Thursday, December 23, 2010

Moving forward to an older model

It's perhaps appropriate that I should be formulating these thoughts at Christmas time. According to Christian beliefs, Jesus was a carpenter before he embarked on his three years of ministry. Why? Because his Dad was a carpenter. That was pretty much the way things were done all those many years ago. When you were old enough, you went to work with your Dad and you learnt his trade from him. I'm not quite sure what happened if you were the son of a carpenter, but you really wanted to be a farmer. Perhaps, if you had understanding parents, they went and had a word with a local farmer and arranged an apprenticeship for you.

Of course, there were gender inequality issues, and certain choices were only available to one gender or the other, but girls learned from their mothers how to dye cloth, make clothing, prepare meals, etc.

There were no exams.

In the middle ages, it was much the same. Experienced stonemasons taught would-be stonemasons, skilled glassblowers taught apprentice glassblowers, and so on. People learned their craft from someone who already knew how it was done. No doubt there were those with great potential and those with less. No doubt there were those who quickly outstripped their teachers, and no doubt said teachers reacted with varying degrees of grace (or lack thereof). No doubt some teachers were kind, while others were cruel.

Today's employee is (hopefully) more empowered than the apprentice of yesteryear, so perhaps the vagaries of the 'master's' temperament can be thus addressed. And there is so much that can be achieved with the implementation of a variation on this model. Learning from someone who is more experienced has got to be more effective, more timely than waiting weeks before going on a generic course. Progressing at your own pace with your own personal mentor, who gains kudos from your achievements. Asking the bloke at the next desk leads to an answer which can be implemented right away: quick win, uninterrupted workflow. What's not to like?

With the speed of change and technological innovation, who's got the time to put together a slick learning resource before something changes again anyway?

My thoughts along these lines put me in mind of a conversation I had recently with some L&D leaders about redundancies.

Think about it like this. The economy is rough. You've got to lose half your team. You've got two senior members earning an fair amount, and several inexperienced folks who are still learning the ropes. After a fair amount of thought, you are able to identify the stronger performers from among the more junior team members, and you cut the rest. But you still have to lose one of your senior members. One of them churns out work like a machine. The other seems to a spend a fair amount of time chatting to the newer staff members and his work rate suffers as a consequence. So you decide to keep the one with the higher work rate.

And it turns out to be the biggest mistake you've ever made.


Because when he was 'chatting' with the more junior staff members, what he was actually doing was helping them come to grips with the system, teaching them a few skills, mentoring them, coaching them, turning them into productive team members. Once he goes, the morale of the whole team plummets, and the workrate follows suit. Even your star performer's workrate suffers because she's not getting the handovers from the rest of the team.

In marketing parlance, this is 'below the line' training. It just happens, because your newly unemployed staff member is naturally an enabler.

What if you turned that into a KPI? What if you actually set the expectation on every team member to contribute to team morale and development? What if you had a system by means of which team members awarded one another kudos points (or gold stars or thumbs up or something) every time they helped one another out? What if it became enviable to be the person on the team with the highest number of kudos points? What if management realised that the enablers on the team might in fact be more valuable than than those with the highest measurable output?

What if everyone shared what they learned with everyone else. What if the young techno-wizard on the team were encouraged to look at innovative ways to tackle things? What if he got to share his ideas at the weekly team meetings? What if he spent time teaching the wonderfully creative, but slightly techno-challenged member of the team?

What if everyone was teaching and everyone was learning...all the time?What if the L&D team stopped being the bottle neck, and started being the team that helped people help each other - going from being the only goal-scorer on a low scoring team to being the person with the highest number of assists on a high scoring team?

What if? What if?

Friday, December 17, 2010

An operational attitude towards learning

You've probably heard me say this before, but I am increasingly of the view that the workplace training/learning/L&D (whatever they're called in your organisation) team should be moved out of HR and into Operations.


Well, HR is responsible for looking after people: their payroll, their working conditions, their treatment under employment law, etc. and has no direct accountability in terms of the organisation's business objectives.

L&D's job is all about performance, and performance is an operational thing. Our job is to help the organisation meet its business objectives by helping people do their jobs.

While L&D remains under the umbrella of HR, it remains okay to take people out of their workspace and put them into a learning space, and then to put them back into their working space again at the end of it.

An operational view of learning means that learning needs to be situated in the workspace, because it's part of the job.

Let's take the research and development bods at a sweet factory. I pick this example (a) because I'm a bit of a chocoholic and (b) because my mother worked at a sweet factory for over 30 years, so I have some vicarious insight. They don't know before they start working on it whether their new idea for a confection will work. They don't know whether the new flavour of toffee will enjoy favour with their customer base. So they experiment a bit. They find a recipe that works, and they send out a bunch of the new flavours to the children of all the staff members. They ask the kids to identify what each flavour is and to mark it out of 10. They also ask the kids to suggest some flavours that they would like to see added to the range. My reponse said that flavour A was 'mint 8/10'; flavour B was 'chocolate 9/10' and flavour C was 'soap? 0/10' (it turns out flavour C was actually grape). I suggested licorice as being a flavour they should look into.

The R&D team gathered back all the results and decided to go with the mint. They also developed a licorice version (obviously other people had suggested it, too), and they eventually took those two flavours to market.

In fact, the whole process was a learning process. They learned how to make the new toffees. They learned what the consumer reaction was to the different flavours. They learned what other flavours consumers would like to see. They learned how to make those.

Once they knew how to make the new flavours, and the products had been given the okay, the R&D team passed on the information to the factory. The manufacturing staff then learned what changes needed to be made (and when) in order to produce the new flavours.

Work is learning. We can seldom say we know how to do a thing before we need to do it for the first time. And when we come to do it for the first time, we might

  • experiment, based on past experience/existing knowledge
  • watch someone who already knows how to do it
  • look it up
  • get some advice from someone else who may have some ideas
All of this is learning, and it simply forms part of the workscape.

Too many of our learning solutions require people to separate themselves from the very context in which the learning applies. Now I don't doubt that there are some tasks for which this will remain a necessity, but, applied as a blanket approach, this ensures that learning is an interruption of the workflow, instead of facilitating it.

I know it's a gross generalisation, but the COOs I've met have always been driven, results focused individuals. This is where I believe L&D needs to position itself. Learning should be viewed as a strategic function, one that contributes directly to ensuring that the organisation meets its targets and achieves its vision. It's not something you do in order to ensure that union requirements are met.

Monday, December 13, 2010

BBC 4: The Joy of Stats

The BBC occasionally turns out some cracking documentaries. This one is no exception. Hans Rosling is an animated and passionate presenter who loves numbers. The clever use of animation is hugely informative. Although the comments on the BBC's site make it clear not everyone agrees with me.

One of the visualisations used in tonight's episode was David McCandless's billion dollar-ogram, a diagram designed to help people get their heads around the huge numbers that get bandied about in respect of the cost of this war or that oil spill. The result is very interesting!

If you are able to access BBC programmes via a feature such as iPlayer, I strongly recommend this - particularly if you're keen on facts and figures.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

A stumbling block to collaborative learning (and working)

A recent post from Doug Belshaw, in which he quotes extensively from Steve Shapiro got me thinking about a conversation my husband and I often have, out of sheer frustration.

One of the things South Africans in the UK are often accused of is being gung ho. This is because of a different formative workplace experience. I don't know what it's like now, but during the years that we lived and worked there, actions would be allocated during meetings, and the owners of those actions would be expected to go away, do the job and come back with the completed chart, project, design, whatever. If you needed help doing X-thing, you spoke to the person with the skills or the access or the authority and you got it done. If you had a meeting with your line manager or your team before the task was complete, you would report on your progress and then get back to it afterwards. If you needed to escalate the matter to your line manager because you weren't getting the results you wanted, you did. But you owned the task.

So when we moved to the UK, we adopted the same approach... and it didn't go down at all well!

As an example:

I once worked at a company as the in-house IT trainer. I should point out at this stage that it was explicitly stated that they wanted me to be able to hit the ground running, because my line manager (the IT director) had a big project looming, and wouldn't be able to allocate much time to training. At a meeting with the stakeholders, it was decided that everyone in the company needed to have (among other things) certain Excel skills. Now of course, the skills that were needed day to day by the people in that company weren't the same as the skills needed by people in another company. So we identified the core actions that were likely to form part of pretty much everyone's day job within the organisation. We also identified a set of additional Excel skills that a subset of employees would need. These we would address separately. It was decided that everyone should be invited to attend a core skills workshop, but that, initially, at any rate, only those who used the additional skills would be asked to attend that workshop.

