Monday, March 31, 2008

Don't write anyone off!

Last night I saw a video clip of a father and son duo called Dick and Rick Hoyt. I was in a public place, so my loud, wracking sobs were something of an embarassment!

Tell me this father's dedication doesn't touch you!

Rick and I were born in the same year, so I am very aware of the fact that Dick must be around 70 years old. Watching this man bodily lift his son out of the water so that he can "experience the thrill of the race" was a very humbling experience for me. It caused me to revise my ideas of how I behave towards my own children. And towards the people whose learning journey I stand to influence from time to time.

Please take a moment (okay - 10 minutes) out of your busy day to watch it.

Note: If you're the sort of person who is offended by worship music, the audio of last half of the video might not sit comfortably with you.

Oh, and you might be interested to learn that Team Hoyt was refused entry in the London Marathon for health and safety reasons!

Friday, March 28, 2008

Just for a laugh... it's Friday after all!

Because of a miscalculation, I've had 200% utilisation for the past week and a half. As a consequence, I've had a week of 11 hour days. I am totally exhausted and given to totally illogical fits of the giggles.

This YouTube video set off another one. Love the music, too. Was that Nickelback I heard right at the beginning?

On being a little fish

For the past couple of weeks or so, I have been seconded to a bid team on behalf of our group.

Normally, I work as a learning consultant/designer within the L&D team. Everything that crosses my desk is L&D related, and it is my job to identify the best way of handling it and to design the learning solution. In my world, the learner/user of my resource/solution is the end user.

So this past couple of weeks has been a real eye opener. Our organisation majors in business process outsourcing, and, without revealing too many details, I was working on one of the many bids being prepared in this regard. Of course, L&D forms part of the equation, but a very small part. Before we can even talk about L&D, decisions have to made about how to conduct the outsourced service in the first place. There are logisitical issues, business processes, IT requirements, HR issues, software applications, partnerships to be formed, suppliers to be identified. It's all very complicated and results in massive documents which I'm glad it isn't my task to read.

My role is a very small part of the whole - I need to put together a proposal on how the L&D side of things will be handled for the staff who will be involved in the implementation of the BPO model. The end users of the outsourced solution are not the end users of the L&D solution, which was a weird place for me to be. Also, whatever L&D solution I put together will be moot if the client decides they don't like the model for the solution. Normally, when I design a learning solution, all the decisions about processes and business models, etc. have already been taken, so I'm walking on relatively firm ground. Here I was, designing a hypothetical learning solution for a hypothetical implementation.

The conversations around the table at team update meetings seldom touched on anything that had direct bearing on me and even less often required my input. Everyone seemed to know what they were doing and where they were going. It took me a while to realise that they were no more certain of anything than I was at that stage, but (having more experience of big bids than I) they were not rattled by that sense of sculpting with mist.

I mentioned to the bid director last night that this had all served to remind me how much I loved L&D. "No matter how brilliant your implementation, if the L&D isn't effective, the whole thing will flop," quoth I smugly. He pointed out that the leader of each stream claimed the same thing about their field: no implementation could succeed without the hardware, the software, the network, the people, the facilities. The success of the implementation depends on achieving joined up working between all the aspects. I had to concede that he had a point! I was a drop in the bucket - no more significant than all the other drops.

For various reasons, I am handing the project over to a colleague today and I am surprised to confess that I have mixed feelings about it. I like being able to focus on L&D things. I like being immersed in L&D. But the sense of cameraderie on the bid team was greater than I have experienced anywhere else, and people seemed to be having so much more fun (there was certainly a lot more noise) than is the case in my quiet office where people seldom speak to one another.

One way and another, it has certainly been helpful to see L&D in context from the very early stages of a proposed implementation!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Karyn unplugged

Nineteen days after moving into our new house, we are still without connection to the Internet. Put like that, it doesn't sound like much of an issue, but let's just break it down, for a moment.

