Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

9 July 2014

Benign role-playing

Clark @ 8:06 am

In #lrnchat a couple of weeks ago on anxiety in learning, Shannon Tipton suggested that role plays are the worst.  Now, I know Shannon and respect her (we’re in synch, her Learning Rebels movement very much resonates with my Revolutionary tendencies), so this somewhat surprised me.  We debated it a bit on twitter, and we thought maybe we should make the argument more extended, so here’s my take.

Her concern, as I understood it, was role plays where a subset get up and play roles in front of the room are uncomfortable.  That is, there’re roles and goals, and they’re set up to illustrate a point.  And I can see that type of role play might create a problem for a non-assertive person, particularly in an uncomfortable environment.  (She mentions it here, and see the extended explanation in the comment.)

Now, a favorite model of mine is Ann Brown and Anne-Marie Palincsar’s reciprocal teaching.  In this model (generalized from the original focus on reading), everyone takes  a turn performing (including instructor) and others critique the performance.  Of course, there have to be ground rules, such as talking about the performance not the person, making it safe to share, small enough steps between tasks, etc.  However, the benefits are that you internalize the monitoring, becoming self-monitoring and self-improving.

As another data point, I think of the Online Role Playing as characterized by Sandra Wills, Elyssabeth Leigh, and Albert Ip. Here, learners take roles and goals and explore virtually over time.  The original one they reference was done by John Shepherd and Andrew Vincent and explored the mideast crisis. Learners got engaged in the roles, and the whole process really illuminated the tensions underlying the topic.

When I put these together, I see a powerful tool for learning.  You should design the roles and goals to explore a topic, and unpack an issue.  You should prep learners to help them do a fair job of the role. And, most of all, you have to make it safe.  The instructor should be willing to take on the challenging role, and similarly be seen to fail, or maybe everyone does it in groups so no one group is in front, then you facilitate a discussion.  I’ve done this in my game design workshop, where everyone pairs up and alternates being a SME and being an ID.

I understand that performing is an area of fear for many, but I think that role playing can be a powerful learning experience without anxiety when you manage the process right.  Bad design is bad design, after all (PowerPoint doesn’t kill people…).  What say you?

3 July 2014

Resources before courses

Clark @ 8:18 am

In the course of answering a question in an interview, I realized a third quip to complement two recent ones. The earliest one (not including my earlier ‘Quips‘) was “curation trumps creation”, about how you shouldn’t spend the effort to create new resources if you’ve already got them.  The second one was “from the network, not your work”, about how if your network can have the answer, you should let it.  So what’s this new one?

While I’ve previously argued that good learning design shouldn’t take longer, that was assuming good design in the first place: that you did an analysis, and concept and example design and presentation, and practice, not just dumping a quiz on top of content.  However, doing real design, good or bad, should take time.  And if it’s about knowledge, not skills, a course doesn’t make sense. In short, doing courses should be reserved for when they are really needed.

Too often, we’re making courses trying to get knowledge into people’s heads, which usually isn’t a good idea, since our brains aren’t good at remembering rote information.  There are times when it’s necessary, rarely (e.g. medical vocabulary), but we resort to that solution too often as course tools are our only hammer.  And it’s wrong.

We should be trying to put information in the world, and reserve the hard work of course building when it’s proprietary skills sets we’re developing. If someone else has done it, don’t feel like you have to use your resources to do it again, use your resources to go meet other needs: more performance support, or facilitating cooperation and communication.

So, for both principled and pragmatic reasons, you should be looking to resources as a solution before you turn to courses. On principle, they meet different needs, and you shouldn’t use the course when (most) needs can be met with resources. Pragmatically, it’s a more effective use of your resources: staff, time, and money.


23 June 2014

THE Social Learning Handbook

Clark @ 8:10 am

I’ve been a fan of Jane Hart since I met her through Jay Cross and we joined together in the ITA (along with colleagues Harold Jarche and Charles Jennings). And I’d looked at the previous edition of her Social Learning Handbook, so it was on faith that I endorsed the new edition. So I took a deeper look recently, and my faith is justified; this is a great resource!

