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.


Joe Harless, my hero

Joe Harless
Newnan GA Times Herald

I learned late yesterday that Joe Harless, who listed himself on LinkedIn as “independent think tank professional,” died on October 4th.  (Here’s a report in the Newnan, Georgia Times Herald.)

I don’t know how widely known Joe was outside the world of ISPI, the International Society for Performance Improvement, prior to his semi-retirement from that arena. (Later in life, as the Times-Herald article explains, he was involved in improving the impact of high school education near his home in Newnan and throughout the state.) I’m pretty sure it wasn’t widely enough, which is a shame for people who worked in what used to be called the training and development field.

That’s because Joe, like many of his colleagues, realized that the real goal of that field should not be doing training. Here’s Joe in 1992, writing in the ISPI journal, then called Performance and Instruction:

My behaviorism roots conditioned me to observe what people do, rather than what they say they do.

Tom Gilbert taught me to give more value to what people produce (accomplishment) than what they do or know.

I learned from observations of other technologies (medicine, engineering, plumbing, building the Tower of Babel, etc.) the wisdom of common purpose and agreeing on definitions….

I get confused when people say they are Performance Technologists but always produce training / informational / educational type interventions for every project. This confuses me because examination of more that 300 diagnostic front-end analyses done by cour company and our clients shows the information / training / education class of intervention was the least frequently recommended.

More than 30 years ago, I attended JAWS – the Job Aid Work Shop that Joe developed. I’d been working for Amtrak, developing training for ticket clerks, reservations agents, and others. JAWS provided me with a systematic way of looking at how people accomplish things on the job and figuring out where it made a lot more sense to create a job aid then to try (usually fruitlessly) to have them memorize the information that the job aid contains.

A side benefit of JAWS was getting to know Joe, a man serious about his work, gracious in his dealings with others, and good-humored in his presentation. Like an old-time Southern preacher, he’d become Reverend Joe and say things like, “An ounce of analysis is worth a pound of objectives.”

(Meaning: it’s terrific to have sound, behavioral objectives for your training–but maybe the problem you’re dealing with is not one that training can solve.)

He also nudged ISPI toward a name change by saying that “the National Society for Performance and Instruction” was the equivalent of “the National Society for Transportation and Bicycles.”

Again from that 1992 article:

Trainers sell training. They are usually commanded to do so, and are rewarded for the volume of training developed and delivered. Educators are conditioned to teach “subject-matter,” not to impact performance.  Most vendors hawk a given product, not a process. Buyers typically want to buy things, not analysis. Our letterheads read Training Department, or Education Center, or Learning, Inc., etc. The names of our organizations do not imply: performance improvement sold here.

I took a number of Joe’s workshops, including ones on instructional design and on front-end analysis. As he began working on what became his Accomplishment-Based Curriculum Development system, he invited a number of people like me, who’d used his workshops in our own organizations, to participate in a tryout for one of the new components. He was especially eager to hear our candid opinions. He knew what he was doing, but he was pretty sure he didn’t know everything.

I attended my first professional conference around 1978, when ISPI (then NSPI) met in Washington DC, where I was working (no travel cost!). After one session, I was speaking with Stephanie Jackson, an experienced practitioner, when Joe Harless came up–Stephanie had worked for him previously. We three talked for a bit, and it was clear to me that these two were good friends. Joe said to Stephanie, “Let’s get a beer.” I said something about letting them catch up with each other, to which Joe responded, “Don’t you like beer?”

In my career, I’ve learned a lot from many people, but Joe Harless was the right person at the right time for me, opening doors and sharing ideas, hearty and enthusiastic and curious.  What he did was to make concrete for me ways to enable other people to produce better results on the job. He combined analytical skills with openness to new ideas and an interest in other fields that has inspired me always.

We once talked about the job aid workshop, which I gave any number of times at Amtrak and GE. At one point, he had a segment where he’d present examples of good job aids and bad ones.  “Not any more,” he told me. “Now I put ’em all out and let the participants figure out which ones are good and why.”

I had a conversation on Twitter yesterday with Guy Wallace of EPPIC. I said that for me, “It’s practically hero worship, but you know how Joe would have laughed at that.”

