Oct 062014
 
New! Improved! Now with TripleHorn API!

CC-licensed image by Kudu Photo

In the world of organizational learning, there’s always another bandwagon. In fact, they have to widen the L&D Highway every few years to accommodate late-model bandwagons, as well as service vehicles full of batteries, charging cords, and templated reports. Which is great–if you’re in the bandwagon-supply business, rather than the far less trendy business of helping people accomplish things on the job.

I work for an organization where much of the staff works with complex computer systems. In our case, the systems help us administer pension programs — enrolling people when they start a job covered by one of our plans, producing annual statements of benefits, calculating estimates, processing transactions related to salary and service, and managing all the pension-payment transactions.

Hundreds of thousands of people–I suspect millions, actually–work in similar jobs in any industry you can think of. I am pretty familiar with hotel, airline, and passenger rail reservation systems, and I’ve helped train people to use systems for managing inventory, conducting pharmaceutical trials, monitoring accounts in the consumer packaged goods industry, trading natural gas, and tracking shipping containers.

Almost none of these systems had a way for people to practice tasks in a robust way.

By robust practice, I mean features or capabilities that let people practice complete tasks, as they would on the job, without risk to data, resources, vendors, or clients. It’s my contention that most large corporate systems, although they’re the workhorses of the organization, have no way for someone to practice what he’s supposed to do in the production system–except by working with real data.

I say “production system” as shorthand for the ability to reserve actual airline seats or handle actual pension benefits or process actual bank loans. And I’m going to say “practice system” when I mean the ability to exercise the same steps and skills without reserving actual seats, handling actual pensions, or issuing actual loans.

In a financial system for managing bank branches, for example, if you wanted to practice the steps to process a car loan, you had to pretend you were issuing a loan to yourself. And you really had to remember not to click approve, or customer-you would have a loan.

“Don’t push Approve!” is good guidance in that situation, but a lousy way to train someone in loan approvals.

Is this your experience, too?

Of the large corporate systems you've worked with, how many had robust practice capabilities?

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Simulations are at best a half-measure. (At worse, they’re a fantastic way to set money on fire.) It takes forever and two weeks to develop a simulation, and the Thursday after it’s released, IT relabels the Pending tab and adds two new buttons on the Estimation form.

(Added to original post: a comment from Clark Quinn on Twitter made me realize that this last paragraph could be misconstrued. I was thinking of simulations of some complicated corporate computer system–in other words, a standalone imitation of the production system, one that requires at least as much maintenance as the production system does.)

True robust practice doesn’t mimic the production system; it mirrors or piggybacks on production’s capabilities while ensuring that anything that goes wrong in the practice system stays in the practice system.

At Amtrak, we created a set of imaginary passenger trains–the “training trains.” They had robust practice features, and also safety features.

Robust features:

  • Training trains ran on the same routes as actual trains, with the same schedules, fares, and accommodations.
  • The set of training trains contained every accommodation available, so you could practice reservations that might rarely or ever come to you otherwise.
  • Training train schedules, fares, features, and services were created using production-system data, so the training trains always reflected real-world conditions.
  • Practice IDs could retrieve such production-system information as schedules, fares, routes, on-board services, and operating status (“Is train 353 on time?”).
  • You could log into a practice ID from any terminal connected to the production system.

Safety features:

  • A person using a production ID could not display the training trains. (You couldn’t make a reservation for a real person on an imaginary train.)
  • A person using a practice ID could not reserve space, create reservations, or issue tickets on an actual train.
  • Practice users could issue the “print ticket” command, but the actual printed ticket clearly read TEST TICKET / NOT GOOD FOR TRAVEL.
  • Practice users could not enter or alter production-system information — e.g., they could not report an actual train as departing on time or change the hours of a ticket office.
  • To log into a practice ID, you had to log out of your production ID.

Additional safety measures guaranteed, for instance, that imaginary revenue from training train reservations was not counted as actual revenue in the production system.

We try so hard as learning professionals to create authentic, high-value formal training. And we talk a lot about the problem of transfer, the need for spaced practice, the value of whole tasks, and the like. But we don’t seem to advocate for measures that would deliver robust practice to the workstation, and many of us are a little uneasy about what was described to me as “letting people run around inside a practice system.”

Such running around, which I think of as “deciding what I want to practice, then practicing it,” seems to me to have far greater potential for performance support than run-of-the-mill elearning, no matter how many images it has of people in suits, talking on phones.

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.