Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Protecting copyrights

Under copyright, you cannot protect an idea; you can only protect the specific expression of the idea. If there is only one way to express your idea, you have a happy situation. If there are other ways to express it, the value (to you) of your original idea is diminished. If someone else has a clearer or more compelling way to express the idea, your copyright probably was not worth much to start with.

Copyright law protects words and images, not concepts. Allowing others to quote you actually protects your original association with the idea; if others are not permitted to quote you (or if your expression of the idea is not in itself quote-worthy), they have to re-describe your concepts using their own words and images, and you stand more chance of losing any association with the idea.

As an author, you can choose to publish your work under a Creative Commons license. This selective assertion of copyright allows anyone else to copy, distribute, display and perform your work, and to make derivative works, so long as the original author is given credit, the use is non-commercial, and any derivation, alteration or extension of the work is only distributed under a Creative Commons license. Creative Commons has become popular among academics and researchers who need to share their work but where concerns about copyright and plagiarism used to hamper the sharing.

An idea unshared has little to no value. The more widespread an idea becomes, the greater its value becomes. Old-school hierarchical trickle-down of knowledge through formal publishing is a slow, expensive, and limiting model for the dissemination of ideas. Today, the networking of ideas using Internet-based vehicles is geometrically faster, cheaper, and more penetrating. And it provides a benefit that was also limited in the past -- an author can get instant feedback from a vast array of sources, making it easier for him/her to polish and improve on the original work.

Monday, June 28, 2004

Global e-learning best practices

When you deploy e-learning globally, there are obvious things to take into consideration. Here are a few that I have seen get overlooked, in no particular order of priority:

Make sure you know what the target technology environment is in each country and don't assume that just because there is a head-office corporate policy it actually happens that way in the real world. Find out about local bandwidth issues both within local intranets and for those who will use dial-ups out of the office (much of Latin America is on 14.4kbps; broadband is still rare even in much of Europe). Confirm the existence of sound cards or other media cards if you think you will need to use them. Confirm the operating systems, browsers and versions that are the minimum in the different target areas. Also establish what the local intranet policies are, especially where security, plug-ins, cookies, and firewalls are concerned. Make sure that your learning designs can accommodate any variances.

Also think about your e-learning as a 24-7 service, not a series of training products. Instructor or SME support in local languages is important, and so is technical support. You can't have a learner in Japan having to wait till 3a.m. to make a long distance phone call to the US to find out how to get his sound working. Train your local IT helpdesk to handle first-line support, or contract it out to a local 24-7 agency.

Time zones also play into the provision of real-time SME support. If your only SMEs are US-based, make sure that their schedules allow them to "be there" even occasionally for learners on the other side of the planet. We used to schedule synchronous sessions all around the clock, allowing learners to pick a slot that was convenient. and we usually logged the sessions and made them available in the course library as searchable databases, for those who just couldn't make it.

Take time to find out about local privacy policies. The way we handle the privacy of personal data in the US may be inappropriate or even illegal in other countries. For example, Germany has very strict labor laws that may forbid you from retaining certain performance records, or even from testing understanding. Sharing learner performance with managers may also be an issue, as is the question of anonymizing participation in synchronous or asynchronous group sessions. On the other hand, places like the UK have very little in the way of employee privacy protection.. so find out before you start programming.

Finally, while you will obviously try to localize language and vocabulary, also take into consideration local norms where things like grading and passing tests are concerned. In the US 70% seems to be what people assume is a pass. In other countries it's often 60 or 50. Using As, Bs, and Cs is a very American thing which makes no sense to many other nationalities.

Enough for now -- except to say that if you are doing some substantial multinational work you should look at the localizing services of some specialists in the e-learning field. In the DC area, welocalize.com has a good reputation. I have worked with an excellent company called Transware, who have offices all over the world and can do the localization, translation, and programming with people who are all native to the target language

Sunday, June 27, 2004

Bandwidth and video - still an issue

I still have F100 clients who forbid streaming audio on their intranets, let alone video, and Flash is for them a definite no-no. So do not underestimate the bandwidth issues!

Video - and the other rich media - should only be used where there is a learning objective best served by it, and then only used sparingly. There is nothing worse for a learner than to have to sit through hours of gratuitous talking-head video. But if used to illustrate a point, behavior, or process, well-crafted bits of video can be very powerful.

The bandwidth demanded by your video will depend on so many factors, including the size of the window you play it in, the frame rate, the compression format you use and so on. Typically, for streaming video to a 400x200 window at 20 frames a second, you need about 360kbps of bandwidth per simultaneous user. Higher res or higher frame rate, and it can shoot up exponentially. Use a good compression algorithm like Flash MX04, and it can drop. Get your IT people involved early, define a bandwidth budget, and fit your video chunks into it.

