Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Waiting for Superman: calling the education crisis

The people who brought us An Inconvenient Truth – raising awareness of the environmental challenges ahead of – have turned their attention to the US education system. The documentary ‘Waiting for “Superman”’ directed by Davis Guggenheim intends to pack some powerful punches about the state of the public school system while providing a call to action.

Below is a neat little animation that trails some of the desperate statistics underlying the problem that the film brings out:

TakePart: Participant Media - Waiting For 'Superman' - Infographic from Jr.canest on Vimeo.

While this focuses on the US, there are clearly parallels with many of the problems we face here in the UK. I’d like to say we should view this as an early warning of things to come, but that time has clearly passed. 

Just today the Guardian has highlighted how Higher Education is beginning to seriously face up to its deep structural flaws. The Open University is attracting many more young students than ever before. While the trigger might be avoiding what will be hefty debts by choosing a cheaper, more flexible option that allows them to balance work and study, they are pleasantly surprised to find it is a more conducive and supportive learning environment. They shouldn’t be surprised. The OU has pioneered a model that will dominate in the future (see Donald Clark’s posting for more on this). The good news is not only will it deliver a better education for our students, it can be achieved on significantly LESS public funds. A real win-win which if only this was whole-heartedly embraced could simultaneously work to reduce our national debt while also producing a more confident and productive generation that knows that work and learning go hand in hand in a future where accelerating change is the new normal. They can all be Super(wo)man.

Coffee fuelled brains – explains media hyperbole?


A new study published today suggests that drinking five cups of coffee a day could reverse memory problems seen in Alzheimer's disease. But actually it doesn’t. The article on the BBC website goes on to report:

"This research in mice suggests that coffee may actually reverse some element of memory impairment.

"However much more research is needed to determine whether drinking coffee has the same impact in people.

"It is too soon to say whether a cup of coffee is anything more than a pleasant pick me up."

So the effect of this reportage is misleading. The headline is memorable (“Coffee ‘may reverse Alzheimer’s’”) which is at odds with the detail at the end of article. The behavioural take away is more than likely “I know, I’ll make sure I drink more coffee” legitimising an existing habit based on largely unproven evidence. At least this report nullified itself in one place, rather than selectively quoting from a study to support its own baseless argument.

I’m picking on coffee in this instance, but this is just one of many examples where the media report on research studies exaggerating the conclusions and leading with speculation.

That said, there are exciting developments in the field of neuroscience and our understanding of brain chemistry that should lead to genuine treatments and supplements that support memory and improve our capacity to learn faster and perform more effectively.

A diet of HDL cholesterol, blueberries and coffee may be part of the answer. But beware you don’t still end up doing stupid things albeit faster and with more energy.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Learning the LINGO

I had the privilege of speaking at the INGO E-learning Conference at Oxfam House, Oxford today. Fellow speakers included Clive Shepherd, Jane Hart and Rob Hubbard. There is a growing interest amongst charities and other non governmental organisations in more effective and efficient approaches to learning and development. When you have staff, volunteers and other representatives spread across the globe, often in hard to reach areas with little infrastructure and tight budgets it can be a real challenge to provide sufficient training support. E-learning is clearly of value in these situations but also it has to be flexible in its design and delivery to avoid just becoming an expensive white elephant.

Talking of elephants, I gave the audience the benefit of my “elephant in the training room” message – that despite best efforts, much training is delivered by the wrong people, to the wrong people, at the wrong time in the wrong way. What is the result? No learning, no value gained by the individual or the organisation they serve. E-learning is no different – too much of what people experience is plain dull, ironically hard to access and use and similarly lacks relevance. Design is crucial to the success of a learning experience, online or offline. This does not necessarily mean spending large amounts of money on high production values (although that can be sensible and appropriate). Instead, it is developing a more elusive skill – smart selection of design treatments/concepts, clear, energising writing and the appropriate use of media that fit within your project constraints (time, budget, technical).

I used my IMPACT framework to illustrate how e-learning design can be more effective and impactful than the “slide-ware” many people default to creating and even more people have to endure. We can all do much better than this and I’m optimistic that as technology supported learning becomes ever more mainstream, good design will be recognised and valued. After all, the objective is to change attitudes and behaviour in our learners for the long term – and that’s worth dedicating the right level of investment of skill and resource to achieve isn’t it?

Thursday, 10 June 2010

LSG 2010 - Elvis comes to mind

As the King put it:

"A little less conversation, a little more action please"

That pretty much summed up the reactions to many of the sessions during what was a vibrant and buzzy event this Tuesday in London. While there was much enthusiasm demonstrated with regards to the future potential of simulations, the shifts in informal/formal learning provision and a welcome emphasis on long term retention (my long time favourite Ebbinghaus), I sensed a bit of a disconnect between theoretical vision and practical application.

