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.







An LMS for the open web? Not for me, thanks

Yes. This is another post about the LMS. A perennial feature of any learning commentators blog. I return to theme this week following a call with Don Taylor about leading a session at the Learning Technologies Summer Forum on designing good user experiences for digital learning. Something practical about good and bad practice is required. As I turned the theme over in my mind in drafting some talking points, I realised that I was essentially listing reasons not to use an LMS. Yes. This is that kind of post.

Since landing on planet L&D, I have tried to understand why nothing like the Learning Management System and its raison d’etre, the eLearning course, exist on the open web. In the roughly twenty years of evolutionary experimentation in the venture capital funded laboratories of the web there has been no meaningful sighting of an LMS-like product or service. If these tools are the best of the available solutions to the learning potential available online, then where are the public equivalents?

Similar services do exist to make courses available on the web (or course like packages of learning content). Masterclass is a really interesting example of the type – an explicit course provision product with closed, commercial access to exclsuive courses. This makes sense, I suspect, to provider and learner alike. It is the closed part that works best here. Register for an account and pay for the course. It’s a very simple, paid access LMS. The value for the payment is access to the course and experience. What is the user value for an open access LMS on the web, however? What extra benefit would I receive from use of that system? It certainly not search or browse – Google is pretty good for that. Recommendation is well handled via social media, as is discussion and commentary. Access to expertise is available and in large part is free, although I fancy this may change over the coming years. Of course, none of this is tracked but I don’t think LMS data is used by learners anyway (is it?).

At the heart of my LMS misgivings is basically that lack of user need. A service like that would attract little or no funding in a world where generating a large , loyal user base (i.e. millions) is the oxygen of investment. The value in the LMS is the for the learning provider: allocating courses to learners, managing access and tracking and reporting on completions. From a user perspective the LMS typically erects barriers to learning content. It then controls the experience of the content once accessed.

The gradual emergence of the Learning Record Store might shift movement in a more positive direction but I suspect it will be adopted by LMS operators as a means of dragging open content into the closed LMS domain. Open Badges also play a part in creating a location or system for recording and displaying learning achievement and activity in the wild – there is more hope here I feel as the education sector starts to consider these kinds of services. (I fear, though, that they have also been bacterially infected by the faddish application of another new buzz-tool: gamification).

Find things out. Get things done.

At one point of my BBC career I held the title of Director, Intranet Refresh Programme. The team I worked with were tasked with refreshing and re-presenting the entire corporate intranet (take a role like that with care is my advice). We had a working motto for the new product “It will always help users find things out and get things done”. This is the kind of utility value that good open digital learning tools should have too. They are designed to answer those needs as defined by the user and available at the moment of need with minimal or no barriers to access. An LMS is a long route round to the need of getting something done.

All of this is not to say that there is no value in the LMS. The idea of recording behaviour in a learning system is excellent. If only that data were then put to the use of the learner. This is where LinkedIn Learning Solutions could play a role as the place where open learning resources can be collected and reflected upon in a social context, gathering value in the user profile. Early days for this development, perhaps but there is something to pursue there clearly The utility for the user being the management of their profile and its value to a marketplace they chose to participate in.

None of this is intended to caim that there is not a role for the LMS in corporate learning. There are too many of them around for that argument to hold water. The value (and there is a fair amount to contend with), however, is for the orgnanisation rather than the user. That is why we, as users, don’t chose to use them.




Avoid The CEO Button

Stakeholders can always present problems in the design process. They have opinions. They often have clout and seniority. They rarely have real user insight, however. Treat senior stakeholders with care, the more senior they are the less they are likely to know about user context and genuine user needs.

How many of us have published content topped with a video of the CEO/VP/Director telling the audience how important what they are about to do is? I suspect that we all have. There is a reason that the advertising industry does not resort to this tactic. No one cares.

