Making a start on digitalness – digital behaviours are simple but hard

Slightly warily, I am considering a series of posts on one theme. The theme is ‘making a start on digitalness’. I am wary because I have started this kind of project before and lost momentum. I am considering another attempt for this topic. In drafting this idea as one post I became lost in notes and paragraphs and my thread became entangled. I think it is too complex for one piece. So. This might become a series.

The idea is borne from a growing sense that many teams and their leaders are peering over the garden fence at their neighbours and gazing in envy at their digitalness. In the learning world, this gaze is often directed further afield to more distant neighbourhoods. Nearby locales are more familiar and inspire less of this longing. This envy is not about technology.  I don’t see much coveting of our neighbours kit – we all have access to the technology and tools we (think we) need. It’s more of an admiration of the lifestyle.

Like anything valuable, making a start on being digital is hard and will require constant effort. I am taking it for granted that ‘being or becoming digital’ is desirable. It is possible not to try it. That route will guarantee irrelevance at some point, however. (I refer you to the inevitable YouTube “How to  do something or other” video which you did not make but everyone prefers to what you did make). So why not make a start?

If this does become a series, it will cover organising for digitalness, the culture of digitalness, working digitally and digital behaviours. This post is about the last one: behaviours. (Yes. These themes overlap – hence the entanglement).

It is also focused on making a start on digitalness not on an end state. This is because, in my experience, digital teams and organisations don’t fix at a certain point. Something happens, mainly to users, that requires a response. By definition, something has changed. This is one of the reasons why it is hard work. Like all the best jobs, it does not freeze in form and repeat.

Here are some hallmark behaviours that I believe a digital team and the members of a digital team will exhibit. These are the behaviours I would start and practice.

A digital team will:

  • Aways seek the user need – answer the “what’s in it for me?” question (the me being the user)
  • Always seek and meet the user to find the user need – there is no substitute for direct knowledge
  • Have a clear user focus – stakeholders are not front of the queue
  • Have a good sense of the business needs (stakeholders are important but not front of the queue)
  • Get something in front of users quickly (until the user has experienced it, there is no reliable way of judging whether it is any good or not)
  • Not wait for the finished article (until the user has experienced it, there is no reliable way of judging whether it is finished or not)
  • Focus on producing the minimum product /service/content from which they can learn about genuine user response (until the user has experienced it, there is no way of judging whether it is enough or not)
  • Seek data data to understand user behavior – don’t move unless you can measure (not ‘track’ – that is something else)
  • Observe – see what happens when you do move
  • Respond quickly to observations – change what you did last time and
  • Observe again…
  • Learn and want to learn – the data and the testing are all focused on improved understanding and then on an improved outcome
  • Reflect on experience – digital teams (agile teams in particular through the sprint retrospective) will find time to discuss and assess recent performance
  • Communicate frequently and directly throughout their work – Slack is a favourite of digital professionals for this reason
  • Share information routinely and openly – Slack is a favourite of digital professionals for this reason
  • Organise themselves quickly to focus on goals – the daily stand up is one of the rituals to set next steps and share recent activity
  • Seek expertise to solve a problem (and share the result) – Stack Overflow is a towering monument to this behaviour

One interesting observation as I scratched out that list: digital teams are learning teams (this is an element of the culture of digitalness which will form the heart of another post is this possible series). The focus on improvement requires equal attention to what has and has not worked, adjusting for both outcomes. Progress is made through this learning.

All of these behaviours signal organisational traits, ways of working and cultural patterns. To be properly embedded, they need those other factors to be in place too. To be true to the title, however, I think we can all start with these behaviours, individually and collectively, try them and make progress towards more effective digital working. The role of the Product Manager – the missing link in developing helpful learning technologies – is an excellent mechanism for gaining and sustaining momentum with these changes in any team.

As with all these successful digital endeavours – these things are simple but hard.

[Worthy of another post in the series?].



