Monday, November 28

Back to the Future


Clark Aldrich, in his insightful blog several months ago, said “As I work with organizations in developing e-learning, I am increasingly aware of dead elephants in the room, large reference points that we have to avoid because we can't wrap our minds around them.” He then went on to give several examples, where we talk about one thing (the traditional approaches and methods), and do not bring up the related Dead Elephants of e-learning (the new, innovative tools and techniques). Clark ended his post by asking readers “What are some other dead elephants?”

In the 10 comments that followed, Godfrey Parkin touched upon what I think is not only a dead elephant, but the huge rotting carcass of a Wooly Mammoth. He said “One very large elephant that nobody wants to talk about is the increasing marginalization (and ultimate demise) of centralized training, and its implications for training departments as we have known them."

That was the point of the Snake Oil post. Back then, when it was first published, it was a wake up call for those of us who worked in corporate training departments. Back then, a lot of people paid attention and responded.

As I understood the post, the purpose was to start a dialogue, to try and build a business case and discover a migration path from what Sam called “Snake Oil” – training that had been proven NOT to work - to new approaches that DO work (e.g. affective and cognitive learning, mentoring, collaboration, database-driven embedded and portable WIFI ‘performance’ systems, etc.). In Sam’s words, it was an opportunity for us to be “… rated on whether you save or make money (or both) for the company.”

Two years later, after the alarm was sounded, it seems as if many of us have not only gone back to sleep, we’re disappearing.

People left inside corporate training organizations are still selling Snake Oil. To quote a friend of mine, “This is professional suicide.” The new (now old in PC years) learning and knowledge transfer methods that the Snake Oil post listed are still not being discussed or widely adopted.

The reason I thought the Snake Oil post was so important – I remember forwarding it to almost everyone on my email contact list – was that it was a chance to bring the Dead Elephants to life and have them enter the room. By doing so, I thought we could move away from the old Snake Oil approach, and begin to employ and incorporate the more readily measurable methods and tools into our work. The net result would have been several years of providing corporate education that would have had a more visible impact upon performance and profitability.

Because we did not take the Snake Oil post either to heart or to work, that window of opportunity is lost. And the consequences are apparent.

I recently read some research about our industry by Ambient Insights that shows that we – corporate trainers - are gradually going away. We are moving from inside the corporation, where we might have had a tremendously valuable impact, especially in the Knowledge Economy, to the outside. In 2004, there were about 75,000 corporate training professionals in this country. The trends towards off-shoring, outsourcing, downsizing and capsizing indicate that by 2008 there will be about 45,000 of us left.

Most of us will be working for companies outside the corporation. As an outside vendor, our influence and impact upon corporate decision making, with regard to education and training, will be minimized. And if the trend continues, and we cannot break away from using Snake Oil, more than 75-80% of us by 2011 will be looking in from the outside, as we develop and deliver corporate training programs .

The upshot of all this is that 6 years from now, by 2012, only 20,000 of us (or less) will be working inside companies as part of a training department. As Godfrey Parkin said, we will be even more marginalized, our ideas for innovation and new approaches even more discounted, and our primary role will be as project managers of outsourced contracts. The majority of us will work for outside companies as low paid and/or contract workers. And becasue there will still be money in Snake Oil, that's probably what they will sell.

I had high hopes, when the original post was first published, that we could change direction. I knew that we were NOT on the right path every time I bent over backwards, using some clever new system, to try and prove an ROI for a training program. I was looking forward to a new and exciting dialogue about the different role we could play. I was envisioning a more rapid adoption of the innovative methods of learning that were surfacing as part of the Digital Revolution.

I had even hoped we could broaden our scope to learn what was going on outside the workplace, look at what was being done in the government, the military, Grades K to 12, and post-secondary schools. My goal back then was to reverse the trends, move away from just being ‘the training department’, jettison the canned Snake Oil approach, and move onto a better track that could help us become more valuable and valued by our companies.

And so, two years later, the infamous Snake Oil blog is posted once again. I still believe, despite the trends, that it’s not too late, that those of us inside the company can still change what we are proposing and doing, get away from what measurably does no good (Snake Oil), to what works better if not best. I look forward to 'walking the talk', using the newer and more collaborative technology of the wiki, to discuss the possibilities posited by the Snake Oil blog. As Andrew Williams wrote in his response, perhaps the original post can still be viewed as “an inflection point” in the history of this industry.

8 comments:

Allen Stonecraft said...

First, thank you for a most eloquent and thought-provoking piece. I missed the original snake oil post and found it spot on.

Your reprise made me realize that more talk is just more time wasted.

