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.



Bundles of training or unbundles of learning

Having started, I think this theme will require more than one post. This should be read as an introduction to the theme. Or maybe a ramble through its foothills.

A little self diagnosis to start. When an idea finds me, or a way of explaining things, I tend to see it everywhere. I am not a practising scientist and there is a real risk that I am suffering from confirmation bias. (If so, I am not alone, I believe). Having shared that reservation, I will do what the all aspiring theorists do and proceed regardless. The theory upon which I currently travel is that of unbundling and the opportunities and value that it seems to present for so many traditional activities and areas of commerce.

What I mean by unbundling, or I think I mean, is the breaking of what seemed to be inextricable bonds and connections in a product or service, allowing a consumer or user to only use the element they wish to. So, rather than buying a whole package of stuff, we are able to only buy or use the parts we want.

An oft quoted example of this is the music industry which rose and rose on the bundle of music tracks called the album, consisting of a series of individual songs which could only be purchased with the each other in a bundle (remember that kids?). That bundle of songs was decided on by the music companies, funded by music labels, produced through advance payments (in the main) and marketed by the companies too. A complex and expensive distribution chain, inextricably linked to the format of consumption (the record or tape) kept a check on the supply of recorded music. Music companies decided what was good, what was to be supported and what was to be produced (that explains the 1980s). The artist took most of the risk. Along comes the internet and the famous Napster moment and the bundle bubble is burst. Immediately, access to only the song we wanted was granted. The album was dealt a extinction level blow.

Technology helps of course: broadband, the MP3 format,  smartphones and WiFi all hastened and shaped the intervening years. Reliable streaming, for example, has made subscription to music services viable and the idea of buying music unit by unit feels old fashioned quite quickly. The music industry is now reorganising (or panicking afresh) around access to recorded music rather than ownership of bundles of it. There are some pretty substantial economic consequences unfolding too. Users of YouTube will recognise the revelation of being able to listen to almost anything you can think of for free. (Except for Prince, who really did take control of his catalogue with the zeal of someone who has seen his neighbours inviting burglars for a sleepover).

Many fields of economic activity are reeling form the impact, or threat, of unbundling. The clearest examples though are what are now known as content businesses; broadcasters are struggling with the irrelevance of TV channels, publishers are struggling with new formats (encyclopaedia anyone?), newspapers struggle with a readership interested in stories not the branded bundles they are wrapped in and, of course, higher education is starting to belatedly awake to the world around it.

This is my theme (at last I hear you cry, if indeed you have read this far). I have been spending professional time in and around the world of higher education in the last month or so. From my previous distance I could not detect the winds of change starting to blow so easily. Different international territories are feeling the draught in different places but there are themes whistling around everywhere. At the centre of all of this is the economic value of a degree and its use a predictor of employment opportunity and effectiveness.

Students are asking “will this degree get me the job or the work I want/need?”. Employers are asking “does this degree offer me a clear signal of value of this candidate as an employee (or supplier of work of some sort)?”. (Students are also, increasingly, asking whether they might be better off going straight to the employment market and perhaps, studying at another point or in another way – £9,000 a year is taking its toll).  Part of the answer to these questions is that the whole degree as a bundle may not be as helpful as once thought but parts of it might be. The higher education experience as a whole three or so year on-campus bundle may not work that well any more. The world it was designed to serve is changing around it fundamentally. There is some great stuff in that bundle but maybe not all in one package. Maybe not all in one go. Maybe not even from one supplying institution. “Pick and mix” degree anyone?

Ryan Craig explains this very well in this article and for those who really like this stuff, in this presentation. The idea of a competence model for education is powerful and really will disrupt the market. Employment-ready graduates are what everyone is after, not least graduates themselves and the current system and its bundles is becoming expensively unhelpful in reaching that destination. As a parent of children with higher education on the horizon, I would like to see some more of this kind of thinking come to life.

MOOC providers are one signal of this kind of disruption, offering access to university faculty and teaching directly and often for free. Perhaps not quite a Napster moment but things are afoot. Interestingly, many MOOC platforms are being used for corporate learning purposes. This strikes me as interesting amongst the trends of the L&D world. MOOCs are pretty clearly formal in their endeavours, constructed as linear and with reasonable clear outcomes given and always instructor lead.  One reading of current L&D tea leaves is that formal is less desired and we should be liberated by social tools, curation and our won content. Not very MOOCy, maybe?

