Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Should training ever be mandatory?

There is no absolute on this issue. Like all things in training and education, "it depends" on a host of factors.

The fact that some people vociferously criticize the training they were mandated to attend cannot be taken as valid criticism of the training itself. The majority of people probably go into mandated training with some resistance, if they are not pre-sold on the goals/benefits. Those most resistant will usually find fault with the training -- the trainer, the content, the context, the learning design, will all come under fire. Others will come out of the experience enlightened and appreciative.

Maybe our inherent dislike for being forced to participate in training is a throw-back to our school days. How many of us appreciated mandatory attendance of classes at school? How many of us ran down the teacher, the content, the relevance of the learning, just to rationalize our desire to be elsewhere? Where schooling is not mandatory, a nation declines. The same may be true of training in a company. A corporation has goals, the achievement of which require certain competencies. Each employee cannot be expected to automatically align his/her personal training needs with those of the company, and there are bound to be fundamental disconnects.

This is particularly true in times of change, and it may well be that those individuals most resistant to change are the ones least likely to participate in required training voluntarily.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Sample size and statistical significance

How many people do you need to survey to get a significant result?

For statistical significance (in statistics, "significant" has a very specific meaning), you need to use a valid sample size. You also need to use a valid methodology for selecting who goes into your sample.

As a rough rule of thumb, your sample should be about 10% of your universe, but not smaller than 30 and not greater than 350. If you are doing multivariate analysis, the sample should be ten times the number of variables you are testing.

If you want to be more pedantic, you should define what confidence level you want and what margin of error is acceptable to you. A confidence level of 95% and an error margin of 5% tell you that your result will be within 5% of the true answer 95% of the time you run the survey. So if you tested 100 samples, 95 of them would return a result that was within 5% of the truth.

The correct sample size is a function of those three elements--your universe (how many people make up the group whose behavior you are trying to represent), your desired error margin, and your preferred confidence level. It's a simple formula (well, not so simple). For most purposes, I'd go for a 10% error margin at 95% confidence. For varying numbers of learners in your universe here are the ideal sample sizes (the first at a 10% error margin, the second at 5%):

50 in the universe, sample 33 or 44
100 in the universe, sample 49 or 80
200 in the universe, sample 65 or 132
500 in the universe, sample 81 or 217
1000 in the universe, sample 88 or 278
and so it goes till you find that an ideal sample for a 10% error margin hardly moves above 350 no matter how big the universe (it's 500 for 5%).

Friday, November 21, 2003

Course licensing

If you are licensing courses, you should find that the vendor is flexible about meeting your needs. Typically, you will buy a license for X number of enrollments (an enrollment being one learner in one course), and that license will have a time delimiter as well as the maximum enrollment delimiter. So, for example, you would license a course or package of courses for one year for a maximum of 400 enrollments. The effective cost per enrollment will drop depending on volume. Usually, you buy the license in advance, and it is a use-it- or-lose-it agreement.

You can also license on a pay-per-use basis, paying only every time a new enrollment takes place. Expect to pay a fixed cost per enrollment that is substantially higher than on a volume license. You would only opt for pay-per-use if you had very few learners -- course fees are relatively expensive, and you and the vendor incur more administrative load.

There are many in-between license negotiations that you might be able to do. A common one is to buy a small volume license with an agreement that when you exceed its ceiling you can roll into a second discounted license, or into pay-per-use at a discounted rate. Also, if you are interested in a collection of courses, you can buy different volume licenses for different courses depending on your expected usage, and opt for pay-per-use on those courses that are likely to be used by small numbers.

The key is to go into a negotiation knowing what your usage is likely to be, and get your vendor to work with you on building a package that works. Off-the-shelf courses should not have inflexible off-the- shelf license terms :-)

Thursday, November 13, 2003

RoboDemo v. Camtasia

RoboDemo is certainly more powerful (feature-filled) than Camtasia, so it is harder to learn. But it is a great product. If you are planning on serving your Flash over the Web then RoboDemo is probably a better bet -- not just because it runs easily with your LMS. The screen motion capture system in RoboDemo is fundamentally different to that of Camtasia. Camtasia records the entire capture area for each frame, whereas RoboDemo captures only what has changed in each frame (and frequently this is just curser location). So RoboDemo's files are considerably smaller than Camtasias. I have also found Camtasias post-capture edit facilities to be rather crude.

