Virtual Worlds as Social Simulations

In a recent article in the Escapist, Brian Easton discusses the use of virtual worlds like World of Warcraft (also a game) and Second Life for social experiments. He describes the impact of a “disease”outbreak called “Corrupted Blood” in World of Warcraft. The disease weakened strong characters and even killed some weaker characters. It was spread through proximity of characters with each other. What makes the simulation different from other computer simulations of disease outbreak is that the characters are all controlled by humans, which are notoriously unpredictable. By evaluating the simulation data, researchers are able to better observe how disease spreads in and out of communities. Certainly, the World of Warcraft example had it’s limitations. Some people play the game individually and only come into contact with people casually and generally not socially which doesn’t mimic the real world as well. However, worlds like Second Life are completely social (and in my opinion generally pointless by yourself) make a much better social simulation.

Brian says that Massively Multiplayer Online Games “are more than mere distractions. They’re social simulations, miniature economies and living worlds.” What if scientists tested the spread of a virus, first when people didn’t know they had it and then again when they did. Comparisons could be made on how people behave, how the disease spreads, and the impact of knowledge. Brian implied that it would be okay if people knew that their character wouldn’t really be harmed, but I think for it to be real, people would have to have more serious consequences (like the termination of an account) at least be implied, if not actual. Would people stop contact with others? Would they only associate with other infected people? Would they intentionally infect others? What if they were away from “home” when they found out they were infected? Would they transport home and possibly infect others along the way? What impact does severity of the disease have on behavior? How does the length of incubation (and therefore awareness) have on people’s behavior?

There are so many great questions that virtual worlds could answer, and it doesn’t have to just be about disease. The transfer of information, knowledge, money, or even power could be studied. As virtual worlds develop, they are clearly becoming ripe for research for the social and physical scientists. Obviously it would be impossible, dangerous, and even unethical to test many of these ideas in the real world, but understanding the behavior could save may lives in the real world. It will be very interesting to see how this develops in the virtual worlds in the coming years.

Creative Facilitation Using Photos

I had the pleasure of sitting in on Christine Martell’s engaging session at the Brandon-Hall conference last week. While I’ve done facilitation for years, this is one of the most unique approaches I’ve seen in a long time. The topics for sessions can be almost anything and for conferences, she often uses the conference theme as the topic. So for this one, the question to be addressed was “What is Innovation in Learning?”, which was the theme of the conference.

The first exercise was for each individual to answer the question. They had to create their response by selecting images from a pile of specially designed stock photos in order to tell their story.

Once completing their story, they analyzed their approach and shared their stories with the other people at their table. Then, each table had to create a shared story on the same topic. The outcomes were amazingly diverse in approach and visually rich, yet the learning outcomes were incredibly consistent.

Do you have people that need to brainstorm answers to challenging problems? Do they need to get aligned on strategic initiatives? Then this is a great approach. It takes advantage of creativity and design without the hurdles that are often in place for some of the population with sketching or other creative endeavors.

Many more details are available on this session, her blog, and her company. We’re also excited to have her as a member of the VizThink community and one of our facilitators at our upcoming conference in San Francisco. Register today to attend great sessions like this.

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Owning Your Development Plan

It seems to me that we spend an inordinate amount of time on the administrative functions in our business such as registration, tracking, and grading. We go out and find big technical solutions to problems that actually have little, if any, impact on our actual goal…developing people (knowledge, skills, and capabilities). Sometimes, the simple is the better more elegant solution.

About 5 weeks ago, I interviewed, Maggie Bayless and Stas Kasmierski, the founders of ZingTrain, about their business as well as how their parent company, Zingermans, does training. In the first post, Fun as a Corporate Competency, I described how they strive to create work and learning environments that didn’t just incorporate fun things, but actually were fun at their core. Though it’s been a few weeks, this is my follow-up post I promised on their simple and elegant approach to employee development and tracking.

From the very first day, they put the employee’s development plan in the hands of the employee by giving them their “Training Passport”. Like it’s metaphorical parent, the passport is a historical snapshot of where each person has been, but unlike it’s parent it also serves as a sort of travel guide on the path for their position. Every position in the company has a Training Passport. Often positions have multiple levels of passports for employees new to the position and as they progress to higher positions or responsibilities. The passport (pictured below) contains:

  • The skill or objective to achieve
  • The methodology for gaining that skill (classroom, on the job, handouts, meetings, etc)
  • How the skill or objective will be measured (test, observation, manager signature, etc)
  • Date and manager’s signature confirming successful completion

Employees are self-motivated to complete their passports which represents the opportunity for benefits (for new employees), raises, and promotion opportunities. New employees have 60 days to complete their orientation passport which includes arranging each of the learning opportunities. If, for example, they are getting close to the end of their orientation and the cheese section of the deli hasn’t broken down a wheel of cheese recently (which is a hands on learning experience measured by observation for deli employees), it is their responsibility to work the manager to arrange the experience.

