Monday, February 28, 2011

Learning about grief

As I muddle along through this lifelong, lifewide learning journey, I find that the toughest lessons are the ones about being human. About human experience.

A friend of mine recently lost her sister to cancer. She had been doing very well, and then suddenly she was gone. My friend and her family are grieving. This is the normal way of things. Hard as it is to deal with, this is how we more or less expect it to happen. Which is not to say that it's neat and tidy. Far from it. But it's more or less 'the norm'.

Another friend miscarried twins and then, just as she was coming to terms with that loss, lost her father. Once again, her sense of loss was in step with the loss itself (although some of her friends considered the extent and duration of her grief over the twins to be self-indulgent, and broke contact with her). On Facebook and Twitter, she started discussions about the different models of loss and grief, and the stages one goes through.

But that got me to thinking about the times when the grief is out of step with the loss.

I recently learned that a friend of mine from college days died of drug abuse (I haven't had all the details) about 15 years ago. The fact that I only learned about it now is an indication of the fact that we had lost contact. But we were friends, once. So I found myself... 'grieving' is perhaps too strong a word, but I did experience sorrow, about 15 years after the event. It felt odd being out of step with the people who shared the news with me. They had been there at the time. They had grieved when it happened. For them it is a healed wound. For me, the process is just beginning.

It made me think of the experiences of one woman I knew whose (widowed) mother had dementia. Whenever she visited the nursing home, she found her mother anxious to get home to prepare her husband's dinner. Initially, she would gently remind her mother that her father had died many years previously. But the staff at the home advised her against this approach. They explained that, because of the dementia, every time she heard the news was like the first time, and the grief was sharp and present, rather than a memory. Instead, they suggested that she simply reassure her mother about her late father's dinner requirements and move on to other topics.

On Friday, I learned that another friend has terminal lung cancer (note the ubiquitous cigarette in the photo in the link) and lymphoma . Although we are Facebook friends, it has been many years since we were the sort of friends who spent easy hours in each other's company, and who performed musical revues together. I will probably never see him again. So, although he is still alive, I find that my grieving process has already begun.

Grief is a slippery thing. It doesn't colour inside the lines, and it doesn't progress as it should. Just when you think you have a handle on things, something happens to open that Tupperware cupboard, and it all comes tumbling out. It was fully ten years after my maternal grandmother's death before I stopped thinking, "I must ask Granny..." She was the person to whom I turned with all my questions about cookery and needlecraft. Even twenty years after she was gone, I made a mess trying out her Christmas cake recipe and was in floods of tears because I couldn't ask her what I had done wrong.

Being human is very complicated, very messy and somewhat unpredictable. But we insist on coming up with models to try to tidy it up.

If you're grieving today, whether it is in step or out of step, whether it is appropriate or not, and even if your friends have utterly lost patience with your inability to 'pull yourself together', consider yourself hugged.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Frustrated by a non-learning moment

So I recently got some new specs. Two pairs. Because I'm that old. One pair for reading. One pair for getting through the day without falling over or having a car crash.

The latter pair cost an arm and a leg, and comes complete with designer label... among other things.

Starting from top left of the picture and working our way down we have:
  • The case, with a Velcro strap thingy which can convert into a nifty little handle (although I can't think of a single situation in which I would need to use a handle to carry my glasses case!),
  • the specs themselves, all gorgeous and pink,
  • a little booklet, containing the guarantee information in about a gazillion languages,
  • a little lens cleaning cloth, pristine white (with logo, of course) in a little plastic bag, and...
  • ???

Let's take a closer look at the mystery item.

It's a little resealable plastic bag containing:

Here we have about 25cm (10" give or take) of cat gut and about 15cm (6") of 4mm wide, white florist's ribbon. There are no instructions, no labels.

I have posted that last picture on Facebook and Twitter, but no-one has yet said, "Oh yes! I know what that is. It's a...." One person did suggest that it was meant for running repairs in the future, which is entirely possible, but I can't imagine what repairs I might carry out using these bits and bobs. I have visited the D&G site (which takes quite a while to load), but there doesn't seem to be a page on which I can find the purpose of these items.

I hate not knowing stuff!

Do I throw these things away? Do I store them in my jewellery box?

Any suggestions?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Addressing client mindsets

Over the past few weeks, in a range of different situations, I have bumped into a few assumptions that I have had to challenge. Working as a consultant, I regard it as part of my job to challenge existing mindsets where necessary. I also have no qualms about doing so within my community of practice.

