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

21 March 2017

Top down or bottom up strategy?

Clark @ 8:09 am

In a recent discussion around HR strategy, the question arose about where to start.  That is, if you’ve bought into moving into the digital age, where do you begin.  The flip answer from the host of the event, a large consulting agency, was to hire them (and my flip reply is to ask whether you want newly minted MBAs following a process designed to be ‘heavy’, or someone coming in light and fast with an adaptive approach ;). But then they got serious, and responded that you shouldn’t be reactive to people’s stated needs, and you needed data to identify what problems are crucial.  And I wasn’t satisfied with that, for two related reasons.  In short, I thought that was still reactive and that it wasn’t going to help you focus ahead, and that you needed top-down to complement bottom up.

This was buttressed by a post pointed out to me by my ITA colleagues that was arguing a good design strategy was to find out what people needed. And I’m reminded of the quote by Steve Jobs that you can’t just give people what they want, because by the time you do, they’ve changed their minds.  And just finding what people need and doing it is a bit reactive, it seems to me, regardless.  Even, to be honest, finding the company’s biggest barriers, and addressing them, isn’t a sufficient response.  It’s a good one, but it’s not enough.

Interestingly, an HR Director sitting next to me was nodding her head during that response about the data. So afterward I asked her what sort of data she had in mind. I asked about both survey data, and business metrics, and she indicated both (and anything else ;).  And I think that’s a good basis. But not a sufficient one.

If you look at most design in the real world, you’ll see that designers cycle between top-down and bottom-up.  It helps to check that you’re indeed draining the swamp, but also to ensure you’re not getting eaten by alligators.  And that’s the point I want to make.

I’m (obviously) a believer in frameworks. I want conceptual clarity. And I don’t want best practices, I want to abstract best principles and recontextualize them.  But I also believe you need to check how you’re going, and regularly test.  There are some overarching results that should be incorporated: culture, innovation, performance support, etc. And they can be instituted in ways that address problems yet also develop your ability.

So I do think collecting data on what’s going on, and identifying barriers is important.  But if you’re not also looking at the horizon and figuring out where you’re going in the longer term, you could be metaphorically ensuring no flat tires on a trip to the wrong neighborhood.  My short answer to their question would’ve been to document where you are, and where you want to get, and then figure out which of the top issues the data indicate sets you on a path to address the rest and build your capability and credibility.

1 March 2017

The change is here

Clark @ 8:04 am

For a number of years now (at least six), I’ve been beating the drum about the need for organizations to be prepared to address change. I’ve argued that things are happening faster, and that organizations are going to have to become more agile.  Now we’re seeing the evidence that the change has arrived.

a change purseTwo recent reports highlight the awareness. Gallup released a report on The State of the American Workplace recently that talks about the lack of engagement at work.  Deloitte also released a reportRewriting the rules in the digital age, that documents trends shifting the office environment.  With different perspectives, they both overlap in discussing the importance of culture.  It’s about creating an environment where people are empowered and enabled to contribute.

The Gallup report concludes with new behaviors for leaders and managers.  The first point for leaders is to use data and focus on culture. This, to me, involves leveraging technology and creating an environment. L&D could be leading using performance data captured through the ExperienceAPI, and facilitating the culture shift in courses and developing coaching. Their prescription for managers is to move to be coaches (and again, L&D should be both developing the skills and facilitating the processes).  And employees need to take ownership of their own development, which means L&D should focus on both meta-learning and ensuring resources (curation and creation) as well.

The second report is the more interesting one for me, because it’s about the trends and the ways to adapt.  The top two trends are the Organization of the future (c.f. The Workplace of the Future :) and Careers and learning.  The former is about redesigning organizations to become agile.  The latter is about a redefinition of learning.  They are a wee bit old-school, however, as while they do discuss innovation throughout, it isn’t a core focus and their definition of learning doesn’t include informal learning.  It’s still a top-down model.  But again, clear opportunities for L&D.

