How Fast Can They Learn?

20 Jul

I’ve been part of a complex change initiative for the past 18 months or so, at a large legacy organization that is struggling to catch up to the realities of doing business in this century. By which I mean, in large part, to live and make use of the digital world we now inhabit. One of the primary things we are trying to do is to get people to think about their business data in different ways, and to unify standards of data across a far-flung enterprise.

speedometer-1063350_960_720People are asked to learn new tools and processes, the areas of traditional learning solutions. But also, to think about how their actions improve their teams, departments (lines of business) and client experiences, the ways in which they cooperate and collaborate, and the changing environment that is rolling out around them.

“So,” my client asks, “how quickly can we expect them to learn this?”

I completely understand how she believes this to be a straightforward question, driven by her “learning” budget. She struggled with my answer: “It will take as long as it takes. And it will take something like a lifetime.” I see how that is not a terribly satisfying or reassuring response.

So, I turn it back to her learning experiences. I asked her what kind of phone she had. An Apple iPhone 7, as it happens. “How long did it take you to learn how to use it?” She hesitates, and then answers that she learned how to use it in the first few minutes.

“OK, do you use it in the same way today as you did the first day you got it?”

“No, of course I discover new things and new apps and what I can do with it all the time.” She is starting to catch on to my line.

I get her to see that she has an internal motivation to continually learn its many features, discover new apps (mostly via word of mouth and observation – social learning!) and keep up with her peers, if not her children.

Right. I explain it is very much akin to the same thing.

We can train people on the new technology platforms up to an advanced-beginner level. However, unless they have the motivation to learn, internalize why they should do so, and start out on their own journey of discovery through social learning, peer support (or pressure not to appear behind, if you like) and organizational allowance that learning is as much about trial and failure as it is about success, they are unlikely to ever achieve a state where we can say, “Now they’re done learning.”

In fact, we need to reset hearts and minds to never say they’re done learning. We are teaching a set of technologies, it’s true. But to live and adapt to the modern workplace means learning that is much more like the iPhone than it is like traditional corporate training.

Learn the basics, observe what others are doing, share your own discoveries, and adapt and learn constantly. How will it take you to learn to use a computer? As long as it takes, and it takes forever. That’s the world we live in.

Exactly. That’s where Learning & Development needs to be. Training, sure, if it’s needed (none was needed for the iPhone because it was well designed). But training is the starting blocks. Our primary function is to teach people to be learners. Our organizations depend on it.

Lead with Training? Look beyond the recipe

15 May

I’ve seen it time and time again. An organization has a new technology, often joined with a new process and vision for processing, customer service, data alignment, sales, etc. The knock comes on L & D’s door, and we are thrilled to be able to get in on a new initiative without the baggage of poor performance leading the request.

But just as we should pause and assess if training is the part of the solution to substandard performance or a new change initiative, we need to also pause to think about the appropriate timing and type of training that will advance the strategy initiative. While it might seem counter-intuitive to those of us in the instructional design and training game, we need to think about training as an essential element in the organizational kitchen remodel — a part of a well-designed program, but not the driver.

OK, I’m not entirely sure a kitchen is the best analogy, but let that marinate with me for a moment. A kitchen needs a workflow plan, a place to store fresh and nonperishable items, ample space to store tools and cooking utensils, and a set of good cook books (explicit knowledge), at least until the cook moves through competence and proficiency to become an expert intuitive gastro-artist (implicit knowledge).

So, training can carry the novice cook along the path to competence, and even proficiency. However, if the goal is to build expertise, training can’t carry the load the full distance. Similarly, the training program, no matter how well designed and implemented, can’t deliver the tools, materials and setup necessary to get the anticipated results.

Cathy Moore has done some excellent work on how to evaluate the need for training to address performance issues. But what I’m suggesting here is to take that to another elevation: Even when training is part of the issue, are the conditions for applicable success present? Seen this way, each training design should be a mini (or full-blown) change management program. Per standard practice of change management, skills are an essential ingredient. But so too are organizational support, vision and incentives to follow through.

complex change matrix

Complex Change Management Matrix

So, if you are already in the discussion that Moore (and I) suggests, take it to the next logical step: How does training fit into the change the organization wishes to see?

We don’t spend the money to build a beautiful kitchen without the hope that we’ll become better cooks. But design and appliances don’t get us there. Neither will skills alone without the proper tools and support for experimentation, failure and improvement.

Things I learned on my trip to India

4 Dec

I recently returned from an amazing 20 days in India (Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan). It was overwhelming (in a good way), and I’ll be processing my experiences for quite some time. Just last night I dreamt about being in the beautiful desert city of Jodhpur.

Inspired by Kate Pinner’s frequent reflections on her life and how it relates to our chosen profession, I thought I would share my half-baked reflections even as they are still being sorted.

  1. Chaos is normal, and fuels productive activity

(Old) Delhi, on the eve of Diwali, November 9, 2015.


I’m not sure I’d been so happy to see the other side of the street.

I heard it constantly during our journey: “India is ‘organized chaos, but somehow it all works.’” It’s a pretty apt description. I have seen traffic in Boston, Bangkok and on the Bay Bridge, but nothing was like Delhi on the eve of Diwali. The key to getting through the cacophony of cars, trucks, ox carts, tuk-tuks and pedestrians is to be both single-minded and good humored about the moving maze. One large man walked by our rickshaw as it inched forward, and said with a wide smile, “Welcome to India!” Indeed. Chaos, cross-traffic and distractors are the reality for most of us, and best option is determined acceptance rather than short-tempered resistance.