RoboDemo will probably do what you need, and a lot more, and it will be relatively quick to learn. Buy it before Macromedia assimilates it and doubles its price.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003


When you need graphics or pictures in designing training, do you buy or make your own?

We typically do both: We buy royalty free stock photos and take some photos ourselves or commission someone to take them where necessary, depending on the need. We also create our own graphics or outsource to a contract graphic artist. Typically we will sketch out what is required and have a designer create the finished work. We would always outsource video work.

I use Illustrator and Photoshop a lot, because there is not much that you can't do with them and they work together well. For animated stuff, a combination of Premiere, Camtasia, Flash, and RoboDemo seems to cover most in-house needs. Learning curves are not too steep on Adobe tools if you are not trying to reach maistro level. For that we outsource, often offshore.

I can also recommend one of the best services on the Web - elance. Elance is like a marketplace for freelancers, many of them in Asia. You post a project description and a budget, and people bid on it within minutes. You don't pay till you are happy with the deliverable, and for a limited graphics project your credit card rarely takes more than a $50 hit. We have often posted a project online (e.g. turn these sketches into Flash animations, yesterday!) and had it executed perfectly in only a few hours. BTW, you can get anything from a simple drawing to a complete Website, from programming help to a complete software solution. Larger organizations could learn a huge amount about customer service and responsiveness from the individuals we have dealt with through Elance. Elance.com is the kind of networking that the Web was made for.

For stock photos, we usually start with corbis or StockMarketPhoto. The "completely free" graphics sites usually don't have much that appeals, and (IMHO) much of the free stuff does your end-product no favors in credibility terms. It's often the online equivalent of those irritating ant-people (were they called ScreenBeans?) that PowerPoint abusers used to stick everywhere a few years ago.

For self-shot photos, I normally use a Nikon 950, though I have contractors who use both higher-end and lower-end cameras. I recommend shooting at the highest resolution available, and then cropping and scaling down resolution in Photoshop. You use 72dpi for Web photos, and in outputting jpegs and gifs you need to try to keep them down to file sizes of less than 20-30kb -- though if the need warrants you can go up to 200kb or more. We try to keep total graphic load on a page to under 80kb, which is still rather fast on a slow dial-up. If your target audience is all on broadband, you have a lot more leeway. Photoshop lets you play with image optimization, and tells you the file size and load time while you are tweaking.

Monday, November 03, 2003

Critique of E-learning Consortium's research methodology

This study is full of holes, and the industry deservs better. Others have challenged the research design, pointing out that the sample is self-selected. But it is not just in sample selection that the original study about drop-out rates was flawed. The questionnaire design itself was flawed to the point where no analysis could produce meaningful results. When the rfesearcher posted his original solicitation for participation in the first study on the trdev list, I responded in some detail with my concerns (relevant sections are at the end of this message **).

Research that is not "statistically valid" in any pure sense is very common in the commercial world, and is used often where time and budget and study goals do not make "pure" research a sensible option. For each situation there is an acceptable research instrument that will best satisfy the need. That's fine, and usually those commissioning the work are aware of any limitations. But I share many peoples' concern that we are seeing more and more of what is effectively "pop-quiz" material being misrepresented to a wider audience as serious research with meaningful results. There is enough confusion and ambiguity in the e-learning world as it is, without such studies adding to the mythology.

