Monday, May 31, 2004

Problem-Solving Training

I have been working with Kepner-Tregoe for a number of years, designing and implementing a 'blended' approach to imbedding their problem-solving and decision-making methodologies in corporate environments. KT has been doing this kind of analytical skills training for decades, and has had significant success – partly because the methodologies make sense, and partly because they focus on real-world learner-specific applications and business results. We did a joint presentation on this with KT and Honda, one of their clients, at ASTD's conference last week.

The blended approach has further added to the speed with which the skills are assimilated into each learner's real-world operations. In essence we `blend' online learning with each learner's actual problems and priorities, using both an online instructor and the learner's manager to define situations that would benefit from an analytical approach. Those `applications' are the reference points throughout the first online phase of learning, and provide the focus once the learner gets together with the instructor in a classroom session. The training has not been `passed' till each learner provides a number of documented applications of the skills back at work, which case studies seek to quantify the real business value attained by solving the problem or making the right decision.

The blend brings managers into a mentoring role, makes the classroom sessions highly productive, and makes for a protracted period, post formal training, in which learners work on personally relevant applications of the skills. Instead of one concentrated 4-day classroom session, learners have a month of pre-class online work, two days in class and up to twelve weeks of post-class work. It's tougher on the instructor, but the benefits are significant.

Having a culture that embraces a particular approach to analytical thinking clearly helps with the transfer – clients like Honda describe KT methodologies as part of their world-wide corporate DNA, and the training is considered fundamental to all employees across the organization. When everybody in a company speaks the same vocabulary when discussing a problem, the processes tend to become second nature.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Flash in e-learning courses

Don’t assume Flash is a useful development tool for a particular learning experience till you know that your learners can actually play Flash once it gets to their machine. For any client, find out what the ACTUAL (not the corporate model) learner platform is, here and in other countries where learners may be located: OS and version, browser and version, soundcard, plug-ins and versions, effective bandwidth budgets etc.

If their system is out of step and can't handle recent generations of Flash, you might as well stop right there. If their systems are more up to date, then installing a recent Flash player may not be a problem -- though your clients' IT and networking people need to be consulted. They have to install and maintain the plug-ins.

And while you are talking to the IT/networking folks, find out about bandwidth policies. I have a client (very large automotive manufacturer) who had an old network infrastructure that might seize up under any even limited use of streaming audio or video, but could just sneak in some limited silent Flash animations. They upgraded the network only this year which opens up more possibilities -- but don't assume that just because a client is a mega-corporation with hi-tech products that it has a hi-tech internal infrastructure. My rule of thumb is the bigger the corporation, the slower it is to upgrade its hardware/software infrastructure (they often skip a generation or two).

Once you know the client infrastructure reality, then you can start deciding on your development tools.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Isn't it nice when things just work?

This ad ("Isn't it nice when things just work?") was so successful in the UK last year it spawned several parodies.

You can see the original ad here or by clicking the title above. You'll need quicktime for the movie to run.

Here's a pythonesque parody by one of the UK's dial-around services.


Friday, May 14, 2004

Time Squeeze and the Human Touch

The explosion of info-clutter is really getting under people's skin and changing the way we approach things. Some of us look for intelligent honey bees to automatically find what's important. Others try to be more efficient, or more ruthless in filtering. Others just give up (I've threatened to stop using e-mail completely, just to freak out people who have become dependent on it). Technology may help deal with the chaos that technology is spawning. But I am hearing more and more from my clients a desire to get back to basics and re-humanize communication and the information pipeline.

Think of it this way -- if you don't automate you have to prioritize, using that fuzzy logic and non-egalitarian networking that humans are so good at. Instead of blasting an e-mail out to a cc list of dozens, think who you'd send it to if you had to hand write and mail each copy. And in looking for information, if you didn't have Google to give you ten thousand sources, how would you know where to go? You'd ask someone for recommendations. This is why blogs have a lot of appeal, at least to me. And why discussion forums will always be useful.

I am finding that many of my clients want "a person" to guide them in filtering the info-clutter, especially where learning technologies are concerned. I get asked more and more often to do short, incisive briefings to small groups of decision makers, because they find that a very efficient and accessible way to get focused.

I've also been getting a lot of requests for what you might call micro-consulting or sounding-board services -- someone has a proposal and wants an outside objective opinion; someone is putting together a strategy and wants help in shaping and polishing it before they go into presentation. Gone are the traditional big expensive long-term consulting projects. Now people seem to want the human equivalent of an EPSS -- inexpensive retainer-based just-in-time human performance support services. I'm also finding that courses that used to be so popular online are now being requested as condensed classroom sessions -- again, "do it for me, make it crystalline, make it human, hold the fog."

The technology may still be emerging that makes information more accessible, but it clearly has not captured the hearts and minds of many business professionals. Is it just me, or are others in the training field seeing the same thing?