It seemed pretty clearcut to me, so I did what I thought I had been asked to do. I hit the ground running. I designed a core skills workshop. I set up exercises using familiar spreadsheets that users were likely to encounter on a day to day basis, in order to provide context for the features being covered. I created a manual, using screen grabs as signposts. I created an index, so that attendees could refer back to the manual after the workshop. I spoke to the in-house print team, and got them to do a nice layout for me.

We had already drawn up a very nice questionnaire which served as a base level TNA, and we had a clear idea where the greatest need was.

We had also kitted out the training room with the equipment needed.

So, we were all systems go. I invited my first batch for the pilot session of the workshop... and all hell broke loose.

Apparently, I was supposed to check back with my line manager at every step of the way. Each step needed to be approved before I could move on to the next step. Since no-one above me on the food chain had the remotest idea about learning or training... and were singularly lacking in people skills, I was completely non-plussed. We had already decided everything that needed to be decided, surely? I had been given my actions, and I was, well, actioning them.

My husband's experience is similar. He will be asked to write a report on X thing, but the report is sent back umpteen times, with minor changes and edits, sometimes to changes and edits made earlier.

And it is this ethos that I think stands in the way of the successful implementation of social business, collaborative working and collaborative learning. I have been in situations where it has fallen to me to create a shared space for a certain project (for example, a wiki). Immediately I have done so, the rest of the team has then deferred to me as the owner of such space. Instead of editing material entered, they would send me an email, identifying suggested changes. I have also worked with organisations that have introduced systems such as Sharepoint in order to encourage collaborative working, but then immediately locked down all the permissions and so on, so that only management approved materials can be published in shared space.

So, I would suggest that, if social business is to become de rigeur, then the offline attitudes and culture need to be addressed, too.

When you give someone a task to do, you need to trust them to do the task, and empower them to call on such resources within the business as are needed in order to do so. You need to trust them to manage their time, to assist others with other projects as and when it is appropriate. You need to allow them to have an exchange of emails without CC-ing you in all the time. You need to be available to them, if they need your help, but not hanging over their shoulders to make sure they do the job as you would do it (if you don't have anything else to do, maybe you should have done the task yourself, huh?). You need to let them make mistakes and ask them what they learned and what they would do differently... then let them try again. You need to let them take credit for what works and own up to what fails without feeling that they are failures.

In other words, you need to trust yourself, too. If you hired them, because you believed that they could do the job, then let them do the job and appreciate the time it frees up to let you do yours!

In most of the organisations I have worked with, the nature of online relationships replicates the organisational culture offline.

Until we start to give people a bit of room to breathe, I think we're not going to be able to properly harness the power of social business.

...or that's what I think, anyway.

Jane Hart's journey to social business

Jane Hart has shared her journey from elearning to social business in this blog post. Her journey has similarities to my own... and perhaps to yours.

Jane is probably one of the best known advocates of the use of social media for business performance. She and the other members of the Internet Time Alliance (Jay Cross, Clark Quinn, Harold Jarche and Charles Jennings) are running a workshop in London next week. If you're an L&D professional (other than a consultant to whom the invitation is not extended), you might want to find out if there are any spaces open.

This could change your professional practice.


Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Learning about guilt

Have you ever noticed how, whenever you're going through something, everyone always knows exactly what you should be doing and how you should be feeling?

New mothers with tiny infants are told exactly how they should be handling the business of being a Mom and how they should feel about all the things their new babies do. Newly bereaved people are told exactly how they should be responding and are given only X amount of time before the good graces of friends start to wear out because they really should be over it by now.

And my situation is, of course, no different. Everyone knows exactly how I should be feeling. And it seems the one thing I should not be feeling is guilt. "You've done nothing wrong!" they assure me. And they're right... in a way. But that changes nothing.

I guess I've known on some subconscious level that there are different kinds of guilt, but right now, I'm neck deep in it, and am intimately acquainted with it.

As a practising Christian, I subscribe to the notion of sin, repentance and redemption. I do. And when I sin, I experience guilt. So I seek forgiveness. And - I believe - I get it.

But that doesn't have bearing here. Because, of course, not all failings are sinful. And, if I were the only one to be impacted by the failure of my business, I could handle that.

But I'm not.

Yes, my business is a limited liability company, and so my personal assets are not forfeit to the collapse of the business. But, the collapse of the business has meant a loss of income. And my failure to find an alternative source of income does place our personal assets at risk.

And this is where the guilt comes in.

You see, my husband works extraordinarily hard. He always has. It's the nature of the man. He currently commutes two hours each way, every day. Scooter, train, tube, train, walk. He would prefer not to, and when he started at the company, the plan was to move his role to a town 20 minutes' drive from our home. But the recession put paid to that idea. So he continues to commute, two years later.

He hasn't failed at anything. He continues to work to the same standard. He continues to earn the same salary. But he still stands to lose his personal assets (including, under extreme circumstances, his home).

Now you can paint that any colour you want, but I did that, and I have to live with it. He is not angry with me. Good grief, what kind of man would he be if he did? He fully supports me in every way.

I have been harangued fore and aft for feeling guilty over this. I have been told I shouldn't because it doesn't make sense on a logical level. I have even been told that my guilt is unChristian and sinful, because it is tantamount to saying that I don't accept God's forgiveness. I simply cannot get people to understand that I don't believe I need to be forgiven.

I tried to explain it to one person like this:
You are told that you have to hold out two 5kg weights at arm's length and at shoulder height. The moment you let them drop, someone large and powerful is going to slap your husband (wife, son, daughter) humiliatingly in the face and kick him in the stomach. So you hold those weights. You hold them beyond endurance. But eventually, you simply cannot. You are not capable. You reach the end of your ability, and you are forced to let them drop. Your husband is duly slapped and kicked.

Now tell me you don't feel guilty.

You didn't sin. But you did fail. The task was beyond your capability, you were not able to perform it, and he paid the price.

Okay, it's a simplistic analogy, but please tell me you get my drift. Sometimes you fail without sinning/wrongdoing. But you still fail. And you still feel guilty when your failure hurts the ones you love.

Surely this is perfectly reasonable?

On a side note, permit me to brag. My husband had a long talk with our younger son (the older one is out of the country on a gap year) about the possible implications of our situation. He asked him what worried him most. Did my 17 year old talk about the loss of the nice big house? Did he express concern that his driving lessons could be forfeit? Did he worry about not being able to afford the lifestyle he currently enjoys? No. He said he was worried about the impact on my well-being. He was concerned that I would feel like a failure and that my confidence would take a knock.

In the midst of everything falling down around my ears, that strikes me as a success story, wouldn't you say? We must have done something right. I am so proud of his lack of selfishness that I could just burst.

Monday, December 06, 2010

On money-related irony

Just lately, I have been thinking about some of the ironies inherent in our financial systems.

When we lived in South Africa, bank charges were very high. You paid a cash-handling fee when you deposited large sums of cash. You paid an admin fee every time the bank processed a cheque of yours... or one from someone else that was made out to you. You paid for a new cheque book when the old one was empty. Basically, you paid for everything. Walk into the bank and breathe, and they charged you for the air. This is something that people in the UK simply can't relate to. Here, many bank transactions are still free. But we'll come to that in a minute. Back to South Africa for a moment (sorry, are you getting whiplash?).

If you agreed never to drop below a certain balance, your banking became free. And the balance was not just a few Rands, either. So, basically, if you were flush enough not to need every last cent you had, you could have all your bank services free of charge. If, however, you were balancing on a knife edge, and needed every cent you earned, you had to pay to access this money. And it's no small matter, either - total bank charges could be among your larger expenses.

