Category Archives: Education

Key Elements of Your Learning Content Strategy, Pt. 2

5958374472_aacefb108a_bIn Part 1 of this three-part post, I discussed content organization and structure when formulating your overall learning content strategy. In this part, I’d like to discuss the role of authoring and delivery platforms, and their impact on your strategic and tactical implementation.

Too often instructional designers move straight to authoring, and begin “assembling” their course right away. This is not surprising, because the businesses we support are often moving at a fast pace, and many of us juggle multiple projects simultaneously all the time. Sometimes, we want to “just get it done”. Working in this manner, however, can create a firehose of course content that can become redundant and lead to fragmentation and loss of productivity for your and your audiences.

Your focus, instead, should be on creating less content — content that is clear, simple, succinct and “elastic” — able to bend to the learner’s context. This content should also be in a format digestible by anyone in your target audience, anywhere, and on whatever device they have with them.

Easier said than done. Especially with looming deadlines always on the horizon. One of the biggest drivers affecting how you design and develop content revolves around your available resources. We can preach all day about the “right thing to do”, but if you don’t have access to much beyond what you can get done yourself, you live with what you have. Like we were told years ago, “You go to war with the army you have.”

This is the primary reason so many L&D teams are creating training in a non-elastic fashion — creating reams of content married to proprietary systems and/or content that is silo’ed away from similar content that already exists. You are only the sum of the skills of your team. Years ago, a typical “CBT” development team consisted of skill-specific resources, including graphic artists for both user interface and production graphic tasks, instructional designers focused on designing content for learning, rich-media experts for animation, rendering, video and audio, and an editor and quality assurance person. Running the show was a dedicated project manager and technical liaison for the implementation. Now, with the proliferation of “rapid authoring tools” many L&D functions are “teams of one” — in many orgs, access to a graphic artist and/or media producer is a luxury that’s just not available. In light of this, and with constrained budgets, there are tweaks you can make to “level up” and start producing training content that gives your audiences what they really need. Before you think I’m about to suggest the latest version of a new authoring tool, step back. I’m not suggesting that at all. An authoring tool is the last component in your toolbelt that you need to worry about. I’d like to hear that you’re close to becoming “tool agnostic” — you want to be flexible enough so that you can pivot and change tools when your needs change. Let’s step back and consider how you can make a change in your overall content strategy to set yourself up for becoming free from the chains of proprietary authoring systems, and move beyond redundant, non-elastic content.

First, it’s important to consider how your team(s) perform their work. You should begin by investigating these processes:

  • System and systemic requirements

    • There is no “holy grail” when it comes to systemic constraints. Each system has its own unique challenges. How your system functions is a design challenge. You need to work within that system to affect the change you’ll need to see so that you can appropriately implement the needed change. You may need to consider changing how you think about what you do, before you can begin to change how the system operates.

  • Development workflows

    • Take a deep-dive into how your team goes about their development process. Pinpoint the areas that provide the most pain. Look at who the main players are in those areas. Do you need different skillsets there? Do you need to add/subtract people from the mix to move things along quicker? What’s working well across the process flow? How do you take what works well and duplicate it at other key points?

  • Content and app versioning control

    • Tricky, yes. But you need to reach higher outside of your silo, and take a look across the landscape of your organization to see where you can leverage other systems and infrastructure to make it easier to create, share and distribute content. There’s probably a lot going on that is duplicative and there’s probably a lot you can easily cut-out. Building relationships across other functions that also generate content can help you to leverage what’s already being created. For the assets your team is creating, conduct the due diligence to appropriately add metadata and versioning to it. Stop the train for a little bit so that you can build a process that will comfortably make your content more usable as you add to it.

  • Modifying and updating content

    • If your team members are working locally on their own hard drives creating content, ask yourself the fundamental question of “why”. The cloud is too convenient and easy to not be leveraging it. At the very least shared content repositories are critical. I urge you to consider a content management system (CMS) — but one that can integrate well into your team’s workflow.

  • Searchability

    • Successful content development relies on the ability to curate “source of truth” content, develop new content, and integrate contextually relevant information to provide deeper meaning. The ability for your team (and, ultimately, your users) to discover and trust content is critical.

  • Metadata

    • I mentioned this above, but I recommend you take the time to create a tagging system that works not only for your team, your organization, but one that works for your company and takes into consideration wider industry-specific

Although you’re an instructional designer, you’re also going to have to wear different hats that span many domains if you want to appropriately establish workable methods for content creation and dissemination. Those may include IT, editorial, social community moderator, even digital curation — which is an entire profession on its own. If you have these available resources, you’re several steps ahead of the game. If not, it’s OK, but you’re no longer going to be a one-trick pony. Oh, and did I forget visual design? Yeah, there’s that. And let us not forget accessibility, multiple devices, and data tracking. Whew. And you get paid how much?

