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.

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.