Digital or hide! (take 2) – technology hiding places in a digital world

[NOTE: This is an updated and revised post from June of last year (2017). Prompted by David James in his recent post about selecting an LMS…or not.]

A couple of things have given me pause in my digital convictions in the last few weeks. As a traveller on the information superhighway in the mid to late 1990s and then a journeyman of the Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 eras (I’m not sure it matters what they mean either), the notion of being digital and getting into digital just seemed obvious. Why wasn’t everyone doing it? There was nowhere to hide. “Digital or die!” we yelled in smug tones. I think the sentiment still stands but it’s not as cut and dried – or rather, I now see that it is not as cut and dried.

The thing is, hiding places from digital seem to be really commonplace. They may be diminishing but there are still plenty around. Some of them offer camouflage and plenty of food drink for a good long while as well. Many folk are still holed up in them. Maybe the call should be “Digital or hide!”.

Being digital or becoming digital is obvious. There really is no excuse. The problem is, doing it properly is really quite hard and involves quite a lot of work for quite a lot of people. It also involves change. Not merely technology change but changes in people, attitudes and beahviour. Hence the hiding. Change is a popular thing to hide from. For a while – until it finds you.

I have referenced this article before and will do so again: “It’s change management. It’s not complicated; it’s just hard.”   It is a great description of the skills, practices and attitudes to genuinely make digital change work well. It describes the different factions in the Obama campaign of 2012 and the hiding places of teams who are convinced of their world view. Everyone had plenty to learn and it was painful at times and valuable all of the time. The ethics of the choices made shoud not cloud the cultural and behavioural changes.

In more recent years, I have been involved with Learning and Development and L&D folk. I have wondered why the industry has changed so little despite the use of so much technology and so much use of the word Digital. My hypothesis (for today at least) is that technology has become a place to hide for L&D in a digital world. The exhibition floor of the Learning Technologies event is dominated by various forms of LMS vendors, content authoring tools and systems and eLearning content suppliers. At the risk of sweeping generalisation, these are technological developments to simplify and add efficiency to training. They are technological places in which teams and departments can hide from digital change.

The familiar systems of the L&D world and the neighbours of HR and related enterprise systems, have created and solidified the processes by which organisations work. A digital disruption of those systems entails a disruption of process and roles. A very uncomfortable kind of change.

In the digital world (perhaps in any world) we are not learners, we are workers or doers. This is well summarised in this piece by David James  (him again) surveying the landscape on the 10th anniversary of the iPhone. Learning and Development is stuck (or hiding) in the act of making learning (training content) for digital users who are trying to get things done with a different toolset. Ever increasingly we get those things done with simple personal tools on our hand-held computers. The shape and size of training formats fits poorly with our digital productivity and communications tools. Those formats though are the output of the systems that are woven in to structures and processes of our organisations. A change here is likely to have the look and feel of real disruption. Real disruption is most uncomfortable…back to the hiding…

I will try to swerve a rant by restating the sentiment I opened with. These changes are hard to respond to and pervasive. Whole systems and language are at stake. One possible step we could start to take is to apply some of those simple personal productivity steps to our work. Use the tools we know and love as users and apply them as workers. Not to make learning but to help people with their working problems. This might be some content, pointing to content, connecting people, offering safe spaces to experiment.

This opens the possibility of Two-Speed IT. On balance, I welcome the two speed approach if the one speed model has too few gears to sufficiently speed up. Two Speed IT gives an organisation the familiarity and reduced risk of running legacy systems whilst deliberately experimenting and piloting swifter digital tools. There are resource, investment and communication complexities here but it is better than waiting for vendors to roll out upgrades at their own pace. It also helps us learn more quickly – a hallmark of digital ways of working.

There are many, many possibilities, of course. All are worthy of consideration.

Firstly, however, we need to seriously ask if we are hiding behind something.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Making a start on digitalness Part 2 – digital culture

My loyal readers (perhaps both of you) will recall my threat to prepare a series of posts on the theme of becoming more digital in your work and organisation. The first post on digital behaviours received enough of a response to warrant the second in the series (i.e. there were no real insults and some modest applause, for which I am very grateful). So I am making good on my threat.

