Small beginnings (and quickly) – overcoming digital anxiety

The notion that ‘digital is about people not technology’ is a theme that has echoed around the debates of 2018. This is to be applauded – purveyors of snake oil and other miracle cures tend to miss this item so it is gratifying to hear it so consistently. (As one client said yesterday, “the large advisory companies sell technology because it is easier – the real problems are hard to solve and the skills to do it are hard to find”).

One of the consistent themes I observe in trying to help teams figure out ‘going digital’ is the tendency to overthink and try and plan for every eventuality. This is usually born from anxiety about letting go of the present and all of its comforts and apparent certainties. It is a significant problem.

To state the obvious: if you really want a genuine change in how a business works, the patterns of the past will no longer help you. You need new data about new activity to help decide what to do next. Pondering and wondering will not provide that information. Doing things will.

The older and more established an organisation is, the harder this challenge feels. Danger signals to look out for are: templates, process maps, frameworks and the like. These are a cry for help from those who are seeking false certainty. Sadly, they also offer false confidence to stakeholders (who may well have asked for them for the same reasons). It is not smart to draft a map to an unknown destination. What kind of a framework will you create for a service/product/experience you have never offered before?

Real change causes anxiety. But that anxiety cannot be treated with a management placebo, it needs a new treatment. It needs information.

Start small and start soon.

I reckon the maxim “start small and start soon” is a decent principle. (I did consider “start now” but having a vision is a requisite and might take a little time to develop). In the face of the imperative to change and the consequnet lack if information of what to do and how to do it, take a small step in a good direction and see where you land. This will answer a series of handy questions for you: how was that? Did it work? Should we go back? Where is the next step? What do we need to take it? And so on…This is what an agile approach is for, I think.

That quickly taken small step will give you a great deal more useful evidence about your objectives than the familliart furniture of management practice will be able to. Plus, it is more fun and much more energising. You and your teams will learn more quickly and develop more usefully. You will also understand your customers better. You can also speak to stakeholders with the genuine confidence borne from experience. If you really need to, you could communicate your new knowledge in a template, I guess.

Things I should have done better in leading digital learning efforts

This is, in no particular order, a list of things I wish I had done differently in leadership roles. It it is largely filtered through the experience of some years of consulting and talking to leadership teams in the world of digital learning. (I will not offer a definition of that term because it is quite early as I type this and I doubt it will be an edifying use of scarce energy).

To be clear, this is not an exercise in regret, more a reflection on moments where more progress could have been made and made more swiftly. These are things, in hindsight, I wish I had done more of and less of.

More small experiments: digital development is the result of progressive understanding of what people need by trying to meet those needs in small ways, seeing what happens and then refining your effort. Corporate environments are poorly disposed to this kind of effort, by and large but free tools and content make this kind of work easier than it has ever been.

Demarcation disputes: a great deal of time and effort can be wasted on deciding the proper home of initiatives. Good ideas are wrestled over and bad ideas passed around, seeking a home. Adult partnerships betwen teams with clear common goals are the best answer but can be difficult to achieve in a messy real world. In the world of corporate content, I fear that so much time is lost between internal comms, HR, L&D and IT. This is, at heart, one of the main reasons for duplication – it just seems so much easier to get on with it on your own.

A little time to gather a little evidence:  too much of the time we repsond to a stakeholder need and judgement without spending a little time to check the thinking with our audience. Stakeholders are often describing the world they would like as they would like it to be rather than the reality.

Just do it: in the digital world, apparently, all the old certainties are open to question or just no longer relevant. Why, then, do we spend so much time seeking certainty in our plans based on questionable experience? Better just to gather what evidence you can a run some experiments (see above).

Saying no: (Possibly my top anxiety). A reality of the digital world is that projects are always getting easier to set up. It is dangerously easy to make digital content. With a little bit of evidence and some judgement in interrogating a request, we can avoiding adding to the digital wasteland.

Stopping: from the previous point, recognising that the product or project is not working (against the simple goal we have carefully set, of course) and stopping. Either stopping to diagnose or just stopping and trying something else. Or…just stopping.

Having a single brain in charge: organisations are fond of governance and have good reasons to be. Products are rarely run by a committee if they are to succeed. Someone needs to call the shots. Find that someone or (deep breath) be that someone.

