Monthly Archives: January 2011

I’ll be down in San Jose (it’s only 90 minutes south of the Internet Time Lab) to attend ASTD TechKnowledge for the first time in years. Looks to be an exciting contrast to the last one of these I attended a few years back. Then we met in the Riviera in Vegas. Cheap but really showed it. The hotel and the program were 90% retro and in need of retirement.

Harold Jarche, Judy Brown, and I reported on our experience leading online unworkshops over the net using primarily open-source software. We can regale you with stories of unimaginable technology limitations. Of course, we asked for it, experimenting with new online approaches to learning with a wobbly web for a platform running free software in synchronous workshops tuned in from Tokyo to Israel. Interesting times. We thought it would be a great story, so we conducted a debriefing.

The smile sheets were the most divided and divisive I have ever seen, and believe me, I’ve read a boatload of post-mortem evals — before I realized you n

Those who forget the mistakes of history

…are condemned to repeat them, said philosopher George Santyana.

Steve Wheeler’s excellent post on Learning Technologies in London described the vendors at the show as stuck in a time warp, maybe on another planet. What does the future hold for these guys? Let’s look back to 1999.

For those of you too young to remember, a dozen years ago venture capitalists, mainly in Silicon Valley, fell in love with the concept of eLearning. Money gushed into learning start-ups.

Merrill Lynch Capital, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America SecuritiesHambrecht & Co., SunTrust, Morgan Keegan, Piper Jaffray, Wit Capital, Thomas Weisel Partners, and others wrote hundred-plus page analyses of why eLearning was the hottest investment opportunity out there.

Fueled by the boom, absurd projections from Gartner, and John Chambers’ observation at Comdex that eLearning would be so huge as to make email look like a rounding error, investors lined up to put money into companies promising to automate learning.

Here’s the universe of companies and their area of specialty by Hambrecht’s Trace Urdan and Connie Weggen in one of the most reasonable reports out there:

The reports usually explained that eLearning scaled without increasing cost. Most of them touted the savings from forcing people to learn on their own time. Everyone extolled the value of slashing travel and classroom real estate cost. Many eyed big savings from eliminating instructors entirely. (“Blended learning” was the rationalization used by companies that found out that people-less training does not work.) Often, vendors were happy to play these economic “benefits” to make a sale whether or not they could be realized.

Here’s who is still around as an independent company ten years later:

Some outfits were swallowed up in mergers but many simply vanished.

You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but eventually time runs out for stuff that doesn’t work.

Most of the vendors I’m betting on today don’t think of themselves as learning technology companies at all. They are social network companies like Socialcast and Jive, content management firms like Xyleme, communications platforms like Citrix and Skype, social business advisors like Dachis and Altimeter, web 2.0 companies like Twitter and Diigo, do-it-yourself enablers like Jambok or SpacedEd, providers of lightweight web tools like Rypple, performance consultancies like TULSER, and so forth.

I find it telling that when David Mallon of Bersin Associates interviewed dozens of LMS vendors toward the end of last year, he found one common thread: none of them wanted to be known as an LMS vendor. If you are not comfortable in your own skin, maybe it’s time to change what you’re doing.

Headlines are not reality

A large, traditional LMS vendor has put a new front on their website that proclaims “80% of learning is informal. Nurture it. Harness it. Socialize it.” Great idea.

Alongside this news is a video of a customer who explains he loves the vendor because of their ability to support old-style, formal learning. It’s jarring to listen to a message that is so contrary to the headline. The customer likes them because…

  • it enabled his organization to deliver 200% more training
  • it let them mount on online catalog
  • it provides registration and ties to a financial system for charge-backs
  • it enables them to push content to instructors
  • they can deliver the same training no matter where people are

Wait one. None of these things have anything to do with informal learning. In fact, most of them are antithetical to informal and social learning.

    The organizations we respect are delivering less training while facilitating more learning.

    They are backing away from the sort of rigid content that appears in catalogs and embracing learning on demand in small chunks.

    Registration has nothing to do with informal delivery: how could it?

    Pushing content to instructors? Really? How about getting learners to pull content to themselves?

    As for delivering the same thing to everyone, isn’t this counter to personalization, choice, and learning at the time of need?

This same vendor once called to tell me that the organization had a new strategy. They were going to be thought leaders. “How I can help you?” I asked. “Well, we need some thoughts,” came the reply. (I am not making this up.)

That was a long time ago. The guy who called was gone a month later. But it’s funny how history has a way of repeating itself.