I was holding back, I think, because of the immature connotation of “hero worship.” But Joe has had more direct influence on my career than anyone I can think of. I learned from his ideas, I was energized by his search for data as evidence, and although it was probably true for many people, I loved that he called me “Cousin Dave.”

If someone’s influence in your life makes you want to do better, if his work and his interaction inspire you to dig deeper and reach further, then that person’s a hero.

You could do a lot worse that hear Joe himself talk about performance–on-the-job accomplishment–as the heart of the matter.   Guy has a number of videos on YouTube, including a 90-minute one from a discussion in Toronto earlier this year at ISPI’s 50th anniversary.  I’ve set this link to start at the 8-minute mark, when Joe begins speaking.  You might find it worth a few minutes of your time, even with some of the callouts to old friends and inside jokes.  I’ve included a few comments here as highlights, all of which come in the first seven minutes of Joe speaking.

…Even in the heyday of programmed learning in the Sixties there were some of us who were arguing that we should be about developing instructional technology, not just programmed instruction, if we truly wanted to revolutionize training and education.

…Not willing to let good enough alone, there were some of us who were then arguing that we should be about the development of what? Performance technology, that would subsume instructional technology and have as its process, at the beginning, a process that was like medical diagnosis. I called my version of the diagnostic process Front End Analysis…

The genesis of my front-end analysis was the confounding realization that many of the training– the training that we developed for our clients didn’t seem to make any difference in the on the job situation, even after the trainees, the learners, successfully acquired the knowledge we so carefully taught them. I don’t know — a rough analogy, I suppose, is that we gave them good medicine but it didn’t cure the disease….

We conducted follow-up investigations with the aid of some of our cooperative clients…. In a shocking number of cases, we found that a lack of skill and knowledge was not the predomination cause of the non-job-performing situations…. Thus all the training in the world would do little to help the performance.

I’m going to miss Joe a lot. I do already.

The value of metrics, and vice-versa

For a while there, I thought Joe Gerstandt was full of crap.

Joe GerstandtSomebody tweeted a line from one of Joe’s blog posts:  “We are not accountants. We are Jedi.  We play on a completely different field.”

“Jedi” alone is often enough to make me go find something else to do, but instead I read the full post, The False Tyranny of Metrics.  And for a while, I continued to think Gerstandt was full of crap.  Or maybe just way out there, because my initial skimming said that he was saying metrics don’t matter.

That wasn’t the case.  It took me longer than I like to admit to realize that the Talent Anarchy blog is (at least in part) a dialog between Gerstandt and his business partner, Jason Lauritsen.  So this post was part of their thinking out loud about what matters.

The heart of what Gerstandt is talking about emerges in a follow-up post (and at the end of my post, I’ve put links to several posts from Talent Anarchy):

And maybe I do not think that measurement is evil…measurement is a tool after all, so it boils down to how you use it. But this is what I do believe:

  • one: We over-prioritize things that come with metrics.
  • two: We have told ourselves some great lies about what we can measure.
  • three: The outcome of our use of metrics is often evil.

The conversation really struck me because of several themes or issues  running through my life right now.  One of them is a client I’ll call Hephaestus. I’ll say they make  household fans and heaters.  As a manufacturer, Hephaestus has some serious metrics having to do with production–rate, quality, reject rate, cost, all the sorts of things you’d expect.  And the sorts of things that make sense there.

Does Hephaestus have other ways of knowing how they’re doing?  I’m pretty sure they do, though the project I’m dealing with doesn’t extend that far.  I haven’t been called in by the CEO or the VP of manufacturing.  Even so, I see potential wisdom for me and for my client in the Talent Anarchy discussion.

Metrics - one part of the jobOur project is about how to bring new manufacturing workers to competency.  If you’ve worked in a plant, you have some idea what these jobs can be like.  At a GE appliance factory, I observed workers in charge of powder-paint application, wire-harness installation, and similar jobs.

How do you help a new person do that safely and accurately–and with acceptable progress to the necessary speed?

It’s not all feeds and speeds, either with regard to turning out those appliances, or with regard to how people learn.  I think there’s a lot of value in questioning assumptions, especially those we don’t even recognize as assumptions.

Here are links to the posts in the discussion at Talent Anarchy, along with a quote pulled from each.  Worth the time to go through.  You’re likely to find value in the comments as well:

The Measurement Imperative (Jason)

(the post in which Jason starts the discussion)
I know that measurement and metrics aren’t your favorite thing to talk about, but what do you think?  Where does measurement fit into the work we do?