Jane has an admirable ability to cut through complex concepts and make them clear. She cites the best work out there when it is available, and comes with her own characterizations when necessary. The concepts are clear, illustrated, and comprehensible.

This isn’t a theoretical treatment, however. Jane has pragmatic checklists littered throughout as well as great suggestions. Jane is focused on having you succeed. Practical guidance underpins all the frameworks.

I’m all the more glad I recommended this valuable compendium. If you want to tap into the power of social learning, there is no better guide.

19 June 2014

From the network, not your work

Clark @ 8:18 am

Too often, Learning & Development (L&D) is looking to provide all the answers.  They work to get the information from SMEs, and create courses around it.  They may also create performance support resources as well. And yet there are principled and pragmatic reasons why this doesn’t make sense.  Here’s what I’m thinking.

On principle, the people working closest to the task are likely to be the most knowledgeable about it.  The traditional role of information from the SME has been to support producing quality outputs, but increasingly there are tools that let the users create their own resources easily.  The answer can come in the moment from people connected by networks, not having to go through an explicit process.  And, as things are becoming more ambiguous and unique, this makes the accuracy to the context more likely as workers share their contexts and get targeted responses.

This doesn’t happen without facilitation. It takes a culture where sharing is valued, where people are connected, and have the skills to work well together.  Those are roles L&D can, and should, play.  Don’t assume that the network will be viable to begin with, or that people know how to work and play well together. Also don’t assume that they know how to find information on their own. The evidence is that these are skills that need to be developed.

The pragmatic reasons are those about how L&D has to meet more needs without resources.  If people can self-help, L&D can invest resources elsewhere. I suggest that curation trumps creation, in that finding the answer is better than creating it, if possible.

When I talk about these possibilities, one of the reliable responses is “but what if they say the wrong thing?”  And my response is that the network becomes self-correcting.  Sure, networks require nurturing until they reach that stage, but again it’s a role for L&D.  Initially, someone may need to be scrutinizing what comes through, and extolling experts to keep it correct, but eventually the network, with the right culture, support, and infrastructure, becomes a self-correcting and sustaining resource.

Work so that performers get their answers from the network, not from your work.  When possible, of course.

17 June 2014

General or specific change

Clark @ 8:22 am

I was reflecting on the two books I recently wrote about, Scaling Up and Changing the Gameversus the cultural approach of the Learning Organization I wrote about years ago (and refer to regularly).  The thing is that both of the new books are about choosing either a very specific needed change, whether determined by fiat or based upon something already working well, whereas the earlier work identified general characteristics that make sense. And my thought was when does each make sense?  More importantly, what is the role of Learning & Development (L&D; which really should be P&D or Performance & Development) in each?

If an organization is in need of a shakeup, so that a particular unit is underperforming, or a significant shift in the game has been signaled by new competition or a technology/policy/social change, the targeted change makes sense. As I suggested, some of the required elements from the more general approach are implicit or explicit, such as facilitating communication.  The  role here for L&D, then, is to support the training required for executives leading the shift in terms of communicating and behaving, as well as ongoing coaching.  Similarly for the behaviors of employees, and watching for signs of resistance, in general facilitating the shift.  However, the locus of responsibility is the executive team in charge of the needed change.

On the other hand, if the organization is being moderately successful, but isn’t optimized in terms of learning, there’s a case for a more general shift.  If the culture doesn’t have the elements of a real learning organization – safe to share, valuing diversity, openness to new ideas, time for reflection – then there’s a case to be made for L&D to lead the charge on the change. Let’s be clear, it cannot be done without executive buy-in and leadership, but L&D can be the instigator in this case.  L&D here sells the benefits of the change, supports leadership in execution both by training if necessary and coaching, and again coaches the change.

Regardless, L&D should be instigating this change within their own unit.  It’s going to lead to a more effective L&D unit, and there’re the benefits of walking the walk as a predecessor to talking the talk.

Ultimately, L&D needs to understand effective culture and the mechanisms to culture change, as well as facilitating social learning, performance consulting, information architecture, resource design, and of course formal learning design.  There’re new roles and new skillsets to be mastered on the path to being an effective and strategic contributor to the organization, but the alternative is extinction, eh?