This second post will concentrate on digital culture. This is a laden and wobbly phrase in itself and needs some definition to be more useful. By ‘digital culture’, I mean the expectations, values and principles of the people and teams involved in making digital things. This does have a vital relationship to the broader definition of digital experiences in society, politics, media, the arts, education and other areas of society. The fundamental impact of digital change on how we all work is caused by our experiences as users of digital products and services. We bring the possibilities of making, communicating, collaborating, buying and selling as digital consumers into our working lives (or we try to) and inevitably our working life starts to change.

The pace of that change is set by organisations and teams that have actively embraced digital ways of working, consciously and unconsciously. They get valuable stuff done so much more quickly than any traditional form of organisation. In culture terms they look, sound and feel different as well. Different things are afforded importance and priorities look different too. This is the territory of this post.

None of this is to say that there are not problems with digital working culture. Many of us will recognize the fervour of the agile zealot and their liberal sprinkling of an arcane and alienating barrage of jargon. (Agile has reached such a level of maturity that it has become professionalised with the ring of accountancy and law in its education and specialist language). Like any evangelical fundamentalism, that approach is simply not helpful.

What follows are the elements of the culture of digital working that are most interesting and valuable. These are gathered from my own working experiences and observations – this is not a workplace survey. They overlap with behaviours a fair bit, of course.   These cultural imprints are signals of healthy and productive ways of working.

In no ranked order, a digital team will:

  • Put user needs and motivations above other concerns in their designing and making. A hallmark of many digital businesses is an argument between a product team and a sales team about protecting user experience from commercial imperatives. (A note for Enterprise Software vendors – customers and end users are not motivated by the same things).
  • Seek evidence in decision making and feel discomfort in a lack of evidence. Some digital teams will refuse to decide until data is available, insisting on testing to see. Great discomfort is felt in lack of evidence and acting without it is rash and risky. Judgement is important and well used, it is also honed and sharpened by the evidence of testing. (This is an excellent trait and to be applauded).
  • Have a focus on evidence and demonstrable evidence encourages honesty. This is not to say that digital fibs are never told. It is to say that evidence of the effectiveness of decisions tends to offer fewer hiding places and encourages a conversation about observed data rather than opinion and hope.
  • Be empowered and will probably expect empowerment. This is most likely to take the form of being to be able to run and manage a product or project with a good degree of latitude. Command and control is an unlikely success in a digital environment – those horror stories of managers signing-off social media posts is not fiction. It is not culturally digital either.
  • A digital culture will tend to be open – or tend towards openness, at least
    • Information is shared freely. Digital teams will often invest effort in tools to make information easily and readily available. It is not a surprise that the Wiki, Github and blogs were born of early stage digital activity.
    • Access to information is therefore expected by the workforce or by project team members – if a decision is taken, it should probably be available somewhere to been found and referenced
    • Expectations of sharing are prevalent – this is one of the reasons Slack has been successful. It allows the meeting of that expectation to happen in quick, simple manner when it is at its most useful
    • Product performance is open too: many digital teams will be located with a  screen in their eye line showing a live monitoring of a crucial metric for all to see. Everyone will know how things are going – what kind of a difference my effort is making.
  • This is important as it is relevant to a culture of accountability. A digital teams empowerment to take decisions is married to an accountability to deliver results. As an organisation matures, the metrics describing those results will become more discerning and probably more accurate. Digital businesses are data driven so, metrics are well thought through and will focus team effort.
  • An accountable team tends to be urgent and oriented to action. This is in part due to the goals being clearly set. I believe there is more than that alone. A good digital team, although not unique to the digital sphere, wants to have work to show for their efforts. They want to make something for their users to appreciate. Hence the focus on “shipping product”.
  • Another lens on urgency is a desire to act at speed. For many digital teams being slow (or feeling slow) is by nature a poor quality output.
    • “Good enough is great” is a well known rallying cry of the urgent. To be clear, this does not open the door to a compromise on quality. It centres on the idea that good enough for the user (by their definition) and in their browser to use is better than delayed polish. (I wholeheartedly agree with this – the L&D world has work to do).
  • Digital teams have a strong learning culture – perhaps the strongest. Coupled with the urgency to make and ship is the urgency to always improve what is shipped and how it is made. Hence the desire to learn.
    • Review and improve is an expectation of digital workplaces. The sprint retrospective has enshrined this in the flow of agile work. The team will know when things are working poorly and equally know that there is a regular and frequent opportunity to understand that and make changes. The result of the retrospective then becomes the plan for the next phase.
    • Test and improve equally drives the product focus. The question: “How well is our product/content/experience working?” is always ringing in the air. The reflex to seek evidence then creates user tests to gather that evidence and measure progress as changes are made. (Typing this out really does make it seem so obvious – it is quite strange that we don’t all do it all of the time).
    • Each one teach one. I am not aware of a profession that is as dedicated to the development of skills and knowledge as the world of software development. It is a very progressive approach to raising the tide of skills for all. (In quite stark contrast to cultural failings in other respects).  Stack Overflow is probably the greatest testament to this culture. It is a heavily relied on resource to help developers and related digital professionals move through problems, seek advice, request and gain instruction. The best contributions are voted up and the best advice rises to the top. There is much to learn for all of us from this model.
    • This learning culture does not rely on learning specialists, it is part of the fabric of the culture. Training courses are available and the excellent Pluralsight has become a fixture – I don’t sense that they are the foundation though.
  • All these cultural elements need a certain flavour of leadership to thrive. This also tends to be different from the traditional. It is:
    • Present and active – communication is frequent and easy to access. Social tools are used more readily and (hopefully) without the antiseptic filter of the internal comms group
    • All that empowerment and accountability is facilitated by an atmosphere of trust from leaders and managers who have clearly set expectations
    • I hesitate to the authentic word but there is a clear thread of personal and direct communication styles in digital leaders. Just as consumers have a sensitive nose for nonsense in the public sphere, employees can spot a line being spun from a great distance
    • Digital leadership needs to be simple, clear and focused – like a good product