Insisting that good search is (part of) the answer: Not being able to find things is a pervasive problem in every organisation I have worked in or with. There is quite a lot of content on the web, yet Google works quite well in helping us find it. Social recommendations work quite well too (although fraught with bad motives). Let’s do those.

Just one more little feature: Allied to the point about small experiments, there is a powerful tendency to add one more feature to that release and bloat what could be a simple(r) tool. This relates to the just say no thought (I may be feeling a little regretful at this one, actually).

Access to or control of development resources: effective digital projects will combine software developers, UX designers, content brains, a project manager, data skills and a product manager. Well, roughly. Without the ability to direct developer efforts, we need to be careful about what we set out to achieve and how agile we can be.

There are some others but these feel, today, like the ones I want to write out. What might you add?

Systems, ecosystems and control (anything but the one stop shop)

The ecosystem theme seems to be echoing around me at the moment. I realise that this is not a new theme but it has given me pause to think as it orbits. Some interesting remarks from contacts on LinkedIn in a recent discussion further added to the musings. What follows are some top of mind thoughts on the topic (for now…).

There is a powerful impulse at play in IT organisations I believe – it is the urge to tidy up the apparent mess of systems and technology tools at large in the business. As a senior IT stakeholder, there is cost, stress and error at every turn and greater control feels like an obvious response. It is one powerful reason to pursue the single system strategy or the dreaded ‘one-stop-shop’. Neither the “one ring to rule them all” or the “there can be only one” approaches have ended well, however. technology progress and development will inevitably add more ‘mess’.

There is a desire for parental control at play here, I further believe. A view that the best outcomes for users are those that are managed for them (with their best interests at heart, of course). Where there is a parent, there are children, however, and that is not the role a modern workforce really wants to play. (I sincerely doubt it was a satisfactory role for any workforce but has been the tradition nonetheless). As users, we approach the digital consumer landscape as agents of choice. Having that agency removed is a pain. It is a pretty drab reality that many organisations deny the use of consumer tools in the workplace to defend the apparent order of official systems and we step back in time as we pass through the revolving doors at reception.

The LMS is one of the worst offenders in the controlling parent role, replete with allocation, access control and approvals. There are even sanctions for poor behaviour: if you don’t eat your compliance greens, you can’t have your password pudding. This is not born from an atmosphere of trust and openness.

These are not the only reasons for the flourishing of the organisational ecosystem of tools and technologies but they are significant. The ability to swiftly offer a well designed tool focused on narrow and painful use cases is chipping away at the foundations of  traditional systems in all walks of professional life. It is frequently, if not always, quicker and cheaper to use a cloud based web service for work tasks. App store marketplaces have created a very effective environment for testing and developing useful tools. Most often the tools of our every day lives are our first choice in our work, having had their value tested and honed by literally millions of users and use cases. The fact that these tools are in different products and owned by different businesses is no real barrier to their utility in our private worlds, so what is the problem in the organisation context?

It is important to distinguish a true ecosystem of from a series of available tools. If an ecosystem is “a community of interacting organisms and their environment”, then there are, I suspect, few of them out there. There are plenty of organisations with multiple tools and technologies (a development to be embraced), the interaction criterion is more difficult to satisfy though. This does not devalue the utility of the tools but it might make the usability of the ecosystem weaker as data and content does not pass between products. It is likely that meaningful interaction between systems falls into the ‘big and difficult’ project bucket and is tackled less often as a result.

One of the great liberties of avoiding the one-stop-shop, is the freedom to test and add tools as a need arises or possible value is in sight. The recent arrival of many chatbot tools on the landscape is a case in point. There are plenty of authouring tools to create bots and messaging systems to release them into. A requirement to integrate them first is likely to break a business case to create a swift test.

There are two areas, however, where integrating tools to begin the creation of an ecosystem looks most valuable:

  1. Search and discovery: the ability to quickly and simply search for specific content, people and information that are relevant to your work. This requires some engineering and careful planning but technologies like Elasticsearch and erm, Google are very accomplished at this. Being able to search and browse across content portals, social media, LMS, third-party content services, intranet, document repositories and people directories adds huge value to the tools most organisations use.

