Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Home Sweet Office - the changing workspace

Wired Magazine have run an interesting feature reminding us that with a functioning networked society the old assumptions of physically working alongside each other are rightly being challenged. But its interesting how slowly the notion of teleworking/telecommuting has moved into the mainstream.

Though a third of the more than 150 million working Americans telecommute at least occasionally, most do so just a few days each month. Only 40 percent of companies permit any sort of work-at-home arrangement, which means most insist on full-time attendance.

Engagement isn't the issue. As this study points out:

Last year, researchers from Penn State analyzed 46 studies of telecommuting conducted over two decades and covering almost 13,000 employees. Their sweeping inquiry concluded that working from home has "favorable effects on perceived autonomy, work-family conflict, job satisfaction, performance, turnover intent, and stress." The only demonstrable drawback is a slight fraying of the relationships between telecommuters and their colleagues back at headquarters — largely because of jealousy on the part of the latter group.

In comparison the traditional office environment can be counter productive:

According to Gloria Mark, an informatics professor at UC Irvine, the typical office worker is interrupted or switches tasks every three minutes — hardly enough time to accomplish anything of substance.

Aside from the productivity and environmental benefits, working remotely places more emphasis on mediated communication skills and active learning. Clearly different disciplines apply, but they appear to be less of a barrier to effective performance than the traditional head office cubicle model in the long term.

Changing the office environment

But some organisations are recognising the need for change and have radically challenged the preconceptions of an office space. Interpolis - a Dutch insurance company - has transformed their HQ into an environment that encourages effective communication and focuses on results, rather than activity. In doing so they have freed up 51 percent of their working areas, cut 33 percent of construction and equipment costs, and reduced office usage expenses by 21 percent. Employees have no separate desks, work virtually paperlessly.

Nooteboom - who was responsible for the transformation project commented:

One should attend the Interpolice office - depending on the function - at least two to three days in office due to social cohesion. In contrast to the past, work is not measured on the presence, but output; The performance of the staff expected by the company. This is a fundamental change that requires time and training - amongst workers, but even more in the administration. What are the new tasks of the management ? No longer to check whether someone is there, but to define the output and control it. It takes months to incorporate this culture into a company.

As I wander the corporate corridors of various organisations here in the UK, there is some evidence of attempts to free workers and provide more conducive work spaces. But there is a long way to go before the fundamental culture shift described by Nooteboom is achieved.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Think Gum - chew and remember

Think Gum aims to:

...take advantage of proven brain-boosting herbs and herbal extracts, potent antioxidants, the principles of aromatherapy, the stimulant qualities of naturally occurring caffeine, breakthroughs in memory research, and the physical properties of chewing gum itself. In short, Think Gum enhances mental performance.

Not sure of the claims but besides the impact of brain chemistry on cognitive processes, it does highlight the importance of context in learning. The environment - taste and smell included - plays a significant role in recalling memories:

If test takers chew Think Gum while learning, their recall of such information will be better when they chew Think Gum again.

Not sure what happens when you get through all the distinctive flavours they offer, but these are interesting studies quoted on the site:

(1) Herz RS. The effects of cue distinctiveness on odor-based context-dependent memory. Mem Cognit. 1997 May;25(3):375-80.
(2)Pointer SC, Bond NW. Context-dependent memory: colour versus odour. Chem Senses. 1998 Jun;23(3):359-62.
(3)Morgan CL. Odors as cues for the recall of words unrelated to odor. Percept Mot Skills. 1996 Dec;83(3 Pt 2):1227-34.
(4)Smith DG, Standing L, de Man A. Verbal memory elicited by ambient odor. Percept Mot Skills. 1992 Apr;74(2):339-43.

Scratch and sniff test papers can only be a short time a way...

If anyone has had a try of this stuff I'd be interested to know if you felt any positive effects.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Same old story says Clive

Clive Shepherd has posted on the continuing failure of many organisations to harness the benefits of e-learning:

...a large government department, had initiated a major e-learning programme, but the response had been disappointing. "I bet I can guess why," I said. "Really?" she said, "Do tell me." This was my guess:
  • the e-learning was entirely self-study;
  • the e-learning was unsupported;
  • the content was largely textual and uninspiring.