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Mobile learning (M-learning)

What appeals to me most about mobile learning is not the fact that it is mobile but that it redefines our perception of computers and networks. Gone are the prerequisites for networked learning of five years ago -- a desktop machine, a lot of wiring, and a physical phone line or cable. Now you can access the Web with a mobile phone from anywhere you have a signal.

I used to think M-learning was dumb, suitable perhaps for simple EPSS or JIT help and reference. I saw lots of applications for that in mechanical work, repairs to machinery, military systems and so on. But the real potential completely eluded me till I started to realize that M-learning freed you from the EXPENSE of having a traditional computer and the requirement that you have a telephone landline or cable infrastructure. No big deal in affluent America -- we've got all that stuff, and we still prefer to wi-fi at Starbucks.. But how about the rest of the world? What about people who don't have a desk, let alone a desktop computer; where a phone line is simply unobtainable -- not because their job takes them on the road, but because they have to live without these things?

I have an interest in the development of alternative education systems and entrepreneurship environments in Africa. Most African countries just don't have the resources to create even a low- bandwidth phone-line or cable infrastructure, and lines are stolen within days of being put in place anyway. Most people can't afford computers, and have no real need for them. But most urban people somehow manage to have a mobile phone. If there is a way to make M-learning work (and M-commerce too), it could have a big impact on the needs of developing nations.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

More on Blogs/ RSS feeds

The way in which you access content has an impact on whether or not you will use it. I avoid most push (but like RSS), but if content doesn't conform, I may still access it if it has a strong enough appeal. Technology itself can be a significant obstacle to participation, but it can never be a motivator. My point is that what matters more is the value of the content and the 'payoff' of the user experience. Sure, that experience should be simple and intuitive and convenient, but nobody invests their time BECAUSE it is simple and intuitive and convenient - - you invest your time because of the core benefit you gain from the experience itself. And that is all about content, context, focus, relevance.

Which leads me to the next point. Those of us who have populated trdev and other forums for many years used to rant that "it's not the technology, it's your strategy and objectives that matter" but I think in recent years that's become simply obvious. People still need to understand technological capabilities and pitfalls, but it's less and less common for people to let the tool dictate the execution.

If you want your restaurant to stay in business, you tune in to the needs and preferences of those who are eating your food. There are markets for take-out, delivery, candle-lit gourmet, fast food, nuked frozen meals, and lovingly prepared home cooking, among others. The technology used by the chefs in each case is irrelevant to the consumer -- it's the dining experience that matters. As a cook, you match what you want to do with a market that wants it.

One of the greatest mistakes made by many Web designers, information architects, instructional designers, bloggers, and programmers is believing that their training, technical expertise, or dogma is somehow superior to customer opinion. I think most 'quality' bloggers (as opposed to 'vanity' bloggers) are good at sharing their passion in a way that their community can appreciate, without making it all about the technology.

More on Blogs/ RSS feeds

If you look at the fundamental reader benefits (the reasons why we want to access the content), you have to lump blogs in with feeds. Sure, as delivery vehicles they are different, but they both deliver the same thing. The differences between delivery technologies don't matter so much as the differences between the intrinsic nature of blogging and the intrinsic nature of discussion groups. That's all about content, context, human interaction, and less about whether it's a push or a pull mechanism.

In the 'discussion blogs' that I am involved with (such as InternetTime or LearningCircuits) the nature and range of discussion is hampered by the technology, and has to stay issue focused, and only those of us who have the authorization can initiate threads. Even with a huge number of 'readers' every day, it is rare to see more than three or four comments in a thread.

Blog authors are often better than a search engine, in that they act as a credible guide to Web content that is specific to their context or area of interest. Search engines scan tags, content, and links; blog authors use more helpful human dimensions such as context and quality by which to evaluate relevance.

Discussion lists are not always push. I have never used discussion lists such as trdev as push -- and I am amazed that so many people still use them that way. How many e-mails per day can you actually deal with?? I visit trdev on the Web every day, and can see at a glance subjects and authors of recent posts. I read -- online -- only those posts that interest me, and reply using the online system. So discussion lists are pull for me, not push, where that option is available. If an online site is not available, I get a daily digest rather than the individual e-mails -- but I confess I rarely scan more than the topic list, hardly ever read the posts, and almost never respond. The technology just makes it less accessible for me.

I spend less time on discussion forums these days because the quality, relevance, and accessibility of information available to me via selected blogs is orders of magnitude better than anything I ever derived from participation in those discussion forums.

