Making a start on digitalness part 3 – organising for digital

It has taken longer than I hoped to get round to this post. This is the third in the series of loosely themed pieces about what it means to ‘be digital’ and some ideas on how to make a start. The first and second pieces are available for the curious/persistent reader.

The impetus to write this post came from leading the first of a series of sessions for Digital Leaders on Developing a Digital Mindset. Future sessions in London and Leeds are available as part of their Academy courses.  The sessions are short, workshop style events aimed to give those with less hands-on experience some ideas and techniques to consider in their work with their teams. The premise is that we all need to be more digital – so how might we go about it.

During the session there was discussion about technology integration programmes in organisations and the fact that they are often pitched as transformation efforts. This, in turn, lead to exploring the notion that ‘being digital’ is not really about technology  – or that, technology alone is insufficient for real digital change. Technology programmes can generate efficiencies, speed and lower cost (they can also deliver none of those things, at their worst). But they probably won’t change the organisation much, and are less likely to change it in the far-reaching ways ‘transformation’ promises.

Some of the most significant elements of a digital mindset are how groups plan, behave and organise. Being digital is about people more than it is about technology (or at least as much) – hence the significance of culture. The ways and means of systems implementation will not support or sustain a digital mindset. Don’t be fooled by systems implementation houses that pitch this as an outcome from use of technology.

Anyway, with that in mind, this post is about organising for digital. Again, in no strict oder of priority, here are some of the most important features of digital organisations or teams. They are:

  • Flat (or flatter). This is not to say that there is no hierarchy. Some people are in charge and need to be (some decisions will need a ‘buck stops here’ approach). A flatter team or organisation will, however have shorter routes between a decision and action. It will also have less mediation and introduce less confusion between a decision and the enacting of a plan to carry it out. (Empowered and accountable teams can get things done with less fuss. as explored in Post 2). From my personal experience, the BBC is not a flat organisation – it is lumpy and bumpy in arcane and vertical ways. Time to and from a decision to action is best measured in planetary metrics. Spotify, on the other hand, is pretty flat and swift in movement and action.
  • Open (or tending to openness). This goes hand in hand with flatness and trust. It is easier to get things done quickly if access to information and to people is more open. Open document stores and open access to performance data are principles that digital organisations have been energetic in adopting. Team members are trusted to use data responsibly, making the apparent risk of open sharing lee problematic. (Organisations with a parental leaning will struggle to adopt digital ways, I believe. They are better suited to programmed waterfalls and the committees needed to steer them).
  • Accessible. Teams working in an open environment are easier to access – and anticipate ease of access in turn. This is partly a facet of openness and the access to information that results from it. It is also a cultural feature that allows for access to expertise and experience throughout an organisation. The structure and model of Stack Overflow echoes this across technology disciplines, being built around the expectation that access to expert guidance is readily available. Tools like Slack and Trello facilitate open access.
  • Small. A productive digital team tends to be a small team. Or, not too big. It will be large enough to get stuff and be self-contained but not so large that it becomes unwieldy, slow and over complicated. Jeff Bezos still stands by the principle of Two Pizza sized teams at Amazon. The optimum size of a team is one that can be fed by two pizzas (probably in the range of 8 to 10 people, depending on pizza size and appetite). It is easier for this size of team to take decisions and to communicate those decisions and share relevant information. Big is not beautiful but a large organisation can have many two pizza teams within it.
  • Multidisciplinary. Those small, self-contained teams are made up of the required skills and capabilities to be self largely self-sufficient and productive. A productive team will have the ability to:
    • Gather and analyse data and communicate information and usable insights from it
    • Design, test and improve a good user experience (this will include but not be limited to user interface and visual design)
    • Develop and test code – or at the very least, have access to and control over developers
    • Manage a the activity, inputs and outputs of the team, most often in the form of an agile project manager
    • Take responsibility for marketing, communication and distribution. Otherwise known as “if you build it they really might not come”.
    • Manage the product and define the roadmap around user needs and priorities
    • Manage the product and define the roadmap around commercial needs and business outcomes
  • Flexible. These small and multi-disciplined teams are easier to form and reform around shifting priorities. There is less organisational heavy lifting required on behalf of the business. Similarly, extended and complex orientation is less likely to be needed as new teams group around their objectives. More mature digital organisations will also have developed production tools and infrastructure which supports this flexibility and can be applied across many or all areas of business.
  • Clear.  Whilst the objectives of the team are clear, this is equally true of the individuals of the team. A smaller team is easier to direct in this respect. The daily stand-up of the agile world supports an open sharing of the activity and next steps of all team members. Accountability is individual and well as team based, as is responsibility.

