Monday, 22 November 2010

Augmenting reality - technology is going invisible

Here's my article, just published on Trainingzone as the headline story, exploring how augmented reality and mobile technology promise to radically improve learning effectiveness. Would value your comments and feedback.

The pace of technological innovation continues to surprise. This week reports suggest that, in theory at least, it will be possible to create new materials that divert light around themselves to render objects invisible. The magical cloaks of Harry Potter (also in the news this week), no longer seem so far-fetched.

The technology of today, however, is also striving for invisibility. It's getting smaller, more integrated and embedded into the world around us. As a result the way in which we interact with it is changing in fundamental ways. This Christmas, one of those must-have gifts is Kinect, the add-on for Microsoft's X-Box game console. Kinect drops the need for a physical controller meaning the user can play a game simply by waving their arms, hands, legs or any other body part for that matter. The reported levels of engagement this generates are profound as the suspension of disbelief, so core to game-play, is deeper and more sustained.

This gesture-based control is all around us, on our smartphones, tablets, touchscreen laptops, TVs and as things develop, on any appliance or surface that needs a communications interface of some sort. But that's not all, technology is becoming wearable in the form of heads-up display glasses that let you watch movies on what feels like a virtual 52" TV screen, cameras that record everything you say and do, storing it in your 'life-cache' or streaming it straight to Facebook for all to enjoy. All this breaks down the barriers between real and virtual worlds.

In fact we can 'augment reality' with applications on our phones that can automatically annotate the world around you (as seem through your camera lens) with useful, contextualised information that helps make better sense of your surroundings and so inform the choices you make. While many of these applications (Layar and Google Goggles are two such examples) are entertainment-oriented and aimed at promoting social sharing or marketing, the additional potential for learning and performance support cannot be ignored. For example, a neat barcoding technology called QR codes, can be used to tag a physical space and with the simple process of pointing your camera phone at the code can automatically call up information stored online that is relevant to that physical place. This is a great way to help new staff navigate around their new workplace, to provide specific health and safety advice for instance or explain how shared equipment works (removing paper jams from the printer perhaps?). Direct links to short 'show me' videos or photos can quickly answer problems or questions and save time for all concerned.
As technology becomes transparent – invisible even – we can seamlessly integrate it into our everyday actions, providing valid access to supporting information and guidance. For example, BMW created an intriguing proof of concept video demonstrating how a car mechanic can use heads-up display glasses to guide them through maintenance procedures on a car. The benefits are tremendous as it means a mechanic can service a wider variety of models and handle what are increasingly complex engine systems. It reduces the pressure for "just-in-case" training and emphasises "just-in-time" support. Much of this is not conceptually new. For example I was involved in a similar project in 1992 for Iveco to design a very similar performance support system for truck mechanics which used video to show how to dismantle, fix and reassemble engine systems. What is different is that the technology now is faster, connected, cost-effective, mobile, even wearable.
The smartphones and games consoles of today set new precedents for those of us working within learning and development. We can start to break out of the relatively static classroom and design learning support that is location-aware, tapping into shared expertise at the time it has most context and give immediate support on actions taken. This immersive experience is more memorable, actionable and potentially removes the issue of training transfer back into the workplace – there is no need to transfer as you are essentially already there.
The design implications are significant and challenge the more structured approach to instruction. Indeed game design offers a powerful motivational model that encourages repeated practice and mastery. Levelling up and achievement systems successfully compel us to try and better ourselves each time. Some of these game environments are becoming incredibly rich and sophisticated, and are hugely effective learning environments, accurately simulating specific real world scenarios.

