Mar 042014
 

Four years ago I started using the WWDiary app to keep track of how I was doing with the Weight Watchers approach to, well, watching my weight. I never officially joined Weight Watchers, but my wife did, and I seized an opportunity for self-improvement.

I’ve written about this topic here, and especially here (my favorite), and most recently (if Oct. of 2011 is recent)  here.

I’m revisiting the topic in part because as I write this, it’s four years to the day since I started with that app, and I weigh 55 pounds less than I did then.

Another reason is that this anniversary, and how I reached what to me is a milestone, relates closely to the idea I came across today  in this tweet from Ruud Hein (@RuudHein):

ruud_hein_tweet_planning

The link in the tweet takes you to this post on Google+ and onto another of those virtuous cycles that make the hyperlinked world such a joy at times. I’m crediting Hein, who credits All Smith and Branko Zecevic with linking to a post on Inc.com by Jeff Haden.

(Got that?)

I want to highlight the excerpt that Hein highlights:

Commit to a process, not a goal….

We put unnecessary stress on ourselves to lose weight or to succeed in business or to write a best-selling novel. Instead, keep things simple and reduce stress by focusing on the daily process and sticking to your schedule instead of worrying about big, life-changing goals.

When you focus on the practice instead of the performance, you can enjoy the present moment and improve at the same time.

Often in my life, to-do lists have just depressed me–especially the end-of-day or end-of-week carryover, as still-to-do items plodded through the calendar. There was the temptation to knock off a mess of low-priority things.

(Admit it; you’ve done it, too. The deadline is looming and you spend the afternoon fixing the transitions in PowerPoint.)

Looking at the process is a higher-level way of answering the question, “”What do you want to have happen?”

Four years ago, I started with “lose some weight” but reframed that to “get in good shape” (which I guess sounded better to me at the time than “be healthy,” if only for the active verb). That turned out to be a far better goal, because it was easier for me to identify some processes likelier to get me there eventually.

Anywhere is walking distance, if you have the time.

I don’t mean for a second to position myself as a expert on weight loss — but I’ve become a far better manager of my own systems. I’m a practitioner of things that tend to keep me on a path I wanted–and still want–to be on.

I’ve been at my new job four months now. I have coworkers I look forward to seeing, people who want to share, to experiment together, and with whom it’s a pleasure to figure things out. Even as my current project rushes to the delivery date, I find myself engaging more both with my face-to-face peers and, sporadically, the many virtual colleagues I’ve encountered.

That’s part of the practice I need to be practicing: not just connecting, but regularly and purposefully connecting. Not just reading, but regularly and purposefully reading. Not just thinking out loud, but regularly and purposefully doing that.

CC-licensed photo by Víctor Nuño.

 

 

 

Feb 282014
 

For a few months, I’ve been head-down in my new job (I’m a curriculum developer with the BC Pension Corporation). Much of it involves helping our staff adapt to changes in the tools they work with or in the processes that those tools work on, in order to serve our members–the people covered by various public-sector pension plans here in British Columbia.

There’s a significant procedural component to that. Pension plans in general are governed by all kinds of rules — vesting requirements, contribution tracking, tax issues — and can have so many options that they’d daunt Benoit Mandelbrot. That’s one reason that a few weeks ago I noted this post by Misty Harding at the eLearning Brothers site.

One trigger for her post on handling boring content was boring content:

I realized that I didn’t need to spend any more time wrestling with that yawn-worthy content, and neither did the learner. I achieved this through (brace yourself Instructional Design World), not focusing on the content.

Much of what she then offers will strike many people as common sense, but those people are probably turning out pretty good stuff. This is a quick summary; read her full post for helpful details.

  • Give them something to do that isn’t at its core touring the boring content.
  • Violate expectations: approach the learning challenge (as opposed to “the content”) in an unexpected way.
  • Let them take on a role so they need to solve a problem.

