Learning Technologies – a digital workplace perspective

Long exposure image of the Learning Technologies exhibition hall at Excel

Last week I got to spend a day and a half at the Learning Technologies exhibition in London, and had many interesting conversations. As I’ve commented before, learning tech feels like a strange parallel universe where intranets barely exist, so would this year’s show be different?

Something borrowed, something blue

There is a concern in Learning and Development (L&D) that too many organisations throw e-learning at anything that looks like a problem. E-learning is, I suppose, the core of “learning technology” and naturally there were many designers, developers, providers, aggregators, distributors and Learning Management Systems on display.

Looking at these learning delivery tools, I couldn’t shake the impression of follow-the-leader (or next big thing), and lots of solutions for apparent problems. There were many LMS or LXP designs with card-based designs, and a good proportion of them were coloured blue. I might have suffered a mild case of déjà vu, especially since many also included functionality to “favourite” items—something we introduced at Barclays nearly six years ago.

It feels that no-one has addressed what I call the playlist problem. It doesn’t take long for favourites to become unmanageable, and I didn’t see approaches for sharing playlists of recommended learning, for managers or HR people to add or manage other items. Neither did I see course rating or feeding back to raise standards. The LMS stands are some of the busiest, and finding the right people to talk to is hard when you’re not a corporate buyer.

Serving people in their broader needs

It’s always nice to find surprises at a trade show, and I had a few “do people really pay for that?” moments. Of course, there are very tangible needs for products that handle learner management, co-ordination for trainers and bookings, testing and invigilation. Similarly, tools for coaching and mentoring can be valuable, but I struggle to see how well they can work as a destination rather than being integrated into the digital workplace.

There were lots of apps aimed at front-line workers, particularly aimed at collaboration. It’s hard to tell from a cursory look, but Yoobic could be as useful as the likes of SpeakAp and LumApps. Looking at Squadify, I began thinking about the benefits of a low-cost ready-to-launch app: could it be used to as a temperature spot-check across a business before designing bespoke training?

Meeting-meets-collaborative-sketching app Klaxoon was there too, making its pitch as a training tool.

Whatfix presentation describing the impact of using WhatFix: user adoption increase from 10% to 50%; data accuracy increased by 20%; training creation reduced from 80 hours to 3; time taken to make changes from hours to less than 10 minutes.

One practical tool that I found was WhatFix. It’s an overlay tool that kind provide all kinds of contextual help, and appears useful in creating other forms of training too.

I believe that there is only going to be more learning content to manage, as it becomes easier to build individual learning resources or curate en masse. Aside from the many libraries of content (courses, microlearning, videos, ebooks and even ebook summaries), there were tools for authoring, animating, managing assets, documentation, and probably a lot more. These resources appeared to be dedicated to learning, but clearly run the risk of duplicated content.

Content, content everywhere…

If I were feeling ungenerous, I’d say there seemed to be even more ways of accumulating content debt, and building an even less manageable library of resources. Some of these things are possible within a digital workplace, while other tools need to show greater potential for integration.

From content to connectivity

Learning technologies are built on connectivity, indeed LMSes would be pointless without protocols like SCORM and xAPI. So it puzzles me why too often they tend to be a destination and not open to integration into other tools. It was good to see LMS365 exhibiting again, but the team were kept busy by a continuous stream of attendees, so it proved difficult to see how the product has developed. I note the recent announcement of their new partnership with Content Formula, and hope to see some interesting integrations.

In many respects, the most exciting thing I saw was Signature’s PROPEL platform which makes the connections between LMSes for you. This could be for a migration, or it could be to unify learning management systems across an organisation. It appears possible to connect disparate sources of training, or even create tools to bring useful learning information into the intranet.

I didn’t see as much as I’d hoped for enterprise social network integrations, and only a handful of chatbots were on display. One tool combining the two is Filtered’s AI-powered Magpie (this article shows it working in Teams), their stand was consistently busy, so I take that as a good sign of both the product and the level of overall interest.

Another company talking about AI is Elephants Don’t Forget. which supports learning with mini quizzes and reminders that adapt on the fly to employees’ answers and other factors. It’s the kind of thing that could integrate well onto intranet home pages or on more “doing” parts of the intranet. It’s important to know where training is most or least effective, and I also enjoyed talking to Watershed which provides an analytics platform. It can extend the idea of training data through the likes of xAPI to all kinds of employee interactions, and could lead to useful and timely insights.

