is of the essence in understanding the use of social media.

Me – I’m passionate about home automation. I visit three different home automation communities daily, and read up on all the latest tools, tips, and technologies. I go there when I can’t get my computer to turn on a light or turn up the thermostat, and I need help. I share the cool way that I got a shade to operate automatically, and how excited I am about a new device to control my ceiling fan. Stupid? Possibly (OK, certainly). But it’s my passion and I love to spend time on it.

A wise boy once said “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” As I recall, he used that observation to get lots of other “bodies” to white wash a fence for him.

And that’s the crux of the matter. I will spend an hour getting a light to operate on my computer that I could take 5 steps to switch on. But ask me to spend 10 minutes sharing my best practice for X or the secret to overcoming sales objections in situation Y and I’ll say, “Sorry, I’m MUCH too busy. I have to get on to my next task.”

Regular working folks – the ones that don’t have an intrinsic passion for social media, use tools if and only if (a) they are forced to or (b) they see in immediate value in using them. It’s that simple.

Unfortunately, a lot of people are building enterprise social network infrastructure with the “build it and they will come” philosophy. That’s fine for those passionate about it, and that’s fine for those whose jobs are immediately improved by it, but for the rest of organization? They vote with their feet.

That’s not to say that enterprise social networking is not valuable or that adoption is sure to decline, but that we have to recognize the simple category distinction offered originally by Mark Twain in the person of Tom Sawyer above, and plan our implementations accordingly.

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