It is no coincidence that the military, medical and aviation fields are leading in this area given the life and death nature of their respective fields. But as the technology becomes more accessible, this is spilling into other areas such as construction, health and safety, customer service, performance management, contract negotiation and other real-world, complex interactions that many more of us engage in. These simulations don't necessarily have to involve high end 3D graphics and complex artificial intelligence. By using technology to augment the real world around us, we can even more realistically recreate specific situations to test and train responses, working together with the support of other peers and experts, even if they are not physically present alongside us.
This is not to say this is entirely for the better. There is always a need for balance and blend. But being able to economically extend our support beyond the natural constraints of the scheduled training event in a classroom can deliver far more effective learning experiences and deliver significant performance improvements to the individual and organisation as a whole.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

No pain, more gain? Research supports "less learning more often"

Many years back, I coined a phrase that neatly summarised my view on how to change current training design and delivery practice so that it can dramatically improve effective learning and performance. My phrase?

Is it happening? Well, it's beginning to it seems. We are clearly recognising that the concentrated, content-heavy course delivery model often fails to transfer effectively to competent performance in the workplace. A new approach that favours little and often, campaign over course, interwoven activities is, counter to many people's current beliefs, far more effective. Not only that, new research at Northwestern University suggests this new way of training could reduce by at least half the effort previously thought necessary to make learning gains.

The research also may be the first behavioral demonstration of meta-plasticity, the idea that experiences that on their own do not generate learning can influence how effective later experiences are at generating learning.

"Prior to our work much of the research into perceptual learning could be summed up as 'no pain, no gain,'" says Beverly Wright, first author of a study in the Sept. 22 Journal of Neuroscience and communication sciences and disorders professor at Northwestern. "Our work suggests that you can have the same gain in learning with substantially less pain."

The Northwestern researchers found that robust learning occurred when they combined periods of practice that alone were too brief to cause learning with periods of mere exposure to perceptual stimuli. "To our surprise, we found that two 'wrongs' actually can make a right when it comes to perceptual learning," says Wright. What's more, they found that the combination led to perceptual learning gains that were equal to the learning gains made by participants who performed twice as much continuous task training (training which by nature of its repetition and length often is onerous).

The findings hold potential for members of the general population with an interest in enhancing perceptual abilities -- for musicians seeking to sharpen their sensitivity to sound, people studying a second language or physicians learning to tell the difference between regular and irregular heartbeats.

This is great news for my me and my son as it means our intuitive, supposedly "lazy" approach to guitar practice, appears to be pretty effective!

 In my own article I referred to some earlier research which supports this further:

Back in 2001, the American Psychological Association published (Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 2001, Vol. 27, No. 4) some interesting research. It concluded that practicing different skills in concentrated blocks is not the most efficient way to learn. While focusing on a particular skill leads to a short term boost in performance during the period of training, this leads people to over-estimate how well they learned the skill they practiced and results in poorer long term learning. This has the potential to fool trainers and trainees into believing that the apparent progress made during the training will be sustained in future performance back in the job. In fact, for long-term retention, practicing skills that are mixed with other tasks (contextual-interference practice as the researchers call it) results in better learning.

This has far reaching implications for most training design. It clearly points away from focused training on single skills and concentrated repetitive practice and suggests we design learning experiences that are deliberately interwoven among other tasks, requiring people to actively recall and then practice the new skill over longer time intervals.

As we acquire a better understanding of these learning processes perhaps the wider L & D world will be able to bite the bullet and accept that a more fundamental change in approach is needed. And hey, it looks like learning these new ways may be less effort than you first thought.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The catalyst to accelerated learning and performance

Here's my article just published on Trainingzone, recorded here for your comment.
Lars Hyland explores how social tools can be harnessed to deliver a more engaging and effective learning experience.

  • The experiential divide between using online technology externally and internally within organisations
  • Using the crowd to accelerate learning and innovation
  • Three ways to begin nurturing self-learning, self-motivated communities
It seems not a second goes by without some form of social media clamouring for our limited attention, whether it is on our desktop or smartphone. The speed at which we have access to the latest news and information is now literally instant (I assume most of you will have by now experienced the spooky nature of Google Instant search, if not give it a try). The irony is that while this may be true for us as internet consumers, in a workplace context the pace and access to available knowledge and tools is often much slower, hidden behind confusing interfaces and bureaucratic barriers. As a result it can lose much of its value when it comes to that crucial moment of application. 