Next week, Harold Jarche and I are headed to a series of meetings with a client whose organization has severe hang-ups about web security. Access to many important sites on the net is verboten. Geez. How to work around something like this?

Our usual response that “smart phones route around IT” doesn’t cut it when you want to work web 2.0 tools into the organizational fabric.

Today I bought a gadget to get us the access we need. Maybe it will become the organization’s guerilla on-ramp to the net. It’s a mi-fi card from Verizon.

This is a slick little gadget. Fits in the palm of your hand. It’s smaller than my iPhone. It looks cool.

When I push the button (there’s only one on the device), it immediately sets up five wi-fi access points.

The price tag of these things had kept me out of the market, but Verizon has a sale going now. The Mi-Fi device is free (although you’ll still have to pay sales tax on it). The basic service is $35/month and you have to sign up for two years to get the deal.

I’m confident the Mi-Fi is going to pay for itself by skirting the access fees charged by #(&$#! hotels and #&($& airports. No more squinting at my iPhone when there’s a document I need to read.

Thanks once again, Moore’s Law.

Wikipedia's 10th

West Coast Wikiconference 2011

WikiPedia turned 10 years old today. I attended a delightful unconference with a hundred Wikipedians at the Hub in San Francisco.

How’s this for a deal? $25 paid for breakfast, lunch, a full day’s events, presentations by Ward Cunningham and Kevin Kelly, and even a celebratory t-shirt.

Hundred of events like this are taking place around the world.

It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely success story than Wikipedia. From the Welcome to Wikipedia booklet:

    Wikipedia is the largest encyclopedia in the world. It is created and maintained by more than 100 thousand contributors from around the world. Every month Wikipedia receives over 386 million unique visitors. Wikipedia features more than 16 million articles in over 260 languages. It is free to use, free to edit, and free of advertisements.
No sooner had I scored my t-shirt and cup of coffee than Eugene Kim introduced me to Ward Cunningham. Ward invented the wiki.

Ward Cunningham & Eugene Kim
Eugene & Ward

Ward is also a leader in the Agile Software movement and the thought leader in Software Patterns.

We discovered a common interest in learning from pictures and video. Periodically his company’s software staff gets together for a day-long retreat. Quarterly was not frequent enough, so they invented “micro-quarters,” of which there are six a year. At the conclusion of each retreat, people draw pictures of what they’ve accomplished. With the camera on his laptop, Ward takes a video of each individual explaining his or her picture. He edits out the ums and ahs to prepare a fast-moving video documenting the event. People use these to review the event and check on progress when the next micro-quarter rolls around.

Ward’s original wiki was geeky beyond belief. It relied on CamelCase and oddball formatting conventions. It was not pretty. I mentioned that ten years ago, my glossary defined wiki as “a way to stop a conversation.” So I asked Ward how he felt about today’s spiffed-up, user-friendly wikis. He told me that a few days after he released the first wiki, another developer had hacked out a different version. Didn’t ask permission or anything. Ward thought about it and decided that was okay. He was happy to contribute the wiki to the public good. I’ll cover the content of Ward’s presentation in another post.

Eugene Kim introduced the open space session masterfully, getting the participants to explain the rules of open space. Whatever happens is what is supposed to happen. If it’s not beneficial, move on.

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The first breakout I attended dealt with getting new people to create and edit posts. Many people approach Wikipedia who don’t realize they can edit the content. More fundamentally, they don’t see themselves as editors. I called up the Wikipedia home page on my iPad. It’s totally intimidating. There’s no on-ramp for new users. When I brought up instructional design, forty faces went blank. I suggested putting together a few simple videos showing a user explaining what’s going on. Some people liked the idea, but some Wikipedia foundation people began explaining how hard it was to change the front page. (There’s enormous perceived resistance to change by the elite contributors.) Did I know how tough it is to make changes when hundreds of millions of people were involved?

This evening I discovered that there are already dozens of “how to edit” articles on YouTube. Maybe someone can convince Wikipedia to point to them.

In another breakout, Gordon Mohr encouraged us to explore how to make Wikipedia “Broader, deeper, and edgier.” This may have to take place outside of the Wikipedia framework. We touched on many topics. Some new articles would be better positioned as “not ready” rather than “not good enough.” Wikipedia would feel less exclusionary without the distinction made between members and outsiders. Why not consider all users members — and therefore editors? It occurred to me that Wikipedia has scant room for discussion. It’s still just an encyclopedia; it might be better by adding commentary and a forum for discussion.