4 June 2014

Malicious metrics

Clark @ 7:20 am

Like others, I have been seduced by the “what X are you” quizzes on FaceBook. I certainly understand why they’re compelling, but I’ve begun to worry about just why they’re so prevalent.  And I’m a wee bit concerned.

People like to know things about themselves. Years ago, when we built an adaptive learning system (it would profile you versus me, and then even if we took the same course we’d be likely to have a different experience), we realized we’d need to profile learning a priori.  That is, we’d ask an initial suite of questions, and that’d prime the system. (And we ultimately intended this profiling to be a game, not a set of quiz questions). Ultimately that initial model built by the questions would get refined by learner behavior in the system (and we also intended a suite of interventions ‘layered’ on top that would help improve learner characteristics that were malleable).

The underlying mission given us by my CEO was to help learners understand themselves as learners, and use that to their advantage.  So, in addition to asking the questions, we’d share with them what we’d learned about them as learners.  The notion was what we irreverently termed the ‘Cosmo quiz’, those quizzes that appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine about “how good a Y” you are, where one takes quizzes and then adds up the score.

Fast forward to now, and I began to wonder about these quizzes. They seem cute and harmless, but without seeing all the possible outcomes, it certainly seemed like it might not take that many questions to determine which one you’d qualify as.  Yes, in good test design, you ask a question a number of times to disambiguate.  But it occurred to me that if you could use fewer questions (and the outcomes are always written intriguingly so you don’t necessarily mind which you become), and then what are the other questions being used for.  And the outcomes here don’t really matter!

So, it’d be real easy to insert demographic questions and use that information (presumably en masse) to start profiling markets.  If you know other information about these people, you can start aggregating data and mining for information.  One question I saw, for instance, ask you to pick which setting (desert, jungle, mountain, city), etc.  Could that help recommend vacations to you?

When I researched these quizzes, rather than finding concerns about the question data, instead I found that much more detailed information about your account was allowed to be passed from Facebook to the quiz hosted.  Which is worse!  Even if not, I begin to worry that while they’re fun, what’s the motivation to keep creating new ones?  What’s the business relationship?  And I think it’s data.

Now, getting better data means you might get more targeted advertising.  And that might be preferable than random (I’ve seen some pretty fun complaints about “what made them think this was for me”).  But I don’t feel like giving them that much insight. So I’m not doing any more of those. I don’t think they really know what animal/movie character/color/fruit/power tool I am.  If you want to know, ask me.

22 May 2014

‘Sharing’ culture

Clark @ 8:21 am

I was in a recent conversation about a company facing strong growth and worried about the impact on culture.  Companies with a positive culture, a valuable offering, and a good business model are liable to face growth issues, and maintaining or starting a good culture becomes a critical issue to maintaining the organization’s success.

This company had a positive culture, in that people were diverse, friendly, upbeat, and committed to contributing. These are all positive elements that had led to the early success. Growth, both through hiring and acquisitions, was leading to concerns about the ability for those factors to continue.

One of the things that wasn’t obvious from the initial portrayal of the company was whether folks there were capturing and sharing what they were doing, how they were working, what challenges they were facing, and what results they were seeing. In a small company, this happens naturally through conversation, but face to face communication isn’t scalable.

One obvious possibility is to implement or more systematically leverage an enterprise social network (ESN; essentially  using social media in the org).  Working out loud, as it’s known, has many benefits.  As people share their work, others can comment and improve it.  People can ask for help and get collaboration on those new problems and innovation needs that are increasingly arising.  Mistakes can be made and the lessons learned can be shared so no others have to make the same mistakes.

One of the offshoot benefits of such sharing is that it takes the positive cultural attributes already being shown and makes them visible (if implicitly) as well.  It’s not guaranteed, but with an awareness of the behaviors and manifestations of culture through the network, a systematic process could lead to that positive culture scaling and yield those additional benefits that accompany working out loud.