The experiential divide

The learning management system (LMS) can often fall into this trap, struggling to be perceived by its intended audience as valued learning gateway, instead relegating itself to a distributor of tracked learning events, typically compliance related. Clearly this still plays an important role but perhaps, like plumbing, the LMS should be invisible and increasingly vendors do allow more distributed access to the valuable content it holds. However too often users are forced to engage with systems and content that just doesn’t sustain the required motivation to learn and apply as intended.

This experiential divide is beginning to create real tensions, as employees look for and find ways to circumvent sanctioned communication channels. Many of these are social tools (such as Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin) and the very fact that these are being proactively searched out and used suggests that organisations are missing out on huge productivity benefits.

Crowd Accelerated Learning

A worldwide exemplar of the catalytic effect of social learning is TED ( TED has grown from a fairly exclusive gathering of thinkers, artists and experts sharing their latest thinking in 18-20 minute talks. Under the stewardship of Chris Anderson, TED opened up access to these using online video which has led to vast, self-fuelled growth in participation through an extended network of TEDx events held around the world. This experience has led Anderson to notice a definite acceleration effect in the learning process for those involved – he calls it Crowd Accelerated Learning or Crowd Accelerated Innovation. As more and more people around the world create videos sharing their expertise/skills/latest thinking which in turn is inspiring others to be better. As a result, he reflects on the wider implications this has for education and training:

“We’ve actually got to bring back real creativity and find a way of nurturing that in the education process. In the age of Google the notion of having to cram all these little brains with facts is bonkers. What’s needed is to build skills like how do you stimulate people to ask the right questions? How do you stimulate people to have a meaningful conversation? To think critically? What are the lenses you give people to think about the world?”

These are big questions, and are just as valid to consider within organisations, teams and across your own professional network, as it is on a societal level. Consequently, as learning professionals we need to be mindful of what behaviours social media can catalyse within our own domains of influence, and determine what these mean for how we design learning experiences going forward. A more specific example is Jove ( an online Journal of Visualised Experiments aimed at the scientific community. It uses videos to show in detail the method and results of experiments. This sharing is rapidly accelerating innovation as there is less duplication of effort and the community builds on each others efforts in a healthily collaborative, yet positively competitive basis.

So how can we foster similar virtuous circles within our own communities? Well it would be misleading to say it is easy, especially when working within a corporate culture that may have deep-seated aversions to sharing its knowledge and capabilities in a more open fashion. But here are three suggestions on how and where to begin nurturing self-learning, self-motivated communities.

1)      Start with the new joiner experience

New employees can be catalysts for wider culture change across your organisation. Delivering a social learning experience as a backbone to your onboarding experience can dramatically reduce the time to competence, reinforce best practice behaviours (sidestepping accepted common practice), while allowing new staff to much more rapidly build their professional networks across the organisation. One US insurance company redesigned the onboarding experience for their underwriters which included active participation within an online community across an eight month period, including weekly assignments, online coaching and shared experience roundtables. This resulted in a drop in attrition levels from 50% to 10% and crucially, each successful participant was underwriting $40 million of business, which previously would have taken nine years of experience to reach. That has the capacity to be truly transformational in terms of business performance.

2) Think “campaign” not “course” in all your designs

When designing a training experience break it down into a more extended campaign of activities that are aligned with opportunities to practice and share the results with a network of peers, mentors and experts, transferring learning into active performance. Putting a social thread throughout the programme can help identify those who need additional encouragement and support and enable those who can move faster to build their expertise and experience at their own pace.

3) Bring staff and customers together in a shared learning experience

Social learning can be used to cut across silos and bring fresh thinking to communities. The most radical approach is to open up to the customer and involve them in the learning process of improving your products and services. Providing a forum for listening, contributing, explaining and reaching a new level of shared understanding reinforces both customer loyalty and staff engagement. Starbucks has had tremendous success with its My Starbucks Idea ( site where customers can contribute ideas for improvement and see them being seriously evaluated and implemented. This concept can be taken inside the organisation too. We all have internal customers and using similar tools to draw out what really makes a difference in real and perceived levels of service focuses limited time and resources on what matters most. This could transform your standing within the organisation.

