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

28 December 2016

2016 Reflections

Clark @ 8:07 AM

2016 out, 2017 inThis is the last Learnlet for 2016, and so it’s time for some reflections on what has been an ‘interesting’ year.  I’ll admit it’s been rough, what with losing so many people known through popular media. I guess you get to an age where more and more people who’ve you’ve grown up with in one way or another begin to pass on. And of course serious changes nationally and internationally.  But there are some learnings as well.

So, I did a fair bit of speaking in 2016, keynoting conferences in New York and Beijing, as well as more private events live and online. I spoke about mobile learning, deeper learning design, innovation, as well as the L&D revolution.  And, of course, I attended the usual suite of industry conferences, notably the eLearning Guild events and Online Educa.  I also was engaged in a number of consulting engagements, working with folks to deepen their understanding (and mine), to achieve meaningful outcomes.

One learning is the value of travel outside the US.  I actually lived outside the US for 7 years (in Australia), and the perspective of seeing how others live, and looking at the rest of the world (and back at the US) from other perspectives is a valuable grounding.  The view I had of China before my recent trips was quite different than the reality. I can say the same from previous experience with India.  It’s too easy to be insular.  Instead, it’s helpful to be curious.

And that’s an industry comment too.  I continue to talk (e.g. my workshop in Berlin) and write about deeper learning design.  And I continue to evangelize about it (c.f. the Serious eLearning Manifesto with my colleagues, and the recent Future of Work project). And yet, the industry seems to continue on in ignorance.  The tools still reflect more of a focus on content instead of experience, for instance. Things get better, but surprisingly slowly. How long until we start treating learning design with the appropriate respect? We need to get out of our comfort zone!

There are positive signs. My engagements with Learnnovators has demonstrated that at least some folks care about quality. And I had several client engagements specifically focused on better learning design.  There just need to be more efforts in this area. It’s not hard to tweak processes to generate outcomes that not only look like good elearning, but actually have a high likelihood of an impact.

I’ve done a lot of reading this year (most recently The Fifth Discipline, which puts lots of what I’ve learned about organizations into a context).  It amazes me that with robust science at the organizational level as well as the learning science level, we still see so much action in organizations (and society) contrary to what’s demonstrably known. There are positive signs here too, but still too few.  It’s challenging, as it involves crossing discipline and business boundaries, yet the benefits are promising.

And I think the hype about technology improvements are premature. Wearables continue, of course. And VR has reached the stage where it’s easy to experiment.  Yet in each case, we’re still in the stage before standards emerge that will make a real market.  AR and content strategy are still nascent, but there’s much potential.  Fortunately, analytics is seeing a boon from the standardization around xAPI. We need to stick to the core learning affordances of new technology to truly grasp the potential.

Looking forward, I see much opportunity, as implied by the gaps indicated above. There’s real opportunity for improvement in the use of technology to facilitate outcomes. We can do personal and organizational learning better.  We can leverage technology in ways that are closer aligned with how our brains work. As a precursor, we’ll need a broader understanding of cognition, but that’s doable.  I’m happy to help ;).

And let me just add a very heartfelt thanks to those of you who I’ve interacted with, this year and in the past. Whether reading the blog, making comments, engaging on social media, attending sessions or workshops, and of course via engagements, I’m very grateful. I hope to connect with you in the future, in any of the above ways or any other. I continue to learn through and with you, and that’s a gift. Again, thank you.

Goodbye 2016, and here’s to making positive changes in the new year.  May it be your best yet.


27 December 2016

Cultural Alignment

Clark @ 8:09 AM

I was thinking about the ways in which organizations can support performance. That is, we can and should be aligning with how we think, work, and learn. So we can provide tools to support us in the moment, we can provide tools to help us work together, and we can develop people all slowly over time.  In short, I was thinking about cognitive alignment, and I was going to write about it, but it turns out I already have!  However, I also realized that there was an opportunity to extend that to cultural alignment, and I think that’s important as well.

So, one of the things we can do to optimize outcomes is to give people performance support.  In particular, we can provide tools to address gaps that emerge from our cognitive architecture.  We can also provide policies about things we’re supposed to do.  And that’s all good.  However, some of that might not be necessary under the right circumstances.

