Dear ADDIE: It's Not Me, It's You

It’s a brand new year: time for fresh starts and resolutions. Mine? I’m getting rid of the old. ADDIE, the time has come for you to know exactly where we stand. Yes, I see your blog posts. I know you have been on my social media feed. You struggle to get my attention in job postings and articles. Bluntly speaking, lose my number.

Sure, twenty or even five years ago, you were relevant: a cutesy little acronym that would unite all L&D professionals in a tidy process of Analyse, Design, Develop, Implement, and Evaluate. Marching in mnemonic unison, we could build bountiful mountains of quality learning that are perfect in meeting business outcomes, and end with pristine Level 1-4 Kirkpatrick Evals. *sparkle*

These promises quickly fall flat. The more we try to shoehorn learning development into neat and well-groomed steps, the more time we waste waiting, documenting, and tracking. I know you want to argue that ADDIE is simply good project management, except it isn’t. It assumes there is always a straight path to solution. This does not allow for insights and innovation along the way.

Consider the following true story: Once upon a time, we were building a piece of e-Learning that happily started out with performance outcomes, learning objectives, high-level design, plus a storyboard. Although the dev team had been involved in all of the initial work, when presented with the storyboard, they felt that a vertical layout would be better than a horizontal one. They were right…except no one wanted to change the design. This would mean going back to change the previous project documentation and contacting SMEs. We stuck to “the plan”.

It cannot be ignored that ADDIE forces adherence to the gospel of documentation that was signed off weeks before development. Just like family road trips, it does not matter who is tired, bored, has to pee or barf. We are going to make it through Alpha, Beta, and Gold testing, and we will like it, damnit!

It begs the question: Why can’t graphic design work on an initial look and feel at the same time that IDs are drafting learning objectives? If these tasks are consecutive, graphic design is confined by the ID work. If they work collaboratively, you have a symbiotic relationship and better design thinking. It also pre-empts roadblocks.

It’s true that ADDIE was once helpful when teams worked in different ways. Today, any L&D department not using WOL or collaboration tools like Slack or Trello is doomed. How many hours are spent building status updates and emails to multiple people, dozens of times? One central project location and open-air virtual communication builds transparency. Everyone is one the same page.

Another pitfall: with ADDIE, Evaluation is a final step. I’ve said it before: when I go to the doctor, I want a diagnosis, not an autopsy. Waiting until the end of a deployment to evaluate gives no opportunity for course correction. If we truly want optimal design, evaluation must become an iterative part of development. Launch in sections and monitor usage and adoption. Then refine based on data tracking. Infinitely better than deploying a ton of content only to find out it stunk.

I’m certainly not the first one to think this way. For years, people have been ranting about ADDIE. The very, very, smart Tom Gram was writing about this conflict seven years ago. Yet, ADDIE persists in organisations as de rigeur. Sadly, often as a giant banner proclaiming that their thinking is a decade out of date. Now, I use an anti-ADDIE, pro-Agile opinion like a secret handshake; it tells me whether you “get it” or not.

So ADDIE, whilst I may have you listed under my skills and experience, there’s no future for us. As L&D shifts into a period of disruption and evolution, I cannot be held back. It’s not me, it’s you.


The Envelope Lesson

I didn't like high school. I skipped a lot of classes and when I did attend, I passed my days delivering a heavy dose of snark to a lot of poor teachers whom I sure only wanted to get to their next break. When I graduated, I slung my Doc Marten’s over my shoulder, and hit the road faster than you could say, “School’s out for ever” a la Alice Cooper.

The irony in all of this is that I did not hate learning. I always had my nose in a book and my Walkman on (pre-internet days, my darlings). What I despised about high school was the structure and forced delivery of content. Simply put, there was nothing that would get my ripped jeans twisted more than saying you “must do this”.

My eyes were opened when I became a high school teacher for a few years. It was then that I had empathy for all of the things that my teachers were forcing upon me. They had standardised tests, benchmarks, and learning objectives to achieve. I probably owe them a drink (or twelve). Although, I will say that teaching high school was the best job I ever had, hands down.