  1. There’s power in diversity

I knew of course that India was a very diverse country, but as compared to North America it is remarkable how people intermingle. Whatever the divides of religion, region, caste, income, education, etc., people are in constant contact with each other (literally). Where in the US, folks can live in a gated suburb or specific ethnic enclave without much rubbing shoulders with others, in India the mix and flow seems constant. I think that is truly to the benefit of all, no matter what tensions may exist.

  1. Specialization works when part of the tight tapestry (network)

Each vendor sells one thing, and one thing only…

India still appears to be a land of specialization. I saw very few supermarkets or “box” stores. Primarily, if something needed to be purchased or a service provided, you went to the specialist. The knife vendor didn’t also sell saws, the barber didn’t also sell high-end shampoos, and the vegetable vendor sold vegetables, not fruits, canned goods or condiments. But, since each specialist is in close proximity of hundreds (thousands?) of others, one can frequent the expert, the favorite vendor, on the way to and from all the others. All things being equal, I’d rather by my cookware from a cookware vendor than from a department store (or Amazon). You?


…And there are thousands of vendors. Find whatever you need on the narrow streets of (Old) Delhi. Here, Diwali decorations.

  1. Say “Yes!”

This is true for travel – and life in general: Let your first and last answer to opportunities be yes. But even more so in India, where every single day, all day, there was something new, fascinating, thought-provoking and unexpected. When we spent a day at a tiger nature reserve, I was not feeling well at all. Through the morning drive, where we didn’t spot a tiger or much else, my head cold was terrible. I almost decided to skip the afternoon drive, as the bouncing and dust was hard on my head, and the chance of seeing a tiger was not good. But at the last minute I said yes, and was rewarded for it beyond my dreams….

India Nov 2015 1444

India Nov 2015 1480

Thank you, India (apologies, A. Morissette)

Gold from Straw: Creating Your Own Meaning

27 Oct

Personal learning is a form of assembly, where we find, evaluate, use or discard things we encounter on our way. More often than not, though. we won’t know the meaning of what we discover until long after the fact. Over time, with experience, we’re able to create meaning of (from?) objects, assembling them into applicable learned compounds.

Ah, but what to pick up? We are awash with information, opinions and competing ideas. Through traditional media, social media, conversations, meetings, directives…. we live in an age of overabundance. In prior times information was scarce, and we looked to authority to provide us what was valuable:

I read it in the Times.” “Our CEO thinks that we should redirect our efforts.” “My trusted financial adviser recommended I put my money into tech.” “My mentor said this book was important.” “I ask my assistant to provide me with daily clippings.” Information was scarce, and we looked to those with expertise, time, and the resources to research and bring us information we could use.

Those days are done. We create our own meaning now. We divine it out of the countless dots – the nodes in our network of people, ideas and information – that fill our universe.

Like ancient explorers, we connect dots and create patterns in order to navigate through our world.

Like ancient explorers, we connect dots and create patterns in order to navigate through our world. Photo by Greg Rakozy via

The solution becomes not one of knowing what is useful, but of deciding what to pay attention to, and weighing whatever we find for its potential value.  There is no way to pre-sort what is worthy; there is simply too much out there and exponentially more being created all the time. Like the scroll at the bottom of a 24-hour news station, we barely notice it’s there. When something catches our attention, we have that “Wait! What was that?!” moment. It’s much the same to navigate through our connected, networked world. Something catches our attention, and we make an immediate judgement: This is something I should pay attention to, something I might be able to use at some point. Or not… let it pass.

The decision is the key. Yes, I like this idea. This is new to me and sparks my interest. This is from a known source that I already trust, so I’m willing to give it a little more attention than I might otherwise. Once a decision is made, apply your process.

  1. Clip, copy, save, share it, while tagging in some way that you’ll be able to find it later (that takes practice, but you’ll get better at it with time).

  2. Note why you thought it was worthy of carrying with you on your journey: That is a critical part of it, and will inform and refine your knowledge management practice over time.

  3. Weigh it for its value over time. Does the idea make sense? Does it add, extend, amplify or purposefully redirect what I do and what I know?

  4. Cull frequently, letting go of what it no longer useful.

By following this process, you’ll create your own meaning, and build your own unique area of expertise that is yours alone. That is an exciting proposition. When each of us is self-directed to build our own knowledge, to create our own Personal Knowledge Mastery (PKM), we bring a unique perspective and ability to any organization’s collaborative or cooperative effort. That is a valuable place to be.

Trust or Control? It’s one or the other.

14 Oct

When I speak to people about the value of participating in professional learning networks (PLN), work out loud (WOL) practices, and the promise of sharing freely in order to reap the benefits of the Learning Age, I hear the same reservations time and again. The obstacles most often come down to trust.

Do I trust my organization and bosses to value my time and my contributions? Do I trust my peers, known and yet unknown, to accept my perspective and ideas without judgment to hostility? Do I trust my friends and family not to mock me for putting myself out there? (Early in my social sharing participation activities, I did get some “Who do you think you are, Mr. Fancy-pants?!” kind of responses. Then I realized that vulnerability is the part of the process of learning… a topic for another day.)

Most of all, at formal events and in conversations with individuals alike, I hear what amounts to lack of trust in one’s self. Do I trust myself to share the right things, and to be able to sort and make sense of what I find out there?

I attended an event at my local ATD Cascadia chapter last week in which Nan Russell presented on “The Titleless Leader.” What stuck with me most in a great presentation was when she asked the participants, “What’s the opposite of trust?” The answer? “Control.”

This is so important. We have to give up the idea that we can control our daily forays into learning, sharing, and growing. Nor should we want to hold onto control. In order to make the most of explorations, we should prepare to encounter the unknown. It is a matter of trust that good things will happen when we give up control, open to what comes.

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