Saturday, June 25, 2011

Virtual Collaboration Is Easy

There certainly are Many Ways to Learn. One of them is to sit back and observe. That is what I did this week as I watched two tech support people from two different companies troubleshoot a software problem on my laptop. The amazing thing was they did this seamlessly, working virtually, from two different parts of the world.

I recently installed a new software package on my computer. The installation went fine, but I was having difficulty registering it with the company from which I received it. I called their tech support group, based in Cincinnati Ohio to troubleshoot my registration. After attempting to help me register by going through the usual steps (and two alternative methods), the technician determined that something on my computer was blocking communication to my registry. In order to access my registry, I needed to be logged in as a system administrator rather than with my usual user ID. Of course, this was my work laptop and being an employee at a good ole American company that is concerned with data security, I don’t have admin rights for my computer. In order for me to log on as an administrator, I needed to call my company’s tech support team which, being a good ole American company, we have outsourced to another company in India.

So I put the Cincinnati guy on hold while I called India. The India guy helped me get logged on as an administrator, but I still wasn’t sure what I needed to do. Using the conference call feature on my phone, I connected the Cincinnati guy and the India guy at the same time. The Cincinnati guy tried to describe what needed to be done to the India guy and me. Neither one of us was quite getting it, so he suggested setting up a web meeting so I could share my desktop with him and he could perform the required steps for me. It took a minute or two to get the web meeting going, but once it was, he began proceeding through the steps to complete my registration. This was going along fine until he hit a snag. He encountered an unfamiliar setting that was blocking him from completing the registration. The India guy knew what this was, but he had difficulty getting the Cincinnati guy or me to understand what we needed to do to get through this blockage. Fortunately I was able to share my desktop with him to using Office Communicator so he could complete those steps. That freed things up for the Cincinnati guy to complete what he needed to do to get my software registered.

It was fascinating as I sat in my office in Connecticut watching the Cincinnati guy and the India guy take turns manipulating my laptop while the other watched in such a matter-of-fact way. It really brought home the message about how easy it is these days to work collaboratively or to provide just-in-time coaching support at a distance.

Friday, June 17, 2011

3 Ways to Foster Collaborative Learning #LCBQ

The Learning Circuits Big Question (#LCBQ) for June asks:

 How do we break down organizational walls when it comes to learning?

To me, this is really a question about organizational readiness for collaborative learning. As I assess my own work situation, I think about the expectations the business leaders in my company have about what learning is, and I think about the dynamics within the learning group. In both cases, there is some change management needed. Here are three things I focus on to foster the evolution of collaborative learning in my organization:

Help people recognize that formal learning is not always the answer. Business leaders often come to us saying, “We have a training need.” In their mental model of the situation, they envision people sitting in a classroom for a couple of days, or going online to complete a few elearning modules and the problem is solved. Likewise, it is a knee-jerk reaction for instructors who make their living in the classroom, or for course developers who produce and publish elearning, to think of formal learning as a solution first. Sometimes this will be the answer, but in many cases, slowing things down and considering other alternatives can yield creative and effective solutions other than formal learning. The communication tools and connectivity we have today through our laptops, mobile devices and social media create many possibilities for learning through collaboration.

Partner with the geeks. Every company has them. They are the IT people who are always pushing for the latest technology upgrades; the marketing people who blog, tweet and update company events on facebook; the recruiters who do all of their networking and sourcing through LinkedIn. They have made the leap from the traditional ways of doing things in their field to newer approaches. They recognize the power of the community and the relative ease with which people can be summoned and organized through social media at virtually no cost. It is among these folks that you will find champions for change who will help you knock down the walls.

Let communities grow organically. While it may be tempting to try to jump start collaborative learning by requiring people to sign up and participate in social media groups, this really cannot be forced. Collaboration through social media, for learning or other purposes, has to be an “opt in” experience. The most successful communities are built around common interests by people who want to be there because they are passionate about the topics or issues being discussed. That doesn’t mean you have to sit back and wait. As a learning person you should be present and visible on social media in your organization. Model behavior for business people and your learning colleagues. Seed the waters in the conversation stream by sharing resources and links around topics that are of interest to your learners. They in turn will be encouraged to join in the conversation and share as well.  We have been doing this for some time at my company. Check out this blog post from January 2010: Social Media Strategy for Learning for information on how we have been doing this using yammer.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Little Green Men Invade the Parking Lot

Anyone who has ever walked into a corporate classroom, sat down with coffee in hand waiting for the session to begin, has probably looked up and seen a clean white sheet of flip chart paper tacked up to a back wall or taped behind a door with the headline “Parking Lot” written across the top in brightly colored markers. It is usually something the facilitator joyously points out during the beginning of class ritual somewhere among the agenda, the objectives, the what-do-you-want-to-get-out-of-today’s-session discussion and the directions to the restrooms and fire exits. It is the tool of choice to capture those seemingly unanswerable questions and comments that arise during class that must be deferred to, and deliberated over by, the all-knowing but unavailable subject matter expert “who can’t be with us.” It is an old stand-by meant to comfort the class and bring relief to the facilitator. The participants are comforted knowing their insightful questions or challenging real-world situations that takes us beyond the boundaries of what is being covered in class will be acknowledged, addressed, and perhaps even acted upon, by the remote and powerful bigwig who has the knowledge and clout to tackle such things. The facilitator draws relief from the fact that by jotting the issue down on a post-it, and popping it up on the Parking Lot, she won’t have to sacrifice valuable classroom time trying to unravel a seemingly unsolvable esoteric puzzle. Yes, the Parking Lot is a longstanding, battle-tested classroom tradition that is tried and true. But has reached the end of its day?

I recently took over responsibility for a managing a group technical training instructors. They conduct classes to prepare service technicians to install and repair a variety of hardware and software products we sell as part of our customer solutions. Having spent most of my workplace learning career focused on leadership, communication, and other soft skills topics, it is going to take me some time to understand nuances of this baffling world of electro-mechanical wizardry, touch-screen interfaces, and the impact of trying to train 64-bit software on a 32-bit machine (if that is even possible). This week, in a meeting with one of the instructors, we got into a dialog about how he keeps up-to-date on all of the technical knowledge he needs to run his classes effectively. With the amount and frequency of product introductions and updates in our company, I expected he needed to build a “Parking Garage” to capture all the questions I imagine to be unanswerable in this mystifying technical realm. He shrugged his shoulders seemingly to indicate that “it’s part of the job.” Then he admitted that it is impossible to keep up with all the product changes. But even though that is the case, there is no Parking Lot in any of his classrooms. He told me about the long list of engineering and operations subject matter experts he has on his MS Office Communicator instant messaging contact list. At any given time during class, he can scan the list to see who is “green,” meaning they are online and available. So when someone in his class asks, “What was the thinking behind moving the lever to the other side of the unit in the version 4 release of Product X?” he doesn’t reach for the post-its. He taps the keyboard and gets the answer right then and there. And when the service technicians leave class, they pull out of the parking lot not only well trained, but with the list of little “green” men and women in tow as well.