Thursday, 20 December 2012

Festive Quiz

As it’s that time of the year again, I thought I’d lighten the mood with a wee quiz.  It’s more fun if you don’t Google the answers!  And I’ll post them in the comments section in a day or two.  No prizes, just the deep satisfaction of being a know-all.
1. What is the usual colour of a flight recorder black box?

2. How long did the Hundred Years War last?

3. What country makes Panama hats?

4. What animal(s) do we get catgut from?

5. What town do Grimsby Town Football Club play in?

Good luck, and seasonal goodwill to all.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Health & Safety Culture

As we approach the end of 2012, I'm reflecting on a year when human resource issues were frequently to the fore.  Back in January, the government jumped on the bandwagon of complaining about health and safety "red tape".  David Cameron promised he was "waging war against the excessive health and safety culture that has become an albatross around the neck of British businesses".

How quickly we forget! A generation ago, Britain experienced a run of tragedies, at the rate of more than one a year for five years, each causing multiple deaths, and touching the lives of so many of us. Our health and safety culture, far from being "excessive" is a product of those experiences, and our society is better for it.

Lest we forget:

1985              Manchester Airport             55 deaths

1985              Bradford                            56 deaths

1986              Sumburgh                          45 deaths

1987              Herald of Free Enterprise    193 deaths

1987              Kings Cross                       31 deaths

1988              Piper Alpha                        167 deaths

1989              Marchioness                      51 deaths

1989              Hillsborough                      96 deaths

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Against the herd

When I worked for Pearson plc in the 1990s, I was part of a newly-created business, Financial Times Management, specialising in management education.  When that business was just two years old, a decision was taken no rebrand it as FT Knowledge.  There was great enthusiasm for this tie-in with the in-vogue concept of knowledge management, but I felt it was too soon to be changing and the gains from this change were at best transitory and at worst delusional. I dissented and left the company, which went on to fail.

I was reminded of this when I saw a lot of praise for the latest restyling of People Management magazine.  Haven't we just had a restyling?  Are the benefits of the latest change a worthwhile use of CIPD member subscriptions? I think I'm facing the wrong way (or is it the wrong way?) on this one too.

It's a fairly minor thing, so I haven't said anything - until now.  I suspect others feel the same, but who wants to be the solitary guardsman facing the wrong way?

In the financial markets, this can be a valuable attribute.  Warren Buffet is the classic example,and we have many in Britain too - perhaps I should move into contrarian investment management.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Another evaluation update

In June, I wrote about progress in what was then a brand new action development programme.  That was the first cohort, since completed, of LEAD, which stands for Learning Evaluation Action Development, and is Airthrey Ltd’s flagship programme.  LEAD aims to support and equip those responsible for learning evaluation to conduct their own evaluation project (something real, not a simulation).

LEAD includes: a launch event, Masterclasses on learning evaluation approaches and applied research methods, individual tutorials, an action learning set, an online workspace, and a day of final presentations.  It also offers transparent evaluation of itself as an exemplar for participants.

The first cohort concluded in September, with three out of four participants successfully completing.  Their investigations are only now starting to yield impact measures, and their feedback is emerging.

I noted in June that one LEAD participant had said “it changed my life!” and I can now offer a more to-the-point testimonial:
"The LEAD programme was a great learning experience with its unique blend of workshops with Ken and Alasdair, supervised application of the learning to a real life evaluation project and learning from each other through the action learning set. I would highly recommend this programme as it provides foundational knowledge, skills and experience for anyone tasked with evaluating learning in their organisation.
(Alan Forsythe, Training & Development Manager at SHARE, and one of the participants in the first cohort).

A second cohort started in September, involving another four organisations, from sectors as diverse as mechanical engineering, defence, economic development, and a care charity.  Once again, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and plans are already underway for a third cohort of LEAD to begin in February 2013.  Further information about LEAD, including how to book for the next cohort, is available at the Airthrey website.

It looks like LEAD is now a fixture in the evaluation calendar.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Olympic spirit

The latest issue of People Management quotes Mike Morrison (@RapidBI on Twitter) "at the Olympic Games, many, many people got a lot out of volunteering. This should be explored as a business strategy".