Conclusion

Most telling was the first seminar I attended. Social training tools and content company Hive curated a good discussion on how to create a culture of learning. Many of their points weren’t about learning, but went beyond L&D into change and adoption.

Walking around the exhibition, I kept feeling that learning tech risks solving problems that have already been solved, and potentially creating multiple shadow digital workplaces. This suggests to me that there are much better opportunities for conversations and co-operation between L&D, intranet and digital workplace, HR, Comms, IT, compliance and more.

Everything I’ve argued, for example in Lessons from Learning – the post, suggests there’s plenty of room in the digital workplace for learning, but there’s a long way to go to make room in learning for the digital workplace.

Every thing we do…

Two quotes from tweets have really got me thinking this week, and reminded me of a quote from Karen McGrane that is never far from my thoughts.

The first was this from Simon Rohrbach’s talk to the Leading Design conference about joining, building and leaving a company.

Having confidence in the business makes everything else easier

Simon Rohrbach

In some ways “having confidence in the business makes everything else easier” feels like a truism. When there’s confidence, uphill slopes feel flatter, minor irritations are quickly forgotten, and people know the work they’re doing has a direct impact on the way the business works.

While I’m never going to suggest that internal comms needs to sell false confidence, it has an important role in stitching together a coherent story from what the business actually does. Confidence has to be built up through communication and co-operation with leadership, the people who sell the business, the people who do, and the people who train.

In short, I see this as being about changing people, which brings me to this tweet by Bruce McTague.

I find it unsettling how many people in the organizational change business do not actually believe in people

Bruce McTague The decision to invest in a person

Bruce was writing about “the decision to invest in a person” over the course of that person’s employment with a company. What chimed with me in the words “how many people…do not actually believe in people” were the times that compliance, HR, IT and other functions treated colleagues as something the business needed to protect itself from, rather than as Bruce says Truly lasting change & organization effect is within people themselves.

Which brings me to something I find myself quoting month-in, month-out. I’ll always picture mid-renovation London Bridge Station on a grey wet autumn morning, dodging between puddles in spite of being under cover, and trying to find a dry spot out of the way of the trudging crowds, so I could rewind and replay what I’d just heard.

Every thing we do is change management

Karen McGrane IA Summit Closing Keynote

My initial reaction would have been a defensive “no it’s not, don’t be stupid”, but there was something so compelling that grabbed me. So I took myself aside and there in the dripping, dark station played it back.

Karen said:
The longer I do this, the more I realize every thing we do is change management. Every single thing we do. Our whole job. Our whole career. Every single one of you, your whole career is change management.

More than the idea of change management, it was Karen’s use of “every thing” that hit me. I had an “turtles all the way down” moment.

Change management could be as simple as helping people use our websites or services effectively, to get better at using them.

It could mean helping our users understand the tools we give them, the technology they use, the language we use, and it can mean helping them to help others manage the second, third or fourth degree of that change.

It could mean helping colleagues, bosses, leaders, stakeholders understand better ways of doing things, and to get better at doing work, learning from that, and feeding back into the work we do.

No change without people
No people without confidence

Particularly in the digital workplace, every thing we do is change management. We need our fellow employees to accept that things are going to be a little different tomorrow than they were yesterday. Without engaging them as people, we can’t give them the confidence that we believe in them, and the confidence that participating in that change is going to benefit them.

Pebble, Rock, Stone

This is a blog post that has lived with me for several years, and this version originates from August 2010.

Computing has gone mobile, it has moved over more than half a century from room-filling beasts, through so-called mini computers, to the desktop PC and other static devices, through the laptop and onto the mobile phone.

It couldn’t get any smaller, not without changing the way we connect ourselves to the device, so we have seen the next step with the devices getting bigger. The iPad is not the first tablet, but it will probably remembered as such.

Apple appears to be the winner for now, although we have seen how sales of Android phones have overtaken the iPhone in a way many people did not expect.

Oddly enough, I thought Microsoft had won the game a decade ago when it announced its tablet PC version of Windows XP. While others dismissed the idea out of hand, I thought the concept was exactly what people would want when using a device at home or on the move.

I could picture myself at home, in front of a television, using my tablet for web browsing and for controlling my home theatre. Even then it was easy to imagine being able to combine live television and web on a single large screen, combining digital multi-channels, and really being able to command a complete experience.