I think that as the Internet and its users become more sophisticated, they fragment into smaller more homogeneous clusters. With hundreds of millions of users out there, why should trainers all come to trdev when there may be a smaller more targeted discussion group that is more relevant ('sales trainers in the consumer goods field in Ireland' for example)? As far as I am aware nobody is creating those communities using discussion forums or lists -- but bloggers ARE coming close. A blog requires a champion around whom like-minded people can start to crystallize into a community; once that community has some kind of critical mass, they are going to want a better vehicle for networked communication. Which is where I think social networking software may come into its own.

I do think that 'the old way' of doing things on the Internet is increasingly time-consuming and decreasingly relevant. But it's 'the old way' that is at fault, not the ever-expanding Internet :-).

Monday, May 10, 2004

More on Blogs/ RSS feeds

There's a big difference between "information availability" and discussion. Blogs can point to a lot of references that may or may not be good information. They provide perspective and personal insight. They do not provide a good venue for dialog.

A blog is usually author-centric and hierarchical, where online forums tend to be networked and participant-centric (if that's not a contradiction in terms). The advantage of a blog (and what distinguishes it from traditional journalism) is that its author is usually an involved and passionate subject matter enthusiast, not an objective but superficial analyst. So you can find blogs that you buy into emotionally. In blogs you read unashamed opinion, not necessarily "information".

I think of blogs as personal broadcasting: the author(s) publish their thoughts and interests, and exhibit their expertise, to anyone who is interested. Those who are moved to do so can post a response. Sometimes this can lead to an extended conversation, but not often. Blogs CAN become discussion groups, particularly for small groups, though I have yet to see blog software that facilitates threaded discussion for a large number of participants.

The Internet has provided a vast distributed database of "stuff" -- some of it information, some of it opinion, some of it important, some of it trivial, some of it true, some of it false. Search engines are still primitive in their abilities to find the things you are looking for. Blogging is simply another way to find the stuff that you value, like having someone who appears to know what they are doing recommend resources within a context that you can relate to.

Discussion groups provide a different kind of experience. Much of their value lies in the pool of tacit knowledge and experience that is available to be tapped, and the ability to discourse about things that are not easily summarized in a neat published article. Most importantly, discussion groups are not hierarchical broadcast vehicles, they are networked -- which means that their potential power as a knowledge resource is exponentially greater than that of a blog.

I confess I spend much more time scanning blogs and RSS feeds than I do in discussion forums, which was not the case two years ago. But discussion forums like trdev or ASTD provide the diversity of opinion and a discussion dynamic that is still missing on blogs.

Friday, May 07, 2004

Types of e-learning licenses

I can offer a 'vendor's' perspective on licensing. Though it is not core to our business, we have for several years offered a rather small series of courses focused on getting employees enterprise-wide to be more confident and enthusiastic about e-business, and more competent operating in a 'wired world'. Originally developed for a telecom company, these courses have found a much wider audience. They are a very specific series aimed at large volumes of non-technical learners. Over the years we have sold these courses using a variety of models, and clients have paid anywhere from $25 to $300 per enrollment. As they are approaching the end of their life cycle in the US, we are about to offer reduced versions at around $10 per enrollment. We use the term 'enrollment' rather than 'learner' or 'course' because it best describes an instance of a learner in a course.

As a vendor, we provide incentives for clients to buy volume licenses with an up-front payment (and do everything we can to provide disincentives for pay-per-use). Our costs tend to be front-loaded -- original authoring and development of the courses, cost of sale, negotiation, setting up and customizing -- and ongoing costs are negligible -- a little maintenance and updating, hardly any tech support usage, bandwidth and so on. So we look for a substantial commitment up-front, and provide break points with increasingly significant discounts for volume.

Typically this involves the client having to estimate usage for each course within a one year time frame. They buy a one-year license for say 5,000 enrollments in a particular course, on a use-it-or-lose-it basis, and get it at a per enrollment cost that may be a tenth of an individual course fee. Then we provide additional discounts for additional courses wrapped into the same deal. And we provide further incremental discounts for licenses taken in the second, third, or fourth year.

This can lead to counter-intuitive things happening: one client paid an average per-enrollment fee of $35 in year one for around 7,000 enrollments; $30 in year two for 3,000; $25 in year three for 1,000; and is now paying way more than ever per enrollment in year four because there's hardly anyone left to train and pay-per-use model was the only way to go.

Advantages of course-specific volume licensing to the client are mainly financial -- much lower cost per enrollment, reduced ongoing administrative costs. You can also qualify for otherwise expensive additional services such as expanded support, customization, and so on. Disadvantages are that it's an up-front sum, with considerable work needed to minimize the risk of miscalculation. Overestimate usage, and you can end up paying for enrollments you don't use -- though in reality unless you make a major miscalculation your effective cost per enrollment is still going to be a bargain. And a good vendor will not enforce the 'lose it' part of the deal. There's also the risk that the vendor may not be around to provide the service a few months down the line.

