free online conference

21 04 2009

jay cross is at it again.

he’s created a free online conference on innovations in organizational learning that will run for the next two days.  conversations about learning and organizations features conversations amongst and with leading names from around the world.  sessions are running around the clock today and tomorrow.  drop in on a few of the discussions or brew a pot of coffee and try to take all of the sessions in.

knowing jay and many of the moderators, it will be a tremendously stimulating conference.  check it out!

driving real value in b2b customer education

20 04 2008

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking and talking about business-to-business (b2b) customer education recently.  My comments here are particularly focused on software/webware, but the principles are just as relevant to other tech sectors as well as service-based industries and equipment suppliers.

i find a johari-square analysis to be particularly helpful to understanding where real value in generated via customer education.  in this post i will focus my comments on the training component of the customer education ecosystem.

along the horizontal axis is a continuum of the level of knowledge a customer has about an application – from basic/introductory usage to a full understanding of all features of the application.

along the vertical axis is the nature of the application to the organization’s particular practices – from generic, non-specific usage to very company specific usage.

The lower left quadrant then represents basic usage being applied in very generic, non-differentiated fashion. This might include data entry, simple reports, basic search functionality, etc.

the upper left quadrant represents the efficient transfer of current company knowledge and practice into the application. Examples would include self-help resources, document repositories, FAQ’s, etc.

the lowr right quadrant represents the application of new processes which are enabled by the advanced functionality of the application and/or templates and add-ons which expand the applications capabilities.

the upper right quadrant represents innovation and creation of new business capabilities and insights which are very specific to the success of the particular customer’s organization’s needs and goals.

The yellow arrow represents what can be considered the desired customer learning path.  The goal is to get the customer to use the application in a way that drives the success of their business.  Unfortunately, in the past, training has had limited means to deliver the necessary learning experiences to the customer. Instructor-led training in a brick and mortar setting with ink on paper content is very expensive. By the time the learning needed to get the customer through the lower left quadrant was successfully completed, the training group had run through its budget. the most innovating training groups might have been able to sneak in a bit of the upper left or lower right content, but that was limited.

the emergence of elearning tools and techniques along with systems that enable an organization-wide customer education ecosystem has created new opportunities to spread training resources further along the customer education learning path.  online tutorials, document repositories, online forums, wikis, instant messaging, and web conferences can be deployed at a fraction of the cost of ILT and ink-on-paper content. This leaves face-to-face contacts available to help customize and innovate new solutions to particular customer needs. Strategic deployment of resources across the customer education ecosystem can drive value in the customer’s organizations.

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customer education ecosystem

19 04 2008

the trend over the past four or five years has been for the training profession to refer to itself as the learning profession.  While I agree in many ways with this trend (see training vs. learning), i do believe that sometimes we get a bit too myopic in your view of the work of workplace learning. As i argued in my post on Learning Circuits Blog, We’re #3, we’re #3!, training is often not the most effective learning function in an organization.  This is particularly true in the realm of customer education.

There are a number of functional groups in every organization that are involved in customer education. to keep things somewhat simple, I identify six groups in the customer education ecosystem – product development, marketing, sales, account management, training, and customer support.  ideally each of these groups has direct contact with an organization’s customers.  They each learn something from the customer and they each – for better or for worse – provide the customer with new information.


from customer

to customer


desired functionality insight into future products


market intelligence, level of interest in product, qualified leads information about product


criteria for purchase, pain points, purchase agreement solutions for pain points, new product information

account management

additional needs, deeper business operations, integration demands additional services, add on products, templates, best practices


needs caused by learning gaps, usage expectations basic "how-to" use, insights into best use, certification

customer support

what’s not working, potential enhancements, desired new products error correction, basic "how-to" use, integration help

a great deal of effort has been made in most organizations to gather up the information gathered from customers. in best case situations it’s aggregated and funneled back to product development. few organizations have had success at aligning the information presented to the customer by the various groups. even fewer have an understanding that linking this content drives customer education around the use of the organization’s product in the customer’s particular business.

the relay method

Traditionally, an effort is made to hand-off product information from group to group as if there were a relay race involved. if the handoff goes well, some information about the product and/or the customer is passed along to the next group. usually with a spin on the information by the group passing it on.