So, what have we got, and how can that form the complete experience?

The Pebble
This is your mobile phone, you carry it with you 90%+ of the time. It is a powerful computer in its own right, and behind its cellular phone network are banks of datacentres ready to augment that power whenever you need it. Why do you need anything else?

Of course, data entry is difficult, and you wouldn’t want to watch movies on it. Sometimes you need a lot more on screen than something a few inches across can provide at an acceptable speed.

Therefore you need something a little bigger.

The Stone
This is something you can carry with you most of the time. It might be your tablet, or it might be your laptop. A lot depends on the way you need it to be used – whether always on or for something more precise, for example data entry.

It should pair seamlessly with your phone, perhaps relying on its data connection, or augmenting it, even providing a better aerial.

But your phone can add to this equation too. It can be a secondary display, a handset, a remote control, even a portable keyboard or mouse.

You now have a powerful mobile computing platform, but you aren’t always on the move.

The Rock
This is the most flexible of all three (unless you want a fourth category, the boulder perhaps).

It can be a desktop PC at the office or at home. It could be your television and media centre. It could be something that hasn’t yet been dreamed of.

Immediately you have two secondary displays or input devices (actually we need a name for this kind of device) that can act as remote controls or augment the viewing experience. I for one would love to be able to watch Formula 1 races with the ability to select my own camera views, to move them around the screen or display data of my own choice.

Pebble, Stone, Rock
What is important here is that these devices blend together seamlessly. Once paired, they should just work.

There is no reason that it should be Apple phone, Apple tablet, and Apple TV and not playing well with any other devices. It cannot be beyond the wit of companies that stand to make trillions to work out a series of APIs.

Once upon a time, I dreamed that my lightweight MP3 player could talk wirelessly to a battery-powered hard drive in my bag, and from there to my office and home PCs. That was in the days before 3G communication made the wireless web possible, and before Google and Amazon would deploy for me their cloud computers at a moment’s notice.

From now on, devices should not be isolated. It is pretty dire that Apple could not get iPhone and iPad to play together from day one. If Apple doesn’t lead the way, then Google, or perhaps a few Android/Chrome manufacturers must do so.

Happy 0th Birthday to Me

Happy 0th birthday
Happy 0th birthday

How nice for My Offers to think of me on my birthday, but I’m sure I remember 30+ birthdays, and really don’t fancy being born again.

Thinking what’s going on behind the scenes, they have mislaid or lost my year of birth (not sure how that can happen) and their email-generating script hasn’t been set up to 1) check if there is no year of birth and 2) not check for rogue values (e.g. below 16 or over 100*)

Okay, they only look silly – and I’ve got a blog posting out of it – but there may be times a “clever” email like this could leave its sender looking more than stupid.

It would also be rude to point out the errors in “to help make this year year’s celebrations celebration one to remember, but I’m clearly too young to know better.

Is anyone policing your out-of-office comments?

How does your organisation represent itself in its emails?

Do you have a brand document that declares in minutiae the absolute font, size, colour and wording of signatures? Do you leave it to managers or individuals? I’ve lost count of the number of job titles I’ve given myself over the years.

Certainly, consistency is good for the brand. And anything that prevents some of those absurd graphics, animations or multi-colour texts cannot be said to be bad.

What about your out of office autoreplies? Do you have any level of advice?

In all honesty, not many people ever see more than a couple. In May, as part of an office-use study, I received over 400. I’m not going to name names, but here are a few highlights:

I am out of the office until Wednesday 30TH May. Please contact XYZ or ABC with any questions.

All other e-mails will be answered on my return.

All e-mails will be replied to on my return.

On dd-dd-dddd I will leave [organisation]. As such I no longer have access to emails.

If you message is related to Sales Development please email [name surname].

If the message is for me please email [freeserve email address]

This one doesn’t help if you don’t know how to contact the relevant team:

I have now left the [organisational team]. Please forward any emails to the [organisational team]who will be happy to help in any way they can. Many thanks

Please note I do not access this E-mail account and consequently your E-mail will not be responded to.

Please use [email in related organisation]

Tactile Phones – forget about touch and haptics

What do you really need from a phone? How do you really use it?

