Fallen from the Grace of Learning, Part 2

May 20, 2011

In Part 1, I shared how I have lost touch with my professional learning interests since getting immersed in project management. Sadly, I have also lost touch with my design and learning technologies network. I stopped blogging, stopped networking, stopped studying and researching trends, studies, and best practices. Shameful!

Well, enough is enough! Life pushed me to do something about it, and I can’t be happier for it.

On the livelihood front, I have returned to a learning design focus. While project management is a valuable skill set t have, it’s not something my brain type is natural at, and, frankly, I just don’t want to focus on it as a full-time role. Despite the skills and professional growth, the main lesson is for me is the basic importance of doing whatever it is you are passionate about. More about that later.

On the personal learning side, I pulled up the ol’ RSS reader for only the 2nd or 3rd time in at least a year. I caught up on a few of my favorite bloggers and quickly rediscovered what I love so much about this field.  Things sure change fast in this field! And though my tools are rusty, they aren’t lost. I’ve purchased or downloaded free trials of several key design/development/training tools, ordered a few books from Amazon, and signed up for a workshop or two.

I love this profession. It’s good to connect again and join in conversations that motivate and inspire me.

On that note, I’ll exit with this little ditty…

til next time.


What Training Project Managers (and everyone else) Can Learn from the Japanese Disaster

March 23, 2011

There’s been a lot of commentary about the way the Japanese people have responded to the series of disasters happening there. I think of other societies, including here in the US. In comparison, we’re kinda pathetic. I think back to past disasters, and the looting, chaos, political posturing, blame, near riots, and other forms of ugly human behavior. And as a training professional and project manager, I can’t help but look for parallels and lessons to how we do business. How we conduct ourselves in our day-to-day projects. Here are a few things I came up with…

Be prepared.
Bad things are going to happen. Sometimes really bad things. You don’t know what, where, when, and how. But bad things will happen. The Japanese are super prepared. Children, employees, and citizens in general are well educated on what to do in an earthquake or tsunami. People knew what to do, and this made a huge difference.

Similarly, I know backpackers and other wilderness enthusiasts stress the importance of carrying “the ten essentials” on any backcountry adventure. Comprised of things like a compass, emergency blanket, extra food, and fire starters, these essentials will help ensure survival if you get injured or lost.

We need to do the same at work. On projects and initiatives large and small, we need to be prepared for storms.  We need to have our own 10 essentials for launching into new learning projects and building healthy, functional teams. What will we do if a project suddenly tanks? What if our team is suddenly hit with unexpected departures? What if the kitchen blows up and we are left coffeeless? These things happen.

Capture from a Japanese Earthquake Survival manual

Watch out for the aftershocks.
Large earthquakes can cause a lot of damage. And we know from Japan that when the dust first settles, the danger isn’t necessarily over. Aftershocks, additional quakes, and tsunami can be triggered, sometimes causing more devastation than the original quake itself.

Organizational storms are similar. After a painful project issue hits and the dust seems to settling, waves of resentment resentment can rattle meetings and relationships, jeopardizing projects and even whole organizations. When hit by an unexpected quake at work, don’t assume the damage is over when the vibrations stop. Watch out for tsunami.

Be calm and remember your values.
Like many others, I’m impressed by the calm, kind, self-disciplined manner in which the Japense people as a whole responded. Geeze, how much most of us – and the rest of the world – can learn here. Enough said!

You are no more important than anyone else.
I can’t count how many diva-minded team members and even leaders have sabotaged a project or dammaged team morale by their self-centered, “it’s all about me” behavior. Let’s be honest – we all have had our moments. Can you imagine what that attitude would look like in Japan following the earthquake? Think Katrina!

We can learn a lot about Japan here. To have healthy, well-functioning teams that respond constructively to crises, we need to think in terms of the whole. Don’t be expected to be treated differently. If you do get some special acknowledgement, be grateful. But realize that as special as you may be, in terms of the whole (organization, work team, etc) you are just a cog in the wheel. An important cog, of course, but you’re still a cog! That’s not an insult. It takes a lot of solid, well-built, and trustworthy cogs to keep the wheel turning and the mission moving forward. Drop the ego and get behind the mission. And get in line like everyone else.