Learning should not be about learners really – they are too hard to find

These musing follow those shared shortly after the Learning Technologies conference and some of the comments received, which have nudged my thinking along. This post will wander around the theme of learning technologies and their contents being separated from the activity of work. (It is possible that this post will strike a grumpy demeanour. I hope this is not the case. I am confused, yet happy).

Find things out and get things done

A problem with learning and development is that everyone focuses on learners and learning. A noble and worthy aim, yet…I’m not sure I have met a learner. I have met freelancers, delegates, workers, colleagues, employees, suppliers and customers. (All of whom are users, incidentally). None of these people have identified themselves as learners. None of them have expressed a learning need, or more weirdly still, a training need. They have, in my experience, expressed information needs, goals, problems, frustrations, confusions, objectives and motivations. Learning may be one of the routes to their destination – it may be the only route – but it’s still not their destination. At its simplest, their needs are to “find things out and get things done”. Learning is our destination, not the users.

Because, in Learning and Development, we make learning, we need to find a learning need to satisfy. We then seek technologies for learners to learn with. We seek technologies for learning people to use in that endeavour. We seek technologies which allow us to make and publish content for learning. I don’t think any of these technologies are a first choice, or even a top 10 choice for the users listed above in their average working day. They aren’t even a top 19 tool for learning professionals.

There are two routes I can see. We can persuade, encourage, entice and compel users to visit the traditional L&D destinations – the required marketing skills are in demand here (and not in ready supply?). This is hard and necessary work. Alternatively/additionally, we can place the learning where the work takes place. This is also hard and necessary work and the theme of the invisible LMS is rightly gaining a lot of attention. In this scenario, where the learning coms from is a redundant consideration. It is where and when it is encountered that makes it valuable. Those of us in the L&D world will be liberated from our systems and standards, extracting learning objects from within them and distributing them to the point of need. Those outside the L&D world will carry on publishing content on websites and YouTube and sharing them on Facebook.

Put the learning where the work is. There can be no real objection. Even better, though, put the answers where the work is – leave the L word out of it. The problem for L&D folks is that ‘learning technologies’ have not been where the work takes place. I doubt they ever will be. (An LMS is not really a learning management system, it is a training control system. Not a favoured environment for working). Our habits and impulses are shaped in a certain way and take time and exercise to change.

So, where does the learning go then? I reckon it goes in those tools that we all reflexively use but aren’t for learning. Back to that list of favoured tools (eternal gratitude to Jane Hart). I am tempted to add some others to the mix to cover additional ground for finding things out and getting things done at work:

  • The web browser
  • An Intranet (make nice with those internal comms folks)
  • Search engine (enterprise search if you have the time and budget)
  • Email newsletter (Tiny Letter, maybe)
  • Plain old email is way too far down the list for me
  • PC desktop
  • Wikipedia is not the only Wiki
  • SMS
  • A phone (for phone calls)

Getting the learning to these spots, as well as the other usual suspects, is not easy. Very often learning is made in a shape and size that travels badly to other destinations. New editorial skill are needed to create snappy, relevant and useful content to compete for attention. Find a good digital journalist to help with that one. It is not impossible however. If traditional learning technologies are not helping, there are always the free options of WordPress, You Tube and Facebook.

New options are also stirring the pot and offer some promising potential. I am quite keen on chat bots as a possible delivery mechanism to explore. Donald Clark has commented well on this development. The opportunity to weave learning into a conversation on WhatsApp, Yammer, Slack and Facebook is really interesting and is a surer signal of future value than traditional systems will achieve. The location in the flow of work and the possibility of a conversational interface points to fresh potential and could offer a much more relevant experience.

Is this a good tree up which to bark do you think? Possibly even worthy of a climb?

Learning technologies 2018: Two great days but misnamed?

I have been an attendee of Learning Technologies conferences since, I think, 2010. Maybe 2009. Every year I have enjoyed my time there. Each subsequent event, I have looked forward to.