** Extracts from my response of 6/3/03:

>From the questionnaire, it seems that little useful information can come from the information being asked for. I have objected in the past to "research" data that is meaningless because of its lack of specificity, the inability to identify and cross-tabulate causal data, or the dubious design of the sample. This study is no different. E-learning is not defined for respondents, yet respondents are required to answer questions about it, without themselves being asked to define what they mean. True, later in the questionnaire respondents get to list their own e-learning experiences, but the ambiguity and breadth of the list provided is astonishing - here it is:

* CD-Rom
* Live instructors with online materials
* Facilitated online instruction
* Self-paced online without facilitation
* Real time virtual classroom
* Video
* Other

The nature of the list aside, there is no way that data analysts will be able to meaningfully connect reasons for abandoning courses (selected from an earlier list) with even the broad type of experience selected from the list, because it is all "select all that apply". Far better to have asked respondents to pick one instance of abandonment and asked questions about that. Now that may have produced some useful numbers that may help us all do a better job.

All that can possibly come out of this is "X% of e-learners abandoned at least one e-learning course at some time" and -- as a completely separate data point that can not be mapped back to the drop-out figure -- "the most common reasons cited for abandoning are..". Garbage in, garbage out. But I am sure that the data will be spun in all sorts of fascinating ways for presentations and press releases, and some numbers will find their way into training mythology. The aggregated answers to the following will probably get a lot of play, too:

* My estimate of the average rate of completion for e-learning in my organization is (select a percentage range).

What does this question mean? Rate of completion could be percentage of people who never drop out, percentage of courses completed, percentage of people scheduled to take courses who have already finished them, percent of total company training hours that has so far switched to e-learning... And, more importantly, what qualification or data does the average respondent have to substantiate his/her estimate?

In the past, such studies have sought to determine the percentage of COURSES that are abandoned, where this seems to be seeking the percentage of LEARNERS who have ever abandoned a course. I would imagine that to be 100% (that video aerobic dance program that I started five years ago really didn't get me hooked -- yes, video is classified by the study as e-learning). And if it is learners, not courses, that are the focus of the study, should we not be trying to find out more about them than a few basic demographics?

Thursday, October 30, 2003

E-learning as a mere medium?

E-learning is not simply a medium, though the "e" part of the label does describe Web technologies, which may constitute a medium. What you DO with that medium – e-learning – is however a collection of processes, not a medium. E-learning in its simplest and most generic sense is a technology-facilitated learning process, just as classroom-learning is a classroom-facilitated learning process, and book-learning is a book-facilitated learning process.

Each new medium presents trainers (and learners) with the possibility of creating or refining different processes that, ideally, get closer to the most effective or efficient way of achieving a given learning objective. If that were not the case we'd still be teaching people by drawing with a stick in the sand.

The Internet (the "e") presents opportunities to create and implement learning processes that are different from the processes we grew up with in everyday classroom environments.

The view that e-learning is just classes online may once have held sway, but is now really rather archaic. Those who can't see that are out of touch with how the Web is changing our learning processes and our lives.

E-learning evolution?

Maybe the way we learn best is the way we are taught to learn as children, and maybe that can be self-perpetuating. Though I bet you dollars to donuts that if we could map a wiring diagram of the brain, today's pre-teens would have very different CPU than when I was a kid -- despite their formal teaching being very similar to that of their parents.

There are many things that we have done in certain ways over the centuries, and essentially the processes that we used did not start to change much till around 50 years ago when technology acceleration really started kicking in dramatically. We now use tools intuitively that had huge gee-whiz factors a few decades ago. And the tools have in many ways changed our processes.

Once when we calculated numbers we used an abacus, then a slide rule, then a pocket calculator. Same goal, same end result, different tool, different process. I remember the debate in the 70's about whether calculators should be allowed in university exams, now it's wi-fi PDAs. Should we prevent people from learning to use a more efficient process to get to the same result just because it's not the way we learned how to do it?

The way we prepare a meal today is in many ways similar to how we did it in Roman times. Except that we acquire the ingredients differently, we keep them under refrigeration, we wash them in running water, we pre-heat an oven instead of lighting a fire. Or we take a prepared meal out of a freezer and nuke it in a microwave. At the cellular level, of course, not a lot has changed -- raw food gets cooked and we still chew it before swallowing. But the processes we use to get there have improved and become more efficient and more effective.

