Monday, 26 January 2009

Get Real: Mission Critical E-learning

Here's an article published in Learning Technologies magazine this week. I wrote it some time back (old world printing deadlines) failing to fully forward plan for some events, like Obama moving from Elect to Active president status last week. But I'd welcome your comments on what you think mission critical e-learning means to your organisation or the organisations you work with.

The bits in italics were cut from the published version which you can read here and here - let me know if you think they were right!


Lars Hyland examines mission critical e-learning and how learning technology is critical to the way we support employees in the workplace.

We can all see that times are changing. The balance of global power is moving east, and industrial age industries are under severe pressure. By the time you read this, Ford, GM or Chrysler (perhaps all three) could well be bankrupt (or clinging on temporarily with a government bailout [UPDATE - we now know its the latter]). Energy prices will continue to yo-yo, and financial credit at the unregulated levels we once took for granted will just be an incredulous memory. All sectors will experience a downturn and that includes the training industry which itself has been in denial for far too long. Like the automotive sector that has largely ignored the increasing scarcity of oil and climate change concerns, and the financial industry that sold us an irrational dream of endless credit for all, the training world has to get real. And that means finally acknowledging the elephant in the room: That most of our training activities are hopelessly inefficient and we have little proof of their effectiveness.

The good news is that we already have many of the answers - we just need to implement them. Learning technology is critical to the way we support employees in the workplace. It is no longer a novelty. Instead it needs to drive talent management/human capital/people strategy towards a more agile model.

So what does this look like? Well it means even if overall training budgets drop in organisations struggling to survive (let alone aiming for growth), a greater proportion needs to be spent on learning technology. If this happens, organisations can build a much more effective and efficient platform for supporting their staff whenever and wherever they need it. Organisations must be agile to remain competitive. Agility also best describes how we need to manage learning technology. Already in use to describe progressive software development and manufacturing strategy, allow me to describe an AGILE organisational learning strategy using that tried and tested chunking method - the mnemonic.

A = Accelerated

We do need to accelerate our ways of working to deliver value more regularly and systematically. That is not the same as buying rapid development tools to bash out ill formed "e-learning" to an audience that will not only be unimpressed but also none the wiser - or more productive. Instead, we need to look at the end to end workflow, from need identification through to post deployment follow through. Communication between stakeholders, subject matter experts, and (the too often forgotten) learners themselves needs to be clear, concise and accurate if a learning intervention is to have maximum and timely impact. At Brightwave we have pioneered development practices which have led to large volumes of targeted, highly interactive learning content being produced in remarkably short timeframes to meet mission critical business change. A major key to success is a tightly collaborative working relationship and smooth communication between all parties.

G = Goal driven

It goes without saying that any organisational learning and development activity should be strongly aligned with its core business strategy and its impact scrutinised. Unfortunately too much training is facile, inappropriate, delivered to the wrong people at the wrong time for the wrong reasons - indulgences we can no longer afford. A strategy based on learning technology has inbuilt measurement and assessment checks, both formal (for accreditation and regulation) and informal (peer level rating and feedback). Learning and development staff have to learn to offer solutions that are genuinely supportive of business activity - that means listening carefully and delivering more performance support than traditional training courses.

I = Integrated

To achieve Acceleration you have to join up the typically disconnected functions of Internal Communications, Training and Performance Management. Currently staff are often bombarded with conflicting messages from different departments and so become disoriented and numb. This can actually decrease productivity, rather than improve it. Thinking end to end means adopting "campaign" rather than "course" led programmes designed to effect real changes in attitudes, behaviour and performance. A campaign also suggests repetition is built in - a key aspect to real learning that is often totally missing from one-hit, sheep-dip training courses. It also gives you the opportunity to test and improve your message as you go. Each iteration is an opportunity to get through more successfully. You may think this takes longer than current activities - and you are not wrong. But if your real Goal is to effect real change and improvement, then adopting this approach will get your organisation where it needs to be much faster. To go back to our beleaguered friends in the car industry for a second, think of it as the difference between pressing the accelerator to the floor while in neutral, as opposed to steadily moving forward in third. You can either get nowhere fast, or somewhere and still enjoy the view as you go.

L = Liberating

"When change is discontinuous, the success stories of yesterday have little relevance to the problems of tomorrow; they might even be damaging. The world at every level, has to be reinvented to some extent" Charles Handy, Beyond Certainty, 1996

All bets are off. Handy's words uttered 12 years ago have even more resonance now. We really are experiencing discontinuous change and that means previously accepted methods no longer work and may actually be damaging. This is particularly true in the training and education fields which cling doggedly to outdated and unproven learning theories and accepted practice. These constrained economic times will force us to reconsider everything. To harness what we now know about learning and performance support through developments in cognitive psychology and neuroscience as well as learning technology. That should be seen as truly liberating for us as a profession - a licence to innovate. It means grappling with social networks, simulations, collaborative tools that will stimulate your staff to take responsibility for their own learning and performance. Use these new methods to clear away unnecessary, ineffectual communication that clutters their working lives and provide them with the right tools, aligned messages and clear direction - they will do the rest. While that might feel frightening, there is a wealth of experience already out there that will help you make it work successfully.

