Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Importance of Learning about Your Learners

I just got back from the CLO Summit at the Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas. It was a long trip from Connecticut, but well worth it. Red Rock is a great place for a conference and this one was exceptional. There were approximately eighty Chief Learning Officers, Talent Management Vice Presidents, and other development professionals in attendance. It was an intensive three days, focused on key issues impacting the learning industry. There were presentations on organization structure, learning trends, and strategies for managing a learning function during these challenging economic times.

One CLO from the insurance industry presented a case outlining how she built a comprehensive program to raise performance levels among independent agents. It was in support of her organization’s strategy to meet growth targets. This required the independent reps to double their two-year productivity. It was an impressive success story that provided an example of the power of solid instructional design. But what particularly struck me, was the emphasis the CLO placed on learner analysis in the instructional design process. All too often we take this step for granted, instead relying on competency models to tell us what we need to include in the training. In truth, as this CLO well knows, competency models tell only part of the story. Her learner analysis went much deeper, using what she referred to as a waterfall approach to analyze required behaviors at cascading levels.

Listening to her describing her work reminded me that my most successful projects were the ones in which I employed all parts of the instructional design process, including a thorough learner analysis. By that I mean an analysis that explores as many characteristics of the target audience as is possible. In addition to reviewing required competencies, here are a few questions I have found helpful to include in my learning analyses:

What entry behaviors do the learners already possess? In other words, what required skills have they already mastered? This is what the insurance industry CLO was trying to determine in her waterfall approach to learner analysis.

What prior knowledge of the key topics do the learners already have? Usually, learners will have at least some familiarity with the proposed training topics. By answering this question you can determine which topics to emphasize and which topics to downplay. You may even discover topics that can be discarded altogether.

How do the learners feel about the proposed topics? Are they interested, motivated, or indifferent to the proposed topics? Answering these questions will help you size up how much of a challenge it is going to be to capture and hold your learners' attention, and whether or not you will have to make a case to them about the importance of reaching the learning goals.

How do the learners feel about potential delivery approaches? What are their expectations regarding how training will be delivered? Are they expecting live classroom training, e-learning, or something else? You may have the flexibility to choose a delivery approach that is favorable to your learners, or you may not. Either way it is best to know what you are getting yourself into as you develop the program.

What general characteristics do the learners possess as a group? Are you training a homogenous group, or are they very diverse? Group variables should be considered when developing objectives, instructional strategies and motivational approaches. Ultimately, you want to give yourself every possible advantage in knowing what learning activities are most likely to be successful.

This is just a sampling of some of the questions that could be included in a learner analysis. Many others will be specific to the program being developed.

I wish I could say I was always thorough in all my analyses. But at times, I have been guilty of relying on competency models and cutting corners. This mostly happens when I'm short on resources and under deadline pressure. However, like the insurance industry CLO who presented her case at the summit, when big issues are stake I will push back on those deadlines in order to do the right thing.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Media Is Tuning In to You!

On Monday I attended the ASTD Southern Connecticut Chapter’s monthly meeting. The topic was, what else: Social Media. The speaker was Jennifer Scott, of HireEffect LLC. She specializes in talent acquisition and career coaching. She helps her clients use social media for recruiting and/or job searches. She had great advice for both the people in the audience who are currently in career transition, and for the small business owners who are trying to reach more customers with their training/consulting services. Currently, I’m in neither of these categories, but certainly could be some day. Nevertheless, as someone who just recently began immersing himself in social media, I found her presentation to be valuable and helpful.

She focused on three key social media tools: LinkedIn, facebook, and twitter and made good points about each. But her main point was that we would be crazy not to take advantage of the networking opportunities afforded by social media. Years ago, companies had to work hard and pay dearly to get their name out there. Now, through these tools, the media is tuning into you! Social media tools provide free targeted advertising for your business, your job search, or your personal brand.

She gave some advice on how to develop a social media presence. Here are a few of her key points and my takeaways.

