Bear in mind: results first, tools second

I’ve worked on a lot of technical training: how to forecast warehouse inventory orders, how to create mockups of proposed software, how to write flood insurance policies. Programs like these are a complex version of working with tools to produce specific results.

To navigate that complexity, to keep on track while designing training, I find it helpful to frame the purpose in a single phrase. And as a phrase, I think this:

Producing retirement estimates using the ViaComp system.

is better than this:

Using the ViaComp system to produce retirement estimates.

The distinction’s clearer if, when asked what the training’s about, you drop the last clause:

Producing retirement estimates.
Using the ViaComp system.

What comes first in the longer versions is what’s assumed to be the most important. In English, word order matters. That’s less true in a language like Finnish, where word endings matter much more. Here are some examples, thanks to my friend Riitta Suominen:

Bear in mind
CC-licensed photo of a karhu
 by Guido Gloor Modjib

Karhu söi miehen.  (The bear ate the man.)

Miehen karhu söi… (The bear ate the man [and not the berries].)

Miehen söi karhu… (The bear ate the man [while the wolf ate the rabbit].)

Emphasis in Finnish comes from word order and case endings. In English, to make the distictions clear in print, I have to add visual emphasis.

For those learning goals above, dropping the ending was a way for me to emphasize how distinct they are, the better to choose the right one for the training program. 80% of the time may be spent using the ViaComp system, but what we’re really doing is producing retirement estimates.

Would I ever choose “using ViaComp to produce retirement estimates” as the one-sentence summary? Sure — for example, if we were changing from the Acme Pension Suite to ViaComp. The emphasis would be on how to use ViaComp so you can accomplish the same work as in APS.

Even if the organization is switching systems, though, what matters to the learner (far more than the underlying system) is the work that gets done. And most of the time, you’re not switching. You’re expanding the skills of people who already handle other pension-related tasks, or you’re helping newcomers become productive.

Neither one of those groups cares much what the system’s called, what server it’s on, or similar infra-facts. They do care about their jobs, which means they care about immediate context. How you describe learning goals is an entry to that context, as well as a beacon during the design process.

Results before tools. Worth bearing in mind.

 

 

When I’m stuck, I talk to myself

On several projects lately, I don’t know what I’m doing. Or at least what I’m doing next.

A way to cope is to ask someone who seems to know more. I’m lucky in having smart colleagues at work who will not only share what they know, but will work with me to reshape that knowledge so I have a better understanding.

I’m lucky professionally as well, because I have people I can and do consult with on issues apart from my everyday job.

Directing the right question
CC-licensed image from PublicDomainPictures

Sometimes, though, I’m not quite ready to do that asking. Usually that’s because of the particular type of don’t-know I’m experiencing.  Either I don’t know what (as in what to ask, or what’s the difficulty, or what’s the domain), or I don’t know how (to take the next step, to choose the right option, to switch points of view).

To that end, in a nod to the Working Out Loud concept, I’ve been making what I think of as Talk To Myself notes. (The TTM nickname just came to me, and I like it enough that it’ll become a tag in Evernote.)

The idea is that for a specific project or domain, I write down what it is I can’t figure out or what I want to know.

This is hardly an earthshaking idea, but it’s a concrete one. The effort to form a question, even if I’m not good at forming one for the topic at hand, gets me to run through what I do know, and I think primes me to think more expansively.

Here are some examples:

Sibelius First

I’ve written about this music-composition software here and here. I got it so I could scan choral sheet music and produce audio files — especially for the tenor, since that’s what I sing.

I think I’m at the “relatively good apprentice” level with Sibelius. I can handle basic tasks pretty well, and I’ve developed some good-enough workarounds.

