Monday, February 19

It’s a matter of culture

I’d like to follow up on my last post and also weigh in on the question of investment in formal training and informal learning. I tend to see the world through my own professional lens, which is that of culture. Although usually taken to be about the behavioral differences between people of different national, geographical, ethnic, religious origins, culture is everywhere and constitutes a property of all groups. This idea isn’t new to the industrial world, since for the past 20 years or so we have talked about “corporate culture”, which for many more decades has been pro-actively practiced by companies such as IBM (with its now abandoned dress code and "IBMer" identity) or HP, with the “HP Way”. Jack Welch used a much softer and holistic approach at GE, where, as we now know, there was a strong emphasis on informal communication and bottom-up creativity, aiming at creating a learning culture.

Defining or imposing a culture and disseminating its principles aren’t enough to make it effective. The key reason for this is organizational inertia. And consistent with it is the relatively short tenure of CEOs, whose promotion of culture is essential if we wish to maintain any hope for cultural change. Alas, though essential, it isn’t enough, partly because the permanent management -- from divisional directors to line managers, the ones who have to deal with human performance -- see the CEOs as living in a stratosphere that has nothing to do with their lives and their professional objectives (i.e., in most cases, maintaining their jobs). Have any of you tried inviting a group of people in a “teaching situation” to be creative? Even though – depending on the group -- a few voices will inevitably speak up, it generally isn’t creativity that’s expressed but rather “competitive personality”. And its effect is usually to silence the others (the same thing happens in discussion groups, by the way). Department heads live essentially in a world of competitive personality.

I began working on the subject of professional culture when it became a mission critical issue in the 1980s as companies here in Europe began the revolutionary step of introducing the PC into their workspace. This was a major paradigm shift, especially concerning the distribution of power and the status of staff autonomy. It wasn’t an easy ride, but it certainly was an interesting one, and possibly more important in terms of world culture and even geo-politics than the collapse of the Soviet Union. I did a lot of work with one company in the Thomson group where the CEO was on a mission of mondernization. Nobody knew at the time, but he was asked by Thomson’s CEO to prepare this subsidiary of a state-owned company, which possessed a largely military culture and thrived on defense contracts, to be sold to a privately-owned Canadian competitor and to be more active in the civil sphere. My small training/consulting company was asked to prepare the entire staff on two fronts: intercultural (dealing commercially with other countries, including speaking the same language) and adoption of PCs (the machine, the keyboard, DOS, spreadsheets, databases, word processing, etc.). To my surprise, the biggest challenge was getting French males to use a keyboard!

This was an exciting mission and, knowing the CEO had clearly stated his goals, I began by interviewing the department heads whose staff was concerned by the “new culture”. Imagine my disappointment to discover their attitude was unanimously blasé and even dubitative. In the following months, we had some fun and achieved some significant but limited success, until the CEO resigned 18 months later and the great experiment was abandoned (and they never managed to sell off the company). In the meantime I had been co-opted to create a new department of engineering services around training technology (basically, interactive video) to be proposed to the company's clients, so I was no longer involved in the internal training challenge.

We all know now that the teething problems of introducing the PC lasted as long as teething problems tend to last and that, among other things, within three years French males started massively accepting the use of a keyboard. There is little doubt that this happened not because of a massive increase in training (which actually did take place), but because there was a deep cultural shift leading to a much more massive amount of informal exchange. Training helped, but it remained blissfully ignorant of the cultural reality around it. The question we can now ask is, "could it have happened more quickly, more efficiently and at less cost had training departments taken into account the informal?". The answer should be resoundingly “yes”, but as Don Clark points out, there are no “objective statistics” to cite, so that a classic resource management approach is incapable of taking the issue on board.

How could informal learning have been encouraged? First of all, by concentrating the formal training less on the technical skills of the staff and more on the human skills of department heads. It could have included things like group dynamics and communication training, to say nothing of corporate culture itself (which I still don’t see as a significant item in training course catalogues). Although this type of action is formal, it represents a direct investment in informal learning and could be added to the column of strategic investment rather than "just in time" fixes. They could have encouraged rather than neglected the potential of the expensive and hard to deploy groupware (Lotus Notes) they began investing in during the 90s. They could have looked at questions of corporate architecture (some did, by the way, but not necessarily with the conscious idea of stimulating informal professional exchange). They could have adopted an attitude of “visionary evolution” focused on the long term, taking into account human behavior; but of course the obsession with quarterly results still makes that difficult. Executives with long-term vision write books rather than struggling to impose their vision in the real corporate environment they work in.

As this is turning into an essay, I’ll stop here, for reasons of inappropriate length. But I’m sure others will have many things to say to keep the discussion going and tease out the meaning of these issues, including the "how to invest in informal learning". If we could situate the "how to", we might be able to clarify the "how much?".

Sunday, February 18

102 Questions

UPDATE 2/19/07: After an error then a typo, the link below goes to the correct page. Just to be sure, it's and the list is now 112 questions long.

