How to attract the attention of the C level

As somebody who's a bit semi-detached from the e-learning mainstream now (as I struggle to combine digital creativity and e-learning design and still pay the bills) I think I've got a better perspective on what the real world thinks of e-learning.

This came to mind when I was reading Kate Graham's interesting post, part of which deals with how we - learning technology advocates - attract the attention of execs in organisations. My first response was something along the lines of "well...the reason they don't pay attention is because out in the real world, e-learning's reputation is at best patchy...e-learning is regarded as something you have to do if real training isn't available". So, I know this is a bit unfair. And I know that there's research that shows we're not doing too badly, but I've still to meet anyone, in any non-training environment or organisation who, when I say I'm an e-learning consultant says a) I know what that is and b) that they really approve of what e-learning is and does. Most still regard it is an obligation and a pain.

So is it all about providing compelling business arguments for execs? I'm not sure. Over the years we've heard so many gurus talking about how to take a more business-focussed approach to training. We've read so many times about having to provide business metrics relating to effectiveness of learning. Sometimes this works. But I wonder whether we're attributing to these senior folks more pure rationality than is typically the case. Of course business arguments matter; they're necessary. But I don't think they're sufficient. Just trivialising my argument a little, think about how many investments are made by Dragons Den investors on purely emotional grounds. Think about how Alan Sugar makes his decisions. Purely data-driven? Not really...

What's going to sell learning technologies to senior execs is when they themselves feel it working and changing their own lives; when it's integrated into how they learn. The amount spent per person on senior exec training is a completely different order from those elsewhere in organisations (perhaps as disproportionate as their salaries). Yet e-learning barely touches them. Most e-learning providers aren't set up to sell high level solutions, and most training departments in organisations don't equate learning technology to senior level training. Change starts at the top.


"I've not been trained in this yet..." Learn it then!

Poor old HR and training departments. Who's got a good word to say for them? Reading Jane Hart's post this morning I almost had some sympathy as, once again, they come under fire for being too slow and treating people like idiots.

Thing is, I reckon it ain't all their fault. It's not just a supply problem. There are two sources of demand that prevent many, many HR and training departments from moving forward into social, integrated, workplace learning.

Firstly, my experience in a number of organisations suggests that many people - it feels like a big majority - still regard learning as something that's done to them. Just this morning I heard on the radio an interviewee saying that she'd not attempt a particular procedure because she'd "not been trained yet" i.e. an event had not yet occurred, which it was not her responsiblity to arrange, in which information was passed from an expert to others. Those of us who've been banging on about the shift from training to learning, from formal to informal...and so on, for so many years, sometimes underestimate - particuarly in these difficult economic times when so many people feel insecure - how much of a mindset shift it is to get people grabbing responsiblity for achieving their work tasks through learning. If training people do have a long-term role (and I hope they do because it's still a little while before I can afford to retire) then it's got to centre around facilitating learning-to-learn skills in people. And much of this is about shifting the hearts and minds of those millions of normal folks who have been conditioned to take a passive role in their learning. Of course, what used to be called "digital natives" - the highly networked, multi-tasking generations now moving into and up the workforce - will look after themselves. Their hunger for knowledge and sense of personal ownership reminds me more of piranha fish than trainees. 

The second source of demand for good ol' training from the HR and training folks is "the business" - those who typically provide funds for training. They may not often respect training people, but they continue to have problems grasping quite where learning fits in the organisation, if it's not in the quiet offices of the HR and training department. I can't even count the number of times I've been involved in trying to widen the perspective of a project sponsor but have been knocked back because, as non-experts in learning, they won't accept arguments in favour of less immediately tangible approaches.

Changing these sources of demand require significant cultural shifts. But the learning industry should be able to help, shouldn't we, because we're all about changing people, aren't we...?


Let's avoid the hype in the mobile gold-rush 

So all of a sudden, mobile learning feels like a gold rush. New (rapid) tools are on the stocks from many of the established suppliers and some new ones, there’s rarely a brief from a major client that doesn’t mention mobile learning, and most of the large e-learning production houses have new senior staff in place with titles like “Head of Mobile Learning”, or “Mobile technology lead”. I was at Epic’s health-related event on Wednesday and, impressive as the health content was - and it was very good - my view is that mobile stole the show. Their GoMo authoring package looks like a pretty nifty way of getting your learning app up and about and I suspect it may make quite a splash.

But in general the e-learning industry has a poor record of dashing headlong after new fashions - led by technologists and salesmen – without considering learning or business benefits.  I’m really hoping that we don’t drag mobile learning through another e-learning hype cycle although I fear we might. What concerns me is that once again we may be transferring the characteristics and methods of one medium, in this case “static” e-learning, to another: mobile learning. We’re probably also repeating the error of confusing information delivery, whether presented interactively or not, with learning.

Much of the discussion around mobile learning concerns “delivering information at the point of need”. This is great and can have real value. If I want to show a customer around a new car, or consult with a sick patient, or find out the financial needs of a new client, there’s a lot to remember and having information at my finger-tips can be crucial. But if that’s all we use mobile learning for, we’re missing a lot of the potential value creation. Andy Clark, in “Natural Born Cyborgs” talks about how, as humans, we’re innately well-suited to extending our cognitive functions through the use of tools; of integrating these tools into what we are, and how we think and act. This seems to me where mobile learning can really work. So rather than regarding mobile devices as means of delivering or accessing information, and of the information as a prompt for learning, we can think of these devices as extended parts of ourselves; as cognitive tools to help us think and behave differently. Academics like David Jonassen have written a lot about this kind of thing, but in the real world at least some of their recommendations have been constrained because the kinds of tools they talk about have often been tied down to static locations. This is no longer the case.

