Transformers

Posted 1 September 2020 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: instructional design, training

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It seems like everyone’s spruiking the “new normal” of work.

The COVID-19 pandemic is keeping millions of previously office-bound employees at home, forcing L&D professionals to turn on a dime.

Under pressure to maintain business continuity, our profession has been widely congratulated for its herculean effort in adapting to change.

I’m not so generous.

Our typical response to the changing circumstances appears to have been to lift and shift our classroom sessions over to webinars.

In The next normal, which I published relatively early during lockdown, several of my peers and I recognised the knee-jerk nature of this response.

And that’s not really something that ought to be congratulated.

Who led the digital transformation of your company? The CEO (incorrect), The CTO (incorrect), COVID-19 (correct)

For starters, the virus exposed a shocking lack of risk management on our part. Digital technology is hardly novel, and our neglect in embracing it left us unprepared for when we suddenly needed it.

Look no further than the Higher Education sector for a prime example. They’re suffering a free-fall in income from international students, despite the consensus that people can access the Internet from other countries.

Beyond our misgivings with technology, moreover, the virus has also shone a light on our pedagogy. The broadcast approach that we deliver virtually today is largely a continuation of our practice pre-pandemic. It wasn’t quite right then, and it isn’t quite right now. In fact, isolation, digital distractions and Zoom fatigue probably make it worse.

I feel this is important to point out because the genie is out of the bottle. Employee surveys reveal that the majority of us either don’t want to return to the office, or we’ll want to split our working week at home. That means while in-person classes can resume, remote learning will remain the staple.

So now is our moment of opportunity. In the midst of the crisis, we have the moral authority to mature our service offering. To innovate our way out of the underwhelming “new normal” and usher in the modern “next normal”.

In some cases that will mean pivoting away from training in favour of more progressive methodologies. While I advocate these, I also maintain that direct instruction is warranted under some circumstances. So instead of joining the rallying cry against training per se, I propose transforming it so that it becomes more efficient, engaging and effective in our brave new world.

Transformer-style toy robot

Good things come in small packages

To begin, I suggest we go micro.

So-called “bite sized” pieces of content have the dual benefit of not only being easier to process from a cognitive load perspective, but also more responsive to the busy working week.

For example, if we were charged with upskilling our colleagues across the business in Design Thinking, we might kick off by sharing Chris Nodder’s 1.5-minute video clip in which he breaks the news that “you are not your users”.

This short but sweet piece of content piques the curiosity of the learner, while introducing the concept of Empathize in the d.school’s 5-stage model.

We’re all in this together

Next, I suggest we go social.

Posting the video clip to the enterprise social network seeds a discussion, by which anyone and everyone can share their experiences and insights, and thus learn from one another.

It’s important to note that facilitating the discussion demands a new skillset from the trainer, as they shift their role from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side”.

It’s also important to note that the learning process shifts from synchronous to asynchronous – or perhaps more accurately, semi-synchronous – empowering the learner to consume the content at a time that is most convenient for them (rather than for the L&D department).

There is no try

Next, I suggest we go practical.

If the raison d’être of learning & development is to improve performance, then our newly acquired knowledge needs to be converted into action.

Follow-up posts on the social network shift from the “what” to the “how”, while a synchronous session in the virtual classroom enables the learner to practise the latter in a safe environment.

Returning to our Design Thinking example, we might post content such as sample questions to ask prospective users, active listening techniques, or an observation checklist. The point of the synchronous session then is to use these resources – to stumble and bumble, receive feedback, tweak and repeat; to push through the uncomfortable process we call “learning” towards mastery.

It’s important to recognise the class has been flipped. While time off the floor will indeed be required to attend it, it has become a shorter yet value-added activity focusing on the application of the knowledge rather than its transmission.

Again, it’s also important to note that facilitating the flipped class demands a new skillset from the trainer.

A journey of a thousand miles

Next, I suggest we go experiential.

