Friday, April 28, 2006

Moving away from online courses towards REAL jit learning

A few projects on the go at work have got me thinking along these lines. This is not a definitive position - I'm on a journey, here, and this is where I've got to now. Who knows where it will lead?

As Stephen Downes said in a recent presentation, online courses are not the answer. How do we know? Because it's not what people want. How do we know? Because, when people want to know something, it's not what they do.

The intended end-users of my current project are harassed managers within a group of business units who have to deal with a fairly large chunk of devolved HR responsibilities. These are not trained HR professionals - each one has a different background and a different area of expertise. Their people skills vary enormously from one to the next. There is a Group HR department, but the aim is for these professionals to add value to the HR practices of the organisation, rather than dealing with the nuts and bolts of the day to day issues like maternity leave applications, hiring and firing, performance management and so on.

So how do we support these managers so that they don't wind up on the phone to HR every few minutes? Well, if Barbara Manager has someone standing in front of her, red-faced and furious, claiming to have been subjected to on-going gender discrimination, she is not going to sign up for an e-learning programme to learn how to deal with it. What is she going to do?

  1. If we're honest, she's most probably going to call HR. It's the kneejerk reaction.
  2. She could ask a colleague - either over the phone or in person
  3. She might Google it (I know, I know - just bear with me, okay?)
Let's look at each of these options in turn.

Calling HR
We have to face the fact that, for the foreseeable future, most people are going to see this as the easiest option. Let someone else do the thinking and just tell me what to do - Barbara might even have her HR contact on speeddial. What alternatives might that "someone else" suggest for next time? And there will be a next time. One thing we do know is that whatever the HR contact tells her, Barbara is going to put it into practice and forget it - she has enough on her plate without trying to remember the ramifications of an exceptional situation.

Whatever it is, it is going to have to deliver the goods. The answer/information must be:
  • easy to find
  • relevant (and in a narrow, specific sense - not some broad spectrum panacea)
  • found quickly
Asking a colleague
This form of learning constitutes a whopping proportion of work-based learning. If memory serves, some studies place the figure at 70% (although, of course, I couldn't track any down today!). Much like phoning HR, this relieves Barbara of the need to find time in her overcrowded schedule to figure it out for herself. Kenneth will tell her how it is done.

A lot will depend on what sort of a coach Kenneth is. If he simply tells her the answer, the single piece of information Barbara will remember if this happens is "Kenneth knows". Next time, she will ask Kenneth again.

If, however, Kenneth showed her how to find the answer for herself, perhaps next time she would try that instead. Of course, this is contingent upon the answer being:
  • easy to find
  • relevant
  • found quickly
Googling it
Okay, this was a bit of a silly example. What possible use could it be to Barbara in Britain to learn how a discrimination/harassment situation is handled in Japan?

But hang on. Let's look at this a different way. What if Barbara wants to know how to apply for permanent residence in the UK? Increasingly evidence indicates that Googling it is right up there. It's what people do.

So how's about we create some kind of in-house Google-type-thing where Barbara can search for the company policy on grievances, the correct grievance procedure, the forms she needs, hints and tips and some online learning to support her through the process? What if that online learning was not a linear course, but a collection of just-in-time pages that she can dip in and out of as the whim takes her? What if there were to be a library of case studies where she could find out what someone else did in a similar situation?

What if the HR contact sent her the URL to try next time. What if Kenneth showed her how to use this facility? What if the information contained in the resource were (you guessed it):
  • easy to find
  • relevant
  • found within a short space of time
Would Barbara go there first next time? I'd like to think that this resource would certainly move up her list of options and, if it continued to deliver the goods, perhaps it would become her first port of call in time.

What if Barbara could contribute to the resource? What if she could cite the example of gender discrimination with the boot on the other foot: how this member of her staff had complained about repeated assertions that he was not being able to multi-task "because he was a bloke". This might be relatively new and rather unusual territory, but someone else is bound to encounter it sooner or later, and Barbara's experience might prove handy.

The beauty is that Barbara doesn't have to remember the whole process associated with discrimination, harassment, etc. She just has to know where to find it. In fact, it would be better if she didn't remember it. Her memory may be faulty. The process may change as legislation is introduced.

In this day and age, she can ill afford not to adhere to current policy, to follow current procedure. The risk of expensive litigation is high and growing. Next time, when she conducts her search, the results may be different from last time, but they will be current.

I'm liking this.

(By the way, if you picked up on the Kenneth and Barbara/Ken and Barbie connection, well done! I'd like to point out, however, that this was not a case of gender stereotyping - those are my parents' names. It's a bit of a family joke, as you can probably imagine)


Clive Shepherd said...

I agree that courses aren't a first choice when you have an urgent need for knowledge or information. This applies to all types of courses, online or face-to-face.

However, not all learning needs are like this. If you're hopeless at golf and you want to learn, you're most likely to hire a coach for a series of sessions (a course). If you want to gain a qualification that will help you earn more money, you go on a course. If you want to make a big improvement to your selling skills, you may take a course (it depends).

Some people need the structure. Some people the opportunities to collaborate. Some people the access to experts. Some the bit of paper you get at the end. Whatever, there's still a role for courses.

Anonymous said...

This is true. However, in the examples you quote, the focus is more on face-to-face learning. And I can't see those ever becoming a thing of the past.

The role played by online learning is changing. While there is still a demand for courses there, more and more I think online learning needs to support the immediate.

The example I have cited is an actual situation facing me. The challenge is to build in the flexibility that allows linear progression for those who prefer it, while providing JIT support to those who need that.

I have yet to persuade the client that it would be a worthwhile exercise to allow users to contribute their own case studies, though.