So let's take a look at some of the issues I've addressed... and how:

"We need to track learning"
First of all, you can't track learning. The only way you can tell whether somebody has taken something on board is to observe their behaviour in the workplace. If it changes to incorporate the new material/process/whatever... then they have learned something. The best thing you can do is track access to learning materials. This is no indication that learning has taken place. If person X simply clicks 'next' every few seconds and keeps going right to the end, your LMS is going to tell you that they have successfully completed the course.

It is true that certain levels of tracking will allow you to check how long a user spent on each page, from which you can draw realistic conclusions about whether or not they actually read the material on each page, but whoa! Who is actually going to do this job? Whose time can you afford to allocate to this task when there is so much real work to be done? And once they have identified that person X failed to spend long enough on pages 12, 45 and 67, what then? Are you really going to go after them with a big stick and force them to go back and do those pages again?

"We must have an assessment"
Let's just make one thing totally clear: a series of multiple choice questions with options such that even the average Joe from off the street could select the correct answer, is not an assessment. It's an attendance register. Okay?

If yours is a regulated industry and you are obliged to have some kind of butt-covering tick box, then fine. But let's not pretend to each other that it is anything other than that. If this is not the case, why exactly do you want an assessment? You could provide a few thought provoking scenarios. I'm all in favour of that, but do you really need to record some kind of test score? Would something along these lines not suffice?

Once again, the best way to assess whether people have learned anything is in the form of observable behaviour change on the job.

"People need to know this"
Really? Why? Because they need to observe it? Ah. So what you're actually after is not that they should know something, but that they should do something, right? Can we agree that knowing is not necessarily linked to doing? How many people know what the speed limit is in any given area? How many people observe it? Knowing isn't the goal.

Besides, let's face it, most 'policies' are pretty much common sense recorded in formal language with too many commas. In cases like this, I refer people to Cathy Moore's action mapping post. I've lost count of the number of people with whom I've shared that post!

"We need a half-hour elearning course on xyz"
Mostly when L&D people get this sort of request, they just nod and get on with it. I'd like to encourage them to push back. C'mon people: add a little value, already! Ask these questions:
  • Why?
  • What is it for?
  • What will people do differently afterwards?
  • Which of the organisation's strategic goals are being addressed, here?
Do you really need an 'elearning course'? Could not just distribute a pdf? When I suggest this, I am often told that the people don't read pdfs. Well, let me share a little secret with you: people don't read information dump-type elearning courses, either. So don't go that route. This takes us back to the Cathy Moore post I referred to above - a far better way of addressing policy changes.

"How can we design this so that it fits with what we can do in Articulate/Packager/X-tool?"
I get really uncomfortable when people adopt this approach. When they have a hammer and try to figure out ways to turn everything into a nail. Does it have to be shiny? Sometimes the answer is absolutely yes, but not as often as we are led to believe. Sometimes all you need is a simple roadmap diagram, or a list of procedural steps with a list of links to user generated screen capture videos or testimonial video clips taken with web/flip cameras.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Relieved of the need to think

I was recently at an event planning meeting in which I heard that the local doctors in our town find it very hard to live up to the expectations of the very large Polish population we have. Apparently, "Their expectations are very high," and their confidence in British doctors very low. I was the only non-British person present at the meeting, and it was pointed out with some surprise that Poles know "the names of all the different types of doctors" and expect to be able to access these directly.

It sounded rather as if the Polish medical system was not dissimilar to the one I knew in South Africa. If you have a skin disorder, you make an appointment with a dermatologist. If you're a woman, you make a routine annual visit to your gynaecologist. Until your kids are 12, you are just as likely to take them to the paediatrician as the GP. You know your radiologist from your oncologist, and your ear, nose and throat specialist from your cardiologist.

In the UK, the practice is that you go, in the first instance, to your GP. Always. You will then be referred to a consultant. And that process can take months. Been there. Done that. Nine months for me, last time.

When I expressed surprise that the well-educated, otherwise knowledgeable people present at the meeting didn't know "the names of all the different types of doctors", one person rather proudly pointed out that, with the way the NHS works "we don't have to!"

I had often wondered why all specialists were rather generically referred to as 'consultants', but this explains it. You see a generalist. The generalist refers you to a specialist. The specialist's secretary sends you the details of your appointment. You attend. The specialist reports back to your GP. Your GP reports back to you. You don't ever initiate contact with the specialist. So you don't need to know what sort of specialist s/he is.

