Think before you make. There is plenty of stuff already…

I stumbled across this quote whilst listening to a podcast a couple of weeks ago. It is a great turn of phrase and has did not quite leave my mind, where I have been turning it over since.

“Never do for others what they can do for themselves”

Saul Alinsky

I had not heard of Saul Alinsky before. He was a radical of the twentieth century. A leading thinker and practitioner of community organising. He was, it seems, someone who focused in a dedicated fashion on effecting social change. His thrust, as I understand it, is that freedom and sustained change was best enabled where communities are able to resource their own betterment. Acts of charity may feel good but they do not necessarily create the circumstances for sustained change.

My own reflections on the his words are more quotidian. It made me think about making digital content and when and why we might do so. (No mentions in despatches for me).

In the domain of online content, “doing something for ourselves” usually equates to finding something on Google. This is the competition we have for publishing information. Or rather, this is what our content can be substituted with when we make it.

This is a tough challenge as many of us feel, rightly or wrongly, that making stuff is our job. It is a tempting assumption: making something is a ready hallmark of productive effort. We can point at what we have made and measure it.

Making content is also beguiling. (Here I am doing it right now). This is the primary reason why there is so much crap around. Conversely, it is also the reason why there is so much useful stuff around. Google is ever so good at spotting those items and using it is now our reflex. So, as custodians of a good content experience what can we do to avoid adding to the ocean of content already surrounding us all?

Here are some questions to ask before you make something:

  • Does a good enough version already exist on the web?
    • By “good enough” I mean for a user rather than your stakeholders
  • Does that version work for your audience?
    • Find out – don’t just assume
  • If an accessible version exists, can you make a better version? (By better I mean more useful for your audience, not more engaging).
  • Can you make a better version than someone else can make?
  • Or, do you know an expert who can make one – or who you can help make one?
  • Can it be easily found? Or…can you make it easier to find?
  • If there is a good enough version already available, how can you help to make that more discoverable and searchable?
    • Can you add context to that for your users?

Some questions to ask if you are absolutely sure you need to make something:

  • Do you have somewhere useful to put your thing when made? i.e. somewhere discoverable, searchable and browseable*?
  • Is it clear what it is for and why it is there?
    • Can your users find out where it is from and who made it?
    • Can they easily see how old it is?
  • Does the user need to be led through or have something explained or can they figure it out for themselves? (This is an important one – it is very easy to underestimate audience intelligence. Stakeholders and subject matter experts do it all the time).
  • How will your users let you know what they think of what you have made?
  • Can you measure what happens when you publish it?
  • Can they share it?

I would suggest you hold off on making something if you are not confident in the answers to these points. Easy to say and hard to do, I know. But in may experience, these are ueful tests.

* Not sure this is a real word but it seems OK to invent it for this purpose? That is my contribution to the ocean.

Does it matter to L&D that barriers to learning are so low?

Editors note: I arrived back at my blog, after a too-long pause in writing, to find this title saved as a draft. I cannot recall what I intended to write before I abandoned the headline. I do like the ring of it though and have had a go below. Let me know if you think it was worth the effort.

As minds turn towards the Learning Technologies Summer Forum I have noticed the theme of what the learning profession is for is still in fashion.

Sukh Pabial posted on the theme only this week. As a thorough and open-minded thinker, he did not call his position on learning versus (or with?) performance consulting. More consideration required – always a sound judgement. Performance consulting is a great ambition but…can the profession authentically claim that territory? It’s certainly quite a change of pace and direction. David James, his interlocutor, was more positive in that direction suggesting that L&D needs to claim the territory to prove relevance and value beyond training design and delivery. I, rather unhelpfully, think I agree with both of them.

Performance consulting might be the best direction to head in. If so, a lot of change is required. Consulting, in many guises, does not require making anything. Most often, it requires asking good questions and teasing out useful responses. L&D makes stuff as a reflex – sometimes with the questions, sometimes without. Courses, eLearning and content are the go to solutions of the training game. There may be a long journey to go on to earn that consultant mantle.

To be fair to David, his position is that L&D (and any other function) needs to focus on helping to solve the problems of the workplace. This may or may not require learning. “Reducing friction” is his desired result. This will help people (not necessarily learners) get to their goal with as little unnecessary effort as possible.

