Saturday, April 30, 2005

Competency based learning management

For some years now, the notion of competency-based learning management (CBLM) has been viewed by training departments as the Holy Grail. But, like many things that make a lot of sense in theory, the practice is somehow unconvincing. In fact, the pursuit of CBLM, like the pursuit of e-learning, can cause us to lose sight of what is really important. Worse, it might do real damage to a company’s viability.

Here, in a nutshell, is the argument for CBLM: You can break the strategic plan of a business down into resource requirements, and within the human resources you can identify what competencies are required to fulfill the plan. You can drill down into that plan and create ever more detailed lists of competency requirements, by department, by project, by team, and by individual. Then, by surveying in depth the existing competencies of your employees, you can map out the gaps between what we have and what we need, and define a training plan to fill those gaps. No individual needs to be trained in anything that is not directly relevant to his or her personal competency growth path. You save time and money by surgically targeting all of your learning interventions, and doing away with the training smorgasbords of old. And you know that your training plans are intimately linked to your business objectives.

In a word, efficiency: which is management-speak for saving money. (True efficiency is about optimizing outputs and inputs, not simply seeing how far we can cut costs before the house of cards collapses). CBLM is an industrial-economy concept, where specialization and division of labor are considered to be good things, and where no resources should be wasted on helping any individual to learn anything that is not specific to the performance of his or her particular task.

Of course, all training has always been competency based, only it was typically bottom-up, not top-down. I am not performing well as a salesman, it is deemed that I am less than competent, and sales training is in order. But the bottom-up approach, however pragmatic and situation-responsive it may be, does not collectively amount to a clean, efficient fit with corporate top-down approach. And it makes planning and cost-justification difficult. Hence CBLM. (As an aside, competency-based HR management, where skill gaps are looked at as resource requirements rather than training needs, has contributed to much of the outsourcing pandemic in Western corporations. Why spend time and money training people with the hope of a 10% improvement in performance, when you can fire the lot and hire offshore resources with greater competency at a third of the cost?)

Here, in a nutshell, is my argument against CBLM: We are no longer operating in an industrial age economy, so competency-based learning management doesn’t really work.

And, in the rare instances where it can be made to sort of work, it handicaps the organization’s ability to rapidly innovate and adapt. Development of employees is now as important as their training. Collaborative workflows require employees to have a broader, not narrower, vision of their work. Industrial economy thinking seeks to eliminate overlaps in competencies; knowledge economy thinking acknowledges that without overlap there can be no synergy, and that competency overlaps foster the capacity for continual innovation. It is the opposite of specialization. Today, the more co-workers there are that know what I know, the more valuable that knowledge becomes. The same is true of skill. The future prosperity of organizations emerges from the white spaces between the org-chart boxes – sanitize those spaces by scrubbing regularly with CBLM, and nothing of value will ever grow there. Once you have instilled a regime of rigorous CBLM, don’t ever dare to tell an employee to think outside the box.

Informal learning is largely instigated and managed by individual employees, and the inherent contradiction between fostering informal learning and trying to centralize efficiency-driven competency-based learning management may not be in the best interests of corporate performance.

Another significant flaw in CBLM is the belief that we can adequately measure existing competencies, and can manage the ongoing maintenance of the resulting databases. Apart from the thin-ice of actually defining and measuring each competency in a way that is ethnically/culturally neutral and legally defensible, the effort inherent in keeping records up to date leaves most companies flailing. With e-learning, the real savings are not in course costs but in the business process costs associated with learning. With competency-based learning management, the business process costs may dramatically outweigh the course cost savings.

Is all CBLM a waste of time? Of course not. But blindly pursuing it because that’s what everyone else is doing, or because that’s what all the software vendors are hyping, can lead to the same frustration, expense, and lost opportunities as did the blind pursuit of e-learning. Like e-learning, which ironically has given enterprise-wide CBLM the semblance of being achievable, CBLM is only a good idea where it is appropriate, and where it is interpreted and applied intelligently and pragmatically. And like e-learning, which many companies wrongly feel they can fire up and leave running “as is” for eons, all CBLM initiatives are in a state of perpetual rapid decay, like a snowball rolling down a warm hill. A CBLM system, in a company competing in rapidly-changing dynamic markets, has a half-life of mere months.

Factor that into your efficiency calculations, and weep.

Original in TrainingZONE Parkin Space column of 22 April 2005

The LMS selection process in a nutshell

In working on learning strategies, I am sometimes asked to help a company decide which Learning Management System they should use. Here's the general approach that I recommend.

This is to be read in conjunction with my frequent admonitions to not allow the LMS to define your learning processes, nor to make its selection the starting point of your strategy development, nor to assume that any LMS is adequate to manage the totality of the learning that might take place. With that said, here’s an approach to selecting an LMS.

Form an LMS selection team that includes representatives of all those who will be involved in implementing and using it. Get someone from your IT department involved early, but ensure that they do not take ownership of the selection process. If you can afford it, get an objective outsider involved as well.

Agree on the strategic and operational processes by which you want to manage learning. These will follow from having already defined your strategic and operational learning objectives, which in turn will have been derived from the business goals of your various learning customers. Do not think in terms of LMS functionality, but in terms of process: what do you want to do, who is going to do it, how is it going to work.

Then look at this broad strategy, and list the requirements that a system supporting it must satisfy. Create a list of critical success factors for your e-learning systems. For example, if your strategy calls for you to implement competency-based learning, you may need to integrate with your Human Resource Management System (HRMS) data or your Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system. If you have operations around the world, you may have a need for multi-lingual or multi-byte character capability. Your list of requirements will probably have 12-24 items on it.