It takes all the elements of a learning culture and organizational change, of course. You need to continue to welcome diversity, be open to new ideas, and have it safe to contribute.  You also need to develop a vision, message it, have the leadership model it, facilitate it, anticipate problems and be prepared to address them, and ultimately reward the desired outcomes.  But this is doable.

The benefits of a positive culture are becoming known, and the value of social networks are also emerging. Linking them together is not only necessary, but the benefits are more than the sum of the parts.

15 May 2014

Peeling the onion

Clark @ 8:42 am

I’ve been talking a bit recently about deepening formal design, specifically to achieve learning that’s flexible, persistent, and develops the learner’s abilities to become self-sustaining in work and life.  That is, not just for a course, but for a curriculum.  And it’s more than just what we talked about in the Serious eLearning Manifesto, though of course it starts there.    So, to begin with, it needs to start with meaningful objectives, provide related practice, and be trialed and developed, but there’s more, there are layers of development that wrap around the core.

One element I want to suggest is important is also in the Manifesto, but I want to push a bit deeper here.  I worked to put in that the elements behind, say, a procedure or a task, that you apply to problems, are models or concepts.  That is, a connected body of conceptual relationships that tie together your beliefs about why it should be done this way.  For example, if you’ve a procedure or process you want people to follow, there is (or should be) a  rationale behind it.

And you should help learners discover and see the relationships between the model and the steps, through examples and the feedback they get on practice.  If they can internalize the understanding behind steps, they are better prepared for the inevitable changes to the tools they use, the materials they work on, or the process changes what will come from innovation.  Training them on X, when X will ultimately shift to Y, isn’t as helpful unless you help them understand the principles that led to performance on X and will transfer to Y.

Another element is that the output of the activities should create scrutable deliverables and also annotate the thoughts behind the result.  These provide evidence of the thinking both implicit and explicit, a basis for mentors/instructors to understand what’s good, and what still may need to be addressed, tin the learner’s thinking.  There’s also the creation of a portfolio of work which belongs to the learner and can represent what they are capable of.

Of course, the choices of activities for the learner initially, and the design of them to make them engaging, by being meaningful to the learner in important ways, is another layer of sophistication in the design.  It can’t just be that you give the traditional boring problems, but instead the challenges need to be contextualized. More than that (which is already in the Manifesto), you want to use exaggeration and story to really make the challenges compelling.  Learning should  be hard fun.

Another layer is that of 21st Century skills (for examples, the SCANS competencies).  These can’t be taught separately, they really need to manifest across whatever domain learnings you are doing. So you need learners to not just learn concepts, but apply those concepts to specific problems. And, in the requirements of the problem, you build in opportunities to problem-solve, communicate, collaborate, e.g. all the foundational and workplace skills. They need to reappear again and again and be assessed (and developed) separately.

Ultimately, you want the learner to be taking on responsibility themselves.  Later assignments should include the learner being given parameters and choosing appropriate deliverables and formats for communication.  And this requires and additional layer, a layer of annotation on the learning design. The learners need to be seeing why the learning was so designed, so that they can internalize the principles of good design and so become self-improving learners. You, for example, in reading this far, have chosen to do this as part of your own learning, and hopefully it’s a worthwhile investment.  That’s the point; you want learners to continue to seek out challenges, and resources to succeed, as part of their ongoing self-development, and that comes by having seen learning design and been handed the keys at some point on the journey, with support that’s gradually faded.

The nuances of this are not trivial, but I want to suggest that they are doable.  It’s a subtle interweaving, to be sure, but once you’ve got your mind around it (with scaffolded practice :), my claim is that it can be done, reliably and repeatedly.   And it should.  To do less is to miss some of the necessary elements for successful support of an individual to become the capable and continually self-improving learner that we need.

I touched on most of this when I was talking about Activity-Based Learning, but it’s worthwhile to revisit it (at least for me :).

13 May 2014

Facilitating Innovation

Clark @ 8:33 am

One of the things that emerged at the recent A(S)TD conference was that a particular gap might exist. While there are resources about learning design, performance support design, social networking, and more, there’s less guidance about facilitating innovation.  Which led me to think a wee bit about what might be involved.  Here’s a first take.