The good thing is, our elders gave us a workable model. It’s called ADDIE. I know a lot of us moan and groan about “old-school ADDIE”, but every profession needs a methodology, a way forward. A framework. Although what you do when “creating learning” often varies, you vacillate between three big buckets:

  • Analysis

  • Design & Development

  • Implementation

Yeah, you really do. Too few of us are not focused on the E (evaluation), and that’s too bad. However, more than likely you have chosen tools and platforms that help you achieve the framework within which you work. Which is probably the ADDI one. Right? You may think you’re Agile. You may think you’re neither. The reality is, what we do is a lot like making biscuits. You pinch them from the flower, one by one, put them in the oven, and wait til they’re edible. It takes what it takes. So you may not sequence your steps the way others do… but there are just certain steps you have to perform. I don’t advocate either ADDIE, Agile, or other methods that consultants or academics come up with. Whatever works for you is good enough. When I do what we do, I create prototypes. I iterate between them, and I try to get feedback and make things better before I go forward with the “final output”. That’s a little bit of Agile sprinkled in. You do what you can do. Regardless of the authoring tool and/or platform, think of this: every deliverable you create encompasses two things: the strategy behind WHY you’re creating it, and the strategy behind making it consumable by those you’re creating it for.

Take those two elements as your foundation, using whatever framework or process you have, and then break down your tool or app into what it does to help you deliver. It may be Microsoft Word for storyboarding (or Google Docs), PowerPoint for prototyping, Lectora for assembly, etc. Focus on what the tool or app brings to the game and leverage its strengths.

Authoring is the act of assembly. You’re bringing together multiple media types into a cohesive experience. Delivery is the act of enabling your audience to consume the experience. Maybe that’s via an LMS? A webserver? Inherent in this duality are your needs and your learner’s needs. It’s a balancing act to preserve a usable experience between the two. Off to the side is the role of the CMS, or the system which serves the content (or makes it available to you). It’s kind of a trifecta if you will. At the end of the day, you want sustainable, flexible content objects that resonate for the businesses you support, while at the same time providing a meaningful learning experience.

Landing on the right combination of tools, apps, and platforms requires removing ambivalence about what you really need to get done, obtaining a deep understanding of the limitations of what you can actually achieve given your constraints (and we all have them), and recognizing the basics of how each element in the framework you work within functions.

Questions for Learning Leaders

You're an Instructional Designer, eLearning Developer, Program Manager, Learning Consultant… or just someone involved in the corporate learning space. At times you interview for jobs and/or contracts. Most of that time is spent being grilled by your potential employer. They're investigating you. They're asking you questions. You respond, you do a bit of research on the company, you meet a few people. But, realistically, it's you selling you to them. 

In light of the rapid change going on in today's business world, I recommend you augment your interview process with some pointed, poignant questions for your hiring manager, their style, and how they run their "business of learning". It's important for you to know what you're getting yourself into. Consider asking these questions during your interview process (I mean you're figuring out whether you want to work for them too, right?):

  1. Do your audiences trust you to provide the type of learning experiences they need?
  2. Do you know what the right thing is that we should be doing, right now?
  3. Do you place value on career development? Not JOB development — career development.
  4. Do you support the open flow of information in your organization? How?
  5. What's the last new thing you have tried, and what was the result?
  6. Give me an example of how you individually embrace change?

Basically, you're looking to be part of an organization that incubates a learning culture, that understands and respects its audiences, and is willing to try new things to help elevate performance across the workplace. Otherwise, why bother? You have every right to inquire and put learning leaders on the hot seat… kinda like they're doing to you, right?

Are We Losing Critical Thinking in Training?

We all know corporations are moving at the speed of light nowadays. They're asking a lot from employees: salaries are stagnant, budgets are at bare minimum and work is more complex. In light of this, training organizations are shouldering a heavy burden in helping to support workers that are more in need of up-to-date information than ever before. And, to add fuel to the fire, many training functions are also seeing reduced budgets and staff while being asked to do more.

Guess what? I wrote the paragraph above in 1998. You might think I wrote it just this week. But, after going through some of my past writing, I realized while everything has changed, little has really changed in how we support our workforce.

As we propel forward in the new "social economy" (or whatever the marketers are calling it now), I wanted to pause and reflect on what the typical worker really is in need of. Sure, we need to hammer them over the head with product knowledge, details of service offerings, how to improve customer relationship skills, technical specifications for the ever-expanding product line, and oh yeah, we can't forget those "up-sell skills" so that "everyone is selling". That alone is enough to scare off any "knowledge worker" from even wanting to take training.