    In fact, with good search, who needs a learning journey?.

  2. Data and analysis: being able to see what users do (and don’t do) across multiple technologies is enormously valuable. This can range from simple dashboard reporting of items such as content popularity, routes in and through content, patterns of heaviest users, frequency and depth etc. to more sophisticated analysis of the relationships of certain behaviours with business outcomes. The addition of non-learning data sources is very important here, although organisationally tricky in many cases.

    For those in the learning game, the LRS is an interesting development finally gaining some momentum. For those with broader concerns, many other data storage and retrieval solutions beckon. (Data Lakes have a poetic ring too).

Tackling these two (pretty hefty) challenges will offer an ecosystem owner, or those with ambitions for one, a good steer as to the potential value in integrating the tools and products into a user experience of some kind.

There are many other hypotheses forming in my mind to which I may return. For now though, the ecosystem approach is a definite step forward. Perhaps the greatest contribution made by this approach is offering control and choice (or greater control and choice) to users rather than requiring them to seek permission and approval. This is closer to our experience as consumers – we chose the tools we prefer, when and how to use them. Choice has become a foundational expectation of our digital experience and system owners should be very cautious about interrupting it.


Is the quest for engagement a red herring?

With due apologies for a possible click bait title, I worry that the quest for engaging content is becoming a problem. It may have been a problem for some time and I am slow on the uptake. That has happened before.

There is a risk here that opposing the creation of engaging experiences is, inevitably, seen as opposition to a self-evident good. Engaging experiences are good experiences, don’t you want things to be good? To qualify my perspective a little, I am thinking mostly of corporate or organisation based experiences – the role for entertainment in consumer markets is as clear as day. In the world of work, less so.

My worry is that engagement is too broad a goal to be instructive in deciding what to make. Equally, ‘making good things’ is not a discerning strategic goal. We need to know why something is engaging – what it is good for – and focus on that. Seeking engagement can allow us to pretty much justify any goal but does not guarantee an impact that will make a difference.

The real problem with the quest for engagement is that it excuses the creation of content in which there is little or no interest from the audience. Too often engagement equates to sugaring the pill or placing lipstick on pigs (to say nothing of polishing poop). There is little audience demand or pull, so the push is lubricated with the application of ‘fun’.

Focus on what is interesting and useful.

Back in the earlier days of Twitter (when it was a more temperate and calmer place to bathe) there was much debate about whether there was value in sharing and reading snippets of information within a 140 character limit. Not much of any worth can be captured in these bursts ran the argument. I was a fan of Twitter and seeking justifications of my behaviour. I was struck by Graham Linehan’s argument for using the service and as a guide for who to follow: I focus on what is interesting and useful. (It was a while ago, so I am paraphrasing).

Back in those earlier days, I was working in the search engine industry. (Believe it or not, there was a period when the sector was competitive, before Google swallowed the world). The purpose of the products in the sector is to provide the most relevant response to a users query. Relevance in search is everything. That relevance is personal and is decided by the author of the query not the search engine. A good and abiding definition of personal relevance is what the user finds most interesting and/or useful. Fifteen or so years later, I belive these are the most valuable goals of content creation and of user experience: make it as useful and interesting as possible. The chances of audience appreciation will rise and you might earn the right to do more.

Find things out and get things done

This is why the, perennially excellent, Top 100 Tools For Learning is so instructive. The tools listed there not the tools of fun and entertainment but of productivity, connection and communication. They help us find things out and get things done. Netflix and Xbox, for example, are not on the list. Google search is in the top three ,with that relentless focus on personal relevance.

There is nothing inherently wrong with playfulness. It can be a very important editorial value in the stories you tell. It can signal humanity and empathy. A playful tone might support the usefulness of your products or content. Snapchat worked that out but have not let it get in the way of the utility of their service. It is a playful experience but does not try to be a game.

David James has ridden this hobby-horse to a great destination a few times. The right questions to ask before we make are along the lines of “What problem are we trying to solve?”. “What use or interest is there here for a user”? Certainly, this might be a less exotic palette of flavours but they are satisfying and when done well, they are returned to often. Frequency of use is a great metric to test how helpful content and services are for users. The closer to once a day you can get the better. So often the ‘fun’ is added to help “drive engagement” for experiences that are low down the priority order for users or are the products of compulsion. Make these short and simple, don’t worry about fun.