CEO Button Image
The CEO Button – to be avoided at all costs

There is an interesting O’Reilly Design Podcast featuring Tom Greever, in which I first heard the phrase The CEO Button. This is a great shorthand for those features and content in a product or project which really stink the place up and undermine relevance and utility. They arrive because the stakeholder has a view of what they want user to want. A view of what the ideal world should look like and the right turn of phrase to express it. This is the UX equivalent of Seagull Management. It is also one of the reasons why choice of colour can consume senior stakeholders, it’s an area they feel comfortable with and can express a clear opinion on.

So, how to avoid the guano?

I think this is where the design team (or learning team if that’s what you are called) need to demonstrate a clear ownership of user insight and evidence. Approach stakeholders with a clear articulation of the project, demonstrate business awareness but focus clearly on the evidence you have gathered from users. Describe the world of the user form your observations. Demonstrate your empathy (for you have plenty). Use the language of users (quote them, or film them if you can). Show the decisions you have taken and always refer to testing. Tell the story of how you arrived at your decisions, weaving the data through the tale.

Finally, tell the stakeholder that you have a roadmap to develop and their wisdom may best be reflected when the functional needs are met. They would not like their wisdom to be dragged down into the realms of mere utility would they?

As a last resort, monitor the clicks on the CEO Button or the Director video views and seek leave to remove it based on that evidence.




Digital Literacy – teach it or speak proper?

This is another reflection on my time at Learning Technologies 2017. Much fat was chewed and I find myself with interesting matters to reflect on again.

Today I find my mind orbiting the theme of digital literacy. This was a phrase I had not heard before in the conference (my lack of attention I suspect). Digital capability or competence has come up many times before. Most often and tiringly, as a deficiency in L&D teams. There was an echo of fragile confidence in teams, colleagues and ourselves to create solid digital experiences for learners. Adding to the anecdotal evidence, I would say that this was less of an issue this year (from my own anecdote digest). There was much concern still about the digital literacy of senior managers and of IT departments but less about ourselves. Progress of a sort.

Digital literacy is a stalwart from the lexicon of my BBC days, when we would fret over how best to raise levels and close the digital capability gaps in the UK population. With typical BBC hubris, we would assume a central position in campaigns and march out to educate the populace. In fact, I think the iPlayer has done more to raise the bar of digital confidence nd understanding than any social action campaign by the BBC. It offers a service that people understand and is designed to stick to it. A well designed product with a singular use case is alway a solid foundation to bring any doubters on board. “Watching the favourite telly shows you missed” is a good call to action and remains so.

Facebook has changed the game of digital confidence for users. At least the combination of the Faceboook mobile app and smartphone adoption have. It has been common to worry about older users and their confidence in taking digital steps. Huge numbers of the over 65s are regularly sharing and commenting now. This platform has been responsible, in part, for a couple high profile elections amongst these demographics. Again, a well designed product for a clear use. We can worry less about those further reaches of demography for our content and services if we design well. Or just use Facebook, maybe. If we speak the language of our users in the conversational spaces they gather themselves, we will seem literate to them and can become useful and interesting to them.

On the other hand ( and typing this from a position of a certain age) I find my own levels of literacy undermined by Snapchat. Like many of my anxious contemporaries, I have had a go to see what all the fuss is about. To see what the youngsters are on about and to cling to connection with my ageing kids. It went quite badly and I confess that I don’t like Snapping very much. It leaves me with furrowed brow. As an interesting twist in product design, I am being designed out of the service. Or at least it is designed with no regard for me whatsoever. It’s kind of deliberately confusing. The UI and design is consciously tricky apparently, particularly for us older folks who have grown up with certain usability conventions. Successfully confusing, I might add. These features may evolve as the business needs to demonstrate a revenue model that ad executives can be confident of. We shall see…

Besides these demographic challenges and positions, there are more serious literacy chasms to cross. The pressing digital literacy challenges are now privacy, security, safety and the small matters of truth and trust. These are real challenges to gather around and support. (Use of Facebook becomes a little more problematic on all of these fronts). How we judge veracity of information, who knows what about us and why, where does our identity reside, can we keep it safe from harm? These are the pressing literacies we need to rehearse and develop. They are hard work too. Few services are designed to make these issues transparent.