Another breakout discussed Wikipedia – the next ten years. What should evolve?

I wanted to be able to walk around in the knowledge space, sort of the Library of Alexandria meets Second Life.

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I also pushed my current passion, the workscape. Why not give readers the option of checking a box that would prompt periodic reinforcement? Battle the forgetting curve with brief, spaced reminders built right into the system. One of the old hands said you could already do this. All it took was remembering what pages you’d viewed and revisiting them. Another Wikipedia said c’mon, nobody’s going to do that; they won’t even remember what pages they’d visited. I don’t sense the group was very interested in people learning things beyond their initial exposure. If you have encyclopedia DNA, it’s hard to think outside of the encyclopedia box.

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Toward the end of the day, Kevin Kelly gave a closing presentation on What Technology Wants, his new book. I’d heard Kevin’s pitch two months ago in Berkeley and departed in confusion. I’ll detail today’s version in another post.


Kevin Kelly: Technology is good for the world

Kevin Kelly is a force of nature. He spoke at the West Coast Wiki Conference yesterday.

From my Seminal Documents page:

Out of Control, The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World . Kevin Kelly. “The world of our own making has become so complicated that we must turn to the world of the born to understand how to manage it.””The central act of the coming era is to connect everything to everything.””Complexity must be grown from simple systems that already work.” Also New Rules for the New Economy. “The tricks of the intangible trade will become the tricks of your trade.””The aim of swarm power is superior performance in a turbulent environment.””To prosper, feed the web first.” Also, read We are the Web.

Kevin’s thesis is that we need a theory of technology. He thinks he’s found it. Lo and behold, evolution is it. And evolution is nothing more that information processing.

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Technology is a cosmic force. What does tech want?

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Technology has its own agenda. This is parallel to Richard Dawkins’ looking at the world from the vantage point of genes. Everything’s a struggle for procreation and replication.

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Technology is inevitable. You could think of it as a seventh natural kingdom:

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Kevin thinks big. There’s wisdom in his viewpoint. It’s in humanity’s best interest to pay attention to the biggest picture.

Nonetheless, I still can’t wrap my head around what Kevin’s saying. It sounds like an alternative religion.

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Kevin traces the march of technology all the way back to the Big Bang. How could this be? It’s like the fall of the tree not making a sound when there’s no one there to hear it. Absent people, technology does not exist.

Kevin’s logic would make more sense if he just labeled his Technium tools. Or perhaps nature. Or stuck to the positive impact of evolution.

More photos of Kevin’s presentation.

Ward Cunningham: Ten Years (and more)

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Eugene Kim announced that Ward Cunningham was our opening keynote speaker for the West Coast WIki Conference. Only after the talk did he mention that Ward invented the wiki (1995) and is a prime mover in both the Agile Software Movement and Software Patterns.

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The wiki was born in an age when the people who were writing software knew a whole lot more about writing software than the academics. Getting programmers to narrate their work and talk about the way software is written changed the software development process. (There are of course direct parallels to how people learn their work in general.)
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You don’t own your own text. That’s the foundation here.

Think how liberating this one idea is. It says collaboration is okay; it’s the norm. It makes everyone a potential participant. It recognizes that there’s always room for improvement and encourages the user to do it.

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Ward began playing with a Hypercard stack at Tektronix in 1987 that foreshadowed the capability build into wikis. He incorporated the concept put forward by Vannevar Bush that people should be able to edit one another’s text.
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The Hypercard app ran on Ward’s desktop machine — there were no networks at the time. People would take turns sitting at Ward’s desk entering information on people, projects, and ideas.

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Using CamelCase links, a wiki can show conceptual interconnections. (CamelCase? “Wikipedia took off when they got rid of that one.”).
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Wiki Design Principles describe how wikis work.

  • Simple – easier to use than abuse. A wiki that reinvents HTML markup ([b]bold[/b], for example) has lost the path!
  • Open – Should a page be found to be incomplete or poorly organized, any reader can edit it as they see fit.
  • Incremental – Pages can cite other pages, including pages that have not been written yet.
  • Organic – The structure and text content of the site are open to editing and evolution.
  • Mundane – A small number of (irregular) text conventions will provide access to the most useful page markup.
  • Universal – The mechanisms of editing and organizing are the same as those of writing, so that any writer is automatically an editor and organizer.
  • Overt – The formatted (and printed) output will suggest the input required to reproduce it.
  • Unified – Page names will be drawn from a flat space so that no additional context is required to interpret them.
  • Precise – Pages will be titled with sufficient precision to avoid most name clashes, typically by forming noun phrases.
  • Tolerant – Interpretable (even if undesirable) behavior is preferred to error messages.
  • Observable – Activity within the site can be watched and reviewed by any other visitor to the site.
  • Convergent – Duplication can be discouraged or removed by finding and citing similar or related content.

