Thursday, March 31, 2005

Saba acquires THINQ without a ripple in the market

Saba has acquired THINQ. Time was when an acquisition at this level -- two major players in the LMS market -- would have tongues wagging for months. But this has happened with hardly anyone appearing to care. Sure, THINQ's customers are not going to be happy about being told to migrate to Saba's technology over time. But neither the training press nor the usual industry commentators seem to think the acquisition is worthy of much attention.

Is this a sign of market maturity at last? Or is it because there has been so much blood shed in the industry recently that we are just numbed to the reality: this market is just not big enough for more than a few players. If the e-learning-only vendors have any hope of making a stand against the giant ERP vendors, they have to get bigger through merging. But we were talking David and Goliath before Oracle acquired PeopleSoft. Now it's more like David and Godzilla. Even before getting PeopleSoft, Oracle's revenues could absorb those of all the independent vendors put together three times over.

A couple of years ago I was fond of annoying LMS vendors by saying that it would be game over for the pure-play guys once the ERP firms turned their attention to e-learning. Looks like the sun might be setting sooner than anyone expected.

Work Skills are the Tip of the Iceberg

I have many hidden talents that rarely get sold to my clients. I am a photographer, a cook, a writer, and a web coder. I can fell a tree, survive in the wilderness, speak German, and some Dutch and Swedish, and a little American. I am a persuasive salesman, and an effective diplomat. I can put together business plans and brand plans, raise venture capital, re-build a computer, interpret complex data, and play a mean air guitar. I have other talents that I’d rather not go into here. So what? If they are of no direct relevance to the job I am doing, they get put on ice, and effectively cease to exist. Or do they?

In any company, each employee has a rich set of talents that never makes it to the surface in the work environment. Frequently, we “inherit” a team that we had no hand in hiring in the first place, and about whom we know little. We might, at annual review time, look at the employee file to get a better insight. But that file may only tell us about the person’s education, skills, certifications, and work experience. It tells us nothing about the employee’s alter ego, the “real” person who appears after leaving the office. It tells us nothing about their fuzzy competencies.

These days the recruitment process, which is supposed to be getting more and more rigorous, tends to ignore anything but the most salient facts about applicants. When I applied for my first job decades ago, there was a whole page of questions about my outside interests, hobbies, and sports. Today, those questions are considered either invasive of privacy or quite irrelevant to the evaluation of job suitability. In the US, most resumes should be only one page long – two at the outside – if they are to be accepted at all. Companies used to recruit the person, now they hire a finite skill set. The incidental skills and talents rarely get noticed or catalogued, so the total capacity of our workforce stays hidden.

I am not talking about Joan in Accounts, who speaks some Russian, so gets seconded to the sales team for the annual Moscow Trade Show. I am more concerned with the fundamental motivational, creative, and intellectual drivers that allow people to become linguists, musicians, programmers, amateur dramatists, community mentors, orchid-breeders, or moonlighting e-commerce entrepreneurs. It’s their learning skills that we may be under-exploiting, though their learned skills may clearly have some benefit.

We are populating our companies with tips of icebergs, without knowing what resources lie below the surface. That may have been acceptable in the 1980s and '90s, but in the knowledge-economy Naughties it’s a mistake. This is a decade of increasingly perishable overt competencies. The most valuable skills that an employee can have today are the ability and curiosity to peer over the horizon and the ability to learn, and unlearn, rapidly and efficiently.

As globalization is thrust upon us, and as networked communication becomes the norm, the ability of an organisation to rapidly evolve in new and creative ways becomes vital. The routine hierarchical “division of labour” approach to getting things done seems less relevant than the “organic flux” approach in which project teams coalesce then dissolve as needed. A key to the success of this is people who are capable of changing their focus, role, and operational skill-set as they move from one project to the next, or as they work on multiple projects simultaneously.

In the US, the digital generation is rising rapidly through the ranks, because they see ways to operate that those with an industrial-economy mindset cannot conceive. Those people older than their late twenties are struggling to change their own concepts of how organizations work.

For trainers, this raises a few complications, and many opportunities. First, an annual skill-gap analysis is of little value, but a tactical project skill-gap analysis might be handy. Second, the idea of scheduling the training of groups of people seems less sensible than creating individualized ad-hoc learning opportunities. Third, there may be a whole slew of new “learning” skills to be defined and taught. Fourth, there’s an evolving project management – and project participation – field, with its own skill-sets, to be defined and taught (the PMI's pretentiously named Project Management Body of Knowledge is considered by many to be hopelessly old-fashioned). Finally there is the growing need to train people in the skills of managing an organization that is in permanent flux.

As organizational barriers and processes start to flex and the crystalline nature of an employee’s contract with the company becomes more plastic, perhaps the idea of work-life balance changes to one of work-life integration. Instead of superficially segregating one’s skills into work skills and private skills, perhaps companies will start to look a little deeper at what fuzzy competencies people have. Identifying “root skills” that can be cultivated in multiple directions may spawn a better recruitment/promotion model than merely looking at the certificates stapled to a resume.

Original in TrainingZONE Parkin Space column of 18 March 2005

Friday, March 18, 2005

New Paradigms for Learning

In recent posts I have talked about the power of informal learning, and wondered why learning professionals conspicuously ignore the potential for performance improvement that it offers. Now that the kind of human interactions that make informal learning so effective are being facilitated by the Internet, the relevance and impact of formal training may diminish even further. Do we as learning professionals stand by and watch our empires get sidelined, or do we try to take a leading role in defining and refining emerging learning paradigms?