I am no clearer now than I was when I started typing. Back to literacy school for me.


Two speed IT for colleagues now too please

What follows is about half of a thought. I hope it is better than none.

During an excellent two days at Learning Technologies this week the notion of two speed IT kept bubbling up in my mind. I am in the foothills of writing a book on the impact of digital transformation on organisations and how they work (and need to work). One theme of my notes, conversation and reading is “Two Speed IT”. I reckon this is what L&D needs to embrace. It’s already happening all over the place but I reckon it’s time to come out or to plan for it more deliberately.

Two speed IT typically refers to businesses adopting faster digital products and tools for customer facing purposes. Faced with large, slow and inflexible corporate systems, many digital teams started to use lightweight and cloud based tools to solve customer problems quickly and simply in way that the legacy monoliths could not support. Frequently, this is borne from the need to respond the the pace and accuracy of digital only competitors with infrastructure built to operate quickly and with flexibility as a basic principle. Things like cloud based content management systems, infrastructure as a service and analytics tools become very useful in trying to service ever more demanding customers without the pain of a massive IT programme. There are multiple systems to work with but that is better than lost customers.

This is how I saw much of my #LT17uk experience. There were many vendors (with some *very* large stands) espousing the virtues of an integrated system, configured to meet all needs. There is merit here, probably, bit you need to contend with HR, Procurement, IT and L&D in some combination. You might also end up with a product experience where every feature is a bolt on to something else.

There were, equally case studies of excellent implementations of these systems both in the free seminars and the conference. As I said, there is merit here.

Research – define the problem – come up with an idea – prototype or test a solution – refine and iterate.

There was a less deliberate thread though running through the conference sessions and the conversations between them. Tugging on the thread reveals stories of teams and individuals giving some things a small scale try with smaller, lighter and simpler tools. These tend to be cloud based products designed to enable a quick project to start and test its mettle. Teams were talking about piloting and testing an approach to see if there thinking is right, to see what their colleagues make of it and to test the direction before setting out on a longer journey. Research – define the problem – come up with an idea – prototype or test a solution – refine and iterate. Design thinking. (I really hope I banged on about that a lot in my own session. Apologies to anyone who was there if I didn’t).

James Tyer and Mark Britz gave some great accounts of this in their talk on finding, helping and supporting communities and collaboration groups. They have some excellent principles to follow as well if you are facing similar tasks. A clear theme was: start small, solve a real problem, make it easy and use what you have. In some cases this was two speed IT (a new, lighter, quicker tool), in some cases it was Sharepoint, which is rarely described as any of those things.

Slack was mentioned a couple of times too, which is a fashionable (and very effective) second speed IT tool. Easy to implement and easy to learn to use, it has seen rapid adoption amongst teams who need to communicate and collaborate directly and frequently.

Jane Hart’s Top 100 learning tools is full of two speed IT recommendations (for both speeds). L&D is already happily operating at both speeds but seems to be absorbed much more with delivery in the organisation at the traditional infrastructure pace. Traditional tracking needs (gosh I dislike that word) draw one to traditional systems and the impulse to control the experience draw us even further. Despite this, there were many conversations about testing new approaches, trying new tools and trusting users to work sensibly. This is to be commended.

So many of us live and work with these tools anyway. Fighting the tide seems like hard work. We learn with these tools naturally as well, without even considering it. IT’s time to adopt two speed IT internally and purposefully, I think. We are already making great progress with it, even if incidentally.

What next for the learning technologies market – the Trello acquisition has some clues

Some time ago I posted a piece about the problems of the one stop shop. Essentially, I was aiming at the increasingly bloated, feature rich LMS and HR systems which tend to dominate the market. They are ripe for that famous digital business moment – disruption. Disruption by smaller, faster, simpler and cheaper alternatives. Not alternatives for everything they do but for a small number (probably one) of the most valuable needs that their array of product features meet.

