Workplace Learning and Performance: Optimism and Responsibility

May 5, 2011

Learning executives across the United States are more optimistic about the training industry than at any other time since ASTD (the American Society for Training & Development) began issuing its quarterly Learning Executives Confidence Index highlights reports two years ago, the latest summary shows.

The news is not particularly astonishing; the project began around the same time the worst recession most of us have faced began. It does, however, reflect the improvements many of us have been noticing over the past year in workplace learning and performance opportunities.

Nine out of ten of the 354 respondents to the invitation-only survey “expect the same or better performance for their [workplace learning and performance] industry in the next 6 months,” and seven out of ten expect “moderate to substantial improvements” (p. 5).

More than four out of ten respondents anticipate “increased expenditures on outsourced or external services to aid in the learning function in the coming months of 2011. Outsourced or external services include such expenses as consultation services, content development, content and software licenses, and workshops and training programs delivered by external providers” (p. 8).

Two-thirds of the respondents think the use of e-learning will “moderately or substantially” increase during the next six months, and they see a similar increase in the use of Web 2.0 technology—again, not surprising given the number of social networking tools such as Twitter, Skype, blogs, and podcasting tools used as vehicles for delivery of learning opportunities.

This is far from insignificant; workplace learning and performance, according to ASTD’s “2010 State of the Industry Report,” is a $125.8 billion industry annually (p. 5 of the “State of the Industry Report”). It’s an important part of our overall commitment to lifelong learning. And, as ASTD representatives playfully note, it’s part of an effort designed to “create a world that works better.”

In spite of the encouraging news documented in the quarterly Confidence Index report, there is no time for complacency here. The way we learn and the way we offer learning opportunities is changing in response to the availability of online tools, and continuing economic pressures hinder learners’ opportunities to travel to attend face-to-face learning sessions (p. 9 of the Confidence Index report). There are also plenty of examples of stultifyingly ineffective face-to-face and online learning offerings that diminish rather than encourage learners’ enthusiasm, as any of us who regularly attend training sessions can confirm.

On the other hand, there are plenty of organizations like the more than 125 ASTD chapters across the United States and the national society itself that offer learning opportunities for trainer-teacher-learners interested in improving our knowledge, skills, and ability to meet workplace learning and performance needs.

The responsibility to engage in actions that would merit and nurture the optimism expressed by those 354 learning executives who contributed to the 2011 First Quarter Learning Executives Confidence Index report remains firmly in our hands.


Social Learning Centers: When Fourth Place Is a Winner

March 23, 2011

The creation of social learning centers as the important fourth place in our lives took another wonderful leap forward today with a successful attempt to create a blended—onsite/online—fourth place extending from Washington DC to San Francisco.

It wasn’t flawless. And it wasn’t always pretty. But, as colleague and co-presenter Maurice Coleman noted to appreciative laughter from participants, we learn as much from failure as we learn from our successes.

For those of you who feel as if you just walked into the second act of a play in progress, let’s take one step back before making the obvious leaps forward: Ray Oldenburg, more than two decades ago, used his book The Great Good Place to define the three important places in our lives. In that pre-World Wide Web period, those places were physical (onsite) sites: home as the first place, work as the second place, and our treasured community meeting places playing the role of the third place—the great good place.

The idea for a fourth place—the community gathering place for social learning—sprouted from a rapidly planted seed in August 2010 during an episode of Maurice’s biweekly T is for Training podcast. By the end of that T is for Training conversation, we had decided that a perfect place to spread the idea was the annual Computers in Libraries conference—which we finally were able to do today.

Our experiment onsite in Washington DC was far from perfect. But by the end of the 45-minute session that Maurice, T is for Training colleague Jill Hurst-Wahl, and I designed, we had in many ways exceeded our goal, for we not only described the fourth place, we created an onsite-online fourth place that, with any luck, will continue to exist and expand. (Jill’s summary of the session is included on her Digitization 101 blog in a posting dated March 24, 2011.)