There are many ways to get things done and no set of guidelines can simply be applied to the unique circumstances of any organisation. Unlike systems, these ways of working cannot be implemented to a preconceived plan. These things take time and effort to bear fruit and find the right shape and size for the circumstances. They are worthy of consideration, however and it is relatively easy to give them a try and adapt them to your needs. Easier and cheaper than a technology programme that is.

 

 

 

 

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?

Making a start on digitalness – digital behaviours are simple but hard

Slightly warily, I am considering a series of posts on one theme. The theme is ‘making a start on digitalness’. I am wary because I have started this kind of project before and lost momentum. I am considering another attempt for this topic. In drafting this idea as one post I became lost in notes and paragraphs and my thread became entangled. I think it is too complex for one piece. So. This might become a series.

The idea is borne from a growing sense that many teams and their leaders are peering over the garden fence at their neighbours and gazing in envy at their digitalness. In the learning world, this gaze is often directed further afield to more distant neighbourhoods. Nearby locales are more familiar and inspire less of this longing. This envy is not about technology.  I don’t see much coveting of our neighbours kit – we all have access to the technology and tools we (think we) need. It’s more of an admiration of the lifestyle.

Like anything valuable, making a start on being digital is hard and will require constant effort. I am taking it for granted that ‘being or becoming digital’ is desirable. It is possible not to try it. That route will guarantee irrelevance at some point, however. (I refer you to the inevitable YouTube “How to  do something or other” video which you did not make but everyone prefers to what you did make). So why not make a start?

If this does become a series, it will cover organising for digitalness, the culture of digitalness, working digitally and digital behaviours. This post is about the last one: behaviours. (Yes. These themes overlap – hence the entanglement).

It is also focused on making a start on digitalness not on an end state. This is because, in my experience, digital teams and organisations don’t fix at a certain point. Something happens, mainly to users, that requires a response. By definition, something has changed. This is one of the reasons why it is hard work. Like all the best jobs, it does not freeze in form and repeat.

Here are some hallmark behaviours that I believe a digital team and the members of a digital team will exhibit. These are the behaviours I would start and practice.

A digital team will:

  • Aways seek the user need – answer the “what’s in it for me?” question (the me being the user)
  • Always seek and meet the user to find the user need – there is no substitute for direct knowledge
  • Have a clear user focus – stakeholders are not front of the queue
  • Have a good sense of the business needs (stakeholders are important but not front of the queue)
  • Get something in front of users quickly (until the user has experienced it, there is no reliable way of judging whether it is any good or not)
  • Not wait for the finished article (until the user has experienced it, there is no reliable way of judging whether it is finished or not)
  • Focus on producing the minimum product /service/content from which they can learn about genuine user response (until the user has experienced it, there is no way of judging whether it is enough or not)
  • Seek data data to understand user behavior – don’t move unless you can measure (not ‘track’ – that is something else)
  • Observe – see what happens when you do move
  • Respond quickly to observations – change what you did last time and
  • Observe again…
  • Learn and want to learn – the data and the testing are all focused on improved understanding and then on an improved outcome
  • Reflect on experience – digital teams (agile teams in particular through the sprint retrospective) will find time to discuss and assess recent performance
  • Communicate frequently and directly throughout their work – Slack is a favourite of digital professionals for this reason
  • Share information routinely and openly – Slack is a favourite of digital professionals for this reason
  • Organise themselves quickly to focus on goals – the daily stand up is one of the rituals to set next steps and share recent activity
  • Seek expertise to solve a problem (and share the result) – Stack Overflow is a towering monument to this behaviour

One interesting observation as I scratched out that list: digital teams are learning teams (this is an element of the culture of digitalness which will form the heart of another post is this possible series). The focus on improvement requires equal attention to what has and has not worked, adjusting for both outcomes. Progress is made through this learning.

