Wednesday, February 25, 2009

When enforcement is more dangerous than infraction

A while back, I was driving my son to athletics (track) training. It was dark. I was on a dual carriageway, where the standard national speed limit is 70mph. However, one particular stretch of the road has a restriction of 50mph. Because I know the road well, I wasn't paying that much attention to the signs, and I hit that stretch doing 57mph.

Now I fully acknowledge that not paying attention to the signs is not a defence. I fully acknowledge that I was in contravention of the law.

My view is that you don't go around breaking the law just because you don't agree with it. If it is the law, you abide by it, but if you disagree with it, you agitate for change, using the legal avenues at your disposal.

So I am willing to pay the fine that I incurred. Indeed I have already paid it - no argument.

The bit I am not happy about is that, as I was driving along this rather tricky section of road (hence the reduced speed limit), I was suddenly blinded by the flash of the gatsometer. I nearly had a flipping heart attack. For a nanosecond, I thought a motorbike was coming towards me on the wrong side of the road, and I swerved reflexively. Fortunately I didn't prang the car, but it was a near thing, and it was several minutes before I was able to shake off the retinal burn. During those minutes of impaired vision and increased heart rate, I was probably a far greater risk to other traffic than when I was driving at 57mph in a 50mph zone.

This is not the first time I have seen enforcement that constitutes a hazard.

I'm not sure what they should do instead. Perhaps if they introduced some rumble-strips in that section to serve to slow you down, rather than blinding drivers who travel too fast.

There are so many parallels here for learning, but I'll focus on just one.

When we're providing a learning resource that is intended to enhance performance or increase productivity, we need to be careful not to focus so narrowly on the learning event as to forget to explore what the fallout of said event may be. Does the learning intervention in fact help or hinder performance/productivity?

I would argue that taking people away from their desks, placing them in an environment that has much in common with a vacuum in which they do whatever it is your design dictates they will do, and then sending them back to the real world is often counter-productive.

The learning needs to enter the flow of the working environment, where it can be contextualised and relevant.

The gatsometer is an effective answer to the question "How can we catch the people who drive too fast?" This, I would argue, is the wrong question. The right question is "How can we get people to drive more slowly - and therefore more safely - along this stretch?"

In exactly the same way, we who design and deliver workplace learning solutions need to ensure that we are starting with the right question:

  • How can we improve X?
  • How can we increase Y?
  • How can we encourage Z?
One of the things I have something of a reputation for among my clients is pushing back and... well, challenging may be too strong a word, but only slightly. Words like 'bossy' and 'stroppy' have been used... usually good-humouredly, fortunately. But the thing is that subject matter experts and stakeholders can get very caught up in what they would like learners to know, to the extent that they lose sight of the core question. The subject is very dear to them and they may be inclined to be a bit precious about it. I see it as the role of the learning designer to maintain the focus on the original question.

I can think of a good few learning resources which qualify as a hindrance. Some even as a hazard. I confess that some of them have been resources that I designed! But I will continue to make every effort not to design any gatsometer learning events in the future!

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