Thursday, 31 December 2009

Happy New Year!

As we draw to the end of what has been (for me at least) an eventful year, and look forward to whatever 2010 will bring, I'd like to wish my family and friends, colleagues and associates, and everyone who reads this blog, a peaceful and prosperous new year.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Informal and non-formal learning

I’ve just returned from an international exchange meeting in the Netherlands, discussing validation of informal and non-formal learning (through volunteering). It’s a big subject, not least because the terms of reference are open to a wide range of interpretation.

Informal learning is usually taken to mean learning that takes place inadvertently, even subconsciously, and is rarely planned. Non-formal learning is usually considered to be planned learning that takes place away from the classroom, and does not follow an accredited programme or lead to a qualification.

However, these definitions are set from the perspective of educationalists who see only classroom-based and certificated learning as “formal”. I beg to differ.

Surely any planned learning intervention, especially any that is subjected to summative assessment and confers some sort of award, ought to be regarded as formal? I certainly see organised work-based learning in this category.

My organisation offers a range of competence-based qualification programmes, involving assessment of evidence generated from work experience, with tutorial support mainly at a distance, and just occasional workshop events as milestones. Barely a whiff of the classroom, no educational institution, and no exams, but surely that’s still formal learning?

Next year, we plan to add e-learning to the mix, making it an even more sophisticated, multi-dimensional, learning experience. We don’t really stop to worry about how formal it is. But if I were to classify it, I certainly wouldn’t regard it as informal or non-formal.

What do you think?

Sunday, 29 November 2009

My next book

I’m researching a new book, which is intended to be a compendium of tools and techniques for learning and development. I plan to explain and analyse some of the most popular tools, not just for delivery (although there will be plenty of those), but also for applying learning theory, analysing learning needs, strategy and planning, and perhaps especially reviewing, evaluating and quality-assuring learning.
I’d be interested to hear from any reader about the tools and techniques you’ve found most useful or effective in managing and implementing learning and development. Do you have a particular favourite tool?

The idea of the book is to provide a handy manual for learning and development professionals, and anyone who has to undertake any task to do with learning and development. I hope it may also be useful to students on courses in HR or learning, perhaps as a companion volume to the more theoretical tomes like Harrison, Walton and Wilson. As usual, the timetable is slow: my publisher, Kogan Page, don’t expect to get this book on the shelves until early in 2011 – hopefully it’ll be worth the wait!

All comments and suggestions welcome.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009


Many educationalists, and even some corporate learning and development professionals, talk a lot about pedagogy. From the classical Greek, this literally means “leading the child”, but it is widely understood, in educational circles, including further and higher education (i.e., education that is not for children) to refer to underlying theory of learning, including understanding how children/people learn, and how to design learning for best effect.

In the 1940s, the American educationalist Malcolm Knowles proposed a new theory of andragogy – “leading the man” – which highlighted the different ways in which adults, as distinct from children, learn.

In the last decade, Australian academic Stewart Hase has advocated a new theory, heutagogy – “leading the self” – which shifts the emphasis to self-directed learning, in keeping with recent moves towards more learner-centred learning.

Simpler language, eschewing debate about rival theories, and focusing on the practical application of pedagogy/andragogy/heutagogy, is learning design.

There's some useful discussion of this in Sam Chapnick and Jimm Meloy's excellent book, Renaissance eLearning: creating dramatic and unconventional learning experiences, Chapter 3, ‘From Andragogy to Heutagogy’.


The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) is creating a new subscription-based information resource on the web. HR-inform will hold a vast repository of tips, tools and other resources for HR professionals.

I’ve contributed some of the resources, including case studies, policies and model documents. Among the topics I’ve contributed are: learning methods and styles, costing learning, course facilitation, talent management, e-learning, blended learning, internal marketing of learning, outsourcing versus insourcing, use of consultants, learning centres and virtual learning centres, choosing learning materials, quality management of learning, corporate universities, the learning organisation, innovative approaches to learning, knowledge management and learning evaluation - around 50 items in all.

I suppose I would say this, but I’m sure it will be a very valuable resource for HR professionals. HR Inform is being launched at a breakfast seminar at the CIPD conference in Manchester tomorrow - how’s that for up to date? - so perhaps it's appropriate that I'm posting this at breakfast time.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The Learning Value Chain

Many people view learning as being just about knowledge transfer, from a teacher or a textbook to the learner. This is a common fault in e-learning, where this over-simplistic view of learning is often encountered. In fact, learning is much more complex: yes, we learn when we passively read something, or watch a video, or listen to a speaker. But we learn more when we get active, and this is especially true of learning for work, where the idea is to apply our learning, practice our skills, and develop new competences.

