Friday, November 27, 2009

In Praise of SharePoint

Recently, we have made some great strides in my company in our quest to convert training from event-based to ongoing. We made a deliberate attempt to reframe training by thinking in terms of “learning environments” instead of “learning events.” Rather than simply setting up training programs as two or three-day instructor-led events, we have been viewing each class as an ongoing community of practice. Participants still gather to attend a learning event but then they continue to work and learn together virtually after the instructor-led segment of the training is completed.

To enable ongoing collaboration, we use Microsoft SharePoint. For those of you who may not be familiar with SharePoint, it is an integrated suite of tools that provides content management, discussion, and information-sharing capabilities. It can be used organization-wide or scaled down for small groups. In our case, we set up an individual SharePoint site for each class we conduct. Our training program participants, facilitators, and subject-matter experts connect through their SharePoint sites to build on topics discussed during their learning events and to capture and share new informal learning. SharePoint helps us do this in several ways:

1. Ongoing Dialog – There have always been options available for participants to use to stay connected after training, but few classes usually sustain their momentum for long. Because SharePoint offers so many capabilities, participants seem more motivated to stay connected through this tool than other means we have offered in the past.

2. Job Aid Sharing – When we conduct training, inevitably, someone asks a question and the subject-matter expert will respond saying, “I have already worked that out,” or “I have a spreadsheet for that.” The SharePoint site provides that subject-matter expert – and anyone else in the class – with a place to share documents that are relevant for class members.

3. Best Practice Sharing – Typically when we conduct training, we generate lists of best practices for the topics that we cover. We post these lists on the SharePoint site after class. This provides real value for the participants. They go back to the site to get this information. While they are there, they are able to build on those ideas or add new ones to the lists.

4. Action Planning – It is also customary for us to have training participants commit to specific actions they will take after they leave a training class. We challenge them to put what they have learned to use in the business. To do this, we distribute and collect back action planning worksheets during our classes. We post these commitments on the SharePoint site so the class members can see what each person has committed to doing. We also use the SharePoint calendaring function to set up milestones for tracking progress. This has been a great benefit to our class members. They offer each other tools, ideas, and suggestions on how to meet the goals they set during training through the SharePoint site.

5. Program Evaluation – The SharePoint sites provide us with another means to collect level 3 (behavioral change) and level 4 (business result) evaluation data. We mine completed action plans and general dialog in discussions on the SharePoint site for each class for evidence of applied learning and business impact.

One obvious usage I haven’t mentioned here is for program pre-work. At this stage of the game, most of our collaboration work is post-work. The reason? SharePoint is still new in our organization. Our training classes seem to be the first place our employees are encountering it. Also, my team is new to it too. We are still working out how best to introduce it on the front-end. Our goal is to begin using it for pre-work in 2010.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Web-based Learning: The Missing Piece

Last week I made a cross-country journey from Connecticut to California to conduct training for a group of managers from our offices on the west coast and in the southwest. All the way out on the plane, I kept thinking, “Everything on this agenda could be handled through virtual classroom training.” That thought was also on my mind during training as we pushed through our first day’s agenda. With each new topic or segment, I was mentally redesigning the program for web delivery:

When our knowledgeable subject matter experts were speaking, I was thinking: they could be reaching more people through a web-based virtual classroom session.

When the managers in the training were sharing best practices, I was thinking: this discussion could be more in depth and have a longer shelf-life if we were doing this in a wiki.

When we covered some of the necessary static content through PowerPoint presentations, I was thinking: this could be repurposed as e-learning and assigned as pre-work.

When we broke the participants into groups for activities in which they had to tackle real business problems, I was thinking: they could have received these as case study assignments, worked on them, and submitted them by uploading them to a class SharePoint site or to our LMS.

In short, at every turn during the day I was reinforcing my belief that by using sound instructional design principles, this whole learning event could be delivered as an equivalent – or even improved – learning experience using web 2.0 tools and virtual classroom technology. Redesigning the program for the web would transform it from a single learning event into a program that could engage the learners for a longer period of time. It would also be scaleable and repeatable for other audiences. The day’s events just reaffirmed that what I have read in the Virtual-ILT research, and what I have experienced in my own web-delivered programs, really can be effective.

Then we went out to dinner.

There were eighteen of us: training participants, facilitators, and subject matter experts. We had a round of drinks at the bar before moving on to our oversized table for dinner. The conversation was lively. Some of it was personal, some of it was job related, and I'm happy to say some of it recapped key learning points from the class that day. At one point I sat back in my chair just to look around and listen to the group. I heard their laughter, their casual remarks, and their informal conversations. I saw the pleasure of relaxed camaraderie on their faces. At that moment I thought, “This is the piece we are still missing.” Our current generation of online learning, collaboration, and web 2.0 tools doesn’t do enough to replicate this part of the learning event. I’m sure they will someday soon. But will they serve beer?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Web 2.0 Learning Shift

A fundamental shift is taking place in the world of corporate learning. Training departments that were primarily focused on developing knowledge and skills by pushing course content out to their target audiences face direct competition from Web 2.0 tools. Many would-be learners no longer wait to sign up for a course to get the information they need. Instead, they turn to the internet using search engines such as Google or Yahoo! (and now bing), or to Wikipedia for quick answers. A number of other factors also point to this being a time for change:

Do More with Less – This has been a corporate rallying cry for decades now and it is not going away. Just when you begin to think that you can’t cinch the belt any tighter, you are asked to punch another hole in it. This is both a budget and a manpower issue, so even if running training courses could still meet the need, this just isn’t feasible.

ILT and eLearning are not the Answer – Been there; done that. People are no longer getting excited by the traditional corporate university model with its catalog of instructor-led training and eLearning courseware.

Remote, Mobile and/or Agile Workers – Offering training in “the office” doesn’t have the same meaning anymore. The number of people working from home, from the road, or from other remote locations continues to increase each year. For these people virtual learning is a natural extension of the virtual workplace.

Social Media Explosion – Like it or not, employees are using social media tools. They are connecting to people outside of their companies and sharing information freely on facebook, twitter, and personal blogs. User created content has become a powerful source of information through these tools.

So where does that leave us?

Well, providing solid content that meets our learners’ needs will always be important, but instead of “courses” or “programs” being central to what we do, we need to think in terms of “environments” and “enablement.” We need to help learners connect to the right resources quickly when they need them – and to each other. Instructional designers and course developers have to make the leap from producing instructor-led training and elearning courseware to embracing a new platform, one on which they can create virtual collaborative learning environments that allow their company’s employees to learn both formally and informally. Learning needs to combine real world experiences with opportunities for reflection, sharing, questioning and refining. Improvements to virtual classroom tools in recent years now allow this to be done effectively.

For many, it is a struggle to make the leap. Creating an environment that enables informal learning requires giving up some control over objectives and measures. By its very nature informal learning will produce its own unintended outcomes. But isn’t it a good thing if people learn more from our design efforts than we put into them?