Some other factors that you should consider at this stage are:
  • Will you need local support in multiple countries?
  • What is your budget?
  • Do you want to host internally or have the vendor host for you?
  • How diverse is your target learner platform and your IT infrastructure?
  • Do you want to manage classroom activity (scheduling, evaluations)?
  • Will you be integrating third-party content?
  • Will you need a system that integrates with CD-ROM content or allows offline work to take place?
  • Do you need e-commerce or departmental charge-back capabilities?
  • How granular are your tracking and reporting needs?
  • Do you have to track compliance or certification training?
  • Do you have special requirements for data security?
  • Do you plan to integrate collaborative activities such as e-mail, chat, or communities in your learning?
  • Will you be managing synchronous virtual classroom activities?

Survey the market and come up with a short-list of systems that meet your critical needs. The survey can be done by issuing a request for information to all of the known vendors in the market (there are only 50 or 60 of any substance), by buying an off-the-shelf study, or by contracting someone to do the data collection work for you.

It is at this point where your LMS quest might lead you away from the straightforward purchase path: if your requirements don’t fit well what is available, you might explore the option of building rather than buying.

Reduce the list to less than half a dozen, using criteria that are important but did not make it to the critical list.

Next, develop a framework for evaluation of alternative systems. This is an important step, because it allows you to take control of the “demo process” and provides you with the right questions to ask. Without such a framework, you become a passive audience to the vendor’s presentation. The most helpful approach to defining an evaluation framework is to map out “a day in the life of a user” and then have the vendors talk about how their solution fits to that picture. You can break down a day in the life of an LMS administrator, a learner, an instructor, an instructional designer, an HRMS bureaucrat, and a learner tech-support person into a set of specific action steps, processes, or mini case-studies. Those steps, and the complexity of them, then become challenges to the vendor: Show me how your system supports these necessary processes.

Craft your RFP around your needs as already defined, don't use a template that you found on the web. Using someone else's idea of what is important is not only lazy, it can mislead the vendors and cause you to make decisions based on irrelevant criteria.Send out your RFP to your final short-list of vendors.

Once you have received responses to your request for proposal, cut the list to three. At this stage, you have enough information to differentiate the top candidates from the rest. All of your other criteria, the less important issues, the subjective feelings, the qualitative factors and so on can come into play.

Ask your final vendor list to set up demo sites that you can explore. Get learners, instructors, administrators and so on to go in and play, then provide you with feedback. Ask for references in companies that have installed the systems, and be sure to talk to as many of them as you can.

Once you have had the chance to try out the systems, have had the vendor presentations, and have seen how they address the day-in-the-life requirements, you should be comfortable about making a selection. Each party in the LMS selection team may have a different view, and should have a different perspective, but you will have enough structured data to come to a reasonably comfortable conclusion. Pick an LMS.

Then, because vendor terms are rarely cast in concrete, negotiate!

Original in TrainingZONE Parkin Space column of 15 April 2005

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Simulations in Learning

One of the so-far unfulfilled promises of e-learning is the proliferation of easily-created inexpensive simulations that help bring the application of learned skills into a realistic context.

While there are plenty of low-end simulations in the field of software tools training, we are not seeing the same in soft skills training. Simulating the behaviour of a software application is relatively trivial – buy an inexpensive tool such as Camtasia or Captivate, and away you go. Simulating the behaviour of real people is another thing altogether. Trainers are put off creating such environments because they think they need to build complex computer models of reality. Not true.

Often the most effective (and cost-effective) simulation is reality. That's why people learn so much more "on the job" than they do "in training". It's why online massively-multiplayer role-play games have always been so popular and so compelling. It's (sadly) why reality TV is such a large part of our entertainment landscape.

You don't necessarily need to script a scenario or code an engine for a simulation if you allow reality to be its driver. Need to sharpen your abilities in marketing strategy? Work on a real project. Need to get beyond the theory in motivating staff? Work on a real issue. Need to become more fluent in your new foreign language? Spend some time in the real foreign country.

Where simulations make a whole lot of sense is where the downside of a failure in reality is so expensive that the cost of developing the simulation is acceptable (as in learning to fly a 747). Or where the cost of the simulation can be amortised over extensive use (as in computer games). Or where it costs very little to build something effective.

Simulations are not always hi-tech or expensive. For decades, sales trainers and other soft-skills trainers have worked with simulations, more often referred to as role-plays. Transferring those to an e-learning mode does not have to cost a lot of money if you accept that reality is a better driver than a computerised engine.

If you need to have people role-play online, hook them up with fellow learners instead of with some clunky machine logic. The responses of real people are always more interesting, unpredictable, and valuable than anything you could program into a computer.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, e-learning should be about people learning from (and with) other people, via facilitated online communication. E-learning should not be exclusively about people learning from machines.

E-learning developers should focus on how networked learning can support, facilitate, and guide learning as it takes place in the workplace. In the future, we won’t have a mentor physically watching every skill being applied by every employee, but maybe we will have a computer system helping with some of that work. I'm not talking about having Big Brother watching your every move, or being constantly second-guessed by that annoying animated Microsoft paperclip. But something subtler, less intrusive, and more nurturing might work.

Until that happens, designing blended processes to make much of the learning take place as part of the learner’s day-to-day workflow is a good step forward. Instead of merely blending online coursework with classroom coursework, we should blend workplace application with both modes of learning. Have people learn on the job, using their actual work tasks as the simulation. You might want to avoid doing this if there are lives or major clients at stake, but most people will be doing their jobs anyway. We just need to help them apply their new skills to the work so that the work can help them learn.

As our abilities progress, applications will become available that allow us to create more and more sophisticated replications of reality at lower and lower costs. But we are a long way from that state right now – fortunately, because I suspect that once simulations are really quick and easy to create, we'll be consistently abusing the technology in the same way that we abuse PowerPoint.

Original in TrainingZONE Parkin Space column of 1 April 2005