To illustrate this, the learning value chain is an idea I have developed from David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle (1984) and Michael Porter’s Value Chain (1985). It identifies five distinct learning processes:

1. Knowledge acquisition, when learners acquire information and convert it to knowledge
2. Reflection, when learners apply knowledge to their work situation, and reflect on its impact.
3. Practice, when learners practice new skills or behaviours, either at work or in a simulated environment.
4. Interaction, when learners exchange experiences with other learners and synthesise new experience.
5. Escalation, when learners build on their newly acquired skills and behaviours to develop new knowledge, apply it, and develop new skills and behaviours.

In the learning value chain diagram, below, these five processes occur in a sequence, each building on the value of the preceding process. It is not essential that these processes occur in this order, but taken together like this, they add the most value. The diagram is completed by sample support inputs identified for each process, and by underpinning people management and development inputs, and formal and non-formal education and training inputs.

© Kenneth Fee. Please feel free to quote the learning value chain, or develop the ideas, as long as you cite the copyright of this author.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

I’ve just read Practice Made Perfect by Roberto Moretti (published by Robert Salomone, 2009).

There’s a lot in this deceptively slim volume. It takes the familiar model of unconscious incompetence (we don’t know what we don’t know) to conscious incompetence (we know what we don’t know) to conscious competence (we can now do it, if we think about it) to unconscious competence (we can do it without thinking), and weaves a new thread through it.

Moretti’s five processes for efficient practice are practical steps to follow to move through the competence model, and as such are invaluable for those managing work-based learning, or anyone who wants to learn a new skill. They’re also a useful antidote to those who perceive e-learning as being simply about information transfer, as they explain what learning for work is really about – applying knowledge and developing your skills.

The five processes are:

Identification – where the learner clarifies what it is they are going to practice.
Isolation – where the learner focuses on an element small enough to practice to perfection
Reinforcement – where the learner repeatedly practices to get it right
Integration – where the learner links each practiced element of skill to another to accomplish more complex, or higher level, skills
Escalation – where the learner builds on the new skill to begin to tackle new skills

There’s a lot more in the book, which I’m pleased to recommend.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Learning more about e-learning

I've added a new feature to this blog. I’ve joined a community of e-learning bloggers connected via a site called eLearning Learning. Basically, this collates all of the input about e-learning from contributors around the world into one digest.

You’ll find a button about eLearning Learning in the sidebar towards the bottom right hand side of this page. All you need to do is click the button and you’ll be taken to the site.

You’ll also find a “Best Of” feed. You can subscribe to this, if you wish, and receive regular email updates selected from eLearning Learning.

I hope you find this useful.

Career Move

I'm giving up my consultancy business. I began Executive and Professional Development Ltd in 2005, when I left the eLearning Alliance, having undertaken very little consulting work prior to that. It's been varied and enjoyable, I've met many interesting people and undertaken some great projects. But the time has come for a change: I've found the fluctuations in workflow difficult to contend with, and the economic downturn hasn't helped.

For some time I've coveted a more 'traditional' learning and development role: I've worked as an old-fashioned training manager in sectors as diverse as engineering/manufacturing and voluntary/charitable; I've worked on the supply side of management development; I've been a consultant and writer; and I've been involved in e-learning strategy at a national level. But I haven't tackled a learning manager's role for a while, and its lure is irresistible.

I'm pleased to announce that I'm joining Volunteer Development Scotland, based in Stirling, in their new role of Learning and Practice Development Manager. Among my new responsibilities, I'll be looking at learning through the practice of volunteering, national occupational standards and professional awards in managing volunteers, and increased use of e-learning and blended learning. There's a big agenda, and I'm enthusiastic about adding value in VDS's programmes providing leadership, quality assurance, and resources for volunteering in Scotland.

I also intend to keep up my writing and blogging, and I look forward to growing my network.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Experiential Learning

I recently (only about 2,300 years after the event!) came across this quote from Aristotle: "for the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them." It kind of sums up the problem with experiential learning. As Peter Honey (a couple of millennia more recently) said “learning from experience is tough, you get the test first then the lesson afterwards”.

And yet experiential learning remains one of the most important approaches to learning and development, especially in the world of work. Learning for work is about more than the acquisition of knowledge or even skills: it’s about applied learning, about changing behaviour; about demonstrating competence or more; about using the knowledge and skills acquired to gain performance improvements. And not just for the individual learner, but to share them with their work team and among the whole organisation – to achieve business results.