The, hopefully historic, proposal of a ‘Netflix for learning’ falls at this hurdle. If it was a good idea, Netflix would have created a learning category amongst its giddying array of options. They haven’t. (A YouTube for learning is a much better idea, which is why there is one. YouTube). Netflix works because it is well designed around our desire to be entertained. How about a Netflix for Internal Comms or Policy Documents? No. Me neither.

I propose that we halt the quest for engagement and focus our energy and imagination  on the search for personal relevance. By personal relevance, I mean experiences that are interesting and useful to the individuals using them.


Stakeholder fixation syndrome: the elephant in the digital room

From my unscientific sampling, the realisation that ‘digital change’ is about people seems to have dawned quite widely now. From the proceedings of Learning Live to blog posts and contributions on LinkedIn and Twitter the ‘digital is about people and culture’ theme is gaining momentum. This is a good thing and will, hopefully, dissuade folk that installing that grand system upgrade will make much of a difference in the pursuit of their goals.

I further hope that it will focus effort on changing the ways teams work: the skills they include, how they are lead and their focus on their users. (For those interested in exploring this topic further there is an interesting new course from the Digital Leaders Academy looking at that and related themes of digital. Disclaimer: I am facilitating these events).

Conversations beneath the surface of this topic have uncovered a cause for some concern, however. There is a cloud on the digital horizon obscuring a clear view of what users need. To qualify a little, this cloud is most prevalent in the skies of the internal digital initiative but not exclusively so. It takes the form of what I call “stakeholder fixation syndrome”.

Symptoms of stakeholder fixation include a lack of user evidence in development, preference of aesthetic design over utility, insufficient user testing and worst of all, the introductory video from the CEO/SVP/MD (persuasion to use and understand a tool is not a comforting sign at the top of the home page). These are signals of a product which is being steered inwards and upwards to the central viewing platform of the organisation. Senior stakeholders often reflect requirements that might be needed by the organisation and consumers they would like to serve. Frequently, they will articulate the user needs they want to see or believe should be there. Distance from the frontline and a lack of familiarity with the troops often obscures the reality. These needs differ from the, often messy and confusing, ones of real users frequently lacking time and attention to make such tidy, rational choices. Products need to be steered directly for users to have a good chance of success.

In the early months of 2011 many senior stakeholders arrived back at work after Christmas with their brand new iPads. It was a heady time. Heads had been turned and the new form factor was heralded in boardrooms far and wide. I remember a mock-up of overnight TV ratings being shown to a senior fellow (almost always a chap) on his prized device and generating much excitement for a project. The fact that tablet usage was in the low single digits, at best, was swiftly overlooked as the designers took their new direction from on high. As we now know, tablet usage is a thing of the past by and large and it never really did have a significant impact. Rupert Murdoch seems to have had a visit from Santa around that time too.

Most information systems selection and implementation goes through the stakeholder mill in a similar but more structured fashion. The needs of the end-user play a quiet second fiddle to the lead of the senior stakeholder with the noise amplified by their peers. The diagram below simplifies one example of how this might look in the case of the humble learning management system. A steering group and governance function can easily decide what would be ideal rather than what will work best.

LMS chain

A surefire sign of stakeholder fixation syndrome taking hold is the creation of the one-stop-shop product. One-stop-shops are beguilingly tempting for stakeholders: they look tidy, unified and organised and answer the internal logic of the business (or a perception of it). Sadly, from a user perspective they are often irrelevant and restrictive. We tend to prefer to have a problem solved with singular effectiveness than all of our problems wrapped into a monolithic solution. We are accustomed to mess and with well designed tools can navigate it well enough. Even Amazon has not launched a social network or a search engine.

Stakeholders are problematic, yes. Ignoring them creates even greater problems, however. They are keepers of decision gates in organisations and of the oxygen of budget and headcount. Not to be trifled with. Evidence of user need and behaviour are always sound allies. Reports and presentations help but the principle of “show don’t tell” often serves best. Show the evidence gathered from testing and experimenting. Show the quotes, recordings and conversations from testing sessions (video is great if you have the time and people). Show the prototypes and the experiments themselves and how the design has evolved. Better still, install the app for them and let them play and tinker. Bring users to life and the worst impulses can be replaced with insight. Furthermore, be clear about the metrics that will signal success and failure and make sure they are easily and simply available.