The basic ways in which teaching and learning have taken place over the centuries should be just as subject to accelerating technological improvement as the processes in any other field. If anyone should be actively seeking better ways to accomplish their task, it should be those engaged in teaching -- after all, the generic goal of teachers is to prepare people for the future, not to shackle them to the past.

Monday, October 27, 2003

E-learning is not technology

There has always been shovelware in training, be it in the classroom, on CD-ROM, on videotape, in books, or on the Web. My experience of the pre-"e" days was not in trying to sell shovelware, so I can't speak for the reaction that those vendors were getting. But my perception at the time was that unless vendors were piling it high and selling it cheap, the training market was very reluctant to explore it.

Despite this, e-learning in one form or another is now an accepted mainstream part of most corporate training and academic education initiatives.

Several years ago at a conference in Paris I delivered a paper with the title "Think beyond technology -- e-learning success is about business processes" in which I made just the point that process is more important than either content or technology. At the time I was frustrated that trainers were just viewing e-learning as technology, and were allowing software functionality to define learning processes instead of the other way around. And beyond learning processes, they were expecting e-learning to exist independently of their other knowledge flows instead of being integrated with the corporate nervous system.

E-learning is not a technology, it's a learning process that invokes technologies. The Web is a technology. E-mail is a technology. Active Server Pages is a technology. Streaming media is a technology. E-learning, like book- learning, is a process. Thinking of e-learning as a technology is what leads to the kind of crass online experiences that most people dislike so much.

Sunday, October 26, 2003

Resistance to e-learning (still)

People did not want to accept e-learning even as a concept in the early days, and two of the biggest barriers were 1)learners not wanting to take responsibility for managing their own development and 2) trainers not wanting to give up their hierarchical control position. I'm talking about 1997/98 before the hype blitz, when most learners and trainers that I spoke with did not even know what WBT was about, or at best had a primitive superstitious view of it. We all have a need to cling to hierarchies of control, and have anxieties about freedom in a work context.

But the world is changing. Those more entrenched in corporate hierarchies may be unaware of it, but those newly entering the workforce are different than new employees ten or even five years ago. They grew up with technology, and the freedom, even anarchy, that it engenders. Are we "experienced" trainers and consultants to simply ignore the fact that those who populate our world -- those whom we serve -- have different needs, abilities, expectations, and perceptions than those we taught last decade? Are we to ignore the fact that new technologies are enabling new processes for communication and learning? Are we to become like the citizens of the city in Kafka's story whose culture was changed by nomads who suddenly appeared among them, leaving them aliens in their own landscape? In An Old Manuscript, the citizens were accustomed to assaults on their way of life in the old-fashioned military-invasion way, not in the subversive infiltration way. They were left unable to understand the language and customs of the poulation that had appeared within the walls, and could only stand by and watch new norms and new behaviors take over.

Is my view a superficial look from someone who develops e-learning? Far from it. True, I develop e-learning where that is the most appropriate solution for a client. I am primarily a learning strategy consultant (more often recommending classroom-based solutions than online solutions, or some combination of both). And I am a classroom trainer with nearly three decades of experience. I still run classroom courses whenever possible, and I fully understand their value and the value that good trainers add to the learning process.

I am not a technology geek that has descended like a parasite on the training industry without earning my dues -- in fact my comments often upset mainstream e-learning vendors because I see the industry through a trainer's eyes. Learning strategy, objectives and constraints should determine learning solutions, and blindly pursuing e-learning (or classroom learning) is going to produce outcomes that are far from optimal. That's been my mantra for years, yet somehow I often get re-cast as the e-learning zealot. E-learning is not always appropriate, effective, or efficient. Equally, there are instances where classroom solutions may be less effective or less economical.