The expectations are clear, ordered, measurable, directly related to success in the job, and the employee and manager always knows how they are progressing. For more details and some employee quotes on the effectiveness of the project, check out this article from Gourmet Retailer Magazine.

Just think how much money Zingermans could have spent on implementing an LMS or LCMS, instead they found a simple, elegant solution that puts learning, motivation, and responsibility into the hands of the person it’s supposed to impact the most…the learner.

Next up (hopefully in less than 5 weeks this time)…who does all of this training?

Know Your User

As we try to describe what’s happening in learning and technology, it’s essential to understand our audience. All too often, we break them down into the overly simplistic categories like early adopters, Luddites, and everybody else. But the categories don’t always work. I was talking to a colleague of mine last week who would typically be referred to as an early adopter due to the use of technology (for work, she’s a C programmer). However, when you look at other parts of her life, she almost avoids technology. So how do you reach a person that isn’t afraid of technology at all, knows how to use it effectively, but uses it in a limited fashion? Would we describe them as an early adopter? Luddite? General public? Frankly, it’s probably a little of each of them. If we want to really understand and reach our audience, we need to have a better way of describing them.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project has just released a study that, I think, does a much better job of describing people’s level of affinity towards technology. Here’s how they break it down:

These categories seem much more useful. The friend I mentioned earlier would be much better described as a “Lackluster Veteran”. In fact, I know quite a few people who would fit in that category. I’m clearly an Omnivore. However, what’s important is what the information implies? How would we implement technology (and learning using technology) differently for Connectors vs. Mobile Centrics vs. Inexperienced Experimenters vs. Lackluster Veterans? I probably wouldn’t use mobile technology for a Lackluster Veteran since that’s not their preference for receiving information, but I wouldn’t put out content formatted for the web for the Mobile Centrics.

I also need to put more thought into it, but I’m also really interested to see how this cross-references with Tony Karrer‘s recurring series on the 1% rule.

Here are a few other quick results from the U.S.-based study:

  • Only 20% have a portable MP3 player of any sort
  • Only 11% own a handheld computer like a Blackberry or Palm
  • Only 7% have ever listened to a podcast
  • 27% don’t have a cellphone
  • 45% don’t have a digital camera
  • 19% have shared something online that they created themselves (art, photo, story, video)
  • 18% have posted a comment on a blog or newsgroup
  • 28% have played a video game (3 times a month or more)
  • 82% believe the technology they do more than they are using it for

The full report is available online and contains a bunch of other fascinating data such as age, gender, broadband access, and number of devices per category. In fact, there’s so much information it’s nearly impossible to do it justice here. What does this mean as we decide which technologies to implement? How does this impact the design of learning, especially blended? Are our designers building for their own preference or for that of their audience? Lots of questions to talk about…be sure to let me know what you think.

Interviewing by Doing

Most people in the industry have come to the conclusion that “learning by doing” is not only the best approach, but possibly the only approach for deep, sustained learning. Now the question is what other things are best done by doing.

One of the other largely broken processes is interviewing external candidates. Here’s the basic process as it often exists:

  1. Company posts a job on their website, job board, and various newspapers.
  2. A potential candidate finds the job, and sends in a resume.
  3. The company scans the resumes using either an automated key word or manually reading often hundreds of resumes.
  4. Phone interviews are conducted by an HR person.
  5. In person interviews with the hiring manager, higher ups, and occasionally peers and subordinates.
  6. An offer is made and accepted.
  7. The new hire shows up for work.

This process is filled with difficulties and limitations. The job description is often inaccurate or unclear to external participants containing lots of internal jargon. The candidates resume is rarely a good representation of their capabilities. Interview are filled with self-reported capabilities and results. And, most importantly, to the candidates capabilities aren’t truly evaluated until they are on the job and sometimes it takes several weeks before it becomes evident.

Certainly a lot of companies are innovating in this space and trying to improve the process both for the company and the candidate. Mirroring “testing out” in learning, some companies have implemented various testing (skill and fit) at the beginning of the process to help determine capabilities early on with varying degrees of success. Often those evaluations fall down in the same place that the pre-testing in learning do, they request self-reported evaluations of knowledge and have no focus on capabilities and few ties to actual performance. Many of the consulting companies use, at least to some extent, case-based interviewing which usually starts with a story or situation and then asks “What would you do?” That approach certainly gives some insight into a person’s thought process and problem solving, but it often leads to text book answers which reveals little about participants actual capabilities.