The key leverage points, to me, are learning and technology.  And here I mean more self-directed and collaborative learning conducted not formally, but facilitated. Social learning really can’t be top-down!  Important technologies are for communicating and collaborating, as well as tools to search and find resources.

And while the focus is on HR, including recruitment and leadership, I reckon that L&D should have a key place here, as indicated. The world’s changing, and L&D needs to adapt.  It’s time to innovate L&D to support organizational innovation. Are you ready?

28 February 2017

Revisiting the Ecosystem

Clark @ 8:10 am

One of the keys to the L&D revolution is recognizing the full performance ecosystem and the ways technology can support performance and development.  I’ve tried to represent and share my thinking via diagrams (including here, here, and here).  Prompted by a recent conversation, it was time to revisit the representation.

the performance ecosystemHere, I’m layering on several different ways to think about the goals, elements, etc.  (Given that this is an initial version, I’m kind of haphazard about labels like mechanisms, components, etc.)  To start, as I continually argue, at the bottom it’s about coupling optimal execution with continual innovation.  We need to do well those things we know we need to do, and then we need to continually improve.  I think that more and more of the optimal execution is getting automated.

On top of that, we have components – content and people – and the tactics to leverage them. We create or curate content (curation over creation!), and we develop relationships through community or find appropriate expertise through recommendations or search.   The goal is to have the right content and the right people ‘to hand’ to work with.

We develop content elements like performance support to support performing in the moment, and learning resources for self-directed learning over time.  We also use courses, whether individual or collaborative, to develop people (particularly when they’re novices). I’d put courses to the left and performance support to the right (above content) if we were talking about developing people (as I have here). So, for novices we first use courses, then practitioners need resources and coaching, and experts need interaction.  However, performance support is on one side on a continuum of mechanisms from performing, to developing, to innovation.  That’s what I’ve captured here.

Similarly, we use social elements like coaching, mentoring, and informal learning to develop ourselves and our organizations over time.  We use processes like consuming and completing to execute. Then we develop our ability to execute and the continue to learn through  communicating and collaborating.

There are lots of ways to represent the ecosystem, and given that elaboration theory tells us multiple representations help, here’s another stab. There are lots of elements to consider and fine tune, but I like to share my thinking to help it develop!  Overall, however, the opportunity is the chance to be contributing to organizational success in systematic and valuable ways. And that, I’ll suggest, is valuable. I welcome your thoughts.

1 February 2017

Other writings

Clark @ 8:04 am

It occurs to me to mention some of the other places you can find my writings besides here (and how they differ ;).  My blog posts are pretty regular (my aim is 2/week), but tend to have ideas that are embryonic or a bit ‘evangelical’. First, I’ve written four books; you can check them out and get sample chapters at their respective sites:

Engaging Learning: Designing e-Learning Simulation Games

Designing mLearning: Tapping Into the Mobile Revolution for Organizational Performance

The Mobile Academy: mLearning For Higher Education

Revolutionize Learning &  Development: Performance and Information Strategy for the Information Age

They’re designed to be the definitive word on the topic, at least at the moment.

I’ve also written or co-written a number of chapters in a variety of books.  The books include The Really Useful eLearning Instruction ManualCreating a Learning Culture, Michael Allen’s eLearning Annual 2009,  and a bunch of academic handbooks (Mobile Learning, Experiential Learning, Wiley Learning Technology ;).  These tend to be longer than an article, with a pretty thorough coverage of whatever topic is on tap.

Then there are articles in a variety of magazines.  These tend to be aggregated thoughts that are longer than a blog post, but not as through as a chapter. In particular, they are things I think need to be heard (or read).  So, my writing has shown up in:


Learning Solutions


The topics vary. (For the eLearnMag ones, you’ll have to search for my name owing to their interface, and they tend to be more like editorials.)

And then there are blog posts for others that are a bit longer than my usual blog post, and close to an article in focus:

The Deeper eLearning series for Learnnovators

A monthly article for Litmos.

