Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Learning innovations

I have just spent a couple of days at a small highly-focused symposium titled “Innovations in E-learning.” It was put together by the US Naval Education and Training Command and the Defence Acquisition University (DAU), who have among the best and brightest training minds that the American taxpayer’s money can buy. They are not short of budget, manpower, or technology, and they get to mess with lots of experimental stuff. I decided to participate because the future of learning matters to me, and because a couple of my virtual colleagues were pretty much dominating the presentations in one stream.

For several years now, Training Departments have been transfixed by the evolving internet in the same way that dinosaurs were probably awe-struck by the approaching comet. So what does the future hold? I’m happy to report that learning will thrive, but trainers will have to merge back into operational roles. Oh, and Training Departments are dead, at least as we know them. As are Learning Management Systems and any other relics of centralized distribution of learning. Learning that is informal, collaborative, contextual, real-time, and peer-generated, will be the mode of tomorrow.

It seems counter-intuitive that military types whose culture is defined by command and control hierarchies would advocate devolution of learning to the swab on the deck-plates or the grunt in the foxhole, but that was the gist of what was being said. Admittedly, it was not being said by the JAG look-alikes or their entourages, but by the civilian gurus who write their white papers for them. And devolution of learning does not necessarily mean relinquishing control – in fact there are some very scary big-brother systems being deployed that (allegedly) will tell anyone with access pretty much what any individual sailor anywhere in the world had for breakfast last Tuesday and, to five decimal places, what his or her competency rating is on any given skill. It is hard to reconcile what they are saying with what they are doing, until you realize that, because these systems are so vast, they take a long time to build and deploy. So at any point in time the military are rolling out systems and policies that have long since been abandoned for something new – which may not see the light of day for a decade.

I was mainly interested in hearing what folks like Jay Cross, Clark Aldrich, Harvey Singh and Ben Watson had to say about workflow learning, collaboration, and simulations. However, in amongst their sessions was a real eye-opener from a VP at IBM. IBM used to be a blue-suit red-tie operation as monolithic as a bank, but it has been doing a lot of shape-shifting in recent years. These days any organization that is unwilling or unable to do that is unlikely to be around very long. It’s Darwinian – those who can adapt most readily are most likely to survive in times of rapid change. IBM’s consulting wing, adrenalised a couple of years ago by their acquisition of Price-Waterhouse Coopers consulting, is doing what big consulting firms rarely do – they are advocating unique solutions that they don’t already have parked in a truck around the corner.

Here’s a quick version of the IBM line on “embedded” or workflow learning:

The most profound shift that will take place in training over the next three years is a movement away from traditional, formal, course-based learning (classroom or online) and towards clever integration into the workflow of learning-enabling tools like Instant Messaging and informal collaboration processes. As we move learning from its “separate service” role to a more integrated coal-face role, one of the biggest obstacles is the political question of who owns it. The other is the need for a deeply rooted culture of collaboration throughout the organization.

A simple example of workflow learning in action: Tom in Finance gets an urgent request to authorize foreign travel funds for an executive. He learned how to do that in a training course last year, but has never needed to do it in practice, so he’s lost. The help system, typically, doesn’t. The FAQ gives no guidance either. So he sends out a broadcast Instant Message to a small group of SMEs and experienced practitioners asking for help. So far this is not a lot different from “prairie dogging” – popping your head up above your cube divider and yelling “Does anyone know how to…” But here is where it gets interesting. Jill, an experienced practitioner in another city, responds to the message. She remotely takes control of Tom’s computer and talks to him as he watches her go through the steps on his screen. She identifies that the help system, the FAQ, and possibly the original training are inadequate, and updates the FAQ in wiki-like fashion. Then she identifies a group of Tom’s peers who might benefit from knowing what Tom now knows, and sends them an announcement of a ten-minute webinar for later that week. During the webinar, she records the session, and saves it to the system where those who could not make it, or those who may encounter the problem in the future, can easily find and watch it. Then she notifies those responsible for basic training, and those responsible for the help system, that they might need to pay attention to the issue. Tom, in the meantime, evaluates the help he has received, and his ratings and comments get added to Jill’s profile for reference by future aid-seekers, and her management.

The technology is not complex, or even expensive. Most people have it on their computers already. Aspects of this are widely used already in e-commerce and e-customer support. Individuals already learn this way intuitively. What is hard is achieving the mindset and the culture that allows and encourages this to happen across an organization.

There is nothing revolutionary in the IBM vision. If you have followed those who advocate informal learning and collaborative learning (and indeed many of my own rants), you will realize that the ideas are not new. But, for me, the amazing thing was to hear them coming from IBM. If Big Blue is advocating this approach, and is actively setting about trying to get it to work in its clients’ cultures as well as its own, then there is something serious going on. Workflow learning has moved from the drawing board to the boardroom. They say that in theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is. IBM is taking its theories on the road, and, in practice, is being taken seriously.


Original in TrainingZONE Parkin Space column of 10 June 2005

6 comments:

Tim Schlotfeldt said...

> They say that in theory there is no
> difference between theory and
> practice, but in practice there is.
> IBM is taking its theories on the
> road, and, in practice, is being
> taken seriousl

All right, let's spread the virus ;-)

Chris said...

From Parking Lot, to Parkin's Lot...!

Great piece...thanks!

Bill Bruck said...

Godfrey -

This set of examples is extremely interesting. In theory it sounds great. In practice, it sounds like the workers are from Perfectville (or wherever that Walmart commercial refers to); and the training department is from hell (or should be sent there).

Not to be too contrarian here, but the technologies are certainly in place for this. We just need to re-engineer the people.

