Traditionally agile

A brief disclaimer. This post is not really about eLearning or learning technology. Sorry to disappoint if that is your only desire. Notions of scrums and agility have been on my mind persistently over the course of the last twelve or so months, for a variety of reasons. I have learned much from practitioners of these arts (not sciences after all?). So this is really about me waking up. It is only really a quick thought too.

In my experience (and it may well only be me) Training (with that upper case T) is not very agile. It seems to prefer programmes and movement after much thorough analysis. I suspect that this is bundled up with the course as the delivery unit and with the ways of working in corporate departments. A major build up to a moment of delivery. Neither of these lend themselves to improvisation. It tends to be more of an orchestral work than a jazz piece. On the other hand, software development, particularly efforts focused on product development, seems to be pretty flexible and comfortable with uncertainty. There is much to learn here I believe.

There are now many experts on this subject and agile professionals abound. There seem to be equally many opportunities to disagree about how it is done best. Nevertheless, there is a general agreement on the principles. My favourite of which is that it is impossible (and very unwise) to predict what will happen over any significant length of time. A five year plan is inherently fraught with so much uncertainty. So don’t. This is a better summary from Barry O’Reilly of Thoughtworks: “Trying to use predictable type processes where you expect a certain thing to happen in months’ or years’ time is just totally unrealistic”. Many casualties of large scale IT systems projects may find themselves wincing as they nod at this.

Jeff Sutherland, who fathered the Scrum methodology sums it up quite nicely. He notes that all that analysis needs to be redone when the development work starts – that’s when we start to really test the usefulness of the analysis. Much to learn here I feel as we try to figure out all what all these fleeting signals of learning need mean and respond in a useful amount of time. I wonder if the unfolding digital world will offer much time for a training needs analysis and a programme that results? I will return to this theme and try and reflect on it closer to home.

In closing, I will also declare that, as a person of a certain age, I find the language of agile and scrum quite odd, alien and unwieldy. I sense the birth of a new profession, creating it’s own language in defence of it’s specialisation. Not quite the open and equal outcome I had hoped for. Whilst they do talk funny, these Scrum Masters are onto something.

Who does digital?

Who does digital? I mean, who actually works on it and makes it happen? This is a really simple question and a pressing one. Easy to ask. Hard to answer. Even harder to get it right, I suspect. (It is a close relative of the other pressing and less asked question: “What do we mean by digital?”). My fear is that, in many organisations, there is an assumption that digital is done by other people. By them.

As technology inevitably changes everything, most organisations are in some manner or other trying to become more digital. There is an industry of advice and guidance on how to achieve this. We are all at it.

Digitally native businesses will hold assumptions that we don’t tend to see readily elsewhere. The Kahn Academy consider the production of learning content and it’s distribution in quite a different way to most other publisher of learning content. YouTube looks like a pretty good route to a global audience. MOOC providers have engineered social tools into their fabric rather than finding ways of sewing them on later. These decisions feel natural and obvious because a history is not being redrafted or a heritage questioned. It’s normal and obvious.Everyone within these organisations readily sees the logic. For those on the digital migration, these certainties are rare.

Digital migrant organisations tend to be less sure-footed. There is not usually an obvious or natural home for the digital stuff. An IT department, often chosen as the digital beachhead, tends to come from a different heritage, a word of enterprise systems, corporate technologies and waterfall approaches. Often not so adept at the agile and iterative approaches of the digital natives (thus slower and more costly). Specialist digital teams (many of which were previously called Online teams when the web was ascendant) are a good step to focus the development needed. These can risk a new type of specialisation and marginalisation though as they are relied on to ‘digitise’ the content and output of other teams, preventing the new skills and competencies from emerging in those areas. For successful businesses, digital is not something that others do. It is a thread running through all functions and activities.

Digital organisations have found ways of balancing the inputs and needs of technology, commercial and content functions. Where one dominates the real focus can be lost. The real focus needs to be on user needs. Users need a smart champion who gets content, technology and commerce and can translate these amongst the interest groups internally. This championship mantle is being taken up by the Product Manager, a new profession with new disciplines and methods. This new professional is comfortable with all communities, never losing sight of user needs (real needs not assumed ones).

The eLearning game needs this expertise and the ways of thinking and working that it brings with them. People’s learning needs are most often and readily met by the products of digital native businesses. This experience is setting expectations higher than we have traditionally seen, often as a result of well managed product development.



Use tools to learn? Yes. But eLearning tools…? 

I suspect that the question “What is your favourite eLearning tool?” would flummox most folk. Probably asking “What is an eLearning tool?” would furrow many brows. I imagine it would even confuse many of us within the learning industry (however we may define that). Every profession and industry tends to create its own language and labelling systems. Often, these are impenetrable to the outside world. The L&D profession is no exception. What we mean by eLearning I reckon may only be of internal interest though. This list of the Top 100 Tools for Learning for 2014  demonstrates the point.

It is a (really useful and interesting) list of the most highly regarded tools from industry practitioners. It is the industry view. It defines a learning tool as follows: “any software or online tool or service that you use either for your own personal or professional learning, for teaching or training”. A pretty solid definition about which Jane Hart has thought thoroughly and clearly in conducting the research. It asks us what we use as both learner and trainer/teacher/instructor.

All of the entries in this list are immediately and comfortably familiar. They are the tools of our everyday lives. These are the resources with which we find things out and get thing done. We use them to communicate, to organise, to produce and publish, to have fun and to express ourselves. We also use them to learn or, we learn with them. Not until you reach Moodle at number 12 do you find a specialist learning tool. Into the twenties you can see a few specialist production and authoring tools. These, to my eye, are rare across the whole list. I don’t see a single Learning Management System in the list.

I think this is because a tool is in the command of its user, to do with as they wish, whereas a system is in the control of its owner to be followed by a user. That is not a very 2014 way of behaving. We now expect to use our tools as we see fit. Furthermore, these tools are managed and developed by experts in product development, user experience, design and usability.  All of these are skills and mindsets the learning industry needs to develop. They are skills focussed on identifying and satisfying user needs. Systems thinking is experiencing an existential challenge as a result. It helps the organisation perhaps but less so the user.

Similarly, the web has yet to offer an eLearning experience. By that, I mean one that looks and feels like a module or course housed within an LMS. In the ongoing experimentation and exploration of the last 18 years of the online world, the web has yet to find a use for that kind of learning. Should it appear now, I reckon it would seem rather unwieldy, unfamiliar and irrelevant. Not the territory of Silicon Valleys and Roundabouts, more the territory of systems integrators and corporate IT suppliers.

eLearning providers have a new standard to meet if they are to regain the higher ranks in the future top 100 lists. It seems now that learning is not so special in technology terms, it is another (vital) use of well crafted tools. Those of us in the industry are already looking to other products to both teach and learn and are measuring suppliers wares by those criteria.