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Moving from SMEs to LMPs: Learning Matter Practitioners.

13 Jan

There are countless resources on how to work with subject matter experts (SMEs). How to get the information you need from them. How to get their buy-in. How to negotiate what’s learning content from organized resources. How to help your SMEs understand how instructional designers do our jobs, and why. This battle for cooperation, if not partnership, with SMEs has been well-worn topic for a long time.

But in this new world of building learning landscapes and personal knowledge management (PKM) (what I call The Learning Age), we’d be better off if we approach the problem in a new way.

SMEs are just another node in a networked world/workplace. Let's work to integrate their expertise to be available to all.

SMEs are just another node in a networked world/workplace that includes data, workers and support systems. Let’s work to integrate their expertise to be available to all. 

Perhaps instead of wrangling content, divining applicable knowledge from content, and support information from noise, we should spend more time inviting SMEs into the world of networked learning. The days of heading to the mountain top to receive golden nuggets are over. Content is everywhere, information can be found—or at least should be able to be found—easily. Our SME is not the font of content, or knowledge, but of experience. That is, how the knowledge is applied effectively, efficiently, and with 360° understanding of the context.

In other words, we need to train our SMEs to become LMPs—learning matter practitioners. Not that they need to be great teachers or steeped in instructional design, but they do need to be taught how to share their work (WOL, work out loud!), deliver insights in useful, accessible ways, and be available to people across their organization and (perhaps) industry. If SMEs don’t document, share, comment, tweet, blog, and visit with others, then that is an area for learning practitioners to invest time and programming dollars.

This may require that most daring of high-wire acts, the change in workplace culture. Spoiler: The change is happening under our feet anyway. Let’s invite even the most siloed SME to join the emerging networked workplace.

Some now claim that 81% of workplace learners are responsible for managing their own professional development (PD), and 91% expect technology to enable quicker responses to learning/change conditions. Whatever the actual numbers may be, the trend toward individually initiated PD is clear. Whether SMEs know it or not, or are resistant or not, “traditional” SME status will only be as elevated as their ability to integrate hard-won experience into the dynamic, shape-shifting network of the modern workplace. Now that is a learning challenge for us to dig our hands into.

State Your Purpose: A few words about webinars

2 Jan

A speaker. A podium. A slide set. Information to disseminate. This is a fine scenario, and it is the paradigm on which webinars are built.

A: I have information.

B: You want that information.

C: I will share that information.

However, I think we all agree that the majority of webinars go off the rails pretty quickly. The reason for webinar-fail can be mostly categorized in five buckets:

  1. Poor presentation skills. There are many great resources to improve public speaking, slide design, and delivery. I rather like Slide:ology and The Webinar Manifesto, among many other great resources. Some folks are just not cut out for public speaking. There’s no shame in that. However, this is not my concern here.
  2. Technical problems. Yes, it happens, but not as often as you might think. Learn your platform and plan for worst-case events. That’s not my area of expertise.
  3. Poor understanding of the medium. A webinar compels participants to sit at their computer, watch and listen. That’s a personal-space environment. Don’t expect learners to pay attention for more than 15 minutes if they are not at their own screen, headphones on or in a very quiet room, alone. Groups gathered together to “watch” the webinar—unless it is a highly produced presentation experience, a là Apple introducing the iPad—will fail. (And, don’t get me started on anything that is planned for more than 60 minutes!) This is an oft-misunderstood element, and there is a lot of literature on how we act in groups versus as individuals, but that’s not what has my attention today.
  4. Wasted time. I attended a webinar recently of genuine interest, planned for an hour. There were 15 minutes of housekeeping, introductions, bios, and “setup.” Really? I can read bios and setup before, or after. Get to the topic! They lost me at “I’ll allow each of the four speakers to introduce themselves.” Again, I refer you to The Webinar Manifesto and numerous other books, blogs, articles, videos, and (yes!) webinars.
  5. Designers conflate dissemination, instruction, and learning. This is what I want to talk about.