It gets worse. Let me relate an anecdote that I witnessed on more than one occasion. Person X, let's call him Thando Sijawe, came into the bank to draw some money. He couldn't use the hole-in-the-wall, because, like many South Africans, he was illiterate. He explained to the cashier that he wanted R10, and she wrote out the withdrawal slip for him, which he then endorsed with his thumbprint. She gave him his R10 and he went on his way. What he didn't know was that the bank charged him R7 (I kid you not, that was the exact figure) for this service. If he had drawn out all his money at once, this might have been less significant but crime levels were (are?) high in South Africa, especially in the poorer areas where Thando lived, so the tendency was only ever to carry money enough for your immediate needs, taxis, buses and the day's food supplies. People like Thando had to deal in cash, because their illiteracy meant that they couldn't use the pay-by-card option.

So, not only did Thando get penalised for being poor, he suffered the double whammy of being further penalised for being uneducated, too.

But it's not just Thando. And it's not just in South Africa.

In the UK, much of our banking is free. The flip side is that it is also slower. Everything takes longer. And you can do so much less at the hole-in-the-wall. But you learn to live with that. However, if you're having a bad month and one of your standing orders bounces, there is a fee of £22 that is levied. So basically, they're fining you for being broke.

As I have already (very publicly) stated, my business is being declared bankrupt. This morning, I was advised that I need to pay £2500 for this process. It seems I am too broke to go bankrupt. Go figure.

I'm not sure what happens next. I am going to see an insolvency adviser to discuss my options.

I apologise if this transparency makes you feel uncomfortable. I just hope that it will prove helpful to others who may be having a tough time of things, right now.

I also think it's important to shine a spotlight on some of the things that strike me as being out of balance in society. After all, the fat cats of the banking industry are the ones taking home the huge bonuses.

Everyone knows my understanding of accounting is negligible, but I can't help feeling the wrong people are paying for those bonuses.

Hans Rosling: 200 years of health and wealth in 4 minutes

Professor Hans Rosling waxes enthusiastic as he shows an animation of world health and wealth over the past two hundred years. It's an excellent video and he ends it on a very positive note. Perhaps you have to be African, though, to grieve over the fact that the back end of the continuum is almost entirely blue.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Crossing the language divide using online tools

I'd like to tell you a true story about something that happened to me quite recently.

We keep getting mail for the previous owners of our house. We have lived in this house for more than two and a half years, so mostly, it's just junk mail. But there's one rather serious-looking envelope that keeps arriving from Paris. It's addressed in French and indicates it contains official documents which require a signature. I think it has something to do with tax, but I'm not quite sure what gave me that impression.

I have repeatedly done a return to sender, but the documents keeps returning, each time with a more urgent looking message on the envelope. Last time, I wrote on the envelope in large letters: Mr Bloggs has not lived at this address for well over two years, please update your records.

The documents came back last week.

I was tempted to open them to find some contact details, when I noticed what appeared to be a phone number on the front of the envelope. Nothing ventured...

I used Google translate to find out how to say, "Is there anyone there who can speak English, please?" and practised it a few times.

When the phone was answered, I stumbled through "Est-ce qu'il ya quelqu'un qui parle anglais, s'il vous plaƮt?"

The lady told me that there was not.

Hmm. How was I going to explain my situation to her? I know enough French to say "Je ne parle pas francais, mais une moment, s'il vous plait..."

I typed into the translate box, "You keep sending me letters for Mr Bloggs." followed by "But he hasn't lived in this house for more than two years." I then used the 'listen' button to play this to her through my phone.

She figured out (more or less) what I was doing and spoke very slowly back to me in a combination of French and English. Eventually, we managed to establish that I no longer wanted Mr Bloggs's tax demands (or whatever they were), that I didn't have a forwarding address for him, and that she should stop sending his mail here.

It was clunky, but you know what? It worked. Now where's my flipping babelfish?

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

If I were measured by the company I keep...

I am very blessed to include among my friends, some extraordinarily talented people. Two of them feature in this post.

The first is Jeremy (Jerm) Nell, a South African cartoonist of note. I have known him since he was just a boy, and have watched his talent blossom into something that has made people around the world sit up and take note.

Jeremy recently got married. And this is where the other half of today's equation comes in. Justin de Reuck is an exceptional photographer, and he did the photos for Jerm and Janel's wedding. Oh... and Jeremy would like to make it known that he was not crying in that photo of him first catching sight of his bride, 'kay? Yeah. Right.

Both of these men have the uncanny ability to see things in a way that others might miss, and then to draw that perspective to our attention. Jeremy casts a cynical eye over situations and lampoons them mercilessly in single frame political satire cartoons, then proves he has a whimsical side with his Biggish Five strip.

Justin sees potential in angles and lighting and goodness knows what all else and captures a fleeting moment. His photographs of his own family and friends are achingly beautiful, and his wedding photography is among the best I have ever seen.

Top ten tips, my eye!

Being in the job market has made me the target of many 'top ten tips' type articles and posts. Just do these five/seven/ten things, and you'll have a new job in no time. If you don't it must be because of something you're not doing.

As a few of us were saying on Twitter yesterday, this is more than just a little disingenuous. With unemployment figures soaring in many places, and some industries/sectors being harder hit than others, it only serves to make people feel even more like failures when they load their weapons with silver bullets... and still remain unemployed.

Signing up for automated searches on some of the larger sites automatically means that you receive their regular little homilies about what you need to do better. And, if you're serious about looking for work, you read them, and try to follow their advice, in the hopes that it will make a difference. But after you've tweaked your CV, and honed your cover-letter-writing skills, and tapped your network, and pro-actively approached the people you'd like to work for, etc. etc. What then?

If everybody follows the 5-steps to a standout CV, recruiters still wind up with a slew of CVs with none that stand out. Because, to quote Syndrome in the rather Rand-ian The Incredibles, "Everyone will be special, and then no one is."

The fact remains that there are many more job-seekers than jobs out there, and being over-qualified turns out to be just as much of a disadvantage as being under-qualified. And the job-seekers range from those looking for minimum wage, all the way up to those who have worked at C-level.

Let me share a personal perspective:

  • My CV has been professionally reviewed
  • I write (if I do say so myself) a pretty kick-ass covering letter
  • I have more than 20 years of experience in my field
  • I hold a Masters' degree
  • I'm not exactly a global mover and shaker, in terms of innovation but many of the global movers and shakers know my name and are on hug-terms with me (so perhaps I could be called part of the second wave)
Doesn't that sound pretty darned employable to you?

And I haven't been over-selective. I have applied for some fairly humble posts, which have offered the opportunity to make a real difference to an organisation. After all, I don't need to be rich. I only need to be able to meet my commitments. But I do need to be fulfilled at work. I am not a person who is prepared to do something I hate day in and day out in service of Mammon. I don't measure success in Sterling.

So let's just take a look at one of the jobs I've applied for. It's fairly local, and they're looking for an 'innovative L&D manager'.
You will support the business to drive performance through the effective design or management of the design, of learning solutions globally. In order to build their internal capability you will need to deliver learning solutions to help support their strategy and ensure methods and content utilised within design reflect leading edge practices and deliver the learning outcomes specified in the design brief.

The role requires a high level of competence in learning design and evaluation methodologies and in training delivery skills.You'll also have the ability to manage multiple projects concurrently and deliver on time and to quality and to manage and influence multiple stakeholders.
Anyone who actually knows me, would think I was a shoo-in for the role. But within 90 minutes of my application, I received an email telling me that they had received an unprecedented number of applications for this post, and several of them more closely matched the skills and experience required by the advertiser. Since my covering letter had taken their description and identified how I had every point covered, I didn't see how this was possible... and I emailed them to ask for feedback on these grounds. I respectfully requested that they give me guidance as to how I might better demonstrate, next time around, that my skill set and experience did in fact map across to what was advertised.

No response. Not a squeak.

And to make matters worse, that job continues to be advertised, week in and week out.

I have been advised by people who claim to know about these things, that some (many? most?) of the jobs advertised on the really big recruitment sites are bogus, and that this appears to be one of them. What they would stand to gain from such a practice?

And how do they have the temerity, in the light of these bogus posts on offer, to keep publishing these silver bullets that tell us that the onus is on us to do better?

Monday, November 29, 2010

In which I become a disabler...

I have identified a situation in which I am anything but an enabler.

My younger son is learning to drive. He's doing very well, and his instructor speaks very highly of his progress. Whenever possible, I let him drive me around. On short jaunts to the shops and such, this is fine. It's the longer trips that are the problem.