This will come as no surprise to many in the 'Big Society', from the public and third sectors, where volunteering as a means of delivering public services is increasingly a way of life. Indeed, in the third sector - charities, social enterprises and community groups - volunteering is often the main way, sometimes the only way, anything gets done, starting with the directors and 'owners' of the enterprises themselves.

But will it fly in the private sector? Is unpaid work an acceptable means of making profits and yielding dividends for shareholders? Judging by the recent highlighting of concerns about engaging interns (who, if upaid, are de facto a kind of volunteer), the answer to that question is no. But is this really just a different way of expressing the entrepreneurial spirit? Are those who start new businesses, and commit long hours unpaid to realising their dreams, really that different from those who dedicate their time to charities or other good causes?

It seems to me we need more debate about this, and there must be scope to embrace volunteering in the culture of enterprise.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

How learning adds value

I’m developing a model showing the various ways learning adds value in an organisation, and so far I’ve identified four clusters of different ways.

The classic learning paradigm
This is the process flow from: acquisition of knowledge/skills/behaviours; to performance improvement; to business results. This is the main sort of value we expect learning to add.

Talent development
This is about learning as an employee benefit, where employees enjoy the experience, feel more valued, and/or benefit from a break from their day-to-day activities.  Employees can come to see learning opportunities as part of the rewards package of an organisation, which can aid talent recruitment and retention.

There are two aspects to this.  One is the benefits of meeting other people, exchanging ideas and opinions with them, and networking both during and after the learning event – this only applies to learning opportunities involving meeting other people (although this could be online, or remote).  The second is the information gathering (by the organisation) from learners (including from evaluation activities).

Further learning
There are three parts to this.  One is the development of transferable learning skills (and so capacity for change) – e.g., study skills, note-taking, questioning, précis, how to get the most from sessions, etc.  The second is the acquisition of extra skills from the learning process, rather than the content – e.g., IT skills from e-learning, writing skills from completing assignments, chairing groups, scribing, facilitating, etc.  The third is the unexpected learning – knowledge and skills beyond the intended objectives.

I’m interested in feedback on this model. Does it make sense? Is there anything I’ve missed?

Monday, 19 November 2012

Number crunching

We live in a world of big data. As the cliché has it, the Internet changes everything, and it has certainly transformed our access to reams of data and valuable analysis of it.

I spent the recent US Presidential election campaign following the blogging exploitsof Nate Silver, erstwhile poker player and baseball analyst. Silver made sense of the extensive polling and voter behaviour data to correctly predict not just the overall result, but the actual outcome in every single state in the Union. His successful predictions were in marked contrast to those who "felt" Mitt Romney would win, or had a "hunch" he would beat President Obama.

In a feature in yesterday's Observer, Silver said "Numbers aren't perfect, but for me, it's numbers with all their imperfections versus bullshit. You had people saying 'you can't quantify people's feelings through numbers!' But what's the alternative?"

This resonates for me with the evaluation debate in learning and development. We have people saying you can't measure 'soft' skills and that you can't adequately measure learning overall. My old friend Martyn Sloman is far from alone when he opines "The first thing to be said is that much learning cannot be measured, and this may be the most valuable kind. The second is that even if it could be measured, such activities may not be worthwhile." (Training in the Age of the Learner)

I would reverse Sloman's formulation. Quantification of some learning may not be worthwhile, but with so much data, and so much analytical power, available, we should be trying to measure as much as we can. Evidence based on data is so much more meaningful than any personal feelings about the value of learning. We need a much clearer idea of what we are accomplishing from learning, and much better evidence to inform essential ongoing improvements in what learning and development contributes. However distasteful some find the numerical analysis of "people's feelings", it is a challenge we must rise to.


Friday, 16 November 2012

An appeal for crowdfunding

I’m looking for contributions to fund a research project on evaluation of learning and development.  Although focused on Scotland, the project should have clear implications for the wider world.