Given this importance, it’s odd that we don’t have very much simple language to explain it, as distinct from the range of terminology associated with learning through teaching and the classroom (or more recently, all the techie jargon associated with e-learning, but let’s not go there again). Some of the cumbersome phraseology in the last couple of paragraphs – “experiential learning”, “demonstrating competence”, “performance improvement” – requires quite a lot of explanation for what is essentially very simple activity.

I’m coming round to the view that “practice” is a succinct way of describing what we’re talking about. It’s commonly used to describe sporting activity, like football practice, or musical activity, like piano practice; it’s widely understood to represent the process of learning by doing things repeatedly, until you get them right; and it’s a common word with little ambiguity attached to it. We’re all familiar with the saying that practice makes perfect.

So perhaps we should talk less about “experiential learning” or “work-based learning” and more about plain, simple, practice.

I hope to get the opportunity soon to apply this thinking – to practice what I’m preaching. In fact, I’m dissembling a little: I know I’m going to be looking at this in a major new project I’ll soon be undertaking, so more on this theme will inevitably follow.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Learning platforms

I sense some disquiet among techies when we refer to learning platforms: it may be the terminology is not strictly accurate. But I increasingly prefer it to the array of acronyms, none of which is much clearer when spelled out, and which only serve the cause of mystifying e-learning when presented in abbreviated form.

VLE – Virtual Learning Environment – is my favourite, but remains open to misinterpretation, as is its near relation MLE (Managed Learning Environment). The popular LMS, short for Learning Management System is, I think, especially misleading, as it conflates Learner Management System with Learning Content Management System, two different things.

A learning platform, whatever we call it, essentially comprises some or all of three components (and perhaps some additional features). These are illustrated in the diagram.

The Learner Management component manipulates information about learners. This is what enables learners to manage their personal information, and it is what yields records and reports for organisations. Crucially, this is not just about e-learning, as it may be used to manage learner information relating to all learning activities, including those that remain exclusively offline.

The second component is about courses, learning objects and learning resources – the content of learning programmes.

And the third, sometimes neglected, component is about managing the learning processes. Hopefully this is about more than simply building pages of illustrated reading with quizzes bolted on at the end. It can include a virtual classroom, or collaborative tools like discussion forums, blogs and mini-blogs, or wikis.

Many platforms have been around for a decade or more now, and amazingly, we still seek clarity on what they actually do. I hope this post helps.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Why coaching is misunderstood

I used to think that coaching was something I hadn’t done very much of. Even though I wrote about coaching, mentoring and related activities in my first book, A Guide to Management Development Techniques, offering a couple of coaching case studies along the way, I still felt it was something I hadn’t practiced much. I’ve recently learned this is a common misconception.

I’ve been looking more closely at coaching recently, as a result of writing a short contribution on the subject in the CIPD’s Learning and Development manual. John McGurk, CIPD’s Learning, Training and Development Adviser, writes in the August 2009 issue of Impact, Quarterly Update on CIPD Policy and Research, that “if we identify the behaviours of coaching rather than the concept of activity, we find that coaching is already much more embedded through the activities of line managers than might be expected”. In other words, managers already do a lot of coaching – they just don’t recognise it by that name. Frustratingly, McGurk doesn’t go on to give examples of this, but they can be found in the report he references, Coaching at the Sharp End (CIPD, 2009).

The report highlights some characteristics of a coaching style of management, including:
# Development orientation (I help them develop themselves as individuals)
# Planning and goal-setting (I help them express their own action plans)
# Mutual support (If any of them has a good idea, I always use it)
# Effective listening (I spend more time listening rather than questioning)

..and the lesson for learning and development professionals is that we need to engage with people at this level of detail rather than speaking our own code of “coaching” that we mistakenly assume others implicitly understand.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Performance and potential

Performance management doesn’t get the press it used to. It seems not so long ago that every other article you read about learning and development was addressing a performance agenda. Even some learning and development job roles were being redefined, and renamed, as being about performance improvement.

And rightly so. Too often, in the past, learning was seen as being about serving time on apprenticeships, or completing courses and qualifications, as though acquiring knowledge, skills and credentials was the main objective. The emphasis correctly shifted to applying that knowledge and skills, and the changes in performance that could be achieved for individual job roles, for teams, and for organisations as a whole. Linking learning and development to performance management meant it was more business results oriented.