The recent acquisition of Trello by Atlassian is a really good case example of this phenomenon. Trello is a fast growing project management tool (over 19 million users from 100 staff – that kind of business). Rooted in the software world it was also marketed at designers, marketers and non-tech project workers who enjoy its clarity of purpose, simplicity and ease of use. It helps them track and share progress. Atlassian’s success was built, initially, on the Jira and Confluence products. They started in a similar place and became a standard of the toolsets used in the software world to manage projects and collaborate on development and documentation. By contrast they are more hard core.

Trello was rapidly eating away at Jira’s luncheon and Atlassian was faced with a choice. Compete, (i.e. build a Trello competitor), ignore Trello and continue to build out Jira with new features or buy it. They chose to buy it. This piece by Mitt Tarasowski is an excellent summary of those options and of the position Atlassian found itself in. It is also a parallel story of the LMS trajectory, I believe and of the risk and opportunity in the learning technology and eLearning markets.

Does this seem familiar: large incumbents with feature rich systems, at high and rising prices, which are becoming increasingly hard to manage for customers and can be a dangerously poor experience for the end user. They manage an array of functions for their customers and as result are increasingly complex. These are often market leading positions to take but they are also ripe for focused competitors who do one thing well.

Some of this activity is visible in the learning technology world. New tools and products are arriving which are focused on certain use cases for learners (or users) and are easy to implement or pilot. Noddlepod, Fuse and Looop are examples of these small(er) or new(er) businesses developing a tool quickly and enabling customers to get up and running with a minimum of fuss. I doubt that these are currently replacing LMS purchases (David Perring will no doubt have a view on this). They don’t need to in order to grow, however. There is an opportunity to target smaller customers for whom the full fat options of the big box LMS is too rich. They can target departmental buyers of larger organisations who like the flexibility and simplicity of not having to do battle with the LMS (and sometimes its owners). In this way they can grow the market as they redefine it.

They can focus on a subset of the features of the traditional providers precisely because many of those features are of little utility. Whisper it but…I suspect that you do not need to be a ‘learning professional’ to use them to help people learn. You may not need a technology budget to buy them –  a project budget may be adequate.  The market will grow but perhaps in a less comfy direction for some.

These products have some common attributes which are vital to their success. They are also difficult for large incumbent providers to match and will sustain their advantage for some time yet:

  • Easy to try – low barriers to pilot and test
  • Easy to scale from a small implementation
  • Little or no customer support requirements
  • Cloud – few infrastructure issues or integration headaches
  • Easy to use – low maintenance and support for users
  • Easy to learn how to use – low introduction cost
  • Have user advocates already often via free versions or other jobs/projects
  • Integrate well with other tools (YouTube, MSFT, Gmail  etc.)
  • Develop features and fix bugs quickly

None of this is to say that the large systems vendors are foolish or have poor vision. They have a market to develop and each other to compete with. These smaller providers are not, yet, troubling the Sales Director. They may also provide a route as an exit for start-up investors. That is a more familiar story for the learning technology world.

I suspect, however, that the market will be redefined by new entrants who can see their way to the end-user whilst finding a new route to the customer.



Too much data

What do you think of this?

The company’s smart badge is equipped with a microphone to monitor the frequency of employee conversations and how long people spend talking versus listening.

Actually. What does it make you feel?

It made me feel somewhat conflicted. As a fan of data (big or otherwise)  I can see the logic and the possible outcomes. Do people spend more time listening or talking? That might be a useful thing to know. (You can see more here for a broader explanation of Humanyse and their approach).

As a relatively independent human adult, I also found this to right down at the creepy end of the scale. I know that Google and Facebook gather a lake of data about me all the time. I also know that they sell that data to fund the use of the products and services I chose form them. There is an exchange there. It could be a clearer exchange but it is there.

As an employee of the smart badge using employer I would need a lot of trust in that exchange of value. I would want an account that I can access and see what data has been gathered and how it has been used. I would want to see clear evidence of that exchange of value and the outcome for me individually.

Actually, I don’t seem so conflicted, on rapid reflection. I feel decidedly old fashioned. To understand the balance of talking and listening in an organisation, one could, amongst other things, talk and listen to people. Just saying.