Stakeholder and user…never the twain?

A couple of weeks ago, I posted (or ranted) about control and choice in learning and training. As threatened, I am returning to that theme now. On reflection, I think it was a good theme, if not the best theme to ponder. One of the reasons why training and control can feel so right is the voice of the stakeholder and their interpretation of good learning outcomes. By stakeholder I mean a senior, non-specialist with an interest in how an organisation learns something. (Most, I suspect would articulate this as an interest in “how staff are trained”).

A genuine focus on user experience in learning can often appear to a stakeholder in a business as disorganisation. Add to this the social dimension of our current digital world and it could easily look unmanageable, undirected and impossible to understand (let alone measure). By contrast, the corporate learning systems look managed (they are built for it), controlled and controllable (they are built for it) and ROI friendly (they are built for this too but I suspect with less obvious success). These things, the LMS and its cousins, look and feel corporate and integrated. Facebook looks like a place where anyone can post anything – an ocean of selfies and cats. Less corporate for most of us but very, very popular,

Yes. This is an oversimplified treatment of both worlds but not entirely inaccurate. Corporate systems and products look like business and are described in the language of the stakeholder. They arrive via procurement processes, HR steering groups and IT teams. As a result they are not designed for us. For me, the learner.

On the other hand, our wild, wide world of digital and social learning tools is presented right to us. We can do what we want in it and with it. We might choose to learn , even though we may not call it that. Where we do learn, we have few records of that activity. No easily written learning history. It can be hard to be confident of what we have learned, how well and what to learn next. (To be fair, it is quite easy just to ask though).  If there is a framework to follow, or a path through the array of options and connections, it is not at all obvious for most or easy to follow. We do learn a lot though and don’t often require proof of ourselves. We are not stopping either. It has become obvious.

I reckon that the mental image of learning for stakeholders, is of a group (a cohort?) of people, moving together through a route or path and arriving at a pre-defined end point. Something like the movement of livestock around a farm, perhaps. An individual will have a view of themselves doing something, or trying to do something and managing their learning to that end. There are others around but theirs is very much a ‘point of view’ experience. They see those others from their view. A group viewed by a member looks different to a group viewed by a stakeholder.

Designing a learning experience for these perspectives is inevitably a different exercise. Each will look and feel very different to the learner (and perhaps, to the stakeholder).

How to make sense of this new world of choice and social activity for the busy stakeholder who is probably uninterested in 70:20:10 or any learning theories and baggage? Why would they want to take a chance on this new approach?

I think we need to find better stories to exemplify the value and to make that value personally relevant to the stakeholder. This will not be a feasibility report or training analysis I doubt. That is the wrong vocabulary for this activity. We need to make it obvious through example. Through individual, real and personal stories. Something more tangible is required.

Small scale pilots and tests are a good start. The best of the new generation of learning products for L&D require little effort to set up and pilot. The free ones are, well, free. They are also very easy to explain and leave with someone for them to explore. The new business case needs to follow a “Show don’t tell” model where at all possible.

Big data, small question

Big data. We all want it and need it I am told. The real problem with large amounts of data (also with small amounts) is knowing what to do with it. 

In my search engine days we used to say that we needed good questions to ask from the data. What do we need to do or decide and how will this data help? Specific questions were the best. Sloshing in the bathtub of reports rarely helped us get anywhere. Small questions were the best and usually the ones to which we returned: What happens to user frequency if we increase the number of ads we show in that category? That was a great one and helped understand our emerging business dynamics enormously.

Netflix seems to be really good at this kind of analysis. They seem to be data focused but not obsessed or blinded by it. I have the impression that their confidence is in large part supported by their developing knowledge if the behaviour, preferences and tastes of their customers. Of me.

A very good small question to ask at Netflix is “When does a Netflix customer become hooked on a series?”. This is a brief peak into the answer to that question (Episode 2 of Breaking Bad, apparently). Now they know and can plan many things around that answer. They can show it off too, which, in this case, is a good idea.

Obviously, there is another question looming here: “Why do customers become hooked on a series?”. That seems to me like a big question. A very big one. One that any amount of data might not answer and one that is wide open to very unhelpful debate.

In case you didn’t click, here is the URL:

Learning, training, control and choice.

[Warning, this post is something of a stream].

“Control is to training as choice is to learning”.

This is a fair summary of how I saw the world of L&D on first entry about five or six years ago. Granted, this is an enormously simplified characterisation and I have variously agreed and disagreed with it over those years as I have learned more. Control and choice both have their place. Nevertheless I find myself agreeing with the sentiment more these days. Much of my time is spent at present redefining and representing digital content and services for people to use when learning. This activity is all focused on solving user problems and providing a user service. This is very different from conversations about training systems where process and integration loom large. (Calling them learning systems does not really change the point).