often, the "hand-off is missed." leaving the receiving group scrambling to get the information they need. they may go back up the chain to a previous group who invariably get annoyed because they thought they were done with this particular product or customer.  or they go back to the customer who gets annoyed and wonders if there is anyone with any intelligence working for the company.

even when all of the hand-offs are performed well, the result can often be like the children’s game telephone. with each successive group putting their own spin on the information based upon their interaction with customers disconnects start showing up by the dozen.  "i can’t tell you why they built the product that way." "you know, that doesn’t make sense." "let me teach you a work around that. it’s a bit of a pain, but it will work."  "no, this class doesn’t cover what the sales rep told you." etc. etc.

About the only thing the customer is learning is how to work the call center automated phone tree and what they want to ask your competitors when the decide to drop your product.

circle the wagons

to alleviate the problems created by the relay method of communications, organizations have taken to a "circle the wagons" approach in which email inboxes overflow as everyone is expected to keep everyone else "in the loop" by sharing anything and
everything they know.  each group is then responsible for understanding the whole picture by piecing together all those emails and the accompanying attachments. the cob web of information is overwhelming and everyone defaults back to the same solution as used when the relay method failed. No one really knows what the customer is being told by the other groups and the customer again goes wanting.

customer education ecosystem

with the onset of web 2.0 technologies, it’s not only possible to get everyone in the organization not only singing from the same page, but it’s a reality that you can get everyone writing the same page. whether using a wiki to gather information from across
the organization and then collaboratively mold it into a unified message leveraging content and information for multiple purposes, or a customer relationship management system to track every contact with a customer regardless of what functional group, and/or a document management system to handle version control and create a unified look and feel, technology now enables everyone to have product, customer and market information on-demand.

This enables a consistent message that can be crafted to move the customer along a learning curve from initial contact, through basic usage, to power usage. once a customer is fully aware of the workings of a product and/or services available to them, they can then begin to drive real value for their organization with your products/services.

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against training

2 09 2007

Every once in a while I bump into an article or piece of research that I’ve read before, but have allowed to drift into the dark recesses of my long-term memory. fortunately, such an occasion is always an opportunity to revisit the ideas presented in the article – usually with a new mind set. today it happened with john taylor gatto’s against school – a powerful and damning condemnation of modern american schooling that was published in harper’s magazine in september 2003. if you haven’t ever read against school, click on the link above and do so.

in the article, gatto discusses the historical ties of modern education to the social control policies of the Prussian empire which desired to create a semi-illiterate, docile populous which would not question authority and would efficiently be swayed by governmentally driven propaganda. this dominant approach to education in germanic culture fit very snuggly with the emergence of Ford’s assembly line production model and corporate america’s need for workers who could function more as replaceable cogs in the machinery of the industrial revolution than independent thinkers who might not follow orders willingly.

his article and subsequently published book, The underground history of american education, were clearly focused on public education and have been key support for home schooling initiatives and school voucher programs. even supporters of public education are now using a similar argument that the system is totally wrong rather than broken. hillary clinton is making great use of mentioning that today’s classrooms are identical to the classrooms where she was schooled as a child.

but the new twist on gatto’s article for me is that, while not mentioned, it clearly has a similar call to alarm regarding workplace learning. apathy runs rampant. facilitators “just try to cover everything in the materials.” butts-in-seats is still a major metric out muscling actual learning or transfer of knowledge to the job. senior management views training as a “fix-it” for problems rather than a means to develop and educated and creative workforce. to paraphrase gatto, “clearly people learn what they need to know about doing their jobs. but knowledgeable is an entirely separate issue from ‘well trained.'”

his last statement could easily become a meme for supporters of informal learning and the free-range learner:

After a long life, and thirty years in the public school trenches, I’ve concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress our genius only because we haven’t yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves.

gatto finishes his article by saying that children can still be educated to become knowledgeable, productive adults – but don’t count on schools to do it. is it too late to avoid the same being said of workplace learning?