So, first, what are the elements of innovation?  Well, whether you listen to Stephen Berlin Johnson on the story of innovation, or Keith Sawyer on ways to foster innovation, you’ll see that innovation isn’t individual.  In previous work, I looked at models of innovation, and found that either you mutated an existing design, or meld two designs together.  Regardless, it comes from working and playing well together.

The research suggests that you  need to make sure you are addressing the right problem, diverge on possible solutions via diverse teams under good process, create interim representations, test, refine, repeat.  The point being that the right folks need to work together over time.

The barriers are several.  For one, you need to get the cultural elements right: welcoming diversity, openness to new ideas, safe to contribute, and time for reflection.  Without being able to get the complementary inputs, and getting everyone to contribute, the likelihood of the best outcome is diminished.

You also shouldn’t take for granted that everyone knows how to work and play well together.  Someone may not be able to ask for help in effective ways, or perhaps more likely, others may offer input in ways that minimize the likelihood that they’ll be considered.  People may not use the right tools for the job, either not being aware of the full range (I see this all the time), or just have different ways of working. And folks may not know how to conduct brainstorming and problem-solving processes effectively (I see this as well).

So, the facilitation role has many opportunities to increase the quality of the outcome.  Helping establish culture, first of all, is really important.  A second role would be to understand and promote the match of tools to need. This requires, by the way, staying on top of the available tools.  Being concrete about learning and problem-solving processes, and  educating them and looking for situations that need facilitation, is another role  Both starting up front and educating folks before these skills are needed are good, and then monitoring for opportunities to tune those skills are valuable.  Finally, developing process facilitation skills,  serving in that role or developing the skills, or both, are critical.

Innovation isn’t an event, it’s a process, and it’s something that I want P&D (Learning & Development 2.0 :) to be supporting. The organization needs it, and who better?

22 April 2014

Appropriate friction

Clark @ 7:46 am

In a conversation, a colleague mentioned using social tools to minimize friction, and the thought struck me wrong. In thinking further, I realized that there were different notions of friction that needed to be teased out.  So here’s where my thinking went.

I argue that what organizations need is creative friction.  I have previously suggested that conversations are the engine of business.  These are the discussions where ideas are sparked, and decisions are made.  These are also the tools used to negotiate a new and shared understanding that is richer and better than it was before.

There are also unproductive conversations, e.g. meetings where we have status updates that are more effectively done offline, and jockeying for various sorts of recognition.  These are reflections of bad processes and worse culture.  There’s a mistaken view that brainstorming doesn’t work; it works well if you know the important elements that make it work, but if you follow misunderstood processes, it can not produce the optimal outcome. Similarly, if the culture is misaligned, it might be unsafe to share, or folks might be too busy competing.

However, it is when people are constructively interacting – not just pointing to useful resources or answering questions, but working together on a joint project – is when you are getting the important creative friction.  Not that it’s bad when people point to useful resources or answer questions, that makes things more efficient.  When folks come with different ideas, though, and jointly create a new insight, a new idea, a new product or process, that is when you’re providing the sparks necessary to help organizations succeed. Not all of them will be good, but if they’re new, some subset will likely be good.

If people aren’t sharing what they learn and discover, you might miss the new, or it might not really be new but have been previously discovered and not leveraged. That’s why you should work, and learn, out loud.

The issue then in friction is removing unproductive friction. If people have to be co-located to have these conversations, or don’t have tools to express their understandings and share their thoughts around each other’s work is when you unproductive barriers.  I’m a fan of collaborative documents that support annotation and track contributions. Here we can share our ideas, and quickly converge on the elements of disagreement and resolve them.  It may need to have periods of synchronous conversation as well as asynchronous work (we did this when creating the Manifesto).

So it seems to me that having the right culture, tools, and skills is the key to optimizing the innovative outcomes that will drive sustainability for organizations.  Now how about some creative inputs to refine and improve this?

(And, at a meta-level, it was a conversation that triggered this deeper thought, just the type of outcome we want to facilitate!)

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