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Things build upon one another in the structure of the wiki.

I am taken by the add-ons to Ward’s basic principles, although he says they hold little interest to him.

  • Trust – This is the most important thing in a wiki. Trust the people, trust the process, enable trust-building. Everyone controls and checks the content. Wiki relies on the assumption that most readers have good intentions. But see: AssumeGoodFaithLimitations
  • Fun – Everybody can contribute; nobody has to.
  • Sharing – of information, knowledge, experience, ideas, views…

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“Publish, then polish.” Follow the principles of Wabi-Sabi: something can be valuable – and beautiful – even when it is not complete.

To Ward, the whole internet was made to do wikis. They just left out the config file. Things turned geeky for a while. We were watching streams of code on screen.

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Ward believes in the transformative power of video. Let’s take a paragraph from Wikipedia, this one about the Louisiana Gulf oil spill. Imbed videos taken from different points of view.



We need to establish a video vocabulary parallel to the vocabulary used by programmers and engineers.

Co-creation is coming. Manipulatable video. Video mash-ups.
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The youngest among us asked whether the video format might not impede innovation. After all, we can’t all trek down to Louisiana to shoot video.

Well, it might hold some things back but that’s the current exploration, too: figuring out how to slice, dice, and mash-up video elements.

Ward appears to be a great guy. Not only is he a software whiz of the first order, the projects he describes empower people to take part, to grow, to co-create… all of the things we strive to put into a workscape.

Change or die

LX Briefing

Mixing case studies, stories, and actionable recommendations together with humor and easy-to-understand language, Jay Cross provides much more than buzzwords and back-patting, or so says his bio. He also has some very strong opinions on the future of workplace learning. A Harvard MBA and Princeton undergrad, he has been improving business processes since developing the first business curriculum for the University of Phoenix three decades ago. Jay covers topics from 50,000 feet to ground level, depending on audience and need. He has spoken with executives, marketers, entrepreneurs, chief learning officers, sales staff, instructional designers, HR directors, bankers, and academics. He has keynoted conferences in the United States, Canada, Austria, the United Kingdom, Germany, Taiwan, Australia, Portugal, Monaco, and Abu Dhabi. He travels the world, but increasingly delivers presentations and events in real time over the web. He took a few moments to answer some of our questions.

Learning Executives Briefing: Performance is a wonderful yardstick, and the world is still somewhat governed by accountants. As the economic environment improves, will the fear factor fade a bit and send organizations back to their old ways of relying mostly on numbers?

Jay Cross: Those who follow the old ways will die. This isn’t just a bend in the road or some sort of bounce in a cyclical trend. This is a total phase change. (Author and co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge) John Seely Brown would call this “the Big Switch.” We are going from throwing off the yoke of the industrial age, when you had one class of people telling another class of people what to do, into a network age, where if you don’t empower the people of your organization, the people are going to leave. That is the defining characteristic of this new way of looking at the world. No more efficiency models, and no more Six Sigma. Forget that. We aren’t in a stable environment and won’t be in a stable environment. We have to have our people go out and experiment, innovate, and invent. Job descriptions, competency management systems, and all that legacy stuff are needless baggage.

LXB: In The Working Smarter Fieldbook, you and your co-authors suggest that invisible assets, such as relationships and know-how, count for more market value than visible assets such as plants and equipment. How does that manifest itself in the new world?

Cross: If I am a financial analyst looking at a public corporation, I can figure out what the valuation stands for—the fixed assets, money in the bank, and all of that. We used to call it net worth. Then I look at the value over and above net worth. I look at Google and see that they have $8 billion in fancy kitchen equipment and server farms, and the stock market values the company at $157 billion—so where is that other $150 billion? It is in know-how, intellectual property, and the relationships. It’s all of this stuff that is in the mind of the investor. They think these guys have the secret sauce and they are going to keep churning out future earnings, so I am going to keep investing in them. That’s the proof. And maybe that is something that people in training don’t often get—the value of a company is more than what the accounts add up [to be] on the balance sheet. LXB: How does that differentiate a new-era organization such as Google from a company such as Buggy Whips International? Cross: Even Buggy Whips International these days has more value in its intangible assets— its knowledge and relationships—than it does in plant and equipment.

