Sep 142014

an leabhar beag gormMy ancestors were all Scots–MacDougalls, MacLeods, MacLennans, MacFarlanes, MacIsaacs, Rankins, Macdonalds, and more than one who spelled my last name MacFhearghais–and so I’ve followed the run-up to next Thursday’s referendum asking “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

This is a question for the voters of Scotland, and I don’t pretend to have advice on how they should vote. In the social media streams I follow, though, I’ve seen many remarks to the effect that, despite excesses here and there, discussions in Scotland have had a high level of seriousness.

Just today, on the Facebook page for an artist I follow who’s an ardent advocate for Yes, a person planning to vote No was invited to a public discussion. He felt secure enough to ask with an emoticon wink, “Will I be safe?”

Ordinary individuals are exploring, considering, pondering, which is a good thing for any democracy.

What this post is about is not a Yes or No vote in the referendum, but the thoroughness of one organization firmly on the Yes side–Wings Over Scotland, a political website focused on the media.

What I mean by thoroughness is their approach to communicating with potential readers. I only happened to notice this because I came across a link to An Leabhar Beag Gorm, the Gaelic edition of their publication, The Wee Blue Book(I don’t know much Gaelic, but I knew all four words in the Gaelic title, so it caught my eye.)

wee blue bookAs Wings Over Scotland explains in their introduction to The Wee Blue Book, none of the 37 national or daily papers  available in Scotland supports independence.  “Newspapers have no duty to be fair or balanced, but… the press being so overwhelmingly skewed to one side is a problem for democracy.

“Our website…is biased, too. We support independence…”

To that end, they’ve collected a great deal of information and assembled it into the Wee Blue Book.

What’s impressive is how they’re offering it up. You can see on their August 11 post that the book is available:

And, as you’ve seen, in Gaelic.

But wait! There’s more!

Wings Over Scotland has a print-ready edition–and when they say “print,” they mean A6 paper, self-cover, CMYK, saddle-stitched, with a 3mm bleed, on 130gsm stock, so you can “just hand the PDF to a printing company.”

Finally, they have a “low-colour, ink-saver version” for home printing, with instructions, so if you want to run off a couple yourself, you can.

I’ve never met the Reverend Stuart Campbell, who runs the site, but I’m pretty sure he’s a lot smarter than the average social media guru whose self-promotions rain down on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Aug 032014

Here’s a Gaelic proverb:

Is iomadh urchair tha dol ‘s an fhraoch.
(Many a shot goes into the heather.)

In other words, when you hunt, you miss. And if you fire indiscriminately, paying no attention to when or why or how, not trying to figure out why you missed, and not turning to anyone else for feedback, you’re  going to continue putting a lot of shot into the heather.

In my personal life, I’ve been sending a fair amount into the ground lately because I’m learning something new. And as I think is often the case, “learning something” really means “learning several different things, and also learning how they work together.”

I joined a choir.

I haven’t joined a choir before, so I’ve been learning different but interrelated things:

  • The lyrics to songs I didn’t know (which so far is “all the songs we’ve been practicing”)
  • The melodies of songs I didn’t know (see above)
  • The tenor part for these same songs

Those are all examples of explicit knowledge: they’re factual things. Learning the tenor part, for example, means learning the succession of tones.

I’m having to learn some tacit skills as well, such as what Maria von Trapp called “minding your own business” — concentrating on your part when other choir members who are not tenors are singing right next to you.

In addition I have to learn pronunciation, because I’ve joined Guth nan Eilean (the Voice of the Island), the Victoria Gaelic Choir.

It’s been a great experience. I ran into the choir when they were performing at the Victoria Highland Games last May. I was especially struck by how clearly they enjoyed what they were singing. It probably helped that I recognized two or three of the songs they sang.

It didn’t surprise me to discover there’s a worldwide community of groups who thrive Gaelic song. I’m especially impressed by people like Kathleen MacInnes and Mary Ann Kennedy who’ve made their language part of their careers.

No, not many people speak Scottish Gaelic. I can’t, except for a few traveler phrases and a handful of songs. But I always want to know the meaning of any song I sing in another language, and the Victoria Gaelic Choir gives me another reason to do that.

