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.

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.

Improve your process with these two questions

July 7, 2008

In “The Leader’s Handbook,” Peter Scholtes suggests asking internal and external customers two questions:

What are you getting that you don’t need?

What do you need that you aren’t getting?

Several years ago, I asked similar questions of team members on an e-learning project that I managed. One of the things that the team clearly did not want was a detailed work breakdown report. Instead, they wanted an individualized report that indicated how much time each team member was allowed for each task in the upcoming week. As a result, I quit wasting time on reports that were not being read, and instead focused on a more useful tool that helped the team budget time spent on their tasks.

Try it yourself. Pick any ID or other process you are working on this week or, better yet, today! Now figure out who the customer is. Customers can be the team member that you hand your part of the process off to (such as when you hand a storyboard off to a programmer) or the final users of the product. They might be your manager, or your direct report. Whoever it is, ask them Sholtes’ two questions.

If you ask sincerely, you may be surprised at just how readily an answer comes. The hard part is to actually do something about it.

Rapid E-Learning Challenge Day 4: Analog Storyboarding

July 3, 2008

Today I needed a brain dump. As happens frequently on training projects, I received new information from the project sponsor/SME that added significant content (a recommended book) to the course and may potentially alter my strategy and storyboard. Since I had already begun the storyboarding process, I found myself just spinning my ID wheels when I looked at my outline/storyboard in PPT. It was hard to see outside my existing plan.

So I decided to step away from my PC and try a non-digital approach. 1) Sketch out and brainstorm ideas on paper and a whiteboard. And then 2) storyboard on paper using sticky notes or print outs of blank PPT slide notes. Garr Reynolds (“Presentation Zen”) and others advocate this approach as a way to enhance right-brain activity and help get outside your box. 


my white board brainstorm

my white board brainstorm

I used to protest that storyboarding and brainstorming in a non-computer way added extra steps by having to then re-create it digitally. But sure enough, it helped dump the junk in my brain that made me feel stuck, and helped me to see the big picture in a way that is difficult in PPT or even a mind-mapping tool. I also found it easier to jump around, erase, scribble, doodle, start over, and whatever else I need to do. Sometimes technology is just too cumbersome.

My lesson of the day is that it seems that working on paper may be more efficient for hashing out ideas and screen flow. And move it to digital only after you have a good sense of direction.

 So while my rapid project ain’t so rapid right now, I am improving my processes which should help the next project take off more quickly. Now, if only I could get the SME to get all the relevant content to me BEFORE storyboarding begins!

Rapid e-Learning Challenge: Day 1

June 25, 2008

One designer. One course. 48 hours.

Status: On target

Total time: 8 hours

I’m off to a pretty good start. My goal for these first few days is to consolidate my research notes and random ideas into a content outline and begin the storyboarding process. Today I reached a semi-final state of the content outline.

In the past I used MS Word to develop content outlines. This time around I decided to try out a mind mapping tool for developing the outline. Tom Kuhlman suggested a similar approach (different tool) in a comment last week, and he wrote about how he uses mind mapping here. And Michael Hanley describes using FreeMind for instructional design. I’m using the free tool at Mind Meister for now, but am open to better tools, especially if they’re free 🙂

What’s this course about, anyway?

The course is about writing my company’s version of A3 problem solving reports. An A3 is a tool that Toyota uses to propose and report on solutions to problems. The idea is to present all the essential information about a focused subject on a single 11″ x 17″ (A3 size) piece of paper. The report is divided into sections that follow specific data-driven problem-solving steps. This reporting approach forces clear, focused communication, and allows the reader to view a lot of information at a glance. It’s a brilliant process and forces clear, focused communication. I’ll write more about the A3 report and process and implications for instructional design in a separate post.

Here is a snapshot of my mind map/content outline.

Mind map and content outline for A3 Report Writing course.

This gives an idea of the high-level topics. I’m not showing the details due to internal privacy issues, but when I drill down into sub-topics, I also have initial screen treatment and activity ideas. I am able to insert notes, icons, links and even attachments. Links and attachments will be especially helpful by (hopefully) making it easier to locate source documents, web sites, etc.  So in a way it is a mini knowledge management system. A

But is it rapid?  Although I am early in the design and development process, I think the mind mapping approach is a great alternative to using Word to outline and document ideas. It looks like it will be a big time saver from my past way of flipping around, forgetting, and searching for those notes about my last great idea. The slow-down, of course, is that it takes at least a little time to install, learn, and integrate a new tool into your work. This slowed down the Rapid e-Learning Meter for now, but in future projects, I suspect a quicker start. 

Genchi Genbutsu for Instructional Designers

June 12, 2008

Genchi genbutsu is a key concept in the Toyota Production System and means “go and see for yourself.”  The idea is that instead of simply reading a report about a problem or talking about it in a conference room, you should actually go to the place where the problem is occurring and observe the situation for yourself. Practicing genchi genbutsu is the best way to truly understand a problem. 

A No-Brainer for Instructional Designers?  Well, I’m not so sure. A lot of times, we first hear about performance problems in a meeting of some sort, or perhaps by reading a proposal or report that describes why a particular training solution is necessary. Once the project starts, we might review existing training or other documentation, and maybe conduct a few expert interviews. In other words, we pretty much rely on other people describing the problem. Then we design training to “fix” the problem, although we are really quite removed from it.  Sound familiar?

Well, in lean thinking, that’s not kosher. Problem-solvers are encouraged to go to the gemba, the Japanese word for “actual place.” What if instructional designers practiced genchi genbutsu as a routine part of doing our work. Instead of just taking the word of client stakeholders and company data, we need to go to the gemba and observe the situation ourselves. This will result in better and more authentic training.

Several years ago, I was involved with developing e-learning on kitchen safety for a retail restaurant client. The instructional design team relied on company documentation and SME interviews. But it would have been better to actually go and watch a typical kitchen where the reported problems were occurring. It would have been even better to go and do the same job in the same location.

This doesn’t mean we have to do a bunch of research to validate previous research. The point is that by directly observing, you learn in a holistic way than by learning about a problem second hand. Sometimes you don’t even have to open your mouth. Just open your eyes and look.

  • Designing a customer service skills course for call center employees? Go to the call center: watch them at work and listen in on their calls.
  • Wondering how to improve machine worker skills? Don’t rely on a manager’s report. Go to the shop floor and watch. 


Here’s the bottom line for workplace learning folks: Practicing genchi genbutsu will not only help you garner keener insights, it will also help you connect to your end users (the real customer) at their level, in their language. In turn, you will develop more relevant and effective training.