In the organizations I work with, most competent folks have day jobs, and don't have the time to get on a remote session with someone who can't remember what they learned in class and re-teach it to them. Nor do they have the inclination.

Of COURSE it's nice to have someone available at all times to teach and re-teach you to do your job; this just doesn't seem very realistic, and as Elliott Masie pointed out over 10 years ago, prarie doggins (F2F or electronic) is actually the most expensive form of training ever created.

After re-training our luckless worker, our intrepid heroine decides that she has free time on her hands, and to recruit others for, and hold, a webinar.

Magically she can do this in 10 minutes. Wasn't it Mark Twain that said "I'm sorry this is so long, I didn't have time to make it shorter?" In the world I live in, it actually takes a fair amount of work to distill the learning into a 10-minute chunk. In fact, I tend to believe there's an inverse correlation between the amount of development time and the length of the resulting product.

All of this starts with the stated assumption that the training and documentation folks are doing such a poor job that their work is useless to help a real person in a real job.

Let's see here, does this suggest anything to anyone?

Godfrey Parkin said...

Bill, I may have already responded to some of these issues in the Learning Circuits blog, but here we go anyway..

"Not to be too contrarian here, but the technologies are certainly in place for this. We just need to re-engineer the people."

Nothing contrarian there -- I think I made the point that it's NOT about technology, because that is trivial, but the real challenge is creating the culture that values, rewards, and facilitates collaboration. And that (as your skepticism clearly demonstrates) is an uphill battle :-)

"as Elliott Masie pointed out over 10 years ago, prarie doggins (F2F or electronic) is actually the most expensive form of training ever created."

Agreed. But that's a common misconception about workflow learning. It is specifically NOT prairie-dogging (which is seen to be a worst practice). Workflow learning seeks to foster a process in which best pratitioners can pass on best practices in a way that minimizes interruptions to the workflow of both the learner and the trainer.

"After re-training our luckless worker, our intrepid heroine decides .. to hold, a webinar. Magically she can do this in 10 minutes. ..In the world I live in, it actually takes a fair amount of work to distill the learning into a 10-minute chunk."

Two things. 1) Try to step back from picking at the example, which was deliberately simplistic to facilitate illustration, and look at the broader concept. 2) If you want to be picky, in the example, the training was specific to showing someone how to do a simple authorisation process, which, in the original training, may not have received more than ten minutes out of 16 hours of procedure training. If an expert can't do that in a 10-minute webinar, even spontaneously, then how the heck is a "professional trainer" going to manage?

"All of this starts with the stated assumption that the training and documentation folks are doing such a poor job that their work is useless to help a real person in a real job."

Never stated. These days, trainers are under a lot of pressure to cram more and more content into fewer and fewer training hours, resulting in the firehose approach that, sadly, is not uncommon. If a participant, many months after say a two day procedures course can't remember how to do one of the many procedures covered, are the trainers incompetent? No, but the learning was ineffective. And it was primarily ineffective because the content lacked context at the time it was taught, and application never took place in the real world. Show me a trainer who can achieve 100 percent retention in all learners one year post-training, and I'll bet he/she can walk on water, too :-)

Dave Lee said...

Godfrey: As usual a thought provoking piece, most of which I can happily join the parade behind you to support.

However, there is an assumption in your post and much of the workflow literature that if learning can somehow "just be embedded" into the workflow then work for learning professionals will evaporate.

The first problem with this assumption is that embedded learning is the ultimate solution. While i totally agree that there is tremendous potential to be unlocked through harnessing the power of the workflow, I do see instances that might be best served outside of the workflow. Sexual harrassment training or Sarbaines Oxley discussions where scenarios or role play can be beneficial in a learning environment but would be illegal in a real time workspace.

I can argue similarly for new systems training using "discovery labs" offline or the socialization gained in new employee training or leadership training by taking people out of the workflow to train together (see IBM's acclaimed mid manager training for the need for face-to-face socialization). As eLearning before it, embedded learning isn't a silver bullet.

Second, as to work disappearing for learning professionals, I'll agree that the scope, and perhaps location, of our work will change dramatically, but, if we adapt to the changes occurring we will likely find ourselves in even more strategic roles. Since I don't feel that embedded learning is THE solution, there will continue to be a role for determining the most appropriate blend of interventions to meet corporate strategic interventions.

I agree with Jay Cross who's advocating that we need to learn Business Process Modeling and Network Systems Analysis as basic competencies in support of workflow learning systems.

Finally, if things do play out where line managers take over the facilitative roles in training (which I'm very skeptical of at least it's implementation if not it's efficacy), who's going to teach them how to perform those roles consistently and effectively? Can you say train-the-trainer on mega-steriods???

Yeah, that comet's pretty dazzling, but me and some of these other dinosaurs are heading to the evolutionary changing room. I have a feeling we're do for a change in the weather!

Thanks for the thought provoking post!

Dave

Godfrey Parkin said...

Dave,

I don't see trainers becoming unnecessary, but I do see their role in the learning process AND their central location in the organizational structure changing. I also see the role of "training departments" changing. I am not suggesting that the scope of such departments will shrink but that, if properly managed, the scope of operations will dramatically increase. The nucleus of formal training will clearly still be needed, but I think the training organization needs to become more of a "network of influence" and less of a central command-and-control institution.

(I am working with a large client right now on an aspect of their learning strategy and it pains me to see that the consulting firm retained to help them restructure their operations is advocating a radical re-centralization of training, with the primary goal being cost-cutting. That's so 20th Century. Given a chance to re-engineer learning processes, I'd opt to improve performance by going the other way and promote distributed, embedded, colaborative learning. But you can't measure the impact of that on next quarter's financial reports..)