For example, we run a series of courses that help a company's employees get their heads around the wired world, covering subjects like what the Internet is and why it matters, e-business, e-mail etiquette, security and privacy, and so on. Those courses are most effectively taught by e-learning, and the online courses are, appropriately, structured to be experiential. They are efficient as e-learning because each 6-16 hour course can go for $50 or less online, but has to be priced many times higher to be viable in a classroom.

But I digress. I just don't get why some people in the training field still -- at the end of 2003 -- think of e-learning as a threat and interpret any even vaguely positive reference to the concept as a put-down of classroom trainers. If they really understood e-learning, and its place in the array of available training methodologies, they wouldn't feel so insecure and defensive. The citizens in Kafka's story tried denial, but they lost anyway. They could not defend themselves from the changes that were already within their system. If trainers want to have some control over the evolution of their field, and avoid being marginalized, they should embrace innovation instead of fearing it.

Friday, October 24, 2003

Freedom, democracy, and working environments

I find it curious how people who passionately espouse the virtues of democracy (whatever that word means) and freedom of speech, are unquestioningly happy to spending more than half their waking hours in a rather authoritarian hierarchy -- their employer's company.

Though it is more illusion than reality, at least citizens *believe* that they are free in their private lives, and they draw a lot of strength from that delusion. In their work lives, there are no such delusions, yet there is no groundswell of discontent, no reform movement to protest the lack of freedom at work. Maybe it's because back in the 1960s that sort of thinking was considered Marxist and unamerican.

Or maybe it's because most people are more comfortable conforming, following someone else's lead, or taking orders than having to take on the responsibility of thinking for themselves and battling to get consensus every step of the way. As individuals, we are after all interested in making the most efficient, effective use of our personal time. That's probably how hierachical societies evolved in the first place.

I find it odd that we live in a political community that values above all else democracy and freedom of speech, yet in our corporate communities, hierarchical command-and-control management is accepted as the best way to make a business work.

If hierarchical command and control is the most efficient and effective way to run a business, why is it not also the best way to run a country? (Before democracy came to many of the European colonies, the average citizen was economically better off than today - - and certainly more secure, so long as they avoided insubordination). And if democracy IS the best way to run a country, why do we happily live most of our lives within a hierarchical work environment? We are "free" to sell our labor elsewhere, but in most cases we are moving from one semi-totalitarian environment to another, in search of a better dental plan.

Or perhaps corporations ARE democratic -- the Board is elected by shareholders, after all. The owners get to vote on big picture issues like strategy and alliances. Not a lot different from democratic government where the people with the money get to put politicians in power to represent their strategic agendas. The difference is that in democracy the average member of the population believes that he/she has a voice and is somehow important to the process, whereas in corporations the average worker feels no right to speak out on the big issues.

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Mission, vision, values

For me the distinction between a mission and a vision is important if your average employee is going to buy into it. A mission describes your reason for being. But it describes your reason for being TODAY as well as into the future. Your vision is much more future-oriented - it is a description of what your company looks like, how it operates, who it works with and so on at a point in time beyond the present. It is, if you like, the ideal towards which you are working while still staying true to your mission. I have always found it useful to write vision statements in the present tense, as if you are actually in the future, looking around you and describing what you see.

Getting as many people as possible in your company to understand and buy into the vision is important - not least because the common vision helps define and reinforce the common values. The difference between a vision and a hallucination is the number of people who share it.

Sunday, October 12, 2003

Mission, vision, values

In all of the visioneering work I did way back in a previous life, I found that the best people to define the mission and vision were that small group of leaders/champions who would be responsible for inspiring the company and leading it forward.

But I also endorse the idea that as many people as possible should have an opportunity to provide inputs to the decision, and should at least feel like they were involved. It seems a little manipulative in retrospect, but we used to FIRST define the m/v/v with the company/department leadership and THEN run visioneering workshops for all first-level employees, using the "desired outcome" (never revealed to them) as a guiding light for the facilitator.

