Wednesday, August 21, 2013

When is done, done?

"Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving."
-   Neil Gaiman
Someone once told me that the standard for developing effective learning was 40 hours of work for every one hour of deliverable material.


For years the training industry labored to provide the perfect, polished experience.  An experience that drove students down a defined path, delivering to them exactly the content as defined by the SMEs and Instructional Designers in exactly the way they deemed fit.  If you were a student and struggling, well, you simply weren't trying hard enough.  Change took an act of Congress - or at least a new development cycle.

That's why I've banned the use of the words "training" and "student" in my professional life.  Training is a response to a stimulus.  Training is required when there is only one one way to do something and its extremely important you do it that way.  Or maybe people die.  I can think of many examples in the medical, emergency response, and military worlds where that's a valid perspective.  But for most of the rest of us it simply doesn't make sense.

In most of our professional circles we want people to think for themselves.  We reward innovation.  Sure there is a base level of knowledge but, for the most part, we want people to use their skills and come up with bigger and better ways to do things.  We want people to learn and to apply those skills in new ways.

That means that learning is iterative.  Learning is active.  The only example of perfection in a course is found in two words:

Go Learn.  

When you design Learning build in growth rings.  Want to teach someone how to make a new dish?  Give them some suggestions for ingredients, some basic knife and saute skills, and let them experiment.  Let them learn how flavors blend in good and bad ways.  Let them make mistakes.

Whatever you do don't give them a recipe on a PowerPoint slide and call it a day.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

MOOC Unmasked at the eLearning Guild Online Forums

Thanks at all who participated in the event today.  Contact me here if you have comments, questions, or want to collaborate on something.

You can also find me on LinkedIn:

Or email

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Mind your Peas and Carrots!

"Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are."
  -   Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

I was cleaning up the kitchen after feeding my cats the other day and I noticed something odd.  My cats had perfectly eaten around what looked like peas and carrots.  I thought to myself, "That's odd.  Cats don't eat veggies."   So I asked my wife about it and she confirmed this is some wonderful new, celebrity-endorsed cat food that the cats just loved.   

"Except the peas and carrots,"  I added.  She looked and wondered about a husband who just didn't get it.

At this point you should be asking, "What does cat food have to do with learning?"

One of my most recent projects is to "fix" a class that has been developed by someone who is not me or my group.  The class was carefully built by the subject matter experts and delivered by skilled instructors.  The overwhelming response was that it contained little perceived value from the learners.

It took the cat food incident to turn on the proverbial light bulb.  There was nothing explicitly wrong with the class per se, but it simply wasn't what those specific learners needed to get out of the class.  It was designed with what the SMEs thought the learners needed to know, without actually designing for them.

It's like the cat food!  Do you see it?  Peas and carrots say "balanced" to a human, and who buys the cat food?  That's right - humans!  Now its not a direct parallel, but it's close enough.  Too often we design courses based on what the SMEs want to do and not what the real learners need and are motivated to learn.

I'll give you a real world example anyone can understand.  I can spend a great deal of time creating a learning snippet about proper tire inflation.  Ask an automotive engineer or master mechanic and they will tell you how proper pressure maximizes performance of the tire, increases the handling characteristics, and extends the life of the tire.  Some will even get excited about it.  But give that to the average driver and you'll fall flat on your face.

Now change it around a bit.  Hold out $50 cash and ask, "Would you throw this out the window?"  Of course they wouldn't, but tires with just a few pounds of pressure low - not discernible to the eye - will waste that much in gas alone over just the next year.  You're conveying the same message - proper tire inflation - but you're doing it in a way that motivates the learner.

Simple motivation can make or break a learning program.  And that's just what was wrong with my class I was asked to examine.  All the information was there, but it was dry and lifeless.  A simple change in perspective, some different real-world activities and discussions, and I think a failing grade can easily become an "A".

Your learners know what they need intuitively.  Don't leave them out of the conversation when designing learning.  Like Cats and veggies....

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


“I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.”
        ― Banksy
I heard this quote the other day, and I couldn't get it out of my head.  Have you ever heard something and it just seems to bounce around in your head?  Our minds create these threads through our past experiences, and sometimes words or sounds can powerfully resonate through them.

This concept wandered in and out of my mind for the next couple of days.  Every time I remembered someone from my past, living or dead, I felt that they were still with me.  As long as I remember them and the impact they had they will never be gone.

I think learning is a lot like that.  Occasionally, I have discussions with people on what makes a great learning experience.  Is it fantastic content?  Maybe it's a really memorable classroom experience.  Or perhaps a great instructor?

It's really all of that, and none of that. 

What makes a great learning experience are those threads, those new skills that will resonate at some point in time for the learner.  It's more than what they remember, it's what they use.

Great learning simply resonates.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Equations for Success

“A person's value is attached to a variable exponent.”
     - David Bajo

I was thinking about equations the other night - I work with engineers so that isn't as strange as it sounds.  I was trying to develop a way to convey what goes into developing successful Learning.  Most of the time these guys, as well meaning as they are, start by throwing out content before they agree on the tasks!

Talk about herding cats.

And it came to me, what if I could express it in an equation?  And I came up with:

Motivation + Opportunity + Relevance = Learning

Allow me to explain.

