Edinburgh -- Plenary

The day before, the plenary session speaker’s father had died. The Conference organizers drafted me to take his place. Serendipity strikes again! I’d assembled an hour’s worth of material and my first assignment had been to talk for only half an hour. Now I had a full hour and the entire audience.

I noted that lots of learning comes in the wrong size containers. Sometimes what you’re after is a few pages in a book or ten minutes wrapped in a lengthy course. This coaxes curriculum designers to pad out learning experiences into bigger packages. Often the author or designer imposes a false logic to make everything in the box a logical whole. I explained that we were going to change that this afternoon. Sequence often makes no difference. It’s chrome and fins.

Was everyone familiar with memes? A meme is an idea so hot that it propagates like virus. I showed a menu of a dozen memes.

“Pick a number,” I asked the audience.

These are all familiar topics to people familiar with my work. I'll give a summary paragraph or two on each topic and a link to more information on it.

1. The Birth of eLearning
In fall 1999, the dot-com era was in full swing, twenty-somethings were driving Ferraris and guzzling fine wine, Moore’s Law was Silicon Valley’s religion, and people began to talk of eLearning, an attempt to share the halo of eBusiness and eCommerce. Venture capitalists swarmed into eLearning, hoping to cash in on a Learning Revolution to eclipse the Industrial Revolution.

People are not widgets, certain aspects of learning cannot be automated, and first-generation eLearning was largely a failure.


5. Blended.
Blended is a term much in favor among those who originally defined eLearning as training by computer alone. When that didn’t work, they coupled online learning and face-to-face workshops. An extensive course would contain numerous slices of on, off, on, off, on, off, etc.

The on/off approach is absurdly limiting. Shouldn’t we always make available the best tool for the job? My eLearning palette includes collaboration, knowledge bases, simulation, just-in-time support, communities of practice, blogs, industry news, and more.

6. The Blogosphere
Blogs (short for web logs) are another symbol of the increasing importance of the individual over the institution. By and large, blogs are person websites characterized by:

• Frequent, often daily entries.
• Chronological sequence, latest entries first.
• Single author, speaking informally.
• Links to favorite blogs of others.
• Ability to comment on entries.
• Searchable archive of all previous entries.

Five million people blog. They are individuals, hobbyists, teenaged girls, geeks, authors, reporters, Howard Dean, corporations, political rebels, newspapers, and more. We looked at a few of the previous week’s entries on my blog at www.internettime.com. There was an explanation of Mobile Learning, photos of the Royal Mile, and a photo of shrink-wrapped haggis on the shelf at Safeway.

Imagine the power of easy-to-use, searchable blogs behind an organization’s firewall. Blogging is not for everyone and it raises questions of privacy and individual freedom, but if only a handful of people wrote insider blogs, it would provide so much information on the “shadow organization” – how things really work.

2. Hunt the Elephant
I had a CEO who admonished the staff to “hunt the elephant.” Don’t be distracted by chattering monkeys or jungle drums. Focus on what you came to do.

Soon after the term eLearning came into vogue, people began saying it’s not the “e” that’s important, it’s the learning. I don’t think they went far enough. It’s not the learning that’s important, it’s the action that comes after the learning. Executives look for one thing: execution. We need to talk with them about performance, about getting the job done, about hunting the elephant.

11. Bad Stuff
Poor design is at fault for some of the failure of first-generation eLearning to meet expectation. My first example showed a simple definition that had been tricked out as a page in a book, accompanied by an on-screen magnifying glass to make it legible. We also looked at an exercise where one learned proper casual attire by dressing a cut-out doll.

Finally, we tried a lesson in business etiquette. Which is the proper choice of things to say to your host following lunch?

    a. “My bass was great. How was your chicken?” b. “Mind if I finish off your chicken?” c. “Nothing like a fine Single Malt Scotch to finish off a meal, eh?”

Most of us had learned the night before that the correct answer is “c.”

We need to treat learners as customers and to avoid shoveling this sort of claptrap in their direction.


4. Emergent Learning
Our world is becoming more complex, a tsunami of information is on the horizon, and we’re expected to do more and more in less time. We have little choice but to reconceptualize our roles as workers and learners.

    “All the world's a stage And all the men and women merely players”

In bygone times, workers memorized their lines and followed the script. Today’s workers are improv players, making up their lines in response to the immediate situation.

3. Phase change

In 1999, the major justification for adopting eLearning was reduced costs. (Fewer airplane tickets, fewer salaries, and other one-time gains.) Then line managers bought into eLearning as a vehicle to prepare people to meet short-term goals. (Faster product rollouts, more informed sales people.) And now some senior executives think eLearning transformational. eLearning is a prerequisite of doing business in real time. Learning has become competitive advantage.

8. EAI
EAI stands for Enterprise Application Integration.

Thirty years ago, the prevailing wisdom was that business was made up of a variety of semi-autonomous parts: marketing, sales, manufacturing, logistics, finance, distribution, and so on. A hillside of silos. Then came Michael Porter who preached that all the parts were linked together in a “value chain.”

Enterprise software began to forge the links among disparate functions. And now Web Services are linking everything together, leading to an end-state where a corporation’s entire workflow is monitored and managed by one piece of software.

9. Workflow Learning
Imagine the worker in the turbulent white water of workflow. She receives guidance through contextual collaboration in the form of portals, IM, chat, blogs, web conferencing, workflow simulations, and smart knowledgebases. She is connected to the real-time workflow via business process models, social networks, expertise mining, personalization engines, and performance analytics.

Learning comes in real-time, right-sized chunks.

7. Visual Learning, also here.
Learning without pictures is half-brained. Paperback books have changed very little in the last 500 years. Words cannot do justice to the power of visual imagery, so let’s look at some pictures to learn from.

10. Networks & learning
This is the age of networks. We are enmeshed in information networks, social networks, financial networks, communications networks, the Internet, and more. Our bodies and brains are networks.

I define learning as the ability to prosper in the communities that matter to you. Our prevailing views of learning are colored by our shared experience of schooling. Might we be more open to thinking about learning as a network phenomenon? Learning means making better connections.

12. Brand
A brand is a promise to customers that converts a commodity into something so desirable that people we pay extra for it. If we seek to sell learning to workers, doesn’t it make sense to brand it? What promise are you making to your prospects? If your learning programs were an automobile, what brand would it be?


Posted by Jay Cross at February 21, 2004 10:49 AM | TrackBack
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