Maurice and Jill were onsite; I planned to deliver my portion of the presentation, via Skype, from San Francisco. We talked about how libraries as social learning spaces could be developed in existing library buildings or online. Or in outdoor settings (gardens, if gardening was the object of a learning lesson). Or even in refurbished shipping containers if an organization wanted to combine recycling with learning. We also talked about the various ways learning is delivered online these days: through formal well-planed courses and webinars as well as informally through chat, through Twitter, and through Skype.

The denouement was to be the moment when we called attention to how Skype and Twitter were being used live, during the presentation, to draw our online colleagues into the onsite learning venue at the conference. And it almost worked out that way—except that the Skype section was far diminished by an unexpectedly bad Internet connection at the conference site.

And that, surprisingly enough, was when all the planning and creativity that went into the presentation paid off, for when we realized that the Skype section wasn’t going to work, Maurice used his copy of the slides and script I had prepared and he delivered the live portion of my presentation. And while Jill was moving forward with her part of the session, I turned to the conference Twitter feed to see if anyone was actually tweeting what was happening. Which, of course, someone was. So by using Twitter to reach that audience member, I was able to determine what was happening onsite; Maurice and I established a typed-chat connection via Skype since my audio feed was less than what was acceptable to us; and Maurice used the webcam on his Netbook to allow me to see and hear the two of them in action for the remainder of the session.

The result was that we jury-rigged exactly what we had set out to do through our rehearsals—a learning space that combined onsite and online participants; a combination of live presentation, Skype, and Twitter to allow all of us to engage in a learning session; and a demonstration of how this particular fourth place might continue to exist if any of us decide to come back together via Twitter, Skype, or face to face.

There were signs, even before our time together ended, that we were on our way to having made a difference. One participant wrote, via Twitter, that he is “gonna get an empty shipping container (for free), set it up in Brooklyn Park, & invite community to make it a 4th learning space.”

For more of the conversation, please visit the overall conference Twitter record at #cil11 and look for postings during the second half of the day on March 23, 2011. Tweeters included @librarycourtney, @meerkatdon,  @mgkrause (who posted, from a different session, “This was so basic—wish I had gone to the 4th place talk to hear about tech shops!”),and @jeanjeanniec. Slide and speaker notes from the portions Jill and I prepared are also available online for those who want to explore the idea of social learning centers as fourth place.


Reports from the Field: ASTD and the State of the Training Industry

February 9, 2011

One of the most comprehensive and well researched annual reports on the state of the workplace learning and performance (training) industry recently offered encouraging news: executives and business leaders continue to see employee learning and development as a “key to survival, recovery, and future growth,” ASTD (American Society for Training & Development) Research Associate Laleh Patel writes in the “2010 State of the Industry Report” (p. 6).

Having examined the tendency for many to see e-learning in terms of how much money it saves and having reviewed the eLearning Guild’s exploration of how social media tools are being used to contribute to the efficacy of online learning, we find a complementary broader viewpoint of what is happening in the entire training industry through that ASTD report documenting employers’ “solid commitment to learning” (p. 9).

There are plenty of facts, figures, and statistics to show that “[a]lthough organizations grappled with some of the worst economic conditions in several decades, business leaders continued to dedicate substantial resources to employer learning” while the survey itself was underway (p. 5). The research also suggests that “the average percentage of learning hours available through technology…rebounded…reaching 36.5 percent, its highest level since ASTD began collecting data on the use of technology for this report 14 years ago” (p. 6).

And while it’s easy to become buried under all the information and ensuing caveats—expenditures on learning on a per-employee basis, for example, increased (p. 9), but that may partially have been the result of training budget reductions not matching the reduction in the number of employees who remained in the workplace (p. 11).

When we finally resurface from our immersion in this rich source of data, we are left with a keen awareness of some promising trends. Companies recognized by ASTD as the best in terms of providing first-rate workplace learning and performance opportunities—winners of ASTD’s annual BEST Awards—for example, “incorporate more than one week of learning activities into their schedules throughout the year” (p. 9)—a fine response to what many of us hear from administrators in organizations that still act as if encouraging learning in the workplace takes employees away from what they “should be doing,” as if learning were not part of all employers’ and employees’ work. The most lauded companies also displayed “the greatest reliance on (live) instructor-led delivery” (p. 16), which includes classroom as well as online learning opportunities.