Noting things down
CC-licensed image by FNeumann

One side effect is that I’m more aware of things I don’t know how to do but want to. So onto the TTM note go thoughts like these:

  • How can I add a blank page on the end of a score so I can add text there — like block lyrics, or background notes, or even a pronunciation guide for Gaelic?
  • Can I export the melody for just a portion of the piece (say, bars 12 – 24 for the tenors)?
  • Is there an easy way to change the instrument for a given line? So far I only know how to add a new staff for a new instrument, then copy the notes from an existing instrument, then delete the staff they were copied from. That seems… kludgy.

Forums in WordPress

As a follow-up to my Building Job Aids workshop last month, I wanted to learn how to create a private online community for interested workshop grads — a place where they might share how they apply what they learned, and maybe even do some show-and-tell in a safe space. At DevLearn I heard Tracy Parish talk about how she did something similar, and I got some ideas from her.

This is one of those don’t-quite-know-what situations for me. Through trial and error, I’ve installed plugins to enable forums (threaded discussions) but I still feel I lack understanding.

Talk To Myself in this case means repeating questions till they make sense, at least to me.

  • Do I have to have open registration?
  • If I do, can I keep out the obvious spambots?
  • What should be recording the registration (if anything)? Do I need some kind of sign-up form, and if so, where does the signing-up go?
  • At a broader level, what’s the flow from inviting someone to that person’s reading and posting in a forum?

At work, a practice database

So many core corporate systems have no way for people to safely learn and practice how to use those systems. A rich, low-risk environment like Amtrak’s training trains will support and encourage learning in a thousand different ways.

We have such an environment for a key system at work–but it hasn’t been used much, and the documentation I can find is sketchy. So I’m making Talk To Myself notes here, too. This is a tougher area because it involves a lot of database security and management.

Borrowing from advice I received from a graphic artist, I’m framing these questions in terms of what I want to accomplish rather than how I think I should go about getting that accomplishment. For example, I don’t know the steps or the stakeholders or the timeframes needed to copy data from another environment into this practice one. I don’t know how (or if) it’s possible to search for certain types of data in the practice database.

I’m pretty sure I need a conversation with one of my IT contacts — but that conversation with her will go much better because I’ve spent time Talking To Myself… and taking notes.

 

Thinking about (and learning from) Jay Cross

jay_aboutJay Cross died last Friday. Most people who’ll see this post know of Jay already through his books, his many-fold online posts, Twitter, his Facebook stream or some other channel he’d try out.

I never met Jay in person, but about ten years ago, I signed up for an online “unworkshop” he was offering, so I could learn more about things like blogs, feeds, and what people were calling Web 2.0 tools.

The unworkshop was a bit messy and bumpy. At times I found it frustrating, and at times I think Jay himself was puzzled by the reactions of some of the participants. He and I had a few side discussions about that, and I was impressed by his receptivity and willingness to at consider points of view different from his own.

Prior to the unworkshop, I’d known a little about blogs but didn’t see how they’d relate to me. Jay had each participant start what I now think of as a sandbox blog – just a little place to mess around – to try things out for ourselves, to learn by doing.

Most were as you’d expect tentative, because most participants hadn’t had blogged before and weren’t sure what they write (or how they’d manage what they’d written). Even so, this activity got me thinking and free-associating about my preconceived notions.

As a result, next month Dave’s Whiteboard hits its tenth anniversary. That may have happened eventually, but it happened when it did because I’d met Jay Cross.

(I first wrote “virtually met,” but that marks a bigger divide than I want to have. I absolutely believe face-to-face meeting is ideal, but I’m pretty sure that the way Jay connected across time zones and distance wasn’t too far removed from the way he’d connect across a table.)

Here’s just an example of the kind of thinking Jay was doing as recently as last week. The image links to his Internet Time Blog.

 

DevLearn, community, and connecting

I spent last week at DevLearn 2015, the eLearning Guild’s conference focusing on learning technology.

DevLearn-featuredAmong my goals for attending: conducting a workshop on building job aids, finding ideas for supporting learning and improving performance, learning more about topics I don’t know much about, connecting with peers, and spending time with people energized about things that energize me.

