Monday, December 15, 2008

Learning About Learning in 2008

December’s Big Question from the Learning Circuits Blog is “What I have learned About Learning in 2008?”

Well, because I am a learning professional, I give a lot of importance to my personal learning. And owing to my profession, I am fortunate to understand and appreciate the value of learning.

I started my learning this year on the perfect note - I wrote my first blog! I think this simple activity brought me closer to most of my learning this year. After I wrote my first blog, I found myself interested in exploring the world of Web 2.0, social networking, and collaborative tools and technologies. I started to write atleast one blog every month and use you tube, slideshare, twitter, delicious, and joined many online discussion forums to read and share my views. Through all of this, I felt completely responsible for my own learning.

I extended my best practices to my training sessions and my trainees. I incorporated you tube videos in my classroom training sessions, referred to multiple e-learning and instructional design blogs to update my 'legacy training' in Instructional Design, incorporated online reading activities as pre-work and post training reflection activities as blogs for my trainees, subscribed to second life and shared the experience with many others, reviewed some powerful Brandon Hall E-learning Awards nominees (e-learning courses) as an independent judge, used many free web tools...and...developed my personal learning network.

I also felt very satisfied and energized during the entire learning process. This learning was mostly self-directed. Blogging helped me reflect on the things that I was doing and allowed me to articulate my learning with each activity. It helped me connect with many other people all around the world. It helped me break the shackles of my own mind.

To sum it up, in the year 2008:
  • I learned that Web 2.0 is not about tools and technologies - it is about a new way to learn.
  • I learned that the more I shared, the more I learned.
  • I learned that the world is indeed a small place and its very easy to connect, if you want to.
  • I (re) learned that to learn, I need to reflect, apply, make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes.
  • I (re) learned that learning is limitless.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

My Tryst with 'The Last Lecture'

"We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.” --Randy Pausch

If you haven't read
'The Last Lecture' by Randy Pausch, its time you did it now! This book is an inspiring tale of how to look at your life positively. For the uninitiated, Randy was a professor of Computer Science, Human Computer Interaction, and Design at Carnegie Mellon University. Randy had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. On September 18, 2007, he spoke to an audience of 400 people at Carnegie Mellon University to deliver a last lecture called “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” The book is based on the same principles. Although Randy lost his struggle with cancer, his legacy continues with the book...

While I wasn't there in the Carnegie Mellon University Hall to listen to Randy in person, his book helped me connect with him quite easily. Here's what I have learnt from watching the video and reading the book:

1) Have a dream! Childhood or otherwise.
It's important to know what you really want to achieve in life. If you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there.

2) Believe in your dream.
We often fail to trust ourselves. We find ourselves worthless at many times. The important thing is to for us to keep believing in our dream and ourselves. Only if we think we can, we can.

3) Take help from others.
How often we want to do something but are unable to ask for help. Call it whatever - ego, self-conscious, inferiority...there are many names for this one. We need to break the shackles of our mind and extend our hand - ask for help and take the help coming along our way. We can't achieve all our dreams by ourselves. We need others' contribution including family and friends.

4) Be positive. Period.
Much has been said and written about this already that more is not required. I think being positive is contagious and infectious!

5) Plan for your future.
It's important to acknowledge and accept the reality but still spend energy on planning for the future. It's easier to give up but tough to continue the fight. But if you do, it's worth it!

6) Have fun in life.
Don't take life too seriously because life doesn't certainly take you like that. It's important to spend 'fun' time with your family, friends, and try and make the best out of every moment. Laughing at your own self is a skill. Making people happy counts more than anything else.

7) Life is too short.
There is so much to do and not enough time! Get over petty issues and start living from today. Doesn't matter if you were born yesterday or have been around for some time - every moment is precious. Live life today like there is no tomorrow!

Hope the book and the video inspire you in many ways too.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Learning by doing - a practical example

A couple of weeks ago, I designed and delivered training on 'how to develop effective instructor-led training (ILT)'. My audience was a group of instructional designers who had some experience with developing elearning but had not designed/developed an ILT. I had 3 days from 'conceptualization' to 'delivery' and it couldn't have been more rapid than it was!

So, I quickly put together a blended learning training plan. Here's how it was:-
1) Classroom session - Face-to-face (0.5 day) - Introduction to ILT - Development process/typical components/walkthrough of each deliverable/formats etc.
2) Self-paced reading - Offline - ( 2 days) Participants had to review cuidelines to create an ILT, sample ILTs, library of instructional strategies used for ILTs, specific formats/templates.
3) Applying the learning - Offline - (5 days) Participants were given sample content and asked to develop an ILT (all components - instructor guide/student guide/presentation deck). I offered some query handling and support here.
4) Group presentation/Review Workshop (1 day) - Face-to-face - All participants presented all the components that they had created for the sample content and the group reviewed and critiqued the same. I offered my expertise and guidance and led the discussion and the reflection activities. At the end of the day-long workshop - we generated guidelines/best practices for developing effective ILTs. The guidelines and best practices were used to create project-specific design and storyboarding checklists.

Not only was this the most practical approach to training, the participants also enjoyed the entire 'learning-by-doing' experience. I am glad that I didn't overload my audience with 'gyan' about what is effective classroom training. They went through one and enjoyed it and I feel quite confident about the group creating similar learning experiences for their audience!

At the time when I was designing this plan, my customers for this training were a bit apprehensive. They were not sure if I could not ‘tell’ and still make people ‘learn’. The trainees also expected a series of classroom training sessions where I would describe and explain things about 'effective ILTs'. But I stopped myself from following the rut. I stopped myself at all places where I was tempted to say the obvious, tempted to share my expertise and give a lot of information, or generally just talk about good things. Instead, by allowing my participants to learn by doing – by actually creating an ILT, I gave them opportunities to make mistakes and yet be open to learn from them in a non threatening environment. Instead of a trainer, I took the role of a facilitator and helped them learn from themselves…

I keep implementing a similar approach in many other training sessions. Learning by doing works every time!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

To-learn list - to have or not to!

This month's Learning Circuits Big Question is interesting. It's interesting because of how it got generated. Jim Collins wrote "A true learning person also has a “to-learn” list, and the items on that list carry at least as much weight in how one organizes his or her time as the to-do list.”

The questions that we are discussing are:

  • If you have a to-learn list and are willing to share, and willing to share how you work with that list, that would likely be helpful information.
  • As Knowledge Workers, work and learning are the same, so how does a to-learn list really differ from a to-do list? How are they different than undirected learning through work, blogging, conferences, etc.?
  • Are to-learn lists really important to have? Are they as important as what Jim Collins tells us?
  • Should they be captured? Is so how?
  • How does a to-learn list impact something like a Learning Management System in a Workplace or Educational setting?
  • What skills, practices, behaviors do modern knowledge workers need around to-learn lists?

