Archive for May, 2007

PowerPoint – What is Appropriate, When and Why?

This month’s Learning Circuits Blog Big Question is actually a series of questions related to the use of PowerPoint. It’s really easy to jump to the conclusion that PowerPoint is evil because people use it to create bad presentations and learning. However, that is the equivalent of saying that typewriters (or word processors) are bad because people use them to create bad novels. Certainly, the typewriter made it easier for more people to call themselves writers than the days when everything had to be typeset by hand, but that doesn’t mean there were more good writers. To butcher a common quote, PowerPoint doesn’t bore people, people bore people.

There are at least 3 completely different skill sets needed to create and deliver a great presentation:

  1. Using the tool
  2. Speaking/presenting
  3. Visual/information design

Unfortunately, most of the training in corporations stops at the tool, rarely gets to presentation skills, and never gets to visual design skills. However, when done well, a good PowerPoint has many benefits:

Emphasizing or Illustrating a Point

Arch Lustberg, an extraordinary coach and teacher for presentation skills, has argued that a good presenter doesn’t need technology. That’s true to some extent. Some of the best presenters I’ve ever seen only had themselves and a microphone. Yet, Arch still occasionally uses a marker and flip chart to emphasize or illustrate a point. In that case, the flip chart fills the same role as a good use of technology…emphasizing or illustrating a point. This isn’t the random insertion of clip art. This is the use of text and visualization to clarify the information being discussed.

Organizing Thoughts

One of the least talked about benefits for PowerPoint (and one of my favorites) is using PowerPoint as a way to organize thoughts and eventually presentations. It’s a great way to organize random thoughts into a coherent flow. Ideas can be brainstormed onto different slides, flushed out with more detail, and then Slides resorted into a coherent flow. I might never use PowerPoint in the actual presentation, but at least I’ve got my content organized and my flow down. When I’m done, I also use this for checking my presentation flow. I do a walkthrough (in my head) of what I’m going to say and where I want to go. If I naturally go to the content on the next slide before I click to go there, I know the flow is good. If I go in a different direction, something needs to be fixed.

Determining Timing and Emphasis

It’s also a great way to determine the length of a presentation and whether the amount of time being spent on a topic is appropriate. When I sit down in a 60 minute presentation and I see 120 slides and the last one says “Q&A”, I can pretty much say without a doubt there will be no time for questions. The rule of thumb I use is about 2 minutes per slide on average, which works well for my presentation style. That formula helps me predict the amount of content I have and which points should be emphasized or eliminated based on the time available.

Other Benefits

I haven’t really focused on the traditional uses of the tool, many other posts have done a great job of that. Regardless, PowerPoint is a tool. Put in the hands of a skilled professional it can be a huge asset. It can even help more people become skilled presenters. Of course, it can also help people create and deliver bad presentations much more quickly. As with most things, being a good presenter requires skill and experience. Corporations should not only develop skills in using the tool, but also in delivery and design of presentations.

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Designing “the dip” Out of Learning

Marketing guru Seth Godin’s new book the dip is a quick, 80-page read. Thanks to Brian Tolle for getting me a free copy of the book. Here’s a short description from the cover:

Every new project…starts out exciting and fun. Then it gets harder and less fun, until it hits a low point: really hard, and not much fun at all. And then you find yourself asking if the goal is even worth the hassle. Maybe you’re in a Dip–a temporary setback that you will overcome if you keep pushing. But maybe it’s really a Cul-de-Sac, which will never get better, no matter how hard you try…Winners quit fast, quit often…until they commit to beating the right Dip for the right reasons…Losers, on the other hand…fail to stick out the Dip–they get to the moment of truth and then give up–or they never even find the right Dip to conquer.

There are some easy pluses and minuses to this book, but I’ll leave those thoughts to the book critics. What I found interesting is that he’s really talking about learning. The curve he describes is a learning curve. Rather than embracing the dip and helping learners through it, learning designers often design out the dip. Certainly, the goal–making sure everybody gets it–is well intentioned. However, this requires designing to the lowest common denominator. It also means that most of the results are missed.

However, we don’t have to use the lowest common denominator as our metric and most of our learners can make it back up the curve to get the best results. Simulations and games are a great way to help people through the dip. In fact, well-designed simulations take advantage of the dip and make it a key part of the design. About 5 months ago, I covered this topic in more detail in a post called Adaptive Simulations. (Note: In my graphic, the dips are actually the peaks, so the chart would need to be flipped upside down to compare them). The idea is that the simulation takes the learner through a series of progressively more difficult dips, rather than one big dip, which in the end has taken them through the larger dip and on to success.
If we design “the dip” out of learning, we also design out the opportunity for learning. Without the struggle, without the opportunity for (and frequent occurrence of) failure, no real, lasting learning can be achieved.
Note: Check out Karl Kapp’s recent post for more thoughts on learning through failure.