I realise that enlightened stakeholders do exist. In many cases they are keen to learn as well. I also know that other kinds of stakeholders are prevalent and need careful handling. So, whilst the realisation of the human elements required of digital transformation is to be welcomed we also need to recognise some of the more senior human challenges in making those changes stick.





Don’t leave digital transformation to IT (or learning technology teams)

In a few weeks time, I will be hosting a panel session at Learning Live on the theme of digital transformation. It is, in various guises, a major theme of the event and a significant preoccupation of the LPI membership. Fortunately, I have a wise and esteemed panel to rely on for answers to “What you’ve always wanted to ask” about the topic.

In preparation I have been doing a little more deliberate reading around the many and varied themes. I cannot decide whether a focus on L&D will help the debate or hinder it? On the one hand, we can concentrate on topics closest to our work and our immediate priorities. On the other a, mistaken, belief that learning is a special case in the digital world leads to many misguided decisions. Specialist learning systems are a major reason why learning remains in a technology ghetto rather than a daily tool kit.

This post by Jeff Imelt, ex CEO of GE is a useful input. There are some helpful observations on leading and organising digital transition in here. Unsurprisingly, leadership clarity, trust and empowerment are crucial factors. As important, is the assertion that digital ultimately needs to be a part of everyone’s day job at some point. Whilst a specialist team may be prudent to gain momentum in the early days, everyone needs to make the change and adopt digital ways of working to sustain the changes. This is worthy of consideration for L&D folks. Many organisations have digital specialist managers and teams (often born from a learning technology background) but struggle to make the transition beyond that point. I would like to hear some views on that hypothesis in the session, from attendees in particular.

Imelt also asserts that digital change cannot be the preserve of the IT functions. In many ways these are outsourced technologies and activities which operate at too great a distance from the core business to generate valuable change. I really like this point. Too often digital is seen as the preserve of techies and systems folks, under-cooking the potential it can have and limiting the radical change needed. Technology as a function is often too far removed from decision making to create far-reaching changes.

In the L&D world, I suspect (and observe) that digital change is often handed off to learning technology teams. This limits the changes required – digital transformation is about people and how they work as much as it is about technology. In anxious organisations, there can be an insulation from digital because it is seen as a specialism of technologists. Successful change will not occur under these circumstances. I would also like to know wat people make of this observation. It has happened to me directly. As Director of Digital, I have been given responsibility for digital transformation with only technology levers on which to pull. The remainder of the department remained distant, labouring under the belief that ‘digital’ would be solved for them and launched at them. No. It didn’t work.

A related challenge to the preoccupation with IT lead implementation of digital change is the misplaced faith in systems implementation as a source of digital change. Fundamentally, the revolution of digital has been a product of the widespread adoption of digital ways of working. Inherent to these approaches is the ability to experiment and adjust to seek valuable solutions. Any transformation means the old rules no longer apply. Systems implementation, by definition, precludes experimentation and denies the arrival of unexpected value. The computer will say no.

ERP systems, of which the LMS is a prime example, will not deliver digital transformation for this reason. They will deliver efficiency, order and accuracy (hopefully) to established systems or in the embedding of new ones. This is not to be sniffed at, but is not transformative. User needs are rarely anywhere to be seen either.

Other digital tools are where signals of value can be found. As a rule of thumb, it is always best to look outside our own industries in seeking clues to make far-reaching changes. Social media, digital advertising and content publishing have some useful pointers to offer in designing a really helpful user experience. (They also have some useful lessons in questionable business ethics to look out for).

Plenty to chew on for that session at Learning Live then. What else?


(learning) Culture and technology – muddle or plan?

I am seeking help to lift me from a muddle. Anyone reading this (data suggests that you may be into double figures), I suspect, has wisdom to spare.

The theme of “learning culture” has risen in my working world recently. (It has been there all along, of course, but not so often called out with such deliberation). This lead me to call for help on LinkedIn a week or so ago. I was looking for some clarity on what learning culture is and how to best work towards its enhancement and creation. There are some very helpful contributions in that post. Clarity remains elusive, however.

