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.

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