Bearing in mind that there are four people in our house, two adults (one of each gender) and two schoolgoing teenagers, this means (in no particular order) nineteen days without :

  • private email accounts
  • Facebook, MySpace and all that that implies (no Scrabulous... gasp!)
  • ball by ball reports on the cricket going on down in New Zealand... or any other sport, for that matter
  • working from home and, with a 21 mile drive each way and diesel at £1.13/litre (that's £4.97 or $9.95 per gallon, folks), believe me when I say I'd like to be able to do that at least twice a week!
  • the freedom to check what the £:$ conversion rate is at the drop of a hat
  • access to resources for homework
  • instant messaging
  • free international calls via Skype
  • any progress on my dissertation (which is being delivered online)
  • being able to search for a good recipe for bobotie for my dinner guests
  • a single glimpse of new photos of my grandnephew
I'm sure I'll think of other things, but that list flowed without a pause! I feel as if I've been exiled. I can't understand how it can take so long to arrange. The router arrived within days, and my husband dully installed it. Someone, somewhere just needs to flip a switch, or click a mouse or something.

Some of the things on the list I can occasionally do from the office (such as my personal emails), but it doesn't do to abuse these things, or they will go the way of Facebook and be blocked. My husband (as a CIO) can do wahtever he pleases online, so he's alright, thanks awfully. But our sons don't have that luxury.

They are feeling thoroughly deprived. They are also worried about losing contact with their friends. This has been an interesting insight. All things being equal, they communicate with their friends far more often than I ever have with mine, but their relationships are less robust and apparently may be adversely affected by an absence of several weeks. I'm trust this isn't true of all their friendships. I genuinely hope that they each have at least one friend with whom they can pick up the threads after long absences.

In a week's time, I am going on holiday to South Africa, where I will meet up again with my best friend, who is possibly the biggest luddite and worst correspondent on the planet. I haven't seen her - and have hardly heard from her - since she threw me a surprise party for my 40th birthday (which was several years ago during my last visit to Cape Town!), but I am (fairly) confident that it will be as if we were never apart.

That's an unplugged relationship destined never to go online. Right now, I have cause to be very grateful for the unplugged things in my life! I'd go nuts without them.

Friday, March 14, 2008


I'm not sure to what extent setting is practised outside of the UK, but many schools here practise this. Kids of similar abilities are grouped together in lessons. I won't attempt to explain the reasons for this - I'll leave that to the teachers out there. Let me say, however, that I support the concept. When I could, I tended to practise this myself during my years as a classroom based IT trainer. It reduced the risk of having one person bored out of their skull or totally out of their depth.

Be that all as it may, my younger son recently changed schools due to our house move. The school he now attends has a much stronger academic record than the previous one. At his previous school, he was in the top set for just about every subject. The new school conducted assessments and placed him in the second (of eight) sets for science, which is pretty much what we expected, since this is a very strong subject for him. However, he has been placed in the sixth (of eight) sets for maths, and the bottom sets for French and English. As far as I can tell, there is no setting for the other subjects.

My view is that he should be in the set where he will receive instruction that is appropriate for him. I guess I've grown up enough not to want to be competitive about this and have him in the top set at all costs.

However, I've been mulling over the implications of the disparity. Is it just because the kids at the new school are academically stronger than those of the school he has left? Is it possible that they could be that far advanced? After all, he has been working on the maths curriculum for the year ahead of his for several months, now, and yet he is in the bottom 40% for the subject. Was he in the wrong set in the school he has left? Is the assessment/evaluation process at the new school flawed?

It all remains to be seen. In the meantime, I hope they will allow him to make some input about how well the level of instruction meets his needs in each of his current sets.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Passion quilt: inviting myself

I haven't been invited to participate in this meme, but I thought I would anyway!

My contribution takes the form of a picture taken by prth8machine, otherwise known (I think) as Jeremy Roof, and I'd like to add the caption:

It's okay to make mistakes!

Discovering where one's priorities lie

Wendy Wickham's latest post about her Facebook experience gave me pause.

Facebook is one of the many things that is blocked within my organisation, so I can't catch up at work. Okay, I can deal with that. I might not fully agree with it, but I can deal with it.

There is a 5 working day delay before we can apply for internet access from our new house (that's tomorrow... woohoo!) I find myself wondering about the notion of a "working day" in this day and age, but I digress.

So, while I can catch up with my emails from the office, I have been bereft of Facebook.