This is something I photoshopped a while back and forgot about, but it seems quite relevant just ahead of the 3G iPhone arriving in shops.

tactile-phones.jpg

Pic 1 is of the LG KF700, another phone trying something different, in this case a spin wheel. It got me thinking about physical feedback from phones. How do you orient it without looking at it? Can you easily switch mode to, say, silent and know that it is in silent mode with it in your pocket?

Pics 2 and 3 are the extension of this thinking. Could you slide the wheel in and out to switch between two modes. Pic 4 is another way of indicating something – perhaps vibrate if there’s a waiting message.

In real life, when you’re walking on the street, you can’t always hear or feel the phone ringing or vibrating in your pocket. In the office, it would be reassuring to know it won’t interrupt that important meeting without obviously switching it off.

What other physical factors would be handy? A quick release keylock that saves you from answering the phone as you struggle to get it out of your pocket? Simple feedback it’s still on? A jog-dial that controls your MP3 playback?

Then again, perhaps we shouldn’t promote anything that encourages fumbling in one’s pockets.

The gold rush to new extensions – Gandi Bar

Like many others, I’ve got mixed feelings about the “relaxing” of top-level domain names. There are great potential domain extensions like .movie, .book, .sony, .apple and many more. Some leave me puzzled, would I prefer myrestaurant.ldn or myrestaurant.london? Some will leave me baffled at their arrogance, ignorance or avarice. No doubt, there will be lots of people wanting to make money off this – all wanting to sell me one extension or another.

And where there’s a rush, there will be people overextending themselves. Maybe it’s expensive and half a million dollars is enough surety, but I’ve got a horrible feeling this could bring down more than a few speculators, risking the domains (and livelihoods) of many, many more.

It’s a relief to see one of my providers, the French firm Gandi, taking a firm line against this, The gold rush to new extensions – Gandi Bar:

Our wish is to provide an irreproachable level of service, and we cannot do this if we are both the judge and the party, the supplier and the reseller, the regulation authority and the distributor. A notary cannot simultaneously be a real estate agent and promoter: this is exactly, at any rate for us, the same problem that is applied to Internet addresses and to the websites that are on them. However, this is what has been happening in recent years, because all of the actors believe that the market is so stupid that it will not wake up one day from its torpor.

Benjamin Zander: In contribution, there is no better!

Benjamin Zander in actionI feel indebted to Garr Reynolds of Presentation Zen for introducing me to Benjamin Zander, or at least the following video of him talking to music students:

Link: YouTube – Benjamin Zander Speech Preview

Zander is the British-born conductor of the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra, clearly an incredible presence on stage, and apparently now a big name on the management training circuit. Here, he is talking about being a performing musician, but the parallels are not lost:

We are about contribution, that’s what our job is … everyone was clear you contributed passion to the people in this room. Did you do it better than the next violinist, or did he do better than a pianist? I don’t care, because in contribution, there is no better!

Spin that yourself any way you like, but Zander clearly isn’t a man interested in the substandard.

Web facilitates wisdom of crowds: Gerry McGovern

As every week, Gerry McGovern provides food for thought, this time on the wisdom of crowds.
In Web facilitates wisdom of crowds he says:

The Web is not about crowd-think, but rather about amalgamating and sifting the results of many people’s independent opinions on particular subjects. This approach is the essence of Google’s success-the more people who vote for (link to) a website, the higher it ranks in Google.

I see this explanation almost like water sloshing about in a breached boat, just because a few people push the balance of the argument off centre, it doesn’t mean the resulting surge takes it to the correct tipping point.

Every week, I find myself seaching for some web technique or another. Google regularly takes me to pages that have been superceded, but from which the balance hasn’t been restored.

In elections where results are declared before the polls close, many people vote for the person they believe is going to win. How many Digg users only digg the stories they find within Digg?

That’s not to say I’m pro-experts in this debate. An expert has to create a niche with a differentiatable product which will sell. Their message can be easier to corrupt, while a crowd’s can merely be diverted.
Experts can be smart, crowds can be smart, experts can be dumb, crowds can be dumb. Gerry’s closing comment is smarter than I can manage:

Something extraordinary and quite revolutionary is happening on the Web. Millions of minds are coming together to create a vast global brain and memory bank. We will spend the next fifty years pondering the implications of all this.

Ideas will compete, crowds will vote and vote again. We may become wiser, but will we attain wisdom?