I drive with a Garmin GPS device that literally tells me where to go at every turn. I do not need to learn directions nor even know how to read a map.

So I'm first going to look for places where my company spends unnecessary dollars on training, and recommend they stop. instead, substitute a garmin-like system. It's less work for me and more profit - costs reduced and expenses avoided - for my company.

If I ask, every day when I come to work, what can I do, as a training manager, to make my organization more profitable, and get rid of the snake oil, then I can get on to the really interesting work!

Left turn in three miles ...

Peter Isackson said...

Dave,
I admire your courageous pessimism (i.e. realism) and persistent (in spite of all) optimism. I think your analysis of the trend is absolutely right. The only difference is I’ve come to believe that snake oil is a basic commodity in the corporate and economic system and culture we live in. It actually meets a profound organizational need!

Look at governments, and this is true almost everywhere in the world. They know for a scientific fact that the future of their country, the well-being of their population and even the resolution of many specific problems (such as the effective integration of ex-colonial immigrant populations here in France) depends upon upgrading their educational systems. In most cases, they even have some idea about how that could possibly be done. But -- with the unique exception of Finland! -- they don’t do anything at all. Why?

The answer is simple: changing things produces:

1. a temporary state of chaos, with unpredictable results unless you have a coherent plan (it’s kind of like invading a Middle Eastern country to “establish democracy”); and of course the only coherent plans politicians know how to produce are called “campaign strategies”.
2. a violent reaction from specific groups of people who have an interest in keeping things the way they are (e.g. teachers, but… strangely… parents as well, who have their own strategies for “managing” their children’s educational results according to established rules).

The same logic applies, mutatis mutandis, to enterprises. Taking people off snake oil means taking on a new, complex project to manage. This is a non-starter because…

1. They have enough to do just to ensure their short-term profitability; adding new projects with no commercial perspective to their program would be unthinkable,
2. The organization would have to acquire and develop new skills to effectively manage such a project, which also means phasing out those who are committed to the old perspective and possess the old skills. What a headache (...and what expense)!

Those are the main reasons for doing nothing. But what need does snake oil fulfil?

Here’s my answer in five points:

· The deep, ingrained, fundamental need not to be bothered by change and development.
· The need not to think about the future because supposedly we lose our focus on the present (the bottom line).
· The need to keep people in a semi-comatose state because that makes them easier to manage.
· The need to produce quarterly results -- and only quarterly results -- to shore up the share price.
· The need to demonstrate an obsession with efficiency, knowing that long-term planning may be effective, but is never efficient.

In other words, in my view there’s a certain systemic logic in the trends you’ve pointed to. Perhaps the informal, workflow-based learning most of our group have identified as the wave of the future will be modeled not by the corporate dinosaurs, but by smaller organizations that can’t afford to have permanent training staff, but can afford to have external coaches. But even that seems to me unrealistic because small enterprises have even less time to “waste” on long-term learning strategies than big corporations. And as you suggest the easiest thing to sell from the outside is… snake oil.

But so as not to lose all hope, I’ll make another suggestion. Perhaps we’re living through a much more complex process of social and economic re-organization that will lead to the creation of intermediate and informal structures with the flexibility to go beyond a commodity-based approach to human services. I’m currently working on a project with a Quebecois business guru, very active here in Europe, who is promoting a concept he’s actually put into effect through a number of innovative industrial projects. He calls it the “family of enterprises” and the model consists of building a tight well managed network of autonomous small enterprises that come together to finance, create, produce and exploit an original idea or an invention. The successful projects he has initiated remain fairly local and somewhat isolated for the moment, but we’re working on expanding the concept to reach the critical mass, in terms of network logic, for it to become a cultural force.

Whether we succeed or not, I believe that only by moving beyond the unique model of the monolithic producer of consumer goods and services for mass markets will we find ourselves in a position to wean ourselves of snake oil. It isn’t just in the training milieu that we need to act, but on a much wider scale. The stakes are too high to do otherwise.

David Grebow said...

Peter:

I believe in many respects you are correct. The resistance to change, any change, seems to be part of our DNA. I suspect it's probably a remnant of the evolutionary survival mechanism of the species.

There are myriad examples. One I often refer to is the incredibly slow (I was going to say painful no pun intended) adoption curve of anesthesia by the medical community (and even patients!).

Another is the almost completely ignored success of a sustainiable agriculture project in Afica, where new inter-planting methods have done so well that hunger in Africa could be dramtically reduced.

There are a myraid more. The eminent Sociologist Margaret Mead, talking about the survival of the human race, said that our achilles heel will most likely be our resistance to change.

Yet I am persistently optimistic because of the word 'resistance' rather than inability.