Learning is redundant if it fails to transfer into the real world, so my suggestion is to set tasks or challenges for the learner to do back on the job.

Returning to our Design Thinking example, we might charge the learner with empathising with a certain number of end users in their current project, and report back their reflections via the social network.

In this way our return on investment begins immediately, prior to moving on to the next stage in the model.

Pics or it didn’t happen

Finally, I suggest we go evidential.

I have long argued in favour of informalising learning and formalising its assessment. Bums on seats misses the point of training which, let’s remind ourselves again, is to improve performance.

How you learned something is way less interesting to me than if you learned it – and the way to measure that is via assessment.

Returning to our Design Thinking example, we need a way to demonstrate the learner’s mastery of the methodology in a real-world context, and I maintain the past tense of open badges fits the bill.

In addition to the other benefits that badges offer corporates, the crux of the matter is that a badge must be earned.

Informalise learning. Formalise its assessment.

I am cognisant of the fact that my proposal may be considered heretical in certain quarters.

The consumption of content on the social network, for example, may be difficult to track and report. But my reply is “so what” – we don’t really need to record activity so why hide it behind the walls of an LMS?

If the openness of the training means that our colleagues outside of the cohort learn something too, great! Besides, they’ll have their own stories to tell and insights to share, thereby enriching the learning experience for everyone.

Instead it is the outcome we need to focus on, and that’s formalised by the assessment. Measure what matters, and record that in the LMS.

In other words, the disruptive force of the COVID-19 pandemic is an impetus for us to reflect on our habits. The way it has always been done is no substitute for the way it can be done better.

Our moment has arrived to transform our way out of mode lock.

The leader’s new clothes

Posted 15 July 2020 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: leadership development, management training

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From $7 billion to nearly $14 billion.

That’s how much the spend on leadership training by American corporations grew over the preceding 15 years, according to Kaiser and Curphy in their 2013 paper Leadership development: The failure of an industry and the opportunity for consulting psychologists.

Over that same period we witnessed the bursting of the dot-com bubble, the implosion of Enron, and of course the Global Financial Crisis. While the causes of these unfortunate events are complicated, our leaders were evidently ill-equipped to prevent them.

Despite the billions of dollars’ worth of training invested in them.

Undressed mannequins in a shop window

For a long time I felt like the child who could see the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes. Then Jeffrey Pfeffer visited Sydney.

Pfeffer is the Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. He was promoting a book he had published, Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time, in which he states what I (and no doubt many others) had been thinking: leadership training is largely ineffective.

At a breakfast seminar I attended, the professor demonstrated how decades of development had no positive impact on metrics such as employee engagement, job satisfaction, leader tenure, or leader performance. He posited numerous reasons for this, all of them compelling.

Today I’d humbly like to add one more to the mix: I believe managers get “leadership” training when what they really need is “management” training.

They’re entreated to be best practice before they even know what to do. It’s the classic putting of the cart before the horse.

For example, the managers in an organisation might attend a workshop on providing effective feedback, leveraging myriad models and partaking in roleplays; when what they really need to know is they should be having an hour-long 1:1 conversation with each of their team members every fortnight.

Other examples include training in unconscious bias, emotional intelligence and strategic thinking; yet they don’t know how to hire new staff, process parental leave, or write a quarterly business plan. Worse still, many won’t realise they’re expected to do any of that until the horse has bolted.

I’m not suggesting leadership training is unimportant. On the contrary it’s critical. What I am saying is that it’s illogical to buy our managers diamond cufflinks when they don’t yet own a shirt.

At this juncture I think semantics are important. I propose the following:

  • Management training is what to do and how to do it.
  • Leadership training is how to do it better.

In other words, management training is the nuts & bolts. The foundation. It’s what our expectations are of you in this role, and how to execute those expectations – timelines, processes, systems, etc. It focuses on minimum performance to ensure it gets done.