Saturday, June 26, 2004

Lessons from reality TV

As the latest season of reality TV's "Amazing Race" kicks off, I remember an episode last year that grabbed my attention and got me hooked on the show.

One couple was trying to get to a destination as fast as possible, and the man insisted on driving, leaving his wife to navigate -- something they both knew she was inept at doing. They lost he race, not because the navigator was unable to read a map, but because they failed to optimize their teamwork. Navigating required some specialized skill and was critical to success; driving was neither demanding nor critical. Why put the wrong team member on the critical task? If the man was imposing those decisions, and not managing their resources appropriately, he was to blame for their failure. If it happened out of habit, then challenging past behaviors would have been a productive thing to do -- though in the panic of a crisis, how often do we take the time needed to do this?

It is a leader's responsibility to set direction. He had assumed leadership, and was trying to lead by staying in control of the vehicle, even though he did not know where he was going. We see that a lot in business, in government, and we see it in training -- the headlong lunge for e-learning without pausing to think through strategy is a case in point.

When the driver finally realized that his navigator was not going to get them to their goal, instead of taking on that responsibility he did what so many business 'leaders' do -- he decided to follow his competitors in the hope that they knew what they were doing.

And, when it was all over, he let his navigator shoulder the blame for his failure.

I have to start watching more reality TV.

Friday, June 18, 2004

Generation gap foolishness

I have to agree with those who see the problems that occur when younger people manage older people as a management issue rather than a generation gap issue. It is perfectly natural for an older person to resent being managed by someone younger, and that has absolutely nothing to do with whether they are Generation X, Y, or E. It’s a question of mutual perception of value and credibility, not of generational values.

An older person can feel that their experience is undervalued by the company if a younger person gets the management role; the same person can feel undervalued by the manager if their experience and perspectives are not acknowledged or leveraged. Conversely, a younger person may feel threatened by an older person’s experience, may perceive that experience to be a barrier to positive change, or, worse, may not even know or care about the older person’s experience. The tension that exists between these people forms a barrier to clear communication, which exacerbates the problem. Each can end up thinking the other has attitude problems, and resentment builds.

It is not uncommon in organizations for a manager to have never seen an employee’s resume, and to know little about that person’s experience or perspectives. And it is very common for an employee to know nothing about their manager’s background. Mutual respect, the leveraging of the experience assets that each brings to a situation, and the creation of any kind of synergy, is unlikely where they are, effectively, strangers.

This can be avoided by good management practices and good interpersonal communication – the kind of basic management skills that anyone should have before being promoted into a people-management role. Knowing about Gen-X, Y etc. is likely to make the problem worse, not better: why try to get to know the specific value that an individual brings to your team when you can dismissively lump him/her into a superficial stereotype?

Saturday, June 12, 2004

Understanding as a learning objective

The issue of whether "understanding" can be a viable learning objective has been raised recently on various online forums, and gets dismissed because achievement of understanding can't be measured or observed, and because behavior change is more appropriate a goal for training. I used to endorse this view, particularly back in the days when I was training people in MBO. But now I am not so sure.

First, in the academic education world, understanding IS a goal. It is fundamental to being able to analyze, form judgments, formulate opinions and beliefs, and develop intellectually. Few university courses, other than perhaps in 'the professions', aim to get students to DO anything of direct practical value. Yet renowned educational institutions the world over test understanding using rigorously designed means all the time. Try telling a professor of economics or metaphysics that you can't test for understanding. Teaching students how to understand within whatever appropriate context is, in my view, a noble and often achieved objective. Once the mental processes pump is primed, graduates are considered to be ready for the world, which was till recently a rather predictable place.

Second, that world is changing rapidly and growing ever more complex, way faster and more chaotically than say in the 50s. A core survival competence in business is the ability to rapidly "understand" new things, concepts, tools, processes, environments and so on. Without understanding there can be no meaningful behavior change. Without understanding there is alienation. So why is it considered inappropriate or unworthy to try to get employees to understand things? I have a growing conviction that the better employees understand the world they live in, the better able they are to adapt to it (or drive it) on their own, without formal training interventions.

I confess I am biased in this view. Three years ago I was approached to develop a series of e-learning courses for a telecommunications company. They knew that they were perceived by the market as old fashioned and slow, an analog-voice batch-systems operation in a world that was rapidly moving to a digital-data real-time focus. They determined that a primary albatross around their neck was their many-thousands strong employee base who simply did not understand the wired world of the Internet. The innovative thinkers in business strategy felt like they were running waist-deep in water. The drag of people who did not understand, did not care, or were passively resistant to e-business (from the mailroom to the boardroom) was a huge obstacle. And not having everyone through the length and breadth of the organization willing and able to see and react to e-business opportunities was a real threat to the company's evolution.

