Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Reflections on 2009: Who Would Have Thought??

To borrow the opening line from Charles Dickens’ classic novel Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”. I’m not sure if we could find 12 better words to describe my thoughts when reflecting on the past calendar year. It will be interesting to see how historians recall 2009, but we think it’s safe to say that it will be remembered as a wild one on almost every level. Clearly, to say that these have been difficult economic times is an understatement for many. Most every company we’ve worked with or spoken to this year has been impacted by the current economic climate. With budget issues in the corporate boardroom, there can’t help but be budget issues in the corporate classroom. The interesting thing to have watched was how the learning community, and its leaders, has reacted to the requests which came their way.

One almost universal comment we’ve heard from the CLO’s and training directors we’ve spoken with is that they are busier then they have ever been. With difficult times, come interesting measures. Even though many companies have experienced cut-backs of some kind, the learning department has had to be creative in how they continue to support and, in many cases, reeducate the people who remain. Many learning leaders are also challenged with how their departments will be structured and the type of services they will provide once things turn around and they begin rehiring again. The encouraging news is that we have begun to hear more and more positive news regarding things stabilizing, if not picking up again, which is reinforcing the thought that hopefully some type of economic recovery is underway.

The interesting thing about the Dickens quote is that it clearly states that although these are difficult times, they can also be our best! When things turn around training budgets and approaches will never be the same again, and that may not be a bad thing. These times have forced training professionals to be creative in their offerings, think outside their conventional approaches, and really examine the merit of every program they offer. This has created some incredibly exciting trends with some very powerful outcomes. We would like to share a few here.

Well, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s reads this blog has heard us speak, but it’s very exciting to see Performance Support (PS) finally getting the attention it has long deserved! With all that’s outlined above, learning departments are seriously looking at their impact on performance, NOT just training, and PS is stepping up as a very powerful, effective, and economical solution to that need.

Another trend we’ve been watching is the emergence of single-source publishing. Our journey into “Reusable Learning Objects” back in the 1990’s was met by many challenges, both from a technical and a design standpoint. The dream of authoring once and publishing too many outputs just wasn’t actualized for most. The exciting news is that with the emergence of more sophisticated and user friendly XML authoring tools we’ve seen tremendous up serge in this powerful and cost efficient methodology. Now learning departments are maintaining content in one place and publishing that content in outputs such as a manual in the classroom, an electronic performance support tool on the desktop, a SCORM compliant e-Learning course behind an LMS, and even as a mobile learning object on a Blackberry, iPhone, or Windows mobile device. Not only is there an economy of scale here, but the consistency across the learning experience and all moments of need is powerful. One of the biggest gains achieved with this approach is in the back-end maintenance of the content. Gone are the days of chasing redundant content across multiple tools and outputs. In this approach you simply change the original source content, republish, and the change is reflected across all the modalities outlined above.

Finally, the strongest trend which surrounds all this is that learning groups are finally leaving their all to familiar world of just supporting formal instruction and are being seen as vital across the enterprise at all 5 moments of learning. Their ability to show direct business impact and ROI is being accomplished in ways rarely achieved before. This is particularly important when we’re living in a time when budgets and “wasteful spending” is being watched like never before. Once the learning department moves toward directly impacting the bottom line by aligning itself with performance and not just training, it becomes a need to have not a nice to have. This is something our industry has been asking for as long as we’ve been associated with it, and it’s exciting to see us finally being able to address that challenge.

What many don’t know is that the next line which follows Dickens’ famous quote is “it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness”. We believe that 2009 will be remembered as the age of wisdom within our industry. We will look back on this year as a time when we stepped up and actually did what we have always asked of our students, we learned and became wiser! And in doing so we have turned a corner in our ability to serve the enterprise in ways we hadn’t dreamed of just a year to two ago. Here’s to a continuation of that wisdom well into 2010 and beyond.

Happy Holidays everyone! We couldn't have thought of a better community to have worked with throughout the year. We hope you found that being a part of all this has been of benefit to you and your organization. Thanks for joining us on the journey… Here's to a SAFE, SUCESSFUL, and Happy 2010!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The New Blend for the New Normal

Blending Formal and Informal Learning

The learning tradition of pre-modern society was for centuries defined by two enduring patterns. The first was informal learning in the form of on-the-job training. It was customary to apprentice young workers in the skilled trades by having them observe and work alongside competent craftsmen until they acquired enough knowledge and skill through experience to work independently. Here, learners learned in the workflow. The second pattern was that of formal learning in which a teacher pulled learners from the flow of their work and taught them through formal instruction. For centuries, society held to these two approaches: one experiential, the other didactic, and there seemed to be little impetus to change.

