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.



The device is not the user – the user is

Flicking through some conference notes this morning I noticed a quote from an event I attended last year. My notes are poor so I cannot attribute the quote. It was the 2016 version of this event. If you are responsible for it, or you know who may be, do let me know and I will attribute accordingly.

Here is what this wise person said about developing for mobile.

Think of a mobile phone as a customer, as a person, not as a device.

Reading this again, it struck me as blindingly obvious yet very helpful – a hallmark of much good advice. Short. Simple. Direct. Thank you.

As with most consideration of UX matters, a quick check of my own behaviour and expectations helps confirm the approach. There is also the simple fact that (most) devices do not work independently. They are the tools of the user. As tools, they are applied to a purpose, to the purpose of the user. Whilst consideration of how the device or the OS and software handles our content is crucial, it does not necessarily support the intent of the user.

I have been hung up on the challenge of rendering and presentation across devices and platforms in the past and have overlooked the user intent as a result. This is not an easy problem to solve. As always (and as I remind myself) the start point must be the user need. What is trying to be done? The device and presentation is, at least, secondary. As machine learning marches on, it is still useful to remember that there are organisms behind the machines.

What is, perhaps, importantly different about our mobile phones is how we personally attach to them. They are part of us and we imbue them with our selves as we use them. This brings a mobile phone interaction closer to us than with other devices. Close enough for us, as service providers, to pay extra care and attention. A dumb response on the phone feels dumber and more brutal than via the laptop browser I reckon. More care needs to be taken.

We also have some more particular needs on our phones. Time may be more pressured or more scarce, at least. We may not be sat attentively waiting to bathe in the wonder of that content. Standing, on the bus, in the supermarket, walking the dog. These are modes that require simplicity as well as brevity. At the very least,  they require choice. These are not device constraints they are the context of the user.

That context can be remarkably well defined on a phone as well. The amount of data available will vary from native to mobile app to mobile browser and from provider to provider. This data can describe a great deal about the user behind the device. To my mind any data we have needs to be handled responsibly. It needs to be put to good use or not gathered at all. The more data we hold form a device and it’s owner/user, the more utility and value we are responsible to offer. That’s what I expect on my phone, anyway.

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.

Let’s get beneath the shiny micro surface too

I have noticed a fair amount about micro learning this last week. I suspect it was always there but the algorithms placed it better for me. I am a fan of it (or what I think it to be). The idea of short, simple and relevant content to help me work things out and support rehearsal is what the web has always done so well.

It’s less obvious that it is still being done so well though. This excellent piece from Seth Godin brought that into clearer focus.

We can survive if we eat candy for an entire day, but if we put the greenmarkets out of business along the way, all that’s left is candy.

Candy is lovely. But only candy is unhealthy. Not only for the eater but for the production system too. The healthy alternatives are starved of income and wither. This is now a existential problem for news providers. Frothy clickbait seems to be the only model that advertising can support. It is training a generation (may generations) of information consumers to expect little to no effort in their diet. Small gobbets of low fibre information roll effortlessly across the feeds of our media world and reinforce the notion that effort and enquiry might not be required.

So, whilst I will champion the short, relevant content slice falling exactly at the point of need, I aso intend to return to the thought provoking and challenging experiences that call for attention and reward great effort. A long read is often a good read and the Godfather II repays the concentrated time spent after all those years.

My A level English lecturer always emphasised to his room of teenage students that “great art requires great effort” (most often when he was trying to encourage focus on TS Eliot). As usual, my seventeen year old perception cold not make as much of that as it now can. The point stands though. Micro learning or miro content, or whatever, is undeniably useful and probably a good tool for most requirements. But not at the expense of substance.

My A level lecturer was not crude enough to use the “must try harder” evaluation but I think it may also be a useful catchphrase to warn against the current information malaise.

Bubbles, filters, fakery and social limits

I need some help. This filter bubble idea is really eating away at me.

The promise of open and direct communication with everyone or anyone at any moment gripped me with some excitement for many years. Having worked in digital advertising and in broadcasting for large portions of my professional life, I found the revolution of personal media to be genuinely thrilling.  Finally, the ramparts of corporate communications would be breached. The imperial editors and commissioners would be dethroned. We, the blogging people, would transform the production and access of information. It would be ours. Mine. To do with as we wished.

I think, for a while, this was true. Twitter really fueled this change. Everyone had a broadcast voice. Truth was spoken to power and intermediaries were dissed. For me, Stephen Fry, reaching one million followers on Twitter was a seminal moment. Here was someone who could now reach his global audience without the need of an agent, a distributor or a schedule. An inversion of the old ways. He became storyteller, agent, publisher, producer, distributor and promoter. All from one keyboard.