A boy waits in a line in front of a gas station in Kamaishi, northern Japan Monday, March 14, 2011 following Friday’s massive earthquake and tsunami. (AP Photo/Asahi Shimbun, Naoko Kawamura)

It’s no one’s fault.
When projects don’t go how we want them to, it’s really easy to look for blame. Try instead to get the big picture. Assume positive intent and help each other learn.  Don’t recruit others to join your blame-storming game. instead, recruit or join others in finding solutions to the situation. And keep in mind that sometimes there are no real solutions. Sometimes all you can do is reach out and show that you care. The dust will settle and  new opportunities will arise.

Fallen from the Grace of Learning, Part 1

March 14, 2011

I don’t mean to mock or disrespect my religious brothers and sisters out there. But if there is a God of Career Bliss out there, then surely I have fallen from grace. Or at least veered down the wrong path. Let me explain.

A few years ago I was super-passionate about the field of adult learning and instructional design. As an instructional designer and learning consultant, I had a keen interest in exploring ways to leverage emerging technologies and social networking to enhance how we learn. I loved designing courses of all sorts. I loved consulting with clients to help prescribe the right blend of learning solutions for their situation. I loved tinkering with tools and techniques, from complex software and working with full scale development teams, to rapid e-learning and do-it-yourself solutions. Of course I sometimes cursed deadlines, writer’s blocks, and crashing software, but I was engaged.

And then I drifted. I moved away from my design and consulting roles and moved into project management. At the time I figured project management was a solid field and a good set of skills to learn. I also thought it might be a good segue into more responsibility and more pay.  And given that the economy was tanking (mid 2008), project management might lead to more options.

Most of this is true. I have certainly gained valuable experience. But there is a flip side.

I joined the PM team at a highly creative e-learning shop. It wasn’t bad at all. Though I wasn’t designing, I was able to leverage my background and still had a part in the creative solution. Then, a year later, I felt I wanted more internal training experience within a large Fortune 500 type company. I was in for a rude awakening.

My current company is a great company, and there are a lot of great people there. But as a PM, that is all I do. In this organization, roles are very segmented and specific. The PM role is very much focused on processes, risks, schedules, and the like. Though I am in a training department, my adult learning and instructional expertise rarely comes into play. In fact, PMs are really expected to be content neutral.

That’s all fine, but it’s not me.  As a role on its own, project management is not where my heart is. I miss the creative and intellectual stimulation of design and consulting.

OK, enough of that. Self-pity is a slippery slope, and boring, too. The moral of the story is this:  Do what you’re passionate about.

Whatever career topics you joyfully read about on your own time or will do for free, do that for pay. Don’t follow some path just because it might lead to more pay or more security. Both are over rated, and probably illusory.

"wrong way" road sign

Have tips or advice for a wayward ID? Wanna share your own story, organizational wisdom, or words of encouragement? I would love to hear from you!

Turns out that was true, and I’ve learned a lot. , and a great way to move into higher levels of management.

Work-life balance in a 2.0 world

September 25, 2008

I love exploring the Web 2.0 thing and the possibilities it offers the world of workplace learning. I love that blogging gives me access to information and connects me with others in such awesome ways. But I am starting to feel a strong need to draw a line. Enough is enough! What I’m talking about is the increasing amount of time and energy it all takes. Screen suck, blather, aighhhh!!!!

Work/life, online/offline — we need balance, folks!

Although I have long been a proponent of work/life balance, I’m now seeing the need for more virtual life/ real life balance. And I’m finding that balance a bit more difficult now that I have gotten into blogging. It takes a lot of time to read even the headers of the main 10 or so blogs I subscribe to. Trying to write my own regular posts takes even more time, especially if I am creating something original, and not just gabbing about something I read somewhere else.