In the early 18th century, the arrival of the Industrial Revolution created major developments in agriculture, transportation, and manufacturing. Overtime organizations began to move away from the “apprentice” informal learning model to greater emphasis on formal training primarily using external resources and after-work hours. Gradually, formal training was brought into the organization and delivered during work time but completely removed from the workflow. Cognitive and behavioral psychology contributed to the formalization of training development and delivery. National associations emerged advancing training as a necessary part of organizational success.

The nature of training continued to evolve on the formal side. Basic skills training became supplemented by interpersonal skills and management training. Organizations who could afford it bought technology-facilitated media because of its promise of greater productivity in the workplace. The training function became more widely recognized as important, which led to a greater investment in formal training in the form of event-based courses

Eventually additional layers of organizational support emerged in an effort to support learners beyond their formal learning at their moment of apply. For the most part, this assistance consisted of support services (e.g., help desks), and publications. Support services picked up where training left off, often cultivating an environment of educational welfare where problems and needs were resolved with great proficiency, but often left those who had made help desk calls no more proficient after the call than they were before. Publication groups were charged with developing ongoing support solutions such as printed and electronic documentation and online help. Between support service groups and documentation groups, the informal learning needs within an organization were supposedly covered. But that was not the case. Informal learning, where it is estimated that 70 to 80 of all learning takes place, had gaping holes. Informal help networks flourished to fill the void where, too often, unconsciously incompetent workers helped others achieve the same status. And when someone demonstrated real competence, the less skilled would rob him or her of productive work time.

Today, the patterns of market disruption and accelerated change have become the new normal. And given the technological, economic, social, and political forces that drive the new environment, there is no evidence to suggest that organizations will somehow return to conditions of stability and equilibrium. The volatility and speed of the new era appears irreversible, which is tough news for leaders and organizations struggling to survive. Organizations confront increasing complexity in globalizing markets. They find themselves constantly challenged to learn and change, as Gary Hamel observes, “in a way for which they have no precedent.”

Google’s initial public offering on August 14, 2004, signaled the entrance and game-changing impact of web 2.0. Technologies such as wikis, blogs, social-networking, open-source, open-content, file-sharing, peer-production were not new at the time, but the Google offering coincided with the point at which virtual communities finally gained massive traction and scaled to orders of magnitude beyond anything of the past. Of course the internet was already heavily populated, but 2004 saw a select few websites consolidate anchor positions in a virtual land grab. The web presence of not only Google, but also YouTube, Myspace, Facebook, Wikipedia, eBay, and Blogger.com created a force multiplier effect for social networking and mass collaboration.

These technological and environmental advancements have fostered the new millennial learning mindset and opened the door for blending formal learning with intentionally defined informal learning practices. Here’s one example of what this kind of blending looks like:

New Blend Example 1
  • A workgroup completes self-tailored pre-work prior to attending a virtual class.
  • They attend 4 virtual meetings each lasting 2.5 hours spread out over 8 weeks.
  • Following each virtual meeting, learners independently complete “Expand” assignments requiring them to use their personal learning network to learn more about what they learned during each virtual session. They document what they learned in a course wiki.
  • Also following each virtual meeting learners complete “Apply” activities tied directly to their personal work and submit the results to their trainer. They work on these activities using a digital performance support broker that provides learners finger-tip access to all the resources they need to apply what they have learned.
  • Students work together in virtual groups to help each other.
  • Trainer holds virtual feedback/coaching session for each set of “Apply” assignments for each learner.
This “new blend” of formal and informal learning practices represents a significant scope shift for training professionals. We are now intentionally stepping into the informal side of learning. We should have always been doing to this, but emerging technologies make it more feasible. Support services and technical publication groups should NOT feel threatened by these efforts. They have much to offer here. But there is more that the training profession can and should be doing in addition.
In reality, the distinction between formal and informal learning should look more like this:

Formal Learning, of course, is what training groups have traditionally done—they build, deliver, and manage learning solutions to support organizational needs. The point of this blog is to make the case for broadening the scope of this work to embrace both formal and informal learning and to correlate these efforts with others whose charter plays in this same field (such as support services, technical publications, etc. In doing this, organizations establish a complete learning ecosystem.
A learning ecosystem comprises all the factors that support a vibrant learning community of interdependent people in gaining and maintaining the skills necessary to perform effectively together. It can exist at different scales in an organization (e.g., work group, division, company.)
Informal Learning, as you can see by the graphic, can be divided into two areas: Informal Intentional and Informal Independent. Informal Independent is learning that individuals and teams may choose to do outside what is planned, implemented, and managed by the training arm of the organization. This has been the elephant in the room for a long time. Two-thirds of learning taking place within most organizations has been happening in the Informal Independent area. But, as learning teams begin to focus on a broader view of their role, learning solutions are beginning to include intentional informal learning activities. This new blend can look something like this:

The New Blend Example 2 
  • An Employee is in the middle of a pressing work project. She consults her digital performance support broker and identifies four areas where there are several unique twists that require additional knowledge and skills to complete the project.
  • She immediately accesses directly from her broker, several microblogs where she shares her learning need out through several follower groups (internal and external to the company.)
  • A representative from the learning group along with other microbloggers immediately provide recommendations. She sorts through those recommendations and does the following: 
  • Schedules and takes 3 recommended e-learning courses, 2 from within the companies LMS and 1 purchased independently from an independent eUniversity.
  • Schedules and participates in 4 virtual coaching sessions –two internally sponsored and two from a colleague/friend from another company.
  • Spot reads through 3 books (two digital.), one of which was purchased online
  • As she moves forward to complete the project, she frequently accesses her electronic performance support broker to guide her as she and her team completes each critical task.
  • After she completes the project, she takes 10 minutes and accesses a “Lessons Learned” template via the performance support broker and documents lessons she learned, enriches it with metadata, posts it and then pushes it out to the her direct manager as a project report.
As you can see, there is a blend of formal learning solutions (e.g., e learning courses, virtual coaching sessions), independent informal learning (e.g., scanning through books), and intentional informal learning (using the performance support broker providing access to the resources she needs at her moments of apply.)

It is readily apparent that there is a great amount of learning going on outside the formal structures we have so adeptly put in place. The reality is that the informal side of learning is where real learning occurs in any organization. Formal learning can either help or hinder those informal learning.efforts.

Today simply building and deploying a set of formal learning events doesn’t cut it. The New Normal requires the blending of formal and intentional informal learning practices and making available the permissions and resources that support dynamic learners when they choose to learn independently.

In Summary
  1. Although informal and formal learning practices have been around a long time they have most often been approached as separate paths for learning and skill development. Over time, formal learning has become the primary arena for investment by organizations.  This is changing today. 
  2. Historically, most learning and other siloed support groups have not blended their practices to provide unified performer support to those they are charged to serve. This needs to change.
  3. The current environment of unrelenting change coupled with the disposition of an increasing number of learners to learn informally, has opened the door for learning teams to lead out in blending formal and informal learning practices.
  4. This blending has created a healthy division within the informal learning arena: intentional informal learning and independent informal learning. Intentional informal learning is anything planned for and supported when people learn on their own or with others independently.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Social Networks: Are they the "Learning Portals" of today?

Con and I had an AMAZING time at Learning 2009. It was great seeing many of you there, as well as meeting the new members of this ever growing community. We are now up to over 550 member companies worldwide! Although communicating with you through a blog like this is has always been wonderful, still nothing beats seeing each of you face to face from time to time! Our thanks and kudos to Elliott and his entire team for hosting such a wonderful event. It was very well attended by today's standards with over 1,300 learning professional from around the world in attendance. The enthusiasm and energy level was great. Con and I ended up delivering 6 breakout sessions and a pre-conference all centering on some aspect of Performer Support (PS). We were overwhelmed by the turnout and by the excitement surrounding this discipline. Clearly PS is on the rise and is quickly becoming a vital part of any learning organization's offerings.

