Friday, 26 September 2014

Erring on the human side and 7 steps to avoid it

I've notched up another year on the age scale today so forgive me if I'm in a fairly reflective mood.  As usual my blog is less about a planned and insightful look into the world of learning technologies and more random stuff as a result of a trigger that occurred through my work and/or life.  Today's inspiration comes from a stuff up that I made yesterday, but it contains a lesson that I thought was particularly relevant in technologies.

Anyway yesterday I made the not-so-subtle stuff up of including someone on the distribution list for a fairly sensitive email who the email was about rather than to. This type of error I fortunately don't make too often, but the outcomes can be really damaging to relationships and when you work in a relatively small market area (yes, we classify New Zealand that way).  This made me think a little on our communications and the way we do things as humans.  I knew who the email was about and wanted to include the relationship owner in the email.  Somehow I managed to not only include the relationship manager but also the individual... sigh.

The issue here isn't that uncommon and I'm sure at some point in our lives we've made the mistake of putting the wrong people down on communications and sometimes that can have massive consequences in the business world.  Why does it go wrong?  Well, largely it's because of the way our minds work - now I'm no psychologist, but we associate things and make patterns in our head that seem reasonable and we sort of go on auto-pilot - we do things without thinking in other words.  This strikes me as one of the most important reasons to spend time early in a technologies implementation to minimise the human processes.  The old expression goes that to err is human; effectively making mistakes is part of our make up (some of us even make it an art form), the argument here is that if we want to make less stuff ups we need to take 'us' out of the equation as much as possible and in particular the parts where we slide onto auto-pilot.

The simple rule is that whenever we can take humans out of the simple automation parts we do, because we are the ones more likely to make the mistakes.  It doesn't mean that humans don't make decisions because that's still a likely part of your learning and a great way to involve people in decisions that have the big impact, it just means that we take the monotonous tasks (where errors are most likely to creep in) out of the equation.  So if you're looking to reduce human error here's a list of my favourite ways of doing just that:
  1. Bring in your data from a single source of truth. Rubbish in = rubbish out.  If the information in the system is wrong you're starting in a precarious place.  So rather than manually put this information in, we look for ways to sync this information via a single source of truth (like an HR system or HRIS or Payroll system etc)
  2. Remove multiple sign-ins to systems. If possible rather than risk the wrong information when logging on we utilise single-sign-on (SSO) so that the user is automatically and seamlessly transferred from one system to another without getting the chance to get it wrong and sign-in as the wrong person or have to turn to support or helpdesk.
  3. Where decisions are automatic without need for subjectivity then automate them.  When we're setting up someone's learning environment I'm always on the lookout for things that we can set to happen on a rule based or logic type assignment.  For example in Totara when I'm looking at setting up audiences I like to look at what rule sets can be used to dynamically set up people so that they receive the right training, end up on the right courses and even see the right information in the system.  The reasoning here is simple, that I can still make mistakes, but by testing and running through those rules that set my audience up, I end up with an automated system that will logically and consistently apply the rules to make sure the right people are in the right places.
  4. Use dynamic rules.  Rules based on simple logic are great - even better if they are dynamic; that means that the rules get reapplied continually to change the way things are setup as the data changes.  This is the best way to have up to the second data in your reports and the right people in the right learning.
  5. Use dynamic links If we're linking and providing other information we look to set those links up in a dynamic way that change with the content rather than breaking.  There's almost no experience worse in the modern technology based world than a broken-link and you'll lose your target audience quicker than something that goes really quickly (sorry, slight loss of a decent metaphor).
  6. Invest in thorough testing.  Don't forget to never underestimate the ingenuity of fools when claiming something to be fool-proof. We sometimes work with clients who don't want to invest in thorough UAT (user acceptance testing), but this is a really important part before launching anything.  A 'Titanic' type failure on your launch is something you can't recover from so investing a decent amount of time for your own testing is really a must.
  7. KISS.  A great modern acronym for keeping it simple (there are a variety of ones for the final S if you find Stupid offensive).  Keep your systems as simple as possible, Boolean algebra is like any other kind of algebra in that it can often be simplified down.  It can be really hard to follow if you've not tried to do this or used a convoluted way around the problem.  Again working with someone else and explaining what you've done is a good check.

As a final note, I managed to right the email issue yesterday by immediately spotting what I'd done and owning the error.  Immediately I sent out an email to those on the list saying 'sorry' - I also spoke to the person who shouldn't have been on the list and did the same.  The most important thing when erring is to remember that it's what we do as humans; how we deal with the after-effects are what defines us as people.  When you get it wrong (there's really no 'if' about it) own the error.  I've said so many times before but in learning technologies as in life, it's all about ownership.