Since I'm not tracking comments this month for The Big Question, I thought I'd do something that I hope will be valuable. I've aggregated all of the questions that have been proposed in the participating blogs. You can find the list, which at the moment stands at 102 questions, on the LCB Discussion Wiki on the Big Questions page.

On the wiki page I describe a few things that I needed to make educated guesses at. If you don't care for how I've presented your question(s), please feel free to edit the table.

Dave Lee
your humble blogmeister

The Numbers Behind Informal & Formal Learning

I recently posted an article on this blog, Investing in Informal Learning. Seeing more in it that what I originally posted, I used it as part of a larger posting on trdev, State of the Learning Industry. Tony Karrer urged me to post it to Learning Circuits as trdev is semi-public in that you have to join the group to view any of the postings (it is free however). For those of you who are not members of trdev, I urge you to join as it is one of the more dynamic and critical T&D discussion groups on the web. However, simply cross-posting the same material holds no real interest to me, so I delved into the subject and thought about it some more. . .

I'm sure most readers of this blog have seen charts similar to this posted throughout the web:

Which of course makes informal learning look like a better investment than formal learning. However, in Training in America, the cost of formal and informal that they give ($30 billion for formal learning and $180 billion for informal learning) means that the true investment for learning should look more like this:

The second chart suggests that "formalizing" the informal learning would now be the better investment in order to make it more efficient. However, in the trdev discussion, Tony suggested that the second chart is not counting the payroll expenditures (soft costs) of the students in the formal learning classes. Thus the formal learning expenditures should be higher. We could argue back and forth about what costs should be included in each one, but we would only be second guessing what the authors actually counted under each form of learning.

Then it dawned on me what the numbers really mean; we are using the government's term of informal and formal learning -- if the money invested in learning falls under a training department's budget, it is counted as formal learning; if it falls only under payroll, then it is being counted as informal learning.

We are using monetary terms to define informal and formal learning. However, I think that most of us would define it more or less as Stephen Downes views it -- if it is managed by the learner it is informal, if it is managed by someone else it is formal.

The government defines OJT and apprenticeship programs as "informal" simply because they normally fall directly under payroll's budget, rather than training's. Yet for the most part, learners are not walking into the workplace and deciding what and how they will learn their job. Rather they are being directed or managed by supervisors and coworkers. The OJT programs are often under the guidance of the training department.

Thus the numbers thrown at us that 80% of the learning in the workplace is informal and 20% is formal is totally misleading, unless of course you want to define formal and informal learning in dollar terms. So what is the real percentage? I doubt if anyone really knows. Besides, I think it would totally depend on the type of workplace itself.

Tuesday, February 13

The wisdom of Jack Welch

I’m not a great believer in leadership training, even though it’s very much the trend. But the fact that such training exists means that there is a problem to be solved. I notice that some of the manuals like to quote the 10 leadership principles of Jack Welch. I’ve copied below the first five:

1. There is only one way - the straight way. It sets the tone of the organisation.

2. Be open to the best of what everyone, everywhere, has to offer; transfer learning across your organisation.

3. Get the right people in the right jobs - it is more important than developing a strategy.

4. An informal atmosphere is a competitive advantage.

5. Make sure everybody counts and everybody knows they count.

Three of them I find vitally interesting for the rethinking of learning. Forget the first, which is there as a kind of shocker, asserting the authority of the leader (what better way to say “I’m Jack Welch, shut up and listen”?). If I wanted to quibble, I’d say that just as there’s no such thing as a free lunch, there’s no such thing as a straight way. All viable ways follow the relief of the land and are therefore not straight, but rather as straight as possible or as straight as management can make them… which means that professional life doesn’t end up looking like a series of right angles.

It starts getting interesting with number 2. Learning is as close to the top as you can get (once you get the phantom straight line out of the way). And notice what it says: learning is everywhere. It doesn’t come from trainers and SMEs. Everyone’s involved. And the need is to transfer, not to teach.

Skip to point 4. What do we find? A celebration of informality, not as a method of learning (who in the organization really cares about learning besides Jack Welch?*) but as a factor of competitive advantage! Put 2 and 4 together and we begin to see how learning organizations may develop.

Point 5 is equally important. How do people show they count and know they count for others? I don’t think Welch is talking about pay packages and brownie points. It’s rather that their voice is heard because they have something to contribute and a forum for making it heard. That forum is the ongoing informal dialogue of an organization where “everyone, everywhere” has something “to offer”. Maybe we should be concentrating on giving shape to that forum by encouraging communities where the dialogue is real and authentic, not polluted by too many "learning points".

Anyway, it's a great honor to welcome Jack Welch to the exclusive club of promoters of informal learning. He deserves to be one of us!