Dissemination ≠ Instruction

As trainers are fond of saying: Telling Ain’t Training! If you’d like to share some news, build excitement for an initiative, or get all your scattered team members on the same project timeline, webinars are extremely useful. But if you’d like to train folks on the new CRM, or regulatory process, or how to avoid slips, trips, and falls in the warehouse, there are much better ways. At best, a webinar is part of a larger program. There is a reason that the phrase I’ve told you a hundred times! is so common. Telling is for the teller’s benefit, not the ones being told.

Instruction ≠ Learning

Learning happens by, and through, the learner. No matter how sound your instruction, how skilled a teacher, whether in a live classroom, via webinar, or in one-on-one coaching, learning happens when learners take new information or skills, filter and synthesize with their own experience and reference points, and apply it productively. No webinar is going to do that. There are ways to design learning experiences in which learners can demonstrate and apply lessons in real time. It takes good instructional design and a lot of skill to pull off. Alternatively, or in addition, you can observe or measure how the content you deliver is applied. In some cases there are hard metrics, but in most cases assessment will be anecdotal and iterative. You see, learning is a process that is ongoing, not an event. A stand-alone webinar is an event, useful for many things, but not to demonstrate that learning has occurred. If that is your goal … well, some design thinking is in order.

So, the when you plan your next webinar, think through:

  • The objective. If it involves words like teach, train, instruct, or educate, a webinar is at best a piece of a larger instructional program. If it is to inform, prepare, share, discuss, or gather feedback, you’re setting yourself up for success.
  • The attendees’ experience. What will the participants do during your time together? If it is sit and watch, don’t plan for longer than 20 minutes. We live in an interconnected, ultra-distracted world: Holding anyone’s attention longer that it takes to read this post is asking a lot. (If you’ve read this far, thanks!) There are ways to flip the webinar, that is, to do pre-work so that time online together is spent clarifying, discussing, and answering questions (for 20 minutes). Fewer slides, more talk/chat.
  • The purpose. If your purpose really is to train or teach, then design the learning experience. Again, this is not unique to the webinar medium, but participants are especially disinclined to sit through a webinar that is not useful.

A big thank you to Roger Courville, The Virtual Presenter, for his review and suggestions on this post. Check out his excellent blog and get a free copy of his handy book 102 Tips for Online Meetings.

e-Liberate! Shall we agree to lose the e?

25 Nov


What does it mean to you? Check out the Wikipedia definition: Clear as eMud.

At some point in my career I was certainly an eLearning (e-learning? elearning?) professional, even an evangelist. Not anymore. Not that I think there is anything wrong with what eLearning has traditionally been, per se, but just that we have moved beyond the e’s usefulness as a signifier.

As I’ve argued on several occasions, learning is our job, and we all are swimmers in the vast digital sea. Whatever eLearning means to us insiders, a large chunk of our learners and sponsors(!) imagine
e-courses to be clicked through as quickly as possible (if at all) so work can resume. The saddest bit of all is that a good portion of well-intentioned practitioners also think that way about the products we develop.

The Zombie E has had its day, but it is time we kill it.  Jawboneradio via flickr (

The Zombie E has had its day, but it is time we kill it.
Jawboneradio via flickr (

However, the shift is underway. I see it in the conferences I attend, via the PLNs I find so valuable, and in noble efforts like the Serious eLearning Manifesto. We now speak of learning experiences, and programmatic efforts to capture and share informal, ongoing, and “back-channel” learning. Through xAPI’s positive influence (more influence than practice at this point), Twitterstorms and organized peer hangouts, the means for professional growth are expanding. We are grappling—and sometimes succeeding—with how to integrate all of our training and learning events under the umbrella of learning practice.

So, what does the e mean? I really don’t know at this point. I no longer think of myself as an “eLearning” professional, but as a learning professional. Courses (tethered to an LMS or not), blended learning, live events, social media feeds, WOL/Show Your Work opportunities, PKM practice—these are all levers to be applied as the learning, professional development, and organizational goals dictate.

Digital delivery, via screens large and small (perhaps “mobile” needs to go, too?), takes the lion’s share of our work. And when live events occur, we work to integrate and amplify the strengths of the two together. So, it’s just learning, right?