Friday, 19 September 2014

The Technological Acceleration

It's well known that we're living in a world full of technological change.  Most of us can look over our own lifetimes and see a remarkable change - for me I remember my first computer (ZX81 - thanks Sir Clive) and a wobbly 16kb additional memory pack, my record player that could play both sides of the record without turning over, my Philips original CD player, my Betamax video recorder and various other things that have advanced over my (relatively) short time on the planet.  In fact if you look back over the last few hundred years you won't see a gradual list of change; from the industrial revolution in the early 19th century to the massive scientific gains (communication, nuclear, birth of the internet) in the 20th century to the start of the 21st century.  In fact, this century is only just over a decade old and we've already seen an explosion in technology; led by the expansion and availability of high speed internet and the ever increasing mobility of technology - think Apple Watch and latest mobile phones.  There's a word for a rate of increase; it's acceleration.  We're a part of technological acceleration not just a fast-moving environment.
Scientifically acceleration doesn't mean fast; it means getting faster.  Of course from our relative perspective it's not quite possible to stand far enough back to see just how much things are getting faster, but look at your own lifetime.  In that relatively sort period things have come further than in any other period in the history of time of the same length.  That's not the scary thing about acceleration, the scary thing is that if left unchecked things that are accelerating get faster and faster.  If you apply a force in space to an object it accelerates (same as on earth of course), but without air to resist the acceleration it will continue to accelerate unchecked and get faster and faster and faster.  What this means to our technological world is that although 2014 may have seen some great changes (down to your computer on your wrist), 2015 will have more and you'll probably have as many changes in the first month of 2020 as we had this year.
Where does this leave learning?  If you're digging your heels in about all this learning technologies stuff and adamant that learning only takes place in a controlled environment like a classroom the chances are you're either already out of the learning world or you're heading that way soon.  Learning itself has evolved both in its theories and in its use of the technologies that are accelerating.  The issue for many organisations is that they feel they are behind the curve; no or very little elearning, no LMS or only basic functions used, no virtual classrooms, no social learning, or very little or very poor of any of that list.  In fact some organisations will use the speed of change (remember its actually accelerating) and their being behind as an excuse to actually hold fast.  Really?  The property market is racing away so the best thing I can do is not get on it?  It makes no sense to hold off from the changing world because it's changing, but what can you do?

For starters let's make sure that we're aware of what's going on and always looking for opportunities that will arise with the technological acceleration.  If we firmly fix our plans based on what was known ten years ago, or five or even two years ago we'll be unnecessarily checking our own progress.  Your strategies should not be about trying to set in stone something that's rapidly changing, but setting your attitude to how you handle that change.  For example, investing in research and development (or R&D) is no longer a luxury commodity, it's an essential part of core business.  Building R&D into all your key roles, changing your environment to one where your people are constantly on the look out for new opportunities, removing 'because that's the way we've always done it' from your workplace, looking inward, outward, forward and not just backwards.  For learning that means recognising that your learners are part of the learning too; they need to be a part of the process, part of the design of the learning, able to access 'stuff' when they want to, opening up your systems - maybe even losing a little control along the way.

If Change Managers were a necessary part of the late 20th and early 21st century, maybe Acceleration Facilitators are the necessary way ahead - that may not be a formal role (yeah, I made it up), but people with the ability to work in an accelerating world should be high on your list.  Acceleration Facilitators are not Gen X, Gen Y or any of the newfangled names we may be given for when we're born.  They're attitudinal based not upon when they started, but how they adapt to that world around them. 

My last point is that no-one knows what the future holds.  Technologically it may be fine to assume Microsoft or Apple has the next big thing lined up and we all know it will be the i-thingey this or that.  But the truth is the mass population probably don't know what the next big thing is - Facebook came from nowhere to change the lives of billions.  The good news is that the so called experts don't really know either so you're in good company.  I can speculate and I have some views of my own, but I'll probably be wrong (nothing new here).  The only thing I can tell you about the next big thing is that it will be coming soon.  Then the one after that will probably be sooner still.

