Systems, ecosystems and control (anything but the one stop shop)

The ecosystem theme seems to be echoing around me at the moment. I realise that this is not a new theme but it has given me pause to think as it orbits. Some interesting remarks from contacts on LinkedIn in a recent discussion further added to the musings. What follows are some top of mind thoughts on the topic (for now…).

There is a powerful impulse at play in IT organisations I believe – it is the urge to tidy up the apparent mess of systems and technology tools at large in the business. As a senior IT stakeholder, there is cost, stress and error at every turn and greater control feels like an obvious response. It is one powerful reason to pursue the single system strategy or the dreaded ‘one-stop-shop’. Neither the “one ring to rule them all” or the “there can be only one” approaches have ended well, however. technology progress and development will inevitably add more ‘mess’.

There is a desire for parental control at play here, I further believe. A view that the best outcomes for users are those that are managed for them (with their best interests at heart, of course). Where there is a parent, there are children, however, and that is not the role a modern workforce really wants to play. (I sincerely doubt it was a satisfactory role for any workforce but has been the tradition nonetheless). As users, we approach the digital consumer landscape as agents of choice. Having that agency removed is a pain. It is a pretty drab reality that many organisations deny the use of consumer tools in the workplace to defend the apparent order of official systems and we step back in time as we pass through the revolving doors at reception.

The LMS is one of the worst offenders in the controlling parent role, replete with allocation, access control and approvals. There are even sanctions for poor behaviour: if you don’t eat your compliance greens, you can’t have your password pudding. This is not born from an atmosphere of trust and openness.

These are not the only reasons for the flourishing of the organisational ecosystem of tools and technologies but they are significant. The ability to swiftly offer a well designed tool focused on narrow and painful use cases is chipping away at the foundations of  traditional systems in all walks of professional life. It is frequently, if not always, quicker and cheaper to use a cloud based web service for work tasks. App store marketplaces have created a very effective environment for testing and developing useful tools. Most often the tools of our every day lives are our first choice in our work, having had their value tested and honed by literally millions of users and use cases. The fact that these tools are in different products and owned by different businesses is no real barrier to their utility in our private worlds, so what is the problem in the organisation context?

It is important to distinguish a true ecosystem of from a series of available tools. If an ecosystem is “a community of interacting organisms and their environment”, then there are, I suspect, few of them out there. There are plenty of organisations with multiple tools and technologies (a development to be embraced), the interaction criterion is more difficult to satisfy though. This does not devalue the utility of the tools but it might make the usability of the ecosystem weaker as data and content does not pass between products. It is likely that meaningful interaction between systems falls into the ‘big and difficult’ project bucket and is tackled less often as a result.

One of the great liberties of avoiding the one-stop-shop, is the freedom to test and add tools as a need arises or possible value is in sight. The recent arrival of many chatbot tools on the landscape is a case in point. There are plenty of authouring tools to create bots and messaging systems to release them into. A requirement to integrate them first is likely to break a business case to create a swift test.

There are two areas, however, where integrating tools to begin the creation of an ecosystem looks most valuable:

  1. Search and discovery: the ability to quickly and simply search for specific content, people and information that are relevant to your work. This requires some engineering and careful planning but technologies like Elasticsearch and erm, Google are very accomplished at this. Being able to search and browse across content portals, social media, LMS, third-party content services, intranet, document repositories and people directories adds huge value to the tools most organisations use.

    In fact, with good search, who needs a learning journey?.

  2. Data and analysis: being able to see what users do (and don’t do) across multiple technologies is enormously valuable. This can range from simple dashboard reporting of items such as content popularity, routes in and through content, patterns of heaviest users, frequency and depth etc. to more sophisticated analysis of the relationships of certain behaviours with business outcomes. The addition of non-learning data sources is very important here, although organisationally tricky in many cases.

    For those in the learning game, the LRS is an interesting development finally gaining some momentum. For those with broader concerns, many other data storage and retrieval solutions beckon. (Data Lakes have a poetic ring too).

Tackling these two (pretty hefty) challenges will offer an ecosystem owner, or those with ambitions for one, a good steer as to the potential value in integrating the tools and products into a user experience of some kind.

There are many other hypotheses forming in my mind to which I may return. For now though, the ecosystem approach is a definite step forward. Perhaps the greatest contribution made by this approach is offering control and choice (or greater control and choice) to users rather than requiring them to seek permission and approval. This is closer to our experience as consumers – we chose the tools we prefer, when and how to use them. Choice has become a foundational expectation of our digital experience and system owners should be very cautious about interrupting it.


Don’t leave digital transformation to IT (or learning technology teams)

In a few weeks time, I will be hosting a panel session at Learning Live on the theme of digital transformation. It is, in various guises, a major theme of the event and a significant preoccupation of the LPI membership. Fortunately, I have a wise and esteemed panel to rely on for answers to “What you’ve always wanted to ask” about the topic.