What if we took the entire interview process and turned it nearly upside down? Well, one local Ann Arbor company, Menlo Innovations, has taken their well-integrated philosophy of learning by doing and translated it into the interview process. I’ve already written about them a couple times (Double Your Costs to Save Money and Be Your Own SME). They clearly take their core philosophies and run them through out the business. Here’s the alternative approach that they use for interviewing:

  1. Candidates learn about the company (and the company learns about the candidates) through a variety of meet-and-greets, receptions, and free classes for the community resulting in a large pool of potential candidates.
  2. Selected candidates from the pool are invited to attend an evening Q&A session where the senior executives talk about the company, demonstrate their approach, and, obviously, answer any questions candidates might have.
  3. The candidates are then brought in for a 3-hour “interview” where they are paired with other candidates in their job category in series of 3 rounds. Each round is observed by a different employee. During the round, the candidates are given a real-world task to achieve. Programmers are asked to estimate a task. Project Managers are asked to schedule or adjust a project. Interestingly, the objective of the teams of two are not to look good individually, but to make their partner look good regardless of their partners capabilities. Given the structure of the organization (wholly focused on agile programming), this round is designed to determine an individual’s capacity for teamwork.
  4. Those that have made it past earlier rounds are brought back for the next round, which is the candidate’s first day on the job. The interview? Do the work. The candidate is put on a real project for a real client with real team members. It’s so real, that the State of Michigan requires that the candidates are paid for the time worked.
  5. The final round is a 3-week trial, again the work and the pay are real.

Notice that nowhere in the process were typical interview questions asked. No self-reporting. In fact, the only Q&A is from the candidates, not the company. The evaluation process is observation.

The process certainly has limitations, as they all do. Not all candidates can wait for an opportunity through the pool process, and even fewer can do a 3-week trial. Also, likely a higher-than-normal set candidates self-select out early in the process after the Q&A. However, given it’s limitations it still has a lot of great things going for it.

It strikes me how close this is to the philosophy of learning by doing. It makes me wonder where else we could be applying these concepts.

Powerful Research Tool

For those in the learning space, there tends to be a lack of quality research on the current shape of the industry and trends. Well, the e-Learning Guild has stepped in to fill that gap with their Research offering which is managed by Steve Wexler. He demo’d the latest version at the meeting in Boston last week.

Probably the single most unique thing about the research is that members are doing their own live searches. No more out-of-date reports, biased interpretations (except for your own bias of course), or irrelevant data. Live queries into the research implies lots of great things for learning practitioners such as:

  • Access the most current data at that moment in time
  • Watch the trends (such as product market share or satisfaction) change over time
  • Apply filters to slice the data any way you like (the new version remembers the filters and applies the to all of the reports automatically…apparently this is Steve’s favorite new feature…he mentioned it a lot)

They have lots of great reports available such as Salaries, Methodologies, Market Share, Product Satisfaction, and many others. Higher levels of membership get more reports and more functionality in the research. If you’re not accessing this data as part of your decision making process, you probably should be.

Learning Circuits Big Question April 2007

Here’s a quick summary of the question: With demands increasing for shorter, lower cost, high quality content delivered whenever and wherever I want, what should people who create classroom and/or off-the-shelf content do?

I have lots of reactions to this, so here’s a couple quick thoughts:

  • Off-the-shelf doesn’t have to mean poor quality. We’ve just sadly made it that way because that’s what people designed and put out on the market. It’s the same in the manufacturing world. Quality doesn’t have to be related to custom made products or assembly line products. The more assembly-line focused Toyota and Honda do similar quality work to the more hand-built Lamborghini. However, the reputation is that custom equals quality. We all know that that’s completely not the case, yet we still perpetuate it. It’s completely possible for someone to create a high-quality, low-cost, mass-produced course. We’re just waiting for somebody to do it.
  • Often, it’s not the learner wanting shorter courses, per se. They just want to get through the boring content, stuff that’s not relevant, or mandatory content as quickly as possible so they can get to content that is relevant to helping them do their jobs. In talking to several suppliers over the last couple weeks, they are getting requests to actually make the content longer and include even more depth. Why? Because it’s perceived as valuable by the learners. They come back wanting more.

So what are classroom and off-the-shelf content creators to do? Create better content that has actual value to the learners.

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Fun as a Corporate Competency

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to sit down with Maggie Bayless and Stas Kasmierski, partners with the corporate training arm of Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan. For those who don’t know, Zingerman’s is a 25-year-old specialty foods retailer with both global reach and global recognition. Check out my recent post on their anniversary celebration for more details on the company itself. My next few posts will cover just some of ZingTrain’s unique approach.

When was the last time you thought learning was fun? When was the last time you thought work was actually fun? Rarely is the word fun used in conjunction with the words work or learning. In fact, if they are it’s often with the inclusion of (often unrelated) joke at the beginning of a lecture or a lame activity thrown in to break up the monotony. I’m not talking about inserted fun, but work and/or learning that are fun themselves. The act of working or the act of learning that itself is fun.