Part of what Misty Harding is addressing, I think, is the gap between procedural knowledge and tacit knowledge. In any organization serving individual customers, be it BC Pensions or Zappos, you’ll find reams of procedures. Invariably these deal with routine processes — or at least processes that can be routine-ized, because at some level the steps and the decisions are predictable and the range of outcomes is fairly small.

What’s far more challenging is combining these procedures effectively–a point that Harold Jarche makes in this diagram:

From Tacit Knowledge Not Included by Harold Jarche

If like me you’re trying to help people who have to deal with things on the “routine work” end of the diagram so they can deliver things of higher value, then whatever training and support you produce benefits from being set in a realistic context.

It also benefits from avoiding stuff that doesn’t relate to that delivery. (I recall an EEO compliance officer who insisted that people needed to know the dates of EEO-related legislation–in a course on helping an employee to pursue a discrimination complaint.)

“Realistic” also does not mean the typical software Field Trip:

This is the Last Name field. Enter the last name here.
This is the First Name field. Enter the first name here.
This is the Street Address field. What do you enter here?

(ad blooming infinitum)

The training course I’m working on at the moment deals mainly with changes to our procedures caused by legislation going into effect next month. It’s not earth-shaking; it’s not going to reset paradigms for everyone who works at the corporation. Even so, our design relies heavily on teaching the rules and principles by having participants work through a series of problems.

Even the initial look at procedures for choosing the beneficiary for a pension will involve opening the online procedures (just like you do in the target jobs) and working a sample nomination form (our term) through the initiation, evaluation, and entry stages.

What's THIS button do?What about things that are new or significantly changed?  Well, take one new on-screen button. It enables a feature that didn’t exist in the previous version, because the underlying capability didn’t exist. No matter what the label is on such a button, without context people are likely to misinterpret it.

Rather than introduce it as part of a field trip (“here are 27 changes you’ll see on 9 different screens”), we’ll deal with it in the third practice exercise, which will be the first time clicking that button would make sense.

What’s all this got to do with tacit knowledge? In part I think tacit skills emerge as you combine procedural skills (and interpersonal skills) in job-related contexts. You’ve got to build them up, and working with realistic problems–including relating them to your experience, speculating about variations, and exchanging ideas with experienced people–is one way to help foster that construction of knowledge.

Public domain button image by decosigner.

Jan 312014
 

I recently came across a link to this infographic by Julian Hansen.

Infographic by Julian Hansen

I don’t see most infographics as a job aid. They usually aren’t intended to guide you through a task, and don’t usually serve well as reference job aids (my term for information that’s been organized for quick reference). I don’t think this would serve as a true job aid for most non-designers–it’s really busy, and the criss-crossing paths could easily confuse someone.

As this Fontfeed article states, though, that wasn’t really Hansen’s goal.

 Instead of simply browsing through type specimens, Julian wondered if he could come up with something more rational, a systematic approach [to choosing typefaces]. His project took the form of a flowchart on a poster. Studying different type finders made him come to the conclusion that selecting type really could be a matter of taste…. This made Julian decide that his poster should not only be useful, but also be light-hearted and make fun of stereotypes. This made him throw in options like “is it an Italian restaurant?” for instance. His ultimate goal was to show that typefaces convey a whole lot of meaning that “ordinary” people just don’t see.

Assuming that’s true, I see the chart as one way to demonstrate understanding: here’s what I think about fonts and when to use them. This is part of what I think Jane Bozarth means when she says, “We learn by doing, and by telling what we’re doing, and by watching others do things, and by showing others how we did something.”

Personally, I’m not much info fonts.

That’s not the point, though. Work like Hansen’s has the potential to trigger further interest in people.  For example, after reading his chart and the Fontfeed article, I happened to see a tweet by @MizMinh linking to an article on The Next Web:

The Science Behind Fonts (and How They Make You Feel)

Personally, all my working out loud lately has been done on site, in my new job. I’m not unhappy about that; I’m working on an engaging project and I have collaborative colleagues. But I’ve been neglecting other avenues, and this post is one effort to overcome that neglect.