There was one moment in particular which helped validate this feeling for both of us. Elliott likes to use audience response units throughout the conference, especially during the general sessions. It's a very powerful and effective way to quickly take the pulse of a large group like this. At one point, he let the attendees submit questions to be asked of the entire conference. Obviously there are plenty of topics being showcased and it's often hard to get a feel for which are hot and which are not. So, someone from the audience asked which learning trends or technologies we felt were overrated: Mobile Computing and Learning, Social Networking, Gaming, User Content, and Performer Support. And the two clear "winners" were...Gaming and Social Networking with both receiving over 30% of the vote. The "loser", which in our case was a GOOD thing :), was Performer Support with 9% of the vote. Not only is our industry finally seeing PS as a powerful learning approach, but we are also seeing it as something achievable.

For the sake of this week’s blog, I would like to focus on our industry’s discussions around Social Networking. First, let’s start by stating that although Social Networking may appear to be overrated, our belief is that it is, or will become, a powerful learning resource for many. Being overrated does not necessarily mean that something is bad or ineffective. Our concern surrounds the long term effects on social networking if it continues to be poorly positioned or implemented in its early stages of development. Many a powerful and viable learning approach and/or technology never got off the launching pad due to poorly positioned expectations. For instance, I still know of organizations where you are carried to the curb if you even mention the acronym LMS. Does that make LMS's bad? Clearly not! But for some the promise, investment, and overhype of the technology and approach eventually outweighed the benefits and that's unfortunate. The question is, will Social Networking suffer the same fate?

Lately, we've been asked to speak with organizations about the integration of social networking into informal learning frameworks. At times the vision ends up being a bit broader than that. The dream is to create a one stop launching pad of vibrant and supportive communities that will act as a learning portal for informal learning. If you've been around the learning industry long enough you'll remember that this approach was also what killed many efforts around corporate learning portals in the 90's. They were overrated as a one stop landing page for every learning asset imaginable. Although the premise was good, the execution left much to be desired. Most learners visited once or twice, were immediately overwhelmed, and never returned again. Will we let history repeat itself and allow the Social Networking sites of today become the "learning portals" of a decade ago?

It always makes Con and I anxious when we see a single modality being labeled informal learning or PS. As we've shared in this blog many times, effective PS is rarely driven by any one modality, but rather an overarching framework that supports learners across the 5 moments of need. Social Networking can be a highly effective tool as a part of that framework, but there are reasons why it may be dangerous to position it at THE primary one. Here are some issues to consider:

1 - Searching, navigating, and digesting a Social Networking site takes time: A PS framework is made up of shades of grey. Some elements are meant to be experience over time, processed, and applied, while others are meant to be quick, short, and easy to access, or what Dr. Allison Rossett would call a "Sidekick". When a learner expects an immediate answer they become highly frustrated and disillusioned with resources that don't provide this level of support. Social Networking can struggle when positioned as one of these types of tools. Although the information can be vast and powerful, it typically takes time to search and sift through these communities. They are a wonderful support network, but not an immediate one.

2 - The information can often be dated or incorrect: The number one killer of a PS tool/strategy is inaccurate information. Since many of these resources are accessed at critical moments of need, any wrong answers can have significant consequences. Although there can be a definite ”wisdom of the crowd" benefit to these communities, there is a huge overhead in keeping the information current and accurate. Many struggle with maintaining this thus making the information suspect.

3 - Social Networks are often not integrated well into the workflow: The most effective PS tools and resource are found within the environment and workflow they are designed to support. The simple fact that many Social Networking websites are accessed out on a network can impact their ability to act as an effective PS resource. An effective PS framework offers an immediate and concise answer to the issue being addressed often based on the learner's job role or workflow. Although many social networking sites are role based, they are anything but contextual. The more removed a PS asset is from the problem or situation being addressed, the less likely a learner is to stay the course and use the resource.

With this said, how can we make Social Networking sites work and optimize the power of communities? The simplest answer is to broker them appropriately in the context of all the other resources available through an organization’s PS strategy. The danger is that Learning Assets are often positioned to over promise and under deliver. A Social Networking community should be positioned as a fundamental tool that can sustain the underpinning of an overall PS Strategy. They are rich repositories of an incredible amount of acquired knowledge from peers, experts, and mentors throughout the organization. That's an amazing resource when consumed at the right moment and under the right circumstances.

Let's continue to see PS as a powerful overarching discipline made up of a rich array of well positioned learning assets. Social Networking is but one of these tools. Allowing it to do what it does best relative to all that surrounds it is the best way to move beyond the hype and make it a reality.