I was thinking about the specific case of acting in ways that are consonant with the values of the organization. For instance, in a well-known upscale department store chain, the staff have the leeway to spend on the order of $1K to address any emerging customer problem.  I reckon the store figures that’s the future worth of a happy customer. And that’s acting in alignment with the culture of the organization.

The point I want to make is that by having an explicit culture in the organization, you might not have to provide performance support. If the desired approach is understood, it can be generated from understanding the organization’s value.  If you know what’s expected, you can perform in alignment without needing external clues and cues.

There are clear benefits from a learning organization in terms of innovation and employee engagement, but what about the other side? I suggest that the right culture can also benefit the ‘optimal execution’ side.  In short, there’s little reason to do aught but begin a move to a more enlightened culture.  At least, that’s what seems to me to be the case. How about you?

21 December 2016

Employee Experience

Clark @ 8:05 AM

Principles and Approaches for L&DOne of the recent trends has been about ‘customer experience’, focusing the organization on a consistent and coherent customer experience from first exposure through to ongoing product or service use. And this is a ‘good thing’!  I’ve participated in the efforts of an organization to achieve it, and can see the real benefits.  However, I want to suggest that just as important is the employee experience. This is the goal of a true performance ecosystem and an aligned culture.

Richard Branson, the successful entrepreneur behind the Virgin brand, argues that the only real way to deliver great customer service is to have really happy employees.  And I think that his argument is plausible.  We know that when people are engaged, there are good outcomes like greater retention.  Happy employees is a necessary step to happy customers.

We also know that when we’re creating a learning culture, we get both more engaged employees, and better business outcomes.  That is, when employees have purpose, are given autonomy to pursue their goals, and are supported towards success, they’re happier and more productive. Also when an organization works well together – sharing because it’s safe, tapping into diversity, being open to new ideas, and supporting reflection – innovation can flourish.

And, I’ll argue, that when the tools are ‘to hand’, employees are happier and more productive.  When you can:

  • find necessary tools and resources
  • reach out with questions
  • provide answers
  • represent your thinking
  • share your work so others can align and contribute
  • collaborate
  • experiment and analyze

all with ease, working is optimal.  That is, employees can achieve their goals effectively and efficiently.

Spending cycles to optimize this, to develop the infrastructure and the culture, is an investment in a long term benefit to organizational success.  I believe the two components of the organizational culture and the technology infrastructure are the critical components to employee experience.  And optimizing those has benefits that cross the organization.  That strikes me as an important strategic focus; what’s your take?


20 December 2016

Collateral Silage

Clark @ 8:01 AM

OK, so I made up the term silage (and then found it was a real word with a different meaning), but here I don’t mean siloed fodder (except perhaps metaphorically).  What I’m talking about is the damage that can come from silos. And I heard a tale yesterday in the course of an investigation into corporate innovation that illuminated what I’m talking about.

In this case a particular business unit, with a strong bias to rigor in execution, is also working on innovation.  And it’s going pretty well, it appears.  They’re working on opening up communication, supporting it through programmatic actions, and sharing success stories.  These are powerful tools to change a culture.  But there’s a barrier.

Part of the challenge is in management. This layer, between executive desire and tactical actions, is being encouraged to support this move, but is still largely measured on outcomes.  And, the group that owns management development isn’t connected to the group supporting the programs.  Guess what? It’s a turf war.  One silo doesn’t want any incursion into it’s area of activity.  And this is a problem.

To succeed, you really need to work systemically.   It’s hard enough to make change happen without having to deal with areas that aren’t on board. There’s going to be be a far higher likelihood of success if all the elements are aligned (and a large number of other elements conducive to successful change). If the mentoring and coaching isn’t there to go along with programmatic impetus (see 70:20:10), you’re dropping the ball. You’re going to see a drop off, instead a continual upward learning curve.

As things move faster, to adapt you need to tap into the power of people. That means developing a culture that learns, and that requires both crossing silos in implementation and in then leveraging the collective thinking.  Can we avoid collateral silage?

15 December 2016

(When) Is pattern-matching enough?

Clark @ 8:09 AM

In the course of my research, I came across the project shown here, as represented by the accompanying video.  In the video, they show (and tout) the value of their approach to developing pattern recognition around  mathematics.  Further, they argue that it’s superior to the typical rule presentation and practice. And I can buy that, but with many caveats that I want to explore.