Phew! These are a lot of questions and I can't attempt to answer all. But in general, here is my view! I wonder if I have a different to-do list and a to-learn list! Somehow, the to-learn list is included in my to-do list. All learning happens as a part of what I am doing currently or what I want to do in the future. In that sense, the to-learn is intertwined with the to-do to such an extent that sometimes I fail to notice just how much I need to learn to be able to do! Okay enough of the mumbo jumbo - but really I never have made a separate to-learn list. The question here made be think about it and extract my to-learns and here is something on my current to-learn list that I eventually want to do!

- learn to apply web2.0 technologies in the courses/training I design
- learn to use mind mapping software for collaborative design/development
- learn to play the guitar and sing like a rock star!

I realize that capturing a to-learn list is important to the extent you like to work with to-do lists. The way I look at it, I can split my list into short-term and long-term. Most of my short-term to-learn activities are connected with things that I do, more as in-step rather than a planned learning activity. For example, only today I was trying to learn how to help my friend change some settings for her Picassa album. I didn't feel the need to learn until I was doing and realized I didn't know how. Similarly, every day I learn from many blogs in an unplanned manner. The to-learns in these cases could never have been captured in any lists. But are equally important. So, sure – to give things the right momentum – one should capture the to-learns. But I wouldn’t make too much fuss about it.
Some of my long-term to-learns are stored as draft emails, others as favorite links, and still others in my notepad. So, doesn’t matter whether it’s on paper or on my mind as long as I am working towards it and learning…

What is important is that as knowledge workers we need to be continuously learning; with or without a to-learn list!

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Reusable Learning Objects vs. Reusable Content Objects

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” - Albert Einstein.

Why do I start with such a quote, you may wonder...

Well, I am in a phase where I am trying to understand the advantages and disadvantages of using a Reusable Learning Objects (RLOs) strategy. And at this time, I am focusing more on the disadvantages. (much has been said about the advantages anyway!)

I must admit that in my earlier days of being an instructional designer, I never quite realized the disadvantages of using RLOs. I considered them ID's (SCORM's) gift to mankind! RLOs offered the much-in-demand, customizable, structured training - which could be easily converted from one form to another (irrespective of media) and allowed for standardization, easy update, and quick maintenance! It epitomized the implementation of the concept of 'chunking' and never could I implement info mapping as perfectly as in a RLO.

But all that was until I thought 'content was king'.

But then things changed. For the learning industry and me.
We realized that 'context is king' - and content is freely available to all.

Unfortunately, RLOs don't pack any (or much) context! And that's where the basic flaw exists. Now, the quote by Albert Einstein would probably make some sense. When using a RLO strategy, by design, we are reusing objects (chunks of information) - for different audience - different needs - at different times - and expect different results! (Effective training?) Now, how is that possible?

The concept of Reusability Paradox highlights this flaw. It says - with an increase in pedagogical value, the potential for reuse decreases. Pedagogical value is generated with the help of context. Therefore, the more context you add, the less reusable the learning object will be. However, in true 'learning terms', the less context you have, the less meaningful the object will be.

Additionally, RLOs - by design - are restrictive in the amount of information to be covered for each learning object. The smaller a RLO, the more reusable it is. But the smaller the RLO, the less meaningful it could be too.
So, where does it leave any space for the more constructivist approaches to learning using lengthy, discursive material?

Am not saying, a RLO strategy is good or bad. It has its advantages and many have reaped benefits too. But it also has its limitations. In the ideal case, we use RLO where it fits best. The question to be answered is where does it fit best? Can I teach problem-solving, analytical abilities using a RLO? Or is RLO more suited to procedural, task-based skills? Obviously, one size doesn't fit all.

But on a bolder note, how about calling Reusable Learning Objects as Reusable Content Objects. Why?
Because am questioning whether RLO (strategy) is more of a content organization model...and not a learning model and do RLOs really cause learning...

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Collaboration - The power of group intelligence

"When we are dreaming alone it is only a dream. When we are dreaming with others, it is the beginning of reality." (Dom Helder Camara)

I have been thinking about collaboration and its relevance to work, life, learning... I know collaboration is important. I know groups have power to do more than individuals. But I really got to realize the importance of 'group intelligence' when I read this article by Peter Miller called Swarm Theory in
National Geographic.

It is amazing how we can draw parallels from the insect and animal kingdom into our own work life. It is a rather long article, but some interesting points made are:-

--"If you watch an ant try to accomplish something, you'll be impressed by how inept it is," says Deborah M. Gordon, a biologist at Stanford University. "Ants aren't smart," Gordon says. "Ant colonies are."

--"When it comes to swarm intelligence, ants aren't the only insects with something useful to teach us. On a small, breezy island off the southern coast of Maine, Thomas Seeley, a biologist at Cornell University, has been looking into the uncanny ability of honeybees to make good decisions. With as many as 50,000 workers in a single hive, honeybees have evolved ways to work through individual differences of opinion to do what's best for the colony. If only people could be as effective in boardrooms, church committees, and town meetings, Seeley says, we could avoid problems making decisions in our own lives. "

--"A honeybee never sees the big picture any more than you or I do," says Thomas Seeley, the bee expert. "None of us knows what society as a whole needs, but we look around and say, oh, they need someone to volunteer at school, or mow the church lawn, or help in a political campaign."

--Such thoughts underline an important truth about collective intelligence: Crowds tend to be wise only if individual members act responsibly and make their own decisions. A group won't be smart if its members imitate one another, slavishly follow fads, or wait for someone to tell them what to do. When a group is being intelligent, whether it's made up of ants or attorneys, it relies on its members to do their own part. For those of us who sometimes wonder if it's really worth recycling that extra bottle to lighten our impact on the planet, the bottom line is that our actions matter, even if we don't see how.

Nature already has everything that we want to learn! While we are trying to come up with new models and methods of learning, thinking, brainstorming, communicating etc the insects and the animals are way ahead of us in these areas.
There is no denying the value of group intelligence. The challenge is how to collaborate and get to this level? Well…people may say that we can crack the 'how-to' by leveraging tools and technologies - web 2.0 and beyond. But I don't think this is about tools and technologies.