Those employees were guided through a structured process in which they listed all of the factors that influence their ability to do their jobs, and how those factors were changing, and then described the environment they would be trying to succeed in two years down the line. They would describe how an ideal organization would be structured and organized to best succeed in that environment. Then they would list out the activities they currently engaged in every day, and place them on various grids that identified opportunities for improvement or efficiency. They would then create an optimized grid, compare it with their earlier picture of a successful organization of the future, and develop guidelines for changes beyond simple linear improvements.

What fell out of those sessions was an iterative input to the earlier defined vision and mission statements. It was fed back to the leadership team, who would adjust their definitions accordingly (sometimes not at all, sometimes dramatically). Those final m/v/v definitions were then presented back to the employees in the company or department. Buy-in was virtually guaranteed. The process was usually repeated annually, and became very smooth, collaborative, and efficient.

And an important product of the activity was a performance-improvement needs analysis that the employees themselves had created -- which made the creation and implementation of learning activities a great deal easier.

Thursday, October 02, 2003

Branding, differentiation of services, and value proposition

Unique Value Proposition is customer focused, differentiation of services is product focused.

In sales and marketing, to introduce your product or service to a potential customer most effectively, you have to create a perception of "differential advantage". That means you have to describe it in a way that 1) differentiates it from others, AND 2) builds positive perception of value. Part (1) is differentiation of services, part (2) is unique value proposition. Rolling (1) and (2) together effectively in a word or phrase is what branding is all about.

A UVP is essentially a description or encapsulation of the value to the customer of doing business with you rather than anyone else. The focus is on the VALUE of the benefits that you bring to that customer's situation, rather than on the benefits themselves. In its "elevator speech" form, it is the generic gains that your target market will achieve from being involved with you, gains that they can't get elsewhere.

Differentiation of services is more about the branding of that UVP. If the UVP is the unique "WHAT" that my customers gain from this, differentiation of services is the unique "HOW" my services deliver that "what". The focus is on the features and benefits of the PRODUCT/SERVICE itself that are different from the features/benefits offered by competing products. And it is the "personality" that you want your product/service to be remembered for. The label or tag or mental short-cut that you associate with your product (the brand, your name) that makes it stand out from others in the field.

Friday, September 26, 2003

Good and evil

Good and evil are relative concepts, no matter how much the morally outraged or religiously sincere may want to believe otherwise.

They are relative to the norms of a particular group, a particular time, a particular place. They evolve, sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly, as society adjusts to new circumstances, or as we seek expedient justifications for our actions. The more things we label as absolute good or absolute evil, the more they start to conflict with each other. Sadly, in the US at least, good and evil are often defined in courtrooms, and good and evil get confused with justice and injustice.

If we step outside of the narrow frames of reference of say Iraqis v. Americans, Palestinians v. Israelis, or Hutus v. Tutsis, and look at this little planet as an ecosystem, nobody can objectively deny the relative evil of homo sapiens v. any other species. Our capacity for deliberate or negligent annihilation of entire species in our quest for lebensraum or a better quality of life is possibly a defining characteristic of our humanity.

Evil is an attitude that can be passive or active. To do evil does not require a desire to do harm with an action, simply a disregard for the consequences that action may have for others.

If a person, a nation, a race, or a religion has enough power, will, and self righteousness, any evil they do can be spun as heroic.

Incidentally, for a great insight into some of these issues, I recommend Robert Kaplan's wonderfully written book "Warrior Politics - why leadership demands a pagan ethos". He draws on historical works from Confucius to Aristotle to Machiavelli and draws parallels with current leaders, nations, and conflict situations. The bottom line appears to be that the world has gotten way too small for one nation's isolated ideologies to be forcibly imposed on another's, and that compromise, tolerance, and co-existence are the only way forward.

Thursday, September 11, 2003

In praise of text

The MTV generation was a society of sound-bite/video-bite junkies, who couldn't focus for more than 15 seconds on anything without needing a distraction. A visual image wouldn't keep our attention unless it moved dramatically, constantly. Contrast the jump-cut editing of music videos or advertising with the style of Igmar Bergman.

Still with me?