I find this approach quite disempowering. I don't feel the need to be looked after in this way. I feel quite capable of identifying the specialist discipline needed in each instance and making an appointment. I feel quite capable of providing said specialist with an accurate history and conducting a conversation about my ailment/condition.

Many Poles obviously experience the same frustration, because they are quite prone to taking their ailments back to (as one Polish woman puts it) "a proper doctor" for a diagnosis that they feel they can trust. This doesn't really help, though, because when they come back from Poland, and feed the information back to the local doctor, the local doctor will not accept histories or diagnoses from abroad, and wants to go back to the start of the process again.

I can think of so many situations in which traditional workplace practices reflect a similar approach. I would far rather see individuals given the freedom to run their own initial diagnostics and then to access to the resources they believe they need in order to get the information/support required, apply it and move on with the day job. Of course they will get it wrong from time to time. That's part of learning, too.

Too much second-guessing can result in a culture where people are waiting to be taken care of, to be told what to do next, have no idea which kind of person/resource holds the solution they need, instead of taking charge of their own lives and figuring out their own 'what nexts'.

Sometimes, taking too much care of people is even worse for them in the long run than taking too little care of them!

Monday, February 14, 2011

On value and the eye of the beholder

I often come back to this topic, because time and again I am struck by how unpredictable and subjective the issue of value is.

This was brought home to me by something that happened on the 365 project. I don't pretend to be a photographer and my decision to sign up for the project was part of my self-help initiatives after the annus horribilis that was 2010. I decided not to try to take brilliant photographs, but instead to create a photo journal, publishing a photo that recorded something meaningful about each day. The results are of varying quality. Yesterday, I discovered to my my surprise that one of my photographs has been 'favourited'. Not the one with the accidentally excellent mood lighting, or any of the passable ones of historical buildings in my town. Not the one showing the symbolic snowdrops blooming bravely, or the accidentally good shots of my pets. Nope. Instead it's the shot with which I was least satisfied of all.

I was trying to do something interesting with the water in the bottles, but I have neither the camera nor the skills to succeed. If I had taken a single other shot worth using that day, this one would have been binned. But this is the one and only photograph in my collection to have been favourited. I don't know why. I don't know what the person in question saw in it. Maybe it serves as a 'what not to do' example for a photography course they're delivering. Who knows?

If you think about it, diamonds have no intrinsic value, but because of their perceived value, a whole industry... several whole industries have built up around them. People die in the quest for them. And yet they are solid carbon, just like coal, which we hardly value at all... until we are in danger of freezing to death, that it is. Then, suddenly, a diamond is worthless and coal is inestimable.

Wall-E, the animated feature film, shows a (semi?)sentient robot coming across a diamond ring in its little box. He throws the ring out, and keeps the box, because it intrigues him... and because he wasn't programmed with our value system.

We seem pre-programmed to think that anything or any skill we possess must ipso facto be of lower value. And, for those of us looking to develop a learning culture that is a hive of user generated content, this means we are going to have to work really hard at spotting the nuggets, the treasures, the diamonds in the rough and encouraging their owners to see their intrinsic/potential value to someone else.
That trick that you learned in Excel/Photoshop; that activity that you do with your class; that piece of advice you give your staff members; that lesson you learned the hard way... these are the things that people can use. Because you discovered/developed them, you assume either (a) everyone knows how to do them or (b) nobody would be interested.

I think you'd be surprised!
I once developed a wiki to be used by a group of people embarking with me on a new venture. The idea was that we would develop a glossary of new terms related to the shared endeavour, as well as a recommended reading list, with reviews. When I mooted the suggestion, it was greeted with much enthusiasm: everyone was mad keen to have such a resource. However, once it was created, very few people were bold enough to add to it, and those who did tended to make additions in the form of questions: adding a word with a question mark after it... which no-one replaced with anything helpful. And yet these people were reading voraciously, and debating matters in class (an on the online discussion forum), they were each applying their own perceptions of the terms we were learning on a daily basis. They were more than happy to help one another on a 1:1 basis off-line, but actually sharing something in a space where others could see it? Not so much.

This culture of undervaluing the things we know/can do is going to take a long time to overthrow, and we're going to have to work hard at. Until then, if one more person tells me "if we build it, they will come" I think I might scream. If we build them (up), then they might just come, but we have a long way to go, methinks...