To be able to collaborate, we need to have a shared goal - an objective that everyone in the group believes in. And then, each of us in the group needs to do our part. We may not be able to see the big picture all the time but by collaborating and sharing information, we can achieve our goals. While no one is incharge - everyone is. It is shared responsibility and therefore each of us is responsible. When I reflect more on this phenomenon, I realize that one great leader can't lead to an 'intelligent' group - but each member of the group can.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Simplicity in Design

At times, I use the white board at my workstation to scribble interesting quotes that appeal to me. A few weeks ago, I wrote this one:

"There are two ways of constructing a software design. One way is to make it so simple that there are obviously no deficiencies. And the other way is to make it so complicated that there are no obvious deficiencies. (Charles Hoare)."

The quote led to an interesting discussion amongst the ones who read it. The curious question was – what is ‘simple’ design. I pondered for a while. I knew that simplicity was far complex than I thought. I wanted to understand what is means to have simplicity in content design, media design, functional design, web design, and any other design that we ought to do! So I started my journey to explore what is simple design…here is what I found on my way. An interesting definition.

This is an excerpt taken from an article titled,
“Keep it simple, stupid!” by Pär Almqvist.

A Definition of Simplicity
"What is simplicity? It could be defined as "the absence of unnecessary elements," or even shorter "the essence." Simplicity doesn't equal boring. Simplicity doesn't equal shallow. Simplicity is especially important when designing information- and media-rich interfaces. Simplicity isn't a design style, it's a perspective on design, an approach which often creates the most beautiful and the most usable results. A common mistake is to think that obtaining simplicity is a matter of reduction, of reducing something which is more complete than the "simple" end result. On the contrary, simplicity requires serious thought and effort. As I wrote in my article
Fragments of time; "A modern paradox is that it's simpler to create complex interfaces because it's so complex to simplify them."

How to Obtain Simplicity
Simplicity isn't easy to obtain. I have, however, roughly devised a formula that lays the foundation for simplicity. Albert Einstein said; "If A is to succeed in life, then A = x + y + z. Work is x, y is play and z is to listen.
"A functioning formula for simplicity (where A equals simplicity) could be A = x + y + z. x is good research and prototyping, y is play and z is the reduction of unnecessary elements."

In the above definition, the author reiterates that simplicity requires thought and effort. Another example to support this definition is
here, where the author (Nika Smith) discusses the evolution of Gmail chat and specifically how the Gmail chat window was designed.

The author reiterates,
“Often, the features we launch seem so simple that you might think they're the result of blatantly obvious design decisions. In fact, every feature is subjected to a healthy dose of scrutiny within the Gmail team, and usually that includes rapidly iterating on designs by collecting user feedback, learning what works and what doesn't, and improving on our work based on this knowledge.”

From what I gathered, I believe simple designs:-
- appear intuitive and easy to make - but they take time to build
- involve multiple iterations of review and feedback
- are meant for the purpose (meet requirements)
- are naturally usable
- have more impact because they have less distractions

I hope to continue on this journey towards simple designs. I may have to infact start with my life first - as the teachings of Zen highlight - "try and do less each day" to make a move towards simplicity!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

New Work Literacies - Leading the Way

This months Learning Circuits question is who takes the leadership role around new work literacies. Specifically: - Should workplace learning professionals be leading the charge around these new work literacies? -Shouldn't they be starting with themselves and helping to develop it throughout the organizations? -And then shouldn't the learning organization become a driver for the organization? - And like in the world of libraries don't we need to market ourselves in this capacity?

I agree with all these questions and my response is a whole-hearted YES. Yes, I am responsible for all of this. I was a bit surprised that we are debating about these because somehow, I never thought anyone else is going to be doing this in my organization! Yes, I, as a learning professional would like to lead the charge around these new work literacies. Yes, I have started with myself and hope to help it develop in my organization. Yes, I take the responsibility to drive the use of the new work literacies and yes, just for libraries and everything else in life – I need to market this too.

As a learning professional, I expect myself to introduce my organization to all new in learning - new tools and technologies included. In that sense, yes, I lead the way. But I don’t want to be a consultant who doesn’t know what she’s talking. I don’t want to be a learning professional who is sitting on the fence and talking about new tools and technologies and hasn’t used any! So, I use and experiment with these technologies in my own way – for example, I write my own blog, contribute to group blogs, use Wiki and Google to learn, have an identity on facebook, and an avtar in second life – I am trying to try it all – to experience, explore, and learn, and to share my learning with my organization. While I explore these to develop my own personal learning environment, I hope to help my organization use some of these and develop them as learning opportunities available to everyone in my organization. I feel, that somewhere, somehow, the learning revolution and acceptance of new tools and technologies has to start with me – as an individual. Unless I try to explore the possibilities, I will never be able to build a business case around the use of these technologies for the organization as a whole. So, yes, I lead the charge, start with myself, and hope to develop it for my organization.

Now about the learning organization being the driver for the organization. Well, yes – but only when learning is aligned to the organizational goals, it can really drive anything! For the organization to trust the learning professionals and consider us as ‘learning advisors’, it is important that we as learning professionals are aware of what we can bring forth to the table. We need to know what is happening in the learning world and what can we do to help our organization make correct, well thought-about learning decisions – which positively impact the business decisions. Our real value lies in helping the organization grow better, faster. The new tools and technologies can serve as stepping-stones to this path of success.

About marketing – well, in today’s world everything needs to be marketed! I feel, we are all salespersons and we are all in the business of selling our thoughts. We do it all the time, whether we know it or not. So, yes, to develop the tools and technologies and help them become new work literacies, I will need to market them. I have started small – market my own blog, share learning links with teams, talk about emerging trends learning in forums, and discussions, and over coffee conversations. I also have realized that all marketing becomes easy when the consumer sees the value of the product/service. Therefore, as a learning professional, I am striving to arrive at the value of everything that I propose to my organization including the new tools and technologies.

So, whether it is initiating formal learning, informal learning, Web 2.0 or anything else and everything else to do with learning – I willingly take the responsibility for leading the change – for myself, and my organization.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Second Life - For this life or the next?

The June 2008 Big Question from Learning Circuits is around Second Life Training.
More specifically: - In what situations, do you believe it makes sense to develop a learning experience that will be delivered within Second Life? -If you were to develop a training island in Second Life, what kind of environment and artifacts would you consider essential for teaching? -Just as there are considerable differences in blended learning and virtual classroom training, what are some of the major differences (surprises) in training within virtual worlds?