So what would mobile cognitive tools be like? They'd probably be open-ended, user-controlled, obviously highly interactive; possibly light on information - because learners/users will provider that - and loosely structured. They'll resemble the many tool-like apps we have on our smartphones and tablets, rather than mimic typical e-learning courses. Like our smartphone apps, they'll integrate into how we live and work, rather than remove us from our work in order to “learn”. And they'll probably be created by product designers, not instructional designers.


Answering the artist’s question: intrinsic motivation + courage = creativity = recovery

In my arts-based training work in organizations, one of the questions I’m most often asked by artists is: “What am I bringing to the party; what value do I add?”.  Rather strangely (at least it is to me) business people rarely ask such questions, but maybe that’s why they need the training in the first place.

At a superficial level the answer to the artist’s question is obvious: they give pleasure, offer ideas, spontaneity and new perspectives on problems…and so on. But it occurred to me recently that the real value they offer lies at a deeper level. There are at least a two characteristics of truly creative artists that offer great value to businesses and organizations.

Firstly, good artists are intrinsically motivated. In other words, they love what they do. If they didn’t love what they do, they could make things but they couldn’t be creative. Indeed, various academics, such as Teresa Amabile, have shown us that not only is intrinsic motivation critical for creativity, but that extrinsic motivation (bonuses, money, rewards) actually reduces the quality of creativity. However much you reward a person to be creative, if they don’t love what they’re doing, they won’t hack it. This has all sorts of implications for organizations in terms of resourcing and reward systems; implications that run counter to a lot of accepted management wisdoms.

Secondly, good artists are courageous. Robert Sternberg, in his Investment theory of creativity, compares creative artists to investors who put their money into new ideas when they’re not popular, then build on them in order to gather the returns. Good artists do this largely intuitively. Gambling on new ideas in the face of ignorance, opposition and indifference requires courage. One of the main benefits I’ve seen in bringing artists together with business people is when an artist demonstrates the courage to just get started; to work with a blank sheet of paper, or a block of wood, or a silent musical instrument, and make something out of nothing. There’s no project plan, no mission statement, no goal, no reporting structure.

So what? Well the world’s in a mess. In the last few years it's become a cliché in management circles that in order to solve our problems we have to do something different; that old solutions won’t work. But today’s most urgent problems – financial meltdown, environmental degradation, political corruption to name just a few – need utterly new approaches and world views. Obviously we’ll never return to “business as usual”, and neither would we want to given what the term “business” has lately come to imply.

To stop our downward spiral – fear, leading to doing the same old thing, leading to failure – we could learn a lot from good artists.


A few thoughts on e-learning and creativity

I feel like I’ve spend most of the last ten years banging on about the need for the e-learning industry to be more creative. More creative in culture, process, output...the whole lot.

Having made such a fuss about creativity for so long, this time last year I decided to push the boat out and see what it’s like trying to earn money as a creative artist and musician. I expanded my digital art activity, started doing more paid musical gigs and set out on a masters degree in “creative sound and media technology”, while attempting to keep my e-learning business going (we all like a safety net, don’t we?).

Being semi-detached from the e-learning industry and immersing myself in so much creative work has provided me with some new perspectives.

Firstly, because a very large amount of e-learning deals with pretty simple, low-level stuff, a very large proportion of it doesn’t need much creativity. I think I’ve certainly fallen into the trap highlighted by Clive Shepherd where he talks about “over-engineering for information transfer”, although I’d probably call it “over-designing”. Having worked with some wildly creative people over the last year or so, I reckon this over-designing is at least partly the frustrated creative artist coming out. Creative people are rarely able to contain themselves when they see an opportunity for personal expression. The diagram is a quick attempt to try to highlight where we need more creative approaches, and where we don’t.

Secondly, what on earth is “creativity” anyway? Academics tend to define it as consisting of two components: novelty and relevance. This means that something can’t be “creative” if it’s incredibly novel, but irrelevant or useless. These days I’m pulled in two directions on this. On the one hand, so much of the digital art and music I’ve come across is stunningly obscure, conceptual and complex that I can’t even begin to comprehend it. So it’s not relevant, at least to me. Yet even where it remains utterly opaque to me, it can provide the basis for further thoughts, ideas and wanderings. OK – so that’s creative then. On the other hand, if somebody slaps some cosmetic “creative” work on the front of an otherwise dull e-learning course in order to grab the learner’s attention, presumably that’s not creative is it? It can’t be if it’s not relevant. I remain, constructively confused but more open minded than I was.

Finally, I had the privilege of judging some of the e-learning Age awards this year. And I was really impressed by the level of creativity. I don’t mean in some high art, or even advertising agency kind of way. I was just struck by how people had used a wide range of tools, been ingenious in their application and achieved things that worked. Very much novelty and relevance, within their own context. It seems to me that the rapidisation of so much software – something I’ve talked a lot about in the past – has allowed people to try things out, mess about constructively and find creative ways of dealing with the learning challenges they face. Large-scale, old-fashioned industrial (instructional?) design processes militate against creativity; putting creative tools in the hands of people enhances creativity.