The other night, I let him drive to rugby practice. It's a distance of some 8 miles or so, along a minor road. He has a tendency to drive rather close to the left side of the road (this is the UK, remember, where we drive on the left), and, when he changes gear, he tends to drift even further.

I'm sure his instructor deals with this kind of thing day in and day out, and is inured to it (judging from the utterly unscientific sample of my two sons, this seems to be a fairly common tendency). I, however, am less accustomed to it, and my rising stress levels were doing nothing for my son's confidence.

Eventually, he pulled into a side road and instructed me to drive the rest of the way. I was mortified.

It seems that when I fear for my personal safety, I am unable to be the unfailingly encouraging person I would like to be.

L plate image by canonsnapper

On why we should be generous

Those who still adhere to an older business model are puzzled by those of us who engage in the various social spaces with people who, in effect, are our competition. Happily, we advise each other on the best way to tackle this or that problem, and we take uncomplicated pleasure in the knowledge that we have helped one another.

Today, courtesy of a new Twitter follower, Indira Balki, I was reminded of this poem which reflects much of this attitude:

One Star Fell and Another by Conrad Aitken

One star fell and another as we walked.
Lifting his hand towards the west, he said–
–How prodigal that sky is of its stars!
They fall and fall, and still the sky is sky.
Two more have gone, but heaven is heaven still.

Then let us not be precious of our thought,
Nor of our words, nor hoard them up as though
We thought our minds a heaven which might change
And lose its virtue, when the word had fallen.
Let us be prodigal, as heaven is:
Lose what we lose, and give what we may give,–
Ourselves are still the same. Lost you a planet–?
Is Saturn gone? Then let him take his rings
Into the Limbo of forgotten things.

O little foplings of the pride of mind,
Who wrap the phrase in lavender, and keep it
In order to display it: and you, who save our loves
As if we had not worlds of love enough–!

Let us be reckless of our words and worlds,
And spend them freely as the tree his leaves;
And give them where the giving is most blest.
What should we save them for,–a night of frost? . . .
All lost for nothing, and ourselves a ghost.
I have nothing to add to that.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

On Thanksgiving

I'm sure you already know that we don't have Thanksgiving in the UK. That would just be silly. But I have many American friends, readers, followers, etc. in the various spaces I occupy online, to whom this holiday is very important.

This post is for you. I would like to wish you a happy Thanksgiving, although I'm sure you have better things to do than read my blog today.

Americans tend to be much-maligned in the UK, but my own (entirely unscientific) observation is that the very people who thus malign them are often equally guilty of the characteristics they disdain so very vocally.

So may I say that I am thankful for you?

Thank you for your warmth, your acceptance, your support, your enthusiasm. I am glad you and I have crossed paths.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Assessment model blues

Last night was 'parents' evening' at my son's school. It isn't officially called parents' evening anymore, and hasn't been for some years, because the students themselves are a very important part of the three-way meeting. Nevertheless, the name has stuck on a colloquial level.

Our younger son is a grafter. Always has been. Every single one of his teachers spoke highly of his work ethic. This was no less true in the subjects where he is struggling. His classwork is always done, as is his homework. He contributes to class discussions, and raises excellent questions. He participates wholeheartedly in group work.

For the duration of his school days to date, every teacher (bar one) has found this child a joy to teach.

And it has been a joy to address his education as a parent.

This may have something to do with the fact that he has known since he was just three years old that he wants to be an explosives demolitionist. Of course, when he was three, he didn't know that it was called that. We didn't either. But as his commitment to this career path has remained strong for the past 14 years, we have learnt a lot about it along the way.

The problem for him at the moment lies with the assessment model. Particularly in respect of pure maths. In order to take Maths with Mechanics, which is essential for his future career, he has to take Pure Maths. And he isn't doing terribly well in the tests. In fact, it is fair to say that he is doing poorly.

Part of the problem is that he was placed in a rather low set for maths (over our objections, just by the way) and that set did not cover some sections of the syllabus. As a consequence, what constitutes revision for the rest of the class, is totally new work for those who were in that set.

But the teacher (Ms Verity who has previously made an appearance in this blog), has said she only wishes he could produce the same work in the test situation that he does for homework. His homework, apparently, is excellent.

The difference is that, when it comes to homework, he can open the text book (yes, they still use them) to the example page, and adapt the worked example to the problem(s) at hand. Or he can look it up online. If he struggles to make sense of the example, he can contact a friend via text message or instant messaging and they can work through it together. He has identified a study buddy, and he checks in with this kid, if he's unsure of his workings.

This sounds rather a lot like life, or like the reality of a working environment to me. Don't you agree?

In a test situation, you're deprived of those options. You can't research the solution and then apply it. You can't get a friend to check your work. You can't ask for support from someone with particular skill in this area.

But I think he is demonstrating a very mature, resourceful skill. A skill that will stand him in great stead for the rest of his life. A skill which far outweighs being able to manipulate surds... whatever the heck they are - I don't think they had been invented yet, when I was at school ;0).

Sadly, we haven't yet figured out how to assess that particular skill. We have only figured out how to subject kids to sensory deprivation and expect them to work purely from memory, and fail them on their inability to manipulate surds under these conditions.

You might think that I feel this way just because this is my son we're talking about, here. But I hope that my track record on the subject of assessment stands on its own merit.

In order to better equip my son to meet the current assessment criteria, we have decided to hire a private tutor (as an aside here, I should point out that the school has laid on extra lessons to help kids like ours catch up, but that these clash with rugby practice and we consider his sporting interests to be a valid component of a well-rounded school education).

Oddly enough, the tutor himself has made his own appearance on this blog before! Thanks to his background, we believe that this young man will be the right person to help our son make up the deficit. Of course, this is going to cost a fair amount of money, but our son has amply demonstrated over the years that he is more than prepared to put in the work from his side. Like I said: a grafter. And he needs this, if he is to get into the university he has identified, to get the qualification he has chosen in order one day to "blow stuff up and get paid for it". Because of that, we consider the money well spent.

But it doesn't mean that it sits easily with me. It is a little like training a performing monkey.

But I am satisfied that my son already demonstrates the sort of characteristics that an explosive demolitionist requires: he is sensible, responsible, hard-working, resourceful, determined... Put that on a report card!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Job hunting with social media

As you know, I have been job-hunting lately. And I've been thinking about the history of job-hunting... or at least my experience of it.

My first few jobs were part-time or holiday affairs while at school and drama school, and they were a case of word of mouth. I was advised by someone in the know that John Orr's was looking for holiday sales staff for the Christmas rush. I was advised that Communikon School of Performing Arts was looking for part-time drama teachers. I was advised that the provincial board needed adjudicators for drama eisteddfods. This was in the very late 70's and early 80's.

Once I graduated from drama school, and while I was waiting to be discovered by Hollywood (or at least the SABC), I found a couple of jobs in the small ads of the local newspaper. This was in the early 80's.

My first office job was found via newspaper ads, again. But this time, it was a feature ad. The same applied to my next office job.

In much the same way (feature ads in the newspaper), I found a job at a theatre agency in Cape Town, but I treat this one separately, because this job led to my getting a few photographic modelling assignments and a contract as a TV presenter (at which I sucked, royally).

During this phase, I met and married my husband. For a year after this, I tried and failed to find a steady, 'proper' job. Of course, my efforts were never enough to please the in laws, who felt that I was sponging off their son. This was in the late 80's, and my search consisted of cold-calling and responding to newspaper ads. It was soul-destroying. But I took every opportunity to upskill, and did run the occasional computer applications training course (as they were then known) during the dry spell. This was to prove the best move I'd ever made. After nearly a year, I finally landed a job working in a learning centre... and found my vocation. The company that had set up the learning centre was way ahead of its time for the market, and the initiative didn't take off. I found myself back on the job market within 16 months. But this time, I had built up something of a network and a reputation.

I went freelance. I tapped the network for opportunities, and they came. I worked as a freelance training consultant until we left South Africa, fitting my career around my children. During this time, I got to work with some of the big names of South African industry, as well as taking on ad hoc overflow work for specialist training organisations. I was offered a few chances to take full-time posts with some of my clients, but, with my husband's full support, I opted not to accept them. I will never regret having been able to be a hands-on Mom, even though it almost certainly impacted my career development.