The report, in summarizing what earns an organization a BEST Award, sets some interesting benchmarks for anyone interested in workplace learning and performance. Those BEST organizations “have visible support from senior executives and involve leaders as teachers”; “[p]rovide a broad range of internal and external, formal, and other learning opportunities, including knowledge-sharing, coaching, and mentoring”; and “[d]emonstrate effectiveness by monitoring individual and organizational performance indicators and linking changes to training and non-training activities intended to improve performance” (p. 20).

In other words, they care. As should we all.

N.B.—More information on 2010 BEST Award Winners is available online, and ASTD members have free access to the October 2010 T+D magazine articles describing what each winner did to earn the award.


Reports from the Field: “Getting Started With e-Learning 2.0”

February 6, 2011

To move beyond the common practice of seeing e-learning as little more than a way to save money in workplace learning and performance (training) programs, we need go no further than Patti Shank’s “Getting Started with e-Learning 2.0,” a first-rate report published by the eLearning Guild in late 2010.

Drawing from survey responses submitted by more than 850 Guild members—professionals working in e-learning—the report provides an intriguing snapshot of how social media tools are—or aren’t—being used in online learning and, more importantly, provides information about the “top five strategies that respondents feel they need for success with e-Learning 2.0 approaches”: “good content, upper management endorsement, user assistance, piloting, and testimonials” (p. 4).

We know from the beginning of this Guild publication that we’re among colleagues interested in learning. In talking about the increasing tendency to incorporate social networking tools including wikis, blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, social bookmarking sites such as Delicious and Diigo, and others into online learning opportunities, the writer asks and answers a basic question—“Are these good learning opportunities? You betcha!” (p. 6)—and then delivers a cohesive and easy-to-follow summary of the eLearning Guild survey documentation supporting her conclusion.

The good news for trainers, teachers, and learners is that “social media has become a very big deal” and that its use is continuing to increase rapidly (p. 8). The not-so-good news is that most respondents “don’t feel a great deal of pressure to implement these approaches” (p. 14) and “more than 25% of respondents are making only limited use of e-Learning 2.0 approaches or researching how other organizations are using it” (p. 4).

This is hardly breaking news to those of us who enjoy and are involved in onsite and online education: there are still so many poorly organized and poorly presented workplace learning and performance offerings that it’s not surprising to find skeptical rather than enthusiastic presenters and learners. It also remains true that those trying their first webinar or online course are unlikely to give the medium a second chance if what they face is poorly designed PowerPoint presentations and sessions that lack the levels of engagement that lead to effective learning and the positive change that should follow.

Shank provides concise descriptions and suggested applications for blogs, wikis, social bookmarking, and other aspects of social networking that are becoming part of our online learning toolkit. She also offers useful sections on learning benefits (the fact that learning is socially grounded, so social networking tools are a natural match for the learning process—p. 26), challenges (managers and supervisors who see social networking tools as detracting from rather than adding to the value of their training programs and overall ability to conduct business—pp. 26-30), and results (sharing ideas across departments, improving team collaboration, increasing creativity and problem-solving—p. 31).

Three pages of online references and a two-page glossary round out this useful and learning-centric report, leaving us not only with encouragement about the positive impact e-learning is having, but also with sobering thoughts about how much more there is to accomplish before we have reached our—and its—full potential.

Next: ASTD’s Most Recent “State of the Industry” Report


Reports from the Field: Learning to Save Money

February 2, 2011

If we’re going to seek positive results from workplace learning and performance (training) efforts, we need to redefine the terms of the conversation many of us are having.

“How to Promote the Value of Online Training Within Your Organization,” an eight-page report first posted online in April 2009 as a jointly produced effort by Training Industry, Inc. and Citrix/Online to promote the benefits of online distance learning with the sort of services and products Citrix provides, remains typical of much of what we find in online and print discussions about e-learning. The white paper accurately presents online learning as an effective way to save money by reducing costs—and never takes us much further than that premise. It never really delves into the learning part of e-learning.