So it’s clear that we learn by abstracting patterns across our experiences. We can provide models that guide, but ultimately it’s the practice that works. An extreme example is chicken-sexing (mentioned in the transcript); determining the gender of new-born chicks.  Here, no one can articulate the rationale, it’s merely done by attempts and correct/incorrect feedback!  And the clear implication is that by having learners do repetitive tasks of looking for patterns, they get better at it.

And, yes, they do.  But the open question is what is the learning benefit of that.  Let’s be clear, there are plenty of times we want that to happen. As I learned during my graduate studies, pilots are largely trained to react before their brains kick in: the speed at which things happen are faster than conscious processing.  When speed and accuracy is important, nay critical, we want patterned responses. And it does work for component skills to more complex ones in well-defined domains.  But…

When we need transfer, and things are complex, and we aren’t needing knee-jerk responses, this doesn’t work.  I would like to train myself to recognize patterns of behavior and ways to deal with them effectively, for instance (e.g. in difficult presentation situations, or negotiations).   On the other hand, in many instances I want to preclude any immediate responses and look for clues, ponder, explore, and more.

The important question is when we want rote performance and when we don’t .  Rote ability to do math component skills I’m willing to accept.  But I fear a major problem with math instruction in schools is about doing math, not about thinking like a mathematician (to quote Seymour Paper).  And I don’t want students to be learning the quadratic equation (one of Roger Schank’s most vivid examples) instead of how math can be used a problem-solving tool. The nuances are subtle, to be sure, but again I’m tired of us treating learning like color-by-numbers instead of the rocket science it should be.

Look, it’s great to find more effective methods, but let’s also be smart about the effective use of them. In my mind, that’s part of learning engineering. And I’m by no means accusing the approach that started this discussion of getting it wrong, this is my own editorial soapbox ;).  There’s much we can and should be doing, and new tools are welcome. But let’s also think about when they make sense.  So, does this make sense?

13 December 2016

Improving design processes

Clark @ 8:02 AM

Recently, I had a chance to catch up with a client who’d used my services to review their design processes. Per my approach, I’d generated a report with a large number of suggestions. What happened, not surprisingly, is that a subset of them actually were implemented.  Still, it was gratifying to hear of the changes, and I think they’re worth exploring as an opportunity to show how small changes can yield big improvements.

One of the major areas was to work on how they use SMEs. Instead of just having a contracted expert, they’re moving to work with folks who have ‘on the ground’ expertise to couple with their domain expertise.  I argue for triangulating on the real objectives with several perspectives, and this approaches that ideal.

A second thing was that there was a bit of a ‘waterfall model’, and instead I suggest having collaboration at critical points along the way. In this case, they have moved to more collaboration at an important juncture point, with more roles involved to be more innovative on the possibilities.

Also, in their particular case, they have to abide by certain constraints, such as amount of time.  As a result of looking at the opportunities, they are moving to meeting their requirements by adding more practice, not more content.  This is a big win for the learners, and the learning.

They are also looking at applying their refined understanding of the nuances of learning. This is embryonic, I was told, but they are moving to looking to redesigning their content to better align with what is known about learning science. At this point it may not be instituted in their processes, but it’s already affecting the mindset they bring to the task.

There are a couple of other things they’re beginning, but I reckon these are some big wins for their audience and the outcomes. With only small changes in what they are doing, they are increasing the likelihood of effective learning.  And that’s the point: for any design process, there are inflection points where better outcomes can be achieved with minimal impact on the overall processes. That is, the processes may change, but they’re different, not hugely larger.

There’s much we can and should be doing to improve our learning design processes, for our learners, and the learning. We know what the opportunities are, now we just need to marshal the will to make changes.  Are you ready?

7 December 2016

Learning Strategy Issues

Clark @ 8:01 AM

Online Educa logoThe other thing that I was involved in at Online Educa in Berlin was a session on The Flexible Worker.  Three of us presented, each addressing one particular topic.  One presentation was on collaborating to produce an elearning course on sleeping better, with the presenter’s firm demonstrating expertise in elearning, while the other firm had the subject matter expertise on sleep health. A second presentation was on providing tools to trainers to devolve content development locally, addressing a problem with centrally-developed content.  My presentation was on the gaps between what L&D does and how our brains work, and the implications. And, per our design, issues emerged.