Friday, February 11, 2011

Twitter in the surgery

I'm posting this fresh off the back of last night's stimulating #lrnchat on Twitter. I don't watch Grey's Anatomy, but Jane Hart shared this fantastic extract from a recent episode, showing the use of Twitter in surgery. Just look how the walls of the OR melt away and surgeons and hospitals from hither and yon get on board to save a patient's life!

I still have friends who tell me that Twitter is a space for the idle chatter of egotists. I wish I could just show them its potential.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Social tools in the workplace... when they fail and why

Jane Hart has written an excellent article about the top-down implementation of social tools for workplace learning and why that approach is doomed to failure. As she points out, top-down is the traditional approach for implementing a new initiative, but in respect of social media for learning:

  1. Those that are already collaborating, sharing and learning with one another, will resist attempts to force them to use other social tools or platforms in order to track and control what they are already doing. This may well push their activities even further underground.
  2. Those that have yet to experience, understand and feel comfortable with social media will not want to be forced into sharing and collaborating when they are not ready for it, and are likely to resist attempts to make them do so.
Hart suggests a more bottom-up approach. Providing support to those who already are sharing and collaborating with one another. I would also recommend a performance management attitude that gives kudos to those who are seen to be supportive of their colleagues. In this post in December, I talked about the value of the enabler within your team. Give these people kudos and the space to 'do their thing' and you stand to gain a great deal. As Hart's article says, "autonomy is a powerful motivator" and "better results come from getting out of the way".

I wonder how many managers have considered that the biggest barrier to excellence in their team's performance might be their own attitude to people management (and people, come to that).

It's funny how these things go in waves, because yesterday, Aliza Sherman published an article called 5 Reasons why Corporate Social Tools Fail. Top of the list for her is the lack of a social culture. As she says, mandating the use of x and y tools isn't going to change anything if you don't already have a culture of mutual support and collaboration within the organisation. Too many organisations make this very mistake. It's not about the technology. The technology is a just a conduit, a tool. You can give your 17 year old a car - that won't make him a competent driver! But, if he is already a driver, having his own car will enable him to do so very much more.

It has to start with culture. So we find ourselves back at Hart's article which identifies the need for more autonomy and more getting out of the way. Less micromanagement and more belief in your people.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Facebook hospitality

Because I originally signed up to Facebook as part of an experiment to see how it impacted my learning experience, I took a deliberate decision to treat it as a melting pot. This is less true of other spaces my great big digital feet tread. For example: I have two blogs (well, three, but we won't go into that third one right now), and I address two completely different groups of people. In my mind, I am writing for a person, an archetype, if you like. On this blog, you're it. On the other, it's someone else entirely. While I have LinkedIn contacts who are personal friends, I look on that as a purely professional space, and use it to pursue purely professional interests. I have two separate Twitter accounts: one for personal and eclectic bits and bobs, the other for learning-related contributions.

By contrast, my Facebook friends include people from my youth, people from my career path, people from my church, people from my leisure pursuits... and people that I've 'met' on Facebook, of course. And it has been fascinating to watch them interact with one another in reaction to something I've posted on my page.

But one thing has come home to me with a vengeance this past week, and that has to do with hospitality and the respect or abuse thereof.

My husband and I are rather hospitable souls who enjoy nothing more than having a house full of people to feed. We head up a team called Connect in our local church, where we take it upon ourselves to meet anyone new to the church and find out a bit about them. We then introduce them to other members of the congregation who share their interests or who are at a similar life stage. If you know me in person, you will know how perfectly suited I am to this role. The initial meeting with new folks happens in a small room off the main hall, where we serve coffee/tea and something to nibble... something I have baked myself. We like to treat people as if they are our guests.

We then take this one step further. Once a quarter or so, we host a dinner (a very informal dinner, mind) at our home, to which all recent visitors to the Connect room are invited, together with a few likely candidates for them to get to know. Once again, we have the host/guest thing going on.

But what has this got to do with Facebook, I hear you ask. Well, rather more than I would have thought, actually.

You see, I wouldn't expect the guests in the Connect room to be rude to us or to one another. I wouldn't expect visitors to my home to pick a fight with one another. Disagreement is fine, but healthy, respectful conversation is not an unreasonable expectation, I would have thought. And I feel the same about my Facebook page. After all, it is my Facebook page, and if you're there, you're there at my invitation. As my guest if you like. As I am, when I visit your page.