When we arrived in the UK, in 1999, I took a year out to settle the family in to our new home. By the time I started job hunting again, it was via the local newspapers. I took a part time job at an FE college. We had pretty much decided that I would go back to work full time only once both our sons were in secondary school. However, I continued to scan the papers for opportunities. When a 'perfect fit' full time job came up earlier than expected, we decided to take the plunge. The office was 3 miles from home. I could make the trip in 7 minutes. Our kids were 11 and 9, and would be home alone for 1.5 hours each afternoon. We lived in a safe neighbourhood. This was 2002.

During this period, the Internet began to come into its own as a place to go job hunting. I found and applied for my next job via the world wide web. I felt so modern! This was 2005.

In 2008, the wheels fell off and I found myself at a crossroads. I decided to take the plunge and go back to being self-employed. But it had got a whole lot more complicated since my last shot at it. And I was under pressure to earn more, because our commitments had been based on what I had been earning while working for 'the man'. That was in 2008. I did look for alternatives, and didn't find a whole heck of a lot, so the Learning Anorak was launched.

Now that that venture is coming to an enforced close, I am job hunting again.... and it looks very different.

I have automated searches in place with several of the biggest recruitment agencies. Almost daily, there are jobs I can apply for. Sadly, as I have mentioned before, the first-line screeners are not the very clued up. They are utterly unable to identify that skills in X map across to requirements for Y. So I get turned down for a lot of jobs I could do blindfolded... sometimes within minutes of submitting my application.

I also check out the online vacancies pages of some of the organisations I am consciously targetting. This is a huge plus.

But I am also able to be far more pro-active than before. When I was job hunting way back in 1988/9, I was at a loss as to what else I could do. Other than cold-calling and responding to ads, what was there? Especially in a city in which I was unknown (ergo, no network). This time around, I have put feelers out across the network, which is global. I have made my position known on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. I have written a blog post. And all of those have taken several hits.

The support from my beloved community, while thus far not yielding anything, has been enormously comforting. Harold Jarche even created a hashtag for me on Twitter (#YesYouShouldHireKaryn). Okay, so it didn't get a lot of take-up, but the fact is that he did it. It was a very kind gesture from someone who has become a real friend, even though we have never met face to face. This is the beauty of the network. And it didn't go unnoticed. Someone, a complete stranger to me tweeted something to the effect that he didn't know who this @karynromeis person was, but she must be worth hiring, based on the support she's getting from Twitter "big hitters".

I have had several job offers, actually, but all of them have been spam, bar one. The one genuine job offer I received was at a lower rate of pay than I was getting 5 years ago, and involved 3 hours of commuting time every day. It wasn't easy to pass up on the bird in hand, but I decided that I had to. The level of sacrifice by my whole family simply wouldn't be worth it. Fortunately, my incredible husband has been staunchly supportive. He simply will not have me sell myself short. He has always had more faith in me than I do in myself.

It remains to be seen if this method of job hunting yields something more quickly than previous methods have done.

Watch this space.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Amber Naslund on the ROI of social media

Here is a woman whose point of view very closely reflects my own. There are some things that simply cannot be quantified.

I can’t believe nor understand how many companies can’t also accept the fact that deeper and broader personal connections can net stronger business ties, too, whether or not you can capture the data proof points that bear that out. It’s been that way since the dawn of time.
Read the whole post here.

Putting myself out there

As you probably already know, I have been dealt a series of severe professional blows since July this year. The consequence of this could very well be the demise of my business (barring a miracle, that is). As a consequence, I have been applying for 'proper' jobs in order to keep paying the bills, while - hopefully - being able to continue doing the job I love (although I am quite open to considering alternatives). This has been a very interesting exercise.

I have made full use of automated searches to track down potential jobs, and - to be fair - there have been several likely candidates every day. What has been disappointing is the realisation that the first line screeners on the other end are totally ill-equipped for the job. Of course, they probably know nothing about my field, and so they are utterly unable to say "Ah! She has oodles of experience of X. That maps across perfectly to the advertiser's requirement for Y." To them, X only equals X. As a consequence, I have had 'bong' emails in respect of jobs I could do standing on my head with one hand tied behind my back, jobs that may as well have included my name in the job description... sometimes within minutes of submitting the application.

So the method has its flaws. As a consequence, I thought I'd put the boot on the other foot. It may or may not work. I thought I'd advertise myself as a potential employee, and see whether that works any better.

My CV is online, so I won't bore you with that. Instead, let me tell you what I'd like to do and where I might like to do it:

  • As my pseudonym (learning anorak) implies, I am passionate about learning, and passionate about learners. I am an enabler 'tot in my murg in', as we say in Afrikaans (down to the marrow). I will go to great lengths to help people reach a new place in their journey, whether it be personal or professional. Can there be a better way to end a day than to know you gave someone a leg up to something they couldn't access before? My husband and I head up a ministry in our church that seeks out and gets to know visitors and first timers, invites them over for a meal, and introduces them to people with shared interests. This is not unlike my approach to learning solutions. Find the people. Learn about them: what they do, what they need. Put them in touch with the right people and/or the right information.
  • I can see myself helping an organisation streamline its learning and development provision, un-bottle-necking the L&D team, and embedding learning in the workflow. Taking learning to the point of need so that when Joe Bloggs hits a bump in the road during his day job, he can access the answer, implement it and get on with his life. That would be my dream job!
  • I'd love to work with people/organisations who are venturing out into the realms of using social media, either for corporate/commercial identity purposes, or as learning tools. I would like to help people overcome their fear. For many years, I taught rank beginners how to use computer apps, and found it enormously rewarding. I have a knack for taking the unknown and relating it back to the already known.
  • I have worked with and for global non-profits, collectives, small-to-medium private businesses, public sector organisations, a further education college and FTSE100 blue chips. I have no objection to going back to any of those sectors. I have never actually worked for a university, but, during my Master's degree studies often thought how much I would love to help faculty members move into the spaces their students already occupy (and some that they don't), to harness the learning potential of those.
  • I'd like to work at the Open University. I visited them some years ago, and was struck by how much everyone seems to enjoy working there. I remarked on this to one manager, who agreed, saying "We have our fair share of part-timers, full-timers and never-go-homers." I relish the idea of working in an environment where people get so caught up in what they're doing, that they occasionally forget to go home. Being something of a workafrolic myself (yes, you can 'borrow' that term, I did), I can relate to this.
So there you have it. Any potential recruiters out there looking for a person like me, you know where to find me.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Edublog awards 2010

The 2010 award nominations are now open. Nominations are invited in the following categories:

  • Best individual blog
  • Best individual tweeter
  • Best group blog
  • Best new blog
  • Best class blog
  • Best student blog
  • Best resource sharing blog
  • Most influential blog post
  • Most influential tweet / series of tweets / tweet based discussion
  • Best teacher blog
  • Best librarian / library blog
  • Best School Administrator blog
  • Best educational tech support blog
  • Best elearning / corporate education blog
  • Best educational use of audio
  • Best educational use of video / visual
  • Best educational wiki
  • Best educational podcast
  • Best educational webinar series
  • Best educational use of a social networking
  • Best educational use of a virtual world
  • Best use of a PLN
  • Lifetime achievement
You will notice that the list includes things like wikis, Twitter, webinars, podcasts, PLNs, social networking and so on.... so it's no longer just about blogs, per se.

Nominations can be made in a variety of ways. Find out more here.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

On shame and honesty

At the time of writing, I am preparing to close down my business and declare bankruptcy. This has been on the cards for some time, now. While I have been open about the state of affairs, I have been very guarded about the effect it was having on me. I have been very busy presenting a brave face and looking as if everything is just fine.

It has meant that I have had to pull out of all the conferences I was scheduled to attend and/or speak at. It has meant that I have had to turn down invitations to all manner of interesting sounding events. This, in turn, has left me feeling largely excluded and marginalised.

Deep down, I have been feeling like an abject failure, and burning with shame that my ineptitude looks set to change the life circumstances of my husband and sons. My husband works unbelievably hard, and commutes two hours each way, every day. The thought that - through no fault of his own - he might lose his home, has been almost more than I can bear.