After seeing the odd hours at which some folks have commented to my posts, and the volume of posts on some of the blogs I follow, it is clear that it consumes a lot of time for a lot of people. The way I see it, the only way to really read/post regularly is to:

  1. Get paid officially to blog
  2. Blog on the clock at work
  3. Blog on your free time

1 and 2 are not options for me, except for the odd times when I need to conduct a bit of research for a professional reason. That means I blog at home. No big deal, but I need boundaries. You may or may not know it yet, but you need boundaries, too. It’s healthy.

Here are some nagging questions. Do you have answers?

  1. What ways have you found to effectively manage your blogging time?
  2. How do you stay tuned in the on-line world, without dropping out of your “real” world?
  3. How do you keep a work/life, online/offline balance?

What would Yoda do?

ID Lessons from “The Electric Company”

August 28, 2008

Back when I was a kid I loved watching the TV show “The Electric Company.” The show used funny skits and simple animation to teach elementary aged kids (those who were too old for Sesame Street) reading and writing skills. The show’s theme song promised to “turn it on (and) give you the power.” And they did. The show was highly creative, hip, and open-minded (mixed-race relations, for example). It was good stuff. Recently, being in a nostalgic mood, my wife and I took out a DVD copy of old Electric Company episodes from our local library.

I am in awe and now have a new set of instructional design heroes. Move over Gagne. Like a lot of childen’s education, the show does a great job at explaining complicated things in a simple, fun way that make sense and are easy to apply. A good example is their lesson on “silent e” of the English language.

Pretty cool, huh? Now read what some smart writer on wikipedia wrote about the same topic:

Silent E is a writing convention in English spelling. When reading, the silent letter e at the end of a word signals a specific pronunciation of the preceding vowel letter….

Yawn…..ughhh……OK, that really sucks. If you want to learn more about silent e’s orthographic pattern you can read more here. I’d rather scrape my head on hot Georgia asphalt.

Now, the writer at wikipedia probably wasn’t writing with creative or effective instructional design in mind. But an awful lot of adult educational material reads like that. IDs and other business writers tend to make things too complicated, too long, and too detailed. I guess deep inside, a lot of us secretly think that long explanations with plenty of big words make us sound smarter.

Instead, we need to apply these lessons that The Electric Company writers mastered long before e-learning even existed:

  1. Get to the point.
  2. Keep it simple: Leave out the theory and unnessary explanation.
  3. Show how to do something.
  4. Give lots of examples.
  5. Be light, engaging, and fun.
  6. Don’t be afraid to express yourself in the material. (Its OK to show some personality! Honestly.)

Is it possible to turn adult learners on and bring them the power of The Electric Company?

Yeah, yeah. I know. Adult learners are different. I studied the theory and know the rules. But are we that much different? Not so much. Sure, sometimes what we need to teach is complicated and dry by nature. But too often we tend to bore victims learners with text heavy e-learning. We can do better. We can be light, simple, engaging, fun, and still reach adult learners. Don’t believe me?

Check out this Common Craft video explaining what a wiki is:

Notice that the video embodies some of the same pointers I took from the Electric Company: to the point, fun, engaging, and simple. No long-winded explanations. Good stuff!

So, think about the last boring e-learning you sat though (or created!). How could you apply the Electric Company lessons to YOUR course? How can you make learning a bit more fun and expressive? It might be worth a gamble. Go ahead….turn ’em on. Give ’em the power!

Need some musical motivation? Get turned on with the groovy theme song.

Hooking learners with a simple story

August 16, 2008

Instead of just starting an e-learning course with a dry-as-sand list of objectives, I like to start with a “teaser” scenario. A teaser is designed to hook the user and give them a bit of motivation for taking the course.

Recently I have been working on a WBT about the A3 problem solving process and report writing (made famous by the process gurus at Toyota). The approach is very effective, yet amazingly simple: You follow a certain problem-solving process and, regardless of the complexity of the project, you write the report on a single A3 sized (11″ x 17″ piece of paper). The purpose of the WBT is to introduce people to the approach, which is becoming the company-wide standard at the client company.

Check out my A3 report writing teaser below. Click the Slideshare navigation arrows to go through the screens.