  • Clearly define your value proposition. Before you jump in and start appearing all over the web, know what your niche is. What do you want to emphasize? What do you have to offer?
  • Be consistent. Your web presence should make sense overall. In other words, your headline on LinkedIn and your Bio on Twitter should tell the same story about you – and it should match your overall value proposition.
  • Optimize your profile. Take advantage of all the real estate offered on social networking sites to describe your offering or your company. Carefully consider keywords for your profile that are job, business, and industry specific for the audience you most want to reach. Remember, this is free targeted advertising!
  • Don’t just show up; Participate! - Submit news articles. Initiate and join discussions. This is social media. Contribute to the groups that you join. Forward articles or people’s profiles to others who you think might benefit from them. When you make good points in a discussion, people naturally become curious about who you are and will want to link back to your LinkedIn profile or your company’s facebook fan page.
  • Convert social networking into direct connections –Where it makes sense, call a social network contact to offer your services, or to find out more about what it is they have to offer. This is really what it is all about isn’t it?

I am about three months into my explorations with social media tools. Each day as I learn more I become more encouraged by the possibilities for using them for learning inside my organization. I really feel that we are on the cusp of a new evolution in corporate learning that will see us becoming more focused on creating environments to capture informal learning rather than being content and course deliverers.


Saturday, October 17, 2009

Five Examples of Learning Metrics that Matter

This week I participated in a discussion on learning metrics with my new friends at #lrnchat. What a pleasure it is to be part of these weekly events. Where else can you say things like, “if we start analyzing the problem using the Six Boxes® model based on Thomas Gilbert’s theory, we are sure to make some progress” without people running away to see if someone refilled the punch bowl?

The questions that were tossed around this week were:
  • Are learning metrics different from business metrics?
  • What are you measuring in your organization?
  • How do you tie organizational learning to business performance outcomes?
  • What else besides metrics do you use to show impact?

I was excited and a little bit surprised as I watched the responses roll by. I get so caught up in what I’m doing at work that I lose sight of what is going on in the rest of the world. Some people seemed to be struggling with measurement basics, while others seemed to have a strong grasp on the topic. This got me thinking about what we are doing at my organization, which probably falls somewhere in the middle.

I thought a lot about this discussion after it was over. Really, the heart of the matter is: What value do we as learning professionals bring to the organization? How do we show it? The short answer is that we do this by helping business leaders meet their goals.

I have been fortunate throughout my career to have been involved in a number of projects that made a huge impact on the business. But I can also recall times when it was difficult to see connections between the work that I was doing and the impact it was having on the organization. These are the times when we all fall back on measures such as, “butts in seats,” level one evaluations, and elearning completion rates. These are important feedback indicators for the training department, but they usually don’t mean very much to business leaders. That being said, I can think of examples in which these measures alone have been important to the business. What it comes down to is that sometimes the measures associated with learning success will be obvious and glamorous, and other times they will not. Here are a few examples of both from my experience:
  1. Sales Training is one of those cases where the metrics are obvious and easy to align to the business. We run a class on how to sell against our competitors effectively. The natural metric associated with this is the number of competitive takeaways. We have clear evidence that sales reps who take this class have a higher rate of competitive takeaways than the general rep population.

  2. Equipment Service Training is another example with obvious metrics. Well-trained service reps fix problems more quickly and are able to tackle more service calls in less time.

  3. Operations Training can have a variety of metrics. We ran a class on how to write work instructions for a part of the business that was very procedurally oriented. Every time they had people leave the department due to promotions or turnover, processes broke down. Our metric was the existence of well-written work instructions in the departments that participated in the training. This helped the business leader keep continuity when there was turnover.

  4. Compliance Training metrics are not very glamorous. This is a case where counting up completions works to serve the measurement need. Our legal department wants to reduce or eliminate ethics violations, or failing that, be able to prove the company did its part in making employees aware of their responsibilities and the consequences. We make sure everyone goes through our business ethics course and provide a report shows that this has been done.

  5. Soft Skills Training metrics are of course the fuzziest area. Yes we conduct level three evaluations to show behavioral change, but most people don’t get too excited over these. However, our Chief Human Resources Officer is very interested in employee engagement. She knows that offering soft skills training helps people with personal development which is important to engagement. She also knows that managers and supervisors who use what they have learned in soft skills courses are going to receive higher engagement scores. So yes, we count “butts in seats” for these courses.
The point I’m trying to make with these examples is that the metrics have to match the need.  When we help our organization’s leaders meet their goals by identifying and addressing the learning component of their business problem, we are truly adding value.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What's in Your Instructional Strategy?