Remember it's not just a fast-moving world, it's an accelerating one so being able to keep up now is no guarantee for the future, but your ability to adapt in that accelerating environment is vital.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Let designers do the design

Something that always astounds me is in the world of elearning and learning technologies is the level of amateur work that can be found.  One of the big causes for this is a reluctance to use experts or professionals and, perhaps even more disturbing, paying a professional and then ignoring their work and doing it yourself.  I can understand that those new to the world of elearning may be shocked by the costs involved and choose to try it alone or using internal resources.  But there's projects and there's projects.  If I want to put up a new fence I may feel it's worth me having a go (someone just alerted the local council by now) rather than paying someone else to do it, but if I want to put a second floor on the house or build an extension it's a step too far for me so I need to get a professional in.  Same is true of learning technologies and in one area particularly; design.  And if I'm getting someone in, surely it makes sense that I listen to them?
So I'm building an extension (note to the council: I'm not, this is hypothetical I promise) you could think the first stage is to leap in and draw up the plans, but you'd be missing an important first step - working out what you want.  Before you formalise the solution you need to look at what your needs are and what limitations you have.  It's no good me designing my three story extension if the land has conditions which prevent it from being used or my building is too close to the boundary line and of course is the extension fit for the purpose I presumably had?  Before you draw up your plan you must have some sort of need - doesn't this sound a bit like the approach to instructional design?  Pretty soon I would realise that I'm out of my depth and I'd bring in a professional to at least have the opening discussions with, let them know what I need and want.  After that information gathering and needs analysis they can then start to draft something up for me.

...and here's where the problems start.

"No, that's not what I'm after".  When you get a design it may not be exactly what you were expecting and one thing we have to realise is 'that's okay'.  If we want a design to reflect exactly how it looked in our heads, then you're probably right in thinking you don't need an expert to design it.  The problem is that unless you're a professional or remarkably have natural skill in this area you limit the final solution.  In fact you'll probably find that if you start with the solution in mind that the analysis was a waste of time too. 

For me a regular example of this is in theming an LMS.  We start out by talking to a client about what they want to use their learning environment for, what type of content, user experience etc etc.  We take into account their marketing designs, colour schemes, fonts, imagery etc etc.  The best kind of customers then step out the way and let us come up with some designs for them which should then open up a discussion so that we can narrow down and then they can choose and we build.  Easy as.  When it goes wrong it's often because they already have firmly decided what they want without taking into account how the systems work or the end user experience.  Don't get me wrong - if you're after a portal that needs to closely replicate your other systems then we realise that we're working a very limited design and the process should be fairly straight forward.  The hardest people to deal with though are the ones who don't know what they want - they just know they don't want whatever you can come up with! 

My advice here for my would-be extension or LMS design would be to approach with an open mind.  I hand over all the details and then let the designer come up with some ideas.  Again, it doesn't have to be what I would design (what would be the point?) or even something that would knock my socks off, but I should be able to 'get it'.  The next part of the design process is to look at the options and narrow down the design.  Don't go back to the start unless the designer really hasn't got it at all.  From now on it should be a simple iterative process to end up with your final design (and do try to limit the iterations and reduce your preconceptions wherever possible).  Voila house plans done!  Over to the builder but that's another story for another day. 

I mentioned earlier instructional design too.  Good instructional designers are worth their weight in gold and they are similar to good graphic designers in that they work best when you talk them through what your needs are and prevent them the information they need.  They should then work on some form of plan or storyboard for you.  It doesn't have to be exactly what you would have done (what would be the point?) or even something that would knock your socks off, but you should be able to 'get it'.  The next part of the learning design process is to look at the options and narrow down the design.  Don't go back to the start unless the instructional designer really hasn't got it at all.  From now on it should be a simple iterative process to end up with your final design (limiting iterations again).  Voila learning plans done!  Yes building is another story!

Graphical design can be something of a dark art - but a great designer really will come out with something that makes you go 'wow' every so often.  Same too with a piece of elearning - occasionally I see a piece and have that same reaction.  Whilst you're not going to get that every time with a designer approach you almost never see that kind of reaction to amateur DIY projects.

The key thing here is that if you're going to engage a professional for design purposes then you need to be receptive to their ideas and be prepared to change your mind.  If not, then do it yourself, but the 'wow' reaction isn't likely - at least not in the way you were hoping.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Failure to Comply in Seven Simple Steps

There are plenty of ways you can use learning systems and environments in organisations from a pay-per-view commercial site to a full blown internal LMS with performance management, development plans and a wide range of activities to encourage pervasive learning culture.  In all that activity it's sometimes easy to forget one of the most fundamental features and key drivers for organisations; compliance. 

Compliance is often seen as a dirty word in learning technologies; a push of 'tick the box' training on systems that just provide the boxes.  What we need to remember is that many organisations are compliance driven because of the nature of work they do; those same standards we as consumers rely upon to provide us the assurances we need.  The key from a learning technologies perspective is to put as much effort into the compliance environment as goes into the forming of the standards that need to be complied with.  So if you really want to fail to setup a really good compliance portal try these mistakes:

1.  Design your system purely from the perspective of ticking off compliance
There's no need to worry about the user experience is there?  So what if it takes them time to find what needs to be done and navigate around the learning.  Single sign-on?  Why bother, just another step or two won't hurt them because it's all about the organisation getting the reports they need.  The system doesn't need to look good, the content can be boring, they've just got to get through it. 