Mentors, Guides, and Wizards

On the 30th Anniversary of Star Wars, I thought it might be appropriate to do at least one post on a key theme from the Star Wars Universe. I debated the often talked about Hero’s Journey in general, but lots have been written and filmed about that, and it felt like it might get a bit like a sermon. Instead, the History channel has a great piece on right now called Star Wars: The Legacy Revealed and quite a few books have been written about the hero’s journey as well including the core text by Joseph Campbell called The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

However, rather than generalize about the story, I thought I’d focus in on one key aspect of the journey…the role of the mentor or coach. In a couple recent posts (Get a Life, not a Coach, and eCoach), Don Clark seems to go back and forth a bit on whether coaches are good or not. Certainly, he doesn’t seem to be a fan of life coaches. I, on the other hand, am a big fan of coaches and mentors. Here are some of the key facets of a mentor from the hero’s journey as depicted in Star Wars:

  • Mentors come in all shapes and sizes and often from unusual places
  • Mentors provide the information as you need it and are ready to have it, not before
  • Mentors reflect their experience rather than their opinion
  • Mentors are available at key moments, but the learner must take actions and steps on their own
  • Mentors provide a special gift or tool that will be useful on the journey
  • Mentors are not around forever, and in fact there need to be different mentors throughout different parts of the journey
  • No matter what part of the journey the hero is on, they still need a mentor
  • Not all mentors guide in a good direction, deciding to take or ignore the advice takes discernment

Often, the role of the mentor is about helping the hero overcome their fear, self-doubt, or confusion and move the story forward. I believe that each of us are the heroes in our own story, but we can’t make it alone. The sound council of those who have experienced life before us is essential to our success. That reminds me, I need to give a few of my mentors a call this week.


Six Months of Learning and Growing

Amazingly (to me anyway), today is my 6-month anniversary of blogging. Over 90 posts and 2,800 views later and I’m still going. A lot has been made in dozens of posts about the reasons for blogging including the now classic Top Ten Reasons to Blog and Top Ten Not to Blog. Probably the most often cited benefit is for personal learning. While that has been huge, I don’t think that’s the biggest benefit of blogging for me.

For me, the biggest benefit of blogging is the friendships I’ve made or grown through the process. Many thanks to Mark for pushing me down this path. Without him, I would have never started. Thanks to Tony, Tony, Brent, Brian, and Jay for all of the words of encouragement along the way. All of these guys are great writers who challenge my ideas and give me something to think about. Thanks you, thank you, thank you!

I’m especially thankful to those who read this blog. I don’t know who many of you are or have a clue about why you find my writing interesting, but I hope it helps you at least a fraction of the amount that it helps me. I would love to connect you and hear about what you like and dislike about this blog or more importantly your thoughts on the issues in our industry. I’ll be at both the ASTD and SPBT conferences coming up. Send me an e-mail and we’ll figure something out or just come find me.

Thanks again to everybody for coming along with me on this journey. Without each of you, I would never have learned so much.


Creating Community: At the Library

As a follow-up to my post a couple of months ago which was a response to Don Clark‘s post , I’ve now been to libraries in 4 states (Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee) ranging from urban to suburban to rural, and I have to say the story is consistent. The libraries I’ve been to are a hub of community and activity. Sure there are a lot more things to do at today’s library then there were 20 years ago, but there have been lines of people checking out books at every single one of them, and they all were well staffed for their various sizes. In fact, there’s more activity going on in libraries now than I ever remember in the past.

Right now, I’m sitting at the Southfield Public Library. It’s a library in a relatively diverse (at least ethnically and economically) part of suburban Detroit. From the time I pulled into the parking lot, I knew this wasn’t the library of my childhood. From the outside, it looks more like a modern art museum or maybe a brand new science center. The inside is an awesome combination of form and function. Here are just a few of the features:
  • Dozens of cozy sitting areas with seating for small or large groups
  • Free wireless throughout, with wired and power connections run to each of the clusters of chairs and tables
  • Free conference rooms of all sizes from 1-2 people to over 150, with lots of A/V options
  • Balconies, patios, and gardens again all with appropriate seating and access
  • A cafe for food, snacks, and coffee
  • Plenty of open access terminals for those without their own computer
  • Multiple 3D-themed story areas for the kids
  • Oh yeah, tons of books, multimedia, and resources

What they’ve really done is create a community where people can gather around resources and information in a comfortable environment. Students are doing homework together. Business people are having meetings. Communities are forming and dissolving right while I watch. What’s also interesting is the library’s location. It’s right in the center of other city offerings such as the golf course, tennis courts, volleyball courts, swimming pool, ice hockey arena, auditorium, recreation center, senior center, and on and on and on.


While certainly this library is exceptional, it’s not the only one I’ve seen moving in this direction. Even one of the “smaller” Ann Arbor branch libraries has incorporated many of these same features and even serves as a teaching location for new concepts in “green” building design with features such as a turf roof, heating and cooling with natural convection, and landscaping that helps minimize the impact of rain runoff from the parking lots.