There is no denying that training must be cost-effective. Nor is there any reason to deny that online learning significantly reduces travel costs—up to “40 cents of every dollar spent on in-person training goes to travel and lodging costs, studies show” (p. 2), and those costs disappear when learning moves online—and can be more convenient since learning is delivered to learners rather than learners being delivered to learning opportunities.

But we need to take a broader view of training-teaching-learning and its impact if we’re going to be effective and inspire positive change—the purpose of training-teaching-learning when all is said and done. The writers of the report accurately note that “thousands of full- and part-time students are enrolled in distance learning programs” and “global corporations train remote audiences without regard to language and geographic barriers” (p. 2), but they never substantially ask a basic question: are these learners having positive and productive experiences that justify all that goes into e-learning—or any other sort of learning, for that matter?

The answer is clearly less than obvious and encouraging. Central Michigan University professors Karl Smart and James Cappel, for example, offer a thoughtful and detailed analysis in their 2006 Journal of Information Technology Education article “Students’ Perceptions of Online Learning: A Comparative Study”; we, as readers, are left with the obvious conclusions that e-learning is about far more than cutting costs, and that those who set cost as their overarching concern would do well to broaden their point of view. Corey Brouse’s “Undergraduate Students’ Reactions to Online Learning Related to Health Promotion and Wellness” from the Spring 2007 issue of the Journal of the Research Center for Educational Technology, takes us closer to what my own experience as a trainer-teacher-learner suggests: that effective e-learning benefits from including face-to-face contact rather than being seen as a complete replacement—through what is commonly known as blended learning.

What we’re really talking about here is trying to move past the artificial either-or choices of e-learning vs. onsite classroom-based learning and focusing more on “learning” as a goal with many formats from which we can choose. And if we start by moving away from cost-containment as the major selling point and make cost part of an overall package leading to effective and results-producing efforts, the benefits of e-learning cited in “How to Promote the Value of Online Training Within Your Organization” become even more compelling.

Next: The eLearning Guild’s “Getting Started with e-Learning 2.0.”


Training, Learning, and Collaborating on the Other Side of the Horizon

December 18, 2010

Trainers and other perpetual learners are information junkies. We thrive on what we learn and share. We revel in those moments when boundaries dissolve and we embrace a seamless role of trainer-teacher-learner rather than simply delivering a lesson and hoping that participants in a learning opportunity will remember something that we said.

We, like those whose learning we facilitate, have our cherished sources of information: friends; colleagues; printed newspapers, books, magazines, and their online counterparts; our favorite librarian; and/or the waiter, waitress, or supermarket checkout clerk who calls our attention to what we might not otherwise notice given the demands that information overload puts on us and all we encounter.

There are also the reports without which we would feel diminished. One of those, for me, is the New Media Consortium (NMC) annual Horizon Report, an engaging free online document designed to “chart the landscape of emerging technologies for teaching, learning, and creative inquiry,” as Consortium representatives explain on their website.

To read the main and subsidiary reports inspires thought and action. Writing about the reports has become an annual ritual for me ever since I attended a live Horizon Report presentation in 2008. And to cross over to the other side of the Horizon this year by serving on the 2011 Horizon Report Advisory Board and helping shape the next report—which, of course, I can hardly wait to read when it is released in February 2011—has been an exercise in collaboration which has changed the way I work.

At the heart of the Horizon report process is the wiki that provides a virtual meeting place where Advisory Board members from several different countries asynchronously contribute to the development of the report. The lesson here for all of us as trainer-teacher-learners is at least twofold: a) as participants immersing ourselves in using a tech tool as contributors rather than solely as readers, we educated ourselves and became comfortable with exactly the sort of tech change we were documenting for others, and b) we would not have been nearly as successful as we were without guidance—in this case, from New Media Consortium Chief Executive Officer Larry Johnson and his NMC colleagues, who themselves served as trainer-teacher-mentors throughout the brief and intense period of work.

Larry and other NMC staff, throughout the two-month process, guided us with concise, welcoming, supportive email messages; online tutorials; and instructions on how to approach and complete each step of the process—and then they turned us loose to learn, work, and collaborate. The pleasures of exploring new technology with other Advisory Board members via the wiki never seemed to end, and the serendipitous discovery early in the process that an ALA Learning blog colleague—Lauren Pressley—was among my Advisory Board collaborators once again reminded me how small the world has become through the use of shared online tools.