Well, almost.

There is the possibility of using my husband's mobile phone as a modem and connecting that way (of course, I could just use the phone itself, but I can't be bothered with the tiny little screen when I have alternatives). This approach comes with a price tag, so I have to be selective about what I choose to do online, and this is where it gets telling.

I don't bother with any of the things I can access from the office, which means I home in on Facebook like a smart bomb.

I have not read any of the messages from my professional SIGs. Nor have I kept up with the activities of those groups. I have not kept up with the activities any of my special interest groups, to be honest. I have not checked to see whose status has changed, or who has updated their pages. I have not looked to see who has posted new photos. I have not responded to any of the invitations to load this, that or the other new application. I have ignored the new additions to my Funwall.

I have responded to friendship requests. I have read the personal messages in my Inbox (but not answered them). I have read and responded to only one message on my wall.


I have kept a beady eye on my Scrabulous games.

Well, you've got to attend to the important things!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Moving house: a plethora of change management analogies

We have just moved house, and the whole way through the (painful) process, I was constantly reminded of my day job - not necessarily the things that I do, but the things that my clients do that mean that they need someone like me to come in and do my thang. All the following notwithstanding, I love my new house (even if it doesn't boast a back garden like Janet's - did you only post those photos on your Facebook page, Janet?)

In no particular order...

In the build up to the move, there was the whole business of selling one house and buying another. We had realised that our home was no longer fit for purpose, so we went on a hunt for a new one. We prequalified the available products/houses based on spec and then went and had a look at a few likely candidates. We didn't go for the first one we liked.

We dealt with mountains of red tape, and spent an awful lot of money on this that and the other small thing that needed to be taken care of.

The relationships with the other parties varied: our buyers were difficult, cantankerous and obstructive. They dragged their heels and kept us guessing. They were rude to the estate agents. Our seller was lovely. The house was the first one his wife and he had bought together when they married straight out of university. They had designed the extensions themselves. Both their children had known no other home. It was hard for them to let go, which we understood perfectly, having gone through that ourselves with our first house in Cape Town. He came personally to hand over the keys, rather than letting the estate agents handle it, and he introduced us to the neighbours.

There were submerged hiccups:

  • We couldn't figure out how to open one of the kitchen cupboards until my husband discovered a hidden safety catch of a type unfamiliar to us
  • Here and there, there are issues that need our attention - mostly decorative, but one or two structural
  • The fit isn't perfect - I don't have enough cupboard space in the kitchen, and our large 3 seater sofa won't fit through the door into the house (it's been relegated to the garage... an almost new, expensive leather sofa... sigh!)
We're going to need to make a few additional purchases to adapt to the new environment:
  • We don't have enough curtains
  • There isn't a place suitable for our current bookshelves, which means we now have to decide whether to buy new ones or have custom-built shelves installed (perhaps I should get the Downes in!)
  • Our elder son has been unable to switch schools so close to the end of this, the last year of his compulsory education (a big exam year), so we have had to find him lodgings in the town we have just left. I am NOT happy about that :o( I would prefer to find him a lift with a commuter, but we have had no responses to our appeal
  • The dining room table in our last house was built in, and bar counter height, which means we have no table and a host of chairs of the wrong height
On the day of the move, our buyers wanted to take delivery of the keys before we had even had a chance to empty the house of our belongings. They became quite threatening.

We still haven't figured out how to control the boiler so that we have hot water and heating when we need it and none when we don't

We are surrounded by boxes. We often face the knowledge that an item needed right now is "here, somewhere" but the schlepp of having to unpack several boxes to find it is more than we have the stomach for, so we either go without or, in extreme cases, go out an buy a new one.

The estate agent who sold our house phoned today to ask me for the code for the burglar alarm. When I saw his number displayed on my phone's screen, my belly flip-flopped. I had thought the whole process was behind us. It was a minor query, but it reminded me that there is always at least one last thing.

The whole process cost us more than we had anticipated. We expected to be slightly to the good after equity on the last house was paid out. We are not. We are slightly to the bad, in fact.