Here’s a whole flock of choirs at the Mòd (Gaelic festival) in Paisley, Scotland, last year, singing the unofficial anthem of such choirs:

Togaibh i, togaibh i, cànan ar dùthcha,
Togaibh a suas i gu h-inbhe ro-chliùitich;
Togaibh gu daingeann i ‘s bithibh rith’ bàidheil,
Hi ho rò, togaibh i, suas leis a’ Ghàidhlig!

Praise it, praise it, the language of our country
Give it honourable status
Promote it with spirit, and treat it with affection,
Hi horo, praise it, up with the Gaelic.

‘S i cànan na h-òige; ‘s i cànain na h-aois;
B’ i cànan ar sinnsir; b’ i cànan an gaoil;
Ged tha i nis aost’, tha i reachdmhor is treun;
Cha do chaill i a clì ‘s cha do strìochd i fo bheum.

It’s the language of youth, it’s the language of the aged,
it was the language of our ancestors, it was the language they loved
Although it is now old, it is robust and strong
It has not lost its power, and it has not surrendered to misfortune.



Jun 092014

The other day a project manager was remarking on the early stages of large projects and the inevitable changes that occur as those projects unfold.

I’m no project manager, so I was doing internal translation. I see a big project’s requirements document as like the initial design for a kitchen remodeling: in the new inventory system, we want to have glass cabinets,  a wall-mounted oven, an island with its own sink, and on the south wall, bigger windows (for greater visibility into the supply chain)Only later in the process do you discover you won’t have the time, or the money, or both, to move Finance’s plumbing.

Financial flowYou’re facing some rethinking, but that doesn’t mean starting the project requirements from scratch.

If  right now you’re wondering why Finance has a sink, then my analogy failed. Or, you recognized adjustments that you’ve seen, or that you can imagine, even though the project you’re thinking of didn’t involve inventory, Finance, or a kitchen, then I think I made my point.

A larger point is that, when it comes to improving performance, what’s crucial about an analogy is not how clever it is, but how effective.

The goal of an analogy is to help someone make a connection or reach an understanding that he hadn’t yet made. You can’t guarantee that your analogy will do that, though you can road-test it and modify it so that it’s more likely to.

Cleverness carries a risk that you’re focusing on surface elements, or on outside references that don’t apply to the immediate situation. Shakespeare’s plays are as full of analogies as O’Hare airport is full of wheeled baggage, but many of those analogies rely on references that in the twenty-first century we don’t understand.

Sweet are the uses of adversity
which like the toad, ugly and venomous,
wears yet a precious jewel in his head.

 — As You Like It

It might be clever to work Shakespeare in, but if this one’s your choice, you’ll likely connect only with committed theatergoers and unreconstructed literature majors.

I tried a different line once, as a lead-in to a course on vendor-managed inventory.

If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow and which will not,
Speak then to me…

 — Macbeth

It might not work for you, but I managed to avoid using a stock-art photo of a warehouse dock. More important, the inventory people saw the connection  to the topic.

That helped me escape the too-clever trap, although technically this wasn’t an analogy, just an indirect lead into the topic. Banquo was not in this scene struggling with inventory control–but he was interested in knowing what the future might hold, which is a true, on-the-job concern for warehouse managers.

So the real test might not be whether you’re using an analogy, a metaphor, or a simile — but whether the way you present something new makes the aha! more likely.

CC-licensed kitchen sink photo by Steev Hise

May 052014

I came across an email in which I’d noted a contribution that Terry Seamon made to an online discussion about learning at work:

Ultimately, the answer to “Do you understand?” is “Yes, let me demonstrate.”

Sometimes–especially at large conferences–it can seem as though  many trainers and instructional designers lapse into a kind of cognitive ritual, reciting orthodox objectives, sometimes for every 15-minute segment of formal instruction. “At the end of this topic, the student will be able to advance to the next topic.”

I’m in favor of performance-based objectives, but mostly as a tool for design, not as a benediction recited over the heads of people who would much rather get something done. I firmly believe that what learners would rather hear is more along the lines of “This segment shows you how to calculate flood insurance rates for residential property.”