I wonder though whether this is the most pressing challenge for the profession. What it is called is an attractive side-show. It’s purpose and value are central, however.

The barriers to learning have fallen away…

The central challenge for L&D as a function in the digital age is that anyone can now do it. It seems to be very easy for learners to satisfy their learning needs without help and support of an L&D professional. The combination of Google, YouTube, Wikipedia, LinkedIn and Twitter make for an excellent tutorial environment for many many needs. It is also increasingly easy for intermediaries to take the place of the L&D function with no professional background and heritage. The mighty and impressive Stack Exchange is an excellent example, providing direct access to qualified and recommended expertise and experience for developers. It has grown into an indispensable tool worldwide. Not an L&D manager in sight.

Sunlight is a slightly different take on a similar outcome. A relatively fresh start-up, it claims to facilitate access to “any course, book or event in the world”. In a well managed product package, with a pre-set budget allocation for users, a trusting workplace can step away from allocating and assigning learning and let the business, its managers and teams decide what and how to learn. It focuses more clearly on user choice than a traditional learning system might.

Similarly, a motivated and moderately aware subject matter expert can be found and asked for advice. Some of the most valuable will create and publish their advice freely and openly. The now hackneyed examples of the YouTube “How to…” videos are commonplace: boiler maintenance/make up/gardening/guitar playing etc. etc. . Some of them are great. Some should not be allowed out of the house. But the platform helps raise the best closer to the top with useful signals of relevance and popularity.

Clearly, these tools can be facilitated and guided by L&D folks as part of the services and tools the consultation recommends. The point is that this is no longer a necessity. As with so many industries and professions, L&D is being disintermediated  in the digital world. The value of the learning professional is in the expert facilitation of access to expertise and experience. Direct access at the moment of need makes that value harder to demonstrate.

As L&D folks we need to be very clear about the extra value we are adding to those, enormously successful and popular, self-help learning products. (My own dealing with SMEs suggests that they do, often need help in editing advice out. Their enthusiasm often overcomes the need to delete some of their advice before pressing ‘send’). There needs to be a clear role that the user or the expert is not fulfilling on their own. I suspect that the value is best found supporting the extraction and distribution of expertise in a way that users find most helpful. Then getting out of their way.

A value to L&D is often ascribed from the curation of the best content on offer to save learners time. This does make some sense – choices can be hard to make amongst a genuine array of options. That curation needs to stand up to comparison with good search, however (and yes that means Google). There is a role for flagging official and sanctioned content in the corporate context. That might take some experience and organisational knowledge to achieve, It also needs official approval. I wonder if the skills of the librarian and editor are helpful here as well – curation is not the sole province of L&D.

Barriers to learning are so low now:

  • Platform barriers are only a matter of time and effort – WordPress, YouTube, Facebook Workplace, LinkedIn etc. are available for many requirements
  • Content development is a falling barrier and has been largely removed (WordPress again and H5P etc.) unless you are unfortunate enough to require SCORM compliance to hide content in an LMS.
  • Audience access is available more readily – it is always hard-earned however
  • Cost of production continues to fall and production values are not always the barrier they used to be.
  • Content supply is no longer a challenge as discussed above – content organisation is certainly needed but that is not the sole province of L&D and other publishing sectors set the standard in this respect.
  • Connection with individuals and groups is enabled via social media (although some horrible business practices have eroded trust and greater care needs to be taken in those waters). Actually, good old email has a useful role to play here too.

All of this has a rather negative ring to it on reading it back before I press publish. That is not my intent. This post is born more from curiosity in trying to answer the question I found earlier. Everyone is trying to do a good job. Furthermore, one of the greatest features of the L&D world is that everyone is trying to help people realise their potential and make personal progress. Few professions can claim that territory so readily.

Maybe this is a useful, analogous way of thinking about the issue. If you were an investor (a VC perhaps), looking at the ease of learning stuff and offering learning without specialist help, would you invest in an L&D service versus a digitally enabled self-help service? An investor would look for signals of sustainable value and for evidence of a long term return. Investors don’t typically back the traditional intermediaries unless they have found a new role to play in the value chain.

That feels like the role to try to play.