Well, then: It’s time to embrace the future by losing the e.

Learning Guild? Learning Manifesto? Learning Industry? Yes, that’s what I’m suggesting. We are learning professionals, implementing learning programs.

Who’d have thunk that AOL’s “You’ve got mail!” (never email) slogan was ahead of its time?

I very much welcome your thoughts, rebuffs, and ideas on this topic. Leave a comment here, or find me at @BenCpdx.

Pachinko, Buckyballs and Atomic Collision

23 Oct

Last week I posted an uncharacteristically physics-themed post. I really should not use analogies that I don’t fully understand. But, in the spirit of learning as I work, I’m going to double down on physics analogies, and continue the chain of thought I started. (To get a reaction, get it?)

Content nuggets – facts, resources, procedures, insights – are little silver balls. The balls are all over: They are in your servers, in cloud-based databases, in documents and in people’s heads. Also, in the back of file drawers and on thumb drives.


Pachinko machine.

Letting balls drop down, careening from who knows where to a stable resting spot isn’t a very effective way to manage knowledge. Sometimes we get lucky, and balls will fall into place and deliver a little prize. I think of this as pachinko, the random-chance gambling game where glassy-eyed players watch the balls drop fortune into a cavity of narrow chance.

Along come the trainers and instructional designers: We are not satisfied to let the pachinko balls fall where they may. We understand that adult learners want to see shapes, identifiable patterns and have a vocabulary to talk about them. Like content, we shape them to be engaging and memorable, and to hold in contrast with other shapes. “Our patterns, the ones we use here, are the ones you need to remember, apply and return to for professional success.” Some of us have become very skilled at our profession, fashioning elaborate patterns that will DSCN4916stick in learners’ minds and no doubt prove useful for many months or even years. I think of these as Buckyballs, those now infamous little magnetic balls (not for children between 2 and 2,000 months!) that are irresistible to the hand (and, for some it seems, the mouth!). It sure beats random pachinko balls.

However, times changed. Countless little pieces of content are loosed in the world, under the control of no authority. People pick them, place and save or discard them according to their own measure of worth. We might give them a lovely snowflake to work with, but come back in a few days and the shape may be hardly recognizable. The digital-social age – what I call the Learning Age – allows individuals to collect their own content and apply it in new ways. Individuals see knowledge as personal, not organizational. Workers (good ones, the ones we want to keep!) don’t rely on L & D and trainers to provide content anymore. They have all the balls they could ever use and trip over more all day long.DSCN4892

We can sit back and hope that people will have the skills, motivation and foresight to choose wisely and create new and more useful shapes. Change them and change them again. Take note of those who do and help them to become champions of their teams, departments and organizations. The best possible scenario is that a new system of managing the shape-shifting dynamic world, based on collaborative social networks and tools, emerges organically.

Sadly, that kind of organic synergy, especially in a workplace culture that pre-dates 2009(?), is about as likely as hitting the pachinko jackpot. If fortune shines on your organization, bask in the success and take credit for not getting in the way. For the rest of us still relying on snowflakes and trees, it is time to move on. In my experience, most people crave ways to make sense (“sense-making” per PKM) of the random content, din of new tools and flood of ideas bouncing all around them.

Here lies our opportunity. When we can channel the right content, ideas and tools into our semi-controlled chamber, and allow things to collide – “mash up,” as the kids say – new insights and systems arise. The little balls bouncing off each other, like atomic particles, can truly create new, unpredictable molecules that would have been unlikely to exist otherwise. As before, some will be more lasting and useful than others, but the process is ongoing. It requires work, trust and a bit of luck.