Reflecting on the above points, I think there is much to learn for corporate functions here. A great deal of lip service can be paid to these cultural elements and little real progress is made. It is easy enough to find digital teams in our organisations or in supplier businesses and partners to spend a little time with them and see how they operate. The point about learning culture is worthy of focus.

Having spent some time in an amongst the L&D world, I believe there is much to learn here. Also much to test and improve, of course.

So, next will be, at some point, a post about digital organisation I think. Worthy of further word count?

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?

Digital or hide! – technology hiding places in a digital world

A couple of things have given me pause in my digital convictions in the last few weeks. As a traveller on the information superhighway in the mid to late 1990s and then a journeyman of the Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 eras (I’m not sure it matters what they mean either), the notion of being digital and getting into digital just seemed obvious. Why wasn’t everyone doing it? There was nowhere to hide. “Digital or die!” we yelled in smug tones. I think the sentiment still stands but it’s not as cut and dried – or rather, I now see that it is not as cut and dried.

The thing is, hiding places from digital seem to be really commonplace. They may be diminishing but there are still plenty around. Some of them offer camouflage and plenty of food drink for a good long while as well. Many folk are still holed up in them. Maybe the call should be “Digital or hide!”.

Being digital or becoming digital is obvious. There really is no excuse. The problem is, doing it properly is really quite hard and involves quite a lot of work for quite a lot of people. It also involves change. Hence the hiding. Change is a great thing to hide from. For a while.

I have referenced this article before and will do so again: “It’s change management. It’s not complicated; it’s just hard.”   It is a great description of the skills, practices and attitudes to genuinely make digital change work well. It describes the different factions in the Obama campaign of 2012 and the hiding places of teams who are convinced of their world view. Everyone had plenty to learn and it was painful at times and valuable all of the time.

In more recent years, I have been involved with Learning and Development and L&D folk. I have wondered why the industry has changed so little despite the use of so much technology and so much use of the word Digital. My hypothesis (for today at least) is that technology has become a place to hide for L&D in a digital world. The exhibition floor of the Learning Technologies event is dominated by various forms of LMS vendors, content authoring tools and systems and eLearning content suppliers. At the risk of sweeping generalisation, these are technological developments to simplify and add efficiency to training. They are technological places in which teams and departments can hide from digital change.