On one level, any half-decent professional conference is a kind of pep rally. It’s easy to levitate on the excitement. It’s great to hear engaging speakers and hash over their ideas afterward, especially with them. And at least for me, the company of smart people who are accomplishing impressive things helps me feel as though I can accomplish them, too.

You can read virtual reams of ideas of how to prepare for a conference. DevLearn makes that pretty easy. The link above will lead you to descriptions of the pre-conference workshops, the co-located Adobe Summit, some 125 concurrent sessions… heck, just browse along the menu bar of the main page.

How to turn the pep-rally buzz into personal motivation, though, especially when the event’s over and you’re schlepping through the airport on your way home?

Revisiting the past

One thing I did on the plane was to dig out the program guide – the day-by-day schedule. My first task was to note down the session number, title, and presenter for each event I attended.

A session description from the DevLearn app
A session description from the DevLearn app

For one thing, that’d make it much easier to retrieve further information on the handy DevLearn app. And recording these things in Evernote meant I could tag, search, and include links.

As I worked through the schedule, I recognized my backup sessions as well.

A conference is a nonstop series of choices.  I try always to have a Plan B session in case the Plan A one I choose doesn’t turn out to be what I was looking for. Even so, a wealth of options and the realities of distance mean that you can’t take in everything you’d like.

I knew that with DevLearn’s mobile app, I’d have a source for materials shared by the presenters. I now had two lists: one for the sessions I’d attended, and a second one for those I didn’t see but wanted to know more about.

Mapping the future

This note-taking and note-revising triggered other thoughts: people I wanted to ask certain questions of, notions I didn’t want to lose, and topics I want to explore further. A third list emerged.

Finally, I had a lot of notes from my workshop on job aids: things that went well, things I’d like to change, even an idea for a virtual follow-up, a way for the participants to keep in touch on the subject of job aids. One idea I may try to make that happen came from Tracy Parish’s session on using WordPress to deliver blended learning.

Reflecting in the present

This may have been among the best two hours I’ve spent on a plane, with the possible exception of the one time I got upgraded. I ended up with four separate notes (in Evernote, of course), along with the first draft of my last blog post. The topic wasn’t earth-shaking, but few of mine are. Writing the post was a renewal of good practice for me: being more conscious about what I do, what I’d like to do, and the gap between those things.

I got far more out of my time in Las Vegas than I expected. I’ve thought a lot about how to sustain those benefits. Making these notes was a good start, and so has been the process of writing a couple of blog posts.

I’m re-examining what I do, what I enjoy doing, and what I want to be doing in my career and my life over the next few years. In the short term, I have the session material to download, and some two dozen people (not counting presenters) whom I want to keep in better contact with.

Dress for success

I do have a day job to return to, with a fast-approaching deadline. I know from experience, though, that the material-reviewing and emails to contacts won’t happen without intention on my part.

The best professional contacts, I think, are free exchanges, and almost always they include something of the personal. At DevLearn, keynoter Adam Savage talked about his fondness for costumes and how it led to jumping off a building, into a dumpster, dressed like Neo from The Matrix.

That’s a bit more colorful than my choice for a workplace Halloween celebration. My immediate team – or those who were pumped up for the holiday – had the idea of being Game of Thrones characters.

That didn’t really appeal to me, but the good interaction I have with them did, and so I managed to play along while letting my personality come through:

dave as george r r martin 2014

And now, DevLearn’s over. Winter, as they say, is coming (except in the casino, where they don’t allow weather). Still, that means spring is coming as well, and summer after it.

As the next few months roll along, I want to be rolling down a conscious path. DevLearn’s helped me map out a route.

Show what you know (the Building Job Aids edition)

In my Building Job Aids workshop (presented last Tuesday at DevLearn 2015), participants analyze multiple case studies, applying techniques and using job aids to, well, build job aids. Among the skills they practice are the ability to choose the right type of job aid for a task, and the ability to use that type effectively.