Nov 122013
 

Between the corporate and academic worlds, the borderlands are wide and mostly ill-defined, but you can always rustle up a ruckus by asking, “What’s the difference between training and education?”

I’m not that big a ruckus-rustler, and nearly all my career has taken place in the non-academic world–at least since a Certain University bounced me, and other unworthies, from its adjunct faculty because we lacked what it referred to with a straight face as “the terminal degree.”

But even in the efficient system of a corporation (which, as Voltaire might have said, is at times neither efficient, nor systematic, nor corporeal) you can spark a decent-sized ruckus by asking about the difference between training and learning.

The main difficulty is that many people who’ve worked in what used to be called training and development have come to see that training as it’s been practiced can be:

  • Narrow in scope (the task, maybe the job, rarely the function)
  • Limited in timeframe (this week, this month, this quarter)
  • Modeled on the dreariest aspects formal education (classrooms, lectures, the semester contact hour)
  • Posited on the transfer of skill–and even more so on the transfer of knowledge

I think all of those are generally true, though I don’t think they’re generally evil.  For example, I see “transfer of skill” as a metaphor for a process through which someone who lacked a skill comes to acquire it.  I do not equate that phrase with “content dump,” though I’ve sat through more than one training class that held strictly to the knowledge-as-freight approach.

Still, the traditional (albeit diminishing) approach to training is a kind of freight train. There’s no steering wheel; someone else controls the signals and throws the switches.  To further overextend the metaphor, the suboptimal form of learning is–I don’t know, some solar-powered, personal flying car, powered by your innate desire to learn.

I’m all for learning, and in particular for learning the things that interest me, but I’m not delusional enough to think that I can necessarily maintain the standard of living I’d like to maintain solely through that.

The drawback, at least in the most extreme forms of this point of view, is that somebody’s got to value your ability to learn what you want, when you want, enough to provide you with a means of making a living. I’m sure people manage that, even a few people I know, but I have no clue how to pull that off myself.

And that’s okay. Especially since I have a new home (Victoria, British Columbia) and a new job–working for a crown corporation in BC. (It’s roughly the equivalent of a not-for-profit corporation, established by the province to administer public-sector pension plans.)

I’m a curriculum designer, which means I work with stakeholders and subject-matter experts to figure out how our people can master new or changing conditions in order to better serve members of pension plans, as well as satisfying the requirements of the plans themselves.

The job search that led to this move is one reason I haven’t posted here for so long: I’d hit a slow period in terms of consulting, and I was ready to make a change. Moving 3,000 miles to another country seemed to have accomplished that.

Years ago, my first professional experience with social media was as part of the original TRDEV-L listserv begun by David Passmore of Penn State. (If you have no idea what a listserv is, then you have some idea how long ago that was.) Many participants wanted to make clear that they spoke for themselves and that their opinions were not necessarily those of their employer’s. My own email signature for TRDEV-L included “My opinions, not GE’s.”

Tthat approach still holds. I’ve missed my blog and want to resume thinking out loud about the interests, ideas, and notions that I see as relating to learning and performance in the workplace. None of this should be taken as necessarily reflecting any policy or program of BC Pension Corporation, or the province of British Columbia, or the government of Canada, or anything other than something that held my interest long enough for me to write about it.

It’s good to be back.

Mar 112013
 

I’ve been doing a little self-directed learning lately. And it came about because someone told me about Larrivée guitars. Although I hadn’t heard of them till a couple of months ago, I can assure you they’re out of this world–one has been on the international space station for years.

I play guitar, not very well. Mostly I strum chords, because I like to sing. But in that conversation I mentioned, my friend encouraged me to think about getting a quality instrument. That suggestion came at a good time; although I’m not quite ready to spring even for a used Larrivée, I did start picking up the somewhat battered classical guitar I bought when I was in college.