Well, I haven't experienced Second Life as closely as I would like to. However, from my experience and some reading/skimming about Second Life, I have an opinion to share.
To identify whether I should develop a training experience using Second Life, I had to think and jot down the USPs of Second Life and compare them to the methods that I am more used to! So, in terms of being different, Second Life is more:

1) Immersive - be a part of the learning intervention

2) Non-threating - be whatever you want to be - avatars can take you anywhere

3) Collaborative - be with others and learn together

4) Constructivist - be responsible for your own learning

Considering these as relevant elements that I could leverage in creating a training intervention, I suppose Second Life renders itself well to specific learning outcomes that revolve around ‘doing’, ‘analyzing’, ‘applying’, ‘synthesizing’, ‘problem-solving’, ‘decision-making’ etc. As you can notice, I am traveling along a continuum of higher-order, far transfer skills that are usually difficult to teach within the traditional classroom environment or plain vanilla elearning. Here are some examples where I think I could use Second Life:

1) For training that involves developing skills in working with equipment (expensive, difficult, and possibly threating in real-life) for example, engineers who need to learn to troubleshoot and repair faulty printers. In a typical classroom environment, it is rather difficult to produce faulty printers for each session (across the world) and definitely difficult to have one faulty printer per student! But in Second Life, that’s possible. Infact the learner can completely tear down a printer, explore its parts, virtually identify the fault, and rectify it. Artifacts in such a learning environment could include faulty printers, tools typically used for printer repair, some reference manuals with step-by-step instructions, and may be even videos demonstrating the learners how to do the job well.

2) For training that involves developing skills in a new language or soft skills such as communication, leadership etc. I always find it challenging to create relevant role-plays for soft skills training. Even after great role-play designs, it is always difficult to find volunteers to do those role-plays in the classroom! In Second Life, everyone is immersed into the training and they would have to communicate with others to progress. The role-plays would be the core design and every learner would have to play out something in that environment. Artifacts in such training would include other participants, some places to go visit (a museum, a gallery – anything that stimulates and leads to a conversation), specific learning situations as a part of the design.

3) For training that involves teaching critical (life-threating) skills around working with people – say for example conducting a medical operation! In real-life, it is rather difficult for budding doctors to find ‘practice patients’. Real patient are the guinea pigs for learning. But using Second Life, I can provide them with practice patients who need to be diagnosed correctly, prescribed adequate medication, observed over time, and even operated upon when required. It is much easier to think about teaching such skills in Second Life than in the current one! In Second Life, the budding doctors can make mistakes and learn from them. In real-life, there is no scope for error and any mistake has serious consequences. Artifacts in such an intervention could include sample patients with specific diseases, medical books and periodicals for references, other senior doctors for consultation etc.

As I begin to write about areas where I think I can use Second Life training, I am sure there are many more areas that I do not know about. With this blog, I am on my journey to explore them. However, I also understand that Second Life is yet another media. I don’t think I want to get carried away with it – atleast not yet. In that sense, I won’t create training (design) so that it can be implemented in Second Life. But when I sit down to design my training and I am keen to use a blend, I will now think about Second Life too – along with all other learning tools. There are challenges in using any learning media and this one has its own – bandwidth and connectivity concerns, computing and graphic/media capability concerns, a steep learning curve, and many other distractions in Second Life! But I am sure soon we will find our way around these challenges soon.

I, like everybody else, am keen to see where Second Life takes us – as learners and instructional designers. I am sure the path is unknown and difficult but I would like to give it a shot and know for myself!

Monday, June 9, 2008

Be the change!

On my shelf these days is a book by David Riveness - "The Secret Life of the Corporate Jester". At the outset, the book is amazingly refreshing! It is a must read for anyone in organization development, training, and management consulting and ...even for those who are not! The book relates the concept of 'jesters' of olden times to the need of 'change agents' in the current times. These change agents are true leaders who first discover their own blind spots, correct them, and then help others and the organization do the same. One of the key personality traits of the corporate jesters in olden times was their ability to use humor to question authority and existing systems. The corporate jesters in today's world also need to do the same and identify and discuss things that are not working too well.

Before this book, I did not know about jesters as much and definitely did not relate them to the corporate world. However, I know, have practiced, and experienced that the key to cause a change in myself is to have a fearless attitude, a stroke of positive arrogance, and an ability to look beyond the visible. It has always been and will be difficult to find my own blind spots. I have to open up myself - more than the usual - be vulnerable - ask for feedback - be receptive to it - and then act on it! That is not an easy road to travel...but definitely worth it!

I also understand that unless I am open to changing myself and getting over my blind spots, I cannot really change anyone else. I realize everyday that I want to positively contribute, make that difference to the work, the people, and the business.
And the only way to do is to start with myself - be the change that I want to see!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Digital Natives of Today are Digital Immigrants of Tomorrow!

This month's question from Learning Circuits is around Learning design differences for Digital Natives.
My basics are clear - good design works for all. The basic principles of learning were the same before the digital divide and they still work now - we learn when we 'do' - when we make mistakes. 'Doing' is important to any learning that has happened in my life and in yours.

With that as the background to share my views, let me first start by saying that I recognize and acknowledge that we have moved tremendously from where we were 10 years ago. I am not sure if our brains have changed or not but we are definitely able to do more as learners. However, I am not so sure if all that change has been caused by 'digital' technology.
From where I come from, India, most learners do not even know this digital age - never heard, seen, or experienced it. However, they seem to learn just fine with it when given an opportunity. The example I have for you is
NIIT's famous 'Hole-in-the-wall' project. In this project of 'minimally invasive' education - a computer kiosk was put in a slum in New Delhi and children (8 -13 yrs old) started to explore it on their own - no teacher, no facilitator, no one. The experiment was successful. Children learned to browse the net, create new documents, use paint, and play games. They did not know what was called what - so the mouse became a 'needle' and the folders became 'cupboards'!

The questions that come to my mind are what was the design of this learning experiment? Did someone think about the design differently because there was a computer and Internet involved? My answer is probably not. The design was simple - let children learn by exploration - by doing - by making mistakes – by themselves - without someone telling them everything about everything. And they did. If it was not a computer and was something else - say a vacuum cleaner or a washing machine - my belief is that children would have learnt using them too! But in the context of digital technology - this project bought another perspective to the 'digital divide' discussion.

Having said all of this - the point is - there was a problem in the way some of us learnt things or were asked to learn them in our schools, colleges, and workplaces. No body said that design was good! It was just being used. If we had exploration, collaboration, group-and social-learning as our backgrounds - we would have learnt too! Try and recall all the good teachers and all the good lectures – I bet all of them would have involved – doing, discussing, and working together but with minimum instruction or support from the teacher. Didn’t we all love our summer projects – making models of things we learnt about on our own? Did we not learn and have fun in the science classes - doing lab experiments mixing chemicals and waiting for an explosion to happen. We learnt still - the properties of all elements - but differently - by doing. I am sure we remember those even now.