I am seeing several trends unfolding that may force companies, consultants and vendors to change the approach to learning in general, and specifically in the workplace.

First, we have indeed and in fact entered the Knowledge Economy. It been talked and written about ad infinitum and the implications are only just beginning to be understood and felt. The US for example is competing in a brand new flat world. We are falling behind in almost evey area. Related to education, our school systems rank well below the first place they enjoyed for years. Other countries have pulled ahead using a mix of new educational technology and methods.

In order to maintain our way of life we MUST change the way we do things. That may seem like a conundrum - change in order to maintain the status quo - but these are strange and new times.

Another related trend is coming from all over the world. Suddenly it's the digital revolution on a planet-wide basis. That never happened before. It has engendered programs, projects, software tools, ideas and new methods in the area of learning and education in other parts of the world that are lightyears ahead of us.

I've worked with a company in South Africa that is successfully using Object Oriented Technology in schools and universities. I helped develop a program in Singapore where students used their cellphones to listen to lectures as part of their degree programs.

Nothing succeeds like success and it may only be, as you mentioned, as matter of time. When the large and previously leading players, who inherited the earth after WWII, suddenly realise they are in freefall and rapidly losing ground. Perhaps then, if enough of us act as change agents, the new and better ways will prevail and Snake Oil will no longer be profitable. Perhaps we can learn a lesson from looking at the history of the marketing and sales of Snake Oil.

I advocate patience and persistence ... and being bodacious in the face of those who, like Alice in Wonderland, imagine they are running as fast as they can and are going nowhere at all.

But it will take time and we need to look at a more distant horizon. I leave you with this short and true story, emailed to me from my friend Sally Ann Moore. She runs the iLearning conferences all over the EU, the Middle East, and now South Africa. I hope it lightens up this blog.

"As director of communications, I was asked to prepare a memo
reviewing our company's training programs and materials. In the body of the memo in one of the sentences I mentioned the "pedagogical approach" used by one of the training manuals.

The day after I routed the memo to
the executive committee, I was called into the HR director's office, and told that the executive vice president wanted me out of the building by lunch. When I asked why, I was told that she wouldn't stand for perverts
(pedophiles?) working in her company. Finally, he showed me her copy of the memo, with her demand that I be fired- and the word "pedagogical" circled in red.

The HR manager was fairly reasonable, and once he looked the word up in his dictionary and made a copy of the definition to send back to her, he told me not to worry. He would take care of it.

Two days later, a memo to the entire staff came out directing us that no words which could not be found in the local Sunday newspaper could be used in company memos.

A month later, I resigned. In accordance with company policy, I created my resignation memo by pasting words together from the Sunday paper. (Company name withheld)

Peter Isackson said...

Dave,
I've also encountered the problem of "pedagogy" in various forms. I've heard Americans praise me because I'm so "pedantic" (which I probably am, but certainly deserve no praise for it)! And back in 1999, when I was asked to help the CEO of a start-up prepare the business plan for a Franco-American company developing an LMS and marketing pedagogical services, one of his personal advisers, who was a close friend of Jack Welch, read over our plan and told us to take out all references to "pedagogy" and "pedagogical" because investors wouldn't understand it.

Yes, Dave, we agree that it takes a long haul to get there, and I believe -- as you do -- that we will eventually make it because of all these things happening... dare I say, in spite of our efforts! All these experimental things we do are important, even vital for modeling the future. But we should also be aware that:
1) their effects are generally local and limited,
2) they serve to tip off the powers of resistance on how to build new weapons designed to neutralize the effects on the marketplace of innovation and to protect the status quo.

Still, like you, I remain an optimist and insist on making the positive point, complementary to yours, that even if our struggle sometimes (or superficially) resembles a war between the economic establishment and the newly formed army of "agents of change", the key to winning is not engaging in a frontal attack, but building good will in those places where change must take place. I’m convinced that smaller more flexible economic units and new-style -- but not necessarily exclusively technology-based -- networks are central to the transformation (George Siemens’s connectivity is part of it). That doesn't mean we should forget about the dinosaurs and mammoths, but we shouldn't make their ability to adopt and adapt the litmus test of our own success. At the same time, we need to learn to network effectively so that great local experimental successes, like busy bees, can cross-fertilize others rather than simply being admired in isolation and cited in academic and "pedagogical" literature for the quality of their too rare honey.

Family Goodridge said...