I discovered crowdfunding when a friend’s son, a photographer, was involved with a group of people in making a short film, and they used it to raise all the funding they needed.  The website they chose was sponsume, and after looking around, that’s the one I chose too.

I’m a director of Airthrey Ltd, the learning evaluation solutions business, which aspires to conduct research into learning evaluation.  But opportunities are rare, so Airthrey set up its own research project, The State of Learning Evaluation in Scotland, and looked for partners to co-fund it.  As none were forthcoming, Airthrey has fallen back on crowdfunding.

The project will look at how medium-to-large organisations in Scotland evaluate their learning and development.  The idea is to find out who’s having success with their evaluation – the sort of success everyone would want – and to find out why they are successful.  The project is a pioneering use of Professor Robert O Brinkerhoff’s Success Case Method, the first time this method has been applied at the level of an entire country.  More information about the project is at the Airthrey website.

The appeal part of this blog post is that I’m asking you to go to our sponsume page and make a donation, however small, to help fund the project.  And I’m also asking you to share this appeal with anyone else you know who may be interested, in the hope that they too may donate.

Please help us fund this valuable project.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Education and training spend in the UK

In the foreword to Brinkerhoff and Apking’s High Impact Training (2001), Professor Dale M Brethower identified the total US spend on education, “from kindergarten through graduate school” at $230 billion, and estimated that employers pass on to consumers at least $300 billion in spend on training and development.  Professor Brethower offered these stats to pose the questions of whether US citizens were getting value for this investment, and whether greater value could be gained.

This got me interested in identifying the comparable stats for the UK, and this useful Parliamentary Briefing provides them.

Current UK public expenditure on education is around the £90 billion mark. If Prof Brethower’s estimates hold true for the UK too, then corporate training spend will be an even greater amount, and the total UK spend on learning and development will amount to around £200 billion.

That’s not just a lot of money, it’s about 10% of our Gross Domestic Product (the graph above only shows spend in formal education).

It reaffirms my belief that not enough attention is being paid to the value we get from learning and development, and greater resources should be committed to ensuring that is the case.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Success Case Method

Working on evaluation of learning and development, one of the things that amazes me is how little known, and how little used, is the Success Case Method. It shouldn’t really amaze me that much, as I only discovered it myself after writing my last book, 101 Learning and Development Tools, which means it doesn’t feature in the book, despite 21 of the tools being about evaluation. More’s the pity, as it’s an excellent tool. I should clarify that the method is little known or used in the UK, as it is quite commonplace in the USA, and has been implemented by many Fortune 100 companies.
Devised by Robert O Brinkerhoff (pictured), emeritus professor at Western Michigan University, the Success Case Method is deceptively and ingeniously simple. In essence, it comprises just two steps: 1) survey, with a very small number of questions, the target population, typically learners, their managers or their customers, and then use the survey data to 2) interview, in depth, the “success cases” – and the non-successes – to investigate what exactly enabled their success.
Brinkerhoff’s breakthrough was to recognise the pattern of achievement common to nearly all learning interventions, whereby some learners apply what they have learned to great success, some learners are unable to apply the learning at all, but the great majority either have very limited success in applying the learning, or give up under other pressures. The Success Case Method aims to work out what makes a difference in the success cases, in order to try to apply that to the great majority, and therefore accomplish more widespread success.
My learning evaluation business, Airthrey Ltd, is conducting a research project using the Success Case Method to investigate how organisations in Scotland evaluate their learning, which organisations enjoys standout success, and why. The research project is endorsed by Brinkerhoff, and we believe is the first instance of a macro application of the method to an entire country. We hope it will help popularise the method in the UK and beyond.
We are looking for financial help to get the research project off the ground, and if you think this is worthwhile, or would be interested in the research outcomes, please give us a small contribution.  We are using the crowdfunding site, sponsume, to collect contributions, and everyone who contributes, no matter how little, will receive a summary of the research report. In addition, everyone who gives at least £20 will receive a copy of the full report, and everyone who contributes £50 or more will receive a matching discount voucher for Airthrey services.
Learn more about Airthrey’s research work here.
And learn more about the Success Case Method here.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Story telling

I feel as though I've always known that a story should have a beginning, a middle and an end. Now I learn, from the Harvard Business Review, that this is an Aristotelian model. I shouldn't be surprised, as I'm familiar with the Aristotelian model for drama, and I guess there are a set of related concepts. (It reminds me of the qualms I felt when I was forced to agree with Donald Clark that my classical education wasn't that useful after all, and most painfully, that my extensive study of Latin was probably less useful than my minimal study of Greek.  But I digress...)