So here I am at the latter stages of a rather hectic day trying once again to gather and process my thoughts about social learning.  Why is it such a popular topic in the learning community right now?  Why have I been nearly obsessing over these tools for the last few months?

My October 3 post on the topic has gotten some attention, including a comment from John Darling who reminds us, " is also important that we not confuse the "tools" (e.g. twitter, forums, linkedins, etc.) with the process. These technologies are simply one part of the means we can use..."  Of course John is right.  Social learning tools just provide another media option for consideration when developing your instructional strategy.   A good instructional designer considers the learning goal, learner characteristics, performance context, objectives and measures, and then considers delivery options that might be appropriate for the situation.  Costs and practicality issues help to narrow down the choices and ultimately drive the final decision.

So why all the fuss?  Unlike other delivery systems, social learning tools hold the promise of capturing and sharing informal learning.   That is a valuable prize for those of us who have devoted our careers to helping others improve their job performance.

At the beginning of this year, my team launched a redesigned onboarding program for our newly hired sales representatives.  As part of our analysis before the redesign, we interviewed participants from the older version of the program.  A few months after their graduation, we asked them what their most valuable learning experiences during the program were.  None of the people we interviewed cited the formal elements of the program (such as the elearning modules or webinars) as most valuable.  Instead, they said their most valuable experiences were, "riding along with seasoned sales reps" and, "listening over the cubicle wall when experienced sales reps were on the phone with customers."  Armed with this feedback my team was determined to find a way to capture these experiences and build them into our new program.   For the most part, we have succeeded.  We developed activities that foster these interactions and we use a wikispace to allow program participants to share and learn from each other's experiences.

Ultimately, we would like to allow this type of learning to take place in all of our programs.  The bottom line is that people learn a lot from each other.  Social media tools can help us to harness some of those individual experiences and spread them around to benefit more people.  That is why I continue on this mini-quest of mine.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Hats Off to Fort Hill: Driving Business Results through Learning Transfer

This week I had the pleasure and privilege of participating in the Fort Hill Company's 2009 Best Practices Summit.  It was a gathering of learning professionals who had come together to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing the learning community in today's economic climate.  The folks at Fort Hill did an excellent job as hosts, facilitators, and subject matter experts at the event which featured keynote speakers David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity, Sue Todd,  President and CEO of the Corporate University Xchange, speaking on branding learning, and Jim Kelly, COO of ING Direct, sharing his perspective on what business leaders want from learning and development.  There were also more than a dozen best practice presentations by Fort Hill customers and business partners.  I had the opportunity to talk about the training program I run at my company to develop high-potential sales managers.

Fort Hill's primary focus is enabling learning departments to deliver business results by driving learning transfer.  This has to do with learners being able to transfer the knowledge and skills acquired in the training setting back to the job.  When wearing my instructional designer hat, the three main things I try to attend to in course development to aid learning transfer are:
  1. Clearly specifying conditions of performance when writing objectives - these are often those "givens" you see written into objectives such as, "Given a list of terms about leasing, write a definition for each one."  There is something a little unnatural about the rhythm of this type of statement so I don't always include objective statements that are written this way in the training materials that my participants see.  However, behind the scenes, this is how I prepare my instructional objectives.
  2. Using authentic tools or situations when designing learning activities - for example, when training new sales associates on how to uncover customer needs, instead of using an artificial form created for training purposes, supply them with the actual needs analysis tool they will be expected to use on the job. 
  3. Building mechanisms for follow-through right into the training - get learners to commit to specific actions they will take after training has been completed.