Opening up

So as Chris Anderson of TED says, it is time to “invite the crowd, let in the light and dial up the desire”. In other words, leverage social tools and techniques to open up access to knowledge and expertise, remove unnecessary barriers and nurture a community that sees the powerful value of creating and sharing. A more fitting definition of accelerated learning, don’t you think? 

Monday, 20 September 2010

Memes, genes and by Jove, the future of learning

Dutch biologist Gerard Jagers op Akkerhuis from Radboud University Nijmegen predicts that the next the next step in evolution will lead to a life form in which the transfer of the blueprint by means of genes is replaced with the transfer of knowledge and collective experience by so-called ‘memes’.

In Jagers’ view:

Memes are codes that determine the structure of the brain. In turn, the structure of the brain determines someone’s knowledge. In this way, memes are carriers of brain structure and the corresponding knowledge, just like genes are carriers of protein recipes and the corresponding cell physiology.

The next life form will not necessarily develop by means of biological evolution: as far as Jagers is concerned, a machine that shows intelligent behaviour based on a neural network fulfils the definition of life. If this system can then also pass on its memory to the next generation then this involves a new step in evolution.

Consider this alongside some of the recent genetic research that is uncovering the influences on our ability as organic beings to learn more effectively. For instance, this recent report on the RGS14 gene. Apparently, switching off this single gene in mice unlocks a part of their brain that is otherwise inactive, boosting learning and memory.

Other research reports on how increasing the production of this same gene can dramatically improve visual memory. In experiments, mice could remember objects they had seen for up to two months - ordinarily the same mice would only be able to remember these objects for about an hour. Clearly, it remains to be seen if the same effects are achieved in humans, but the indications are positive.

By Jove - what are the implications?

The implications of both these developments suggest we are entering a new era of dramatically accelerated learning that is likely to be boosted by both our interventions at the genetic and pharmaceutical level, as well as our application of technology. Where these converge nicely is in a site called Jove. As the site defines itself:

The Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE) was established as a new tool in life science publication and communication, with participation of scientists from leading research institutions. JoVE takes advantage of video technology to capture and transmit the multiple facets and intricacies of life science research. Visualization greatly facilitates the understanding and efficient reproduction of both basic and complex experimental techniques, thereby addressing two of the biggest challenges faced by today’s life science research community: i) low transparency and poor reproducibility of biological experiments and ii) time and labor-intensive nature of learning new experimental techniques.

This is a fantastic resource which is dramatically accelerating knowledge transfer within the scientific community. Now imagine this happening in all other knowledge domains. TED is a major catalyst in its own right (I have an article coming out that discusses this next week) and I am sure others exist already in many other fields - let me know if you know of any so I can compile a list.

Thinking about Jagers proposition further, our methods for storing and sharing knowledge and skills online using ever more sophisticated cloud-based tools surely is leading us towards on a deeper dependence on technology to pass on our memories to future generations. The recent bleating about how technology threatens our children minds (Greenfield again) misses the point - the horse has bolted and frankly is evolving rapidly into a far faster animal that we cannot yet recognise.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

12 years of your life for 4 years of knowledge - a good deal?

Michael Feldstein has written a thought-provoking post on which "provides direct-to-student productivity tools that enhance the student learning experience". Xplana is an attempt to support individuals in their learning, which is a broad trend that will be highly disruptive to current educational models, certainly in Higher Education. The economic climate and availability of access to internet resources (while still not universal) sits in stark contrast with the student experience on offer in most educational institutions (and even corporate training for that matter).

Charles Jennings commented questioning the content-centric view of learning rather than an experience-centric view.