I wholeheartedly endorse the main point of the Harvard link, that effective presentations are rather like story-telling. Indeed there are broader lessons for leadership and influencing.

Whenever we try to engage with anyone, it makes sense to look for and find a shared narrative, a set of common experiences that mean we both feel "that person's just like me". From there, we can move forward to a shared solution, and agree actions that we both believe are worthwhile, and that we can commit to. This is essentially what happens when you tell a story: you agree on a beginning, you posit other scenarios, and you reach a conclusion. There's a mutual satisfaction with the arc of the story, and a shared motivation to pursue the conclusion.

The complementary formula for explaining anything, as every good presenter and trainer knows, is to tell 'em what you going to tell 'em (the beginning), tell 'em (the middle), then tell 'em what you've told 'em (the end).

If this just seems like common sense, then I submit you are already working effectively, but the reasons you are effective have been subconscious, and you can benefit from a more explicit understanding. If the idea is new, then glad to have helped.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The ubiquity of leadership

When people ask me the difference between leadership and management, I ask them to consider the difference between management and governance.  Not that I’m equating governance with leadership, but I think this is a good place to start.  Management is essentially about administration, while governance is about oversight of an organisation’s work.  Once this is clarified, it’s easier to talk about leadership.

(As an aside, what is “operational management”? Surely this is tautology? To test it, what is the opposite?  Non-operational management?  That makes no sense. Sometimes operational management is contrasted with strategic management, but this is not correct, as you can reasonably have strategic operational management, and in any case, the opposite of strategy is tactics, not operations.)

Senior managers and non-executive directors (sometimes non-remunerated) have a leadership role in organisations, to provide vision, articulate strategy, and oversee the organisation’s work (this is leadership in governance).  Managers include leadership as part of their role, as they are expected to lead, influence and inspire people, alongside their other responsibilities for managing resources, etc (this is leadership in management).

And anybody and everybody else can exercise leadership too. Respected co-workers – perhaps, but not necessarily, those with greater experience – often fulfil a mentoring role, and provide leadership.  The most junior, and inexperienced, employee can demonstrate leadership in individual instances, perhaps well beyond their usual day-to-day responsibilities.

The military are familiar with the concept of leadership in the field being offered by non-commissioned officers and by the rank-and-file.  And I once listened to Sir Alex Ferguson going through the England football team, picking out nearly every member of it as a leader. Team sports give us many examples of leadership from those other than the designated leader (the coach, the captain, etc). Politicians from the cabinet to the backbenches of local councils demonstrate leadership. Trades unions throw up workplace leaders outside the management structure. And communities find leaders among volunteers when the situation demands it.  We’ve all heard about “natural leaders”, who are not in leadership roles. Leadership is everywhere.

We all lead; or we all can lead. We lead by vision and by example: we show the way and we lead the way. Everyone can be a leader, given the right combination of their personal qualities/skills and a relevant situation to apply them.

So leadership is a subset of management, in terms of the skills and responsibilities of managers, but it’s also a broader concept.  And it’s not just for top management.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012