Recently, I felt I had to 'unfriend' someone I've known for more than 30 years. For the too-many-eth time, she mounted an aggressive, irrational attack on someone else on my page. Someone who didn't know who she was and who was too polite to retaliate in kind. She threw out insults left and right, many in shout-implying capital letters. She even took a few side-swipes at me.

Now, I don't want people being reluctant to come to my home because they're afraid my dog might attack them, or because they're afraid that X person will also be there. Similarly I don't want people being unwilling to comment on my Facebook posts for fear that one of my other friends will tear into them.

I love introducing people to people. I love to see those people form a new relationship that is independent of me. But if some of those people cannot respect my hospitality, I have to withdraw the invitation.

Not so?

Craig Taylor's open letter

Craig Taylor is a comparatively recent convert to social media as business tools, but he has taken the bit between his teeth. He spoke about the use of social media tools for workplace learning at the recent Learning Technologies conference, delivering one of the most engaging presentations I have seen in a long time. The guy's a natural!

His recent blog post has attracted a fair amount of interest. Well it would, wouldn't it, with a title like "An open letter to those organisations who block Social Media sites…"?

What makes the post particularly interesting is that Craig is using Livefyre for his comment stream. This alerts people who have been mentioned in the comment-versation. Paul Simbeck-Hampson decided to test this by mentioning me and a few others in a comment:

...and of course, I weighed in with my response, as did Jenna Langer and Jordan Kretch - the people behind Livefyre (I suspect that they won't be able to keep doing that if their app gains traction). Later, Kate Graham mentioned Jane Hart and hey presto, she popped in, too.

It's an interesting way to tag people and invite them into a conversation. I do have concerns that there might be some misuse, and that some users might resort to emotional blackmail/passive aggressive tactics to try to attract specific people to their sites. It remains to be seen.

But Craig's post (and the ensuing comments) could do with a little exposure to those who delude themselves into thinking that they can control staff behaviour by blocking access to social media spaces as a matter of course. To prove his point, this post was generated from his organisation's gents' room, using his phone.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

On stating the bleedin' obvious

One of the criticisms of my (ahem) academic writing, is that I made (make?) too many assumptions on the part of my readers. My course supervisor once asked me "Why are you so reluctant to state the obvious?"

To me the answer is: because it is obvious. If it is obvious, why do I need to say it? Why do I need to sacrifice part of my precious word count saying something well-duh-ish?

Of course, the response to that is "Because it's obvious to you. It might not be obvious to your reader."

I always took the view that, if you're reading this paper, you have a level of interest in this field. This is not likely to be the first paper you ever read on the subject. Of course, if the paper is electronic, you can include links to definitions and explanations, without having to sacrifice word count. But when it's an old fashioned paper-based submission...

"Just pretend I don't know anything at all," they told me, "and write from that standpoint."

But that's nonsense too, surely? If I assume you know nothing at all, I have to start by explaining the basic concepts to you, such as what workplace learning is and why we do it... before I've even got halfway through that, I've used up my word count.

So I must assume you know something. The trick is knowing where to draw that line.

This is a challenge facing learning designers, too. Do we start by covering the basics? Do we assume that the learner knows the basics?

During my years as a classroom based trainer, this was always the balancing act. Where do I start from? What if one person in the class doesn't know the basics, and everyone else does? What then? All the years I taught spreadsheets, I would find myself also teaching basic maths. Because it's pointless learning about formulas if you don't know how to string together a mathematical sentence. And almost without fail, the ability to construct a mathematical sentence was conspicuous by its absence. I could probably teach the BODMAS rule in my sleep!

Ah. Did you spot what I just did there? I included a link to an explanation of what the BODMAS rule is. If you already know, you don't have to follow it. But if you wondered what I was blethering about, you could follow the link and bring yourself up to speed.

This is one of the things I like about designing online learning resources. You don't have to tell people stuff they might already know! You can include a link and let them choose.

Of course, many is the traditional e-learning designer who will trap that poor learner in a tunnel of back and next buttons and lash them with information they already know, holding all the 'good stuff' to the end... only to be seen when they have jumped through the requisite hoops.

I find the whole collaborative-pull learning such a fantastic fit, here. You can look things up when you need to. If you find that there is no definition/explanation/demonstration of the thing you're after in your organisation's learning space, you can track one down elsewhere and add a link to it for the next person. Or you can create one yourself as you learn-by-experimenting how it's done. People don't need to waste their time sitting through a whole day of stuff they already know, or to trudge through page after page of elearning that adds no value to their lives.

The bleedin' obvious can be stated, but on an optional basis... and everyone is catered for. What's not to like?