2.  Just get the info in as quick as possible, you can always sort it later
Sure it might be helpful to be able to discriminate between users, functions, geographical location and even competencies but this is just about simple compliance so name and ticks will do fine.  Automation might seem like the way ahead, but it takes time to setup and your time is precious so just get everyone in the system, the managers can sort it all out once the results are in.

3.  Have plenty of administrators
Great idea to have lots of people with high powers in the system; that way you can spread the work right?  Ignore the naysayers who suggest that it becomes harder to control the system and guarantee that the training has actually been completed by everyone.  In fact don't bother with setting up custom roles to guarantee the integrity of your data, a bunch of admins who can do everything will solve any issues you may have.

4.  Don't design your system with end reporting in mind
It's much simpler to just grab a standard report out the system.  With plenty of admins one of them can probably manipulate data to give you what you need.  Dashboards and customised reports take time and effort to put together and much easier to just tack those sort of things on at the end eh?

5.  Make sure access is restrictive and there are enough hoops to jump through to call the system secure
Don't listen to any of that newfangled thinking suggesting that learning is pervasive.  Compliance is about making people sit down in a controlled environment (if you can make them suffer too all the better) so you can ensure they battle their way through the system.  Compliance is just about making sure they know the standards verbatim, not about applying that and certainly not in the comfort of their own homes!

6.  Don't cater for on-job or other opportunities to demonstrate compliance
Carrying on from 5, compliance is all about knowledge not application so why would you waste time providing opportunities to demonstrate what people can do on the job when a simple tick-box quiz will show they get it.  70/20/10 type thinking has no place in compliance it's 100% doing what you're supposed to.

7.  Keep participants in the dark
One thing people doing compliance training don't need to know is how they're doing.  Don't provide them feedback let alone a dashboard and only make sure you inform them when they've not achieve the level of compliance.  Customer satisfaction or learner participation is not required in this kind of training.  In fact you can just go straight from the training to disciplinary action and save time! 

In short failing with compliance is actually pretty straight forward if you don't plan your outcomes at the outset and don't take the needs of learners into account; hopefully it goes without saying that if you want to succeed do the exact opposite of the seven steps above and you'll have a compliance system that achieves its aims and leaves learners satisfied too (and yes, compliance-based training participants can be learners too).

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Leading from the front in learning technologies

There’s plenty of cliches I could start with here about the place to lead and so-on, but this post is more about where your control lies and where you control your system. You’d be excused for thinking I might be stating the obvious here, after all you don’t fly a plane from a seat in the back, or drive a car (yes, we all know some exceptions here) from the backseat or lead the world in rugby from anywhere but the front, but actually for learning systems it’s not always that simple.  The first thing is that often the controls for your LMS don’t sit with the people leading the learning function.  I know, that’s crazy right?  Being a leader isn’t about being the best or knowing everything, it’s about knowing how to get your people pulling together in the right direction.  For your LMS if your ‘owner’ isn’t in the line of your learning function (yes, above can work fine) then you’re going to have some troubles ahead and a coup maybe needed to bring things together!  The most common misplacement for an LMS is sitting in IT.  Sure there’s all that complex environmental stuff that they have to take care of, but when it comes to flying the plane, the engineers don’t have the final say do they (I mean during flight before someone shoots me down here)?  I firmly believe IT/IS play a vital role in your successful system, but putting them at the front isn’t the right strategy for most organisations (a caveat on this is it really does depend on your business and who drives what you do).