Naturally, there will always be a need for formal training and diligent learning management, especially where compliance or certification are concerned. But according to various recent studies, corporate employees, particularly knowledge workers, learn three times more from informal experiences than they do in formal courses. Those informal learning experiences include interacting with co-workers, modelling peer behaviour, trial and error, self-directed learning, social support structures, networking, ad-hoc mentoring, and so on. If so little that is valued by employees comes from structured activities, either we are not teaching what people need to know or the way we teach is inadequate. Or the world can get by just fine without us.

Anthropologists and particle physicists agree that there are things in this world that we cannot observe without changing them in the process. Can those whose frame of reference is formality understand how informal learning takes place in their own organisations, and engage that process without breaking it? Can training departments, with all of their post-industrial-revolution baggage, rise to the challenge and affect the kind of post-knowledge-revolution changes that are both necessary and inevitable?

The challenge is to facilitate, not dictate, and to nurture and focus those aspects of an informal learning environment that can leverage what people do naturally. We need to start teaching employees how to learn. We need to create the culture that encourages innovation, experimentation, socialising, and networking. We need to make time for talking, and for dissecting failure without punishing it. And we need to start a movement, top-down, to dissolve organisational silos and the myopic tunnel-vision they produce, and to provide the facilities that make it easier for employees to engage with each other. And, for those who fear that the growing competencies of individual employees might not get recorded as they do in a formal training environment, perhaps we need to foster a renaissance in testing or measurement.

What about control, and planning, budgeting and evaluation? What about ROI? What about structure in our own jobs as trainers? - That’s the reaction that holds us back.

As the Internet barrelled its way into our corporate lives a decade ago, I hoped it would have a liberating effect on how we go about our work of performance improvement. For the most part, it has not.

Instead of cultivating and liberating corporate knowledge, we use the Internet to reinforce our ivory towers; instead of opening people’s eyes, we put them to sleep; instead of personalising learning, we deliver generic packaged courses. Instead of teaching people to catch fish, we force-feed them on Spam till their expectation of anything better fades away.

But that’s OK, because the canned-learning supply chain is easy to manage and control, which is more important than any ultimate impact on business performance. After all, we are judged on measurable results, so we shoot for measurable goals. And that learning supply chain, with which we are now all so comfortable, is just loaded with measurability – especially now that we have an LMS to automate the work for us.

Perhaps we are afraid to embark on any initiatives where the ROI cannot be readily measured or guesstimated. Or perhaps we live in a business world where projects that stray too far from conventional thinking will not be funded. Exploring and experimentation are frowned upon in the world of corporate learning, because it is not only financially risky, it threatens to rock the boat if successful. Rock the boat? Christopher Columbus found the cash to take three small boats over the edge of the world, and you can bet that his PowerPoint presentation to the Queen of Spain had really fuzzy ROI calculations in it.

Three and a half centuries later, change is so ubiquitous it has become a cliché. Yet corporate trainers don’t want to go there. To us, “innovation” is about boldly trying to get more Socratic methods into some of our classes, or converting our clickable links into animated 3D icons.

The recording industry discovered the power of informal networked collaboration when music consumers did things a radically new and – to them – eminently sensible and efficient way, using peer-to-peer file sharing. But it was not simply music files that got shared – the web facilitated a boom in knowledge sharing, with discussion forums, gossip boards, fan blogs, newsgroups, and specialised communities of interest that are doing more to promote the musicians than the marketing budgets of the record companies could ever have accomplished.

Record companies are left looking silly and marginalised, having to resort to legal actions in the courts to maintain their business model. Let’s not allow the recording industry to be a model of what is to become of training, which has typically been positioned as the “middleman” between SMEs and learners. We need to maintain some influence over the evolution of learning, because what crystallises from the informal bottom-up flux, while it will be “right” for the personal objectives of individual employees, may not be “right” for the business objectives of the corporation.

Original in TrainingZONE Parkin Space column of 11 March 2005

Jeek market gets Adidas cybersneakers

What's a Jeek? They inhabit the space at the intersection of the Jock and Geek markets. (OK, I just made that up). Once a thinly-populated niche, it has been growing rapidly as sporty types acquire camera-phones and iPods, and nerdy types start seeking a little more fresh air and fitness.

It's a trans-age-group niche that buys a lot of stuff just because it's cool. And "cool" is often enhanced by premium prices.

Today, into this discerning market, Adidas launches the Adidas 1. It's a running shoe that adjusts itself to it's wearer's pace, terrain, and fatigue level.

The shoe contains a battery-powered motor-and-pully system that changes the cushioning of the sole between the time the shoe leaves the ground and the time it next impacts the running terrain. A sensor in the heel measures compression, and computes from that whether the shoe is too soft or too firm. The computer brain sends the necessary instructions to the micro-mechanics, and the next time the runner's foot hits the ground the shoe will be more appropritely tuned.

All of this technology weighs in at under 40 grams. The rechargable batteries last for 100 hours of running. To save powewr, after ten minutes of walking the system shuts itself down. Of course, you can hit the "off" switch at any time.

Price tag? $250 per pair. Outrageous compared with regular running shoe prices, but not for hard-core runners, status seekers, or those consumed with techno-lust. The Adidas 1 could well be the iPod of America's $16+ billion dollar sneaker market.