Finally, I confessed this in an email to a friend/colleague, and her response has overwhelmed me:

No Karyn, please do not feel shame, stand proud, you have never robbed anyone nor done anything underhanded, you have worked honestly and with sincerity, and you have done your best...and you are such an inspiration in yourself! i always felt lifted when talking to you and seeing your spirit.
Yes, dammit! I have never robbed anyone (although a few have robbed me). I have never been underhanded (although - again - a few have been underhanded with me). I am sincere and honest. And I have done my best. I am able to say with certainty that I have inspired some people along the way. Many have been kind enough to tell me so. And yes, I am by nature an encourager.

I know. I am naive. I have admitted it before. But I will not apologise for that. Nor can I see it as a fault. I would rather be naive, than be conniving, grasping, and looking-out-for-number-one-at-the-cost-of-everyone-else. I don't see how anyone could be in this business if that was how they rolled.

So, yes. Learning Anorak looks set to close its doors at the end of this month. And, no, I'm not handling it at all well. But as of today, I can add defiance the things I feel.

I'll let you know if that turns out to be a Good Thing ;o)

Monday, November 08, 2010

On specialist roles

Warning: this post contains a lot about my favourite sport (rugby union).

About half my lifetime ago, probably even less, if you had unloaded a rugby union team off a coach in front of me, I'd have had a pretty good chance of identifying the position of every player without needing to see the numbers on their backs.

Don't believe me? Watch me. Rugby is in my blood.

  • Anybody with cauliflower ears is pretty certain to be a forward (# 1 to 8), and will be involved in the scrum. Let's look at them first.
  • Those two Sherman tanks are almost certainly the props, (# 1 and 3). They will be the ones who prop up the hooker (more of him next) in the front row of the scrum. Don't expect much speed from them, but don't get in their way, either. They will charge right over you. Or through you. The one with two cauliflower ears is the tighthead. The one with only one cauliflower ear is the loosehead.
  • That square block of a man with no neck and a crazy glint in his eye, is the hooker (#2, known in the US as 'hook'). He has got to be a bit nuts (not unlike the guy who counters instinct to fling himself into the path of an oncoming hockey puck) - he gets picked up by the two biggest guys on the team and shoved face first into a pack of 8 opposing beefcakes bent on destruction.
  • Those two giants? Well, they'll be the locks (#4 and 5). They also form part of the scrum, hence their heft, but they are also great jumpers who will try to win the ball during lineouts.
  • Those two slightly shorter guys, with the great musculature are probably the flankers, (#6 and 7), aka wing forwards. They'll be pretty quick on their feet, but not the fastest by a long shot. They'll probably be first away from the scrum when the ball comes out.
  • But hang on. We still have one big guy here. Well, he'll be the eighth man (#8, obviously enough). A bit like the running back in American football. He is quite often also tall and fairly quick for a big guy, and will be off after the flankers when the scrum breaks up. He'll be one of the first on the scene when there's a ruck.
  • Now we come to the littlest guy on the team. In days gone by, this guy could be really titchy. But quick and slippery, like a wet bar of soap. This is your scrum half. This is a guy with a real rugby brain. He sees the bigger picture. He gets the ball from the forwards to the backs (where the speed is). Every time there is a scrum, a ruck or a maul, a good scrum half will be right there. He gets the ball out and feeds it to the team whippets, who come next.
  • Those lean guys, built like 100m sprinters? Those are your wings. #11 is your left wing, #14 on the right. These guys can run like the wind, and have an awesome side-step. These are the guys to whom to the scrum half will be looking to pass the ball, because they have the best chance of outrunning the opposition and making it to the try line. If you were picking yourself a dance partner for the prom, these were the guys to go for - they'd be the best on their feet... and they're often the best looking guys on the team, anyway!
  • The guys who are most difficult to classify on appearances alone (for me, at any rate) are #10, 12, 13 and 15. You'll know they're not forwards, because they're not so beefy. They might even be as good looking as the wings. They look as if they could be pretty quick, too. They are, in numerical order, the fly half, the two centres and the full back.
But, as I said, that was a while back. These days, it isn't so easy to tell. I guess the most standout moment of confusion for me was when Jonah Lomu first burst onto the scene. He was built like a brick outhouse, but was said to run the 100m in 10 seconds flat. I watched him run. I believe it. At 6' 5", he looked like a lock, but he played wing. In his early career, he was pretty unstoppable. He could keep running, with several opponents attached to his waist, he could side-step like a dancer, and could execute a hand-off second to none. He was a contradiction. No. He was several contradictions. He could do it all.

These days, the back line seems to have beefed up. The forwards are often deceptively quick. The scrum half (with a few notable exceptions, such as Ireland's Peter Stringer) is no longer diminutive. Increasingly, team members play out of position to cover for one another.

Is it such a stretch to say that this is what I think has happened, or is beginning to happen in some cases, in the workplace?

People have become adept at using the technology that used to be the province of the IT team. Individuals collaborate without needing to be instructed by their managers to do so, or with whom to do so. People have identified experts within different arenas within the business and are quite happy to go to them for help rather than approach the L&D team.

It takes one set of skills to train a rugby team of uni-disciplinary specialists, it takes an entirely different mindset to train a team full of players prepared to have a go anywhere on the field, should that prove necessary.

In the same way, I reckon we need to be looking to the skill sets traditionally required by management and the L&D team, and consider how different these need to be going forward, with a bunch of people far more comfortable at thinking on the fly and adapting to changed parameters as necessary.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

How free can a 'free school' be?

I haven't really paid too much attention to the recently introduced concept of 'free schools' in the UK, other than to be vaguely pleased that the opportunity now existed for a different educational model.

Then, last night I was talking to someone who heads up an organisation that is applying to establish one in his local town.

We were talking about what his leadership team had in mind for the school. What they envisioned. How they planned to tackle the concept. He had some great ideas, looking at working with the local business community, and calling upon the expertise of real, live working people to contribute regarding the sort of work they do, and the skills required to do it successully.

I was thinking: what an opportunity! After all, many of us in this space agree that the current education model is broken. That repeated tweaking is not going to fix it. That it ought to be scrapped and a new one developed from the ground up.

My contention is that we should start at the end. We should ask ourselves what the ideal school leaver looks like: what can s/he do, what does s/he know, how does s/he approach challenges... all that stuff. And we shouldn't just make up our minds in a vacuum on this point. We should engage with entrepreneurs, business leaders, community leaders, etc. We should ask them what school leavers need, and then work backwards from that point, figuring out how we're going to help them get there.

I thought my companion was ideally situated to exactly that. To come up with a model of education that actually prepares young people for life and for the workplace. In theory, the establishment of a Free School would enable his organisation, as a charity, to lead the school as they see fit while being completely funded by the government.

BUT... the practice isn't going to be that straightforward.

The school would have to meet the same standards set by the government for all schools in the UK and as such will receive the same OFSTED inspections.
And it's this bit that worries me.

How far are these free schools going to be able to stray from the government appointed model, if they still have to jump through the same hoops?

For example, I envisage a model of education that more closely reflect real life and the workplace. People working together on a project and the end result being, well, the end result. People working in teams with a mentor who serves as a guide on the side, rather than a sage on the stage. People being encouraged to explore and to share their learning with each other. The teacher being on the journey with the students. No-one ever being shut away in a room and subjected to sensory deprivation, being expected to rely entirely upon their own memory, seasoned with understanding, to demonstrate in the space of 90 minutes that they are conversant with material they have spent the last x number of years studying.

But, if they are going to have to meet the same KPIs as existing schools and sit the state exams at the end of it anyway, in order to be placed on a bell curve and evaluated via the same mechanism as the production line model... well, is this really going to be possible?

I sincerely hope that they give it a jolly good try, and am certainly willing to contribute if called upon to do so, but I wonder if the term 'free' is entirely accurate. It sounds a little tethered to me.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Siemens: Questions I'm no longer asking

This post is so brilliant, I wish I'd written it myself! George Siemens has absolutely nailed it with this one. While many people are still squabbling over the scraps like the gulls in Finding Nemo (see below), George has long since reached "ah shaddup" point.