How I look at this situation is that the tools today are different - that is what they are - mere tools - nothing more. Let us not divide our learners based on just these tools. Let us remember and be aware that tomorrow, these tools will be outdated. The Digital natives of today will become digital immigrants of tomorrow and this cycle will continue.

Instead of just getting carried away with tools and technologies and designing only around these because they exist - let us leverage them to the fullest but design based on the basic principles of learning. We will never go wrong this way.
The bottom-line is whether we are a digital immigrant or a native - it is important to be open to new methods and tools of learning - be open to learning - everyone has to continuously learn - no matter where we are in this digital continuum.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

What would I like to do better as a Learning Professional?

This is the big question of April from Learning Circuits.
This question almost made me feel like a genie who can think what she wants and then make it happen!

What I would like to do better is as follows:

1) Exploit Web 2.0 technologies to create an innovative learning environment that provides high motivation, allows collaborative learning, and enhances the learner's ability to think and reflect on the learning.
2) Use more games and build engagement in the courses that I design and develop. Never give my learners a dull moment!
3) Find a way to prove that training initiatives make sense in the short-term and long-term. Training is not a "cost center" but actually a center that can help organizations gain profits! An easy way to calculate ROI would be nice! :)

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Do We Need Instructional Designers for Technology Content Projects?

"Do we need instructional designers for technology content projects?"

This is April's question to ponder about and it sure got me pondering.
I believe we need instructional designers for any content/training project - technology or not. And maybe even more ...for technology...let's discover my reasons for this.

What is a Subject Matter Expert (SME)? - someone who is an expert in the content area. The key words are expert and specific content area.

The first argument I can put forth is - while all SMEs (are expected to) know the content well - they can't necessarily teach the content well to other users (novices or otherwise). I have two skills to highlight here - the ability to teach and then to teach it well so that the trainees actually learn. That is the biggest reason why technology content training projects need instructional designers! While the SME holds the content, an instructional designer is the SME for figuring out the best way to design and develop the training. Both are SMEs in their domain and I like to respect that relationship.

My next argument is regarding the need for ‘designing’ training. Yes, it is true that content is the king but we are discovering that form is important too. The audience of today wants to learn things fast and easy. And instructional designers know what appropriate techniques to use such that the content is layered for the user and is easily available on request. Instructional designers understand various approaches and strategies that can help the user feel more ‘comfortable’ learning new content. Besides, more often than not, I have found SMEs who would like to include 'everything' about the technology and the instructional designers help them scope it out and present it as per the requirements of the audience. Instructional designers help design the product and SMEs ensure that it is meaningful for the learner.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge that in some projects we may let go of instructional designers and leave the SMEs to design and develop the training. I believe that in these situations we have considered all available options and we believe our SME is inherently a good instructional designer (many are). In order to work within the constraints of time and money, we choose to make such a decision. In an ideal scenario, I believe we would always like to have the instructional designer.

The point really is – no one is more important than the other in general terms. Both are important and required.
The time and effort required by each role may vary across projects but the bottom line is that we can’t make a good learning product without either!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Subject Matter Experts - The 'Perfect Partner' in Training

Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) - what comes to your mind when I use this term?

When I asked this question to some of my colleagues, the answers were plenty....."how do we work with them?", "Oh...they don't understand anything!", "some are nice - and some not worth mentioning", "..hmm it's tough to get the best out of them!" some more responses were lots of animated facial expressions! So, yes - each of us at some point in our professional life have worked with SMEs and have something to share about the experience!

I too have something to share about my own experiences about 'working with' SMEs. Though I'd like to believe that I don't 'work' with them anymore - I 'collaborate'! Here are my views on how you can collaborate with SMEs and make them a partner in training - the perfect partner - using the 'CIA' Model. (For the lack of any other acronym... I just created this easy to remember one! offenses!)

Communicate > Innovate > Accommodate

  • Communicate - Communication is the key to developing any relationship - with an SME or any other stakeholder on the project. However, with the SME it becomes even more important. Communication entails not only informing them about every progress and development in the project, but also keeping them involved right from the start. Communication should immerse them completely in the project so that they feel its 'their project' and can proudly boast about the same to their peers! There are project management aspects to communication that include sharing the plans, delivery times and methods, and meeting them regularly to share the progress. There are also ID-related aspects to communication, which include discussing the review comments shared by them and taking all comments to closure. Communication is the key to collaboration.
  • Innovate - Innovate in the use of tools and technologies when collaborating with SMEs. I have learnt that we need to be 'open' about how our SMEs would like to work with us on the project. Let's take a basic example. The most important aspect of an SMEs job is to review the content for technical accuracy. Now, there are some SMEs who are comfortable writing down their comments within the work product, others prefer sharing the review comments over a conference call after they have reviewed the product, and still others like to 'review' the product collaboratively. Some of my SMEs (not located at the same physical location as the project) have reviewed the work product in hard copy and then scanned and sent me the 'reviewd document scanned images '- cause that's what worked the best for them! These SMEs have inspired me to think and innovate about the tools and technologies that I propose to an SME when initiating a project. With Web2.0 knocking on the learning community, we have more tools available to us right now than ever before!
  • Accomodate - Finally, we need to accommodate as per the SME's style, preferences, and overall approach towards the project. I believe, adjusting and accommodating are 'positive' words and we should embrace them without getting our egos in between! For example, it is a good idea to ask the SMEs about the days and time that they would prefer a regular weekly meeting. It indicates that you are sensitive about their needs too. And this makes a tremendous difference to the way SMEs approach the project and the entire team. Or for example, it is always best to ask for their calendar so that you can schedule the project deliverables as per their availability and not 'pressure' them when they are on leave. I have also noticed that one of the key aspects of collaborating with SMEs is to understand that they have different priorities. The SMEs are super busy people whose first job is not training development! As instructional designers, we need to understand their priorities and build our activities around the same. True partnership happens when we understand each other's priorities and consider them like our own.

I have had many successful SME/ID partnerships whenever I have communicated, innovated, and accommodated! These three very basic 'tools' have helped me achieve my goals in designing and executing a training project.

Some more on specific tips and best practices another time. Watch this space...

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Role and Responsibilities of Learning Professionals

This month's Learning Circuits question - "What is the Scope of our Responsibility as Learning Professionals?" is a thought-provoker. (Thanks Manish for making me think!)