It's important that we try and share more concrete examples where possible and demonstrate real examples in action - as this I think makes it more tangible and achievable. There continues to be more than a little ironic that these sessions are delivered in a lecture format, with powerpoint and limited levels of interaction.

The most valued aspects was the informal conversation between sessions - a common aspect of most conferences and traditional training sessions. So it would be good to find an even better balance that creates even more opportunities for the LSG (and wider L&D community) to connect, communicate and collaborate.

In that sense, the King was not quite as visionary: this new social media driven world tends to favour conversation - but it should not be at the expense of action - and ultimately productivity and performance.

For an alternative take, check out Cheryl's blog post of the event to learn more about frogs (!).

Monday, 7 June 2010

Designing e-learning for IMPACT

Creating an engaging, effective e-learning experience can be a daunting task. There are many considerations, the LEAST of which is the technical delivery which most folk normally latch on to. The tools are an enabler, for sure, but the ability to communicate – in words, in pictures, with meaningful interaction, with clarity – is much more important. However, this ability appears to be in scarce supply. Too much of what people experience as “e-learning” makes poor use of the medium, even to the extent of obscuring the key learning messages it intends to convey.

This is a shame as poor perceptions mean that people can come to an e-learning experience already expecting to be bored, uninspired and desperate to secure their “tick in the box” as quickly as possible. It doesn’t and shouldn’t have to be this way. It is hard to hold attention, granted. Distractions abound. Learners can, quite rightly, simply click away if the experience we design fails to offer a compelling enough proposition to stir the necessary self-motivation needed to stay focused or return when circumstances allow. Mandating completion is not enough. We have to persuade and engage – and that takes thought, consideration, creativity and care. It is a false economy to ignore the steps to good design practice. You can, with some guidance, learn to design e-learning that has real IMPACT.

Over the past few months – at both conferences and webinars – I have been describing a model that can be used to successfully audit existing and planned e-learning projects, and become embedded within a e-learning development strategy. The IMPACT model provides a structure for considering six key aspects of effective e-learning design:







Let’s take a brief look at each one in turn:

Interaction is what makes e-learning different from other media. It should be purposeful, bringing the learner into the content, bring alive a key concept and immerse them in believable scenarios. It is not just “click next to continue” or “click to reveal more information”. Too much e-learning relies on this alone and wonders why it loses its audience’s attention at virtually the first screen.
Good examples of interaction include dynamic models that let you play and explore with variables so you can quickly see the consequences of your actions. This does not have to be complex and expensive. For one organisation, to explain how pensions work, we designed a simple real time graph that allows the learner to change important factors that affect the eventual value of their pension including length of service, contributions and investment performance. Visually simple, the dynamic nature of the interaction quickly demonstrates the effect these have on retirement (frighteningly for many people!). Note that this learning could not easily be achieved any other way than with a good interaction. That’s a good indicator that you are including interaction appropriately and not just to add unnecessary barriers for your learners.

E-learning can draw on any digital asset you can care to mention. Yet we typically settle for text, stock images and clip art. Often there are technical constraints that preclude the use of video and audio. Indeed, there are also learning design reasons why the use of media is inappropriate. For example, for those audiences working in contact centres where the telephone is the primary form of customer communication, it would be good practice to design customer care scenarios that are audio only to provide a model of practice that can be more readily transferred to the work environment.
Where possible though, using video can be emotionally engaging and can realistically replicate real world situations when combined with well constructed interaction. Simulating elements of a job, whether this is real video, 3D animation or an immersive world, or simply photo sequences can provide a meaningful and applied framework for the learner.

If the message is too generic, bland or full of alien language that is patronising to your intended audience, it is unlikely to resonate. Context is crucial and writing clearly in a tone that fits your organisation’s culture, values and specific work practices makes a huge difference in learner’s taking ownership of the experience you present them with.
Equally, personalising the content to their specific needs, such as their job role, their accessibility requirements (low, high bandwidth option, screen-readers etc) and preferred media can ensure the learner feels in control and can concentrate on the key messages rather than the tool they are using to access them.
Introducing social media can further personalise the experience through access to other peers and expert support where available.

Too much training and learning focuses on abstract policies, processes, systems and idealised situations which lack the real hooks and context that allow learners to apply new skills and knowledge back in the work place. The very fact they have had to leave the workplace – physically in the case of traditional classroom training, and cognitively in the case of abstract e-learning content – makes it difficult to transfer the learning experience into practice. You can bridge this gap by closely simulating the work environment in which they need to apply the new skills and knowledge. One example of this is a simulation within a travel agent which trains new staff to sell foreign exchange. This brings together all aspects of the role – operating a computer system, understanding currency, regulatory policy, customer service, sales skills and rapport building. By mixing these activities in a way that mimics the actual job, transfer of the virtual practice is much much easier than if these elements were separately trained.