So what’s changed? The answer is that talent management and development has come onto the agenda. It’s still important that learning helps develop performance, but there’s now another focus as well. Potential. Instead of just focusing on performance improvement, learning and development is now also about developing employees’ potential, such as to foster critical skills needed in an organisation (key talent development) or to prepare people to take on new roles in an organisation (succession planning). Leadership development (for future leaders) is perhaps the most glaring, and common, example, of investing in the development of potential rather than performance.

Talent management is about maintaining not one focus, but two – the distinct but complementary imperatives of performance and potential.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Do learning objects really exist?

Twenty years ago, learning and development professionals were preoccupied with concerns about not reinventing the wheel. This was the time of the creation of National Standards (NVQs and all that), and the idea was that a lot of work was going into defining generic job roles, and training and assessment routes – work that could be picked up and re-used almost anywhere, with a little tweaking. This made some sense, especially if there were opportunities for learning through sharing ideas.

Ten years ago, e-learning pursued the same obsession when it introduced the concept of learning objects.

illustrated by this diagram (click to enlarge):

A college lecturer of my acquaintance, well-versed in teaching National Certificate modules, was puzzled as to how much further courses could be broken down beyond the modular level, and suggested to me that these objects were no more than “facts”. Of course, learning objects come in many other forms, but whatever they are, they haven’t caught on in the same way.

The truth is there’s a lot to be said for reinventing the wheel, in terms of the learning process you go through when you try it. And in reality, many learning designers have preferred to start from scratch, especially when the technology represents no barrier to doing so. So the vision that never materialised was that all courses could be disaggregated (clumsy term, but is ‘chunked’ any better?) into components that could then be re-assembled into other courses.

I suspect the most workable solution lies somewhere between the vision and the everyday reality (the latter is often at least partly driven by "Not Invented Here" syndrome). Certain objects may indeed be stored in a databank for frequent re-use, such as diagrams, pictures, video clips, audio clips and reference documents. But the elements of learning that bring these resources together are probably best reinvented for each use.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

My Visual CV

I have recently discovered, and been very impressed by, a great resource called Visual CV. I think a better name would be Online CV or Web-based CV, but the idea is that rich and dynamic content may be added to your CV by placing it on the Web instead of on paper. You can make your CV visible to everyone at its own URL, as I have done at Or you can restrict access to whoever you want - the private version (not visible at my URL) includes all your personal contact info.

Creating my visual CV reminded me that I keep meaning to add video clips to this blog. The snag is I have to create them first, as I don't already have some. However, as a test, a starter, and to encourage me to create new video clips, here is the short clip I've included in my visual CV - it's almost six years old, and shows me introducing the Inaugural Scottish E-learning Lecture, which was themed around a food analogy, to explain my otherwise bizarre comments!

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Book review

I am indebted to Richard Wright, Head of Learning for a medium sized global business based in Devon, England, for contributing the following review of my latest book, Delivering E-Learning, on Amazon:

“This book has been all of the following: a great read, a toolkit, a handbook and an inspiration. I am extremely happy that I chose this one out of all the other e-learning books. For anyone who needs to understand e-learning at work from a strategic perspective, I cannot recommend this book too highly. The references for further reading and research are excellent”.

The original review may be found here.

Thanks, Richard!

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Digital learning tools

There's an excellent resource at the online Centre for Learning and Performance Technologies, which lists and explains digital tools to support learning, many of them free.

The list is compiled annually by Jane Hart (left) who runs the centre, and is a compilation of tools recommended by users from all over the world. Each user (134, so far) submits their top ten tools, and these are compiled into a list of the top 100, and the top 25 categories.

The top 25 are listed below:

1. Web browser
2. Social bookmarking tool
3. Blogging tool
4. RSS/Feed reader
5. Micro-blogging tool
6. Email
7. Instant messaging
8. Personal productivity tool
9. Mind mapping tool
10. Presentation tool
11. Presentation sharing tool
12. Online office suite
13. Web conferencing tool
14. Course authoring tool
15. Screen capture tool
16. Demo/screencasting tool
17. Web authoring tool
18. Wiki tools
19. Image/photo tools
20. Audio/podcasting tools
21. Video tools
22. Personal dashboard
23. Course management system
24. Social networking tool
25. Integrated social media platform

Visit the Centre for Learning and Performance Technologies to view the contributors, the top 100, an explanation of the top 25, including clarification of which tools are free and which have costs, a presentation and an explanatory article.