At the conference, I have always met people I know and like, in whose views I am interested and perspectives I value. Equally, I look forward to new contacts, with fresh ideas and views who I then look forward to meeting again, at the next event. There is a sound combination of reliability, novelty, theory and practice. I suspect that this is not an easy mix to manage (whatever the performance of the plumbing) and the LT team are to be commended on making it work.

My sample of content and conversation may not be representative but I sensed that themes of design were significant in 2018. User focus, test and trial, data focused decision making, content creation and production came up regularly and frequently. I also sensed a good smattering of practical advice on show in presentations. We all love to see how common problems are tackled.

The perennial conversation point was there as well. Actually, it was everywhere. It sounded like this: “Yes. But what do you do with your LMS? How do you make it useful?”. (This relates to points about the exhibition, below). I wonder if this is unique to the L&D world? An industry with a dominant technology platform approach generating so little positive sentiment.

Artificial intelligence struck me as the major technology theme this year (if not last, as well). I predict Blockchain as the new entrant in the buzz stakes next year. If there is still currency value in it, I also predict the echo of the phrase “it’s like Bitcoin for learning” in the exhibition hall.

The exhibition hall is a different experience to me. Pitched against the more rarefied atmosphere of conference proceedings, it has the ring of a Las Vegas casino about it. Air and light are manufactured and the stands reach higher and further in dimensions, colour and sound. There is clearly abundant commercial energy in the market though – the space was bursting at the seams with exhibitors and visitors. There is no shortage of marketing budgets if stand design and size is any indicator. Hence to ExCel next year.

The content of the exhibition and the conference felt divergent as well. Upstairs, we are awed, scared and inspired by the future. Showcases of fresh ideas and methods are shared. Speakers from beyond the boundaries of the industry share unfamiliar stories. Many phones capture lessons from slide shows to take back to the office.

Downstairs, it still feels like my first visit in 2010. To my untrained eye, there were three segments on show: LMS vendors, exhibiting new releases in the arms race of functions and features; content vendors trying to keep up with social/mobile/gamified/virtual developments and content authoring product suppliers trying to do the same. The addition of content aggregators and curators is, arguably, a new segment but risks being sucked into the gravitational force of the LMS sphere.

Learning technologies, or technologies for those who work in Learning and Development, perhaps?

I realise this is a simplification. I did not visit every stand. From a straw poll of fellow attendees, however, it was a well recognised characterisation. So, what’s going on? Jane Hart releases research every year that demonstrates industry professionals make alternative choices when asked which learning tools they prefer. Jane also shared the sentiment on Twitter and started an interesting debate.

The business of selling learning technologies and the needs of learners appear to have diverged. They do not seem to be coming together quickly either. I am no conference organiser but I would consider changing the title of the event along these lines: “Learning Technologies Conference, incorporating the Exhibition for Learning Technology Budget Holders (or maybe Technologies for those who work in Learning and Development)”. The commercial thrust of the industry is towards the procurement of technology solutions for organisations. If I were a sales director, that is exactly where I would point my teams too. The problem is that following the money does not mean following the user value in the application of the technology. The needs of the budget holder and their seniors are not well aligned with the user needs at the coal face.

The commercial structure of the industry places many barriers and layers between the end user and the developer of the technologies (I have posted on this topic before). This is not a problem that consumer tools face, hence their favourite status amongst industry professionals and users alike. We can easily give them a try and evaluate them for ourselves. It is still interests me that our favourite learning tools – Google, Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, Microsoft, YouTube etc. – are absent from the floor space. LinkedIn are now the exception to that list and their learning offer seems well placed to be pulled, though widespread consumer usage, into many customer organisations.

Given the apparent growth of the market, there does not seem to be cause for concern for investors. The challenge might come from the user end, however, with start ups shipping away at chinks in the value chain at low to no cost. Perhaps.