Too much e-learning is too simplistic. It fails to challenge its audience either in its treatment or the difficulty levels of its assessment. There’s almost an unspoken conspiracy that lulls trainers, managers and staff into a false sense of security because they all “pass”. Never mind if any lasting change in performance is seen in the workplace. Challenge the expectations of the learner and provoke an emotional response. Take a stance, use your writing style to set an attitude, create surprise, laughter, fear, whatever is appropriate for your subject matter and audience. Don’t make your interactions too obvious and easy – it’s good to make the learner think carefully before they act or answer. But that’s not to say we want to frighten learners way – the challenges can be structured to support failure positively and use it as a learning experience to move forward. But foremost the learning must be stimulating, cognitively stretching and memorable.
Game designers have evolved highly sophisticated models that make challenges fun, addictive and memorable for it. In particular casual games, with their shared leaderboards, multiple levels, and regular achievements/badge collecting can be used to great effect in learning about product features/benefits, policies, processes and other knowledge heavy areas where repeated exposure improves long term retention.

Repetition matters more than we like to think. Too many training courses – either in the classroom or as e-learning sessions - are deployed as single events that are completed once and we expect our audience to be trained. The fact is we forget most of what we experience with this one-hit, sheep-dip model. E-learning provides a unique opportunity to structure more frequent, spaced exposure to learning that is interwoven into work practices. This increases learning retention and transfer massively. Thinking in terms of a “campaign” rather than a “course” will change how you design every learning solution towards a smaller, fluid, blended experience. It may have less visible Big Bang, but it will be more effective in building the intended performance change in your audience.

Make an IMPACT
The IMPACT model can act as a useful framework for a more in depth review of how to design more effective e-learning. Anyone of any level of experience, resources, budget can benefit from applying this model to their design activities. While the quantity of e-learning will continue to rise, I’d like to see quality to rise too so that e-learning can really deliver on its promise. We all have a part to play in demanding good design – it makes all the difference.

This blog post is also published here together with lots of videos and examples of impactful e-learning design.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Welcome aboard! Onboarding Model

Here’s one of my articles published last month (May 2010) in Training Journal. You can also get a PDF to download if you prefer to read it in all its published glory on your shiny new iPad. Comments very welcome.


First impressions

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?

"On my first day I arrived and was immediately drowning in rules and policies, all apparently about what NOT to do. The HR person taking us through didn't seem that confident and just rushed through a seemingly endless Powerpoint presentation which sent most of us into a state of paralysis. I'm still not clear what I am actually expected to DO in my role."

"Our manager said we didn't have time for the usual induction and we got straight into the job. I had to learn by trial and error, but I got there in the end."

"Well I'm not sure whether that trainer just got out the wrong side of bed today, but I hope the other people I meet aren't as cynical and depressing. Otherwise I don't think I'll be able to last long. It's certainly not the impression I got from the interview."

As organisations, and as individuals, we never get a second chance to make a first impression. This is especially true when we find ourselves in a vulnerable position such as entering a new job role. We become hypersensitive to the information and actions we see around us. We are more likely to jump to hasty conclusions, real or imagined, in a desperate attempt to reach certainty of mind.

Cognitive psychologists have observed this behaviour as "premature cognitive commitment" and it is very difficult to shake these initial impressions once set. From an organisational perspective, this means we run big risks if the onboarding experience that new staff receive is poor and open to interpretation.

Onboarding sets the tone for how employees perceive an organisation in terms of corporate culture, communication and values. However, for many staff entering a new work place, the experience can be an inconsistent, sobering and unnerving affair.

It is no great surprise then that many new joiners don't stay the course. It has been recorded that 90 per cent of employees decide whether to leave their new employer within the first six months (recently voiced by Gretchen Alarcon at Oracle).

Measuring time to full productivity of new staff reveals it can take anything between six and twelve months to reach the required performance levels. Such high levels of staff attrition are extremely costly to an organisation. Then, when a staff member leaves, all of that early investment in that individual - from recruitment, selection and induction to salary - is lost before they can add any real value.

There are many reasons why these onboarding problems occur. However, at its heart usually sits the tumbleweed of absent or poor communication. This can undermine efforts at each key stage of a new employee's journey into a new organisation. Any mismanagement of messaging, inconsistencies or simply an absence of support can derail a new joiner.

These first few months are a particularly delicate time yet, when handled well, can provide a superior foundation for long term employee engagement, more than any subsequent corporate cultural change programme.

Communication. Communication. Communication.

In general you can't communicate too much. Yet it is far more common for us to stay silent for long periods and allow perceptions to stray. Communication is the golden thread on which all engagement activities hang.