In contrast, leadership training drives high performance. Now you’ve got the fundamentals under your belt, here’s how to broaden diversity when hiring new staff. Here’s how to motivate and engage your team. Here’s how to identify opportunities for innovation and growth.

$14 billion is a lot of money. Let’s invest it in a new wardrobe, starting with the underwear.

Yellow submarine

Posted 23 June 2020 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: analysis

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Years ago, I remember taking a tour of what was then one of those newfangled “innovation labs”.

A hive of Design Thinking, it was crawling with serious young people in jeans and t-shirts scribbling on walls and rearranging herds of post-it notes.

In an otherwise old-fashioned financial services organisation, it was an impressive tilt towards modernisation and true customer centricity (beyond the warm and fuzzy TV commercials).

After our guide had finished explaining this brave new world to the group, one of us asked him to share a project he’d been working on. He proudly explained how the year prior, the lab had applied the progressive methodology to the development of a new product which had, finally, launched.

Which begged the next question… How many new customers did it sign up? His straight-faced answer: Seven.

Seven!

For a bank with literally millions of customers, this was astounding. And he didn’t seem all that bothered by it. The apparent solution was to go back to the drawing board and try again.

While still doing the math in my head to calculate the negative return on investment, I stumbled upon the myth of The Yellow Walkman. I neither confirm nor deny its veracity, but Alexander Cowan recounts it as follows in his article Yellow Walkman Data & the Art of Customer Discovery:

Close-up of a yellow Walkman

Sony’s conducting a focus group for a yellow ‘sport’ Walkman. After assembling their ‘man/woman on the street’ contingent, they ask them ‘Hey, how do you like this yellow Walkman?’ The reception’s great. ‘I love that yellow Walkman – it’s so sporty!’ ‘Man, would I rather I have a sweet yellow Walkman instead of a boring old black one.’

While everyone’s clinking glasses, someone had the insight to offer the participants a Walkman on their way out. They can choose either the traditional black edition or the sporty new yellow edition – there are two piles of Walkmans on two tables on the way out. Everyone takes a black Walkman.

It’s an old story, but its message remains relevant today. Because humans are terrible at predicting their own behaviour.

You see, talk is cheap. Everyone has great ideas… when someone else has to implement them. And if you ask someone point blank if they want something, nine times out of ten they’ll say yes. Then they never use it and you’re left carrying the can wondering where you went wrong.

We see this kind of thing all the time in workplace learning and development. Someone in the business will demand we build an online course, which no one will launch; or a manager will pull a capability out of thin air, oblivious to the real needs of their team.

As Cowan suggests, this can be mitigated by thoughtful questioning that avoids the solution-first trap. And of course the point of the MVP approach that’s championed by Design Thinking minimises any losses by failing fast.

But we can do something else before we get to that point: validate.

In the yellow Walkman example, Cowan offers:

Sony’s product designer mocks up several colors of Walkman and puts together some kind of an ordering page with the options. Focus group subjects (or just online visitors) are allowed to pre-order what they want. This gets you the same result without having to actually produce a whole bunch of yellow (or whatever) Walkmans.

In the L&D context, I suggest complementing our TNA consultations with assessments. So the team needs to develop x capability? Test it. They’re all over y competency? Test it.

And it needn’t be expensive nor onerous. A micro-assessment approach should be sufficient to expose the blindspots.

By validating your qualitative data with quantitative data, you’re building extra confidence into your bet and maximising its probability of success.

Lest it sink like a yellow submarine.

The next normal

Posted 4 May 2020 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: future, learning and development

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The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a new normal for L&D professionals as millions of people were sent home to work remotely.

While many of us had been offering online courses and other alternatives to in-person training for years, suddenly nothing could be run in a traditional classroom setting; and so as a collective we’ve been forced to shift learning and development online.