Of course, none of this is going to turn me into a brilliant academic writer as long as paper-based submissions are required!

Monday, February 07, 2011

A lot of it is in the handover

When I was in high school, I was a regular in the 4x100m relay team. My specialist distance was 400m. I did occasionally compete over 200, and even more occasionally over 100m. I wasn't quite fast enough to make the cut for the 100m individual event on a regular basis, but as a 400m runner, I had the bends down pat. And this is important in a relay team. You have to remember that your team is going to have to handle two very long bends. Sometimes the very best 100m runners are utterly useless in a bend. So a good coach will experiment with combinations until s/he finds one that works.

All well and good. Now we have four sprinters, including two who run a kick*ss bend. So we're sure to win, right?

Erm.... maybe.

There is the little problem of the baton. It's all about the baton.

The team starts with a baton and crosses the tape with that baton. That means (a) that the first runner is hampered by the need to hold the baton in one hand during the start and (b) there are three handovers during which things can go horribly wrong.

To make things even more complicated, sprinters tend to have egos the size of planets. Have you watched the Olympics? Have you seen them strut? It's an important item in their toolkit, and something they cultivate. But it does mean that working as a team is very difficult for them.

But the bottom line is: you can have the fastest team in the world, but if that baton doesn't make it over the finish line, your team doesn't win. End of.

I was once called in to address the learning and development needs around a new process. The problem was that the new process was being driven by the new systems that were to be implemented. And the systems were not really joined up. At no point had a proper business analyst been involved. Dangerously, I was the nearest thing to a business analyst to have come into contact with the project. Of course, in my line of work, there is some natural crossover into business analysis, but it wasn't enough by a long shot. Time after time, meeting after meeting, I tried to explain that there were gaps where things were going to get lost, but I obviously wasn't using the right language, because the stakeholder team simply could not see the problem. I was repeatedly told it would have to be addressed as a training issue, and began to gain a reputation for being obstructive.

I felt as if I were being asked to make a wedding dress for a girl who hadn't even been born yet. And like every L&D professional knows: when it fails, it's going to be our fault. It's going to be because the 'training' wasn't up to scratch.

Then came a Very Important Meeting. The development team was going to give a demo of the new procedure in action. Enough bits of the system had been completed to make this a viable possibility. The entire stakeholder team assembled in one room, including the biggest wigs. The team leader outlined the first stage and things got off to a great start. Then we started talking about phase two. This was my moment. I asked the team leader how a deliverable would move from stage one to stage two. His response brought the whole demo to a halt. That part had not been defined by the stakeholder team and was currently out of scope for the development teams.

Finally. The penny dropped. A few heads rolled. I felt like such a tattle-tale. But I also realised that it had been necessary. Without a workable process, the organisation wouldn't have a business.

You simply cannot go out there and get the best products in the business and expect things to work. The system(s) should support the process, not drive it. So it's very impressive to be able to say on your website that you use Blahblah technology version X.Y. In the final analysis, if the new bells and whistles whatever-it-is isn't going to help you make more widgets with a lower reject rate, then it's a waste of money. Surely? So you need to have the process defined first. You also need to know that the hand-offs between phases of the process and system applications have been... not just adequately addressed, but exhaustively researched and catered for.

Our relay team used to sit one behind the other along the aisle of the bus as we headed to competitions, passing that flipping baton forward over and over and over again. We used to get out on that track and practise that handover. Again. Again. Again. Each of us knew how to run. Like the wind, even. But that was no good whatsoever if the baton wasn't passed smoothly from hand to hand. And even with all that practice, we sometimes failed. We tripped, we dropped the baton, we missed the markers, we stepped out of our lane. We lost races. But we were just kids, and no-one's livelihood was at stake.

A relay race isn't a series of four runners putting in their best performance. It's a team of people getting a baton from the start line to the finish line. And much (most?) of that is about getting those handovers right.

Stephen Covey talks about starting 'with the end in mind'. Athletes repeat this mantra in various forms over and over again. And their entire training schedule, diet, everything is organised around that end.

So the process needs to be designed with the end-goal in mind. The systems need to support the process, so that the end goal is achieved. The people need to be supported so that they know (or can find out) what they're supposed to do at each stage, in order that the end goal can be reached.

And if the process is full of holes, or the system drops the baton... there's no point blaming the L&D team.

Just sayin'....