Now I work in L&D in the financial district of Toronto. En route to the office, I pass by multiple ATMs every day. This morning I was intrigued by two very different approaches to delivering the same messages:


I have blocked out the bank logos, although fellow Canucks might be able to identify the FI by colour palette (sorry). It is not my intent to name and shame anyone’s marketing department. I’m sure they did a lot of research and testing to come up with these ads. Still, messaging yields a visceral reaction and these caught my eye.

Both signs convey the exact same message: envelopes are no longer required to make deposits at these bank machines. Whilst “Envelope-Free” implies a value-add; “Envelopes not accepted at this ATM” is reminiscent of the TSA announcements regarding liquid restrictions – no warm and fuzzies here.  One is inviting, the other punitive.

So what does all of this rambling about high school and bank machines mean? Well, nothing too earth-shattering other than, as usual, I believe that L&D needs to leave its precious ivory tower. In this case, it is time to use a design-centric approach to content that motivates, rather than dictates.

Consider the reams of compliance-based training L&D is forced to produce. I think most of us know the dirty little secret that none of this content is about delivering learning. It is a CYA exercise to ensure your company does not get caught in litigation: “Your honour, the employee did the mandatory seventeen hours of ethics training and passed all eight quizzes so we cannot be held liable for their subsequent acts of money laundering”. Ta-dah!

Psst…Another industry secret? Every time you lockstep a module, a puppy dies. #fact

What if we thought differently about the reams of compliance content we are required to produce? Thinking hard about those ATM signs I saw this morning, I want to be on the “Envelope-Free” side. Some initial concepts:

  • Reframing the regulatory content with impact statements that grab attention. This means less “thou shalt not” and more, “this is how society benefits when we follow these laws”
  • Storytelling. And no, I do not mean the ugly avatar, comic style, that comes with a dose of saccharine. I am talking about editorial-type narratives of people whose lives have been impacted by the regulations we are learning about
  • Less legalese, more writing like journalists. I get that our SMEs like the lawyer-speak because they think it affords them some protection. It’s a false sense of security because the average reader will not digest what they read, especially if they are ESL. Instead, write with clarity and intent

I doubt that L&D will ever get away from regulatory learning. It’s the birthplace of the horrid learning management systems and rapid authoring tools that we have now. Still, I think back to my cynical teenaged self and I do not think she is too far off from today’s jaded learner. She simply has more black eyeliner. In the digital age, your audience clicks X or opens another browser window the first nanosecond they are not engaged. They are impatient and have high expectations. If we have to build it, at least consider methods to entice rather than order. At the very least, use the exercise to flex your instructional design muscles.

And here's me at 14...


The Mythical Learning Wand

Years ago, a colleague with a wicked sense of humour brought me the best gift from Disneyland: a magic wand that sparkled and sang “bippity-boppity-bo” when you waved it in the air. In our jaded hands, it rapidly became the “Sacred Stick of Sarcasm” and was brought out whenever we got one of “those” requests.

You might be familiar with these types of projects. They usually involve someone, somewhere, trying to implement an asinine solution, and realising that they have no change management process in place, hop on over to L&D to glue it together on a wing and a prayer. Bonus points: they want an app.

Learning can do great things. Learning can do even more amazing things when it is partnered with other departments to deliver holistic and comprehensive change management initiatives. I love those. There are times, however, when no amount of learning intervention is going to yield desired outcomes.

Is it better to say no rather than invest in learning?

As an environmentally conscious person, I take public transit to work every day. I also cannot parallel park and I have the attention span of a gnat, so driving isn’t a viable option. This means that I rely on the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) to get me to and fro.

For those who have not been to Toronto, our transit is bad. I’ve traveled in India, I lived in Poland in the late 90s, and hands down, the TTC is the worst. There are a number of historical reasons, which are not relevant here. Basically, it is an aging system, prone to frequent service disruptions. It is also terrible at customer service. The latter is not a new trend. The TTC has been surly going on 40 years.

Cut to a bold, new CEO who is trying to modernise the system. In addition to carrying out much needed repairs and improving channels for rider feedback, he has decided to tackle the customer service issue. Currently, each station has a ticket collector who sits inside a Plexiglas booth and doles out tokens. Technically, they also provide directions and assistance, but it’s usually a grunt and a map since the microphones rarely work.

The new role of the ticket collectors is described as, “’multi-functional, highly skilled, and customer focused’ agents. Each CSA will be armed with a tablet computer loaded with tourist information and apps such as Google Translate, ready to attend to riders’ needs. When not helping customers, they will be tasked with inspecting stations, light cleaning work, and first-line maintenance”.

Oh yes, I can see the light at the end of this tunnel. And it is a Bombardier subway. In fact, it is a $2.5 million subway of five days of “world-class, experiential” training for about 400 agents and 60 supervisors.

Even with a robust post-training plan, ongoing coaching, and incentives, there is no way that even half of those agents are going to turn into bastions of customer service. If they even reach 25%, I will eat my Metropass.

A wise mentor once taught me a valuable lesson. I asked him why our building maintenance staff is so exceptionally friendly and eager to help. He showed me the “napkin test”. He walked into the atrium and casually dropped a napkin on the ground. The first person who passed it automatically picked it up. He dropped it a few more times and no matter the role or rank, the person who walked by picked up the napkin.

Yes, he was being a bit of a jerk but his closing point to me was, “all the courses in the world will not teach someone to do that when no one is watching”. He was right. Sure, we can teach employees the importance of taking responsibility for a clean office, but that does not necessarily translate back into a natural instinct to be proactive in every situation. Rather, the company hired for that trait, and created a positive environment to foster it.

Are there times when the chasms between motivation, skill, and expectations, are simply too great to conquer with any education? Yes. Yes, they are.

At the start of any major change initiative, a wise lesson would be to honestly look at the people on the team and have the transparent conversations to determine if the new direction is the right one for them. I’m not suggesting mass redundancies. If the transition is not a fit, spend less on trying to bash a square peg into a round hole through mandatory training. Instead, invest in helping employees find a role suited to their aspirations. The truth is, anyone not on the bus emotionally will eventually leave, or suck morale. Sure, you saved on packaging them out…but you wasted time, reputation, and L&D dollars.

Back to the TTC collectors: I am going to keep an eye out on this one. No, I do not think they are terrible people. They are simply dismal at customer service. The TTC would be wiser to mine their wider employee pool for natural customer service mindset, rather than expensive learning initiatives.

I miss my magic wand. Sadly, at a holiday party it was broken by some over-zealous waving and was damaged beyond repair. Perhaps this is fitting. L&D is not a cure all and it takes guts to say this. You might not be popular, but then again, fairy tales are not real

The Blair Witch Learning Project

I can tell October has started here in Toronto. The proliferation of Christmas decorations is creeping up slowly, like black mould, in the corners of the shopping malls in the city. Every year it feels earlier and I loathe it. I even forgo switching from my summertime iced morning coffee as long as possible, just so I can avoid the dreaded red cup at Starbucks. Last year, I made it until December 12th, or -7 degrees Celsius.

So let's forget about winter and focus on another upcoming holiday - Hallowe'en. I'm probably dating myself with this fact, but it has been 17 (gulp) years since the horror flick The Blair Witch Project was released. It was a film that turned this traditional genre completely upside-down. It featured three unknown actors and no script. Instead, the cast improvised over a week camping in the woods resulting in "found footage" that eventually became the movie (**Spoiler Alert**: They all die).

I'm not a savvy film aficionado. The last time I watched a complete movie in the theatre was well over a decade ago and my husband has threatened, on more than one occasion to get me a t-shirt that says, "The Book Was Better". Apparently, I have the attention span of a goldfish. Still, I've been to enough sleepovers as a teen to recognise the classic horror film trademarks: suspenseful music, dark shadows, and my favourite, the character that never seems to have enough brains to just get out of the house. #Lifehack: You’re alone and you suspect a stranger is in the house? Leave.

There is a formula to horror movies and when done well, works beautifully. When poorly executed, the results are cringeworthy, and make for hilarious viewing.  Case in point: Troll 2. Sadly, a lot of L&D folk love formulas and methodologies, which is not a bad thing if you are Alfred Hitchcock and know how to leverage them. If you are not, then life is a bit more challenging.

I place a high percentage of blame for the dirge of bad digital elearning out there square on the shoulders of (those-who-shall-not-be-named) rapid authoring tools (RATs). I get it; they make your life easier and you can produce content quickly and without requiring coding or even deep graphic design expertise. I have no objection to that. My problem is that these tools are putting the baseline design into a box – or in the spirit of Hallowe’en, a very confining and painful coffin.

I once experienced a learning department that relied on one, and only one, template for all elearning. The construct never varied from: learning objectives, definitions, content, example, interactivity, summary. All navigation was fixed as well. The rationale was that one “should not have to learn how to learn”. This is a curious slant given that this was a learner audience of highly-skilled professionals with a minimum of one post-secondary degree. If they are flummoxed by locating a Next Button, there are bigger issues. In the end, sure the elearning was consistent…consistently boring and ineffective. I also felt like Tippy Hendren in The Birds, swatting away templates and stock imagery, lest my eyes be pecked out.

Now I know there are a lot of proficient designers out there who can work magic with a RAT. You are the Spielbergs and Kubricks. In the average hands, however, these tools can wrong fast. For example, the out-of-the box design is a bog-standard page-turner. Contrast this with the fact that you are probably scrolling to read this article. While you can build a vertical design in a RAT, it is functionality that a designer would have to actively search for.

There’s more. A dirty little secret: all of those out-of-the-box interactivities? There’s surprisingly little concrete evidence that they actually contribute to learning retention. We throw in drag and drops at a rate of every four slides because the RAT enables us do it, and enablers are not good things. If you are skeptical, consider the fact that video is the fastest growing learning media. It is also the most passive.  Now if you want to get deep into the debate on learning styles, I’ll refer to you the brilliant comments thread on David Glow’s profile. Best read in a long time.

Back to The Blair Witch Project, what made it so effective is that it honoured the methodology of the horror genre, but was not confined by it. There are learning courses out there doing this, with Duolingo being one of my favourites. I have been using it daily to improve my Polish to text more with my family. On a side note, I keep getting sentences like, “Nie noszę koszulkę” which means, “I am not wearing a shirt”, and “moi mężczyźni mają wino” meaning, “my men have wine”. Apparently Duolingo thinks I’m doing more than texting when I’m in Poland…

The intriguing thing about Duolingo is that it does not teach grammar rules formally. Rather than long and complicated charts on adjective agreement or verb conjugation, you learn by doing. The app starts right away with basic communication and you are constructing sentences immediately, without any formal instruction. Basically, you learn language the way you would if you were immersed in it. The Bloom’s Taxonomy pyramid is tipped over, and I love it.

Here’s a closing challenge: turn off the lights, pop some popcorn, curl up on the sofa, and dig into some of the elearning out there. Very rarely do we as learning professionals eat our own dog food. Prepare to be shocked, even frightened, but hopefully you also see some learning that gets your heart pounding. Then, next time you are designing, consider ways to make your content intriguing, without relying on clichés. Don’t make the next budget B-movie.


Twitter and Toddlers

There’s a lot of chasing of tails in the L&D conundrum of how to supply “just-in-time” learning solutions:  User-generated content, hurrah! Blogs and wikis and social, oh my! Embedded performance support tools, the more the merrier!

All of these start to feel like a never-ending loop where L&D tries to appease the learner like a parent treats an over-tired toddler throwing a tantrum in the supermarket, “Stop screaming! Here’s the chocolate bar! Take this learning objective! Please don’t tell HR we aren’t relevant! *shakes baby rattle*”. Too often, it’s a spray and pray approach to content development.  There has to be a better solution.

There was a tragedy yesterday involving a train failing to brake whilst pulling into a station this morning. (I’m not mentioning the name of the city because I do not want this article to inadvertently pop-up for people searching for information. I will not capitalise on a terrible accident to drive blog traffic – that’s called being a jerk). As the events continue, my thoughts are with all those involved and I sincerely hope the injuries are few and not life-altering.

As with most mornings, I had my TweetDeck open. Around 8:15 AM I started to notice a few unusual trending hashtags. It was clear that there had been an accident, but details were uncertain. By 8:19AM a video shot by a bystander was tweeted:

This is where it gets interesting. Within a minute, there were scores of posts to the video poster; CNN, Boston Globe, BBC, etc. All of them asked if they could use the footage and/or interview the witness. Interestingly, only a couple (that I could see) actually asked if the poster was okay or safe, which was a nice and human touch. Generously, the poster agreed to all requests to air the video (and was unhurt, despite having been a passenger on the train).

Fast forward and here’s the front page of the digital version of the Toronto Star (a major newspaper in the city that I live in).

The posting time of this article about the accident is 11:09 AM – under three hours after the accident. Personally, I have yet to see that time record broken by any L&D department producing content. This begs the question: is it possible?

When producing highly interactive, complex content, we are probably not there yet. Likewise, content that has risk or compliance issues definitely requires more rigour due to the dangers of propagating misinformation. In more dynamic environments such as call-centres or mobile workforces, it could be a reality. It would, however, require some critical success factors, along with a change in methodology.

The first must-have is a socially-savvy audience. I’ve seen many companies launch internal collaboration sites that quite frankly, bomb. The reasons are numerous. Sometimes, the culture is already deeply embedded with a risk mentality so few are willing to work loud. No one tweets in Pyongyang. In others, the social media literacy levels are quite low. This means that your feeds are filled with well-intentioned, but meaningless posts such as “#MondayMotivation: A hamburger never judges its worth based on number of sesame seeds on its bun – always be #authentic!” Okay, I made that one up, but the pain is real.

Yes, I know many will wave metrics in the air, like they just don’t care, to prove that people are indeed collaborating; 32 likes on a post about a Bake Sale is not building business results, only waistlines.

A socially-savvy audience means that the first reaction to an event is to share. You can build and coach this capability, but this post is not about that. My point is that this behaviour is critical to a rapid development process.

The second change is to lose the ego. Compare reporters twenty years ago to today: in a breaking news context in 2016, the media is relying heavily on content (videos, tweets, photos) produced by non-professionals. This is essentially what we would consider user-generated content in an L&D perspective, and it takes a leap to be comfortable with this. In L&D we like our theories and structure. When it comes to content that falls more on the spectrum of performance support such as a job aid or how-to video, we might be better to take an approach of simply collating and validating, even if the content is rougher than we would like.

Thirdly, be comfortable with a bit of mess. The Toronto Star did post an incorrect headline. Thankfully, the number of deceased was one, rather than three. This was easily corrected and communicated. In a dynamic environment, lengthy hesitation leaves a content vacuum. Too many L&D departments want a clear sign-off. Is the time delay for this oftentimes CYA exercise of benefit to the learner?

Consider the following scenario: A call centre begins to experience a rapid increase in call volumes. Employees begin sharing short posts on what they are hearing from customers. In this case, the company website is not accepting credit card purchases. One employee discovers that PayPal is still working and posts a work around. Based on this knowledge, L&D builds a quick job aid that is a script on how to explain the current issue with customers and offer resolutions. It is posted within an hour and call volumes return to normal.

Today events, good and bad, play out in real-time all around the world. And by bad, I’m talking to you Ryan Lochte. That hashtag dominated my Twitter feed for way. too. long. Still, these trends tell us what is important to our audiences and in the way they want to both consume and express it. A smart L&D department would be wise to listen.

That’s all for now – offer to quell a toddler tantrum kicking off in aisle 8.

LMS Distress

Last week, I posted the following on LinkedIn: “What I really, really, want, is an LMS that tracks more than just completions. I want stats like how long a learner spent on a page, what activities they skipped, or what they went back to review. Basically, how they really behave in a piece of digital content”. I also included the hashtag #nerd, because I figured not too many people would be interested in my musings.

I was surprisingly wrong. The post generated a great deal of discussion, which is something I love. It also created was a flood of connection requests. To date, I have had over 30 individual LMS companies reaching out to me to talk about their product. The sad truth is, I’m currently a consultant with literally bupkis for budget. It was completely my error not being transparent in my original post, for which I am sorry. Likewise, I am not complaining about the high volume of sales people reaching out – I get that LinkedIn is a big tool for lead prospecting; we all gotta eat.

What concerned me (and I do not use that term lightly) are the number of companies operating in this space. Yes, you all have good products, but they are often remarkably similar. This is harsh to say, but after looking at dozens of LMS company websites (almost all with a blue or green palette, featuring an apple or an owl, with some bar graphs for good measure) they start to blur together. Some are more innovative than others – a handful are using their data to lead to personalisation of content, which is great. Others are still tracking completions, but with fancier data dashboards. Sure, many of you will argue why you are unique, but consider this an individual observation from the consumer side.

Getting back to my concern: is this proliferation of learning tracking solutions fragmenting us? Does it prevent our industry from seeing the insights behind all of this data we are collecting as we operate in silos?

I asked my original question because I believe that we still do not fully understand how our learners consume digital content. Personally, I think we have a lot of mythology floating around out there. For example, whenever I have had the opportunity to watch someone engage with an eLearning module (that is not lock stepped), the completion of interactivities wanes after the first one or two. Yet, we continue to build them, like adding salt and pepper to a stew, because it is how we think eLearning should be built. Likewise, I have not seen millennials flocking to mobile learning in a corporate setting. When I probed on this topic, the response was overwhelming that their phones are personal and they will go to Instagram on the train home, rather than an LMS. Still, mobile learning is considered one of the biggest trends.

All of this is anecdotal and based on my individual experiences. It still leads me to my original quest – how do we decode learner digital body language?

Many of the comments were extremely helpful in describing ways to use SCORM and xAPI (thank you!). Unfortunately, I am not well-versed in the technical nuances of xAPI and quite frankly, I am not sure I could ever grow my skillset enough to be proficient enough (read: I’m thick). That said, it excites me to know that the concept of tracking learner behaviour on a micro level is out there.

Also, I do not think building this type of tracking at an individual level is going to propel L&D forward into maximising digital. To do this, I believe we need to begin to aggregate and share our insights from data. For a start, we create a set of learning specific metrics that are common across the industry. Metrics that go way beyond completions but focus on behaviours such as: interactivities ignored, content revisited, and videos skipped. I am thinking along the lines of the type of micro metrics say a YouTube collects to analyse digital content performance.

Once we have a standard set of metrics, this data can be shared, compared, and analysed, across industries and geographies to gain insights that go beyond an individual company view. You would then have the power to slice and dice data to better understand what will likely resonate with your audience. Building learning for a mining industry in South America? Segment this population out of the data and use the insights to make more informed design decisions, rather than guessing what will work. This means smarter and more efficient design, as well as more satisfied audiences.  

As a seasoned L&D professional, I am questioning more and more of what we consider good design practice in digital. I am losing confidence that what we serve up to our learners is what they really want. If we did, then the default search for content would be on an LMS, instead of on Google. I do not see that changing any time soon.

I truly believe that data is only way that L&D can truly crack digital content. There is, however, a reason why the term Big Data is used. The numbers need to be on a broad and wide scale. Operating as individual entities means that one only sees one picture at one time. This is akin to looking in the rear view mirror as you drive. What I want is a view from the windscreen. Data might be the way forward, if we can work collectively.

Introducing "Data-Driven Learning Design": The eBook

I wrote the eBook "Data-Driven Learning Design" (DDLD) for a few reasons. Firstly, having been in the industry for nearly two decades, I have experienced the seismic shift from classroom to digital. What I have not seen, however, is the same change in core learning methodology. We apply the same theories and pedagogical principles that were developed long before eLearning was even a glimmer on the horizon. My hope is that DDLD will yield more insights into the way learners interact with digital content.

Secondly, other industries have embraced digital disruption with extremely innovative results. I believe there is a great deal of value in taking inspiration from their strides and experience. This will help fit a new and more informed lens onto the way we build learning content for the future.

Lastly, DDLD is not a solution. It is a discussion starting point. There is so much data that we all have access to as learning professionals, but we have not yet collaborated on harvesting those insights. My hope is that after reading DDLD, you do come back and share your a-ha moments as you dive into your own analysis. It is through this dialogue that we can create a new paradigm for the digital learning frontier.  

Download the book here.

The Authentic Voice in Learning

I’ve been cyber-quiet this past month as I take some time to transition into a new career phase. The most important thing I’ve gotten from this valuable experience is time. It is so easy to get caught up in the next project, the next curriculum, the next deliverable, until there is no longer space to appreciate all of the inspiration out there.

So I did what a lot of people do when they have spare time (or are procrastinating!): I aimlessly surfed the web. I was not looking for anything in particular. It was more that I wanted to spend some time really experiencing digital content, or rather as a learning strategist, to eat my own dog food. While some content was crunchy, others left a bad aftertaste and heartburn.