These, too, are more like articles in that they’re focused, and deeper than my usual blog post.  For the latter I cover a lot of different topics, so you’re likely to find something relevant there in many different areas.

I’m proud of it all, but for a quick update on a topic, you might be best seeing if there’s a Litmos post on it first.  That’s likely to be relatively short and focused if there is one. And, of course, if it’s a topic you’re interested in advancing in and I can help, do let me know.

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?


30 November 2016

Content aggregation

Clark @ 8:05 am

At the recent DevLearn conference, I had a chance to present in xAPI Base Camp on Content Systems.  This is a topic I’ve been thinking about since working on an adaptive learning system back in 1999-2000. And I think it’s now an even bigger big opportunity.  In the course of responding to an interested attendee, I aggregated this list of my (non-blog) publications on the process, and I thought it might be useful to share them here (from most recent to earliest):

Talking about  lifecycle and opportunities in the Litmos blog

Perspective from visiting the Intelligent Content conference in eLearnMag

The possibilities and necessities of adapting to context in Learning Solutions magazine

New ways of looking at learning content in Learning Solutions magazine

Moving from text to experience for publishers in eLearnMag

A discussion paper including granularity and tagging in the IFETS journal

contentelementsWhat you see is a transition in focus.  From thinking about content objects at the right granularity and with the right tagging, I transition to thinking about strategy for content publishers. Ultimately, I have shifted to looking at the learning industry and opportunities to adapt learning to context (which includes location, current task, current role, and more).

While I think that adaptivity is a ways away, I also believe that the initial efforts in getting more rigorous about content strategy, engineering, and governance are a worthwhile investment now. The benefits are in less redundancy, tighter design, tracking, and greater flexibility.  The long term benefits will come from analytics, adaptivity, and contextualization.  I reckon that’s an opportunity that’s hard to ignore. I’ll suggest that it’s past time to be thinking about it, and time to start acting.  What about you?  Are you ready?

18 November 2016

Karen McGrane #DevLearn Keynote Mindmap

Clark @ 12:27 pm

Karen McGrane closed the DevLearn conference talking about adaptive content. She had addressed mLearnCon in the past, a great presentation, so my expectations were high.  Plus, given that I riffed on background integration in my ELearning strategy pre-con and then content strategy as a session in the xAPI camp the next day, this is a talk I was eager to hear (congrats to the eLearning Guild for putting the topic on the table).

In this entertaining and illuminating session, she made the point that responsive is better than customizing to screen, and adapting is hard, so responsive is a good starting point.

Karen McGrane Keynote Mindmap

17 November 2016

Tony DeRose #DevLearn Keynote Mindmap

Clark @ 9:41 am

Tony DeRose opened the second day of DevLearn with a geeky (and intriguing) presentation on the links between math and story in making animation.  With clips and anecdotes he showed how it works, and inspired about how they’re connecting this to STEM.

Tony DeRosa Keynote Mindmap

13 October 2016

Infrastructure and integration

Clark @ 8:04 am

When I wrote the L&D Revolution book, I created a chart that documented the different stages that L&D could go through on the way.  I look at it again, and I see that I got (at least) one thing slightly off, as I talked about content and it’s more, it’s about integration and infrastructure.   And I reckon I should share my thinking, then and now.

The premise of the chart was that there are stages of maturity across the major categories of areas L&D should be aware of.  The categories were Culture, Formal Learning, Performance Support, eCommunity, Metrics, and Infrastructure. And for each of those, I had two subcategories.  And I mapped each at four stages of maturity.
Let me be clear, these were made up. I stuck to consistency in having two sub areas, and mapping to four stages of maturity.  I don’t think I was wrong, but this was an effort to raise awareness rather than be definitive. That said, I believed then and still now that the chart I created was roughly right.  With one caveat.