In support of item three on this list, The Fort Hill Company has an excellent line of products and services that do just that.  I use their Friday5s® tool in the program for our high potential sales managers. Our goal is to prepare these managers for promotional opportunities at the next management level. We want to develop their problem-solving and decision-making skills now to make sure they can handle the business challenges they will face at the next level.  To that end, each program participant is asked to set two specific goals during the later stages of the training program.  These goals are entered into the Friday5s® tool.  Through the system, participants are prompted to spend five minutes each Friday for a period of time to plan actions and update activities to follow through on these goals.  The training participant's manager is also able to access the system so he or she has line of sight into the goals and actions for coaching and feedback.   Using this system helps our participants sustain what they have learned and put it to use back on the job.  As an added bonus, it gives me the ability to identify evidence that items learned in training are being applied and that they are leading to business results. This makes reporting on the impact of the training clearer and much more effective.

The Fort Hill event itself was a great model for learning transfer.  Their team pulled together a knowledgeable group of learning and development professionals who shared real experiences and applications of learning tools.  There was something that each of us could transfer back to our jobs.  It truly was a best practices summit.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

I Have Learned...Socially!!!

After two months of blogging and tweeting, I have actually begun to learn something through this experience.  Here is my story:

On Thursday night I participated in a #lrnchat session on Twitter with other people interested in learning.  The theme of the chat was, "learning from each other socially in different ways."  I logged on a few minutes early and was politely greeted by a few others who were already there.  At the appointed start time, the chat leader began tweeting the rules.  They appeared on screen one by one, interspersed with greetings from other chatters who were just arriving.  There were seven rules in all.  The gist of which I have repeated here:
  1. Introduce yourself and your location
  2. Share your favorite topics
  3. Write complete thoughts so those seeing your tweets outside of the chat will understand them
  4. Play nice (but sarcasm was welcomed!)
  5. Periodically retweet so others will understand the context of your responses  (I didn't get this at first, but I got it now)
  6. Remember to include #lrnchat in all posts (Putting this at the end of your tweets includes your post in the chat stream)
  7. Five minutes before the end of the session, let the group know if you need anything from them and then close by reintroducing yourself
After all the rules were read, several threads of discussion took place.   I paid attention and participated in a few, but there were several others that went right by me.

The first thread I followed had responses to a prompt asking, "What have you learned this week?"   Some learned about instructional design, some about twitter; I typed that I learned there is a community of learners that meets through Tweetchat on Thursday nights.

Then we began to discuss social learning.  One person suggested social learning is the convergence of ideas. Someone else suggested that all learning is social.  Several people refuted this with examples and testimony.  I asked, "How does social learning fit into the corporate learning world with its security restrictions and data privacy concerns?"  One person sent me a direct response saying, "It doesn''s the very antithesis...uncontrolled by "the man" and self/group constructed."   I thought that was interesting, since one of my goals is to learn how to bring these tools into the corporate learning environment.  I'll be thinking about this one for a while.

Someone asked, "If Socrates coulda' tweeted...would that be social learning?"  This garnered the response: Socratweets!

After all of this, a good discussion thread got started on learning measurement.  Certainly it is difficult to get a handle on the impact that learning through social media could have on a business.  It was clear that this issue creates a barrier for acceptance in the corporate learning world.

In all, the chat lasted ninety minutes.  I had fun participating in it and afterwards - as a good learner should do - I took time to reflect.  So here is a brief summary of my thoughts about my experiences with social learning this week:
  1. I have been blogging for about two months now.  During that time I have been reading and connecting with other bloggers.  It is through one of these connections that I discovered the existence of the #lrnchat group
  2. By linking back to another blogger who read and commented on one of my blogs, I learned some of the vocabulary and syntax used to make tweeting more effective
  3. Through #lrnchat, I learned that there is more to twitter than just isolated tweets
  4. I learned that twitter can be effective for learning if you have people with common interests all tweeting together at the same time
  5. I learned you can make your tweeting more meaningful by using techniques like retweeting, direct replies, and writing complete thoughts
So I think I'm beginning to get the idea of social learning.  I'm not ready to include it in my instructional strategies at work yet, but I'm hopeful that I will be able to at some point.

For you curious social anthropologist types, here is a link to Thursday's #lrnchat transcript.  Be warned, you have to navigate through the zigzag nature of the discussion threads.  As a matter of fact, someone in the group suggested coining a new term for this: Zigzag Learning.  You can also see my contributions to the discussion in isolation by going to  and viewing my posts dated Thursday, October 1.