Thanks for your posts I found this discussion immensely interesting. My first observation is that snake oil is bought by those looking for a miracle solution. The problems is not just that training departments are selling snake oil, but executives are willing to buy it. If executive level decision makers are casting their gaze around for one off strokes of genius that will transform their organisation I would humbly suggest that they aren’t going to find it. Of course next week this stroke might be a new financial system, or Enterprise system, or expression of core values or whatever. Now this probably sounds as if I’m conveniently sidestepping any responsibility. Not so. It’s just to take into account that any training solution is implemented within a culture. If that culture contains a faddist management approach (of which training becomes an expression) it will be difficult to suceed no matter how exemplary the individual training program.

Which takes us neatly on to the organisations that are open to the ‘better ways’. What do they have in common? I must confess that you have more experience than I, so let me ask you. Do these organisations have a clearer idea of exactly their purpose for existence and what they are trying to achieve? Is the whole organisation behind that purpose? I contend that training will have a much more lasting impact in an organisation where this is the case. Do some of the small companys you describe fit this model, precisely because they are young and built around a clear raison d’etre?

So if snake oil sales is not the only metaphor for our context what is? Another I have found helpful in considering this issue is the ‘Diffusion of Innovations’ originated by E. Rogers and developed by G. A. Moore. The ignored successes you describe sounds like willing early adopters and visionaries, the challenges you describe sound like the problems of ‘Crossing the Chasm’ and persuading the early majority that these advanced solutions are robust and acceptable. Now if an in house training department is trying to sell a cutting edge product to executives with an early or late majority attitude it will almost universally fail. They’re just not interested in cutting edge; they want robust and proven. So perhaps ‘Success does breed success’; using the diffusion metaphor would suggest that networking between early adopters and visionairies is the start. Only don’t hold out too much hope for the laggards… It might be a while before any innovation is adopted by an executive who can’t distinguish between pedagogy and paedophilia.

Family Goodridge said...

Thanks for your posts I found this discussion immensely interesting. My first observation is that snake oil is bought by those looking for a miracle solution. The problem is not just that training departments are selling snake oil, but executives are willing to buy it. If executive level decision makers are casting their gaze around for one off strokes of genius that will transform their organisation I would humbly suggest that they aren’t going to find it. Of course next week this stroke might be a new financial system, or Enterprise system, or expression of core values or whatever. Now this probably sounds as if I’m conveniently sidestepping any responsibility. Not so. It’s just to take into account that any training solution is implemented within a culture. If that culture contains a faddist management approach (of which training becomes an expression) it will be difficult to suceed no matter how exemplary the individual training program.

Which takes us neatly on to the organisations that are open to the ‘better ways’. What do they have in common? I must confess that you have more experience than I, so let me ask you. Do these organisations have a clearer idea of exactly their purpose for existence and what they are trying to achieve? Is the whole organisation behind that purpose? I contend that training will have a much more lasting impact in an organisation where this is the case. Do some of the small companys you describe fit this model, precisely because they are young and built around a clear raison d’etre?

So if we are not to accept snake oil sales as our metaphor where should we turn? I have found the ‘Diffusion of Innovations’ originated by E. Rogers and developed by G. A. Moore helpful in considering this issue. The ignored successes you describe sounds like willing early adopters and visionaries, the challenges you describe sound like the problems of ‘Crossing the Chasm’ and persuading the early majority that these advanced solutions are robust and acceptable. Now if an in house training department is trying to sell a cutting edge product to executives with an early or late majority attitude it will almost universally fail. They’re just not interested in cutting edge; they want robust and proven. So perhaps ‘Success does breed success’; using the diffusion metaphor would suggest that networking between early adopters and visionairies is the start. Only don’t hold out too much hope for the laggards… It might be a while before any innovation is adopted by an executive who can’t distinguish between pedagogy and paedophilia.

David Grebow said...

John:

I liked your post so much I read it twice! (just joking). I think you, Peter and I are in violent agreement. I especially liked your summation "...using the diffusion metaphor would suggest that networking between early adopters and visionairies is the start."

And that's exactly why we're here and what the wiki is attempting to do.

As you said, I sincerely doubt the laggards will be participating in this blog (or probably any blog for that matter since it's too new a technology.) I'm not sure how I feel about that. Feels more like a quiet cocktail party of the like-minded instead of an all-out brawl in the local pub.

Quite frankly, my age is showing. As I get older I want change now, sweeping and radical and messy and exciting. I want to see Sam's new ideas and approaches spreading all over the place like the pox following the trade routes in the Middle Ages.

I don't have another 50 years to wait unless the human genome project unlocks the aging gene ASAP.

All I know is that whoever I work with or for in the future needs to be able to pass the "pedagogy" versus "pedophilia" litmus test.

Thanks for your thoughtful comments (and as always you too Peter).

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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