I have been engaged with ‘learning’ all my life and feel specifically responsible to help others learn for 9 years. As a learning professional and a trainer - I have always taken the responsibility of helping my learners learn. Whether it is from a perspective of an instructional designer writing courses that help employees of ABC company work better/quicker or from the perspective of a trainer, delivering courses to employees of my own organization - I have always felt responsible.

From a philosophical (and a theoretical) point of view, it is easy to say "no one is responsible for anyone else's learning" - but if not me, who else will? Besides, the point really is to help employees do better, gain higher skills, be ready for the changing times. Whether I do it alone, they do it alone, or we do it together – the objective is the same.

I am not sure what my scope is and if there are associated (and limited) responsibilities within this scope. As a learning professional, I constantly hop into the shoes of an instructional designer, trainer, human resource personnel, recruiter, line manager, supervisor, mentor, coach, change initiator etc....all multiple roles with multiple responsibilities but one single goal - to help the organization have the best set of people with the right skills. Therefore, I don't scope what I want or need to do. I don't have my responsibilities written out on a sheet of paper. I create them myself. Towards the common goal, I do all and whatever is that I need to do.

In my current role, I feel like a learning leader. I like to lead learning and also create and engage with the learning environment. I feel responsible to create a culture that can allow people to learn by sharing, by making mistakes and talking about them, by challenging current beliefs and systems, and working together to build new ones. I'd like to think of myself as someone who goes beyond what I teach in the classroom. I like to help and support people with the new content and help them find ways to use it quickly. No one asked me to do it - I feel that it is a part of my responsibility as a trainer. The learning doesn’t end in the classroom – infact that’s just the beginning! I constantly add to my responsibilities at times without knowing about them. Sometimes I wonder - are we responsible only for what we were asked to do – or also for what we feel is the correct thing to do. I believe in the latter.

Now that I have made my point about the responsibility, let me also talk briefly about what I am doing as a learning professional. My current scope! Well, I have noticed that over the last 3 - 4 years, I find myself spending more time in coaching and mentoring people by using 'not-so formal' methods. While the classroom sessions continue, much more is happening at the coffee machine, near the water cooler, and just by hanging around the workstations and talking to employees about what works and what doesn’t. People want more interaction so that they can learn - social learning as they say - is what I am getting involved with increasingly. And this is not only about their learning but mine too. I feel responsible to keep myself updated of all things ‘latest’. There is no pressure, no stress – instead there is motivation, drive, and positive energy.

While Web 2.0 catches up in my organization, I continue to form physical groups of people who can learn from each other and help themselves learn. So, whether formal or informal - whatever method is needed, I use it! Somewhere along the way, I also feel I help them become more 'open to learning' using such methods. It is important for us, as learning advisors, to help learners also become engaged with their own learning and feel responsible for it.

While a large part of my responsibility is towards teaching specific skills, I notice much more craving for learning towards developing career paths. As a learning professional, I also feel responsible for helping people think about and plan their career. I am not sure whose job it is - the HR, the supervisor/manager, the employee herself, or mine. But that doesn't really matter to me at this point. I like to believe that I am a trusted advisor of employees. I think I have the power to initiate positive change in employees. With this power comes greater responsibility. And I like to take that responsibility.

The bottom line is that we are all currently working in a dynamic environment full of opportunities offered by technology, learner motivation, and various training intervention tools and methods. It will be foolish to let go of these opportunities and limit and scope our thinking to ‘am I responsible to do this?’ It is time to exploit all the resources available and create many more learning communities and even more learning leaders like us who take up this responsibility - to help others learn.

Maybe it my passion for learning that allows me to feel completely responsible and yet not be bogged down by the scoping of the same. I feel free when I learn and when I help learn…

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Start With a BANG!

The universe was created like that and many good presentations begin like that - they Start With a Bang! I have heard this phrase used (and exploited) in many sessions that teach us how to create good presentations and deliver great training sessions. The basic idea is to grab the learner's attention in the first few seconds by doing something offbeat, putting them on the edge of their seats, and making it real and personal for them. I wanted to build on this idea as it relates to New Hire Training.

I feel passionate about training and more so when it is for new hires. For a trainer, the greatest opportunity lies in training that they conduct for new hires. You are beginning with people who are motivated, want to learn, and are open and willing to be molded as required. Can you get a better audience than that!
Of course, here we not only need to start with a bang but continue with a bang for atleast a year! So, it’s definitely more than the first few seconds.

Well, here is my attempt to articulate the secret ingredients of good new hire integration training! If we put more mind and matter into this training, we are sure to get the highest return on this investment. The result – happy new hires - who want to continue to work with your organization!

1) Not all at once! - We cannot train new hires on everything during the induction training! Yes, it may be difficult to filter AND we need to teach them virtually everything about everything eventually; but to start with, we need to come up with a manageable list and ensure that we do the best job with this list.

2) Divide and rule - Now that we have a manageable list, we need to space those items out. And when I mean space them out - I really mean to divide the list in three categories: 1st Day, 1st Week, 1st Year. The names of these categories may be anything - the idea is to allow new hires to learn all through the first year and keep focusing on what is required to start with. Information overload is a killer.

3) Vary the media - It is not easy to go through hours of classroom sessions. Even after knowing that, most organizations continue to train new hires in an instructor-led classroom mode. It is time to change! It is important to vary the training delivery media. Use self-paced books, workbooks, classroom training, elearning, audio/video, blogs, pod casts.....the options are unlimited. Analyze your current environment and try and design blended learning induction training.

4) Make it personal – When you take the responsibility of training new hires, you are essentially taking the responsibility to build a relationship. This relationship is between them and the organization. And we all know - if it’s not personal, it’s not worth it! There are different ways to make it personal – interactions, group discussions, feedback sessions, chats and online discussion forums, picnics and outings, involve families, joining celebrations, access to mentors, buddies etc. Find a way that best works for your organization.

5) Keep the connect – It is important to designate appropriate people in the training department who can maintain a connect with new hires through the year. Being sensitive to the needs of new hires will help the organization identify and close any gaps quickly. It is equally important to ensure that their supervisors provide enough feedback within the first year.

So, start with a bang and continue with it! You want the new hires to think and believe that they made the right decision when they walked through that door!

(On a related note - if we change the tags like ‘induction’, ‘orientation’, ‘bootcamp’ etc to call new hire training as ‘Integration training’, we will solve half of the problem. What’s in a name you may say – well… everything! The name of the training is the key to shift your thought process. What do you think of when I say words like induction and orientation? I bet you thought of your training, which was made of many hours of classroom sessions, overhead projector and slideshows, some animated expressions from trainers, and a thick handbook! But when I say the word ‘integration’ – we can think of blending – being a part of a group. So what we call new hire training is an important factor too – but more on that some other time.)