According to Maggie, Zingerman’s has made it a corporate goal to increase fun by 30% in the next several years. They’ve even made it part of their long term vision. Notice the number, 30%. That implies that fun is measurable. While the details are still being worked out, they are considering a variety of metrics such as self-reporting, 360’s, and customer feedback to help determine the impact of their efforts.

Many organizations work to make a fun environment including picnics, potlucks, and celebrations. Valassis, a former employer, would throw crazy parties for hitting particular stock price levels. Root Learning, another former employer has, among other regular events, the Rooties (employee-voted awards show which is often a cross between a comedy and talent show). Yet as they know, it’s not just about doing fun things, it’s about making work and learning themselves fun which is no small feat even for companies like Zingerman’s.

Really though, can work and learning actually be fun? In game-design-guru Raph Koster’s (blog, wikipedia) Theory of Fun he says:

Fun is all about our brains feeling good–the release of endorphins into our system…Science has shown that the pleasurable chills that we get down the spine after exceptionally powerful music or a really great book are caused by the sames sorts of chemicals we get when we have cocaine, an orgasm, or chocolate. Basically, our brains are on drugs pretty much all of the time. One of the subtlest releases of chemicals is at the moment of triumph when we learn something or master a task. This almost always causes us to break out into a smile. After all, it is important to the survival of the species that we learn–therefore our bodies reward us for it with moments of pleasure. There are many ways we find fun in games…but this is the most important. Fun from games arises out of mastery. It arises out of comprehension. It is the act of solving puzzles that makes games fun. In other words, with games, learning is the drug.

So, the question is not can learning be fun. In fact, by it’s nature, real learning is fun, despite the fact that many classrooms have done all they can to remove fun from learning. ZingTrain has not only resisted that trend, but tried to reverse it. Not only have they put the fun back into learning (both internally and externally), they’re goal is to make it even more fun.

Next up, their approach to objectives and competencies…

What Would Happen If Corporate Learning Ceased to Exist?

In Brian Tolle’s most recent post on organizational culture in his blog Corporate X-Ray, he talks about the creation of sustainable organizational cultures, cultures that are built to last. One of the qualities he lists for creating a sustainable culture is one that is not afraid of organizational death. He goes on to say:

A culture that is not afraid of organizational death regularly asks the question “if we were to disappear today, who would care and why?” It makes no assumptions that the organization deserves perpetuity. It accepts the responsibility of justifying its continued existence by making itself relevant to others. And it does this because it knows or suspects that allowing a false self-perception to die opens the organization to a new degree of freedom of thought, perspective, and ideas. It places its trust in this freedom to spark some sort of re-birth within the organization.

If we asked the people in our companies “If our learning department were shut down today, who would care and why?”, what do you think the answer would be? Sadly, in my experience, I don’t the learners would notice. Most executives would be happy to get their budgets back, and all-too-often, I’m not even sure the learning department itself would care (at least it doesn’t act that way). With the growth of very capable, full-service, HR outsourcing firms, it’s quite possible that learning departments might go away, at least as they have existed until now.

According to Brian, one of the best ways to create a sustainable organization is to be relevant to others…in our case, to the executives and the learners. What does this mean? Here are a few points that I think have an impact on relevancy:

  • The learning department must understand the language, the strategy, and the operations of the business (maybe better than the business itself).
  • The learning must be focused on helping the business leaders and learners reach and exceed their business objectives, not learning or knowledge objectives.
  • The learning must be focused on what people need to do, not what they need to know.

If these things happen, learning won’t need to go out of it’s way to go out of the way to do Level 4 measurement. It will be obvious in the business results which helps the sustainability of the entire business.

Welcome to Brian Tolle

Everybody, welcome Brian to the blogosphere. He brings an organizational development and culture perspective to the discussions. His plan is to post a couple times a week. In his first post, he lays out an introduction for the power of culture:

Often these rules of conduct, perception, or thinking go unspoken, unrecognized, or unchallenged. It’s as if there is some mysterious, hidden mechanism that is operating just behind the public face or below the personal experience of an organization that is calling the shots much more so than the executive suite. All this becomes even more intriguing to me when these unspoken values differ from the organization’s publicly stated corporate values.

In every organization I’ve worked for, culture has played a huge role in the results of the business. In all of them, the culture clearly trickled down from the top, whether knowingly or not. One nearly perfect case study went from a CEO with a relationship sales approach to a CEO with an accounting approach. The success or lack of success in a culture easily shows up in metrics of all sorts including employee turnover, sales, profit, and even stock price. In some cases, the culture is so strong that it begins to act without the CEO in ways never intended. Creating a culture, isn’t only the CEO’s domain. While there are limits, every leader can influence the culture for their team. What behaviors are you demonstrating that are impacting your business? Is the culture you’re setting allowing your strategy to succeed or preventing that success?

So, welcome Brian. I look forward to your upcoming posts!

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