* To answer my own question, I’d say “nobody except the CEO” because everyone else, including the CLO, has a job to do and they all know the criteria on which they will be judged. And it ain’t learning – which is oriented towards the future -- but keeping the machinery going with as few hiccups as possible – which means having one's eye fixed on the present and quarterly results. Having worked closely with a direct disciple of Jack Welch, I know how focused those objectives are.

Sunday, February 11

Pay No Attention to that Man Behind the Curtain

Hi everyone. Some of you may have caught glimpses of some work I'm doing behind the scenes of LCB. If you had a chance to see Peter Isackson's post on improvisational learning from May of 2002 that accidentally was at the top of this page for the last 24 hours or so, you got a glimpse of the future by seeing the past.

I've begun the process of consolidating all of the posts of LCB from 2002 to the present into one environment. This effort is in anticipation of a migration to a new environment sometime in the near future.

If your the type to volunteer to do some grunt work, keep your eyes on this space. As I get a bit more organized and have a feel for the tasks that will need to be completed to achieve the transformation of LCB, I'll be looking for some help. If you can't wait to volunteer, please let me know by commenting on this post and I'll be sure to find something for you to do!

Now, back to the Big Question for now Dorothy, the balloon's not ready to depart for Kansas quite yet!

Friday, February 9

Is it possible to have a universal argument, "Simulations work better than traditional formal learning programs"?

I am often asked to prove that simulations work better than traditional formal learning programs. As a tiny bit of background, I wrote this a few years ago in my column in Online Learning magazine:

"People often ask me what the return on investment (ROI) of e-learning is. I tell them it's 43 percent. How did I come up with that figure? Truth be told, I made it up. That's because knowing the ROI of e-learning is sort of like knowing that the average depth of the ocean is 2.5 miles. Interesting, but not very helpful to a ship's captain."

Given that, I have done some studies for both my own simulations (Virtual Leader), and others (Ngrain). I have interviewed countless practitioners, users, and sponsors. I have been involved in surveys and studies. I have argued that simulations come in genres (such as branching stories), and that analysis should be done at the genre level.

And I still have no idea how to approach that question. I don't even know who is qualified to measure effectiveness, or even define what effectiveness is. Even within a neutral body, there are advocates who do the study.

So what do people think? I am not asking, are simulations more effective? I am asking, what is the simplest argument that you would find compelling?

Friday, February 2

February Big Question: What Questions?

The February Big Question goes to the root of what The Big Question is all about. It is a topic that has bothered Tony for a while. In a session on Informal Learning by Jay Cross, Harold Jarche and Judy Brown at ASTD TechKnowledge, you could easily see great questions getting raised by both the presenters and the audience. "How can I help my organization improve the quality and quantity of conversations?" and “How can I create informal learning experiences for new managers in my organization?" These questions offered a fantastic opportunity for discussion and understanding of the subject.

Tony’s revelation was that one of/if not THE biggest questions facing us is that we don't know the right questions to ask in a given situation. Sometimes we’re asking a question when we should be asking a different one.

So, this month, The Big Question is...

What Questions Should We Be Asking?

Please answer this question by posting to your own blog or commenting on this post.
(For further help in how to participate via blog posts, see the side bar.)

Point to Consider:

  • Feel free to list questions from lots of different perspectives and at lots of different levels.
One last note. Don’t worry about answering the questions you suggest. Perhaps we’ll do that in future.

Participating Blogs:
The form for February's Big Question has been closed. If you have a post in response to the February Big Question, please contact the Blogmeister by using the Dear Blogmeister form which can be linked to from the top of the sidebar.

Clive Shepherd
Clive on Learning
The big question for February: what questions should we be asking?
Tony Karrer
eLearning Technology
Clive Sheppard What Questions
Adele Lim
learning & development
Feb Big Question: What Qs should we be asking?
Karyn Romeis
Karyn's blog
February's big question
Matthew Nehrling
mLearning World
The February Big Question- What Question?
Tom Haskins
growing changing learning creating
Asking the right questions
Clark Quinn
Asking Good Questions
What Should We Be Asking
Karl Kapp
Kapp Notes
Questions, Questions and More Questions
Ray Sims
Sims Learning Connections
What Questions Should We Be Asking?
Mark Oehlert
The Big Question about Questions
Dave Lee
asking questions
Brent Schlenker
Corporate eLearning Development
The February Big Question
Anil Mammen
Discursive Learning
A Question of Questions
TIS Corporate Blog
What Questions Should We Be Asking?
Valerie Bock
Collaborative Learning
What Questions Should We Be Asking?
Terrence Seamon
Here We Are. Now What?
The Power in Asking Questions
Jay Cross
Internet Time Blog
Big questions about big questions
Geetha Krishnan
Simply Speaking
Questions, questions
Tony Karrer
eLearning Technology
Is the Big Question Half-Full or Half-Empty?
Jacob McNulty
What's in a Question? Our Future
Tony Karrer
eLearning Technology
Action on Informal Learning - Leads to Great Questions
Tony Karrer
eLearning Technology
Continuing Thoughts on Questions