There’s a lot of thinking and writing: I make an effort to avoid explaining much before an exercise. Instead, there’s a minimal introduction, with a lot of what would have been explained turned into a print resource to be consulted as needed.

One potential downside is that especially an hour or so after lunch, thinking and writing are conducive to dozing off.

At the same time, my assumption was that participants would want and need additional practice on relevant examples. How could I give someone the chance to assess different job aids and rate their effectiveness? Did she think the samples would produce the desired result? How did they align with ideas in our workshop?

The challenge wasn’t so much finding the examples as structuring the evaluation. The tradeoffs I saw (or believe now that I saw):

  • Time constraints
  • Relevance
  • My desire for multiple elements in a rating system
  • My desire for a simple, overall total

Then the format presented itself in three words:

bja best in show

I liked this title so much, I was determined to use it. But I’ve learned not to be literal about this kind of borrowing. What  makes Jeopardy!-style games in training a dumb idea (even a counterproductive one) so often is not (necessarily) Jeopardy! itself. It’s the mismatch between the content and a format best suited to recalling isolated facts.

Some characteristics of dog shows that I thought suited my goals: I had widely different types of job aids, like the different dog breeds. I had limited time, which at least for me was like the dog-judging segment where the trainer fast-walks the dog in a set pattern before the judge. Plus judging.

That’s where I had the most trouble.  How to get multiple points, an overall total per judge, and a logistically sane process? I started with a three item scale, rating each job aid on its fit (is this a good job aid for this kind of task?), its function (is it likely to produce the desired result?), and its format (how does it stack up against the job aid guidelines in the workshop).

I could score each of those from 1 to 3, with an extra point thrown in for personal preference. No matter how I squinted, though, it looked like way too much math.

best in show singleThen I remembered the Apgar score – a quick assessment of a baby at birth. Five qualities like heart rate or respiration are each assigned a score of 0, 1, or 2. The total describes the baby’s physical condition on a scale of 0 – 10.

So I came up with a five-point scale for Best In Show:

  • Aptness: how well the job aid fit the task and the setting
  • Payoff: how likely it’ll achieve the desired result
  • Guidelines: how it fit with guidelines in general and for its particular type of job aid
  • Appearance: overall effectiveness of the design
  • Response: the judge’s own reaction to the job aid.

As you can see, each item had a line for its score, with a box on top for the total.

In the interest of time, I limited myself to six competitors. This was the score sheet:

best in show 3 x 2
(Click to enlarge in a new window)

Off to the show

I was pretty sure I’d have a decent internet connection. I made a slide with links to my six examples. I explained the scoring, distributed the ballots, and showed each competitor for 30 – 60 seconds, with some contextual commentary as needed.

If I’d had a large group, my plan was for each person to fold the completed ballot between the six boxes, so as to tear it into six individual sheets. I’d have had one person total the ballots for competitor A, one for B, and so on. My workshop group was small enough that I could divide a sheet of flipchart paper in six as Voting Headquarters. It was little trouble for me write down scores by candidate and then total them.

How it went

Best in Show was a success, both as a change of pace and as an exercise in judging job aids. It also broadened exposure: half the competitors were new; the other half had been seen only briefly, as examples, earlier in the day.

An unexpected plus: everyone could see all the individual totals. One job aid received solid 10s except from one person who rated it a 7. Another participant said to her, “I want to know why you rated it a 7.” The question was not a challenge but rather genuine interest in how another person applied the principles of the workshop.

Aftermath

Thomas the corgi (with the kind permission of Jane Bozarth)
Thomas the corgi, showing his best 
(with the kind permission of Jane Bozarth)

I’m really pleased this went as well as it did. I’m thinking of ways to make it work better (one participant was confused by my instructions and rated on a scale of 1 to 3 rather than zero to 2).

And if I have more time, I’ll have a follow-on exercise: Raise the Runt. The idea would be to see which job aid scored the lowest, and then talk about why and about how to improve it.