Now the Internet generation is a society of text-bite junkies. Text is making a come-back. Instant messaging, SMS, chat-room style communication, ticker-style news highlights on TV. All text. If u hve smthg 2 say, it takes 2 long to create a pic. It takes too long to download an animation.

I see it in e-learning. The "rich media" stuff of a couple of years ago is often simply irritating to learners online. Why wait 5 seconds for 10 seconds of gratification, when an instant burst of well-crafted text lets you move on at Web speed. Give e-learners the option of turning off streaming media and animation, and the majority seems to opt for speed over decor.

People online are intensely conscious of time. Oh, I seem to have lost you already..........

Friday, September 05, 2003

Desert survival and culture

I used to use Desert Survival a lot in the 80's. It was part of an 'organisational culture change' program that we were implementing in the global subsidiaries of a multinational -- I must have run that particular excercise in multiple groups in more than 30 countries. I wish I had taken detailed notes, because the way different nationalities approached Desert Survival was fascinating.

The decision making processes, creativity, deference to seniority, interpretation of priorities, and even acceptance of the 'expert answers' varied dramatically depending on whether the group was Argentinian, Korean, Swedish, French, or Australian. And if you had a lot of people in the group who had actual desert combat experience like in South Africa or Israel, the 'expert answer' was invariably challenged and rejected - which in itself made for a useful excercise.

These pseudo-simulations can be used successfully for purposes other than those intended by the authors. I have used them as opening exercises in sales training to extract examples of effective and ineffective persuasive communication, and to illustrate the need to understand decision-making processes and roles.

Saturday, August 30, 2003

NASA and culture change

I know little about NASA, but suspect that it is (rightly) one of the most exclusive elitist intellectual clubs on the planet (and off it). It is hardly typical of an American business.

I suspect that, just as nations get the kind of leadership they deserve, the people who comprise organizations get the kind of culture they deserve. The attitudes, beliefs, values, and behaviors that are reinforced or rewarded by peers or opinion leaders or managers become the norms. Aspects of culture can be changed by "the people", if there is a driving collective will to do so and some kind of catalyst to get things moving. Or they can be changed by one individual with enough zeal, courage, tenacity, and leadership. The latter is more likely to succeed than the former.

I do not believe that any culture anywhere can be changed by a mandate from a Congressional subcommittee.

Thursday, August 28, 2003

Manipulating (and being manipulated by) search engines

Search engines evolve all the time, and of course it is not only "paid placement" that gets listings on the first page. The search engine optimization field is all about understanding the methodologies of each of the search engines and configuring your site to exploit the peculiarities of those methodologies.

So the top listings we see are usually a result of the marketing efforts of the owners of those sites -- they buy a high place or they set up their systems to engineer a high place. There is nothing inherently devious or wrong about this -- when you go to a shopping mall for your own convenience, you know that the stores present pay a premium for being located there. To find the little independent stores, you have to go to the other side of town and search around a little.

Fortunately, many non-commercial sites get ranked high by search engines like Google because (all credit to the Google algorithm folks) the engine favors sites that many other sites link too. So if your content already has a large audience, its popularity will get it even better exposure. If it is not popular, there are always those batteries of dummy links that you can buy into to fool the search engines...

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

NASA - Culture kills? No, denial does.

NASA's culture has been blamed for the shuttle disaster. Things like conflicting goals, the discouragement of - dissent, being driven by schedules, the relaxation of safety vigilance, poor communication, and so on are pointed to as indicators of failures in the NASA culture.

Culture? It seems to me that these are all simply failures of management and failures of leadership. Why is it that we so often blame "culture" instead of singling out the individuals who are responsible for bad decisions, poor policy, inadequate enforcement? We see this deflection in business, we see it in government, and it is part of everyday life (criminals are really victims of their culture). Maybe it is part of the growing American obsession with euphemizing the warts in the world, but to me that's just another form of denial. "Culture" is a scapegoat that makes nobody accountable. And if nobody is accountable, the problems will not get fixed.