In onboarding terms, successful communication will produce three key outcomes for each individual:

  • Congruence - aligned messages are easier to assimilate and understand in the minds of those new to your organisational culture.
  • Competence - building the skills and knowledge of the new joiner throughout their onboarding experience reduces the overall time it takes for them to reach full productivity.
  • Confidence - a new joiner that feels well informed, knowledgeable and ready to apply their skills is well motivated to perform at high levels at the earliest opportunity.
Achieving these outcomes will go a long way towards reducing, if not removing, those premature cognitive commitments. But how can we structure an onboarding experience that is effective, but also cost efficient?

Technology as a catalyst

In designing a successful onboarding strategy, it is essential to harness technology to deliver an experience that is aligned and supportive with an organisation's values and culture. It must also deliver more productive employees, quickly and at lower overall cost.

Not only can technology help communicate more information in a timely and accessible fashion, but it can also be used to avoid information overload - another common problem for new staff. Technology genuinely offers a win-win opportunity to positively impact your staff, your top-line productivity, as well as your bottom-line.

Let's take a look at some of the key stages of onboarding and explore how improved communication through an appropriate application of technology can achieve a more effective experience for your new employees.


This stage covers all recruitment and selection activities, including the public presentation of the organisation's ‘employer brand’. Communicationneeds to accurately represent the organisational culture, the nature of the job roles available and working conditions.

There is also a clear need to positively position the organisation to attract talent that may be in short supply. However, the organisation's story must be authentic. A new joiner will soon discover if the brand doesn't match their experience – here are a few tips to ensure this doesn’t happen in your organisation:

  • Offer a careers portal giving visibility to employee practice, a summary of your organisation's activities, the range and variety of job roles available, and (through job board functionality) access to vacancies and the application process.
  • Applications can be filtered through immediate exercises that test applicants' basic abilities and attitudes to the job role. By ensuring that applicants fully understand the role and culture, there are fewer losses later in the recruitment/induction process.
  • Selection exercises at interview stage can simulate the working environment. They can provide valuable direction for both applicant and employer on the level of subsequent training and development required to reach the desired levels of competence and productivity.


Upon selection and acceptance of the role, new joiners often experience a chasm of silence between receiving their offer letter and their first day at the organisation. This can dent a new starter's confidence and lead to a reappraisal of their decision to join.

A pre-joiners portal (sometimes linked to the original careers portal with access to additional secure areas) can continue engagement and provide important stimulation and reinforcement as soon as the job offer is accepted.

A successful example of such a portal is being used by Sky with significant business results – it also won ‘Most Effective Training Programme Award’ at the recent Customer Contact Association Global Awards.


Social media tools can be used to safely connect with existing employees and other new starters irrespective of their geographical location. These tools can be embedded within the portal and/or provide links to existing tools which may be linked to a recruitment strategy. Common social media services that may already be in use include Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin.

Used correctly, social media can provide a mechanism for new employees to contribute and demonstrate their value to others already in the organisation. Likewise, existing employees and, critically, members of the management community can reach out and engage with new incoming team members.

This approach can help new starters operate more effectively as they’ll have an increased understanding of current projects that they will be working on. It will also help new team members to understand commonly used jargon amongst colleagues and start to expose them directly to the culture of the organisation.


Induction from the first day onwards can be radically re-designed and shortened if pre-joining learning activities are put in place. There can be significant savings in overall training time, of 50 per cent or more, where the induction experience focuses on application of knowledge and skills already acquired.

By extending the use of an online portal to include additional learning activities, further flexibility and personalisation of the induction experience can be achieved. This allows those, able and willing, to fast track themselves to a proven level of competency much faster than previously. While those needing additional support can be given the attention they need from the organisation's training and coaching staff.


Since communication is more effective when spaced over time, providing ongoing access to learning and performance support via the online portal will help cement new knowledge and skills. It will also increase accuracy on the job and accelerate the acquisition of practical and positive work experience.


The cumulative effect of aligning all of these stages is to give the employee a highly congruent, contextualised and personalised entry into the organisation which will build confidence, competence and loyalty. While many factors affect an employee's motivation levels and loyalty, clear, regular communication and clarity of purpose will keep their focus through the initial months until they are fully embedded in their new company.

Onboarding directs the conversation

Communication has always been about a conversation rather than a one way transmission. In today's highly interconnected world, we are all becoming used to, indeed expect, a two-way interaction. As we've seen, the technology and tools are there for us to harness.

Do try and use the techniques above to reach alignment across all key stages of your induction process to help yield significant cost savings, more robust employee engagement and productivity. This will in turn lead to reduced levels of attrition.

Put simply, employees are more confident and competent in their chosen role and are appropriately motivated to perform in line with the corporate brand and mission if they experience a good onboarding process. Going forward this can only be achieved by putting communication and technology at the heart of your onboarding strategy.