All of these behaviours signal organisational traits, ways of working and cultural patterns. To be properly embedded, they need those other factors to be in place too. To be true to the title, however, I think we can all start with these behaviours, individually and collectively, try them and make progress towards more effective digital working. The role of the Product Manager – the missing link in developing helpful learning technologies – is an excellent mechanism for gaining and sustaining momentum with these changes in any team.

As with all these successful digital endeavours – these things are simple but hard.

[Worthy of another post in the series?].

 

 

Learning technologies 2018: Two great days but misnamed?

I have been an attendee of Learning Technologies conferences since, I think, 2010. Maybe 2009. Every year I have enjoyed my time there. Each subsequent event, I have looked forward to.

At the conference, I have always met people I know and like, in whose views I am interested and perspectives I value. Equally, I look forward to new contacts, with fresh ideas and views who I then look forward to meeting again, at the next event. There is a sound combination of reliability, novelty, theory and practice. I suspect that this is not an easy mix to manage (whatever the performance of the plumbing) and the LT team are to be commended on making it work.

My sample of content and conversation may not be representative but I sensed that themes of design were significant in 2018. User focus, test and trial, data focused decision making, content creation and production came up regularly and frequently. I also sensed a good smattering of practical advice on show in presentations. We all love to see how common problems are tackled.

The perennial conversation point was there as well. Actually, it was everywhere. It sounded like this: “Yes. But what do you do with your LMS? How do you make it useful?”. (This relates to points about the exhibition, below). I wonder if this is unique to the L&D world? An industry with a dominant technology platform approach generating so little positive sentiment.

Artificial intelligence struck me as the major technology theme this year (if not last, as well). I predict Blockchain as the new entrant in the buzz stakes next year. If there is still currency value in it, I also predict the echo of the phrase “it’s like Bitcoin for learning” in the exhibition hall.

The exhibition hall is a different experience to me. Pitched against the more rarefied atmosphere of conference proceedings, it has the ring of a Las Vegas casino about it. Air and light are manufactured and the stands reach higher and further in dimensions, colour and sound. There is clearly abundant commercial energy in the market though – the space was bursting at the seams with exhibitors and visitors. There is no shortage of marketing budgets if stand design and size is any indicator. Hence to ExCel next year.

The content of the exhibition and the conference felt divergent as well. Upstairs, we are awed, scared and inspired by the future. Showcases of fresh ideas and methods are shared. Speakers from beyond the boundaries of the industry share unfamiliar stories. Many phones capture lessons from slide shows to take back to the office.

Downstairs, it still feels like my first visit in 2010. To my untrained eye, there were three segments on show: LMS vendors, exhibiting new releases in the arms race of functions and features; content vendors trying to keep up with social/mobile/gamified/virtual developments and content authoring product suppliers trying to do the same. The addition of content aggregators and curators is, arguably, a new segment but risks being sucked into the gravitational force of the LMS sphere.

Learning technologies, or technologies for those who work in Learning and Development, perhaps?

I realise this is a simplification. I did not visit every stand. From a straw poll of fellow attendees, however, it was a well recognised characterisation. So, what’s going on? Jane Hart releases research every year that demonstrates industry professionals make alternative choices when asked which learning tools they prefer. Jane also shared the sentiment on Twitter and started an interesting debate.

The business of selling learning technologies and the needs of learners appear to have diverged. They do not seem to be coming together quickly either. I am no conference organiser but I would consider changing the title of the event along these lines: “Learning Technologies Conference, incorporating the Exhibition for Learning Technology Budget Holders (or maybe Technologies for those who work in Learning and Development)”. The commercial thrust of the industry is towards the procurement of technology solutions for organisations. If I were a sales director, that is exactly where I would point my teams too. The problem is that following the money does not mean following the user value in the application of the technology. The needs of the budget holder and their seniors are not well aligned with the user needs at the coal face.

The commercial structure of the industry places many barriers and layers between the end user and the developer of the technologies (I have posted on this topic before). This is not a problem that consumer tools face, hence their favourite status amongst industry professionals and users alike. We can easily give them a try and evaluate them for ourselves. It is still interests me that our favourite learning tools – Google, Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, Microsoft, YouTube etc. – are absent from the floor space. LinkedIn are now the exception to that list and their learning offer seems well placed to be pulled, though widespread consumer usage, into many customer organisations.