In order for a adult to learn they have to be motivated to learn.  This means answering the question, "What's in it for me?"  We have to frame the learning is such a way as to start with a premise that gives the learner some direct benefit.  They may not care about a certain feature of a product, but start by showing them how it will make their work life easier and I guarantee you have their attention.  Its the same information, only differing on how you frame it.

Learners need to be given the opportunity to really learn the materials.  Presentations don't cut it.  I once heard someone say, "If you're talking, they're not learning."  I have shamelessly stolen and used that at every opportunity!   Of course, learners need a context and that usually involves a discussion or presentation of some sort.  But we often make the mistake of confusing speech or awareness as learning.  Real learning involves having a new skill, and that involves doing that skill  in practice.  You must give your learners an opportunity to learn.

And finally the subject has to be relevant.  Similar to motivation, relevance involves some sort of framework or context that your learner has that you leverage in your activities.  The most common example I can give is some sort of a report.  Show someone a random report and they may get it.  But substitute some meaningful data for the sample and all of a sudden your audience "gets it."

Finally, it all comes down to a foundation of tasks. Like any trip, you have to know where you're going before you start out.  You need a list of skills a learner is expected to take away from the program.  You wouldn't get in a car for a vacation, pull out on to the highway, and then argue over where you're going!  So why develop learning that way?  Agree on the tasks before you start anything.  You will save yourself a great deal of grief.

I hope this little math problem was useful.  There will be a quiz on Friday.

Monday, March 11, 2013

What Can Sushi Tell Us About Learning?

"Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren't used to an environment where excellence is expected."
   -    Steve Jobs

Two things happened to me recently that seemed unconnected.  After observing both a light went on, and I realized that this experience was one of those threads that weaves it's way through your life for a subtle reason.

The first was a conversation with a customer.  They wanted a training class but were trying to go the cheapskate route.  An abbreviated form of the conversation can be summed up as...

Customer:  "I want to train my system admins in the software."

Me:  "Well we have a range of classes, but there are two basics I recommend to start.  One is four days and the other is three."

Customer:  "Perfect.  Can you do them over two days next week?"

Me:  "I can't do seven days of training on two days."

Customer:  "Well can't you just skip the exercises and give us the real important things?"

At this point in the conversation, and it is more common than I would like, there is a strong temptation to describe the fact that I don't include things in my course designs that are not important and that the exercises are where the learning occurs.  But I realize of they're asking this question they are not going to grasp this.  I also resist the urge to ask them so simply cut me a check and we can say we did the session so they can check the box on their implementation plan.

With the same compassionate tone I told my 12 year old he could not the ride his bike off the roof, I tell the customer I simply cannot provide that service.

In the other incident I was out at a sushi bat and the chef was describing how this was not so much as vocation as an art.  Sushi is about perfection.  We see delicious food but to the chef these are a constant attempt to create the perfect piece.  It can take months just to get good at create the little rice piece under the Nigiri.  Every aspect is about quality.  Every move is mindful.

At some point after the meal it struck me.  The Learning experience is about walking away with a new skill.  It's not about how much the Instructor can cram into a given time.  I would rather present four topics in a week that the learner can master, than to present 25 topics they will barely remember in two weeks.  It is the same mindful concept.

Maybe I need to discuss this next time with my customer over sushi.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

How Do You Measure Up?

There are two possible outcomes: if the result confirms the hypothesis, then you've made a measurement. If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, then you've made a discovery.
  -    Enrico Fermi

I'm big on measurement. I don't consider a learning development project complete unless I have a metric for success defined. Two years ago I was challenged to create a program that would shorten the time our engineers would get to a productive level. Next week we will debut a 5 week bootcamp program I designed to meet that challenge. It was a long and sometimes difficult road, but in the end its something we're all proud of.  But there was still something missing.

One of the things I pushed back to management was the ability to measure success. Survey sheets are good for gauging the mood of the learner at the end of the class (and not a lot more), and I could give a test (which I do) but that just confirms a short term memory.  I forced management to dig into their data and determine exactly how long it was that new engineers received assignments they could complete on their own, and we would compare that to measurements in the out years. That was difficult because it isn't just a field in a database, but a determination that has to be gleaned from many sources.

I feel that most of the time we don't measure success because, well, it's hard!  We like to think that if we identify a need and carefully design a learning program to fill that need, then we must have had some success.  Right?

But the bottom line is, you simply don't know.

So my question is, how do you measure success of your programs, and do you find it difficult to get management buy in?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Leaving Silos to Farmers

"Instead of just having this one thread ... I've come up with an idea and then somebody from somewhere else says, "Oh that makes me think we should do this," and then we can do that, and you get to a place that you just can't get you in one mind."
-    David Kelley, IDEO
I've watched the beginning of the recent 60 Minutes interview with David Kelley a few times.  One of the unique things about IDEO and Mr. Kelley is that they expose the brilliance of simplicity.  Design is their specialty, and if you have not heard of the at Stanford you should research it.  Amazing concept, and it bucks a lot of the traditional academic mandate.

What struck me about this quote was the sheer humble nature of collaboration.  No matter how great an idea, it can always be improved upon by collaborating with others.  It made me think back to some of the professional accomplishments in my own career.  And in almost every case, they were group efforts that I lent a particular expertise to. 

Looking to others will be one of my new mantras.  I will be guided by the principle of finding talented people and making new connections.

If you missed it you can see it here: