Shifting Perspective: Recap of Learning Solutions #LSCon and Learning Ecosystems #Ecocon

How do you capture the “vibe” of two collocated conferences with over 100 sessions? The Learning Solutions and Learning and Performance Ecosystems conferences held in late March by the eLearning Guild in Orlando, Florida each had their own vibe but the overarching phrase I would use to describe them would be “Shifting Perspectives.” We have all heard countless times that the learning industry like so many others is in the crosshairs of major upheavals fueled by technology and driven by intense economic forces. These two conferences went far in showing concrete examples of thinking and methodologies that are equipped to handle this level of change. The key to making a difference is in shifting our perspective and these sessions made a strong case for doing just that.

Bob Mosher and Conrad Gottfredson, the gurus of Performance Support held a Morning Buzz session on Wednesday. These sessions are usually supposed to be informal chats over coffee about topics of interest but Bob and Conrad led a full scale invasion of their topic piling on a wealth of information and insight. Their key message was that much of what people need to know is needed at the moment when the work is being done. Learning groups need to shift their perspective from pulling people out of the work to learn through training towards bringing learning into the workflow as Performance Support. “When we enter the classroom, we leave context behind. We then have to work hard to recreate the context.” Bob explained. “With Performance Support, the context is already there in the work.”

The keynote speaker Tom Wujec used the recent history of technological disruption to show the necessity for changing perspective in order to keep up. He challenged the crowd by saying “As educators we have an obligation to help people understand how to use technology.”

The audience at Learning Solutions is always lively, fun and a bit irreverent but over on the Learning Ecosystems side, things were more serious. Here were the people who have been tasked in their companies with creating this amorphous thing called an Ecosystem. When Marc Rosenberg and Steve Foreman, both outspoken proponents of the Ecosystems concept gave their presentations, the attendees were hanging on every word. Marc explained that we all already have Ecosystems. The question is whether they are robust enough to serve our needs. Again we were being encouraged to shift our perspectives from being focused on what we need to deliver as learning professionals to focus more on what the associates need to know to do their jobs. This expands learning beyond just training and across a spectrum of resources: Talent Management, Knowledge Management, Social Media collaboration, access to experts and Performance Support as well as standard training.

The person who for me gave the best hands-on example of this kind of shift in perspective was my friend JD Dillon who recounted his approach over the past five years transforming corporate learning at Kaplan. Instead of focusing on the content of courses, JD focused on the knowledge that people needed access to. If it wasn’t written down and available for everyone then it wasn’t going to be provided as learning. To that end he built a Wiki of the entire body of knowledge of how work gets done at Kaplan. More importantly he built it and maintained it by creating a culture of collaboration. as the work process evolves, the people doing the work continuously contribute to the Wiki. The next shift happens in moving needs analysis directly to the learners themselves. Every morning everyone plays games on the Gaming-Assessment engine provided by Axonify. When they struggle they are sent to the exact place in the Wiki where the information exists. When they win, they get points that can be traded for swag or bid on things like a 25 minute meeting with the CEO. This twist in focus means that the daily life of an employee is tied in with learning and contributing to knowledge. This frees the L&D department to create targeted learning that covers deeper more impactful topics.

The world around us is shifting rapidly and shifting our perspectives is how we will adapt and better serve our constituents. Conferences like these are good places to be be reminded and encouraged in this direction.


What to Do About MicroLearning?

Ah, we finally have a new buzzword. I got the standard email yesterday: “We’ve got to do something about <insert buzzword here>” The buzzword of the day is “MicroLearning.” We’ve been talking about “chunking” content for years without getting much traction but dressed up in a new, more grown-up word, it gets taken more seriously. That’s cool. It’s still a good concept. People don’t have time for epic courses. By breaking down content into smaller “micro” parts, they are easier to consume in a hurry and they can be targeted to the right people, the right task and the right delivery channel.

There’s a problem though. It was always lurking behind the chunking conversation. Our current process for delivering learning content: The LMS via SCORM is too heavy handed for the scale we will be working in. Imagine that launching a course takes longer than actually doing the course. Imagine that loading many SCORM based microlearnings into an LMS being more cumbersome than it is worth. How do we track these things in a reasonable manner?

Here are some options:


In the LMS you can load the url for the content and let the user click complete when they are done. This is the simplest idea and I always defer to the simplest but it may not meet your stakeholder’s standards for data integrity.


The Experience API (a.k.a. Tin Can, xAPI) has the advantage of sending data to a database when the learner takes an action rather than forcing the learner to launch the content from the LMS like SCORM does. This would simplify the process but you would have to build a process to insert xAPI calls into your content and figure out how to get the data back into the LMS.

Track the Assessment

Load only the final assessment for a group of microlearnings into the LMS. In this way you are only tracking the successful completion of the quiz as evidence of the learning achieved through the microlearnings. The microlearnings themselves then become supporting material that the learner can launch at will. This is probably the ideal solution but I do have one more trick up my sleeve.


I bet you didn’t see that one coming. Think about a video game with rooms and levels. If you run though the rooms as fast as you can, you won’t beat the level. You need to take something from each room, a key of sorts into the last room to win. How can we apply this to microlearning? Imagine that at the end of each microlearning you are given a key, a badge, a code, that you enter in the right place in the last module. Collecting all the keys gives you a passing score and that is sent back to the LMS. This brings us closer to the idea of experiential learning.

What are your plans for MicroLearning?

Check out my friend Tom Spiglanin’s post on this topic.

How Learning Creates Value

Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple wakes up in the middle of the night from a dream. He has had a premonition that somewhere in his company of 80,000 employees there are 100 people who will develop and market Apples next blockbuster product: iPet. Right now, though, these people don’t know enough about pets to make that happen. So Mr. Cook calls his Learning and Development team and tells them to deploy animal behavior training to everyone in the company at a cost of $10 million.


If Cook was the head of a division, he would count the $10 million as an expense and subtract that number, along with other expenses like salaries, from the projected revenues to show his boss that there would be profits. But Tim Cook doesn’t have a boss like you and I do. His bosses are the stockholders. They have bought Apple stock for a lot of money and they want the value of their stock to keep going up. The value of the stock is a share of the Market Value of the company. It is Cook’s job to make sure that value keeps increasing.


When Jobs and Wozniak were starting Apple Computer in their garage in the seventies, 80% of the value of companies depended on tangeable asssets like factories. Only 20% was created by people. So if you built another factory, you could increase the value of the company. Now the numbers are flipped. 80% of the value of companies is created by people. But people aren’t factories, how do you account for the value that they produce?


Not coincidentally, Apple’s book value of $120 billion is about 20% of it’s market value of $570 billion. Book value is calculated by accountants and it lists employees as expenses and liabilities. No where in the book value of Apple is any mention of the legacy of Steve Jobs but you can be sure that it is factored into the market value.


The 100 people in Tim Cook’s dream are already contributing to the market value of the company. If Cook wants to increase that value, he needs to increase the value that those 100 people are capable of producing. Since he doesn’t know which employees will produce that increased value, he needs to increase the capability of all of his employees. He will invest 10 million dollars in a learning program that has the potential of raising the company valuation 10% or $57 billion dollars. That is the return on investment for learning.


Not every CEO wakes up in the middle of the night with visions of new products, but most good leaders instinctively know that they need to invest in their people as producers of value even though that calculation is not figured into their accounting. The reason companies set aside budgets for learning is to increase the value of the company.


This is the way the conversation with my three sons went:

Me: You guys need to learn programming. Not because you have to be programmers but because the world you live in as adults will be run by programmers and you need to understand how to think like one.
Them: Uh huh (sound of rapid clicking on Minecraft)
Me: I downloaded this program for learning programming called Scratch.
Them: Uh huh
Me: I ordered this computer designed to help kids learn to program called the Raspberry Pi. It’s the size of a credit card and you can plug it into the TV. It has Scratch on it. It even has pins that you can use to wire objects in the real world to control with your code…
Them: Uh huh
Me: …like robots.
Them: Did you say something about robots? Hey Dad, can you show me that Scratch thing?
I showed one of them how to use Scratch and the other two came over and asked what he was doing. Excitedly he explained it to them. They started working together on it and I slipped away. They worked on it for 2 hours straight. Great parenting moment.
Scratch is one of those learning tools where don’t know you are learning. Learning isn’t even mentioned. Learning programming isn’t really about memorizing syntax. It’s about learning the patterns of structures: variables, if/then statements, loops. Scratch turns these into visual drag-and-drop building blocks. This lets’s the user focus on using their creativity to build new ideas with these structures and play with the possibilities of how they work. That is great learning content.

Learning Isn’t Pixie Dust

Recently someone showed me a PowerPoint presentation that had to be sent to senior stakeholders immediately (of course) and it was clear that it was not going to wow them. I said to my team “It’s OK, I’ll sprinkle some pixie dust on it.” This was in reference to my ability to make PowerPoint NOT look like PowerPoint. We are trying to spread ideas and we have such short windows of opportunity to get in front of people. We need to engage them. We need to EARN their attention. We need pixie dust: interesting approaches to graphic representation (read: eye candy.)
But Pixie Dust isn’t learning. It may be the price of entry, the hook. It may be what you need to attract learners but it isn’t learning. Learning is in the structure of ideas and frameworks of understanding. Learning is in the internalizing of stories.
Often we paste the term “Learning” onto a tool and we try to make it seem like this somehow makes it special. Learning Management System, Learning Authoring Tools, Virtual Learning. When you really look at these tools they aren’t that special and no amount of Learning “Pixie Dust” is going to make them separate from other tools. We use other tools to track usage, set up events, share screens, design pages. Calling them “Learning” tools seems to only benefit the software companies that make them.
What this does is it gives us a blind spot. When we think we must use learning tools for learning, we close off so many other solutions. We are blinded by our own Pixie Dust.

Training Is Not Normal

The way we train people is not normal. The idea of a single person presenting information to a room full of people is a process that was created by the Victorians to gain economies of scale over the traditional and more natural master apprentice format. The real way people learn is to ask, try, fail, analyze adjust solve and retry. When knowledge was controlled it made sense to distribute it efficiently but now technology has changed all that and with the persistent connectedness of everything, learning is something that anyone can do as if it were breathing. 
Meanwhile we have used technology to parse out the classroom model but we really haven’t changed it. Their are still instructional people who have knowledge and they distribute it in containers called courses and they track attendance, showing up, launching, on a roster (Learning Management System.)
But if real learning has gone on without us, what are we doing? What value are we creating?
There needs to be something in the middle. Unstructured learning is great for finding out how to fix a pipe but not for understanding how the system of pipes works and what it does. There is still a place for learning folk to provide value by creating schema, frameworks, context for information. These are tools that a learner can use as a multiplier effect to create more robust learning.
First we need to start dismantling the old model. Learners expect to learn in chucks as soon as they need them. We need to break down learning content into easily consumable chunks and show the learner how the chunks relate. We need to let the learner drive how the content is delivered.
This is a unique opportunity to change what learning can be.

Complexity Loves Itself

I’m looking at a program that no one knew existed, that has to be renewed by the end of the year. It has 100 hours of content, a manual account setup process, and class sessions that expire. Every part of this thing spawns more complexity.
This is the problem with learning. Learning is marginalized in an organization but they don’t get rid of it because it is important. It’s just that no one wants to deal with it. This leaves the learning folk with anxiety about their relevance and time and funding to create systems. The complexity of the system soon becomes a drug that they can’t quit.
Time moves on and this system fades into the background. Later, when someone like me is asked to step in and clean up, the light of day sends people scurrying. Suddenly stakeholders appear saying that this system must be supported.
What is needed is to challenge every assumption that each component of the system is built on. Then you can cut down the unnecessary details until you are left with the functionality that is actually needed. From there you can start anew and ask the questions you would ask on a new project: What value is this system providing? What is the simplest way to produce that value?