In this case, I wanted to give a sense of fun and simplicity to the subject matter. Hopefully people taking the course can relate to or hope to avoid the pain experienced by the charachter Joe and therefore want to take the lessons. So, the implicit objective is that in taking this course, you will avoid writing crappy, ineffective reports and, instead, create reports that your audience (e.g., your boss!) will understand and use.

Another thing I like about teaser scenarios like this one, is that it sets the groundwork for fun interactions later on. For example, the story can be continued with multiple choice questions and examples.

Following the teaser in my A3 course, users can select from several lessons. Joe appears throughout the course, sharing his lessons learned with the viewer. The viewer is able to help Joe make decisions via short vignettes and branching scenarios. When the learner makes a mistake, Athena (the Problem-Solving super hero) appears, sharing best practices for good report writing. Athena also shows up on summary screens between steps.

So what do you think? The audience is probably a bit like you. Most are smart folks and most have not heard of this approach to problem solving. Does an introductory story/scenario like this make you more likely to be interested? Or is it too goofy? I would also love to hear about any other low budget ideas for hooking learners up front.

Two Useful Visual Communication Tools

August 9, 2008

I’m always happy to find tools that aren’t just cool, but actually improve my productivity or ability to communicate more effectively. Here are two tools I discovered just this week.


From the folks that brought you Camtasia and Snagit comes Jing– a very nifty screen capture application that has me salivating. Techsmith describes it as “an always ready program that instantly captures and shares images and video..from your computer to anywhere.”  Videos or images taken of your desktop can be uploaded to screencast.comand linked to from your blog or wherever. You can also save files locally or send it out immediately via email or instant messenger. Sweet.

In terms of It’s raw functionality, Jing is a bit like a scaled down version of SnagIt and Camtasia. But the value-add here is how it improves your workflow. As the FAQ puts it, Jing is designed to be “fast visual communication shared with others in a variety of locations.” So while I wouldn’t use it for for a technical writing or software training project, it is an awesome way to quickly take a picture or video that I want to share with a colleague, the IT help desk, or my Aunt Virginia. You can also annotate the images with text, highlighting, arrows, and other nifty things. All in a manner of seconds. Extra sweet. That’s just the kind of scrappy, seamless workflow I want.

I often question the “ease of use”  and speed that software companies brag about in marketing spin. So I’m gonna test out how easy it is to quickly add a insert on this page a screen capture of my current desktop, along with a simple annotation. OK…here I go….

Yup. That was pretty easy! I was able to snap a picture of a custom region, annotate it, upload it, and paste the embed URL (which was saved automatically to the clipboard) — all in about 2 minutes. Nice.

PowerPoint’s Slide Show Pointer Tool – Great for Storyboard Sketches

When I’m doing instructional design, I storyboard a lot in PPT. Usually I’ll mockup a screen layout and make some attempt at describing an image that I want an artist to create for me. Wouldn’t it be easier if I could just draw a crude stick person, instead of searching for lame clip art? Yes it would! Well, now I know how to do that right in PPT. I don’t even need to switch to another application. Here’s how:

  1. Switch to Slide Show mode.
  2. Go to the slide you want to design.
  3. Right click.
  4. Point to Pointer Options.
  5. Select a style (I like Felt Tip Pen).
  6. Use your mouse and cursor to sketch your image.

Now exit out of slide show mode.

You will be asked if you want to save the ink annotations. You do.

Voila! The slide now has a nice, simple sketch that you can use to communicate your idea with your artist, programmer, or whomever. Below is a sketch I did in just a few seconds. A big benefit of this approach is that I don’t have to switch to another application. I also don’t have to save the image to a folder somewhere and then insert it. It is saved automatically right in PPT. That’s a big time saver. In the example below, I want to convey to the media guy that I want an image indicating that a badly written report is not useful to the audience and ends up as total waste. For our team, a simple picture tells a story easier than describing it in text.

Another benefit is that a sketch like this could be used in a rapid prototype to share with a client. They’ll get the idea better than they would with just text-based storyboard, and you potentially save cash by not wasting expensive graphics time in case they don’t like the storyboard.