For much of that time I’ve kept a couple of books on fingerpicking. Every so often I’ll work through one or the other, and when I sense some improvement, I feel pretty good. In addition, because I’ve been on a Zachary Richard kick lately, I’ve been trying to learn a couple of his songs, like Travailler, c’est trop dur (link to a video and an English translation on my French-language blog).

larrivee forumThat was one track: doing more with my own guitar. A second track was to find out more about Larrivée guitars, and there seem to be few better places than the Larrivée online forum.

When I enter a new community like this, I wander around for a bit and don’t say too much too soon, unless I can contribute something positive, if only to my experience with a guitar-tuning app for Android phones.

I saw that someone on the forum was selling some DVDs–tutorials for fingerpicking. Turns out they feature Happy Traum, a prolific and popular guitarist and instructor. In fact, one of those instruction books I’ve hung onto for so long is his.

Even if you don’t play an instrument, you can get a sense of Happy’s relaxed, encouraging approach:

That sealed it for me, and the DVDs arrived last weekend. As Bill Deterline said, “Things take longer than they do,” so I’m not fooling myself about how quickly I’ll pick up the techniques in the DVDs.

I can’t help but notice the interplay between what’s essentially a lecture–Happy Traum on DVD, explaining and demonstrating–and the invitation to not simply practice, but to actively modify your practice in order to expand you abilities.

Fundamentally, this is a tightly focused relationship. In effect, Happy’s done instructional design around a specific topic: not just “fingerpicking styles” (content alone) but “how to help a beginner learn to fingerpick.”

He can’t see you or hear you, and he probably doesn’t have enough time in his schedule to work with every student one-to-one. Instead, he starts by slowly and carefully demonstrating and explaining fundamentals.  It’s show-and-tell so you can hear-and-do (or at least hear-and-try).

The first thing we should work on is your steady thumb… Keep a bass going relentlessly, so that you always have that pulse underneath your picking… The ability to keep that thumb going while you’re doing whatever else… You have to develop the facility for doing that. It’s kind of like reprogramming your brain…

First thing we’ll do, just do it on one string… Do this with me…

Within a few minutes of that, he adds:

  • “The most basic melody note” — add a treble note by plucking the first string on just the first beat
  • Switch the treble note to the second string, still on the first beat
  • The second string on the first and the third beat
  • “Now let’s try putting a note on the first and second beat, but leave the third and fourth alone.”
  • Same thing, but with the second string.
  • Alternating between the first and second string (first string on the first beat, second string on the third beat).

I don’t want to keep quoting from the DVD, but I do think that attendees at more than one learning conference could profit from seeing how deftly Happy  introduces complexity at a rate that challenges but (mostly likely) doesn’t frustrate the beginner.

(As for badges–when you’re able to get through “Skip to My Lou” at a normal pace, with the steady thumb-beat and the melody in the upper strings, you’ll have all the badge you need for attaining that particular level.)

Probably some people could figure this out on their own, but I suspect that as with so many other fields, beginning guitar players can feel overwhelmed, not knowing what to pay attention to or what’s an optimal way to proceed. Brownie McGhee certainly didn’t learn guitar from a DVD — but Happy Traum learned from McGhee, and depending on your access to an in-person teacher and your interest in guitar, you can learn from Happy’s DVD.

To emphasize the variety of things that people mean when they say “learning,” I often talk about learning a language. Does learning mean mastering basic grammar? Reading literature in that language? Watching movies without subtitles?  It depends on context.

And that’s true with “learning the guitar.” There are some areas that most people would agree on–you probably need to know what standard tuning is, and probably need to know the basic fingering for chords. So there’s explicit knowledge as a foundation for tacit knowledge (it’s one thing to know what the tuning is, it’s another to actually tune). Beyond such fundamentals, there’s the melody or song you want to play, and there’s the integration of all this into a performance.

I’m not performing much yet. One of my mid-term goals is to improve enough that I could try a Larrivée in a store without completely embarrassing myself. We’ll see how that works out.