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The eLearning Guild is hosting an important series of conversations this week at Ecosystem 2014. Learning solutions have been expanding way beyond traditional L&D outputs for years now, and learning professionals are working to figure out the best ways to strategize more robust recommendations that include performance support, informal learning, social learning, experiential learning, developmental programs and more. These strategies present a variety of challenges in terms of design, curation, and technology, and many of us are working on how to best bring everything together in support of performance and capability development.

Since the learning environment design model that I have been sharing addresses some of the questions of how to strategize and design across multiple modalities, I have been very interested in hearing how other professionals in the field are talking about this topic and about the learning and performance challenges they are trying to tackle. There are a number of ways the conversation is impacting how I am thinking about this concept.

Learning Ecosystem Defined

I appreciate that several of the speakers seem to converge on a definition of a learning ecosystem (or performance ecosystem) as a combination of people, content, process, and technology to enable learning.  I also agree that a metaphor that suggests life and growth is important – we “grow” an ecosystem (more organic), we don’t “build” it (suggests something more technical).

In my work, I talk about “cultivating” a learning environment because I wanted a more organic metaphor as well. A ‘learning environment” is a deliberately curated collection of resources and activities for learning related to a specific need. I don’t think I’ll be changing the name of my model to “learning ecosystem design” because while the two concepts are intimately linked, I think they are different. The ecosystem seems to me to be writ large, while learning environments are for specific learning needs.

The Role of Technology in an Ecosystem

Learning environment design speaks to how to conceptualize a multifaceted learning strategy, and I’ve been noodling a bit about how to respond to questions of technology. (That’s partly why I chose to attend this conference.) What I’ve realized is that questions of technology get answered last. It’s more productive to break it down like this:

1) What do our learners need to be able to do?
2) What are their learning needs related to doing that work?
3) What learning strategies best support their learning in these areas?
4) What functionality is needed to make those strategies accessible?
5) Then, finally – What technology would make sense in terms of bringing things together for the learners?
(I see these questions as running parallel to questions about performance support resources, although a lot of people merge the two.)

It’s likely you’ll actually need a number of technologies to grow your environment/ ecosystem for learning. Often, these technologies are freely available or already in place in our organization.  To bring all the learning resources and activities together in one place, you could create a web page, a social networking site, or even a Word document — or you might use a more robust tool like SharePoint or a LMS-type system.

To establish and grow an environment, you’re simply providing links to where all the resources and materials can be found, not trying to find a magic tool that perfectly integrates all those things. (Consider that by the time you invented such a magic site, the tools and resources (and needed functionality) would be changing anyway.) In the end, the materials need to be organized and easy to access and integrate into routines from the learners’ perspectives, so each project will have different requirements.

There is yet another half day of sessions on Friday, and I imagine I’ll have some additional thoughts as I process those conversations.

For more on my approach to learning environment design, see my web site or the Learning Environments by Design course I am launching in collaboration with the Guild Academy (a course which, by the way, is supported by an extended learning environment).  The course begins in April, and my e-book on the subject should be available shortly after that. All comments welcome!

I am currently participating in Cathy Davidsons’ MOOC on The History and Future of Higher Education, and the post below is my essay for week 1. The prompt was to write about an experience of learning and unlearning. In the course, I’ll get feedback from five other participants next week, and I am happy to hear from anyone who wishes to comment here as well. In future posts, I’ll share more about my experience in the MOOC as well as my thoughts on the future of learning. Stay tuned.

No such thing as unlearning

When asked to consider an incident of unlearning and relearning, the topic that came to mind was shifting my educational philosophy from cognitivist to constructivist.

If you are not familiar with those terms, most cognitivists describe learning as information processing, and their theories highlight the role of memory and perception (primarily visual and auditory). From them, we have learned a great deal about the effectiveness of chunking material and using spaced repetition. In contrast, constructivists view learning as a process of constructing meaning from experience and most acknowledge the critical role of social interaction in shaping the meanings we construct. (1)  While many educators (corporate and academic) are content to take a “both-and” approach, some would say the two philosophies are founded on different assumptions (objectivist and constructivist), and you can’t have it both ways.

To begin composing the essay, I considered the differences between those two approaches to learning, the ways that I have been determined to change my own “teaching,” and the supports and obstacles to that shift. I started by trying to expound on differences and choices (which, by the way, is a pretty long essay).

In the process, I realized that part of the difficulty in unlearning and learning is that you never really “unlearn” anything. Every day, you learn on top of the learning you carry around from your past studies and experiences.

It’s like scratching out something you’ve written on a notepad – you can ink over your writing until it’s obliterated, but the original notes are still there, buried beneath all the new lines. If I understand the neurobiologists, that’s exactly what our brains our doing – laying down new neural pathways that make getting to the old ones more difficult. But unless we have some sort of catastrophic brain episode, those old neural pathways are still there, broken and obscured though they may be.

In day to day “unlearning” and relearning, as in my shift from cognitivist approaches to constructivist approaches, the old pathways are still pretty clear and can be very tempting – especially if the environment better supports old ways of doing things.

Herminia Ibarra describes career transitions as a process of experimenting in new directions until you find the right fit. (2)  Learning, similarly, is a process of identity creation, not a process of memorizing facts and concepts. In learning constructivist approaches, I can see myself taking bold steps in the direction I want to go, but it will take time to become who I mean to be. To become constructivist, I need to be constructivist, to act it into reality.

Just like our identities are formed from all of our experiences in life, so is our learning the result of all of our learning to date. Unlearning should not be a goal, in my opinion. Our “old learning” is part of who we are, and it’s a building block on which we build our new understandings, even if our “old learning” becomes unrecognizable, buried or reshaped in the process.

Footnotes

(1) For more on learning theories, my favorite texts are: Learning Theories: An educational perspective by Dale Schunk (Pearson, 2012); Learning in Adulthood: A comprehensive guide by Sharan B Merriam, Rosemary S. Caffarella and Lisa M. Baumgartner (Jossey Bass, 2007, 3rd Ed.) and Psychology of Learning for Instruction by Marcy P. Driscoll (Pearson, 2005, 3rd Ed.).

(2) See Working Identity: Unconventional strategies for reinventing your career by Herminia Ibarra (Harvard Business School Press, 2003)

Happy new year!
I don’t know about you, but I’m already feeling very optimistic about this year; I have so many exciting projects brewing. Nonetheless, I, for one, like to start the year with considerable reflection and planning – to be more proactive about ensuring success rather than simply hope for the best.

A friend and colleague, Michele Martin, wrapped up her 2013 blogging year over at the Bamboo Project Blog with 30 juicy questions to grow your life in 2014- and that series got me thinking. I also recently came across a post that advocated “questolutions – resolutions in the form of a question (and look, another new book I want to read! Bonus!). I thought I might start this blog’s new year by posing some developmental questions that any learning professional might use to spark learning and change this year. I hope you find them useful.

Questions for a year of growth

What do I intend to learn this year?
To have a great developmental year, you have to have a clear intention to learn. Declaring intention is not the same as setting goals; it’s a more emotional and deeper commitment that is resilient and persistent.

How can my projects help me to develop my knowledge and skill?
Many of us worry that we have little time left over from doing our day-to-day jobs to pursue our own learning and development projects. It’s likely, though, that our jobs provide lots of room for experimentation and observation that can be fodder for learning.

How can I strengthen my network?
My own most valued ah-ha moments come in conversation with colleagues, often over lunch or in hotel lobby space during conferences. Take time to identify a few people whose work you admire and find ways to get to know them more informally. Get out to lunch once in a while!

How do I refill my creative well?
Ours is a creative field, and to continue to be successful, we have to find ways to keep our creative energies strong. Figure out what you need to do to recharge, and be sure to reserve and protect time for that. For me, it’s Sundays off (no work; no email) and hopefully, a trip to Cape Cod!

What is my favorite way to learn?
Once you identify your learning comfort zones, make room for more of that in your life. If you like to read, make a book list. If you enjoy learning through projects, keep you eye out for the most exciting ones. If you need mentors, find them (a network of mentors is better than one). If you want to take a course, there are many to choose from (and these days, some of them are free!).

How can I support others in their learning and development?
There is a great deal of truth in the adage that you learn more what you need to teach. You might be surprised at how much you yourself might gain by generously supporting others’ development.

You may be able to think of other “questolutions” more specific to your role or your learning and development goals. However you do your own development planning for 2014, I wish you a year of learning and growth.

If this post resonated with you, you may also be interested in signing up to receive my bi-monthly 4 Your Development newsletter or following me on Twitter (@L4LP) to see what I curate and share for learning and development professionals.

Here’s my motto, a quote from Abigail Adams:

Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence.

Cheers to 2014!

Some of the frustration we feel in our jobs (when there is frustration) is our inability to get clients to understand the value we can offer. We may be having trouble articulating the benefits of our ideas, or we may be faced with clients that have preconceived notions of what they want and what we might do for them. It can seem like L&D is a disrespected profession, out of sync somehow with the rest of the organization.

I recently came across a research study that puts those feelings in perspective by showing that we are clearly not alone in our disappointments about how we are perceived. The study looked at “what clients don’t get about my profession,” and while the folks in the study were professionals in architecture, nursing, accounting, and the law – the results mirror our experiences in L&D consulting.

In a series of interviews, 85 professionals were asked about how their work was perceived. The researchers found that professionals felt that clients didn’t get the scope and complexity of their work, that clients didn’t value their professional expertise, and that clients had inaccurate or unreasonable expectations of what could be accomplished. When these kinds of problems existed in the professional-client relationship, there were productivity costs (impaired collaboration, contesting of fees, bypassing or working around the professional) and emotional costs (frustration, annoyance).

Does this sound vaguely familiar to you?

Those perceptions also sound a wee bit whiney – like a teenager complaining that no one understands her feelings. Nonetheless, these perceptions do get in the way of us doing our best work, so it’s important that we understand that expectations may be out of sync with what we can deliver – either by underestimating how our work can contribute to organizational success, or by expecting far more than is reasonable. It’s much easier to quell these kinds of discrepancies early in the relationship than to backtrack to fix a client relationship that is off track.

There are several ways that professionals in the study worked to counteract these perceptions and mitigate these costs – and you could probably name them based on your own experiences. They educate clients, explaining their role and processes more thoroughly, they demonstrate what they do, letting clients see a little more about how they do the work, and they strive to strengthen relationships, working on establishing trust and building rapport. The researchers discussed the deep importance of building trust and establishing roles and expectations early on in the relationship, and that is always good advice. Misalignment starts a downward spiral where unmet expectations trigger mistrust and further devaluing of what the profession has to offer.

Employing these tactics might also work for us. If you’re not already doing so, perhaps we should think about these things:

Educating clients. How well do we communicate our role, our services, and our value proposition to our clients? Do we set ourselves up for success from the beginning? Better still, do our results with other clients speak for themselves in terms of the outcomes we have accomplished? I’m not sure that handing out a brochure or laying out service agreements is productive – much better to talk to clients about how what we do can ensure their success. This isn’t about bringing clients up to speed on our jargon and constructs (in fact, they can be a bit off-putting). We need to speak about our contributions in language that our clients already understand.

Demonstrating our work. Can we let clients in on more of our data gathering and analysis – letting them see the thought process that goes into making recommendations and crafting solutions? Of course, we don’t want to take up too much of our clients’ time, but there are many ways that inviting their contributions alongside ours will make for a much better outcome. Creativity and innovation is enhanced when there are many perspectives in the room, and I know that I have gained insights from client contributions as well as from peers in the field.

Building relationships. How well are we listening in order to deeply understand our client’s expectations and concerns so that we can ensure that we are aligning well to achieve project goals? If we focus too heavily on flexing our expertise, we may miss other opportunities to contribute to crafting a successful strategy and achieving defined goals. Clients will trust and listen to us if they can see that we have really taken the time to understand their business and their perspective.

I find it oddly comforting that other professionals sometimes experience image problems. At the same time, I don’t want to get caught up in any kind of negativity about clients (despite the title of the post). It’s our responsibility if clients just don’t understand, but helping them understand begins by seeking to understand their perspectives as well.

To read the full research study, see What Clients Don’t Get About My Profession: A model of perceived role-based image discrepancies, by Heather C. Vough, M. Teresa Cardador, Jeffrey S. Bednar, Erik Dane, and Michael G. Pratt, in the Academy of Management Journal 56(4), August 2013.

One of the biggest challenges that L&D professionals at all levels face is getting buy-in for brilliant ideas.

That isn’t meant to be a flippant statement. If you know your stuff and you are following what leading organizations are doing to support learning, you have no shortage of brilliant ideas – proven standards and creative designs along with emerging approaches and innovative techniques.

What can be hard to understand – if you are not on the front lines – is how very difficult it can be to get support for implementing some of these brilliant ideas in the workplace. Brilliant ideas often take time to develop; they involve some risk; they are unfamiliar territory to the powers that be. Skepticism and resistance can be tough to overcome.

Many professionals tell me that among the most difficult-to-sell of our brilliant ideas are those that are well grounded in theory and research. Some of our stakeholders and leaders have a mistaken impression that all academically-generated ideas are “ivory tower” and not useful in the real world.

Here are some of the key factors that can help you ensure that your theory- and evidence-based brilliant ideas get a chance to shine.

Be practical.

Theoretical frameworks can be perfect in theory, but sometimes not quite so much in the real world. You need to take a hard look at your environment to analyze whether aspects of the approach you are applying may be unworkable or in some way objectionable. It’s appropriate and wise to tweak approaches in order to make them more practical for your situation.

When you do so, however, make sure you are not compromising the very thing that makes the approach work. Scrutinize the details of the approach and identify the critical ingredients that contribute to its success. Like the strategy game, Jenga, you need to understand the elements that are providing structural support before you try pulling any of those elements out. If you have to eliminate or change some of the approach, you’ll want to imagine the impact of those customizations and consider whether you can introduce some counterbalancing features that help to minimize any new weaknesses.

Also, listen carefully to any objections you are hearing. Ask lots of questions so that you can continue to consider and address practical concerns as you structure your solution.

Speak your stakeholder’s language.

The most important thing we can do to get a fair hearing for our brilliant ideas is to express them in language that is relatable for the stakeholders. Using jargon terms and formal academic language tends to raise the concern that the ideas are not useful in demanding business environments.

In order to “speak their language,” you must get to know your stakeholders and become well versed in their business concerns. As you work with your stakeholders, you’ll come to understand their unique concerns – and you’ll learn the kinds of messages that appeal to them. Consider, for example, whether the person prefers examples or data, formal language or casual language, a one-page presentation or a detailed slide deck, a more intense approach or a laid-back one. Your ideas should address some business concern or need, and you should position them as being a way to ensure that goals are being met.

Keep it real.

In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath laid out a number of characteristics of ideas that  have staying power. Among those important characteristics are that ideas should be simple, concrete, and credible.

We need to simplify ideas so they don’t come across as over-engineered. That can be difficult when approaches are indeed complex. But when you are involved in a project through implementation, you have opportunities to communicate some of the important nuances that may be too much for your
initial communications. I’m not suggesting that you hide important details, but I am suggesting that you don’t want to get mired in details when you are attempting to persuade stakeholders to consider something new.

As you explain your ideas, present them in a way that shows that they are indeed do-able. Name concrete steps that will need to be taken, and the resources that will be required. Use graphics and charts – or prototypes if you can get that far – so that stakeholders can literally see what you mean.

Much to our chagrin, the fact that an approach is academically grounded does not necessarily make it credible in the eyes of stakeholders. Credibility is gained by demonstrated results (if you have them) and a personal track record of making recommendations that prove to be successful. Credibility is also gained by demonstrating that we understand our stakeholder’s perspective and concerns. We have to nurture our personal credibility as much as we need to establish the credibility of our brilliant ideas.

Inspire your stakeholder’s imagination.

Oftentimes, it isn’t logic that influences, it’s emotional connection. When you want to inspire people to take action, it’s useful to communicate with an element of surprise and with engaging stories. Use offbeat and powerful analogies to establish background and draw others in. Inject drama and realism into your examples by sketching characters and detailing a plot line.

Nancy Duarte (author of Resonate) reminds us that people who take action can be seen as heroes, and we who wish to inspire them are the mentors who guide them to see the problem, own solutions, take action, and defeat the thing that’s preventing achievement of goals. This arc of the hero’s journey is very tempting, and if you can cast your stakeholders as heroes overcoming the obstacles that hinder success, you can indeed inspire them to engage your brilliant ideas.

In business environments, we tend to try to be business-like, and in academic circles, we encourage a very formal and careful approach. But what’s needed here is more spark and vigor. We need to use powerful story language and invite stakeholders to engage on an emotional level. Don’t be afraid to show your own enthusiasm for the idea; it can be contagious!

Notes:
For more, check out my Promoting Brilliant Ideas webinar on November 12. Sponsored by LaSalle University’s Instructional Technology Management program and TrainingIndustry.com.

Also, Martin Kormanik and I are going into more depth on this topic in the Mining for Gold workshop prior to the Academy of HRD conference in Houston, Texas, in February of 2014. You don’t need to attend the conference to enroll in the preconference sessions.

This post was originally published as part of a 4 Your Development newsletter in April of 2013.

A few years ago, I was asked by a colleague to read a book she was considering as part of a leader development curriculum. The book’s clear condescension towards female leaders incensed me, and yet some of the statements were backed up by “studies.” Because I was so annoyed, and wanted to be sure I had the facts right when I argued against inclusion of the book – I looked up the cited studies. In several instances, the outcomes of studies were egregiously misrepresented, or the studies themselves were seriously flawed. In the end, I needn’t have rallied all my arguments, because my colleague decided against the book as well.

But the exercise left a nagging question. If I weren’t such a sensitive reader, and I didn’t have the resources or inclination to find the original studies, how would I have known? Might I have blithely included the book on a management development reading list?

That particular incident came up again for me last week when I ran across several posts related to Malcolm Gladwell’s new publication, David and Goliath. Gladwell’s books hit the best seller list, so it’s often important to know what he’s saying. But I found several articles and blog posts that took issue with the conclusions in the new book, arguing that the science is being extrapolated to unwarranted conclusions. Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book, and I haven’t myself followed up to see whose arguments are more compelling; I’m just pointing out the fact that there are clearly advocates and detractors here. (For a taste of the arguments, see here and here.)

My point in this post is that it’s not as easy as you might think to follow evidence-based recommendations for practice. Just because a book has pages of notes citing academic journal articles doesn’t necessarily mean that the conclusions and recommendations are sound. Articles and books with research evidence often sound plausible and seem to be fool-proof, so it is reasonable to want to latch on to those ideas that resonate and run with them. But maybe not so fast. What if the recommendations you are considering aren’t really in alignment with the science?  What if the science is flawed or contradicted elsewhere? What is a practitioner supposed to do to ensure he or she is not following a popular fad instead of more robust evidence?

As an advocate for scholarly practice, these are things that keep me up at night.

I’ve been thinking about it, wondering what we can do to avoid this trap. Here are some steps I think we can take to validate the ideas before we drop that book or article on our boss’s desk:

> Read carefully. Good writers know how to capture your attention and focus on the stories and arguments that compel action – they tap into our emotions, not our rationality. But try to follow the flow of the argument and see if it indeed seems well-reasoned. For example, chapter notes might reveal that some pretty audacious claims are being made based on one non-peer-reviewed study from 20 years ago. Audacious claims should have pretty compelling evidence, or they should be accompanied by a caveat (which doesn’t make good headlines, but makes good science).

> Look for reviews. Spend considerable time reading what other people are saying about the ideas; look for blog posts and comments on online articles as well as official reviews. But take the time to try to ascertain the credentials of the person writing the reviews, too. For example, I have loosely followed a blogger/tweeter whose claim to fame is debunking popular neuroscience claims. The problem is, it isn’t clear who is writing the posts, and what his/her/their background is. And from the tone, the blog clearly has an agenda. Maybe that author’s views are not as objective as they could be.

> Look up the underlying studies. Do a little research and review the source of the recommendations to see for yourself what those studies say (and how they came to those conclusions). Poke around for follow-up research or for other researchers who may be following the same line of thinking, or who may be building a case against it.  Look for the more recent studies, especially in rapidly developing areas of science like the neuroscience related to learning.

> Compare the ideas to what you know from historical theory and research. To what degree do these ideas fall into a stream of research that builds a good case? In what ways do they contradict the prevailing wisdom – and what is the basis for being able to contradict it? We should change our understanding of phenomenon over time, but we usually want to see multiple points of evidence rather than just one study before adjusting our approach.

> Use your good judgment. Even as I am advocating for looking for a stream of evidence, I also recognize that sometimes brilliant ideas are unique. You’ll have to use your experience and good judgment to try to separate the truly revolutionary from the snake oil. Carefully examine the ideas; play devil’s advocate; talk to other people to gather additional opinions and insights; and consider following up with authors.

What else would you add?

You are surely not going to follow up every article or book with this level of attention to its foundational research. But for those ideas that are going to form the basis of your entire strategy, or that will require a considerable effort to implement in your organization, due diligence is indeed necessary. Nate Silver introduced us to the idea of the difference between signal and noise. Bold headlines generate a lot of noise and it’s easy to be swayed by them. The good news is that these kinds of bold headlines also compel people to raise concerns when they have them. We just have to look around to see if there are voices urging caution.

 

Added 10/23:  Here are some additional on-point links:
Everything you’ve ever been told about how you learn is a lie. By Shaunacy Ferro in Popular Science.
Trouble at the lab. From The Economist

In the last several weeks, I’ve found myself searching by blog posts for comments that I’ve made on issues that have come up on online discussions in several of the courses I teach. As I started to write a comment in a Blackboard-based discussion, it occurred to me that I had already documented the point I wanted to make in my blog. It was easy to copy a portion of my old entry or link the students to the entire post.

In some arenas, quoting one’s self can be considered a little obnoxious. But that possibility aside, these instances reminded me that one of the points of keeping this lately-too-neglected blog is to process my experiences and learning into coherent summaries and opinions. As I have noted before, :-) writing really helps to crystallize my thinking. And thinking out loud opens the door for collaboration as well.

In his new book, Smarter Than You Think, Clive Thompson points out that as a whole, people are writing more than perhaps they ever have in the history of the world - Thompson’s rough estimate is that we produce 3.6 trillion words, the equivalent of 36 million books every day. And while not everything posted on the internet is a gem, a substantial bit of it represents real thought and – more importantly – allows us to learn from and with one another – an important activity in a world of ever-emerging ideas and practices.

I know my own thinking has been influenced by both well-known bloggers and everyday professionals who have shared their experiences and frameworks. I have received a number of comments in this forum that pushed me to rethink positions and expand my perspective, and I count that as a gift. While of late, I have noticed that people are not posting comments and cross-referencing blogs as much as when I first started blogging over five years ago, it’s great when posts generate online discussion and prompt debate.

I would also like to offer thanks to the blogging community that keeps me well-informed about the latest ideas and practices. Knowing about other professionals’ work and theories-in-development enables me to be a better professional and teacher myself. I track blogs on all sorts of topics of interest, and they give me real insight into what others are thinking and doing. I quote and link back to them, too. If you’re interested, a portion of my blog roll can be found on my public Netvibes page. (Please use the comments section here to recommend others if you like.)

So, recent experiences and conversations prompt a renewed commitment to blogging for me. I’ve already made note of several ideas that I need to think through more carefully, and writing a blog post about them should do the trick. I hope you’ll check in – and comment along the way.

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