I suspect we need to redefine what “content” is. Certainly, the emphasis on complex, pre-packaged content (textbooks, e-learning tutorials etc) must shift to a more fluid, flow based model of content. In many respects, this is what informal, social learning embodies – the short comment, prompted reflection, trying things out, taking action – all intertwined with your daily life experience. Tools that can help nudge, structure, catalyse that experience will come to the forefront as we genuinely take more individual responsibility for our learning – as we won’t be able to rely on traditional institutions to provide the right support in the immediate future. Here in the UK, it’s reported that we will have 200,000 students not getting access to University education despite appearing to have the right grades and while the integrity of that process is an another debate, it looks like a growing contingent of students will avoid fees and the relatively glacial pace of learning on offer within the traditional route, and will take a very different path that is much more under their control and personalised to their needs.

As David Mitchell, a comedian, in the UK reflected (I paraphrase), “The education system provides 4 years of knowledge taking a leisurely 12 years to give it to you.” To which I might add, by which time you’ve forgotten most of it and with the remainder you’re still left unclear how to apply it in a useful and productive way.

Things can only get better…in the end.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Education As We Know It Is Finished

So says Clayton M. Christensen and Michael B. Horn in Forbes magazine. As authors of Disrupting Class, a useful manifesto on how innovation will change "the way the world learns".

There is a growing head of steam around changes to education systems around the world, largely driven by budget cuts. My hope is that the opportunity is grabbed to more deeply re-think how we use learning technology to fundamentally shape the learning experiences that we give children, students and trainees alike. Unfortunately, there is plenty of evidence to show that existing institutions are simply trying to keep their operational models in tact and cut back rather than transform.

As Christensen and Horn put it:

Many schools have framed the looming cuts as a threat to how they operate--even though the teaching force has grown by 10% since 2000, while student enrollment increased by only 5%. But others are seeing the hardship of the moment as an opportunity to transform what they do with the implementation of online learning. Pressured by not only widespread cuts but also increasing demands for accountability, these innovative leaders recognize that online learning is a key reform for doing more with less.

On a similar vein, in the Independent today the UK Government is announcing a wider adoption of two year degrees. This is, I think, a good thing and long overdue. As the article points out:

Dr Terence Kealey, vice-chancellor of the private Buckingham University, the first in the UK to offer a standard two-year academic degree, said: "Many more people are suited to two-year courses than realise it. In future, instead of a gap year, people may work for two years and then take a two-year degree when they are a bit older. The advantage is that they are earning in year three. We should allow people to choose what they want. But two years is a very cost-effective option."

He cited new research by the University of Staffordshire suggesting that two-year students achieved an average grade increase of 0.75 of a point, turning a 2:2 degree into a 2:1. "The normal argument for a three-year degree is that you need a long, four-month summer break for deep thoughts. No other human activity requires that. On a two-year course at Buckingham, you still have 12 weeks holiday a year and you don't lose your train of thought," he said.

I have to agree. It's not appropriate for all areas of study - particularly where access to specialist equipment is needed - but huge savings can be made to both students and institutions by properly re-thinking how this learning experience is delivered in a more flexible, accessible and genuinely meaningful way.

Now, the reactions that accompany this news seem to think this is a bad idea. Baroness Greenfield is quoted as saying:

My own view is that university courses are about developing the ability to criticise, think and put things in a wider context and to apply what you are learning to other aspects of life. If you are focussed on ticking boxes, you may not be able to see the wood from the trees.

Someone who is not an academic might resent this but academic study is not a nine-to-five job. All the best ideas come from reading around a subject, reflecting and bouncing ideas about. If university education is about inspiring the next generation, then I believe two-year degrees will prove to be a false economy.

While she makes a good point about developing critical thinking, context and reflection skills, her conclusion that this can't happen in a shorter period than three years misses the point. Everyone has - through the internet - better access to knowledge and skills development than ever before. We have accelerated our abilities to make intellectual connections and so already have the tools in front of us to learn what we want faster and more effectively, both through digital content and access to peers/experts where-ever they are in the world. By fundamentally reformulating university education around this reality I actually believe you can achieve MORE in less time. And in an austere climate, students will also be pleased to hear it doesn't need to cost them anywhere near the level of debt they are being asked to take on.