I have been strongly tempted to simply opt for take-aways and heat-and-eats, so that we can focus on unpacking boxes, but our younger son suffers from anxiety, so we need things to develop a feel of life-as-usual as quickly as possible. This has meant being disciplined about dealing with slightly unfamiliar surroundings and being prepared for things to take slightly longer than usual.

Since we sold our house in Cape Town 10 years ago, we have moved house 7 times. We have noticed that, each time, we seem to plan less and just fly by the seat of our pants. This is because we know by now what things need to be done, and we simply do them as the situation arises. We don't spend hours sweating over the prep - we just get on with it. However, when we were new to the whole business, we definitely needed some guidance from those who had been through it before. We drew up a checklist of the things that needed to be thought about and resolved, so that we could minimise the things that got overlooked.

Oh, and on the subject of our new home town, I can't pass up the opportunity to link to this site about the history of the town. Contrast that with this. I know which one I prefer!

Just to finish, I would like to make one point unrelated to learning, knowledge and/or change management:

One evening a couple of weeks back, I was sitting with a group of people, when someone remarked that I looked tired and stressed. I was about to trot out the cliche that moving house is supposedly as stressful as losing a loved one. Unusually for me, I engaged brain before opening mouth, and I remembered just in time that the young man sitting next to me had lost his mother just days before. I looked at this grieving lad and got a healthy dose of perspective: Moving house, on a par with the death of a loved one? No, it flipping isn't!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Big Question for March: Scope of Learning Responsibility

This month's big question from LCB is

What is the Scope of our Responsibility as Learning Professionals?
I don't think I'm tackling this from quite the intended angle but, as a third party learning provider, I often find it difficult to draw a line between what is my responsibility and what is not. For example, it is not strictly speaking my responsibility to tell the client that a proposed change measure is doomed to fail. I am simply supposed to build the learning solution to support its implementation.

However, I see myself in the role of trusted adviser and, if I don't give them my perspective then I feel I have betrayed that trust. Of course, they can choose to ignore my advice/recommendations, but I will build that into my risks and assumptions because (and this brings me to my second point) I'm blowed if they're going to lay the failure at my team's door. Failed change intiatives or implementations too often get blamed on the training. No amount of beautifully wrought learning solutions is going to turn a sow's ear into a silk purse.

I am not a business analyst, but I have been horrified to discover that I am sometimes the closest thing to it to have sight of the proposed change programme. My exposure to various transformation projects over the years has taught me to notice when key provisions are not in place. I wish I could lay claim to masterful tact and diplomacy in these situations, but I am afraid that would be a false claim. Nevertheless, our responsibility is for the delivery of a workable learning solution. If the solution is to be built for a doomed change implementation, it would be both churlish and irresponsible not to say so - besides, it could hardly be termed workable!

On to the more nuts and bolts aspects of the provision. Far too often, learning professionals seem either to ignore or try to compete with the "learning from the bloke at the next desk approach". I would venture to say that this is pretty likely to remain most people's first port of call, so I would recommend working with it, rather than against it. Of course, you can't control what the bloke at the next desk has to say, but I find that identifying a network of champions is a helpful approach. These people are then identified to the user audience and to one another. They form a mutually supportive network and cascade their support out to their wider teams. Special provision is made for them to ensure that they are enabled to achieve this. This might mean that the learning solution has to include a workshop or communication to the line managers of said champions to prepare them for the implications of this support role and to advise them on how to adapt the champions' KPIs so that their support work is not seen as an interruption of their "real job" but a key part of their role within the team, and one on which their performance will be appraised during their next review.

I would suggest building solutions which include provision for user generated content. Features such as:
  • discussion forums and/or noticeboards
  • tip of the day/week/whatever
  • FAQs - manned by the champions and drawn from the discussion forums
  • jargon busters' corners (some form of wiki - although it sometimes doesn't to let the audience know that that's what it is!)
The content of these spaces is outside of the scope of the learning professional - although you might provide a starter for 10 to get the ball rolling, but providing the space for this interaction, actively promoting user ownership of the learning process and contribution to the learning content is part and parcel of the provider's responsibility. After all, it's their business. They're involved with it day in and day out. Who better to make suggestions about improved ways of doing things? Sadly, I have to admit that few audiences seem ready to assume the mantle of this approach, accustomed as they are to "being told", but we can't use that as an excuse.