Tweet by ryantracey: Suddenly management is interested in digital self-directed learning

Despite my tongue-in-cheek tweet however, digital self-directed learning hasn’t become the norm. On the contrary, the conventional response to the changing circumstances appears to have been to convert classroom sessions into webinars. I’m not anti-webinar per se, but I must admit to being a tad disappointed by our propensity to blindly perpetuate old approaches on another medium.

Just like in-person training, webinars have their place, but I dared to dream that our mass isolation might stoke more creative solutions beyond the same man in a different hat.

Or maybe I’m being too quick to judge. It’s only been a few months since lockdown, and everyone’s been scrambling to keep business continuity ticking over. Maybe the “new normal” is merely short term; perhaps over time our solutions will diversify.

Looking further ahead, I’m wondering what will happen as governments ease restrictions and we return to the office. Will we revert to our previous ways, or is the genie out of the bottle?

Of course no one can know for sure, so I did the next best thing: inspired by the jelly-beans-in-the-jar experiment, I decided to defer to the wisdom of the crowd. Specifically, I invited a shortlist of L&D practitioners around the world to answer the following question:

How will the COVID-19 pandemic impact learning and development in the long term?

Here are their responses…

A hand on a computer mouse, with a face mask in the background.

Taruna Goel (Canada)

“The one thing I am curious about is the impact of quarantine, social distancing and remote work on memory, cognition, learning and behaviour. As much as technology is helping us in the short-term, we are already seeing the impact of too many synchronous video calls in the form of ‘Zoom fatigue’.

L&D will need to critically explore the challenges of remote working and remote learning. Workplace learning and development will need to be guided by evidence-based research practices that consider factors including online distraction, laptop fatigue, work productivity along with employee mental health, emotional well-being and stress levels in a post-pandemic, technology-driven world.

If working collaboratively, from a distance, is the new normal in the long term, it will need the acquisition of new skills, attitudes and mindsets for optimum work performance. L&D will need to take the lead and enable the development of these skills, attitudes and mindsets. L&D will need to create the channels of learning, growth, communication and sharing and help employees learn new ways of working efficiently and effectively.

This does not mean more elearning, virtual webinars and online video meetings. Instead, I hope to see L&D step in as the curator of learning and connector of shared experiences, enabling employees to be more autonomous and self-directed in their continuous learning journeys.”

Mike Taylor (United States)

“After going through the experience of this pandemic, I think one of the silver linings for L&D will be that we will have tried a lot of new ways of thinking. We haven’t really had a choice have we?

One of the biggest changes should be a shift from the traditional focus on static stocks of knowledge (a course mindset) to consideration for information flows. Courses are time-consuming, expensive and most of them start to become out-dated as soon as they are created.

With the speed of today’s world and the shrinking shelf life of knowledge, we should be enabling our organizations to continually refresh their knowledge by participating in relevant flows of new knowledge. To quote Mark Britz, ‘The expectation has to change to where many people create and consume, learning together continuously.’

That means doing more curating from experts. It means helping the experts learn efficient ways to work out loud and share what they know. It means helping everyone ‘learn how to learn’ and take ownership of their own personal knowledge management process.

Think of knowledge like a virus. Unlike Corona, we actually want that to spread quickly. We should be scaling up channels to help people have conversations about what they’re learning. How can we use technology to put people into the same digital spaces to help learning ‘go viral’?

Instead of simply replicating classroom experiences in an online environment, this is an opportunity shift our thinking to consider a broad spectrum of alternatives. There will never be a better opportunity for tapping social tools like Microsoft Teams, Yammer, Jive, etc to unlock the knowledge trapped in the LMS and other stores of information all through your organization. That is just one of many possibilities. Look outside your organization to see what others are doing. The important thing is to try new things… experiment with new, better ideas. Call it a ‘pilot’ – isn’t everything right now a pilot anyway? Ask for forgiveness instead of permission. Just do it.

In our new world the skill of learning is becoming more important than ever before. As Jack Welch once said, ‘An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.'”

Mayra Aixa Villar (Argentina)

“I’m a very optimistic and positive person but I am afraid that COVID-19 will stay with us for a long time, unfortunately. And this will greatly affect in-person education and training.