In the digital world (perhaps in any world) we are not learners, we are workers or doers. This is well summarised in this piece by David James surveying the landscape on the 10th anniversary of the iPhone. Learning and Development is stuck (or hiding) in the act of making learning for digital users who are trying to get things done. Ever increasingly we get those things done with simple personal tools on our hand-held computers.

I will try to swerve a rant by restating the sentiment I opened with. These changes are hard to respond to and pervasive. Whole systems and language are at stake. One possible step we could start to take is to apply some of those simple personal productivity steps to our work. Use the tools we know and love as users and apply them as workers. Not to make learning but to help people with their working problems. This might be some content, pointing to content, connecting people, offering safe spaces to experiment. There are many, many possibilities, of course. All are worthy of consideration.

Firstly, however, we need to seriously ask if we are hiding behind something.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Learning on the web – Can it be as simple as that?

I was reminded of one of my early exchanges of views on arrival in the BBC this week. I was curious about the deliberation of the commissioning process and about the edifice that was being created under the learning banner. Coming, as I had, from the rapid fire and restless world of search, this all seemed like a lot of trouble and effort. Having “had my ass handed to me” (as my indelicate US colleagues would say) by Google for seven years, left an impression. An impression of simplicity, function over form, relevance and speed.

There isn’t much, if anything. you can’t learn from a combination of Google, Wikipedia and YouTube.

My recollection is of saying something like “there isn’t much, if anything, you can’t learn from a combination of Google, Wikipedia and YouTube”. I had not been around for long and was struck by how quiet the room had become. In my prior life (as in my current one) this would have been heard as another remark along the lines of “Is there nothing that Google can’t win at?”. That was not the thrust of my point. I was trying to open the idea that an edifice for learning was already there. The curation problem had been solved (in the late 1990s). The content production system was built. Why all the effort to replicate this within the corporation. Not just that corporation, but any corporation.

I remembered this exchange on Thursday over lunch and then later over tea (yes, I took tea and will do so again). Both conversations were about the corporate learning world being trapped in a mode of planning and production. A world that focuses on creating and recreating infrastructure that is better made in the open to publish content that is already there, in the open. And to publish it into a Portal – a digital product format that lost currency around the turn of the century.

I know that security is a major concern for many. Not all sectors are liberal enough to exploit these, now historic, changes. Not everyone is allowed YouTube at work. That will change and we need to help make it change. The temptation to hide behind policy is powerful – it is warm and dry there. I doubt for too long, though. The revolutionary change in learner behaviour came from the outside and the change in providers to corporates will come form the outside too. I suspect new customers with different budgets will open the doors for them. 

 

 

Unbundling records and tin cans and such

Prompted by an email form Karen Moran, I had a return to the idea of the LMS as the only place where learning records are held. That message also sparked a thought about the unbundling theme I posted about recently. The idea that all learning activity is stored in a learning management system seems increasingly old fashioned, if not bizarre. All training activity – yes I can see that. Even, all consumption of the content offered via an L&D team makes some sense in that regard. I can’t see an LMS as a useful record of all learning, however.

Whilst it is tempting to ride “the LMS is dying” hobby-horse, I will refrain. I am a supporter but the horse needs little help these days. The question of what comes next may be more rewarding. The Learning Record Store seems like a sensible answer, allowing the LMS to become more flexible and therefore more relevant. The idea that leaning for work can be more than the courses laid on by your employer needs little selling. Where the line is drawn beyond those courses is quite interesting though.

What other content and experience is relevant in the organisation? Who decides and how does that decision manifest itself to those with the records? It’s possible that a team or department can set their benchmarks of useful learning. That kind of decentralisation makes sense as it emphasises local relevance and context. The right seminar or book can make a lot of sense locally, when the global context it to vague too detect. More power to the learner in defining relevant career learning should be supported too. As our digital identities become so much more important, more say in their creation is vital.