LXB: Do you still believe, as you have said many times before, that learning is too important to be left to the training department?

Cross: Training departments should just be blown up. They perpetuate old thinking instead of looking at new ways. They are afraid to give power to people to do their own thing. That is a lot different from companies that have drunk the Web 2.0 Kool-Aid and say we’ll take ideas from wherever they come. Everyone is involved, including the customers. We are transparent. If I compare that to companies that play it too close to the vest and are afraid to even give their employees Internet access, it seems silly. If you have high expectations of your people, they will live up to them. If you have low expectations of your people, they will live down to them.

LXB: Why hasn’t it happened in a big way yet? Or has it happened, and the training department has just been given different tasks?

Cross: It’s spotty. We are in a time of transition. People of our generation are holding things back. But that is always the case. People get a little power, and they try to hold on to it. There are some companies that haven’t changed their core philosophies and management practices in 100 years and they never will. There are others that are hiring new kinds of leaders, and they are changing in a big way. There is going to be a bloodbath with the companies that dig in their heels and say we are going to do things the way we have always done them before. Well, “before” is over. We are in a rapidly changing, mind-blowing overly complex world out there today. It is a different world, and the old ways of prospering are a formula for disaster.

LXB: Again, you and your co-authors write: “Management itself, the art of planning, organizing, deciding, and controlling, will fall by the wayside.” If so, what replaces it?

Cross: I am not giving up on managing, organizing, and controlling. But it is going to be more of a shared responsibility. And it is going to be shared with workers and this group of people we don’t have a name for—the people who used to be on the payroll: outsourced, or consultants, or some other thing. And customers are going to be involved. A company that doesn’t involve its customers in its product planning is missing the boat. Procter & Gamble is a good example. They are the West Point of brand management. They now crowdsource 50 percent of their innovation. Talk about opening the door. I thought it was more than a little striking that P&G traded workers with Google. Google wanted to understand how old-style companies (worked) and P&G wanted to know how new-style companies could turn on a dime.

LXB: If training becomes obsolete because, as you note, “it deals with a past that won’t be repeated,” doesn’t some baseline learning still need to exist?

Cross: I don’t spend a lot of time talking about it, but if you have an employee who is entering a new area, such as being posed to China or being involved in programming, whatever it is, if it is new to them and they have no framework, then formal learning is the way to get them up to speed—to learn the lay of the land, the technique, and the structure. But as soon as you form a complete tableau in your mind of that domain, then you are empowered to go out and fill in the pieces. It has context. As it starts out, it needs to be very formal. Formal and informal never exist in isolation.

LXB: You have mentioned Daniel Pink in some of your writing and his notion that we are in a new conceptual age. Do you think the rewiring of our brain is still going on?

Cross: Yes, I do. When I talk to people today in a lot of different contexts, it is only a matter of time before they say the word design. They never used to say design, but now it pops up all the time. For me, that is code for getting the right side of the brain working. This country has missed one of the best opportunities for employee development and worker fulfillment by not asking the employee her life aspirations. Once you identify that and let the people you work with know that, you plan together to make it happen. If the employer has a spot for someone with your particular interests, then they have created an employee for life, and one who will work his butt off for you to make things happen. People talk about work-life balance, and I think that era is over—it is going to be just life. Period.

LXB: Come next year, what trend or advice should the CLO ignore at his peril?

Cross: The biggest thing for the CLO to do is to stop focusing on programs. Don’t kid yourself that your learning needs are just going to take care of themselves. You need to get in there and make things work better. Unless you establish an environment for learning—where you can focus specifically on your learning ecology and what will make it healthy and grow—it won’t ever get better. It involves making it easy to access expertise. Who knows what around here, and do we have a culture for sharing? This involves making mentoring and coaching de rigueur. If you have a manager who isn’t willing to participate in making people better, then throw him out the door. Focus on the platform. The program stuff will get what they need if they have the right platform and things are hooked up. I call it the workscape.

In some ways I am talking about expanding the training department to locate it with everything the business does.

Read excerpts from The Working Smarter Fieldbook by Jay Cross, Jane Hart, Harold Jarche, Charles Jennings, and Clark Quinn. Join the discussion on Facebook.

Jay Cross was interviewed by Learning Executives Briefing editor Rex Davenport.