The questions he's no longer asking are:

  1. Is online learning more or less effective than learning in a classroom?
  2. Does technology use vary by age?
  3. How do learning styles influence learning online?
  4. What role do blogs or microblogging [insert tool in question] play classroom or online learning?
  5. How can educators implement [whatever tool] into their teaching?
  6. Is connectivism a learning theory?
I won't steal his thunder by revealing the answers here - go and read them on his blog. You won't be sorry.

And now for those gulls...

Monday, November 01, 2010

On being Google-able

Today my Twitter stream includes this observation from Rob Brown.

Being anonymous does not serve your purposes. If people find nothing about you online, they move on to the next candidate.
I was surprised that this has been his experience. It is certainly not mine. Although my CV contains links to various parts of my digital footprint, I have found that these are seldom followed. When applying for jobs or bidding for work, I openly invite people to research me online to gain fuller picture of the person behind the application/bid/tender.

On one occasion, I applied for a particular job at a large organisation which claims to be progressive and innovative. The man who would line manage the role set up a phone interview. In preparation, I googled him, and partway into the interview, I asked a question based on something I had learned from this research.

He was slightly taken aback and asked, "How did you know that?"
"I googled you," I explained.

There was a pause.

"You did what?"
"I googled you. I did a search on your name on Google. I had already researched the company, and I wanted to learn a bit about you. After all, we would be working together."

The whole interview changed after that. Not only had he not done any research into me, but he was affronted that I had taken this bold step. To him, what I had done was tantamount to stalking. I might as well have rifled through his garbage can and taken photos of his wife collecting his kids from school.

I wanted to have the argument with him. To explain that, if you put stuff out there in public space, it is with the tacit understanding that people can and will access it. I wanted to point out how much more he could have known about me, had he reciprocated.

But there seemed to be no point. There was no way he was going to hire me after that. Besides, I wasn't sure that there would be space for me in an organisation which didn't seek to leverage every available means of effective talent management.

Bearing in mind that I work in the field of online learning, and the beneficial use of social media in the workplace, you would think that my (very) public profile would take a lot of hits from people considering doing business with me.

I wish.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Free animation and 'tooning tools

While I am not a school teacher, I know that many of my readers are. It is with these readers in mind that I share this.

I came across this post by Anya Wood today, and I immediately had visions of kids making cartoons and videos about stuff they were learning in school.

Of course, there's nothing to stop the teacher using these tools to seed lessons, either, but the idea of the kids being able to create and share media appeals to me. It just extends the learning beyond strict subject boundaries, and it embodies the whole notion of the individual as a creator of web content, not just a consumer thereof.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


I came across this slam poetry video via the Facebook page of Ruth Demitroff. My sap rises every time I watch it... and I have watched it many times.

Be aware that it contains a single profanity, entirely warranted in my view.

Every little girl (and big girl, for that matter) should hear something along these lines.

The blame game is counter-cultural to learning

Beth Kanter wrote a post that set me thinking about blame culture and the making of mistakes. One thing we loudmouths learn early on is that the blame culture is alive and well...and the loudest mouth makes for the easiest scapegoat.

At school I was (as the expression seems to have become) all mouth and no trousers. I talked a good line in rebellion, but I obeyed the rules as if I were on rails. It made no difference. I got into as much trouble as if I were a complete hellcat. Teachers approaching our classroom from down the corridor would hear some kind of kerfuffle and enter the room declaring what my punishment was to be. The fact that I was more often that not frantically trying to finish the homework that had been sidelined by my innumerable co-curricular and extra-curricular activities made not the slightest bit of difference.

This followed me to college, where the matron once grounded me for three weeks for breaking curfew, when I had been stuck in a lift all night at a friend's hostel. No amount of offers of evidence of my innocence would suffice. On another occasion, I was awoken late at night and ordered to her office to be told, "I can hear you from here! I can't get a wink of sleep with all the noise you're making!" I didn't endear myself to her by apologising for snoring and blaming it on catarrh. As I said: all mouth.

My first 'proper' job was a very junior role in the customer service department of a blanket factory, run by a petty tyrant who screamed (no other word will suffice) at people on a daily basis. He was a real piece of work and no-one wanted to be on the humiliating receiving end of one of his tirades. As a consequence, finger-pointing (and outright lying) was a regular feature of the business culture. On one occasion, there was a huge to do, because the distribution list from one of our biggest customers detailed despatch to their various stores in multiples of 14, but the goods - thousands upon thousands of blankets - had been packed in multiples of 12. Mr Tyrant went ballistic and starting tearing strips off people left and right. And of course, the finger-pointing began. The dervish entered my office, already well on his way to bursting a blood vessel and yelling at full volume before he even crossed the threshold.

I wigged out.

I was already known as 'Bof' (bundle of fire) because I had stood up to him (and other members of the senior staff) in the past, so it was not entirely without precedent that I yelled, "That. Is. Enough! Shut up and let me talk!"

I asked him what kind of operation he ran that would put a 21 year old office junior in charge of making senior management decisions about logistics. I pointed out (loudly - and probably colourfully), that there were people a lot higher than me on the food chain, earning more in a week than I did in a month, whose job it was to make these decisions. But because he was such a bully and a tyrant, none of them was prepared to acknowledge having made this mistake, so they just kept pointing fingers until it came to the bottom of the pile and I had no-one to point at. I told him that, if he had spent half the energy on finding a solution as he had on trying to find someone to blame, the blankets could by now have been repackaged and on their way to the client. By this time, there was dead silence in all the neighbouring offices.

To give him his due, he burst out laughing and told me that I had more chutzpah than a shiksa had any right to.

But that spectre follows me even to this day. A couple of years ago, I made a decision that put me in the firing line and, instead of coming to my defence, my manager served my head up on a platter to soothe ruffled feathers higher up the food chain. The mouth is silenced when the head is plattered.

But this is something I have known since before I had wrinkles and greys. It doesn't take wisdom, just common sense:

A blame culture saps energy. It distracts from solution finding. While everyone runs around trying to find out who was to blame, in order to mete out punishment, things cannot move forward.

If, instead, energy is spent on finding a solution, lessons can be learnt, deliveries made, damage controlled, etc. etc. And, in such a culture, it is far more likely that people will acknowledge having screwed up, thus uncovering mistakes before the knock-on effect gets out of hand.

Can we instead work towards a culture of "Oh hell. I screwed up. Can we fix it?"


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

On being a black sheep

My Twitter stream this morning included a link to a blog post by Abhijit Kadle of Upside Learning. That, in turn took me to this article in the McKinsey Quarterly (registration required) covering an interview with Brad Bird, talking about the importance of innovation.

The stand out thing that served to hook me in was Brad Bird's name (non sequitur: Brad Bird is listed on IMDB as 'aka Bradley Bloody Bird'. I love that. It makes me feel better about my own sometime nickname, to wit: 'that emasculating bitch').

May I just confess that I love animated movies? Not all of them, of course. But so many of them are cleverly wrought. And Brad Bird's work is right up there, in my opinion.

When my children were little, I used them as an excuse to see all the animated movies, and to buy them on video (yup, it was a while ago). When they reached a certain age, I had a decision to make: I either owned up to the fact that I was going to the movies because I wanted to see the films, or I gave up on the big screen experience of animated feature films.

I took a big girl pill and opted for the former.

Fortunately, I was not alone. There are many of us out there, happily consuming animated movies.

And my kids have never outgrown their love of animated movies, either. They are completely unfazed at the idea of going to a cinema to see Up (highly recommended - take tissues), or The Incredibles, or whatever. I suspect that this is partly to do with the fact that games console games are animated and decidedly un-childish; and partly due to the influence of The Simpsons (which is also a Brad Bird thing, by the way), followed by all manner of animated definitely-not-for-children TV shows, such as South Park, American Dad et al.

But I digress.

Brad Bird's work pushes boundaries. And I love that. Producers of animated series often confess that they experience frustration during brainstorming sessions, as every 'new idea' they come up with has already been done in The Simpsons. Bird went there first.

In the McKinsey article, one section jumped out at me:

Bird discussed the importance, in his work, of pushing teams beyond their comfort zones, encouraging dissent, and building morale. He also explained the value of “black sheep”—restless contributors with unconventional ideas. Although stimulating the creativity of animators might seem very different from developing new product ideas or technology breakthroughs, Bird’s anecdotes should stir the imagination of innovation-minded executives in any industry.
Yes. Yes. And yes.