  • Work: First, instead of creating shapes, we need to curate balls and determine what catalysts will help create new particles. We need to teach, coach and mentor our learning cohort in what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and the new expectations for managing knowledge (personal and organizational). We need to get managerial buy-in and develop a set of recommended tools and methods (avoid compelling a certain tool or method – you’ll choke off organic innovation). This is where Work/Learn Out Loud (WOL/LOL) frameworks can prove to be very useful.
  • Trust: Once you encourage and coach people how to WOL and share what they know and how they know it, you have to trust the system. That can be hard. Will there be misfires? Wasted opportunities? Even misappropriations and the rare acts of malice? Yes, there may be all of those. But if you have the right people with autonomy to act and a culture that you are proud of, the system will take hold. (If you have the wrong people and a sour culture, you have bigger problems than L & D agendas.)
  • Luck: Sometimes you will need to jump in to redirect, mitigate and add coaching and mentoring time. With luck, these will be minimal after the initial roll-out period. But with all the time not spent on snowflakes, you should have ample resources to be in continuous iteration and improvement mode. Yes, I know, that would be lucky – write back and tell me what it’s like over on that side.

If this all sounds a lot like an earlier post, well… it is the same author. Thanks for reading. As I said, content used to king, now it’s the joker. If you are still trying to wrest the right expertise from your SMEs and shape it into useful learning content, I suggest you’d be better off working the people to shape the content all around them instead. They are slipping down the halls on a carpet of shiny balls already. Give them the tools to make sense of what they already have so they keep rolling along.

Forget the Content: It’s the people you need to align

31 Jul

“All organizations are perfectly designed to get the results they are now getting.” –Tom Northrup

Implementing a learning program is a serious challenge, and as often as not (more often than not?) the program fails to deliver the anticipated results even with sufficient budget and organizational support. There are, of course, many reasons why learning programs fail. In most cases, the first place evaluators look is at the content. If only the content were better, more relevant, or more useful, people would learn and apply it. In my experience, content is rarely the culprit. If there’s one thing good instructional designers and eLearning practitioners have down, it’s SME engagement and creating good learning objectives. Even if the content were not as robust as it could or should be, that’s rarely the barrier.

The second place that we turn to is the learning design. Was the instruction not designed with the learner in mind? Was it not well “chunked” or paced? Was it not interactive and with appropriate scenarios and learner challenges? These are all good questions, and can often lead to useful ameliorations. If the topic is not perceived to be relevant or immediately applicable to the learner, transferable learning is unlikely to happen. Again, good learning designers will have avoided these problems in the first place, or be very good at seeing those flaws at an early implementation stage.

This post boils down to what the Serious eLearning Manifesto addresses.

This posts boils down to what the Serious eLearning Manifesto addresses.

The last place we focus the blame is on the learner. Or, perhaps better stated, the last place we publicly lay the blame is on the learner, though we are all well aware of some deep-seated variety of, “These folks will never get it, but we can say we’ve tried.” Leaving aside the misplaced emphasis on “getting it” rather than “doing it,” we are left that the learner is actually where the breakdown occurs.

If we think that’s the case, it remains the instructional designer’s problem to fix. The problem is NOT that people won’t or can’t learn, and transfer that learning. The problem is that we haven’t asked them to do so in a meaningful way.

Work with people, not the content.

Information (content) is there for all. Learning is individually motivated, but also takes place in a social framework. If you give a music lover a new music player whose features are not so obviously designed as to be transparent (now there’s an interesting topic!), she will learn how to use it in a matter of minutes and be expert in a handful of hours. There’s no need for an instructional course. Why? The conditions are right for learning:

  • There is intrinsic motivation to figure it out.
  • The usefulness of taking the time to learn it is obvious (if it’s not, forget it).
  • The learner feels empowered to take the time to learn it; no people or forces are aligned that implicitly or explicitly say you’re wasting your time or that you don’t need to know it (or if there are, contrarian rebellion can be a useful force!).
  • There is an immediately (if perhaps only implied) social aspect to learning it; she’ll be one of the “cool kids” or will want to share the player—and her knowledge of it—with others.

The answer is not in our courseware, but in our design of the learning space. Empower learners to learn, provide the supports and freedom that encourage personal and social learning, and leave the tools and topics you want them to explore on the table.

Learning happens, every day. We just need to understand how to direct that in ways that benefit our learners and organizations. If our efforts are not yielding the desired results, examine the organization that is delivering those results.

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