So assuming you’ve got the leadership of your learning and your LMS ownership aligned, it should be fairly plain sailing from here right?  Not necessarily, it’s still easy to end up with the tail wagging the dog (one of my favourite expressions for sure).  What I mean by this is that despite the ownership of the system officially sitting with learning functions, you can find the system is so locked down to your administrator that anything you want changed or altered can only be done through the ‘back-end’.  At Kineo Pacific we’re a front-end organisation when it comes to LMS implementations, consultancy and support; what that means is that we’re all about learning and the use of the system, not about the technology and ‘code’ that sits behind it.  Our IT ‘department’ is often sub-contracted or pulls on our world-wide team and that works for us, because of our ‘front-end’ philosophy.  For your LMS the most important functions are the outward facing ones, the things that you can do.  Think back to our plane example (yes, I’m on one as I write this as is often the case!), the pilot has complex functions and the ability to do everything that they need to in order to successfully take-off, fly, navigate, land, communicate etc.  Can you imagine a case where a plane took off and the pilot needed to change course mid-flight because of… well, these things happen, but didn’t have the capability to make that change?  Sorry captain, the system doesn’t allow you to do that, but if you want we’ll work out what needs to happen and change it at the engineering level so that the change can occur… you just need to land (stop your learning) and catch us when we have some time to look at it.  Same should be true of your learning where a system’s crash may not be quite as life threatening but will certainly cause you some flak.  You’re mid-programme and you need to change direction because of legislation changes, or you need to be able to move everyone into a different route or… well, you need to change course.  You’d expert your learning leaders to be able to do that mid-flight surely?  The only way that can happen is if they have the abilities to do that.

Of course this also has a flow down effect.  If you’re in ‘learning’ and the owner or lead of the system, make sure you give the right powers to those leading the learning functions (or at least have a responsive approach when changes need to occur).  You also need to make sure that you have the capabilities that you need to make the system run.  Remember leading your system is like leading a team, it’s not about how much you know about the system or being best in it, it’s about getting the resources pulling together in the right direction.

The other point is about when your system doesn’t work quite the way you want it to.  I’ve talked about this before and my take is always configuration over customisation as a first option.  In essence if you can look at the way your system is setup and working, or even your own processes, do that before getting your system ‘back-end’ customised.  Configuration is about ‘front-end’ and just like leading, it’s the best place to start.  We work with organisations on looking at all the possible ways to achieve what they want to using the front-end first approach, it doesn’t mean we can’t or won’t customise (we work with open source so it’s something that we can do with relative ease) but that the tail gets wagged when the dog knows that’s what it wants.  If you jump to the back-end right off the bat, it’s easy to find that tail wagging you and your decisions along.

Of course you can ignore all of this, plenty of dogs are happy after all without so much as a thought seeming to pass through their front end and if you want a crazy alternative you can also ignore what your supposed to be doing and just spend your time chasing your tail instead!

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Functions or Regions; it's not always about location, location, location

I've worked for a number of different organisations and one thing that seems to be a constant for larger organisations is the struggle between resourcing and 'power' to geographical regions or to functions or streams of work.  In fact you can further push out the model to international companies where the geographical location is the country and the functions, well, they're still the functions.

For me, it's all about what you are trying to achieve and what you are trying to do.  That means I'm on the side of the function in most cases (sometimes, logistically you have to regionalise) as your functions should be driving your strategy rather than the location (again generally - sometimes the location is the strategy).  That doesn't mean there isn't a need for regional offices and regional management, quite the opposite, but the regions are there largely to support the functions and the overall strategy rather than to provide the direction.  Again, whilst acknowledging this is a little over-simplifying of things, but direction comes from your strategy and functions of business (leadership if you will) and the support and management of people will come out of geographical location.
So why does this belong in a learning technologies blog?  In short because your learning technologies are often created to reflect your organisation - particularly your LMS.  Maybe you have control given to different areas or functions, or your courses, tasks and programmes are set up under 'departments' or regions.  Ah, regions.  Yes, here we go again regions v functions.  So when you're setting up your LMS it's really important that you focus on learning strategy and what you're trying to achieve fits in with the strategic aims of the business.  That means your LMS configuration should, if not mirroring your functional setup, at least make logical sense from a functional perspective.  If your organisation is forward-thinking and has the key drivers through the functions this means that your LMS will align with the functions and this should be fairly straight-forward.  It also means that the roles that you give people in the system should flow functionally too.  It's really important to approach the learning system from the perspective of a learner and ask what's logical for them when they navigate the system.  If I want to complete Health and Safety training or get my on-job check completed in Health and Safety do I go to the functional area in charge of that or to Fakecity because that's where I am or the instructor is?

Your LMS in one form or another sits in the cloud too.  Clouds are great because they are not location tied (just look up if you don't believe me and watch them move - unless like me you live in Tauranga in New Zealand because we don't have clouds here).  So the cloud-based system from a user or administrator function has no geographical location (if not, you may want to look at how your system is set up).  This means that your LMS is truly ready for a functional lead rather than a geographic one so we don't have to use the excuse of location when we set up the LMS or the team that administer or use it.  It also means that you can (and should) align your LMS with your learning functional lead wherever possible to maximise its effectiveness.

Finally functions, just like clouds, should spread across all regions and areas wherever possible - the same is true of your LMS if you want it to be truly successful and aligned with your strategic direction.