My own view is that my job as the designer of the learning solution is that of empowerment. I aim to design a learning solution that hands the baton over to the user. To this end, I like to involve as many of the users as possible in the design process - not only do they know the business, they know the audience better than anyone.

And that rather rambling, slightly incoherent contribution is my 2p worth.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

I believe (cheese warning)

I don't know about anywhere else in the world, but South African schools are big on school songs. And I don't mean some arbitrary hymn from the school hymnal chosen to serve the purpose. A song is specially commissioned for the school. Kind of like the school's anthem, which is sung to mark special occasions.

None of the state schools my kids have been to in the UK have had one - I suspect the whole notion is somewhat frowned upon within the culture, here. But I'd like to take a moment to reflect on some lines from my own school songs. I confess I don't remember them all, but it started like this (and you practically needed a ladder to hit the top notes!)

There's a school upon the hill, and our hearts are turning
To the many paths that lead toward the goal of learning
Many knocks will come our way, in our work and play
Yet with ringing voice we say...
Of course, we can argue that learning isn't the goal, but rather that which the learning enables us to achieve. I'm not so sure. As a learning professional and consummate geek, learning is pretty much a goal in and of itself, but that's probably just me.

My primary school (or at least the last primary school I attended) had a song which included the words:
"Consilio et animus" is the motto we all know
We promise to remember it wherever we may go
...and blow me down, I have!

When my elder son started school, the chairman of the board of governors addressed a special assembly for the new intake and their parents. Of course, the school song was sung (of which I remember not a word or a note), but he expressed his heartfelt wish that the school song could be changed to the chorus of a song that was heard often on the radio at the time. He spared us his singing, but he read out the words to us. Most of us knew them already, but hearing them in that context? Well there wasn't a dry eye in the house.

Sadly, leaving South Africa also meant leaving that school, but I long to encounter another school with an ethos that matches the lyrics of the song he read. As we go through the process of moving house and changing schools, I find myself hoping against hope (yet again) that this new school will be it, that we will finally have found the place that encourages my kids to believe:
If I can see it, then I can do it
If I just believe it, there's nothing to it
I believe I can fly
I believe I can touch the sky
I think about it every night and day
Spread my wings and fly away
I believe I can soar
I see me running through that open door
I believe I can fly
I believe I can fly
I believe I can fly
I know, I know, pure cheese. But I want my sons to embark on every task with an expectation of success, and I'd like - just for once - to be able to count on the school to back me in this.

So what got me thinking like this? Well, my elder son returned home from school to share a story his hero-of-the-moment, the PE teacher had shared.

The teacher in question is a rugby player of some note in England, who plays at a pretty competitive level. The team had recently travelled to Cornwall for a match. Arriving very early, he and a teammate went for a stroll around the area, stopping in at a pub for a pint (which, for those of you outside the UK, means a pint - 600ml - of beer or lager). When they returned to the fields on which they were to play, another team member approached them and was horrified that they had been drinking before the match.

The teacher telling the story is something of a wannabe stand-up comedian who often has the kids in stitches with his anecdotes. This is all well and good, but when he - a SPORTS teacher - sends up someone who wants to go out there and give it his best shot and try to win, I am stunned! Oh, how funny it is to be competitive. Oh how silly to try to win. Oh how laughable to want to do your very best.

My son took the story on board to such an extent that he came home to share it with us and expected us to join in the mocking laughter. My son the sportsman. My son who is desperately looking for a decathlon coach and bemoans the lack of opportunities for and investment in sporting excellence. My son who is as puzzled as I am by the prevalence of tall poppy syndrome. I wanted to storm up there and have words with the man. Instead, we discussed the matter with our son, hopefully restoring his belief that he can fly and his determination to try. But what about all the other kids in the class? And those who will hear the same story next year, and the year after that?

There is too much of a tendency towards "If at first you don't succeed, remove all evidence that you ever tried," and I'll not be having that with my kids! They might not succeed at everything they try, but by golly, they'll give it a go, and they'll do so in the full knowledge that there will be one daft woman and one slightly less daft, but no less supportive man rooting volubly for them from the stands.

