Socially personal or personally social

In preparation for this event, during it and since, I have been pondering personalisation. It is a beguiling topic. At first glance, a personal experience is obviously desirable. Who would deny a tailored experience or bespoke content? Simple, yes?

Robin Hoyle was quick (and correct) to puncture that oversimplification in his talk. He laid out the risks of assumed interest and preferences from Amazon and similar businesses. The blindness of the algorithm is a real hurdle to overcome when it recommends sewing equipment to me from a shared account or a children’s story from purchased for a visiting relative. (Although I suspect that this will not be a limiting factor for too long as machine intelligence develops at pace).

Robin and I both explored the impact of social media on personalisation. There appears to be a powerful commercial and consumer logic to recommending and serving targeted content based on the behaviour and preferences of your chosen networks. This is a good advertising model (as the financial performance of Facebook will attest) and therefore a good good targeting model. Is it personalised though? Perhaps it is a more sophisticated segmentation than previous data permitted. My own experience suggests there is still insufficient ad inventory to overcame the spammy feel of many campaigns. My single shoe purchase does not qualify me as a lead for the whole of the fashion category (are you listening Facebook?). Robin also pointed out the filter bubble problem, with our social groups tending to affirm, support and recycle preferences. It is hard to work in serendipity here or to inject challenge and alternative perspectives. Both of these are needed for solid learning and reflection I reckon.

Personalisation is social now…

Nevertheless, I do think that social networks have started to dictate what we see as personally meaningful in significant ways. When I claimed (perhaps with a glib conference tone) that “personalisation is social now” what I was driving at is our increasingly social judgements about relevance. A fundamental reason for the success of these tools is that they allow us to define, as individuals, the presentation of relevant content. We like, follow, friend and tag based on our own needs and preferences. We are becoming the editors of our own content streams, pulling and ejecting, at the swipe of a thumb, what we class as interesting and useful. Our expectation is that these social channels create a personalised experience as we use them and that this experience becomes more powerful and sophisticated. As usual, this has become the default expectation very quickly and we need to respond to it.

Behaviour in these networks has also started to challenge to idea that content should be consumed from, or in, destinations (or, god forbid, “portals”). We all now anticipate that articles, video, games, apps and audio etc. are presented for use directly in our social feeds. As content providers, accurate distribution into these networks is now a first order of business. Our users expect to stay where they are and do their business on their terms in those tools. We need to find ways to make learning content available for them in this native environment.

Whilst a simple point, this is not a simple task. Much of the effort of learning content producers is to publish into portals and central systems and entice our audience to those destinations. Whilst we still manage those destinations as a central resource they need to be a destination not the destination. The true destination is wherever are users decide to spend their time. Time to explore this territory as well.


Look at me – digital change and personalisation

Be warned. Shameless self promotion follows.

A couple of weeks ago I joined a panel at the Learning Technologies exhibition. We talked as a panel about personalisation: what it is and isn’t, its value and the problems and possible solutions to creating a more personal experience. More about that soon.

After that session, I was interviewed by the smart and thoughtful Caroline Freeman on that topic and also about the state of learning and what skills and organisation principles we might need to make the most of it. For my part, I spent a little time describing how the BBC Academy is tackling digital changes, what approaches we are taking and how the organisation is responding.

Despite my personal discomfort in looking at and listening to myself, you might find some useful ideas therein. It went something like this:

Defining digital or what it isn’t. Not easy…



First an admission. Around 18 months ago I was tasked by my boss to offer a smart and easy answer to the question “what do we mean by digital”? The question was asked in the context of creating a digital learning service. I admit that I have, as yet, not completed this task. This is not because I have not tried, I just haven’t quite offered a satisfactory answer. In my defence, I think this is because the D word is used as shorthand for many different priorities, possibilities, technologies and tools. It is tactical and strategic by a simple turn of phrase.

Here is one example of the beguiling nature of what digital can offer. It is in answer to what General Electric now sell to their customers:

They’re essentially selling what customers want—which is speed, time, and performance, rather than just buying a thing, a jet engine.

I now see that I am in good company in struggling to land the digital fish to the shore. These, highly qualified, folks from McKinsey have failed to offer a pithy response as well. There are some really nice ideas and examples in the article if your boots are high enough to wade through the buzzwords and business speak. One advantage consultants have in this arena is experience across many sectors and contexts. They reflect on the new imperatives for customer communications and channels, the new business value that can be created (new products and services for new needs and to scratch new digital itches) and fundamentally new ways of organising, working and producing.

There is a lot a stake here and some big bets to place in managing digital changes. I wonder though whether trying to define digital is the right challenge to chose. Perhaps we should focus on distilling the organisation and business challenges into one succinct phrase without mentioning technology and digital at all. That detail can come in when we describe the strategy and steps in response. So, defining a digital learning service, perhaps, should focus on useful relevant sources of support, expertise and experience to immediately meet the needs of a connected workforce.