One of the main things that struck me again and again was tone of voice. Most courses had a similar style: a second-person narrative that is instructive, rather than conversational in tone. Likewise, the structure was a generic format repeated across all modules: overview, learning objectives, step-by-step content, then a summary. A multiple choice question or drag-and-drop might be thrown in for some spiciness. Other than that, a very predictable and formulaic experience.

Obviously, there is much to be said about clarity; learners should not have to interpret or intuit content. Consideration should also be made for global content with ESL audiences. I also greatly appreciate how standards allow for the rapid creation of content, especially for large companies with high learner demands. Lastly, as a former English Literature graduate, I am passionate about strong writing and grammar. I also have an open love affair with the Oxford Comma.

At some point, has the over-reliance on style guides and templates rendered content sterile, and perhaps, unpalatable to the modern learner?

In a digital environment, the tenuous relationship between learner and facilitator is drastically altered from the one in the classroom. The learner is in supreme control of the interaction and can click close at any time. Hours spent online also means that the learner is not only extremely finicky, but has a very astute BS detector for content that they do not have an affinity for. They are also extremely adept at the triangulation of data – seeking out comments, filtering for likes, and distrusting sources they do not share values with.

This begs the question of whether the style and tone adopted by much of the learning content out there really resonates or is simply white noise.

Here’s a very interesting parallel tale:

A few weeks back, a video featuring musician Pharrell Williams and an then unknown artist, Maggie Rogers, went viral. It was a clip from a Music Masterclass at NYU. Students presented their songs and Pharrell provided feedback. When Maggie Rogers’ song “Alaska” is presented, there are a few things to note:

  1. The song is in a raw and incomplete format
  2. Maggie speaks honestly about her musical journey towards creating the song
  3. The classic expression on Pharrell’s face pretty much says it all.

Not only is “Alaska” a phenomenal piece of work, what really resonates in this video is the authenticity. There are no filters or constructs. It is an open exchange of ideas and collaboration without prefabrication. More critically, viewers contributed actively to the refinement of the song via their comments and likes on various platforms such as Sound Cloud and YouTube

This is an extreme example, but there is a definite trend towards authentic and unscripted content. Consider James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke or Reddit’s AMA (Ask Me Anything). These experiences are appealing because they that have not been rigidly pre-planned or controlled. They say to the audience: we will show you a peek behind the curtain to establish a stronger relationship.

So what does this mean for learning design? For a start, challenge some of the artificiality in content voice. I am frequently presented with canned, corporate speak, copy that really does not engage. It sounds much like “This innovative tool will allow for real-time collaboration to break-down communication silos and yield transparent metrics”**. Contrast this with, “You can use this tool to view and comment on everyone’s projects”.

I would also question whether every piece of learning content needs to have the same voice. Yes, there are standards that must be met and a good copy editor is worth their weight in gold. That said, if a learner is going through hours of content, find ways to engage with tone. Write to captive, not to inform. If you are doing the latter, then what you have is a User Manual, not a piece of learning.

Lastly, quit striving for perfection. Awhile ago, news sites started to employ the “Report a typo or error” button. As speed to publish is critical, it is a fine balance between flawless writing and meeting the ravenous appetites of the audience. No one likes to spot an error, but with rapid authoring tools, content can be fixed post-launch. It is more important to push out the information to meet needs.     

No learner likes to feel pandered to or as though they are being fed content that has been strained and mashed to a pulp by marketing or communications. Respond by trusting your learners to be mature colleagues who are savvy enough to see-through corporate rhetoric. A loosening the grips of the style guides and structure just might add a human element your learners will respond positively to.

**not a real piece of content

That's Some Bad Learning Event, Oho Oho!

I was forwarded a YouTube video by a colleague, who shall remain nameless to protect the innocent. The header was “Does this remind you of anything?”. Ten seconds in, I could feel a wave of cringe spreading across my face and shoulders as I recalled one of the epic fails in my learning & development career. Oh yes, this video did remind me.