Or, if they’re dealing with softer skills, “Next, you’re going to practice planning and conducting a counseling session when an employee’s performance has become unsatisfactory.”

That’s 15 seconds, not ten minutes plus time to post the flipchart. It’s a virtual course? Then you have a much shorter audio/video lead-in.

Sometimes people benefit from knowing theory and concepts about a field, but as van Merriënboer and Kirschner say, you can’t practice theory. Theory is a kind of map, an effort at organization, like Samuel Champlain‘s maps of New France. Maps and theories get better as you put them to use, incorporating mindful experience into the previous effort at organization.

Champlain's 1612 map of New France (from Wikipedia)

Champlain’s 1612 map of New France (from Wikipedia)

There was a time in my career when I’d strenuously avoid using “understand” as an objective, and I still think that on the part of someone planning any kind of structured learning, it’s at best oversimplification and at worst a sign he should have gone into another line of work. I’m speaking of the developer, though, not the client; more often than not, the client’s using “understand” as shorthand for a fistful of skills (and, frequently, a bucketful of facts).

Seamon’s statement above offers a way out of the dilemma without having to rant about behavioral objectives. How can someone demonstrate that he understands the difference between a single-life annuity and a joint-and-survivor annuity? Maybe he describes key differences; maybe he identifies examples of each when presented with descriptions of various types of annuities. Maybe he role-plays a conversation and gets feedback on his answers from an expert. You choose among demonstrations like these depending on what someone needs to accomplish in the workplace, and both you and the learner are better off for the choice having been made.

Apr 252014

I’ve spent most of the past four months learning how public-sector pension administration is affected by WESA (the Wills, Estates and Succession Act that goes into effect in British Columbia on March 31).

That’s because my assignment was to design WESA-related training for the people in my organization who deal with members of the different plans we administer at BC Pension Corporation.

In the training / learning networks that I connect to, I frequently see discussion (and occasional grousing) about “compliance,” which often seems to mean “having to comply with some picayune requirement.” At the moment there’s a video clip making the rounds of Twitter and Facebook, with a flight attendant joking through the standard safety announcement.

I thought it was funny (though it wouldn’t be if I had to hear it five times a month), but the mandatory pre-flight announcement is also near the bottom rung of the compliance ladder. Where I work, compliance can mean “make sure we meet the legal and fiduciary requirements established to protect the interests of the individual members of pension plans and of their public-sector employers.”

Putting that in terms of accomplishments, we want to be able to:

  • Accurately describe the options you have for nominating (designating) who will receive:
    • Any benefit available if you die before retirement
    • Any benefit available if you die after retirement
  • Correctly explain options for allocating benefits among multiple beneficiaries
  • Review nominations submitted by members for completeness and accuracy
  • Correctly enter that information into our system
  • Update information based on changes from the member or the employer

…and a number of other changes to how we’ve done things prior to this legislation.

So one part of this post is to say “yes, compliance can matter,” and the other is just to talk a bit about how fortunate I’ve been in this new job. I was assigned to the WESA my first week on the job, because my acting manager believed it was good for people to have a project that’s their own.

I worked with the person writing our procedures related to nominations; he guided me through the initial thickets of terminology, acronyms, and workflow. My colleague Chris, the senior member of our instructional designer group, helped me plan my project and gave invaluable ideas from a course he’d developed on a similarly complicated topic. I also got to work with several subject-matter experts who “work in the plans,” as we say — their day jobs involve dealing the members of one or another of the BC public-sector plans, so they know this stuff.

Best of all, the experts who were the instructors were eager to avoid information dumps and talk shops. Ultimately we created three versions of our course, tailored to three different job categories. Lots of practice cases — including simple ones they walked the participants through, so people could see the relevant part of the system and update a (fictional) member’s records instead of just having someone tell them how they’d do it back on the job.

I’m thinking of writing a bit more about this. I need to find the right balance between describing what I think is worth talking about, safeguarding specifics about our members and our systems, and putting people to sleep with more information about nominating beneficiaries than they might want to know.

I’ll figure that out, and I’ll try to get my posting frequency up a bit. I’ve been missing the thinking-out-loud for quite some time.