The pace of change in the digital age is often described as very rapid, but it can be depressing how long the drag is from analogue relics, how much we continue to cling to old images, old ways of doing things, and some things that actually hold back progress.
What do I mean? The title of this post comes from the first article discussed below, and is defined as “a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original” (but, implicitly, is no longer necessary – the definition is from the Oxford English Dictionary). Bear with me...
John Naughton, in Sunday’s Observer, ridiculed Apple’s old fashioned looking apps, such as a calendar with faux leather stitching graphics (“Ugh. God. Why is Apple Making Everything Look Like an Ugly Wild West?”).  One in the eye for the Apple design fanboys. But the serious point is the lack of imagination in looking forward. A more telling example is that the iPad virtual onscreen keyboard continues to mimic a typewriter, even though, as Naughton says, “most of Facebook’s 900 million users have never seen a typewriter”.
Donald Clark is currently blogging a great series on learning technologies, and in his 5 October post discusses how technologies lock-in practice, and the “keyboard format, a relic from the mechanical past, still dominates the digital future. The word ‘typewriter’ it is said, is the longest word you can type from one row of letters on a QWERTY keyboard”. Clark goes on to bemoan “the degree to which Google, Apple and others lock users into their algorithmic model, giving the illusion of openness”.
But neither Google nor Apple has any stake in retaining typewriter keyboards. Nobody has. And the field is open to whoever can perfect alternative user interfaces first.
I’ve blogged about this before: recently, I thought, but a search shows it was four-and-a-half years ago! When I said the pace of change can be depressing, this is the quote I was thinking of:
“... I don’t think that day is far off. Voice recognition software, touch-sensitive screens, handwriting recognition software are developments that point the way ahead. When Mr Spock first talked to the computer in Star Trek, it must have seemed impossibly futuristic, but now that day is near. And the keyboard and the mouse are on borrowed time”.
Four-and-a-half years later, I don’t think we’re any further forward. We honestly should be.

Friday, 28 September 2012

A message to our customers

I've never understood people who say they love travel (I met someone this month who more specifically told me he loves air travel); I love visiting new places; I adore foreign holidays; but travel is just the painful process to be endured to get there - and home again. I find flying the worst kind of travel, as we are herded around, told where to sit, penned in, strapped in, and generally inconvenienced while held in the smallest possible space. I especially hate flying Ryanair, as they maximise the inconvenience to the customer, in return for the lowest prices (a Faustian bargain I now try to avoid).
I admit, therefore, prejudice against Ryanair Chief Executive Michael O'Leary, but I approached his Q&A-style profile in thismonth's Management Today in the spirit of being willing to be persuaded otherwise. Unfortunately, he confirmed all my prejudice.

O'Leary is paid 20 times more than the average Ryanair employee - fair enough, in my view, but O'Leary says the gap should be wider, as he claims to "probably work 50 times harder"! Is he serious? 50 times harder than the average employee? What a message to send to your staff! (I wouldn't be surprised if a CEO adds 50 times as much value as their average employee; at least that would be a more credible claim, but greater industry?)

Yet not so surprising when you go on to read the message O'Leary sends to customers. He tells the story of a family who turned up at Alicante airport without their boarding passes, and were charged €60 for each replacement. That strikes me as an excessive penalty for a minor administrative task, but O'Leary not only refused compensation, he told the (female) customer "it was your fuck-up".

The corporate ethos of Ryanair may be damaging the image of the airline industry (a deliberate choice, doubtless judged a sacrifice worth making for capturing the budget end of the market), but O'Leary seems to be on a one-man crusade to destroy his business - remember Gerald Ratner's gaffe?


Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Total Value Add

I’m pleased to announce the publication of my first e-book, written in collaboration with my business partner, Dr Alasdair Rutherford.

Total Value Add: a new approach to evaluating learning and development is available from Amazon at £7.50 in the UK and $11.90 elsewhere.

The book brings together some of the ideas from the free paper series at and from seminars we have held in the past year, packaged with the glossary and book review features of the website.

Our core concepts are that learning evaluation has been badly neglected, and where it has not, has been subject to counter-productive dogma.  Therefore we need a new way of thinking about it.  Not a new tool or technique, as there are plenty of those, but a fresh approach.  Our approach places value at the centre, contends that we need to recognise, capture and measure all the value learning adds, and advocates a situational approach, selecting the evaluation methods that best meet needs.

Hardly rocket science, but sometimes simple messages get confused in a world of complexity.

I hope you read the book and find it useful.  If anyone wants to review it for any journal or website, please get in touch.