It isn't easy to be the designated sandpaper in any equation. To be the person who challenges the status quo. Who pushes back on the preconceptions and assumptions. Those of us who find ourselves in this position (and I am relatively fine-grained sandpaper, compared to some of you brave souls), are often told that we should stop being so difficult. The assumption is made that we do so just for the sake of it.

But we cannot just lower our heads and traipse along the well-worn paths, and still look ourselves in the mirror. We're just not made that way.

And occasionally, just occasionally, we stumble across evidence that there is a good reason to be the way we are. That we serve some purpose, other than driving people nuts. This interview with Bird is one such.

But let's look for a moment at the role of the executive (Steve Jobs, Ed Catmull, and John Lasseter), here. They were the ones who were brave enough to unleash Bird on their empire. Off the back of huge blockbusters that we animated movie fans have all watched countless times, they took a chance on Bird whose latest project (The Iron Giant) had been less than stellar (although I, of course, loved it):
“The only thing we’re afraid of is complacency—feeling like we have it all figured out. We want you to come shake things up. We will give you a good argument if we think what you’re doing doesn’t make sense, but if you can convince us, we’ll do things a different way.” For a company that has had nothing but success to invite a guy who had just come off a failure and say, “Go ahead, mess with our heads, shake it up”—when do you run into that?
Don't you wish you'd get a mandate like that? And don't you wish you'd get more of that 'good argument'? When you're thinking out loud and making suggestions and exploring possibilities, don't you wish that people would argue with you if they disagree, instead of sitting there looking mutinous?

Argh! Engage, people. Engage! Disagree. Make your case. Fight your corner.

If I'm wrong, talk me out of it. But don't just cling to the wreckage of the default position because 'that's how we do things around here'. Why do you do things that way? If you have a reason, tell me. If it turns out that your reason has passed its sell-by date, perhaps we can find a more effective way of doing things. Together. But we can't do that if you don't add your ideas to the mix, now can we?

And, just to finish off with - does the man's talent know no bounds? Having failed to find anyone to voice the delightful Edna in The Incredibles to his satisfaction, Bird was talked into doing it himself. I had assumed, when I saw the movie, that they had somehow talked Yoko Ono into doing the voice, and was somewhat incredulous when the credits rolled.

I later saw an interview with one of the team members, who shared how it had come about that Bird voiced this character himself. Apparently, he was advising Lily Tomlin on how to voice the character, and she suggested that he had nailed it so perfectly that he should do it himself. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Edna Mode:

Friday, October 22, 2010

Things my father taught me

Today would have been my father's 70th birthday. Except that he didn't even live to see 60. He committed suicide when he was 57.

I have no illusions about the kind of man my Dad was and I am not superstitious enough to 'not speak ill of the dead'. I am honest with myself and others about my father's failings.

He was no manner of Dad, really. He longed for, but never received his own father's approval. He was still too desperately waiting for his Dad to say "You done good, kid" (or some South African equivalent thereof) ever to be able to look beyond himself and build us up as children. After our parents' divorce when I was 6 and my sister just 2, we saw him increasingly rarely. He chose not to be involved in our lives and then cast himself in the role of victim when he wasn't involved in our lives (if that makes sense).

But he did teach me a few things of value.

He taught me that you decide whether or not you like a food by tasting it. No other criterion counted. "If you want something that looks nice, go eat the Mona Lisa."

He taught me that nature should be valued and respected. "People go around shouting "Africa for the Africans." Well, reckon it should be "Africa for the animals." It's the people who *&^%$ things up. They should force all the people out of the continent and leave the animals to get on with it." I pointed out that that would mean we have to leave, too, but he wasn't interested in minor details.

He introduced me to Victor Borge. We didn't have television in South Africa in my childhood, but we had vinyls of several of his shows. We used to sit in my grandparents' lounge and laugh uproariously. The link is to one of my favourite clips.

But most of all, he taught me about love. Sadly, not in any positive way. He taught me that love can be measured in inconvenience. Hear me out.

You can tell your kids "I love you" with every breath you take. But they will never believe you if:

  • you don't pick up the phone when you receive the copy of their report
  • you don't contact them when they get selected for the first team, or cast in a lead role
  • you don't keep your promises
  • you don't know what things matter to them
  • you don't occasionally make a long journey to surprise them by pitching up at prizegiving (or some such event)
  • you criticise them for the lack of closeness in your relationship
  • you refuse to attend a landmark solo performance in your own city because it takes place in a church... and you're an atheist
I still believe that if you love someone, you put yourself out for them from time to time. You do something inconvenient to yourself to support them or to make them happy.

This is why women like to get flowers from their partners. It's not the flowers. It's the out-of-the-comfort-zone effort.

Strange as it may seem, I am grateful for this lesson. So, in memory of my Dad, I am putting aside a pressing job to take my younger son out to his favourite restaurant for lunch (fortunately, this is the reasonably priced Nando's!), and I am going to get up at 8am tomorrow morning to skype my older son in Australia (I don't normally surface until 11 on a Saturday).

Can I challenge you, on this Friday afternoon, to do something inconvenient to show someone else you care?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

In praise of the malcontent

Last night, in a context completely unrelated to the business of learning, my husband made the following observation, "If you don't know what you can have, you'll settle for what you've got."

That remark has stayed with me, and its relevance to just about everything keeps reaffirming itself.

Think about it. If you buy a new pair of boots the very first time you spot them in store A, you might never discover that you could have had them for half the price from store B.

If you don't make enquiries, you may never find out that your student card entitles you to use a certain gym free of charge.

If you're a classroom-based, chalk-and-talk trainer who has never heard of e-learning, or learner-driven learning, or user generated content, or... okay, you get the idea... you'll just keep standing in front of the class, delivering your material to them in as engaging a way as you can, knowing full well that they'll have forgotten most of it by the time they find themselves in a situation in which they need to apply it.

Or maybe you won't.

Maybe you're one of those people who wonders if maybe, perhaps, possibly there isn't another way to do things. Maybe you're one of those people who experiments, who explores, who asks questions. Maybe you'll come to find out that there are other ways to skin this cat.

It seems to me that the essential ingredient is curiosity. And curiosity is not really the province of the contented. The serenely contented person has no interest in what lies behind the doors labelled 'what else?' and 'what if?' It is only the thirsty horse that will drink when led to water. In fact, the thirsty horse will set off to find water.

In my last job, my life was made miserable by a colleague who was utterly unable to conceal his antipathy for me. I'm sure there were many reasons he'd rather have had a slug dropped down his neck than spend time in my company, but the one on which he was the most outspoken was my curiosity. It drove him completely nuts. I thought I was showing interest in things (and people). He thought I was nosy.

The problem is, my nosiness has served me well. It has caused me always to wonder if there isn't another way to do things. It has led me to information that has caused me to re-examine existing practice.

I used to stand up in front of a group of delegates and work my way through the set material (even when I was the one who had set it). Then I wondered if there wasn't a way to make the material more relevant to the delegates, so I started using examples drawn from their daily lives to make my point.

I found that no matter how much the penny dropped in the classroom, it was often MIA when the delegates came to apply the principles. So I wondered if there wasn't anywhere to put examples so that delegates could refer back to them after the fact.

My boss refused to buy me an elearning authoring tool, so I wondered if I could cobble something together using clever tricks with PowerPoint and a cheap screen capture tool. I colluded with the helpdesk to make sure I covered the hottest FAQs.

We didn't have an LMS, so I wondered if I could put the thus-cobbled-together resources somewhere where people could find them, and I found the public folders of Outlook extremely useful!

I didn't enjoy having to plough through materials in a set order using back/next buttons like some kind of mindless sheep. So I wondered if there wasn't a way to make it possible for a user to plot his own route through a resource.

I was unfamiliar with the machinations of a certain application, but needed to include screen capture videos in a learning resource I was designing. I wondered how I might overcome this problem. Would I have to become expert in the application, or was there a more effective way?

These are just a few examples drawn from my own life. Situations in which dissatisfaction and curiosity have combined to send me down a new path.

I don't know what else I can have, but I certainly hope that my reluctance to accept the status quo will drive me to find out.

So to all the malcontents, who are subjected to a hail of criticism for being the squeaky wheel: hail fellow, well met!