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Related News:
Schools boss Joel Klein talks education reform with News – New York Daily News
Edwards describes stands on health care, energy, Iraq – San Jose Mercury News
Presidential Candidates Challenged to Rock Education by New Hampshire – Associated Content
Cargill says merit pay for teaches will improve state’s education … – Norman Transcript

Some of my related posts: and my folksonomy
Top Ten learning tools
exemplary elearning solutions
embedding learning into the workflow

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getting others to follow

23 08 2007

the other day on growing, changing, learning, creating; tom harkins issued a challenge to all us learning folk who have been blogging about the problems in the learning world. in his post transforming other educators, tom proposes that we need too appreciate where educators are at – overworked, under-resourced, and unappreciated – and to guide them along their path of discovery to their own understanding of the change they much undertake.

While I totally agree with tom on the tactics he proposes, I don’t think he goes far enough. there are two major factors which workplace learning professionals must overcome in addition to becoming self-aware regarding their own practices.

First, as I’ve said a number of times in this blog (see buggy whip makers, addie? isd? hpt? – adapt or die! and what’s wrong with workplace learning?), if learning professionals don’t move away from the infrequent, face-to-face classroom model to a more ever present, workflow-model approach to learning, other players in the organization will fill the void that is being left by our unwillingness to change our ways. This is a change that is happening as you read this post.

The second factor is that many of us are working in organizations which are still mired in the beliefs that training is a necessary but undesirable overhead cost and that our job as learning professionals is to go in where there is a problem and fix it as quickly as possible (ie, least amount of money and as little time away from the job as possible for the learners) and, hopefully, permanently. Even those who understand that radical change to organizational learning is needed are fighting an uphill battle in such environments.

To deal with these additional two factors, i’ll add to tom’s “vertical dimension” and “appreciative space” the need for a continued white-hot spotlight on the immediate realities of the workplace’s true needs for learning. Finally, those of us who have been in the lead need to exert pressure on senior management to recognize the organic nature of organizational learning and to provide our colleagues with the tools and exemplars that will enable them to drive change from within.

granted, my two additions are not as fun and as laid back as tom’s challenges, but no one has ever said this tsunami of change was going to be easy to surf.

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Related News
First-year lawyers will get training off the clock – Atlanta Journal Constitution
Secrets of Wal-Mart’s success – Rediff
Can you Train for Honesty? –
Management By Wandering Around. – 4Hoteliers

Some of my related posts
what’s wrong with workplace learning?
addie? isd? hpt? – adapt or die!
buggy whip makers
yet another wake up call

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learning is risky business

25 06 2007

stephen lahanas’s comment to my post what is a good example got me thinking about a particular area of learning that i find fascinating – risk taking. if we push ourselves to try new things, read new blogs or books, go new places, we usually will learn a great deal. however, this new knowledge comes with a certain amount of risk. how much i learn will be highly affected by how much risk i’m willing to endure to gain the knowledge, skills, or attitude change i desire.



  • A possible, usually negative, outcome, e.g., a danger.
  • The likelihood of a negative outcome.
  • (Formal use in business, engineering, etc.) The potential (conventionally negative) impact of an event, determined by combining the likelihood of the event occurring with the impact should it occur


  • to incur risk

factors that increase/decrease risk

risk is a complex concept. there are numerous factors which affect a person’s or an organization’s estimation of risk in any given situation. some of these factors include:
knowledge – the more information available the better chance you have of understanding the risks of the options you have
uncertainty vs. risk – from the definition above, risk is not an unknowable factor. uncertainty is generated by a lack of information about what outcomes are potential. risk is a calculation of the potential outcomes.
perception of risk – similarly, do we really understand the risk involved or are our emotions, prejudices, expectations, or other information clouding our ability to understand the extent of the risk involved in our behaviors.
social norms – almost all human behavior is affected by social norms and pressures that can increase or decrease the risk or the perception of risk of an undertaking. if we follow the crowd or follow procedures, we are likely to lessen the level of risk we need to cope with. similarly if we go against the company’s dress code or conduct a project outside of the prescribed fashion, we will be at greater risk. if we follow regulations, we have limited risk. if we don’t we are increasing our risk to the extreme.
what is the payoff – is the reward for high-risk behavior worth the risk? and to whom? a person will be much more likely to attempt a high-risk action if the reward upon success will benefit them personally and is of significant value to them. as many a ceo has found out through experience, if employees don’t perceive that a requested (or even required) behavior will have little or no reward directly to them, there is a strong chance that there will be little or no behavior change achieved. no matter the potential gain to the company.
goal-based alignment – this is currently a predominant factor in business today. if your actions are inline with the strategic goals of the organization, you can take higher risk actions than if you are working on project that doesn’t tie directly to the strategic plan. data also shows that a major factor in employees leaving a company is they don’t understand how their work fits with the company goals. In other words, there was too much risk that what they were doing wouldn’t be valued by the company.