In preparation I have been doing a little more deliberate reading around the many and varied themes. I cannot decide whether a focus on L&D will help the debate or hinder it? On the one hand, we can concentrate on topics closest to our work and our immediate priorities. On the other a, mistaken, belief that learning is a special case in the digital world leads to many misguided decisions. Specialist learning systems are a major reason why learning remains in a technology ghetto rather than a daily tool kit.

This post by Jeff Imelt, ex CEO of GE is a useful input. There are some helpful observations on leading and organising digital transition in here. Unsurprisingly, leadership clarity, trust and empowerment are crucial factors. As important, is the assertion that digital ultimately needs to be a part of everyone’s day job at some point. Whilst a specialist team may be prudent to gain momentum in the early days, everyone needs to make the change and adopt digital ways of working to sustain the changes. This is worthy of consideration for L&D folks. Many organisations have digital specialist managers and teams (often born from a learning technology background) but struggle to make the transition beyond that point. I would like to hear some views on that hypothesis in the session, from attendees in particular.

Imelt also asserts that digital change cannot be the preserve of the IT functions. In many ways these are outsourced technologies and activities which operate at too great a distance from the core business to generate valuable change. I really like this point. Too often digital is seen as the preserve of techies and systems folks, under-cooking the potential it can have and limiting the radical change needed. Technology as a function is often too far removed from decision making to create far-reaching changes.

In the L&D world, I suspect (and observe) that digital change is often handed off to learning technology teams. This limits the changes required – digital transformation is about people and how they work as much as it is about technology. In anxious organisations, there can be an insulation from digital because it is seen as a specialism of technologists. Successful change will not occur under these circumstances. I would also like to know wat people make of this observation. It has happened to me directly. As Director of Digital, I have been given responsibility for digital transformation with only technology levers on which to pull. The remainder of the department remained distant, labouring under the belief that ‘digital’ would be solved for them and launched at them. No. It didn’t work.

A related challenge to the preoccupation with IT lead implementation of digital change is the misplaced faith in systems implementation as a source of digital change. Fundamentally, the revolution of digital has been a product of the widespread adoption of digital ways of working. Inherent to these approaches is the ability to experiment and adjust to seek valuable solutions. Any transformation means the old rules no longer apply. Systems implementation, by definition, precludes experimentation and denies the arrival of unexpected value. The computer will say no.

ERP systems, of which the LMS is a prime example, will not deliver digital transformation for this reason. They will deliver efficiency, order and accuracy (hopefully) to established systems or in the embedding of new ones. This is not to be sniffed at, but is not transformative. User needs are rarely anywhere to be seen either.

Other digital tools are where signals of value can be found. As a rule of thumb, it is always best to look outside our own industries in seeking clues to make far-reaching changes. Social media, digital advertising and content publishing have some useful pointers to offer in designing a really helpful user experience. (They also have some useful lessons in questionable business ethics to look out for).

Plenty to chew on for that session at Learning Live then. What else?


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?

Stakeholders beat out users in LMS implementation (of course they do)

I have been nursing this thought for some time now. I managed to spend a little time trying to add some structure to it and see if that helps me think it through more constructively. I belive it did.

Now, in Web 2.0 style (yes I am a traditionalist), I thought I would share it and see what that process might add.

Much is written and spoken about the UX challenges of corporate systems and their implementation. Mcuh of that has dealt with our old friend the LMS. Not much of the commentary is positive. I reckon that the structure of the vendor/customer relationship is, perhaps, the most significant factor in creating that negative sentiment. The poor user is a distant and quiet voice amongst the chorus of sales folks, solutions partners, stakeholders and implementation teams.

I have tried, quite simply I know, to illustrate that in the diagram below. Depending on the size of the organisation, more or fewer of these ingredients might be in place. There is a lot of decision making going on between the bright idea and the recipient of that idea. The needs of the organisation are studiously gathered and arranged. The system is painstakingly designed in the image of those needs. (A cynic might suggest vested interests are at play. I can see the point).

It is then, all too often, implemented at the poor user.

Learning Management Systems – from Vendor to user

LMS chain

The digital consumer market is quite different. The product creator makes the their product available as directly and swiftly to the user as possible. And that’s about it. (I recognise that I have not reflected that economic dynamics of the market here. The ad networks, analytics, optimisation and billings systems are not represented. These, however do not often impact the user value, they signal the user value in the metrics). Meeting user need is central in a fiercely compeitive market for free and paid products – attetnion is always limited, it seems. All other value flows from there.

It is much easier to design a tool a user wants to use when those layers of corporate interest are absent. Hence the universal preference for consumer tools such as Google, Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia etc. as Jane Hart reminds us annually. In fact, when those layers of interest are present, I would argue that a product is not made for a user. It is made for the customer. That is where the invoices land after all.

Meanwhile users vote with their clicks and swipes and adopt the consumer tools that have become so familiar to our daily lives, at work and play.

What do you think? Does the diagram look familiar? I am minded to pursue this line of inquiry, so any steering thoughts would be welcome.