Saturday, 13 June 2009


It’s not often that online learning gets discussed in the mainstream, and I must admit I missed the Governor of California’s most recent pronouncement. I caught up with it on primetime TV last night on the BBC, when it was discussed on Have I Got News For You. Well, not so much discussed as ridiculed, albeit for the wrong reasons

Arnold Schwarzenegger has advocated greater use of online learning in schools. His actual statements make perfect sense. For example,

"California is home to software giants, bioscience research pioneers and first-class university systems known around the world. But our students still learn from instructional materials in formats made possible by Gutenberg's printing press"
(from USA Today)

However, he made the mistake of emphasising the cost savings of replacing textbooks, allowing critics to focus on claims that he is only proposing this to save money, and to caricature his position as “getting rid of textbooks”.

This underscores a point I have made many times before, about advocates of digital technology in learning needing to focus on the real benefits. Sadly, it also highlights the uphill battle we face in getting traditionalists to accept that there are now new ways of learning, which are often better than the old ways. As far as the Have I Got News For You panel were concerned, the arguments for online learning were terminated.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Mapping the scope of learning and development

CIPD has a new initiative to re-define and re-explain the HR profession, comprising a map of the profession, which is intended to replace the profession’s competence framework. I am convinced this ostensibly administrative activity will lead to many positive new developments, by prompting people to think about HR issues in new ways. One thing it’s caused me to think about already is the creation of some sort of map of the scope of learning and development.

For example, how should we define the relationships between learning strategy, knowledge management, talent management and development, and corporate universities? These are all areas I’ve worked in, and yet I’m not confident that the new HR map will help clarify their relationships.

According to the information released so far, the map will include ten professional areas, eight behaviours and four “bands” or levels of competence, ranging from “entry level” to “HR Director”.

The 10 professional areas are:
1 Strategy, insights and solutions
2 Leading and managing the function
3 Organisation design
4 Resourcing and talent planning
5 Organisation development
6 Learning and talent development
7 Performance and reward
8 Employee relations
9 Employee engagement
10 Information and service delivery

For a learning and development strategist, I can see relevance in 1, 2, 5, 6, and to some extent 4 and 9. But it looks like the map will identify learning and development only as a sub-set of HR: it is that, of course, but it is also something more, with overlaps into the sphere of educationalists and others. I think I’d like to see a more expansive and inclusive map of the learning and development profession, but I certainly await further information with interest.

The map/diagram shown above is from here.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Learning on the move

Many learning and development professionals argue that mobile phones or personal digital assistants (PDAs) are not useful devices for learning. Their rationale boils down to complaining that the screens are too small.

You don’t have to adopt superfluous jargon about “mobile learning” to take the opposite view. I’ve always thought that learning is more about communication than about information, and there’s no doubt that phones and PDAs are powerful communication devices. But even the small screen argument is looking increasingly irrelevant.

I’ve only had a handheld device with a good-sized colour screen for five years: before that, I had one of those tiny green-tinged monochrome screens on my phone, and carried a separate PDA. But the real revolution has only started for me in recent weeks, as I have acquired an iPhone. The screen may be just 3 inches by 2 inches, but that is ample for all sorts of activities, including sending and receiving email, playing games and even watching movie trailers.

I don’t want to get into Apple/Microsoft wars: I’m sure there are equally impressive MS-based alternatives to the iPhone. But I’m amazed by what my new handheld can do, and it reinforces my belief that much more learning in the near future is going to be conducted via devices we have hitherto regarded primarily as just phones.

If I can read email, I can read learning materials; if I can send email, I can complete multiple-choice tests; if I can play games, I can undertake interactive exercises; if I can watch movie trailers, I can watch educational video clips. I can browse the web. I can make best use of my handheld via tailored apps designed specifically to be used on it. And I can communicate with a tutor or mentor by phone, text and email. This is not just me getting carried away with my new piece of kit – the age of learning via handhelds has definitely arrived.

Friday, 15 May 2009

To twit, or not to?

Lots of interest in Twitter these days, and not just from celebrities like Stephen Fry and Jonathon Ross. Clive Shepherd, e-learning consultant and chair of the eLearning Network, undertook a three month personal trial, detailed in his article in the current issue of e.learning age, but could reach no definitive endorsement. Clive likes it himself, but says, “whether the benefits I have found are universal, I couldn’t possibly say”.

Without having undertaken any trial, I have reached a similar conclusion. It’s an interesting and laudable attempt to offer something new in the field of social networking, and may be personally attractive to some, but I doubt it will offer enough lasting value to remain as a widely used tool. And its application specifically for learning is doubtful.