learning is risky business

These factors create interesting points of risk in learning situations. how each learner estimates the risk involved versus the direct benefit to them will ultimately determine whether they will perform differently in light of the learning intervention they have participated in.

umm, i don’t know – one of the biggest risks any learner struggles with is accepting that they have a need to learn something. at first, this seems silly. if you don’t know something, learn it. but in the workplace, where relationships and power gambits are vital to both your current work and your professional future, admitting you need to learn something can be very risky. image and reputation can go down in flames if you don’t know something that others assumed you knew – or worse yet, you pretended to know. while it may be changing in some workplaces, lack of knowledge is generally still perceived as a weakness – whether the knowledge is core to your job or peripheral. solutions designers need to understand the target learners, the company’s goals, and the environment in which both the learning event and then the applications of the learning will take place. management can promote an active learning culture where learning is rewarded – both intrinsically and extrinsically. they can share what they are trying to learn and why. when performance is praised, what was learned to insure that performance was successful can be included.

why should i trust you? – it’s likely that you’ve seen circumstances where learners dismiss the content of a training course because the facilitator didn’t meet their expectations of what the facilitator should be either in knowledge, presentation, or position. “what am i going to learn from her, she’s not a programmer?” “he doesn’t work here, how does he know what’s expected of me?” the learner judges that there is a risk that what they spend their time learning may not be applicable to their work. solutions learning programs can be certified. the desired outcome for the company can be stated. executive sponsorship can be explicit. managers can participate before, during, and/or after the learning event. previous learners’ experiences can be incorporated in the content.

i’m not going to look like a fool – during the learning process, it’s important for the learner to rehearse and practice. learners need to be given opportunities to try-on their new knowledge. but such practice has the same risks as exposing a lack of knowledge. if a safe environment is not created, learners will suddenly need to use the bathroom or have an important conference call they suddenly need to participate in. solutions instructional designers can assure that activities involve both new knowledge and baseline knowledge the learner brings with them. role playing in which everyone takes risks and everyone supports risk-taking at different times can help lessen this risk. managers can assure that mistakes aren’t punished, but rather studied for future situations. after action reviews are one effective tool to promote this type of examination.

but what if it doesn’t work – from the new employee trying to fit in by using corporate slang to a commercial airline pilot making his first live landing in a 747 loaded with passengers we all fear the consequences of failure when implementing new knowledge and skills. this fear can be paralyzing to some. in learning lingo we talk about transfer to the job. will the learner implement what they have learned. our kirkpatrick level 2 analysis says they definitely learned it. but our level 3 analysis says they never used it. solutions the instructional design can incorporate follow-up activities and reminders. managers can be made aware of what their employees are learning and how they might support their efforts to implement it. learning can be aligned with the learner’s work to allow for adjustments based upon real application.

this all leads to some overarching characteristics of organizational learning that can help reduce employees’ estimation of risk involved in learning.

  • a learning organization that is actively involved in understanding what the company needs from its employees to execute to the strategic goals.
  • learning professionals that are attuned to the corporate culture, specific work environments, and current employee knowledge, skills and attitudes and how they will impact upon each particular learning challenge.
  • a corporate learning culture that is ambient and continual in nature. design should not be a one-off creation every time. learning should not be something employees are “sent off to.”
  • learning is a part of the strategic plan for the organization. it should be a part of every employee’s performance expectations. managers are held accountable for their employees’ learning
    the “why” of learning should be explained. often..