Friday, February 04, 2011

On the 'zone of absurdity'

In my last job, I worked with a director who was a font of witty labels. One of these was the 'zone of absurdity' (the other labels in the graphic are mine), which arose during a discussion on the stages of performance support.

Initially, we bumble about in the dark. Things aren't going quite as they should, and we're not sure why. During this phase, the biggest obstacles are
  • the people who refuse to acknowledge that there is a problem at all
  • the people who are part of the problem and are frantically trying to deflect blame onto someone else
  • the people who know where the problem lies, and consider it a personal triumph that their team isn't it (this time)
During this stage, the important thing is to find out what is going wrong, not to attach blame.

When we figure out what the problem is, we move into the zone of potential. Now that we understand the problem, we can figure out how to solve it. The AA and various other support organisations will tell you that admitting what the problem is, is the most important step. In a blame culture, it is hard to achieve this stage, and even harder to stay in it. In this stage, we need to stay focused on finding a solution. What have we already got that we can use? What do we need to set in place? What resources do we need? All that malarkey. We're aiming for that optimal, target zone.

This is not to say that everything runs smoothly in the target zone, but we stand a far better chance when we're all in the know. Of course, this is an almost mythical zone, because before we get here, the challenge changes and we start again.

But my biggest bug bear is the zone of absurdity. The zone in which the solution is known, although the problem has not been defined. Sensible people like you have never even visited this zone, of course, so you can't even imagine what it looks like. Well, I encountered a small example of it yesterday, which I will share with you.

I was in the grocery store picking up ingredients for last night's dinner. I had only a few items in my basket, so I headed for the self-service checkouts. One of the items was a single Granny Smith apple. I weighed it and placed in the bagging area, as instructed by the faceless lady who voices the tillpoint programme. But it seems she wasn't really ready for me to place it in the bagging area, because she had a slight seizure. The supervisor came over and set about impressing me with her speed and efficiency... dashing headlong into the zone of absurdity.

She didn't even look at the instruction on the screen. She didn't even pause to listen to my explanation of what had happened. She logged in with her magnetic key thingy, pressed this button and that button and sashayed off again, not even noticing that a completely different error message had appeared on the screen. I had to call her back. With equal speed, and with similar lack of interest in the details, she pressed a second sequence of keys. At this point, there was no error message, but I now had a Granny Smith apple in my bag, although I hadn't been charged for it. I removed it from the bag and gave the voice-over lady another seizure. She begged me to return the item to the bag, even though doing so meant she would be giving it to me free of charge.

As the supervisor headed to my till for a third time the security guard standing near me said, "She isn't really paying attention, is she?"

I'm sure the supervisor lady thinks she's very efficient. She bustles about, pressing keys faster than anyone. But she makes no effort to identify the problem before she applies a solution. Net result? Three visits to a single till to resolve the issue of one Granny Smith apple worth 27p.



Thursday, February 03, 2011

Mom's tuck shop

While I was adding a new recipe to my cookery blog this morning, I remembered the little tuck shop that I had for my kids when they were really small. I remembered it with great fondness, but it occurred to me that it might fill some people with horror that I was prepared to take money from my children. In fact, it was a wonderful learning experience for us all, so I thought I might share it here:

When the kids were little, I chose not to go back to work full time, operating instead as a freelance training consultant with a few other odds and ends thrown into the mix, and working on an ad hoc basis. This choice meant that money was tight. So we couldn't really afford to give our children large amounts of pocket money, but we did want them to learn about having money, spending it, saving it and so on. We knew that they would want to buy sweets, but a single packet of sweeties cost more than we could afford to give them. So I hit on the idea of Mom's tuck shop.

I would buy packets of sweeties and empty them into a large Tupperware cake container. I also used to make things myself (one of which is on my cookery blog today) to go into the container. Then, each day after lunch, I would open Mom's tuck shop. I would stand one one side of the kitchen counter, and they would stand on chairs on the other with their coins clasped in their little fists and select individual sweeties from what was on offer. There was a whole role play thing involved. I would call them 'young sir' and talk to them as if they were terribly important customers whose patronage was the highlight of my day (which, I don't mind telling you, it was - I'm all choked up, just remembering it!).

Of course, the sweets were heavily subsidised. I didn't want to make my money back. I wanted them to experience the purchasing process. Looking back now: the early spending patterns are still in evidence. My elder son was somewhat tight with his money. He carefully figured out how to get the largest return in his investment, and would often choose to go without rather than part with his wealth. This is still the case today. My younger son bought two of everything: one for him, and one for "Daddy, when he comes home." I don't think Daddy ever tasted anything sweeter! My younger son is still generous to a fault, and will happily blow everything he has on a single gift (but he is learning a little caution).