The challenge for L&D professionals is to start thinking about more creative ways of helping organizations and institutions make digital learning not only more engaging but also more accessible to all as we adjust to this new normal.

I know that we always talk about creating more engaging online experience, but this time it will be more than a wish. Think about all the classes that used to be face to face and were designed that way for a specific reason. Classes where students need hands-on practice or classes where close interaction with a mentor or a tutor was absolutely necessary for the learners to successfully complete a task. Organizations and institutions now need quick and creative solutions to be able to deliver online education and effectively compensate for the lack of interactions between instructors and students.

Also, we need to start thinking beyond traditional learning environments and start considering the conditions and characteristics of learners in different countries. Uploading a document to a platform or delivering a webinar is not a solution. L&D professionals need to consider – more than ever before – the restrictions some learners may face. There are people who don’t have access to the Internet, who don’t own a computer, who don’t feel comfortable using technology. Still, we need to be able to offer educational resources to these children, teenagers, and adults who won’t be able to attend in-person classes.

I think that L&D professionals will have to lead the way in terms of reshaping delivery methods to make education more effective, engaging, and accessible to all.”

Ger Driesen (The Netherlands)

“I think in the long run, not so much. The COVID-19 crisis will be ‘just a spike’ in history. It will have a big impact as a ‘generation marker’ in the minds of those who do have the ‘heavy’ experience now. It will be a big ‘do you remember 2020’ event that we will talk about for many years to come. But on a real practical side it will have minor impact on L&D.

First, there will be a ‘push’ to everything ‘online learning’ like we see now. During this stage of panic we will accept online solutions that are good enough for now but not for the longer run. Those L&D professionals (including providers) who were ‘prepared’ (already did their thinking and experimenting with all things online) will benefit from the current situation.

Partly L&D stuff that moved online, for topics and situations that make sense, will stay online. Companies and learners who were hesitant will now have the experience that it can work ‘just fine’, sometimes even better, and realise it’s more practical and efficient to do some learning online and want to keep doing it that way.

But there will also be a ‘bounce back’. People were, are and will be ‘social animals’ and will always appreciate and value real-life face-to-face events related to other topics of learning. My prediction (which I’ve shared for about 2 years) that ‘vintage classroom training’ will be ‘hot’ in the near future might get an impulse soon.

To recap: it will help us for a more clear distinction and deliberate choice on what kind of L&D stuff we need/want to do online and which part face-to-face, and find better, well considered ‘blends’ over time.

There is one more thing and in fact hope I’d like to add. For many people, life slowed down during the crisis. Slowing down is great for learning. I hope that slowing down once in a while will become more appreciated and also will become a regular building block of L&D solutions. Stay healthy, stay safe, keep learning!”

Belen Casado (Spain)

“That’s a tricky question, as we can never tell how the future will be. But I think that professionals will try to stick to working from home and attending courses through tools such as Zoom.

What I’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic is that people value being able to interact with others. So students value interacting both with their teachers and their peers. This does NOT happen in the usual click-and-read course – that’s why it always had a high rate of abandonment.

Students also value – a lot – seeing their teachers alive, even if the quality of the image is not so good or the background is their own house. We’ve spent a lot of money in the past creating professional videos that weren’t that appealing as they were made by actors who just read the content.

It’s not only that click-and-read courses are boring – or frustrating if they’re locked – it’s that students need to see ‘people’ who are ‘alive’ and feel human, who motivate them to attend the course. In a way, seeing their teachers makes them feel ‘seen’.

So if we want to succeed in the new e-learning world, I think we need to add more live interaction, especially with students being in the centre of such communication, i.e. delivering assignments in video or in the form of webinars. That way, they’ll be really seen.”