The False Tyranny of Metrics (Joe)

(from a comment on this post)
I was talking with my boss about the situation [of half the staff at a health facility frequently arriving late] when he asked me if my team cared about the people we served and if they were dedicated to helping those folks achieve outcomes. I answered yes – they excelled at achieving outcomes. He then challenged me by pointing out that the only reason I was on my time-clock tirade was because I could hit a button on the computer and spit out the metrics related to the situation. Punch reports were the metrics I had available so that was what I managed to.

Despite What You May Have Heard, Measurement Isn’t Evil (Jason)

What I heard you say is that putting metrics and measurement before the actual work, or worse, substituting it as the work is really damaging and counter-productive.  And I would agree with that.  When the metric becomes what you are trying to accomplish, you have lost.

More Metrics Madness (Joe)

I do understand the importance of profit.  I am a business owner myself…I get it.  But the purpose of my business is not profit. I work, at least partly, because I need to make a living, but I do the particular work that I do for reasons that have nothing to do with profit.  Profit is mandatory, I am not in any way confused about that, but saying that an organizations exists for the purpose of profit is kind of like saying that the purpose of a persons life is breathing (which also can be measured quite well by the way).

A Defense (of a sort) of Metrics
(a guest post by Mark D. Hirschfeld and F. Leigh Branham

We may not be able to measure honesty, compassion, and courage, but we can measure the results that those traits produce–lower voluntary turnover, lower quit rates, fewer grievances filed, more internal job progressions allowed, more customers returning more frequently and referring their friends, more managers coaching (often confronting), recognizing (more often) and giving constructive feedback, more new employees being hired through referrals from happier, more engaged employees–all measures of not just more, but of better places to work that do indeed serve as measures of progress toward becoming a remarkable workplace.

CC-licensed production parts image by iamphejom.

Personal learning, epistemology, and Philip Henslowe

If you saw Shakespeare in Love, you may remember an early scene in which Philip Henslowe, the producer, is warned by moneylenders that when people don’t pay their debts, their boots catch fire.  (The real-life Henslowe kept a diary–actually an account book listing payments and other data–that’s a prime source for information about the Elizabethan theater.)  Eventually Henslowe convinces the money guys to back Will Shakespeare’s new play, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter.

You see? Comedy. Love, and a bit with a dog. That's what they want.
Geoffrey Rush as Philip Henslowe

In this first week’s experience of PLENK 2010 (the online course about personal learning environments), I kept hearing Henslowe and the moneylender discuss how a play comes to be.

Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.

Fennyman: So what do we do?

Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.

Fennyman: How?

Henslowe: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

By no means am I implying that PLENK is on the road to imminent disaster.  Or better, it’s a road company, in at least two senses:

It’s a work in progress.  What goes in, what happens, and especially what comes out can’t be known.  Like the road company for a play, it takes place in multiple locations.  (See the Google map started by Heli Nurmi, with only some of the 1,000+ registrants.)

It’s a group of people.  They’ve met in this virtual space for their own reasons, much like an earlier group:

At nyght were come into that hostelrye
Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye
Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle
In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde.

By nightfall, into those lodgings had come
Nine-and-twenty people in a company
Of sundry folk, by chance fallen
Into fellowship, and they were all pilgrims
Wanting to ride to Canterbury.

As with Chaucer’s pilgrims, each person in PLENK showed up at the virtual Tabard Inn because of his own reasons: curiosity, a desire for focus, challenges to address.  And each one will have a story to tell.

More than one story, I think.  Harry Bailey, the host, urged that compaignye to each tell two stories on the way to Canterbury, and two on the return.  He wanted the travelers to enjoy the two-day to Canterbury (an early suggestion that the journey could be the reward).

It's my way, not the highway.PLENK’s company isn’t like Chaucer’s; one of our commonalities is that we’ve got different destinations (if in fact we’ve figured out where we want to go).

So the “road” that the company travels isn’t a specific route.  It’s more like the Oregon Trail or the Silk Road: a general direction with multiple paths.