On top of all that, we now are being told that innovation and creativity is what matters. That is what will separate the good from the chaff. Not only do we need a workforce literate and fluent in all things Acme Corp does, we also need them to be creative and innovative. Gotta fend off the coming robots that will take over the rote work.

Facing this is daunting for a regular training group. How do you train someone to be "innovative" and/or "creative"? What if you just have a workforce souped up with automatons (or worse, re-hires that came back at a senior level with a top salary)? At best, you've got about 20% of the workforce that can be labeled "high performing". And, at the end of the day, you're judged on smiley sheet responses to boring eLearning. Oh, no one knows what we go through do they?

However, as I sat here perusing yet another MOOC I signed up for, I got to thinking about how we training groupies have fallen into a bit of a malaise. I mean, this MOOC makes me want to puke — it's all text, long and scrolling, full of context-free links and happy-face smileys from the "professor", and low-quality videos of talking heads in dim light with bad sound and too much "organic" hipster effects to try and distract me from the simple fact that this is an iPhone video. I'm sorry, regardless of what you think, your audience is NOT OK with crapware that you produce on your own cause you can Google a 5-step process for "shooting movie-quality videos with iPhone 5". They're just not good. I don't care if you are Einstein on crack, giving us the answers to the mystery of the universe… if I can't see you or hear you, I won't "engage".

And, oh, by the way, if you're paying a consultant to help you with your "learning strategy" and they bring in white papers slathered with the word "engage", can you do me a favor? Can you fire them? Right now. I'll wait. Pick up the phone, and call them now. Better yet, just text them. It's quicker, and much more "personal".

Anyway, I digress. I hate MOOCs. Why? I don't know. Maybe because they're the "chocolate maple with truffle-infused vodka squirts" flavor of the month. I've started a few of them. I haven't finished any of em. And, yeah, it's cool that my cohort includes people from Bolivia, Chicago, Paris and wherever. Woo-hoo. Still, I'm faceless in a sea of cohortness, and I have yet to learn anything.

What I'm thinking is… through all the mush of jargon, through all the "new educational paradigms" that have been created, through the onslaught of crazy trends like social learning, mobile learning, gamification, immersive learning, the Cloud, experiential design, and whatever else is floating around out there, through all this, we've kind of lost our way. We're in the Dark Ages of Training now, just because a tech company designed a shiny bling-ding object that can magically waste our time, all the time, and has up-ended everything we used to love about what we never were real effective at: talking to each other about stuff. Debating. Hammering through ideas. Being told, face to face, that you're wrong. Convincing your colleague that he or she should step back and "try this" … and then showing them. Sure, you've got "collaborative platforms" where people can "share ideas". The thing is. No one really is sharing. They're talking at you. Not with you. They're earning their "achievements". They're leveling up. Or collecting badges. Or whatever little tchotchke you're offering them just to log-in for a few minutes so you can get your "measurable LMS results".

What I think is causing us to stagnate in the Dark Ages of Training is a lack of critical thinking. Whatever happened to critical thinking? I remember when I was a young lad, I was told if I went to school, learned new skills and played by the rules, I'd have a good job with a living wage. Well, I quickly learned to stop relying on promises. However, I remember in school having discussions with the teacher and other students about topics at hand. We dialogued. We debated. We questioned the teacher, and each other. I always felt I learned the most when I could engage (yeah, there's that awful word again… maybe I should find another one) in a free-form and guided discussion on the topic. Not just a teacher (or facilitator) lecturing at me. But sharing with me.

All through the years, the guvmint has told us we need to be fostering critical thinking skills. Not just in K-12 and in college. But also in the workplace. On the job. What, really are "critical thinking skills"? Well, for a start, here's what I think a good definition is:

"Critical thinking skills can be defined as the ability to exercise sound reasoning and analytical thinking, using knowledge, facts and data to resolve workplace issues." [From: http://www.kepner-tregoe.com/blog/critical-thinking-skills-building-blocks-for-the-next-generation/#sthash.IFgNPZqr.dpuf]

Why do they matter? Well, if you think about a more "creative" and "innovative" workforce, you are going to need to help people to think fast on their feet, make decisions, and more importantly learn how to problem-solve and delegate. And, we may be delegating to robots soon enough. Analysis, problem-solving and analytical thinking.

Sounds simple, doesn't it? It's really not that difficult to grasp. But what you have to ask yourself is a bit more difficult: what are you doing to ensure the workforce you support has the necessary critical thinking skills to help the business stay competitive in its marketplace? You're creating some more "mobile learning" or spending thousands on a "social platform"? Or a MOOC. Yeah, that's it. I've got a MOOC to sell you. Before I puke.