The format was interesting: our presentations were roughly 10 minutes each.  And we were using a tool (sli.do) to collect and rank questions. Then we had the audience work at their tables (in the round) to come up with their answers to the top questions, which we then collected and the panelists riffed on the outcomes.  We got through three questions as a group, and I thought the outcomes were quite interesting. In short, as a rapporteur at the closing business session, I suggested that the topic ended up being about flexible work, not flexible working.

The top question that emerged had to do with how to support effective search (after I expounded on problem with the notion that it all had to be in the head).  The sourced answers included crowd-sourcing the tags for finding objects, using a controlled vocabulary, and auto-analyzing the content to determine tags.  I suggest a hybrid solution, in general. The interesting thing here was the audience picking up on the need to go beyond courses and start looking at resources.

The next question was how to move from a training to a performance culture.  And it was another exciting development to hear them thinking this way. The solutions offered included coaching, supporting the importance of self-learning (meta-learning, yay!), and working both top-down and bottom-up. I also suggested that measuring was a likely catalyst that could begin to draw attention to outcomes (just as  I reckon competencies are the lever in higher-ed).

The third question was about ensuring quality in a localized learning environment (e.g. user-generated content).  The concern was that the knowledge of learning design wouldn’t necessarily be widespread.  Suggestions included making the content editable for collaborative improvements, or using rankings, and scaffolding of improvement through the community. Here too, a focus on learning itself could assist.

What’s encouraging to me is that each of these questions was really about moving to a transformative viewpoint.  The audience was clearly thinking ‘beyond the course’.  They were focusing on supporting performers in learning, and resources, and leveraging the community, all activities consonant with the revolution.

An interesting aside came in the closing session. Several folks were mentioning a need for change, and an audience member asked “why?”  He was a consultant, and his clients already seemed to be moving forward. I suggested he was seeing the best, and that many folks were not there (mentioning the Towards Maturity data as well as the problems I identified in the beginning of the Revolution book.  And it’s a problem that too many people don’t yet see the missed opportunities and don’t feel the pain (and are frankly not looking).

So, there are opportunities to start taking small steps in the direction of taking on a bigger perspective and making the role of L&D more strategic.  It first takes an awareness of the problems (my old line: “L&D isn’t doing near what it could and should, and what it is doing it is doing badly, other than that things are fine” :), and then a strategy to move forward. The strategy depends on where the organization is to begin with, but there are systematic principles to guide progress.  That’s what I do, after all!  It’s nice to see awareness growing. So, are you ready to start taking some positive steps?


6 December 2016

Aligning Learning

Clark @ 8:09 AM

Online Educa logoLast week, at Online Educa in Berlin, I gave a tutorial on deeper elearning as a pre-conference event. In it, I talked about getting more meaningful objectives, writing practice that actually develops meaningful outcomes, and content (concepts & examples) aligned to support effective practice. I also talked about emotional engagement and social learning, before talking about revising design processes to incorporate these deeper elements in an effective and not-too-different approach.  In short, I was talking about aligning our designs, and our design processes, to how we think and learn.

This is something that most organizations should be thinking about.  I was pleasantly surprised that the audience included folks from universities, not-for-profits, and government agencies as well as businesses.  The challenges are different in some respects, but there are shared elements. Education tends to be about long term learning relationships (typically at least a half year to several years), versus the short-term relationships (e.g. an hour to several days) in organizational learning.  Yet the need to respect how our brains work is a continuum. Our brains learn in particular ways that are unaffected by the curricular needs.  Learning solutions for performance and for education both still need to respect our neural and cognitive architecture.

And too little of what we do reflects what we know.  As a recent commenter noted, there’s a conflict between the de-facto practices and what research says.  As she also noted, our tools are also focused on supporting wrong approaches.  It’s not that tools prevent doing meaningful learning, it’s just that you have to get your design right first and then make the tool conform (as opposed to the alternative). And our limitations as designers flow from the same source, our brain, as our limitations as learners.  Thus we need to be as aware of cognition in our designing as in our design.

I’ll be talking about the problems this engenders in a special webinar tomorrow. There’re still a few slots left. If you’re committed to trying to improve your learning design, and you have the resources to do so, this is an opportunity to get started.  There isn’t a lot of pressure yet, but it’s time to be proactive before people start asking questions about the business impact of what we’re doing. What do you think?

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