I’d liken it to instant messaging, in that it has immediacy, it’s a small-scale app, it appeals to those of limited writing ability (I don’t mean that to sound condescending – that has its place) and it can combine well with other things. But how many of us still use instant messaging regularly? The gap it set out to exploit between email and texting doesn’t seem to exist any more, especially with many of us using the same handheld devices to do both.

To be fair, I’m not a great one for generic social networking sites either – I don’t have a Facebook account, although I am on LinkedIn, a site with a sharper business focus. But I have been using niche discussion forums for nearly a decade, and I was an early adopter of Friends Reunited, perhaps now the most passé social networking site.

My guess is Twitter won’t last. Partly because I question its long term value, once the novelty factor has worn off, and partly because I can’t see how anyone is ever going to make any money from it. But maybe I’m just being a twit.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Learning with technology

The current issue of Managment Today questions the role of HR, and concludes, among other things, “Here’s one way the human resources profession can shatter some of the tired old stereotypes that cling to it: get online”. The article goes on to argue that this is already starting to happen.

By coincidence, the current issue of People Management carries a similar message. Reporting on HRD Week, held in London from 21 to 23 April, its headline says “Embrace online learning, HR urged”.

The message is so consistent, the argument seems rather one-sided.

And yet, we also know there is huge resistance to e-learning. Every year the CIPD annual survey tries to put a positive gloss on what its members report, and yet the survey returns show unmistakeable hostility to e-learning. Hardly any HR professionals rate it as one of the top three most effective techniques for learning, and around half don’t use it at all.

Are HR professionals all schizophrenic, or is there a rational explanation for this apparent contradiction?

I’m increasingly seeing this as an argument over semantics. In my new book, I show that digital technology is an essential part of everyday life, including working life, and naturally that extends to learning. Most people will accept this, but they don’t recognise many technology applications they use as being “e-learning”, which they view as a narrow kind of learning, not often very useful. Trying to persuade them otherwise seems increasingly futile, and a diversion from the main task of getting them to engage with technology for learning.

OK then. Maybe it’s time for us to stop talking so much about e-learning, and focus instead on the broader arena of learning with technology.

Monday, 4 May 2009

The Apprentice is crap

Reviews of business books tend to be anodyne (I say this without yet having seen a review of my latest book) but I read a great exception to this rule in the latest issue of Management Today. Peter York’s review of Linda Gratton’s Glow is as funny as it is savage.

One of only two pieces of praise York had was for Gratton’s focus on co-operation:

“Businesses actually work better if people share and co-operate and merge their heuristics – a hugely 2009 perspective set against the individualist warfare-for-dummies language of The Apprentice – which is so instantly, hideously dated by events”.

Granted, this is a more articulate one-line critique of The Apprentice than my headline, but it’s surprising how many Google hits you get for “The Apprentice” and “crap”.

Nearly two decades ago, I was involved in sponsorship of The Business Game, an early attempt to make business sexy for television. It, and many other attempts, failed, so The Apprentice has at least succeeded in capturing the public’s imagination. But surely to the detriment of the general view of business, if all it is about is seeing who’s best at selling shoddy goods and toadying to Srallun?

The British Chambers of Commerce have even condemned the programme’s portrayal of selling as a profession, and believe it could harm recruitment to the sales profession. And everyone joins in the chorus of how it is guilty of “dumbing down”. Come to think of it, Dragon’s Den is a much better business programme.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

What is e-learning?

What is this crazy little thing called e-learning?

· Self-study courses delivered online?
· Self-study courses on DVD or CD-ROM?
· Self-study courses available over a corporate network?
· Online courses interspersed with face-to-face events?
· Tools for electronic performance support?
· Live e-learning events – Webinars?
· Use of learning resources made available online?
· Use of online discussion forums?
· Blogs?
· Wikis?

Could it be it’s all these things and perhaps a lot more? Some people don’t think so, and have made up their minds e-learning is a marginal aspect of learning and development. I respectfully disagree, but I’m increasingly seeing this as a debate about semantics.

Perhaps we need to re-frame the debate as one about learning and applications of digital technology. If the term e-learning is becoming an obstacle to engaging in serious discussion about the use of some of the tools listed above, then perhaps it’s time to stop talking about e-learning.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Shameless plug

Today is the official publication date of my new book, Delivering E-Learning: a complete strategy for design, application and assessment.

Actually, truth be told, it's been available from Amazon at least for a couple of weeks now.

AmazonLink and KoganPageLink.