I will return to this theme again as it is a constant preoccupation. I find I am continually turning over the idea that learning mixed with technology is more successful than training mixed with technology. Training is not wrong or poor. But there are better ways. I will rehearse some ideas below. I think thus and in no particular order:

  • All the best digital products are at the command of their user (individual user), rather than a stakeholder
  • Well designed digital tools are managed to constantly develop to satisfy their users’ needs, their design is not finished
  • This last point is not true of training systems
  • As user needs change, a learning product will change to meet those new choices
  • This is not true of training systems
  • An LMS is a training system, not a learning system. It only really deals with one content format – the course.
  • An LMS is designed for assigning activity to a user – it is not designed for user choice.
  • A learner is trying to either find something out or get something done and exploring how to do that, this not always true of training courses.
  • Good digital learning tools allow users to work though a framework in their own manner (e.g. GCSE Bitesize curriculum revision content) – they are designed around user choice.
    • Lack of control does not mean lack of order or framework, this is important, if not vital, to learner success
  • There is nothing on the open web like an LMS – there seems to be little appetite to use them by choice.
  • Similarly, there is nothing on the open web like an “eLearning course” – there seems to be little appetite to use them by choice
  • There are myriad learning products available all over the digital landscape – we routinely chose them although they are not provided by learning organisations
    • (I am thinking of, Twitter, Google, YouTube, Worpdpress, Wikipedia, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, iTunes, Evernote…I will not go on with this list).
  • As a point of principle, assigning something to someone means that the assingee is not a user – they are a recipient, or perhaps an operator.
  • A training system or tool is likely to be designed around the needs of stakeholders and corporate buyer needs – these needs may, or may not, be the same as the user
  • A (good) learning tool is designed only for a user
  • A good learning tool offers the learner (user) control and use of the data created in the product – it is the users’ data
  • This is particularly true of social products and services where individual identity, communication and collaboration create the value of the service
  • A good digital tool does not expose process to the user – nobody elects to run a process (someone else’s process even less so)

To repeat my caveat, control is neither bad or unwelcome. Sometimes it is necessary. It is overused and has become inherent to training systems, however. Choice is likely to be better at any time and learner behaviour is rapidly changing to expect choice to be primary.

We are still in Kansas after all

Every L&D conference I have attended focuses on change. Mostly, radical change is prescribed.  New tools. New techniques. New technologies. New methods. All the old certainties are bunkum we are told. Adapt or die. Change is the only constant. Etc. Etc.

Very often, we foot soldiers are energised and inspired by these events. New ideas and possibilities come to life. We feel invigorated and ready to spread the word back with the platoon. Something happens, though, after a few weeks in the old trenches and we tend to lapse back to the trusty shovel and bayonet. Inching forwards as we carve out a new front line or digging out to the existing one.

Don’t get me wrong, the conferences really are a great learning experience. The therapy of sharing whispered war stories is also very valuable. “Oh. Really? You too? I was worried it was only me.” It is great to locate ourselves in our relative landscape, to have some sense of where we stand.

The redoubtable Laura Overton has, I think, established the singly most useful tool in this regard in the Towards Maturity Benchmark study. Every year, an increasing number of L&D leaders share their plans, activity and the reality of their use of learning technologies. The questions around the new tools and techniques are candidly answered. It is both a healthy exercises to undertake as a moment of reflection and a fascinating to read the results. Laura has shared some of the highlights of this years’ study in this blog on the Sponge site. It is a somewhat uncomfortable read. It seems that we are still in Kansas after all, despite all that heat at the conferences and are doggedly sticking to the familiar.

Courses, eLearning content (courses? modules? programmes?) and virtual classrooms abound. This is what training is after all then? Other (newer?) formats such as games, curation, mobile and social are there to see but are not the norm. They are far from it in some cases. The familiarity of placing courses in the LMS has a powerful allure and seems to be a pattern we all default to despite our desire to experiment and test alternatives.

Laura has the wealth and heritage of data to help diagnose the problem, thankfully and lack of confidence seems to be a formidable hurdle. In Laura’s words: So far less than 30% of  L&D leaders in the 2015 study agree that their teams have the confidence to apply new learning technologies to learning. A staggering 3 in 5 believe that even if they did, their staff would not know how to use them.” This is a scary statistic. Outside of the ‘learning world’, wherever it may be, these technologies are natural everyday tools. What happens to confidence levels when we transport them in? There may be a skills gap here for L&D teams to overcome. L&D professionals might need new skills of community stewardship, porduct management and editorial judgement. The gap may also be filled, however, by better product design on behalf of providers to keep these things simple and intuitive. This is a pervasive problem for the systems vendors.

I think there is an additional challenge that the research does not quite address. Almost all large organisations have extensive and substantial systems in place to manage and control learning. An LMS, which is often at the centre of activity and part of a larger set of HR systems and processes. These are not user tools but process tools with pretty rigid rules and applications. They serve the organisation view of what learning is rather than the user view. They form the infrastructure of most of our production and they are fixed fast to the world of work in most organisations.

It is very difficult and arguably ill advised, to attempt to apply new tools into this landscape. I think they are a poor fit if they are well designed, user focused products. It also contributes to that lack of confidence – they feel and behave differently. They tend to be the wrong shape and size for the rigid infrastructure of those control systems. They are shaping the future, however and we need to experiment with them. Testing, piloting and exploring are good approaches. Integration is likely to kill them off.