Friday, 7 September 2012

New learning tools

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development is launching a new online product, Toolclicks, a subscription-based resource featuring practical tools for implementation (soft-launched at HRD Week in April, formal notes of interest are now being taken).

Among the tools is a series of 20 on learning evaluation, which I was privileged to contribute.  Naturally, as one of the authors, I wish Toolclicks every success.  Learning evaluation in particular is something I believe is not conducted effectively by most organisations, and I hope these tools go some way to help.

More info from People Management.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Talking heads

I haven’t blogged much recently (just one blog post this month) but it’s the usual reason – I’ve been on holiday!

While I was lounging on the French Riviera, my colleague Alasdair Rutherford was working hard on a number of projects we planned for my absence, not least of which is the launch of the Airthrey Ltd YouTube channel.

This has proved much tougher than we anticipated.  Despite my experience of creating video content for e-learning, and less relevantly, my pre-digital video production experience, I expected it to be quite easy to create short video clips for YouTube, and yet the time we’ve invested in trying out various formats and software tools has proved disproportionate to what we’ve managed to publish so far.  Our introductory piece doesn’t even include any live action video, not even a “talking head”.

I’d be interested in any tips and advice on the best tools to use to make the most of YouTube.

Monday, 13 August 2012

What sort of sad sicko am I?

Still not on Facebook.

According to Catherine Bennett in yesterday’s Observer, “avoiders could soon, if they are not already, be regarded as eccentric "ghosts", loners or privacy fetishists” - to be fair, she specifies “young” avoiders, and I can’t claim to be in that category, although she does use her/my title as a generalisation for all.  But I can’t see the point of Facebook.

I use social media, just not Facebook.  I can’t delete it from my smartphone (HTC, using Google Android apps) because it appears to be built-in, which means I’m constantly deleting offers of updates; oddly, it’s not built-in to my iPad3, nor, of course, my Microsoft laptop – see how ecumenical my technology choices are?  I take part in online discussions on sites like YouTube and IMDB.  I’ve been posting on football fan sites for a decade, and the best days of that are over, IMHO (see, I’ve got all the jargon – “In My Humble Opinion”, if you didn’t know), essentially because every terracing lout now has a laptop and broadband.  I was an early adopter of Friends Reunited, over a decade ago, but I haven’t bought into any social media craze since then.

I’ve blogged before that the arcs of Friend Reunited, MySpace, and BEBO are there for all to see, and to foresee the inevitable eclipse of Facebook.

I use LinkedIn and Twitter for work, and this also comes under scrutiny in Bennett’s article, as the loathsomely smug Marc Zuckerberg opines that “The days of you having a different image for your work friends and co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly”.  Not only do I maintain different images, I am resolute in keeping those identities apart – why on earth would my clients for learning evaluation be interested in my opinions on films, football and music?  And why on earth should my fellow football fans be bored, as they certainly would be, by my work stuff?

I understand B2C businesses using Facebook, but mine is B2B, and LinkedIn, Twitter, Blogger and YouTube give us (the corporate plural, not more schizophrenia) everything we need.

I hope this blog post demonstrates that my facing away from Facebook is not through any lack of authenticity, nor lack of social media/communication skills.  I remain fascinated by what’s coming next, because the replacement for Facebook is surely just around the corner.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Forget learning styles

This morning I responded to a LinkedIn discussion on learning styles, questioning the interest.  In my blog post of 4 May I noted that “Honey and Mumford’s learning styles theory, along with the competing theory of Colin Rose, has been widely discredited, at least in academic circles”, and cited this handy compendium of evidence and comment debunking the learning styles myth.

Let me showcase one useful quote, from Harold Stolovitch:

There is so much press about learning styles. First of all, it's hard to even pin down what this construct is. Is it preference, habit, or inborn trait? The general definition is that a learning style is a mode of learning that is most effective for a person. It helps the individual obtain superior learning results. However, more than 25 years of research on this and related themes have not provided any form of conclusive evidence that matching the form of instruction to learning style improved learning or even attention”.