As previously indicated, happy to discuss anything to do with the book here, especially the more controversial aspects, which include scathing criticisms of e-learning vendors and disparagement of technology standards. But for the moment, I'm just pleased that it's in the shops.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Set learning free

I continue to meet quite a few people who are very critical of Wikipedia (WP), and stress its unreliability. This argument is becoming tired, but every source is fallible, and one of the good things about WP is that its fallibility is clear: I find increasingly that entries I consult on WP have been discussed, edited, improved, and cite clear references; the occasional exceptions are flagged as not yet meeting standards in some way, and can be viewed as a work-in-progress.

Some criticism of the use of WP, as opposed to the intrinsic value of the resource, seems fair. An academic of my acquaintance is surely not alone when he bemoans the laziness of his students who cite WP. No matter how often he tells them to look for the original sources at the foot of the WP page and cite them, they continue to take the easy option. His complaint is understandable, but the frequency with which the students consult the world’s biggest online encyclopaedia bears testimony to its usefulness as an initial source of reference.

I consult WP nearly every day, and take it for granted now, but lately I’ve been getting more excited about Wikiversity (WV), another site in the Wiki family.

WV is “devoted to learning resources, learning projects, and research for use in all levels, types, and styles of education from pre-school to university, including professional training and informal learning”.

WV is "a centre for the creation and use of free learning materials and activities. Its primary priorities and goals are to:
· create and host a range of free-content, multilingual learning materials/resources, for all age groups and learner levels
· host learning and research projects and communities around existing and new materials".

So it doesn’t offer courses, but rather a more participative model of e-learning. How this came about is discussed here.

WV will be three years old in August of this year, and I predict it will go from strength to strength, perhaps becoming as widely recognised and used as its sister project, WP.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Metaphor in learning and development

Have you ever stopped to count the metaphors we use routinely in learning and development and wonder why they come from where they do?

I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that many of them derive from the industrial age, and reflect the activities that people seemed to value in an industrial setting. Thus we speak of workshops and of benchmarking, and use this sort of language so much that many of us will not stop to think that these are, in fact, metaphors and not literal expressions for what we’re doing.

What’s interesting about e-learning is that the metaphors are different, perhaps reflecting our move away from the industrial age to the information or digital age. Thus we have portals, platforms and even passwords. This seems to me a good thing, as instead of dwelling on the past, we are looking ahead, and many of the new metaphors are about rising, or opening up, or reaching for something new. If this encourages a more positive, creative outlook, that has to be of value.

Now just don’t get me into the ball-park of sporting metaphor: I’d hate to sound like I’m not a team player, but everyone wants to hit a home run, right?

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Intellectual Capital

Intellectual capital seems to be making a comeback. It features as the cover story of the current issue of People Management, and the expression, dormant for a while, seems to be in use again. For me, this is a welcome development.

It first emerged in the 1990s, and was a vogue expression, along with knowledge management, in the most swollen state of the dot com bubble. When that bubble burst, the expressions went out of fashion, but that always struck me as unfair, as the underlying principles were sound.
Tom Stewart’s Intellectual Capital, the seminal text on the subject, is one of the best books I have ever read, and more than ten years from its publication still seems very profound.

What I like about the concept is it explains hidden assets, intangible capital, and value that doesn’t appear on balance sheets. This is important for advocates of learning and development: we see spend on learning as valuable investment in human capital; accountants tend to see it as just running-cost expenditure. If investment in learning is to be taken seriously, we need to be able to show that it adds value, and is not merely a drain on expenditure.

Tom Stewart argues that the most important measures of value in a business are its knowledge assets, and that strategic development and deployment of these assets is the key to lasting competitive advantage, now and in the future. Stewart caricatures the work of corporate accountants as counting the bottles rather than describing the wine, and insists that it’s the latter sort of value that is the hidden gold of organisations.

Knowledge assets are developed through the efforts of people, who work, learn, research, develop, and create and refine knowledge. Organisations need to recognise that investment in learning and development leads to increased intellectual capital, which in turn leads to business growth and improved profitability.

Friday, 27 February 2009

The Seven Pillars

My latest article, The Seven Pillars of the Corporate University, has just been published on the EPD website. Link.

I chose the “seven pillars” imagery, a blatant steal from Lawrence of Arabia, because of the happy coincidence of there being seven factors to consider, and because I liked the idea of the factors, or pillars, supporting the edifice. The association of Lawrence’s original usage with wisdom helps the metaphor.