Kudos to all that’s going on for civic development. Maybe these aren’t the same as the old downtown areas that used to exist, but they certainly are designing great spaces for community.

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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.


Chocolate Tasting

Recently, I had the opportunity to go to a chocolate tasting at Zingermans. I’ve posted about them before and have a more detailed post on their approach to training in a couple days so I cover them more later. The chocolate of choice was from Scharffen Berger (SB), based in Berkley, California. They are one of only 12 chocolate makers in the U.S., which means (not so obviously it turns out) that they make their own chocolate. Most U.S. chocolate companies only re-melt and re-form existing chocolate. SB sources and roasts the cacao beans, and then makes the chocolate. Some of their bars are made from beans from only one farm and others are blends from 2 or 3 farms across Central and South America.

We were able to taste 8 different bars including their 41% milk, 62% semisweet, 70% bittersweet, 82% extra dark, 62% with mocha, 75% Cuyagua special series, 72% Las Islas special series, and 62% with nibs. Nibs are the raw chocolate straight from the seed. We crushed the seeds in our hand, removed the shell, and then we nibbled. (sorry). I think they might be an acquired taste on their own, but when blended with the 62% chocolate, it was a thousand times better than a Crunch bar. I have to say my favorites were the 41% milk and the 70% bittersweet. The milk chocolate was creamy and somehow had a solid taste of caramel though it was solid chocolate. The 70% bittersweet had nice, but not overpowering overtones of citrus. What’s interesting is that they only use 3 ingredients…cacao, cane sugar, and vanilla in all of their bars. Other manufacturers add milk powder, corn syrup, and other not-so-easy-to-spell ingredients to their chocolate. It’s amazing how much variation can be found in regions, climate, and growing techniques. Some had more earthy flavors, while others had slight overtones of berries.

The interesting part was how close this was to a wine tasting or a beer tasting. Most of the 18 or so people in attendance really took their chocolate seriously. The group ranged from a mom and her son, to a women’s night out, to a couple college guys who looked like they should have been at a keg party. With the help of the facilitator, we all were learning to think critically (not negatively, but critically) about chocolate…and, for me, all food in general. The first lesson was to use all five senses. How does it look? smell? sound (when broken)? taste? feel? Much like creative writing, what words could be used to describe each of those sensations?

All too often, with our food and our learning, we rush through it, gulp it down, and then wonder why we’re unsatisfied in just a few minutes. Learning about food, or any topic, takes time and uses all of the senses to begin the critical thinking necessary to retain the information. Good chocolate, like good learning has a lingering taste that can be enjoyed long after the last bite is gone.

The really good news? There are two more tastings in the next two weeks, each with different chocolate! Talk about a motivated learner. Mmmm…


More games for training…

A couple days ago I posted about an NPR/ESPN piece that I heard on my roadtrip where COTS (commercial-off-the-shelf games) were used for training. In a follow-up post, Tony Karrer adds his own personal experience with his son. His post was then followed by a nice post by Karl Kapp. Karl lists a bunch of games and some of their potential and actual applications for learning. Certainly their are plenty of great games being developed for learning in the serious games space, but it’s good to see people finding reuse for existing games. My own series of posts (1, 2, 3) on The Movies: The Game venture into that same space.

I feel a bit like Don Clark here (and will actually quote him in a minute) , but one word of caution on a statistic that Karl uses in his post. He quotes a study that says:

Surgeons who play video games three hours a week decrease mistakes by 37 percent in laparoscopic surgery and perform the task 27 percent faster than their counterparts who do not play video games…so, you want your surgeons to play games.

While the quote is accurate, it’s missing some important details. First, which game they played mattered. Specifically, the game that worked best was Super Monkey Ball. The object of the game is to get the ball through a maze of holes and ramps to the goal. However, the player doesn’t move the ball, they move the platform. It was based on an older game called Marble Madness, which itself was based on a similar physical game from 20 years ago with a wooden box and a steel marble, but I digress. The other games they tested did not get the same results. Second, the study only tested with laproscopic surgeons, not other types of surgeons. Third, the study was a bit limited in scope and has been questioned pretty heavily for it’s methods. Thankfully, the studies author, Dr. James Rosser, is doing much more research, but until then we really can’t generalize outside the study’s results which said playing Super Monkey Ball makes laproscopic surgeons better, and even that needs to be taken cautiously.

On a related note (health and learning), Don Clark just posted on the use of games like Dance Dance Revolution, Wii Sports, and Guitar hero for health and fitness. In the last 2 generations of consoles, games have definitely become less and less sedintary. One of my favorites, Yourself!Fitness, doesn’t get mentioned often enough is a great example of coaching, learning, and exercise using a game. Designed for the Xbox, Maya (the virtual coach) takes the participant through a daily exercise routine. The virtual coach customizes the routine with hundreds of possible exercises to the person’s fitness level and even attitude that day. Results are tracked in the system and progress can be viewed over time.

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