Those were the good old days of Twitter. That was before the trolls infected the blood of the organism. Before the anger and bitterness broke – wave after wave. That ability to create and communicate directly also produced the ability to shout, abuse and hate directly.  Many of us may have experienced a glancing blow from this force over the years. I imagine many of us are luckier than someone like Leslie Jones, however. She dared to be female and black and in a sci-fi movie. Twitter was violently unhappy.

Meanwhile, in media and learning circles, Facebook was not taken so seriously. Few of the journalists I worked with were much bothered by it. (They were entranced by Twitter, however). Belatedly, most of us now stand in awe at the power of the business. Facebook is more than a window on the world. It is the world. The liberty from the editorial barons has been replaced by a tyranny of filter bubbles and an emerging fake news industry. The wonderful ability for the internet to connect us with like minds has become fly paper, sticking those like minds together.

The Facebook alchemy that creates the glue binding us to our bubbles is obscure. We know it reacts to likes and shares. To attention. Bringing us more of what we seem to enjoy. How it is done is hard to discern. The fraction we see of our feeds is both pleasing to us and profitable for Facebook. It is no more true of all the content created than the editors slice was of the news available in the broadcast model.

I did think that social media offered us the chance to learn directly from all. That seemed so natural to me. The poverty of deep interaction never really worried me. Most of us are pretty happy with pictures of our kids, our food and holidays. Profundity is rare for a reason. This never stopped social media from being interesting and useful though. I could and still can learn simply and quickly from an array of experts at the swipe of a screen.

A number of calls have been made to strengthen the role of the ‘curator’ in the social world. A class of folk who can verify the data and warn the unguarded against fakery, abuse and howling anger. This is a worthy aim but no better than the editorial fiefdoms of old, I fear. This is an expensive solution too – these are new roles. Educators and learning professionals see a role here – mediating, trimming and cleaning the social world of their learners. This feels like grasping hold of the past a little too tightly in search of a relevant role. It also seems very difficult to achieve. How do we qualify for these roles? How do we know best or better?

I would rather we found means of raising the social tide above the effluent line and finding new sources of value in that always-on, direct access world. This probably means educating each other, supporting constructive behaviour and sharing beyond our bubbles. (That last one is really hard to sustain). Will we be rewarded for good social citizenship?

I can’t tell now whether I am jaded or optimistic. What do you think? Is there a problem to fix or do I just need a bit of a rest?


Design for users not for learners

This thought has been rattling around my mind for some time now. Possibly for years, in fact. It was nudged to the front by a recent debate about the merit of user needs analysis versus learning needs analysis. The LNA acronym is a foundational feature of the L&D world. It is a given. Thus, not having one feels like a high stakes risk.

To be clear, the debate I was part of did not consist of any denial of an LNA. The conversation turned around how helpful one is without broader understanding of user needs. To be even clearer, the context of discussion was the best route to researching a digital learning experience. Knowing what folks need or want to learn is crucial – universal agreement in that one. Also a universally emerging realisation hung in the air that is is not enough.

LNA is necessary but not sufficient. I think this was our conclusion. We need to know what the learning needs are but more than that, we need to know why. What does the learner need the learning for? Learning itself is rarely the goal. It is a route to another destination. Often a requisite route but not the whole deal. Think of the ocean of ‘How to..’ videos on YouTube. They are not there for the sake of learning. They help us get stuff done.

This is where a solid and proper user experience analysis offers a stronger foundation. UX, properly considered, will discover, analyse and define the entire experience that satisfies a user need. Hopefully, only one need. Or, one at a time. Moments of learning and knowledge acquisition will be in there, amongst other elements. Things like, discovery (with it’s own foundation, search), reading, watching, listening, communicating, writing, producing, clicking, swiping, sharing, commenting, saving, to name a few, are also likely to be critical to a helpful experience. These may or may not be learning moments but the learning will not happen without them. The learning will not happen without a well designed and focused whole experience – a problem solved or a need met.

Knowing how these tools and behaviours fit together will start to shape a good UX outcome. What the content is and how it can be used is likely to shape a good learning outcome within that. I think (still thinking see) that learning design (and learning designers) needs to extend its reach and start to take UX design into account. This is what is fashionably called design thinking these days. As with any good fashion, this discipline or method or way of thinking has been around for 20 years or so by now. Only more recently has it been packaged to seem like a trend. I am too old to be fashionable but old enough to recognise the value of this method throughout my (digital) working life.