Chew on this:
“In the new benchmark report, "All Aboard: Effective Onboarding Techniques and Strategies," Aberdeen Group, a Harte-Hanks Company (NYSE: HHS), found that while 86% of all organizations surveyed agree that it takes up to six months for a new employee to make a firm decision to stay with the company, 61% of all organizations either don't offer a formal Onboarding program or end their Onboarding program within just one month. This benchmark report is a compilation of surveys and interviews from nearly 800 organizations globally and highlights how Best-in-Class performers are maximizing the value of their Onboarding process to improve new employee retention, reduce time to productivity and enhance employment brand.
The study also found that Best-in-Class organizations with respect to Onboarding are more likely to:
-- Begin Onboarding before the start date of employment
-- Ensure the Onboarding process is at least six months for select stakeholder groups
-- Extend Onboarding to all new employees, including those coming from mergers and acquisitions as well as those who have accepted internal job transfers
-- Make 'socialization' into the organization's culture a key focus of the Onboarding process”

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Call for Leaders!

Based on 2008 Corporate Learning Facebook, most organizations are spending upto 21% of their training budget on Management/Supervisory and Leadership training. And this is by far the largest chunk of the budget. I am not surprised.
If I articulate the definition of leadership as per Wiki ..."the ability to affect human behavior so as to accomplish a mission". This mission in question has become more critical now than ever before. The mission is 'communication'.
Organizations today are changing so fast that sometimes it is difficult to keep up. Restructuring, mergers, acquisitions, new business ventures, need to innovate - just some of the things that call for great leadership. In this changing face of business, we need people who can communicate and inspire. Great leaders are people who can make the troubled moments seem full of opportunities for success. In this light, I am not surprised if organizations are spending most of their training budgets on people who really matter.

While there are many theories about leadership and various styles of leadership, the bottomline is that leaders should strive to make more leaders like them. And all the activities to do that - need to be done by leaders.

Here is an interesting list of leadership tips - jack welch style..
1. There is only one way - the straight way. It sets the tone of the organisation.
2. Be open to the best of what everyone, everywhere, has to offer; transfer learning across your organisation.
3. Get the right people in the right jobs - it is more important than developing a strategy.
4. An informal atmosphere is a competitive advantage.
5. Make sure everybody counts and everybody knows they count.
6. Legitimate self-confidence is a winner - the true test of self-confidence is the courage to be open.
7. Business has to be fun - celebrations energise and organisation.
8. Never underestimate the other guy.
9. Understand where real value is added and put your best people there.
10. Know when to meddle and when to let go - this is pure instinct.

Chew on this: As per the
2008 Corporate Learning Facebook

"While training directed to top-level employees is a high priority overall, specific industries invest heavily in other employee audiences as well. For instance, in telecommunications, 23% of training program dollars are spent on customer service training; technology companies invest 29% of training dollars on sales training; and pharmaceuticals spend 25% on compliance and other mandatory training."

Monday, February 11, 2008

Too much to learn - not enough space?!

If you are one of those folks who have an account in every possible corner of the online space; orkut, facebook, plaxo, blogger etc and boast of a "second life" or even more, I am sure you need your daily dose of scraps, pokes, walls, shout outs, gifts etc. And if, for some faint reason, you are unable to connect on a day, it may be more than 'just frustrating' for some!

Today's article in Hindustan Times (Main Paper, Page 14) - 'Eureka! My space is online!' just goes ahead and validates this and shares some facts. Some of these facts are more than just plain vanilla. For example:
- There are more than 112 million blogs online.
- As of Dec, 26, 2006, there were 45,174,930 communities on Orkut alone.
- Facebook goes through 600 million searches per month.
- LinkedIn has over 14 million users.
- In US alone, pod casts audience had reached 18.5 million by 2007.

Now all these people on all these 'social networking' sites must be doing something useful, finding something worthwhile, and enjoying their way at it to keep continuing and add to these numbers even while you are reading this! That's what I call the Hot Chocolate Fudge-type of interesting point! That is what I am curious about. In my view, that is what will make or break the learning environments of tomorrow.

In the context of what Manish has written in his blog on
Personal Learning Environment (PLE), these sites are now not limited to only social networking, these are what constitute the PLE of many of us including me. And like Manish, I have learnt more from Google, Wiki, Blogs, Podcasts, and Video Clips than I have from any paper book or a well-packaged company website.

The question is why are we learning from these environments? Why are other people interested in joining us? What keeps us coming back for more? What sustains so many of these different sites - each with its own USP?

In my view, if we are able to articulate what makes these 'tick', we have found a way to include these tools and technologies in the training environments that we design for our learners. There is a system even in this seemingly chaotic way of "learning" (I would like to call these as 'learning interventions' -the new tools and technologies for learning).

  • These technologies are intrusive and personal but only as much as you want them to be - absolute learner control.
  • These technologies are participative and encourage creative self expression - even people who you don't see chatting away with their friends and family in-person have surprisingly 'long' blogs and never miss a day!
  • By design, they are collaborative. You start the blog alone. Soon, you have a community of readers who join you, share their point of view. Each is allowed to take their stand without the pressure of conformance to the group.
  • They are motivating. You contribute; get responses, feedback, and appreciation - more fuel to encourage you to continue. There is no teacher-student situation. All are equals - but you get drawn to 'teachers' who force you to think, ignite your mind to new possibilities. The role doesn't fetch the respect - the work does.
  • These technologies help you learn without you knowing or intending to do it - easy to use, quick to learn, fun to do, no fuss -clean learning. Some of these sites are the best examples of 'usability' where it matters.
  • These technologies allow you to learn even while you are doing some other things - multitasking your way through a learning intervention!

I have just begun to articulate some of my observations on what makes these environments work and how these will become the future of learning.
If we could, as instructional designers, start to move on the learning continuum; Web 2.0 and beyond - some of the above points need to be USPs of our training design.

What do you think? Help me learn.

... Afterall, there is enough space to learn!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

An Effective Design Walkthrough: A Step towards Delivering the Best Design

A design walkthrough is a quality practice that allows designers to obtain an early validation of design decisions related to the development and treatment of content, design of the graphical user interface, and the elements of product functionality. Design walkthroughs provide designers with a way to identify and assess early on whether the proposed design meets the requirements and addresses the project’s goal.

For a design walkthrough to be effective, it needs to include specific components. The following guidelines highlight these key components. Use these guidelines to plan, conduct, and participate in design walkthroughs and increase their effectiveness.