The power is finally shifting towards the consumers of education. Students can - and I think will - vote with their mouse (or touchscreen gesture) in favour of learning experiences that genuinely support their work and learning aspirations. And they should be able to take as long or as little time as they like to achieve it without unnecessary millstones of debt clouding their future.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

"Online trainings not so successful" - lively debate on LinkedIn

Apparently, the log might be the most effective learning technology ever invented. Read on to find out why...

There is a discussion in the group Learning, Education and Training Professionals Group on Linkedin which appears to have taken on a life of its own. With nearly 600 posts, it represents an interesting cross section of what can be quite polarised views on the success (or otherwise) of learning technology as compared to classroom methods.

Some interesting points have been made on the way, and I've also weighed in with some views along the way. Given that you have to be on Linkedin and a member of this particular group to see it, I thought I'd share my last response to a comment posted that said:

No matter how hi-tech we are or how good the CBT/Online Training is, nothing replaces the "real time" of a live instructor who interacts with the student. The relationships fostered in the classroom training session for exceeds the few dollars saved by not contracting with a live person. In the 90's, at Lifeway Resources, we spent millions on then hi-tech video training through satellite transmission. In the end, all we did was spend millions on no training. 

In the words of a great Greek teacher, "the best classroom is me seating on one side of the log with you siting on the other exchanging ideas".

Here's my response:

One-to-one tutoring and support can be highly effective. But it doesn't scale very easily. With new technologies that enable wider interactive access to expertise it is feasible for one good teacher to effectively reach a wider audience than "one". As soon as the numbers of students rise, a teacher/trainer has to juggle attention and that leads to compromise - mainly in depersonalising the learning experience.

As a result a great deal of classroom teaching/training is simply ineffective even with a good quality instructor. Unfortunately there is a shortage of good instructors, so many students' experience is reduced to just making it through the session either in a state of boredom, confusion or anxiety. That can't be right.

With the technology now at hand to many (but by no means all) of us in the world, we can reach more people with a consistent learning experience, even if it lacks some level of personalisation. That too though is changing. A well designed CBT/e-learning experience can be highly engaging, impactful and result in behavioural change, just like a well designed face to face lesson. The key is the quality of the design, not the technology or medium used.

So, yes, it is easy to waste millions on technology when the case for deployment has failed to be made. But we waste billions on a now outdated model of education/training that is hugely inefficient, de-personalises the learning experience and results in unintended behaviour changes that are of suboptimal worth to employers and society as a whole.

We can - and should - think more deeply about how we change. As change we must if learning and development professionals (and educators for that matter) are to remain relevant in the future.

While a log would do for the Greeks centuries ago, I'd say the internet - and all the great array of interaction and collaboration it brings us - is the long overdue upgrade. Indeed the great teacher of the future might say:

"the best classroom is me sitting on one side of the blog with you sitting on the other exchanging ideas. In fact, why sit? We can exchange ideas any time, any where."

Actually, they probably wouldn't even use the word classroom at all...

What do you think?

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.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Back in blog seat - it's getting lively out there...

It's been a while - 6 months in fact - since I last posted on this blog. This is largely due to lots of activity in the day job and a preference for Twitter as a platform for comment and sharing of useful links etc... (you can follow me on here). I've also published a number of articles in printed journals/magazines and been remiss in posting up here due to the now confusing delay between writing and publication (so much more instant online but you know that already).

Anyhow, I am back in the blog seat and will start with referencing a couple of recent posts from Charles Jennings and Donald Clark. Charles tackles an important point about the difference between instructional design and interactivity design and its effect on long term learning and performance support. Donald lays out some techniques to tackle the longstanding poor levels of retention that result from most learning/training activities.

I've been promoting these ideas for some time and thought it would be useful to supplement these recent posts with some still very relevant articles I wrote dating back to 2006 when I put forward the concept of "Less Learning More Often" while in the US with Charles and many discussions with Donald over the years.

Links are below and would welcome your comments as usual.

Less Learning More Often

Transfer of Learning - Missing in Action

Ubiquitious Performance Support

Also a slide deck that promotes consideration of the spacing effect:

Lars Hyland Webinar 090709 Re-inventing the E-learning Experience