Given the apparent growth of the market, there does not seem to be cause for concern for investors. The challenge might come from the user end, however, with start ups shipping away at chinks in the value chain at low to no cost. Perhaps.

 

Can Learning learn from the news industry?

[Pre-opening remark: this is a long read.]

I shall open with a statement of the obvious. It is incumbent upon us to seek guidance, inspiration and ideas from outside of our industries. This should not be exclusive behaviour, we all have much to learn from our immediate colleagues too. Very often, however, there are things happening further afield which will help us identify where to make a first incision to cut through the predictable momentum of the status quo. For the learning industries, grappling with digital changes, I think content businesses have some instructive examples to offer.

As I develop this idea, I would like to offer a pre-emptive defence my obviousness. Many of us may have these thoughts and be struggling to make these changes already – I am not claiming novelty. Yet, one visit to the exhibition floor of an eLearning related trade show demonstrates that the impetus to change is not evenly distributed. The floorspace is dominated by LMS vendors (of many stripes), authoring tool providers and content agencies. This is where the money resides and where the customers budgets are pointed. It can be hard to see where innovation might come from.

In my past, I have spent time in the search engine industry and in broadcast media (including news media). There are lessons for the learning world from both, I believe. It is the news business, as a content endeavour, that I would like to look at though to see where a lesson or two for learning types may reside.

Grappling with SEO and displacement

I recall representing search engines at a media conference in the early 2000’s. The audience was mainly journalists and traditional media owners. They were unanimously frustrated by the low ranking their stories and content received in search results. SEO was a new discipline and the conventional wisdom stated that established media brands are trusted and should be prominent. Very often bloggers and independent content publishers would win out, with higher ranking due to the linking and meta data they instinctively applied as they worked. It was more relevant.

This was an unpopular conclusion to offer to the audience. It still resonates now, despite traditional media addressing the issue, in the main. For learning content producers and publishers, the lesson is about respecting the modes of discovery of your audience. We are not the only people defining relevance and our audience’s definition is always the right one. How many times has an “unofficial” YouTube video beaten out the genuine article, carefully created by approved experts and risen to the top of the ranking?

The destination, a destination or no destination?

Whatever traditional or mainstream news media is, it has an ongoing struggle with finding and retaining an audience. Historically, a news business had its paper, broadcast channels, website outlets and later, apps. The commercial logic required driving as large an audience as possible to these channels and keeping it there. (Website home pages were paramount resources at this time). Now news businesses need to find their traffic in a constantly evolving landscape in which social media have outstripped search by some margin as sources of news.  A website, or content portal if you like, is only one location for users. Other places need to be cultivated, such as WhatsApp groups and Facebook pages, as points of consumption or as distribution points to the central mothership. Content businesses have also grown with no dedicated destination on YouTube, for example. News services are also experimenting with only publishing on social media outlets, although the economics are unsteady, so far. News businesses have recognised that stories need to be found where audiences live, rather than persuading them t ive where you publish.

The learning world can look to these experiments and responses as useful options. Learning folks do like to produce content and content portals offer a seemingly endless repository for our creations. It is difficult, however, to make a learning resource an habitual destination. The imperative to find users and place content where they work and spend time is pressing. Distributing and promoting content across social channels is crucial, as is cross publishing on intranets, knowledge management services and emails. Arguably, as long as content usage is measured and the user can attribute it accurately to the creator, it does not matter where they find it and use it. This tide is too strong to fight.

One client is already moving their events activity onto Facebook Workplace, following the greater popularity and response on that platform. Service your audience where they reside.

It is not your community, it’s theirs

Most journalists I have worked with have been in thrall to Twitter and probably still are. It changed their game entirely. They arrived late to Facebook as a news resource but have started to get to grips with it as it swallows the world and other social platforms. In the earlier days of social networks, media owners and journalists used the networks as distribution channels only, favouring a one way pattern of usage over conversation. Gradually, as social media wisdom grew and depth of activity and loyalty could be more accurately measured, the realisation dawned that users prefer to be involved and are in control. These are not broadcast channels. Readership and community are not the same things.