I confess to my own complicity in this.  Two of the tools highlighted in my 2011 book, 101 Learning & Development Tools, are about learning styles.  It’s only in the last year I’ve come to understand that this is pop science at its worst, akin to claims that women can’t read maps and men never listen.

The real question is why use of learning styles “theory” persists.  As Allison Rossett perceptively puts it:

What interests me is why. Why have generations of educators glommed on to learning styles when the research is settled or pretty darn so? Seems to me that's the interesting morsel here”.

I hope it’s just that not enough work has been done to highlight, to communicate, how wrong-headed styles thinking is (the research work has been done), and people need time to break the habit.  I’d hate to think it means many L&D practitioners are like butterfly-brained new age gullibles, latching onto any seductive nonsense regardless of the evidence base.

I think learning styles models are useful in getting people to think about how they learn, and what motivates them.  No more than that.  And even then, they should be taken with a huge pinch of salt.

Thursday, 26 July 2012


At the risk of striking too sombre a note, death and loss have troubled me lately.  Perhaps it’s just that I’m getting older, but a number of recent deaths have prompted me to reflect on the strapline of this blog, and lessons for how we learn.

JackieOrme, whom I never knew or even met, but was leader of my profession, stepped down from her role as Chief Executive of the CIPD earlier this year to fight cancer, only to succumb this month, at the age of just 46.

My old student friend Kenny Harris died suddenly last month, at age 53 perhaps too old for the usual platitudes about dying too young, but as a near-contemporary I feel his untimely loss no less.  Kenny’s “headsurfing” philosophy, about maximising and utilising creativity, struck a chord with me.

And Stephen Covey, author of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, also passed away this month.  Among many great insights, Covey said that principles should underpin our behaviour.

From Covey to Tovey – I recently discovered David Tovey, who points out in his blog post on “muscle learning” that we often develop ingrained habits for doing things the wrong way, and have to unlearn them before we can learn the right way.  This, I think, is a crucial improvement on the work of Roberto Moretti (see a previous blog post).  It also chimes with the work of action learning sets, which emphasise unlearning as a key stage in tackling a problem and learning what the solution should be.

So we may not die tomorrow, but if we live every day like we will, then one day we’ll be right.  Hopefully we’ll have learned all we can along the way, and passed on as much of that learning as possible.  It looks like a necessary step along the way is to unlearn the things we’ve got wrong, so let’s keep questioning, and let’s keep our minds open.

Long life and happiness.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Happy sheets

For years the Industrial Society (an independent charity until 2002, now the WorkFoundation, part of Lancaster University) used to conduct an annual survey of what was happening in training in the UK.  Every year they asked the question “what did you like most about the training?” and every year, without fail, the most popular answer was “the friendliness of the trainer”.  Not their competence, effectiveness or relevance – how friendly they were.
 Proust-like, I’ve been pondering what this means for years, and I’ve recently had a new thought about it.  I don’t know whether the Industrial Society asked what was the one thing people disliked most about training courses, but I think I know what the answer would be.  At least for those who attend courses frequently, it must surely be the dead ten minutes or so at the end of the day when the trainer passes out reaction sheets and asks people to fill them in.

Learners rarely see the results of these sheets, and truth be told organisations rarely make much use of their findings either.  Not really surprisingly, since most reaction sheets are poorly designed, with little thought for how they may be analysed and what will be done about the results.

Astonishingly, organisations continue to distribute these sheets regularly and routinely to everyone who takes a course.  How do I know this?  I have asked this question of six separate audiences recently, and almost everyone in each audience confessed to “regularly and routinely using reaction sheets”.  I wasn’t just following a hunch, check the footnotes on page 1 of the latest Airthrey paper, Making Evaluation a Priority.

I would go so far as to guess that immediate post-course reaction sheets are the most commonly completed surveys in the world.  And yet all to so little avail!