What these platforms can do though is solve a design and platform problem for corporates. The best are well designed services with learner needs at heart. They offer direct access to some of the brightest minds and a cohort of like minded students who have also opted in to the course. They can offer social learning in various fashions and in some cases CPD and academic credit. On face value (and further) that beats many corporate eLearning providers on each score.

Hmm. Might these platforms be a good solution to the need for bundles in corporate learning worlds? There is something in there, I think. Nothing in the technology needs a  MOOC to be open, massive or academic. They could be quite specific and modest in scale –  a bundle of the right size maybe?

Alternatively, openness itself could be interesting for corporates to consider. As the work-life line is blurred, learning a professional subject, Big Data perhaps, alongside an international cohort of like minded learners could be very valuable. The ability to share and learn with students from other businesses, geographies and cultures will offer insights into the topic that an internal training course will not support.

More on Training (with the upper case T) as a bundle that can be helpfully undone in a future post.


HR and L&D: Never the twain shall meet?

This blog was originally published on the HRN Blog in May 2016.

Much has been written and said about the relationship between the disciplines of HR and L&D. Representatives of both sides have shared views on the topic and on the most useful framing of a healthy relationship between the two. Cases have been made for merging the functions together; are they not, after all, sides of the same coin, servicing the needs of the worker/employee/staff/workforce/management/leadership and the organisation? All the easier to plan effectively and view the opportunity as a whole with all that capability and expertise available in one place? Cases have equally been put in defence of specialisation and the value of separation. Proponents of the latter view, I suspect, have a tendency to emphasise the weaknesses and failings of the “other side” as they support the inherent value of their own specialism.

Before I proceed, I should declare my own hand. I see this issue more from the L&D perspective than HR, I believe. Five years at the BBC Academy (which, in that time was both within and without HR) have formed something like a world view. Perhaps more significantly, I spent that five years as the Head of Digital for the Academy. During that time my teams and I spent our time selling the benefits of designing for user experience and focusing on the user needs of the learners we were in service of. Very often, we were engaged in some form of disagreement, more or less vigorous, with owners of processes, systems and policy (none of these three are very beneficial to user experience in my view). Very often, the representatives of those entrenched views were from both L&D and HR camps. We were proposing a change to the established way and neither camp felt entirely comfortable about that change. It is that perspective, rather than tribal differences, that I think might be helpful in a view of the challenge of a whole view.

Now living on the outside of corporate life I have a slightly different perspective. In the last two weeks I have chaired discussions at (HR) industry events on the use of technology in learning and on the rise of the digital workforce. The participants in these discussions were senior managers and often senior leaders from HR and L&D teams in a wide variety of organisations. By its nature, the position of the chair is neutral which helped me see the problem afresh. In each discussion I was trying to thread the idea of user experience and meeting user needs through the debate. We all need to try and offer tools and content to employees that behave in the way we expect good digital tools to behave in our everyday lives. Very few corporate systems and services achieve this goal. It is a simple point that was swiftly grasped by smart and experienced people at both events.

But, where to start and how to make it work? That was the real challenge that resonated with all around both tables. In both discussions and from both L&D and HR leaders, the challenge of dealing with conservative naysayers was painfully described. One HR leader described his traditional learning technologies team protesting at the use of social tools because the LMS did not support them and they could not be tracked. The project ground to a halt. Equally, another L&D manager bemoaned a reactionary HR view which stated that social learning platforms do not fit the current policy for corporate social media. That point and anxiety about a suitable process to delete negative comments parked the initiative in the sidelines.

Many other examples were shared and those round the tables nodded with familiarity as the cases were described. My neutral, chairman’s view is that the conservative tendencies arise when we see a threat to our traditional authority in the organisation. This is felt particularly keenly when that threat comes from outside of the team. Whilst so much of the world of work seems to be changing around us, the temptation to retreat to the safer ground of our functions is powerful. The source of traditional power for HR, in these instances, is the processes and policies that define how the organisation will handle communication and content. In the case of L&D, power lies in the systems that define the value of the function – the management (control) of learning and the counting of completions. Neither of these territories will sustain the functions that were built on them for much longer though. They are strengths built on old models and expectations. These expectations are shifting quickly and we need to experiment with new models to meet them.
The imaginative folk around the discussions all championed the view of the worker trying to make the most of their working life and a desire to support that effort. That “worker perspective” needs to be the common ground around which all sides of the debate congregate. We all need to solve the problems faced by those busy and pressured people in the way they need them solved, not in the way that our part of the organisations sees most benefit. I suspect some more imaginative organisation principles would help a lot as well. I also suspect that these principles will come from outside of both traditional disciplines where user needs are paramount.