I’m finding an upsurge of interest in corporate universities. The American market may have become saturated a long time ago, but the concept has been much slower to catch on in Europe and the rest of the world. Perhaps that’s because the academic universities of the old world have a different gravitas, derived from their longer histories, or perhaps in Britain the legal meaning of the word university has been an impediment. There may be other explanations.

I prefer to believe it is because the latest incarnations of corporate universities offer much more than was conceived in the pioneering US institutions like Walt Disney, or later Motorola. The most popular current model is more like Hilton University, with its new emphasis on digital learning.

As always, happy to discuss.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Discussing my book

Readers interested in my new book on e-learning may want to know more than the usual publisher’s blurb that appears on Amazon and elsewhere. The book sets out to demonstrate a strategic approach to considering and implementing e-learning, and includes features like: a foreword contributed by Bill McGrath of Scottish Enterprise; an introduction that places modern learning in the context of how digital technology is increasingly dominating our lives; a “virtual round table” discussion; an illustrative project; a glossary of technical terms; consideration of how to evaluate e-learning; an annotated bibliography; and a look at what the future may hold. All of this is relatively straightforward.

However, there are a number of issues raised in the book that I would expect to be more controversial, including:

1. A new way of understanding e-learning, as an approach that encompasses all new methods of learning utilising digital technology.
2. Identification of five distinct models of e-learning – and there may be more.
3. A matrix for considering the impact of different kinds of e-learning.
4. A call for more strategic thinking about e-learning.
5. Condemnation of techies for overuse of misleading jargon.
6. Condemnation of e-learning vendors for misleading clients and “vandalising the market”.
7. Dismissal of e-learning technology standards as largely irrelevant.
8. A new model for e-learning design – the “route map”.

I look forward to discovering how reviewers regard these issues. In the meantime, you can contribute to the discussion by adding comments here.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Publication date

I’m pleased to announce the publication date of my forthcoming book, Delivering E-learning: a complete strategy for design, application and assessment.

It will be available in exactly eight weeks, on 3 April 2009.

You can place an advance order with Amazon, or direct with the publisher, Kogan Page.



And I promise plenty of opportunities to discuss the book here.

Saturday, 31 January 2009

Evaluation of learning

I caught the latest of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen nightmares on Channel 4 last night: a “Great British Nightmare”, it seemed like a couple of extreme examples of the genre, including an exposé of a restaurant in Sheffield run by a former recruitment consultant. You could tell the proprietor had picked up some evaluation tips from the world of HR.

He proudly showed Gordon some customer response cards, where his diners had rated the food as “excellent”, the service as “excellent”, and said they would be happy to come back again. Gordon’s retort is unrepeatable, replete with his trademark in-your-face aggression and gratuitously offensive language. But the gist was to point out that the restaurant was losing money hand over fist, so it didn’t really matter what anecdotes were coming from the diners.

This is the sort of mistake learning and development professionals often make, confusing the easy-to-gather and flattering information from what is critical to their organisation. We have our equivalent of the restaurant’s response card for their diners in our “happy sheets” usually distributed at the end of courses, which invariably show how happy the learners are. What they don’t show is the impact the learning has for the business.

My forthcoming book (another shameless plug, and more to follow in February) dedicates a whole chapter to evaluation, and although my focus in the book is e-learning the lessons apply equally to all forms of learning and development. The chapter discusses Kirkpatrick’s four levels, Return on Investment (ROI), Return on Expectations (ROE), Six Sigma, and Total value-add. All of these systems have merit, but I reserve special favour for total value-add because it reaches the parts other evaluation systems don’t reach. More in another post.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Recessionary pressures

They used to say that training was one of the first things a company would cut in a recession. But that was in the days when many companies carried large numbers of trainers on their staff. The old saw may only be true for organisations that still directly employ a lot of trainers.

Still, modern learning and development budget holders are bound to feel under threat in the current climate. So what are the arguments for maintaining spend on learning and development?

Investing in people’s talents is always a good idea, but it’s only an imperative if you can prove it impacts on flexibility, competitiveness and the bottom line. As the recession bites, learning and development professionals need to be able to make these arguments, and prove that learning is vital to their organisation’s current and future prosperity – and perhaps survival.

This may be a time to revisit fundamentals, and ask ourselves what resources we really need to fulfil the priorities in our remits. For example, is a software system that costs the annual equivalent of the salaries of two or three HR professionals really the best use of those funds? It may be time to take a blank sheet, or consider the opportunity cost of services we’ve taken for granted up to now.

At the individual level, I’m grateful to HR Network Scotland magazine for drawing my attention to the Open University’s resources “for workers to outsmart the recession”. We need more ideas like this.

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