A better model if you can't get a comfortable estimate of usage per course, is to buy a pool of enrollments that can be applied to a pool of courses. Most vendors are happy to do this, though you may end up with a slightly higher per-enrollment cost than if you went the course-specific route. The reason for this is that the more courses you add to the pool, the higher the license fee gets but the smaller the likely number of enrollments per course is likely to be. If your usage is going to be similar across all courses, this is fine; but if the Pareto rule applies, a pool system can be wasteful. In an extreme case, you are usually better off doing a high-discount volume license for your known big-demand courses, and pay-per-use for the marginal courses.

Advantages of pay-per-use are that you don't have to try to anticipate usage or make any commitment. (This has always seemed odd to me -- why would you go to the trouble of contracting for courses if you don't know there is a need?) It also allows you to train small groups of people who don't get near a volume discount mark. The disadvantages (apart from price) are in ongoing administration costs (particularly if you have to deal with individual authorizations). You also may lose out on any customization potential and additional services that kick in for larger volumes.

Most vendors have a rate sheet that is really just a starting point for negotiations. As your relationship evolves, the apparent rigidity of this liquifies, and your ability to craft custom deals increases. Vendors have differing internal cost structures and market objectives -- some have very high margins that let you get creative in negotiations; others (especially the big vendors) are already selling at a loss to try to hang onto market share. If you can find the time to try to understand where the vendor is coming from, you can probably find a licensing model that works for both of you.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Transitioning to e-learning

Remember you are providing a learning service, not just training courses. Make sure that everyone in your support team is ready for the transition. It's important to provide an instant help facility for learners who get lost. So make sure the help content of your courses is useful, and make it clear to learners who they go to for additional help and how fast they can expect to receive it. If you are using your own help-desk folks, let them know what to expect, provide them with the opportunity to get to know the courses, and use your first batch of learners to document likely problems and solutions. Also develop a FAQ list that you can append to the courses. If you can, provide learners with a threaded forum like this one, where they can post non-urgent problems for you, a tech support person, or other learners to comment on.

If people are to learn at their desks, you might also want to do something about creating a more comfortable learning environment. Briefing managers to be supportive, and not interrupt learners, can help a lot. I have seen companies provide learners with a 'learning environment' kit that includes yellow crime-scene tape printed with 'learning taking place, do not cross' -- people can pin it across their doors or cube entrances to let others know that they are not available and would appreciate quiet.

Follow-through and getting feedback is important. If you are using a LMS or equivalent, track start and finish information. Follow up with learners who appear to have stalled or abandoned the training -- remembering that for many, completion is not their objective. And congratulate those who actually complete. Leverage enthusiasm where you find it -- a happy learner can do a lot to get others into the new mode of learning.

Monday, May 03, 2004

Training in Mexico

An American trainer, about to run a workshop in Mexico for the first time, has asked for some insights into relevant cultural differences. I have done a lot of training in Mexico. It was always my favorite place to work, despite my lack of any real ability in Spanish, and many of my longest-lasting friendships and professional relationships are with people I met while running training or OD programs in Mexico.

Americans (which I am not) have a disadvantage, but not a major one. Gringos are still viewed with some (never overt) disdain and you have to earn the respect – and importantly the affection – of your participants. Being passionate or emotional about your subject (or about anything, really) earns you credibility rather rapidly. Demonstrating an interest or appreciation of Mexican culture or history gains you respect – so long as it is not conveyed in a patronizing or imperialist tone :-). Mentioning a visit to the Archaeological Museum, asking about local food or art or music (but not the mariachi kind!), can score you some points and get some interesting conversations going.

I had been a Mexico enthusiast long before I made my first business trip there twenty years ago, so I probably had an advantage. I recommend a book called "Distant Neighbors" by Alan Riding. It may be a little out of date, but it's a great primer on the roots of modern Mexican culture.

Showing a little humility and vulnerability early on, taking time to talk about your background and asking about theirs, and getting them actively participating from session kick-off helps enormously. If you are running the session in English, only those most comfortable in English will contribute. So if language is a barrier, small group work helps greatly because people can communicate among themselves in Spanish. My style is very participative, and I found that if you are perceived as a facilitator rather than a lecturing authority, and if you appear to be as interested in learning as in teaching, people open up and contribute enthusiastically.

Despite the stereotypes, Mexico has a vibrant, energetic, progressive and thoroughly modern business environment, which maps in many respects to the kind of world we are familiar with in the US. Young Mexican business people are incredibly hard-working, very well educated, and worldly. They share many of the social-conscience issues and angsts, and are as status conscious and ambitious, as their American counterparts. So motivation among the learner group is rarely an issue. I find Mexicans to be reserved and guarded till they get comfortable with you, after which the group can become very exuberant. And you know you have had a good day when you are still deep in conversation with a group of participants in the early hours of the morning, by which time your Spanish has usually improved remarkably.