"How did you guess?" she said. "Easy," I said, "that's always the problem."

I agree with Clive's weary tone.

There are still far too many e-learning initiatives which flounder because of a simplistic view that transferring learning content from one medium to another is sufficient.

Of course it needs support (so does classroom), of course it needs to be engagingly designed and instructionally sound (so does classroom) and of course it needs to be multimodal (that means sensibly deploy a range of media, online, offline, interactive, human) to generate a learning experience that effectively segues into the desired performance in the workplace.

A lot of e-learning projects brutally expose the lack of fundamental design thinking. In many respects this at least is a positive step forward as it is harder for organisations to continue hiding behind a thin veil of training activity that is clearly ineffective, costly, variable in its presentational quality and unsupported once back in the job.

A more holistic approach to design (that includes communication, performance support as well as the learning experience itself) and collaborative partnership with e-learning expertise would pay dividends. As does a focus on learning as an ongoing process rather than a defined event (with an arbitrary deadline).

Sunday, 19 October 2008


It seems that to attract attention these days you have to summarise your idea and intent into a single syllable. Ever since Gladwell's Blink, it seems that every book I pick up follows the same pattern:

Sway - the Irresistable Pull of Irrational Behaviour - Brafman & Brafman

Nudge - Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness - Thaler & Sunstein

Yes! - 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion- Cialdini, Goldstein, Martin

Spark - The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain - Ratey & Hagerman

Then if we up the word count consecutive notches we have:

Brain Rules - 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School- Medina

The Dip - The Extraordinary Benefits of Knowing When to Quit (and When to Stick) - Godin

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Take Hold and Others Come Unstuck - Heath & Heath

A Mind of its Own - How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives - Fine

Any others I can add to the list?

I'll post back a revised summary of your suggestions.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Memories Are Made of This

We're getting excitingly close to observing how our memory works at a fundamental level. This study picked up by PsyBlog reports on a study that demonstrates how memory works through the reactivation of specific individual neurons in the hippocampus.

Effectively, things that happen to us activate networks of neurons in the brain, and when we recall past events at least some of these same neurons fire again.

Researchers monitored 857 specific neurons within the brains of epilipsy patients awaiting surgery, by inserting
probes into the medial temporal lobe, near the hippocampus, an area of the brain central to memory and how we remember events. They managed to trace and link a memory pattern being formed as a result of the volunteers exposure to specific video clips.

They also noticed that the neurons began to fire about 1.5 seconds before participants were conscious of remembering the particular clip, and so could predict which clip the patients were in the process of remembering before they actually said they became aware of it.

Dr. Itzhak Fried, who conducted the study, commented:

"In a way then, reliving past experience in our memory is the resurrection of neuronal activity from the past".

I think this further supports why reinforcement and spaced repetition in learning is so important in strengthening memory patterns and therefore improving recall.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Google Goggles - targeted performance support

At last - I return. To many of you I may have appeared to have taken a previous post on sleep and memory a little too literally. While I now consider myself fully consolidated, what with holidays and a surge in demand for my e-learning services to contend with, it's proven difficult to post at the frequency I intended. So I figure I'm in need of some performance support...

On that note, I picked up this great Google Labs feature - Mail Goggles:

When you enable Mail Goggles, it will check that you're really sure you want to send that late night Friday email. And what better way to check than by making you solve a few simple math problems after you click send to verify you're in the right state of mind?

By default, Mail Goggles is only active late night on the weekend as that is the time you're most likely to need it.

I like this, and not just because it's clearly aimed at night owls like me. There is a lot to be said for preparing ourselves for performing a task, getting into the right frame of mind to execute as effectively as possible. The simple technique here of being asked to complete some mental arithmetic helps focus the mind. I like also the use of time pressure.

We need to apply thinking and concepts like this to learning and training activities to actively improve their efficiency and effectiveness. Tools that will help us ensure we are in an appropriate state of mind to begin and complete a learning task. Tools that will help learning professionals provide support and guidance to their learning communities before, during and after the learning experiences they design and deliver.

P.S. There's another great little tool - the Forgotten Attachment Detector - which prevents you sending an email without an attachment if you mention it in the body of the email. How many times have you done that? Simple, yet effective.