Learning professionals are alive to social media and a great deal of thought and activity is focused on these platform as indispensable tools for learning. We do need to be alive to that broadcast mode of use still, I fear. Social tools are not only content distribution tools. At their best they are conversational and we cannot own that conversation in the way we may claim ownership of other spaces. Any social space that users appear in is theirs as much as ours and clumsy attempts at control need to be avoided. I suspect this is a greater risk in corporate social environments where ownership can be distorted simpley by the presence of the logo at the top of the screen.

Trust and fakery

What the news industry is now wrestling with in the world of social media is more existential. Trust is eroding rapidly as accusations of fakery and willful falsehood pollute public life. Expertise might not reliably signal authority as accusations of vested interest and bias are bandied around with little or no support. Troubling times. Fact checking and verification, once hygiene factors in journalistic production and investigation, are now services for readers.

As yet, the implications for learning are unclear (unclear to me anyway). Academics are freely targeted as sources of undesirable and unreliable ideas, their credentials treated with some suspicion. False prophets and bots are stinking up the world of news as we start to trust what we prefer and are manipulated in sophisticated ways. I have heard anecdotal evidence of mistrust of ‘corporate postings’ on workplace social platforms alongside the more frequent challenges against usefulness and relevance. Learning folks need to be alive to this change. We are right to value social tools and we need to guard their value in the gathering gloom. How expertise is presented needs some careful attention – direct access to experts is not the innocent experience it once was. Perhaps fact checking and verification signals can become part of the experience?

Breaking news

With each technological advance, news organisations have needed to respond to what “current” means. The daily news cycle is a quaint memory, replaced by rolling news and now by immediate coverage of events from smart phone touting witnesses as a matter of course. The definition of up to date is pretty much up to the minute now. Journalists are torn between speed of coverage and value and accuracy in reporting.

Learning professionals are unlikely to need to be current in quite this way. There is a growing pressure, though, from what users judge as new. Whilst we should not be too easily lead by a common definition of current, we probably don’t want to be drawn into defensive positions against curating old news either. I suspect this balance will need to be struck and re-struck as we feel our way forward. As always, the users definition of what is fresh and current will prevail, as usual, they are right.

Who is a journalist anyway?

This is probably the most troubling challenge for news organisations. The training and experience required to earn journalistic credentials are no longer a requisite in writing/videoing/recording, sharing and commenting on ‘the news’. We are all makers and spreaders of news now. There is little or no difference between a Facebook posting from a family member and one from the newsroom. We can all produce, post and share text, video and audio at a moments notice with checking with an editor or filing our copy. The news is now spread without the need for news organisations or the workforce the employ. We are as more likely to see a Tweet and video from a breaking news story or event before a news organisation can get there (with the attendant problems of verification and veracity).

What is the meaningful role of a new business in these circumstances? Commentary, analysis and sense-making seem like solid territory on which to build and useful new roles for the editorial brains to play. News businesses are now routinely packaging social media content from witnesses as part of their coverage – adding commentary and recognising that no workforce can compete with this newsgathering reach.

Learning professionals need to think hard about this. Not too long ago, it was harder to learn something without the intervention of a learning specialist and the services we manage. The reverse is now becoming true as learning services become less significant – even for the learning folks ourselves. It is easy to find reliable and well produced instructional content, expertise and experience is available directly and the formality of linear courses and events are ageing quickly. I believe that getting out of the way is a valuable response. Finding the equivalent activity to analysis and sense making is probably a good answer to mimic the news organisations but these are very different patterns of production and intervention.

Content shapes and sizes

Content formats are not what they used to be for journalists. An article for a newspaper website has been nudged into new shapes by blogs, a film for a TV outlet had to make way for viewing on the web and then on the phone. Everything needs to be shareable. The smartphone is the primary consumption device and one of the most useful tools for gathering and producing news content. Vertical video is now a thing (a real horror for the broadcast journalist).  And, everything is getting shorter. (Much shorter than this blog).

Many editorial voices have bemoaned the reduction of news stories to bitesize chunks to fit these new modes of use. Most have also realised the strength of the tide and swum with it in the end. News outlets have tried Vine, SnapChat, Facebook Live and will continue to try the next big thing.

