The Business of Learning - learning ecosystems

About ten years ago, I worked as a training manager of a small company made up of several customer service teams. This was before tools such as Articulate and Captivate had made the development of eLearning affordable for 1-2 person training departments, which meant that most of our learning took place in the classroom. For two trainers who recognized the inefficiencies of our classroom-based training curriculum and wanted to dip our toes into eLearning, it was a frustrating experience. When we were told that our customer service representatives would need to be trained on a new version of Microsoft Office and we would need to develop more classroom training, we just looked at each other and sighed. More time in the classroom meant less time trying to develop more efficient solutions to our training needs.

Our disappointment did not last. In working through the materials we were preparing to teach, we discovered that something called SharePoint was included in the new version of MS Office. After listening to our IT team describe SharePoint’s features, it became clear that it would provide a platform from which we could realize our grand technology dreams. We saw a bright future for our customer service teams where the laminator could be laid to rest: Gone were the days when team members had to put their customers on hold and ask team leads for answers to tricky questions. No longer would it be necessary for team members to create their own job aids. Our little training department could build intranet sites for each of the customer service teams without any special development skills.

I immediately began sorting through all the different chunks of information each team needed. Finally, I could help people transform information into knowledge and “manage” it. When my especially creative colleague told me he had discovered a superhero generator online, I was ecstatic. Not only were the team portals going to be useful, they were going to be cool. We decided to assign a different superhero to each of the teams with the thought that the superhero would provide the fun factor that would draw team members to their portals.

Then my colleague and I really got down to business. We gathered information. We sorted it. We had it reviewed by team managers to make sure it was accurate. And we, the dynamic duo, packaged all that information in a super heroic package so that it became the usable, readily accessible knowledge that would dazzle the teams. Finally, we didn’t just announce the completion of the team’s SharePoint portals, we distributed superhero playing cards to each of the teams and cleverly informed them that using the portal would turn them into superheroes.

My guess is that you know where I’m going with this tale. We built each team portal and the team members did not come. Team members continued to yell over cubicle walls to find answers to questions with their customers on hold. Job aids continued to be made by individual team members and circulated among the teams. In spite of our efforts to persuade team members just how much easier it was to access information through the portal and how much more reliable that information was, our super heroes had failed. The SharePoint portals were ignored.

Other projects needed to be completed so we didn’t spend too much time wallowing in our disappointment. We comforted each other by insisting that team members were just afraid of change. They would eventually see the error in their ways. We just had to keep pushing them to the portals. And we were right. The teams did end up finding the portals to be very useful. But it had absolutely nothing to do with our super powers. The team members began to use the portals once they realized that they had the ability to load information onto it themselves. Once the teams themselves took ownership of their portals, they became the useful, fun intranet sites that we had imagined we were building. Team members would volunteer to personalize each portal and tap into wells of creativity they had no idea existed. Managers would hold contests encouraging members to use the portal. The portals became a great success.

I’ve devoted much of the past ten years to eLearning instructional design and I’ve never forgotten the lesson I learned while watching my super heroes crash and burn. When I neglect to involve my end user in a project during development, its chances for success diminish. When I don’t test a project at various stages with my end user, success becomes even less likely. And if I don’t evaluate a project and tweak it according to feedback, then there is a good chance that time and money will be wasted.

A couple of years ago, I used SharePoint to help team members understand the features of a brand new system. Keeping in mind that ordinary citizens can be so much more powerful than super heroic trainers, I made sure to take advantage of the discussion forum feature in which team members were able to ask and answer questions. The team members were brilliant and shared their knowledge as well as their ignorance freely.

Next time that you are asked to play the role of a super hero and save ordinary citizens from their ignorance, remember my favorite mistake. Don’t assume that you have all the answers for a learning solution. Listen to what your learners have to say about their plight as well as your proposed solution and you’ll tap into super powers you never knew you had.

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