  • Plan for a design walkthrough - A design walkthrough should be scheduled when detailing the micro-level tasks of a project. Time and effort of every participant should be built into the project plan so that participants can schedule their personal work plans accordingly. The plan should include time for individual preparation, the design walkthrough (meeting), and the likely rework.

  • Get the right participants- It is important to invite the right participants to a design walkthrough. The reviewers/experts should have the appropriate skills and knowledge to make the walkthrough meaningful for all. It is imperative that participants add quality and value to the product and not simply ‘add to their learning.’

  • Understand key roles and responsibilities - All participants in the design walkthrough should clearly understand their role and responsibilities so that they can consistently practice effective and efficient reviews.

  • Prepare for a design walkthrough - Besides planning, all participants need to prepare for the design walkthrough. One cannot possibly find all high-impact mistakes in a work product that they have looked at only 10 minutes before the meeting. If all participants are adequately prepared as per their responsibilities, the design walkthrough is likely to be more effective.

  • Use a well-structured process - A design walkthrough should follow a well-structured, documented process. This process should help define the key purpose of the walkthrough and should provide systematic practices and rules of conduct that can help participants collaborate with one another and add value to the review.

  • Review and critique the product, not the designer - The design walkthrough should be used as a means to review and critique the product—not the person who created the design. Use the collective wisdom to improve the quality of the product, add value to the interactions, and encourage participants to submit their products for a design walkthrough.

  • Review, do not solve problems - A design walkthrough has only one purpose—to find defects. There may, however, be times when participants drift from the main purpose. A moderator needs to prevent this from happening and ensure that the walkthrough focuses on the defects or weaknesses rather than identifying fixes or resolutions.

In addition to these guidelines, there are a few best practices that can help you work towards effective design walkthroughs:

  • The document or work product for the design walkthrough should be complete from all respects including all the necessary reviews/filters.
  • Plan for a design walkthrough in a time-box mode. A session should be scheduled for a minimum of one hour and should not stretch beyond two and a half hours—when walkthroughs last more than three hours, the effectiveness of the design walkthrough and the review process decreases dramatically.
  • It is best to work with 5–10 participants to add different perspectives to the design walkthrough. However, with more than 15 participants, the process becomes slow and each participant may not be able to contribute to their full capacity.
  • Design walkthroughs planned for morning sessions work better than afternoon sessions.
  • A design walkthrough should definitely include the instructional designers, graphic artists, course architects, and any other roles that have been instrumental in creating the design. You may also want to invite designers from other projects to add a fresh and independent perspective to the review process.
  • Involving senior management or business decision makers in a design walkthrough may not always be a good idea as it can intimidate the designers and they may feel that the senior management is judging their competencies in design. With senior management in the room, other participants and reviewers may also be hesitant in sharing problems with the design.
  • Effective design walkthroughs rely on a ‘moderator’ who is a strong Lead Reviewer and is in charge of the review process. It is critical that the group remains focused on the task at hand. The Lead Reviewer can help in this process by curbing unnecessary discussions and lead the group in the right direction.
  • Design walkthroughs are more effective if the reviewers use specific checklists for reviewing various aspects of the work product.
  • It is a good practice to involve the potential end users in the design walkthrough. However, in most situations it is difficult to get access to the end users. Therefore, you may request reviewer(s) to take on the role of the end user and review the product from the end-user perspective. These reviewers may be Subject Matter Experts or practitioners in the same field/industry who have an understanding of the audience profile for the product.
  • The effectiveness of a design walkthrough depends on what happens after the defects have been identified in the meeting and how the defects are addressed and closed in the work product. The team needs to prioritize the defects based on their impact and assign responsibility for closing the defects.

Design walkthroughs, if done correctly, provide immediate short-term benefits, like early defect detection and correction within the current project and offer important long-term returns. From a long-term perspective, design walkthroughs help designers identify their mistakes and learn from them, therefore moving towards continuous improvement. During the process, designers are also able to unravel the basic principles of design and the key mistakes that violate these principles. By participating in walkthroughs, reviewers are able to create a mental ‘ catalogue of mistakes’ that are likely to happen and are therefore more equipped to detect these early in any product. By analyzing the kind of defects made by designers, over time, reviewers can use this information to support root-cause analysis and participate in organization-wide improvement initiatives.

Effective design walkthroughs are one of the most powerful quality tools that can be leveraged by designers to detect defects early and promote steps towards continuous improvement.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Training Budgets and Technology Companies

As per the Bersin & Associates' just-published 2008 Corporate Learning Facebook- Training directed towards top-level employees is a high priority. 21% of training budget - the maximum chunk - is spent on Management/Supervisory and Leadership Development training. (Some thoughts on leadership Also, specific industries invest more in specific employee audiences.

  • Telecommunications >> 23% of training budget is spent on customer service training
  • Technology Companies >> 29% of training budget is spent on sales training
  • Pharmaceuticals >> 25% of training budget is spent on compliance/mandatory training

For Technology companies, I can relate to this figure based on my experience. While the training is product/service-centered and involves complex technologies, the audience comprises of sales and support staff specifically Sales Engineers and Sales Technicians.
In Technology companies that are innovating fast and releasing new products into the market, it becomes critical to sell the product/service by explaining what it can do/do better for the end user. And technical sales is an important aspect of making or breaking the product. Some characteristics:

  • They way I look at it, the sales process here is quite complex and competitive. Because technology is integrated well into the business, the decisions are made by senior management that is struggling with information overload.
  • While the sales staff needs to be aware of the strengths and limitations of their own product/service; they may also be trying to sell against an established competitor and therefore need to understand the technical aspects of competing products. They are expected to respond to technical queries around product/service benefits.
  • There may also be situations where there are no direct competitors and the sales staff needs to create the 'need' for the product/service in the customer's current business.
    Unlike the typical feature/benefit focus of sales, these folks typically maintain a 'consulting' focus - trying to understand the customer's problem.
  • Besides, technical sales team members are required to liaison across the customer organization with members of various departments. This requires an ability to understand the need for the product/service from various perspectives and a combination of many other skills.
  • The job is to solve the customer's problem and that may not be possible by plug-and-play. At times, there may be complex tweaking required in the product/service before it is accepted and effective. All these tasks are led and supported by technical sales team.
  • Finally, the sales process is not closed after selling the product. Infact, continuous education and support are important aspects of the post sales service expected by technology customers. Customer loyalty towards a technology is critical to build long-term relationships.

Therefore, to train a team to sell, engage with, and be responsive to customer needs becomes a critical aspect of sales training in technology companies. Any dollar spent here is dollar earned in the long-term!