Learning folks are alive to these developments, of course, but I fear that we are still deeply wedded to the course in the LMS as our primary format. It does not really work any more (if it ever did). We need to find new formats that respect the need for brevity and portability and also draw users in to experiences that justify greater attention over time. The advent of the long read (or its renaissance) indicates demand for the role of considered commentator and guide – a valuable role beyond breaking news stories. The rise of the playlist seems like a good nook to explore as well – Spotify is establishing a new role in the music industry alongside broadcast radio. We seem to like it, so far.The editorial voice can be expressed in a different context, not needing to carry the creation of the entire narrative.

And so…

None of the above observations are new or surprising. Perhaps, it is most useful to consider them as a whole and reflect on the fundamental changes to the operation of news production and publishing. An entire new industry is emerging from the new environment with new businesses offering new products and services. The news organisation is no longer required to own the printing press and the broadcast towers to reach its audience and inform them. Likewise, a learner no longer needs to rely on the mechanisms of a learning organisation to develop skills and understanding. Nor do they need to enlist the services of a trainer or instructional designer.

I think the news industry has travelled further faster and we could do worse than monitoring what they do next. News businesses have a commercial imperative to consider that most learning folks are insulated from. Sources of revenue are under pressure and readership does not match sales in the way it used to. Arguably, we are freer to experiment but slower to do so.

 

Making VR predictable

Much of my work in the last twelve months or so has been focused on a broad definition of user experience. By this I mean the more useful and perhaps difficult definition offered by the Nieslen Norman group. It runs thus:

User experience ” encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.”

I am not an interface designer (as any of you with even a passing acquaintance with me will testify). My efforts have been applied to more strategic questions around user experience: what is this thing for? Does anyone need it or feel motivated to use it? If so, can they find it? And so on…These are the broader themes of a genuinely useful experience.

In amongst this work has been the attempt to encourage folks to make their products and content predictable. In a digital context, predictable is good. It equates to ‘easy to use’ (and therefore, not annoying). It means that a system or a service is easy to understand and easy to learn. We can get used to it quickly.

In web and mobile terms, predictability requires using interface and design conventions. (Like predictable, conventional is a compliment as well). These conventions in include:

  • The back button
  • Uniform presentation of links
  • The hamburger menu device
  • Search
  • Consistent navigation and menu options
  • Clicking, swiping and pressing behaviours
  • Opening and closing windows
  • And many more….

Essentially, the advice tends to state that you can earn the right to delight your users if you treat them predictably first. Or, surprise them with care, perhaps. (Learning folks can often fall into the trap of trying to delight and engage users before the predictable foundations are in place. eLearning often falls into this trap).

Over the summer I ran a workshop on UX for a group of developers and designers who are making VR applications. This was a fascinating journey. Those conventions and the solid ground of predictability are not yet present. The conventions have yet to emerge. Tricky times for designers trying translate creative ideas into a usable VR package.

Marco Faccini and I discussed this problem at some length at Learning Live (do ask him, he knows more about it than I do). How best to guide a user through a VR experience? There is the equipment to consider, the selection of the application on the platform, opening, starting, orientation, interface isntructions…All this before the user gets into your carefully designed experience. The user can be tired out by this complexity, expending thinking energy on how to do stuff as well as what to do and what happened as a result.

Much VR needs to be explained before it is used. This can lapse back into the territory of needing to teach a user how to use a learning experience. “Tap the button on the side of the headset”, “focus the cross on the start logo” etc… (learning folks may well like this trip back to the future, I fear). Unpredictability carries a price for developers and an overhead of effort for users.

There are gaming conventions out there which many developers rely on to establish familiarity in VR applications. How many regular PC/console games are there in a corporate context though? Enough to be confident that those techniques will stick?  prehaps there is data available to support these decisions.

There is a further commercial implication of VR in a workplace setting. Many customers will need educating about the technology and how it can best be used. In this territory, familiarity for a customer may be the dreaded “course” which is a very weak metaphor for good VR (IMHO). A game is a good metaphor, of course, but good gaming experiences are costly and not easy to achieve. I would be even less confident that a customer will be able to accurately represent the response and needs of their colleagues in a VR environment. Stakeholders find it hard enough to reflect real user needs for a web page.

There is no substitute for trying things out and learning about VR from, erm, real experience. This can make for a complicated sales process though, on the agency side.

I am confident about the utility of VR as an option in the digital learning mix. It’s time is coming I am sure. One herald of the time arriving will be that it feels predictable as well as exciting.