Gautam Ghosh (India)

“There are two aspects: in the larger business context, as most companies struggle for survival, many of the traditional long-term learning interventions will be put on hold – especially those that are in-person and cost a lot of money. These would move to more online delivery of content, however in the short term that might lead to a bad learner experience – especially if the facilitator is new to online facilitation, and trying to replicate the offline model online.

Secondly, in the long term I am hopeful that the L&D function would morph into a much more integrated part of an employee’s and the business’ growth journey. Many employees are upskilling and crafting their career journeys with their own hands and L&D needs to have a deeper conversation on how to build this community of learners within and without the organizational boundaries.”

Ryan Tracey (Australia)

And so back to me.

I agree with my learned colleagues that the short-term response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been a knee-jerk reaction. But that’s understandable. Done is better than perfect, so it’s perfectly logical for us to use the tools at our disposal (such as a webinar platform) to meet our urgent training needs.

I also agree with my colleagues’ consensus that the sophistication of our service offering will evolve. To remain effective, our solutions need to become more accessible, blended, curated, social, interactive, reflective and self navigated.

And I feel it’s important to recognise that the challenges of remote learning won’t dissipate when we return to the office. Having caught the working-from-home bug myself, I’m keen to split my week going forward – and I’m sure I won’t be the only one. That means while we’ll rightly put in-person classes back on the agenda, we’ll still need to serve our target audiences from afar.

Thus, among the human tragedy a glimmer of goodness may result from this crisis: a provocation to change learning and development for the better.

The next normal.

Unhappy sheets

Posted 7 April 2020 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: evaluation

Tags: , , , , , ,

Few things in the L&D profession attract as much disdain as the Level 1 evaluation survey.

Known colloquially as the “happy sheet”, the humble questionnaire is typically considered too onerous, too long, too shallow, and it gives whiners a platform to complain about the sandwiches or the air conditioning.

A finger selecting an unhappy face in a poll on a tablet

And yet a long time ago, someone told me something that has stuck with me ever since: you don’t want to not do it.

Why? Well first of all, it’s easy. Given the availability of online forms these days, rustling one up is like falling of a log, and the back-end compilation of the results is rather impressive.

And the survey shouldn’t be too long; that’s the fault of its design, not of the concept. In fact, I advocate only two questions…

  1. The net promoter: How likely are you to recommend this learning experience to a colleague?

  2. The open-ended: How might we improve this learning experience?

The net promoter score (NPS) has itself been criticised, but I like it because it’s a simple number that’s easy to track and report. By no means an in-depth analysis, it’s a summary indicator to keep an eye on. The standard to which it adheres is quite high – a promoter is a 9 or a 10 – and a negative score is a sure-fire sign you’re not hitting the mark.

The open-ended question shores up the NPS by enabling the respondent to explain their rating. If there’s a problem, this is where it will appear.

Indeed, the sandwiches and the air conditioning are favourite punching bags, but we L&D pro’s do bang on a lot about the learning environment. You don’t get much more environmental than shelter and sustenance, so why not turn the dial and mix up the menu?

A vegetable sandwich on a plate

I also advocate the following…

  • Resist asking the participants to hand their feedback to you in person; or worse, share it aloud. This will probably result in platitudes which – unless that’s what you’re really after – are effectively useless.

  • Allow the participants to submit their feedback anonymously. Again, you want them to be honest. If they lie, your organisational culture has way bigger issues to address!

  • Allow the provision of feedback to be voluntary. You need actionable insights, so invite only the feedback that someone feels strongly enough is worthwhile actioning.

  • Invite feedback less frequently over time. We all suffer from survey fatigue, so after you’ve got a good gauge of what’s going on, keep your finger on the pulse with the occasional spot check.

If we look at Level 1 evaluation through this lens, we consider the feedback form less a “happy sheet” and more an “unhappy sheet”. It exposes hidden ailments that you can subsequently remedy.

It’s not the be-all-and-end-all of evaluation, nor is it meant to be. Rather, it’s the canary in the coal mine that alerts you to a risk before it gets any worse.