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what is a “good example”

12 06 2007

over on learning circuits blog, the big question for june is: “where are the examples of elearning?” thus far we’ve had some grThe Big Question logoeat posts with wonderful examples that demonstrate the variety
of solutions available through the use of digital media, the internet, organizational intranets, and the web 2.0 paradigm of participatory and communal content creation.

but as i sat down to type my response to this month’s question i realized i disagreed with tony’s assessment in the home post of the big question that good examples of elearning are difficult to find. my experience is that there are examples everywhere i turn. as i thought about why tony and i might have very different thoughts on this, it came to me that perhaps part of it is a matter of definitions. i think the problem may be that, in general, tony may be looking for “good examples” in the same old way we’ve always conceived of “good examples.” the old way is to look for that one seminal best-practice or the definitive exemplar. what is the answer?

the new reality is that there is no such thing as a definitive answer anymore. quality is situational. what might be a tremendous success for one organization could well turn out to lead another organization to insolvency and shutting down. an approach that enables one learner to internalize a process or remember information will leave another learner totally baffled.

but to be a “good example” it is also, by definition, necessary that the solution be applicable to other situations. otherwise, it’s a unique solution, not a good example.

so what is a “good example”? here’s a list of criteria i propose for determining quality of elearning tools today. on one level, these are criteria of solid instructional design. but i think they are a bit more specific to both elearning and to the role of web 2.0 – both in the nature of the applications now available and to the new pedagogical posibilities they enable. i’d love some feedback on these ideas.

  • solves a common problem – it should be applicable to many contexts. examples: new employee orientation, programming a website, learning a new language.
  • applicable to multiple specific situations – it should be transferable to situations that share similar functional and/or learning obstacles, processes, or goals. the nature of the content is likely to be similar while the context varies. examples: learning profession-based terminology, building active listening skills, acclimating to a new culture.
  • the how and why of the solution must be transparent – from the learner’s perspective, this means it shouldn’t “feel like learning.” it should be fun, enlightening. something that is done, not studied. from the instructor/manager’s perspective, (if there is a need for one) their role should be clear and simple. it should enable their completion of their strategic needs. from the instructional designer’s perspective, the structure and purpose should be visible and duplicable. whether these three roles occur in one person (jay cross’ free-range learner) or multiple people (traditional corporate ilt), all three components are necessary.
  • the learner must feel they have a choice – it must provide the learner with control over some, if not all, the variables of what to learn, when, how, with whom, etc. examples: providing optional learning paths, same content in multiple formats, allowing choice of roles in activities, deciding what to learn in any given moment, collaborative learning spaces, content databases, expertise profiles, etc.
  • no learning curve for the use of the technology – the solution should be programmed in a way that the learner will be focused on the target content of the activity, not the application used to deliver the solution. for basic, non-technical content, this may mean point-click, drag-drop, simple data entry. the very basic skills in computing. the same goes for professional content. for advanced level learning, appropriate combinations of technical and professional knowledge and skills may be included yet still meet this criterion.
  • clearly visible, multiple means of support – it will provide the learner with various ways to ask meta-learning questions about the activities. examples: faq, demonstration videos, glossary of terms, user forums, mouse-over hints, previous learner feedback/solutions, online tutors, email support, etc.
  • appropriate use of the technology it must deploy technology in a way that fits with the functionality and general use of the technology. because of their structure and their reputation for authentic sharing and feedback, blogs are powerful tools for openly sharing new ideas, but are less effective for presenting policies and procedures. it must also fit with the environment in which it is being implemented. implementing a social networking solution for learning in an environment that is anti-collaboration will be seen as alien and limit the crucial transfer of learning to the work situation. examples: post-training blog communities, customer forums, best-practices wikis, rss feeds of related new content, expertise portfolio databases etc.
  • it results in the desired learning – it should either have demonstrated success in achieving the desired learning results or the argument for why it should be successful is obvious and compelling. Obviously, demonstrated success is the preference. however, since the new applications are enabling new learning experiences, we need to apply what is known about learning in crafting these new experiences. example: learning simulations which place potential leaders in ambiguous situations, software that helps call center operators adaptively deal with emotional callers.

in my next post i’ll describe some of my favorite examples of good elearning.

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