My best shot at a definition derives from the exchange between Nick Shackelton-Jones and Matt Ash. “A learning culture is a culture in which learning readily occurs”. Nick used the word flourishes. I like that. Yet, with the benefit of a little hindsight, that might denote a strong learning culture. Furthermore, the philosopher in me worries at the circularity of this definition. This is my first fall into muddle.

I was also struck that, as usual, those outside of the worlds of HR and L&D don’t really care much about learning culture. Or, to be fair, they care for a productive and healthy culture in an organisation. One feature of such a culture is that people in it learn and instruct (maybe teach?). Other features probably include ready communication, shared values, clear objectives and sense of purpose, shared language, trust, respect and the ability to act on decisions. These features carry as much weight as learning culture. All are interwoven anyway as they enable and support each others presence. So it is a muddle…but in a good way.

Then to my second moment of muddle: is learning culture enough for a successful culture? I don’t, at this moment of typing, think so. But in the L&D/HR zone, it tends to be the set objective and therefore risks being insufficient from the outset. Probably.

So, perhaps learning is a necessary but insufficient element of a broader healthy organisation culture. That view is less muddled in my mind. Does that, in turn, mean that pursuing a learning culture is not worthwhile in itself because it falls short of the greater goal? That seems like an odd conclusion. A learning culture seems valuable whether it is referred to as that or not and whether the wider world sets it as an objective or not. It may not be the loftiest of goals but it remains a valuable one. Slightly less muddle.

And so to the “how does one encourage a learning culture?” question. The comments on LinkedIn offered “embedding”, “learning DNA”, “championship”, “allowing time to learn”, “inspiring managers” and “leadership” as important ingredients in the recipe. There was universal agreement that delivery of learning does not contribute much to learning culture, not alone, at least. The human factors are those with most purchase on culture – they are the behaviours that demonstrate what is valued and offer an example to others. When exhibited by those with authority, they have greater influence and impact. Leadership is a crucial ingredient.

In the digital realm, attention tends to focus on technology products and services that enable learning culture. The relative ease with which learning can be made available is a cause for optimism. It has also, I fear, lead to a great deal of digital learning production in the hope that it will inspire learning culture. Experience says otherwise. A common refrain in my line of work is that “we have too much digital stuff”, suggesting that the culture in which the stuff resides is not lapping it up in the hoped for manner. Production and publishing is not a cultural trigger.

Similarly, a golden thread of digital development is that of connection. Digital experiences connect us as users with content and with people. The promise of enterprise social networks is that, at the click of an icon, everyone can connect with everyone and share knowledge across boundaries. Another refrain in my line of work is that “we have implemented Zamster/Buzzplace/Chatspot/Facezone but only a couple of teams are really using it”. Culture beats technology every time.

A case in point: a large UK based public service broadcaster implemented an ‘official’ instance of Yammer to build on the unofficial usage and signs of momentum with the product. This was to be the digital water cooler at which staff would share opinions and ideas on the transformation programme to be unveiled. The starter gun was fired with a post from the most senior of leaders inviting conversation to begin. That post was both distant and tone deaf. It was also the first and only post by that user. There was a brief flurry of activity, the wind dropped and the water was stilled. Hope for an open, technology enabled cultural renewal was beaten out by the cultural reality of a workforce who were conversing elsewhere, if at all.

For technology to usefully enable cultural change, all those elements of positive culture need to be nurtured and supported as well. Which leads me to another (third/fourth?) muddle: the circularity of learning culture and technology. Cultural change will be powerfully enabled by technology but needs the human features for the technology to be relevant and useful. Without the technology, those human features will be more difficult to detect and amplify, making progress much more laborious. If the culture does not have a digital imprint, it is now significantly more difficult to identify and detect. That is one of the effects of a world in which Facebook has 2.2 billion active users.

I think I will pause here in the recognition that this topic is probably impossible to unmuddle. As with much of human affairs, it is complex and defies simple explanation. That also, to me, signals that it is valuable and worthy of pursuit and debate. So I will continue to ponder. Perhaps learning culture is a little like pornography (in only one respect) – very difficult to define but we know it when we see it.