Here are some suggestions to vary your practice:

1. Put your reaction sheets online (many have already done this)
2. Even if they’re not online, don’t distribute them until a short time after the course (what’s so valuable about immediate reactions anyway?)
3. Consider breaking them into two sheets, one on issues about the quality of the learning and one on the hygiene factors (comfort, catering, etc)
4. Review your scales – are they biased? (in my experience, most are)
5. Review your questions – are they biased? (in my experience, most are)
6. Try using ballot boxes instead of survey sheets for the novelty factor
7. Consider who is responsible for reaction testing – is the trainer the right person? (probably not)
8. Think about what the sheets are for (quality testing? gauging learner satisfaction?), and only ask questions you think you may follow-up with action for change
9. Consider sampling: if you have an annual throughput of hundreds of learners on courses, a lot of your effort is wasted, when you could get as much useful information from a judicious sample
10. Consider getting rid of them altogether, which should prompt you to focus on the real value they provide

Any other suggestions?

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

What are you reading?

In Sunday’s Observer, Peter Preston noted the trend among US newspapers to cease publishing on at least one day of the week, typically their lowest sales day, and speculated why this phenomenon has not (yet) reached the UK.  One of the recurring themes of Preston’s weekly column is the decline of print-based media in the face of competition from digital.

This got me thinking about which print-based publications I still read, other than books.  My wife and I read one newspaper every Saturday (the Guardian) and every Sunday (the Observer), as part of our relaxing breakfast ritual.  I don’t take weekday newspapers – what’s the point?  And I don’t pay for any other print-based publication on a regular basis.

The magazines I read regularly include: Management Today (excellent) and Professional Manager (so-so), which I receive as a benefit of my membership of CMI; People Management (good), which I receive as a benefit of my membership of CIPD; and HR Network Scotland (poor), which is free.  All have online complements, all of which I consult from time to time.

But if I didn’t get these through other deals, I doubt I would deliberately pay for them – the possible exception is Management Today, which despite Luke Johnson’s execrable column, is always both entertaining and informative.

This marks a massive shift over the last 25 years.  I used to access lots of publications through work: I brought home the Glasgow Herald and the Financial Times daily, and I subscribed to the likes of the journal of the British Association for Commercial and Industrial Education (now defunct) and Training Officer (still going strong as Training Journal).  And I subscribed, or bought at newsagents, a variety of other magazines – now I buy none.

Most of my reading is online, and even if some of my sources move to charge (although the pace of this is incredibly slow), I expect that to continue.  Like Peter Preston, I can’t see much of a future for print-based media.  Which begs the question – who on earth is buying all those rows of glossy magazines that still fill the shelves of WH Smith et al?

Thursday, 21 June 2012

LEAD pilot update

In my blog post of 26 March, I promised an update on progress of the first Learning Evaluation Action Development (LEAD) programme, provided by Airthrey, the learning evaluation solutions business.

The pilot cohort of LEAD was launched in May 2012 – it’s now well underway, and has attracted rave reviews (“it’s changed my life” has been one over-the-top comment!), as well as some learning points. The pilot cohort includes participants from the housing, mental health, and childcare sectors, posing significant challenges with qualitative data and hard-to-measure value propositions.

We have already completed: enrolment; a launch event; drafting of learning evaluation contracts by all participants; formation and first meetings of an action learning set; some one-to-one tutorials; engagement in LEAD Online (a digital workspace) by all participants; and two Masterclasses, in learning evaluation approaches and applied research methods.  The participants are all now working on their agreed evaluations, and are looking forward to submitting their reports and making their final presentations in September.

Participants’ evaluation projects include the organisational impact of managers deploying coaching and mentoring, the measureable outcomes of a management development programme, and the unexpected added value of a range of short training courses.

Informal feedback has been very positive, as have the online questionnaires to measure the baselines and impact of subsequent inputs.  Participants have especially appreciated development around Total Value Add, Business Impact Modelling, writing evaluation questions, using sampling techniques, and implementing Brinkerhoff’s Success Case Method. Effectively, this blog is an interim evaluation report, with a final report due in September (yes, I’ll blog again), once we know the impact each participant’s evaluation has had.

Airthrey have already taken bookings for the second cohort, commencing 26 September 2012, which should benefit from the experience of the pilot cohort. A limited number of places are still available to book at:

Blog Archive