So we put together the courses to get every single employee to "understand" what was then called the new economy and its practical implications for them, for business, and for society. Though a lot of the training was experiential, many of the objectives were deliberately phrased in "understanding" terms, and much of what was conveyed was knowledge rather than skill or ability. But people came out of those courses grounded, confident, enthusiastic, and a lot more competent to talk about e-business issues and ideas. Today, that company is the most respected digital-data telecom in its field, and is looked to by others in its industry as setting the bar. Training was a significant part of that transformation, and developing "understanding" was a significant part of that training.

Understanding of anything lifts an employee above those without that understanding. Understanding can be taught, and adds significant leverage to any behavior-change efforts.

Or am I just not understanding?

Monday, June 07, 2004

What’s in a name?

What you name something tends to influence what it becomes.

Members of committees tend to think of their role as passive, perpetual, reactive; taskforce members think of themselves as actually having to initiate and achieve something specific with some sense of urgency or importance.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Problem-Solving Training

When I was running a computer games development company, every games publisher wanted something that was both radically new and that had been a proven success in the past. Hollywood is no exception. And these are among our most creative industries. They say that cloning puts evolution on hold, weakening the gene pool and making viruses (constantly evolving) inherently more dangerous -- in business, it's continuously innovative competitors you have to beware of.

The desire to repeat past success is one of the fundamental constraining factors in business. The assumption that you minimize risk by replicating what has worked in the past underlies much of management theory. We focus on minimizing investment risk rather than maximizing return. "Return" has uncertainty written all over it; "investment" is a little easier to control. So much of our strategic thinking is asset-based: we are good at X and we have Y resources, what return can we generate with them? It's not considered sound corporate practice to ask: we want to make $X million, what opportunities can we create? Startup entrepreneurs do it, because they have not yet become experts. And, because they have very little to lose, they focus on the returns rather than the investment risk.

I suspect that what passes for expert intuition is sub(un?)conscious pattern-recognition of the kind that allows "lesser" creatures to recognize lunch, avoid becoming lunch, and find their way when they migrate. The less experience you have, the more you feel a need to be analytical. The more experience you have in a particular field, the less you have to consciously make yourself think analytically, if you don't want to. You instinctively recognize patterns and react accordingly. But therein can lie the danger. If the world has changed, if there are factors at play today that were not there five years ago, a lazy reliance on instincts can cause you to miss opportunities for innovation, or, worse, just make mistakes.

That is why corporations that take problem-solving and decision-making seriously insist on having everybody trained in the use of analytical methodologies, and why they work at getting those methodologies into the culture of the business. If you have to work with the system, it's not that easy to get lazy and fall back on instinct.

Good e-Learning

Much of e-learning is simply content-pushing. Much of what passes for training in the classroom these days is also simply content pushing. I have often heard ILT vendors and in-company trainers lament the trend toward "fire-hose" training, getting ever-larger groups of people "trained" in ever-shorter courses. If content pushing suffices in a classroom, then why not use technology as a much more cost-effective time-efficient (and arguably more humane) substitute? It's not ideal, and of course you can achieve so much more with technology, but sometimes pragmatism comes into play. Why not just give them a book? Books are really slow and expensive to produce and nigh impossible to update in real time.

Be that as it may, I think the only criterion for deciding if a particular e-learning instance is "good" is whether it achieves its learning objectives better than any other approach would have, within time and within budget. When I say "learning objectives" I mean both corporate and individual learner objectives. I know that's not very useful, because the actual measure of "goodness" is after the fact and a little imprecise. But if you find models that worked, you can figure out why they worked, and apply those lessons where appropriate to future projects.

From my experience (balanced by some analysis!), these are some of the characteristics that go into creating goodness, particularly in a sales training context:

Accessibility (not slow and turgid, but pan and scan)
Visualization (connect theory with the task via realistic examples)
Collaboration and fostered informal learning (connect relevant learners with each other and SMEs to share concerns/experiences)
Immediacy (communicate product/policy changes in real time, ideally with a training component to the knowledge push)
Feedback loops (build in opportunities for learners to clarify issues and modify training content real-time based on problems or actual experience in the field)
There's more but I have gone on too long as it is.

None of this is expensive video-rich instructional-designed Rolls Royce learning product. And it may not fit the conventional concept of e-learning. But I'd encourage sales trainers to play with things like creating a new product blog (get product managers, marketing people, sales managers involved too), or a regional sales team blog for the sales people to build.

Check out the latest from Blogger.com -- anyone can get a secure image-rich blog up in minutes at no cost. Check out Spoke.com for a very neat social networking tool.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Problem-Solving Training

The cliché that you can't get to the future by looking in the rear-view mirror holds even more true in a world where change is no longer linear and predictable. If you don't know how to leverage experience, it can become baggage. Experience used to be an ever-appreciating asset; now you often need to depreciate it rather rapidly, or risk it having undue influence on your decisions.