Or something like that. Digitally too. Of course.

The Bunker (Another brief thought from Learning Technologies 2016)

Last week, I posted about Slack and the possibilities it offers for learning to be brought into the flow of work via one of the most useful tools of work. To be clear, this was not about Slack as learning system but as a work tool that, naturally, supports the ways we learn as we work. Learning in the work rather than learning at the place, or during the time, of work.

I also mentioned last week that Learning Technologies had a familiar ring to it for me. This familiarity was born, I think, from the training industry interpretation of what “learning technology” means. It seems to refer to the set of technologies that manage the administration, production and tracking (not measurement) of training and development activity. At its most reductive, it is the set of technologies that Learning and Development (training) departments purchase. (This is not the same list of exhibitors that would have been at a “Technologies That People Use to Learn” event).

That purchaser point of view prevails and tends to dominate what is seen as valuable. ROI is calibrated against the usage of these systems and the completion of the things in them. It often reduces to efficiency scores as a result, cost per x unit of completion. The more the systems can manage for the customer, the better that efficiency score will look. So the training/L&D provider has an incentive to use one (or as few systems as possible) to deliver their offer. Couple this with the apparent simplicity of dealing with as few suppliers as possible, or at least, with suppliers that integrate and the impetus to use a single mechanism becomes very powerful. Personally, I think we need to be very wary of the one stop shop that offers all the tools we needs. This is where the LMS purveyors are placing themselves and I believe it is an error. It makes business sense to offer customers the broadest range of ‘solutions’ but the customer logic and the user logic do not meet as elegantly as the brochures suggest. There should be more than one to avoid being lock into the provider view.

If we want to learn in the work we will struggle to achieve that via these monolithic systems and the ecosystem orbiting them. They are learning (training) systems, rarely the tools of work. Bear with me while I explore a modest metaphor…These systems are like bunkers in a landscape, or an Anderson shelter in a garden, designed to solve a problem of the past but with deep foundations, so expensive and messy to remove. We can chose to develop the bunker and offer a more well appointed one. We can decorate it with portals and deal with the damp and darker corners. Whatever we do, we are unlikely to create a chosen destination or a place people want to spend time. All the decor in the world cannot deal with the isolation, the quiet and the dark. It is a lonely place. Most of the bunkers are well guarded too and removing what valuable trinkets we find in them is more work than most of us are prepared to undertake. Bunkers are designed for those who make and buy bunkers not for garden dwellers.

There are many other experiences out there in that landscape though, beyond the bunkers. With care and attention we can craft an environment of social spaces, interesting sites and zones, play areas and places to relax and ponder. A more welcoming product of curious husbandry and constant tending for any visitors to spend time with. There will probably be a bunker in there too somewhere, but with careful landscaping it may not look so bad.



What no Slack? A (brief) thought from Learning Technologies 2016

As many thousands of us are, I am pondering what I made of Learning Technologies 2016. Aside from the fact that it was great to meet some excellent people and have some great conversations, I was struck by two things: size and familiarity. The exhibition was bigger yet again than the previous year. The stands seemed grander and the sheen was brighter. It was also, perhaps, quite familiar. There was a lot of formal learning on show – management systems, a bewildering array of formats to populate them and tools to empower their users with social, analytics and engagement (that was the word of the show for me). 70:20:10 was everywhere too, and somehow, integrated in those systems.

I thought I could discern a difference in the pitch of these offers from learning in the work place and learning in the work. The mechanisms and tools outlined above are for the workplace. They are for me as a working learner (if there is a difference from any other kind of learner). Perhaps for learning in work time if mobile. They are learning tools and are at a distance from the activity of work. It may well be that my scanning of the show was too superficial and I missed the offers that help me to learn with my work. In my work tools.

One of the most interesting discussions, in a corridor of course, I was part of was around the idea of creating learning content for distribution. So, rather then herding learners to a portal (boy, I dislike that word) or perhaps, in addition to that, we should produce content for placement and pulling into work tools. This is closer to the way news publishers are approaching social tools, writing stories for the ecosystem of social finding and consuming as well as for the news destination. News consumers spend more time in social products than anywhere else and anticipate finding relevant stories there. So, publishers are targeting those spaces with appropriate content.

The communication and collaboration tool Slack looks like it could develop in this direction, if it hasn’t already. I think it is a really interesting indication of how things may start to change for team members. It is a simple tool, with elegant UI and built around messaging (everyone’s favourite communication mode). It also supports sharing of content and material simply and quickly – images, video, audio etc. – and naturally offers the ability to comment and discuss. Users can easily invite each other to groups and channels and to private or invitation only IM chat groups. It is an obvious place to inject learning comments and content amongst the content of the work at hand. This gives it a huge relevance advantage. It’s inherently social too as we are all becoming.

It is not a silver bullet but…it’s free to use, unless you want the analytics and integration power of the commercial product. Free to try anyway. Worth a try too.