There's more than enough space in the world for a couple more over-achievers!

Tactile graphics

Yesterday an old school friend contacted me via Facebook, since which time the usual "what have you been doing" messages have been rattling back and forth.

I'm so impressed with what she's been doing, I thought I'd give her a mention here today.

Lynette runs her own preschool. A few years ago, a three year old blind girl enrolled at her school. Lynette noticed how this little girl used to love to pretend to be able to read the books in the reading corner, asking the sighted children to explain to her what was on the page. Lynette decided to track down some materials that the little girl could appreciate for herself and came up empty, so she decided to set the matter to rights.

She started making tactile books for children aged 3-7, and is now supplying an international market. Books are currently available in English, Afrikaans and Xhosa - the three main languages spoken in the area of South Africa where Lynette is based, but they are fully customisable. For example, Lynette offers to leave a space below each picture so that a parent/teacher can add text or braille in the child's mother tongue. Of course, since each book is individually handmade, they take some time to produce, and she understandably has a two month backlog at present. It seems to me like she could do with a few extra pairs of hands!

There are educational books about colours, numbers and such; a series of storybooks; a handful of nature storybooks; cloth books for the really little ones and several educational games. She has also developed a set of manuals for parents and teachers.

To be brutally honest - the navigation on her website could be more intuitive, but you're more than savvy enough to cope with that!

Monday, March 03, 2008

A principled departure

Apologies to those who find the discussion of death depressing (I don't).

I mentioned recently that some people we know are grieving the loss of their wife/mother. And Dave Snowden blogged about the death of a friend a few days ago.

Inevitably, the direction of my thoughts has been affected by all of this.

When it comes to dealing with our own bereavements, my husband and I face a challenge: he wants to be buried, not cremated. I am opposed to burial. I find it morally indefensible to allocate all that prime land to dead people.

As to my own arrangements, I'm keen on whatever's greenest - as far as I'm concerned, there's little point in concentrating on the envelope once the letter's gone! My husband is certain he couldn't bring himself to agree for me to be cremated or treated with anything other than what he would consider deep respect.

I have always felt funeral services are for the benefit of the bereaved - an opportunity to pay their respects, say their final farewell and get some sort of closure. To this end, I would like to have a cardboard coffin and a pack of coloured flipchart pens, with which those present can write their message of farewell... like an exaggerated version of signing a person's plaster cast.

I found a few suppliers whose products appealed to me on these grounds:
These ones are totally plain and easy to write on, but mourners might find the uncompromising cardboard box look a little hard to take
This one is slightly better looking and easy to write on, but still shaped like a box, which, while I have no trouble with it, might not sit well with everyone
Ecopods look funky, but I don't know if they come in an undecorated version for writing on
Cambridge Funeral Services has a few that look more traditional
Ecocoffins are traditionally shaped, but decorated in a range of styles

Right. So that's the coffin arranged for such bits of me as science doesn't need.

My husband has already told me that this is the song he will be playing, and I have made known my selection of more sacred music known (I think we discussed it after my father's funeral). Having always been a lover of music and the vocalist in the church band, I have sung many people on their final journey down the aisle. So let it be known: there will be singing at my funeral - loud singing. And I'm blowed if people are going to have to struggle through songs that only ever get sung at funerals - they will get to sing songs with familiar tunes, songs that (if they have been church goers) they have sung often. My Dad was known for his beautiful singing voice and his great love of music that could be sung with passion and volume. Yet, except for an instrumental version of Unchained Melody, no-one knew any of the songs played during the service and this family of singers mumbled our way through the unfamiliar, dreary tunes. Such a shame.

There will be no black, either - partial as I am to the colour. I have a larger than life personality, full of bounce and verve, passion and volume. Clothing is please to reflect this fact. Purple for preference, and if someone sees fit to read Jenny Joseph's poem on the subject, so much the better!

Oh, and since my family and friends are all over the flipping place, there will have to be the option to attend online. A webconference funeral? I don't see why not - it would save people a fortune in travel costs and be a lot greener to boot.

So there you have it.

Not that I have any plans to go anywhere any time soon, of course, it's just that events have got me thinking.