Of course, they sometimes wanted to buy things that weren't available from the tuck shop. Then they would have to save up to go to a real shop. And this meant standing by while the other child bought his daily sweeties - going without for the sake of the reward being saved for. It used to break my heart to see the longing, but it was an important lesson, so I clenched my teeth and took a big girl pill.

I have to confess that the interest rates on savings accounts at the Bank of Dad were brilliant: save for five weeks and you'll get double! My elder son often went that route. My younger son, not so much.

Mom's tuck shop didn't form part of our lives in England - by then both boys were at school, and the English school day goes on into the afternoon (unlike the South African school day which ended at lunch time). When they were 13, our boys were switched from pocket money to an allowance, with which they had to buy their own clothes, airtime, toiletries, etc. (except for anything to do with school or sports club commitments) we carry those costs.

When they hit 18, the allowance is increased to include train fares, and they have to learn to budget for the termly expense.

But I will never forget Mom's tuck shop. Maybe I will introduce it with my grandchildren one day...

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Choosing whom to follow on Twitter

I can always tell when there has been a learning event somewhere in the world, because I suddenly get a whole raft of new Twitter followers coming through at once, instead of the trickle that is the daily norm.

I don't use any auto-refollow tools, so there is always a bit of a lag as I catch up, because I go through the list 'by hand' and decide whom to follow (or not).

I tweeted about this after the recent Learning Technologies conference and was asked:

This is a question I get quite often, so let me give a comprehensive answer in a space that affords me more than 140 characters for the purpose.

First, and almost without saying - no spambots, as David mentions. It isn't always easy to tell a spambot right off the bat - they're getting devilish smart. But a few indicators are:
  • Their names are often firstname+number. So Maxine1234 (or something like that) would have me doubting her humanity from the outset. However, I do have some Twitter friends whose names are something along those lines, so it's just a rule of thumb, not an absolute.
  • They tweet the same flipping thing (or a few very similar flipping things) over and over and over again.
  • They have no biography.
  • They follow thousands of people (and may be followed by a similarly large number), but have only ever tweeted a handful of times.
Second, I like to see a bio, and the more interesting or quirky it is, the better. For example, my Twitter friends' bios include such lines as:
  • Dad, entrepreneur, and Star Wars freak (@dbswe)
  • I'm all about learning, fashion, football, social media + cricket, not always in that order :) (@kategraham23)
  • Often laughing. Always learning. Collaborating nonstop. You ready? (@marciamarcia)
  • I'm passionate about training, L&D. I also bake fantastic chocolate cake. (@susiefinch)

You see? You know something about these people already. You know that Dave (@dbswe) takes being a Dad more seriously than he takes himself. You know that Kate defies stereotypes with girly girl interests and a love of sport. You know that Marcia is all systems go, and she'll take you with her if you give her half a chance. You know that Susie doubles as a homebody and would be good company over a cup of coffee. Real people. Just like you.

I also prefer a link to a blog/website, so I can get an idea of what floats your boat. If there is no bio or blog link, only a kick*ss series of tweets will get me following you.

If you're following me on my @learninganorak account, it must be because we share a passion for learning (I have a personal account for more eclectic musings). So I will visit your page, and see what you tweet about. If you only ever tweet quotable quotes, homilies and truisms forget it. I want to know what you think! If you only ever retweet (RT) what someone else has posted, hmm... probably forget it, too. I can read those things first time around. Don't get me wrong, I use the RT feature a lot myself, and I appreciate it when other people do, too. But if that's all you do, what value are you adding?

And if you only ever tweet about one narrow subject, such as LMSs or PSS or whatever, then after a couple of days, I'll probably have read everything you're likely to say.

Twitter is a conversation. A hectic, everyone-talking-at-once conversation, and it is my number 1 personal learning tool. So... contribute already.

I don't choose to follow only those people who agree with me. How boring would that be? I could sit at home and talk to myself (yes, you're right - I do that, too!), but if you're going to disagree (with me or anyone else), be grown-up about it. I can't be doing with name-calling, peeing contests (to put it politely) and slanging matches.

I think that's about it, really. I know it sounds like a lot, but I'm not really that precious. I do follow over 900 people, and keeping up with them is a tall order. How people manage with thousands, I have no idea! Maybe I'll find out one day.