Workplace collaboration, in this case, went far beyond the structure of the staff and Advisory Board’s contributions to the wiki: the entire process was visible, via that wiki, to anyone who wanted to follow it. When the original list of more than 30 technologies we were exploring was winnowed down to a short list, that information was posted publicly for anyone to view—which means that part of the process was to provide a magnificent resource for anyone interested in exploring the topics on their own. The process, furthermore, has produced a list of online press clippings that is an additional resource for anyone wanting to explore the tech topics that were under discussion during the Advisory Board’s online time together.

For anyone who is still wondering why more and more people are exploring wikis as a first-rate collaboration tool and how they provide effective ways for all of us to work together, the entire Horizon Report process is a complete course within itself. And, like any first-rate learning experience, it leaves us with an expanded toolkit that changes the way we work once we have become engaged.

Ultimately, it leads us to another level of building communities of learning.

N.B.: For more resources about collaboration and building communities, please see “Communities and Collaboration in an Onsite-Online World: An Annotated Bibliography.”


Technology, Change, and Learning: Smiles Replacing Stress

August 25, 2010

If we want to initiate a lemming-like run from our workplaces, all we need to do is make the following announcement: “We’re going to make some huge, wonderful changes around here with a new piece of technology we just purchased.” Want to make this even better? Disseminate the announcement early Monday morning or late on a Friday afternoon—particularly just before the beginning of a three-day weekend. Then notify the staff of your Human Resources division that you’re trying to help the economy by creating new job opportunities for those willing to apply for positions recently vacated by the staff that you have chased away.

When we approach technology training face-to-face or in online environments, we need to remember that we are proposing some of the most emotionally wrenching concepts we can inject into our colleague’s lives: change (“Why me?”), technology (“I’m so done with new technology”), and learning (“I’m too busy trying to do my job to take the time to learning something new”). If we find colleagues avoiding us in the hallways or at our local coffee shop, we only have ourselves to blame.

To turn the situation around, we need to start by putting ourselves into our learners’ shoes. And classrooms. And online learning sessions. We need to remember that technology is a tool, not the focus of our attention. If we work with our learners to determine how new technology helps all of us do our jobs more effectively and enjoyably—and we had better be sure this is true before we start offering that promise to prospective learners—we’re on the road to creating enthusiasm and effective communities of learning.

If we make the technology we are introducing an integral part of our face-to-face and online learning opportunities, we show that we have embraced what we are helping to facilitate and disseminate. We also, at the same time, can see how learners are absorbing or struggling with what they are attempting to master. Empathy as a learning tool, anyone?

And if we are honest about the benefits and the problems of what we are offering to the members of our learning communities, we are helping to strengthen those communities to the benefit of all whom we are serving.

When we move into online learning, we need to remember that we are introducing an additional level of stress into the lives of those who are new to distance learning: not only do they need to struggle with the specific technology they are attempting to learn, but they face the additional challenge of learning how to learn in ways that may not initially be comfortable for them. By making ourselves available before, during, and after the formal presentations of online learning opportunities, we demonstrate our commitment to our learners and to online learning and we offer, by example, the sort of support which is essential to successful learning.

Learning, as our colleagues at Fort Hill Company have documented, is not an isolated event, set apart from the rest of our lives. Nor is it distinctive from what we often mistakenly think of as “our real job.” In a world where change is constant and in which those who do not learn are quickly left behind, we are responsible for helping our colleagues learn. We need to find ways to make the learning process enjoyable and rewarding rather than dispiriting. If we are successful, we contribute to the building and the nurturing of communities of learning, and everybody wins.

N.B.: Paul is facilitating two 90-minute online sessions—on September 16 (“Using Technology to Enhance In-Person Library Training”) and September 23, 2010 (“Using Technology for Remote Library Training”)—under the auspices of ALA TechSource. Participants can register separately for the September 16 or September 23 sessions, or can receive a discounted rate by registering for both.


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