For my own part, I’ve read a sheaf of blog posts and discussion posts from participants this week, along with some of the resources contained in PLENK’s daily feed.  These are the stories that the pilgrims tell–not fictional ones, told on the way to Canterbury, but sense-making ones, told on the way to understanding.

I’ve found people trying to make sense of PLNs and PLEs in contexts like high school teaching, graduate education, personal growth, and (thank goodness) learning on the job.

Not all the sense they’re making makes sense to me, but it’s not supposed to, any more than every presentation at a conference or every course in the catalog is supposed to.  Really, I’m still feeling my way along, but I’m not too uncomfortable with that.

PLENK facilitator Rita Kop wrote about information abundance and economy of attention the other day.  She mentioned John Hagel‘s thoughts on attention as an increasingly scarce resource.  My quick take on what that means: the more inputs available to you, the less you can afford to, well, pay attention to all of them–because you’ve only got so much attention to spread around before you hit cognitive homeopathy.

Kop was trying to work out concerns of some PLENK participants and wondering about whether there’s a good match between “learner needs and educator support.”  I couldn’t say, but included this in my comment at her post:

For some people, plopping into PLENK is like an American suddenly teleporting to London. Or maybe Amsterdam, where enough people speak English that he’s mostly disconcerted by all that Dutch on signs.

For some, though, it’s like being teleported to Riga or Mumbai, with a lot more “foreignness” — an abundance of unfamiliar information. When it comes to economy of attention, they feel like their account is overdrawn.

Speaking of which, if attention’s an account, then time is the wallet you keep the card in, and I have to watch how often I get that wallet out.

Can’t spell “persona” without “person”

I had a side conversation just now about some technical glitches related to #PLENK2010 (the online course about personal learning environments).  Well, I think I did — it was via Facebook message, but I don’t see evidence of that in the ad-crammed junk drawer of Facebook’s interface.

No matter.  I found myself thinking of this exchange (and similar ones with other people) in terms of how you connect in general with people you don’t know.

Not everyone can be a resonance manIt might be related in some way to the riddle of online resonance that Jenny Mackness and Matthias Melcher wrote about: in this virtual / at-a-distance context, they’re asking how what can cause the initial resonance that can nudge a potential connection along till it becomes an actual one.

In my own case, what I saw myself doing was delivering potentially frustrating feedback (“your X isn’t working” can often imply “and it ought to, buddy”).  And I felt slightly ill at ease about that.

I’m usually sane enough to believe that people like the PLENK facilitators welcome comments meant to improve or enrich the experience.  At the same time, I hate to seem querulous, let alone the online equivalent of a grammar fascist.  (Trust me, I can be querulous.  I just tend to dress it up with over-the-top humor.)

Which gets to the persona part, the image I’d like people to have of me (probably a lot like the image I’d like to have of me).  In an early post here, I wrote that persona was the mask used by Greek and Roman actors, and that another meaning for “actor” is agent–the person causing something to happen.

So as I start doing things in a new community like PLENK, I’m scattering bits of evidence from which people will form impressions.  I can’t control what those will be, but I can try to influence that a bit.

Early in the game, then, I take out “connection insurance”:

  • I tend to send feedback privately rather than publicly–in part because of my own self-consciousness, and in part because I might be incorrect.
  • I try to include useful, factual detail: the URL I have in mind, an exact title, a copied string of text.
  • I try to signal that I’m in a collaborative, non-confrontational frame of mind.

About confrontation: I know that some people see heated discussion as a sign of interest, and maybe even respect: I wouldn’t be arguing with you if I didn’t think you were worth the argument.

Closer to the main thread here, Mackness & Melcher in their second post talk about this chart by Magdalena Bottger.

Bottner's cues to knowledge

Notice that arrow across the top.  In terms of early connections, I see an analogy, a continuum from”folks you just met” (the right-hand side) through “people you know well and who know you well” (over on the left).

The way you move a from right to left–the way the “connection neurons” get all Hebbsian–is through a series of interactions over time.  You take extra care initially to signal intent.  People on the other side of the relationship will take that in, along with other signals.

In other words, if you’re polite in private messages but seem like a cranky, dismissive, and apostrophe-challenged troll on your blog, that politeness will only carry you so far.

When you have enough public personas, people can form a pattern from them.  Might be the one you’d form, might not.

CC-licensed resonance image by gillicious.