prethinkinginfrastructureIn the area of infrastructure, I focused largely on two sub categories, content models and semantics. I’ve been big on the ways that content could be used, from early work I did on content models that led to flexible delivery in an adaptive learning system, a context-sensitive performance support system, and a flexible content publishing system. I’ve subsequently written about content in a variety of places, attended an intelligent content conference, and have been generally advocating it’s time to do content like the big boys (read: web marketers).  And I think these areas are necessary, but not sufficient.

rethinkinginfrastructureI realize, as I review the chart for my upcoming strategy workshop at DevLearn, that I focused too narrowly.  Infrastructure is really about the technical sophistication (which includes content models & semantics, but also tracking and analytics) and integration of elements to create a true ecosystem.   So there’s more to the picture than just the content models and semantics.  Really, we want to be moving on both the sophistication of the model, and the technical underpinnings of the model.

We’ll be discussing this more in Las Vegas in November. And if you’re interested in beginning to offer a richer picture of learning and move  L&D to be a strategic contributor to the organization, this is the chance for a jump-start!


4 October 2016

Site Learnings

Clark @ 8:06 am

So I was talking with a colleague, who pointed out that my site wasn’t as optimized for finding as it could be, and he recommended a solution. Which led to an ongoing series of activities that have some learnings both at the technical and learning side.  So I thought I’d share my learnings about sites.

This being a WordPress site, I use plugins, and my colleague pointed me to a plugin that would guide me through steps to improve my site.  And so I installed it. And it led me through several steps.  One being improving some elements about each post. And some of these had some ramifications.  The steps included:

  • adding a  focus word or phrase
  • adding a meta-description
  • post recommendations for including focus word in the first paragraph
  • adding images
  • and more

I reckon these are good things to be consistent, but while I sometimes include diagrams, I haven’t been rabid about including images.  Which I will probably do more, but not ubiquitously (e.g. this post ;). The other things I’ll work on.  BTW, I am also getting advice on readability, but I’m less likely to change. This is my blog, after all!

One other change was to move from posts by number (e.g. ?p=#), to having a meaningful title. Which is all well and good, but it conflicted with another situation.  See, one of the other recommendations was to be more closely tied to Google’s tools for tracking sites, specifically Search Console.  Which had other ramifications.

So, I’ve put Google tracking code into all of my sites, but the code on Learnlets was old.  I’d put it in, and then my ISP changed the settings on my blog so I couldn’t use the built-in editor to edit the header and footer of the site pages (for security). Which meant I had to find the old code and replace it with FTP. Except, in all the myriad files in a WordPress site, I had no idea where.

Now, I’d try to do this once I’d gotten all my sites tied into Google Analytics, including searching the WP file folders, and browsing a number, to no avail. And I’d searched for guidance, similarly to no avail.  I tried again this time, still to no avail. I even found a recommended plugin that would allow you to add code into the header, but it didn’t work.

Specifically, even though my site was registering in Google Analytics, it wasn’t validated with the Search Console. I tried a number of their recommended steps, like adding a generated .html file into the site and putting a special txt message in my DNS record via my domain name host. (And if you don’t know what this means, it’s not really essential except to note that it’s clearly at the very edge of my deteriorating tech skills. ;)

I finally got on the phone to my ISP, and he gave me the clue I needed to find the right file with the header. Then I could download the file, edit it, and re upload it.  Which is always nervous to me: changing a core and ubiquitous file for your site that could totally stuff things up!

Well, long story short, it worked. I’m now registered with the Search Console, with current  Analytics code. Though, in the process of changing my url style for my blog, it is now generating 404 errors on pages that use the old mechanism (it seemed to work okay on some newer ones, but apparently is falling apart on some older ones).  It’s always something.

So, the important thing: tech stuff ends up being complicated, but what helps are the same innovation (aka informal learning) steps as always. Persistence, a willingness to experiment, a suite of approaches, and a network to fall back on.  And also, if you’re using one of my old URLs, it may be a problem to track down!  This may well be a problem in my own referring sites (e.g. the Quinnovation News page).  Two steps forward, one step back.  Here’s to change!

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