If you have a spare five minutes, click here to watch the video. If you do not have the stomach for it, here’s a summary: Siemens wanted to launch a new internal campaign to change their corporate culture. The theme was to transform Siemens Healthcare into healthcare pioneers, or “Healthineers”.  This culminated in a massive outdoor dance party. The Healthineers song, a combination of Ace of Base and DJ Bobo, was performed. Leadership swayed awkwardly as the lyrics “We are, we are, Healthineers! Oho oho!” splashed up on the massive LED screens. Dancers in head to toe blue and orange spandex played air guitar and clapped. The audience stood stunned. Turns out healthcare engineers are not big ravers.  

The video first appeared on Reddit and was quickly picked up by satire sites. It then migrated to major news sites, like the Irish Times who declared, “Siemen Healthineers sing away 120 years of self-respect”. Ouch. Efforts to contain the damage were made and the video was deleted several times from YouTube. This whack-a-mole strategy did not work and clips are still available. Incidentally, a review of the comments left by viewers makes for extremely fascinating reading on how people feel about corporate culture, if you can handle the salty language.

I do not throw any stones at Siemens for this atrocity, especially since I live in a HUGE glass house on this one. I completely (and regrettably) understand how an idea can get so out of control that you have no power to extricate yourself from the tsunami of cringe. Luckily, mine occurred before the days of iPhones so the evidence is well-buried.

Face to Face large scale learning events are a rare breed. The costs are high and are usually reserved for company-wide transformational initiatives. Having run many of these types of events these are some of my observations:

  • Know thy audience – Yes, this is a basic in L&D, but it is quickly forgotten when the excitement of a new product or innovation is on the table. Determine the general mindset and culture before considering your plan. To build momentum and energy, you need to engage at a common level. Tone is critical, as evidenced with Siemens.
  • You are not the audience – Be the wise advisor to the gung-ho leader who wants to put their spin on everything. While rock climbing may be a passion of the CEO, it may be petrifying to others. Anyone remember the plethora of abseiling or walk-on-hot-coals experiential courses from the 90s? Sadly, I do.
  • Bonding does not happen by force - Sure, the quirky photobooth or round of improv theatre appeals to many, but do not forget your introverts. Facilitate opportunities to connect and engage on meaningful levels.

Lastly, when it comes to these types of events, the line blurs rapidly into marketing and event management. Whenever possible, engage areas who have that expertise. Share the sandbox.

While I am super relieved that my embarrassing L&D moment will never again see the light of day, Siemens is a cautionary tale. A wide scale L&D event can instantly cross-over into the social media space, impacting brand and reputation. And when in doubt, a song is never a good idea. Oho Oho!

Data Driven Learning Design - Coming Soon

In a former life, I managed client education at a brilliant SaaS company called Eloqua. It was there that I began to learn about digital marketing and marketing automation. To a L&D person, it was fascinating to see the completely different approach to digital content and the usage of metrics and data.

I've continued to think about this for a long time and (finally) have the time to pull together my thoughts in what I'm loosely calling an eBook, which sounds rather grandiose for a 20 -25 page article.

As I write, I wanted to post a few sections to see how the concept resonates with other learning professionals. Download the full piece in June.

Excerpt from "Data Driven Learning Design"

The current landscape of Learning & Development is precarious. Companies are no longer willing or able to invest in large-scale initiatives, and departments are expected to deliver more with less. These trends are true for most industries. What is unique to L&D are the number of predators circling. Unlike a decade ago, content is everywhere. A flick of a mobile gives a learner access to millions of pieces of digital content. Knowledge assets are built by anyone, anywhere. How does a Learning department survive when its biggest competitor is a Google search? L&D is the ageing elephant on the Serengeti surrounded by hungry lions and poachers. The elephant may be wise, but it is slow and cumbersome.

L&D has not embraced digital disruption the way other industries have. Yes, we have adopted eLearning and other digital modalities as delivery channels, but we still apply our traditional classroom lens to what we build. Design and development is based on methodologies like performance consulting, Bloom’s taxonomy, and ADDIE, all of which were constructed far before digital learning was even a glimmer on the horizon. This type of thinking will only hold back L&D.

Unlike the classroom, learners can, and WILL, close the browser and open Facebook if not interested in the content. This massive shift in the dynamic between L&D and learner means the learning design methodologies have to change. The learner is now in control of the content consumption.

Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section.