One line that needs to be crossed is the organisational boundary. I would like my learning record to be mine. Mine to keep and take with me. Perhaps my employer and I can share it or own parts of it mutually but I want to keep the whole record. It is about my learning after all. In our freelance, fluctuating world of portfolio work, the idea that my learning is locked aw2ay in a corporate LMS is, a the very least, highly inconvenient. I would like to take it with me.

I think LinkedIn understand this point well. A Lynda.com record as part of your LinkedIn profile could be very helpful in establishing value on the job market. Combine that with (the once derided) endorsements, recommendations and connections and a more rounded and helpful profile starts to emerge. A wide range of content and experience could really start to flesh out a strong profile. And it would be mine.

How far should that go though? What can sensibly be included in a learning record and how might it be validated? This is trickier territory. Populating a profile with every YouTube “How To…” video I have watched may demonstrate my curiosity.  It might well do little else though. And all the blogs I read…And all the podcasts. If the narrow currency of training courses is not sufficient, a new currency needs to be arrived at to replace it that is not a free for all.

Perhaps this is where networks and connections come in handy. A communal or networked view of relevance and usefulness when it cones to learning might be a useful way of extending what is worth sharing in a record of experience. Like an open source CV with badges and links. LinkedIn are definitely onto this one. Not an open one though, I doubt.

 

 

 

 

 

Unbundle training and what is left for L&D?

Recently, I posted on the theme of unbundling. I threatened at that point to return to the theme. This post makes good on that threat.

Having considered open access to ‘bundled learning’ in the form of a MOOC – or open access to formal learning – I would like to pick at the idea of unbundling training. In order to get under way, I should probably establish some definitions. I consider training to be formal. In my world view, training means courses. This might have a ring of judgement to it but that would be misleading. This is intended to be descriptive. Training courses and formal learning are valuable and important. As the world returns to the idea of blended learning as an obvious step, formality is inherently part of any blend we design.

I do, however, have a problem with trainers who, reflexively, reduce learning to courses. The Learning=Training=Course equation boils so much of the goodness out the opportunities we have to learn. This is the central cultural challenge of the L&D profession. A professional service which grew strong on a diet of courses and the related menu items of the LMS, TNA, evaluation forms etc., is struggling to find a relevant role in a increasingly disrupted and user driven working world. The course bundle is weighty, inflexible and slow in 2016.

As informed and savvy consumers of learning, we are quick to become frustrated at the eLearning course bundle. We can detect the relevance and usefulness of the content in there (once we have identified the right bundle in the bundle management system) but we can’t easily get at it or extract it or use it in a different way. I suspect we have all suffered low moments of concentration in a classroom too, where we need to sit through sections of a course that are less relevant or helpful to us (graveyard slot anyone?). Having booked for the whole bundle, this is our lot.

Bundles tend to favour the bundler and their mode of production, distribution and planning. Many L&D services operate in modes of the training supplier and are disposed to, if not locked in to, course offerings. Bundles are also a product of a world where scarcity and control of distribution are in place. The combination of Google, Wikipedia and YouTube have rather torn down the edifice of controlled access to knowledge and information, perhaps also to skills learning. It now seems bizarre to lock knowledge into a course (unless you are an anxious trainer fearing for the future; the black cab driver of learning to the Uber threat of open access learning). Newer learning technology services are alive to this shift in dynamics – Looop, Tessello and Noddlepod are useful examples to consider – and are supporting the easy production and distribution of knowledge and expertise. They are helping to unbundle the value of the service and allow direct distribution of learning value to the learner.  More power to them I say. Quicker, simpler and cheaper. Easier to measure too.

There is a less comfortable consequence to this liberal unbundling, however. The legacy services that have made their living from the old ways are hit beneath the waterline as their offer is disaggregated and access is opened. A real challenge to training services has been laid down. It is quite easy for departments in an organisation to teach and train themselves by capturing their experience and expertise and open it up for access to their workers directly. A good tool will support them in monitoring the effectiveness of this too. Retreating to familiar ground and raising the drawbridge will not be a useful response for long I fear.