E = Engaging

In interesting times, you need interesting solutions. It has never been so hard to get heard in the ocean of information, emails, texts, adverts and other media we all swim through. Any learning intervention must compete with them. What many experience as "e-learning" is oversimplified tutorials that retain too much of the old course legacy and are often rightly perceived as plain dull. Rapid development tools, when in the wrong hands, are in danger of serving the same recipe only as a fast food alternative. This does not make for a better learning experience. The true potential of learning technology is to provide virtual practice that simulates real aspects of every day jobs, tools that connect people to each other so that valuable best practice and news of innovations can spread faster, systems that support you at the time of need. That is what we should collectively know and understand as the definition of e-learning.

So in summary (and this is a necessary repetition to help you remember!) an AGILE strategy delivers accelerated, goal-driven, integrated, liberating, and engaging learning experiences.

As learning and development professionals we are going to need to dig deep and confront those conservative fears and accept that we have finally reached a tipping point that will radically remodel the way we design and deliver learning solutions. Mission critical is not mission impossible. To paraphrase the new President Elect [UPDATE - no longer!]: can we do it? Yes we can.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Memory pills on the way

Back in March last year I posted on how we'd soon be able to pop a pill to get smarter. Well it seems that the current semi-illicit practice will go mainstream if AstraZeneca and Epix Pharmaceuticals get there way.

As reported in the Telegraph, medicine designed originally to help treat Alzheimer's disease could be adapted and licensed for sale in a weaker form within the next few years:

Steven Ferris, a neurologist and former committee member of the Food and Drug Administration in the US, has predicted that a milder version will be available for healthy consumers as a "lifestyle pill" available over the counter.

Dr Ferris said: "My view is that one could gain approval, provided you showed the drugs to be effective and safe. It could be a huge market."

You bet, Steven. In fact there is already plenty of appetite for these cognitive enhancers amongst the student communities in the US and UK and no doubt elsewhere in the world where they are undermining the classic examination and assessment certification that predominates in education around the world.

Provigil, used to treat narcolepsy, is being taken by some students to help them stay awake, while Adderall XR and Ritalin, treatments for attention deficit disorder, are being used to help promote concentration.

Clearly there are risks but it seems we are not far away from this going mainstream. It will be interesting to know what effect "cosmetic neurology" has on how we design learning experiences going forward. Indeed, we may end up requesting learners to pop a particular pill to support particular forms of learning depending on the cognitive activity at hand.

If you happen to be attending the Learning Technologies show in London next week then do stop by the Brightwave stand and say hello. I'm holding a seminar in the main hall area on "Mission Critical E-Learning" which is free to attend - do come along and give me your feedback.

Oh and you can try some Think Gum - designed to improve learning and memory recall - and get a taste of things to come.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Applied Hope - Reasons to be cheerful in 2009

It's been a turbulent ride in 2008, hasn't it? But I suspect that we've seen nothing yet as our world economies struggle to transition into an era that can no longer ignore big changes in climate, fossil fuel availability and global populations demanding more active economic involvement. As learning and development professionals, we all know how procrastination and inertia puts the brakes  on change at an individual level. Whole industries and economies experience it too and expend tremendous amounts of energy to avoid what's staring them in the face. Leaving it to the last minute is no longer an option: that minute has now passed.

But all is not lost - not by a long shot. All the industries and economies that are experiencing short term pain are already sitting on many of the answers. The most obvious one is the automotive industry. It's ignored big opportunities to reduce the energy efficiency of its products for decades. Cars, trucks and anything on wheels can and should be a lot lighter, aerodynamic and smartly integrated in their design. This alone radically reduces their energy consumption hugely reducing the pressure on demand for oil. The same is also true for construction, drug development, electronics and any other industrial process out there - the opportunities for radical efficiency are just sitting there waiting to be acted upon.

Amory Lovins in the video below removes the final and perceived biggest objection - cost. He puts a very convincing case that focusing on efficiency is hugely profitable.  He should know - check out his resume:

Cofounder and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute, Amory B. Lovins is a consultant experimental physicist educated at Harvard and Oxford. He has received an Oxford MA (by virtue of being a don), nine honorary doctorates, a MacArthur Fellowship, the Heinz, Lindbergh, Right Livelihood (”Alternative Nobel”), World Technology, and TIME Hero for the Planet awards, the Happold Medal, and the Nissan, Shingo, Mitchell, and Onassis Prizes. His work focuses on transforming the hydrocarbon, automobile, real estate, electricity, water, semiconductor, and several other sectors toward advanced resource productivity. He has briefed eighteen heads of state, held several visiting academic chairs, authored or co-authored twenty-nine books and hundreds of papers, and consulted for scores of industries and governments worldwide. Newsweek has praised him as “one of the Western world’s most influential energy thinkers”; and Car magazine ranked him the twenty-second most powerful person in the global automotive industry.

Watch the video presentation above where he spoke at the Entertainment Gathering - the new TED. Stick with it. There are plenty of statistics and concrete examples that show that even without supporting political will positive change is afoot and we have plenty of answers already in front of us. I defy you not to come away feeling that what we are experiencing is a long overdue correction that will yield huge benefits to us all over the next 10 years. 

"Applied Hope" is Lovins neat summation.

Closer to home, I think 2009 heralds a tipping point for more radical change in the way we train and support learning in the workplace and in education as a whole. We have the technology. We have the neuroscience and evidence. We now have the motivation. 

Happy New Year.