TITHING FOR TEACHERS: FOR A LEGACY OF EXCELLENCE, A LIFETIME OF TANGIBLE THANKS

This is National Teacher Appreciation Week, an opportunity to celebrate great teachers. While attention is focused let me float an outrageous idea. Though I don’t have the workings of this proposal completely flushed out I hope to instigate a dialogue and let you continue the conversation.

I believe teachers are underpaid. And underappreciated. Let me back up a sec: What brought this top of mind are commercials currently airing (and somewhat self-aggrandizing) for the energy industry. You might have seen them, featuring successful—and not unattractive—young professional engineers whose physics and math teachers opened their minds to a world in which they could exploit their passion inspired by their teachers that led to a career and a life.

What if there was a way to address the inequities, in the process refurbishing education as a noble art and science and do it in such a way that avoids new taxes or municipal funding?

Here’s what I believe to be a logical method of rewarding those kinds of instructors: Why not set up a system of tithing; a tangible way former students who by admission found a life because of a memorable teacher. Let’s adopt a method to turn over a very modest amount of money per ex-student, now contributor to a teacher or teachers. Not to the school or district—but directly. These endowments would be a royalty, a supplemental contribution to the teacher(s) who has gone beyond. Just think, the average major subject high school teacher sees over 4500 youngsters in a 30-year career; an elementary teacher, 900. If only a few students, who believe one or more teachers added to their lives would pony up a stipend, then teachers would not only reap a personal gain that would improve their economic station, but set the country on notice that we honor and will reward great teaching. The well-known educational ripple effect (“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” Henry Adams) would be a paradigm for the nation. What a culture change. No matter the political party, there’s no downside to supporting this. Well, maybe not all politicians would agree, especially the ones who had all bad teachers, right?

In the short term, such a plan resolves very specific wants:

  • Adjusting salaries to make teaching a more fiscally viable profession
  • Addressing teacher evaluations currently based either on formal and mostly contractual agreements or high stakes test results; both of which are flawed metrics
  • Diminishing the overplayed hand of the unions to level the playing field where mediocre and superlative instructors are paid equally based on years of service and graduate credit hours for courses having no bearing on instructional quality

In the long term, we establish a system that will drive teacher’s efforts to create instruction that is more dynamic and draw out a more humanistic approach to the treatment of students. That’s not an accusation that teachers as a group do not try to develop quality lessons nor are they deficient in humanity. However, we’ve all been students and can recall quite clearly those teachers who had the kindness and compassion any parent would hope was doled out to their child during the school day. But we can also recall the harridans, shrews, and malcontents among a faculty to whom teaching was a job to be endured and gave over as little of themselves as they could get away with. So posit this:

  • A 20-year biology teacher whose total salary based on service and coursework is $60,000 per year.
  • Next door, also teaching biology, the teacher is receiving $60,000 but based on voluntary ex-student contributions, her royalties are yielding an annualized, additional $12,000.

What does that say to teachers, the school and district and community?

Moreover, it becomes part of a teacher’s portfolio of merit they can take with them if they decide to shop around for another position in marketplace for excellence outside their current district.

The mechanics, as I said are in the formative stage banging around in my head. Case in point; I would like a value metric to balance these anomalies:

  • Rewarding an elementary school teacher who inspired you to think more of yourself but had no direct connection (though some psychologists would disagree) with your choice of career.
  • K-6 teachers see a disproportionately smaller cadre of students but arguably can be more formative shaping a child and effective at saving one in crisis.
  • What about a teacher who mentors students but is not their actual teacher? He supported and counseled youngsters helping them overcome their self-doubts, lack of confidence, sense of otherness and enabled them to grow in to good spouses, parents and wage earners; how do we apportion those contributions?
  • What about special education, teachers of the arts and other specialties who in some settings have very few students.

Maybe this system would be unfairly slanted and biased against these professionals unless we look for a way to design in equity. Something to chew on.

So here’s how this might work:
Every year in the Valley School District 700 students graduate. Assuming they go straight to work or on to higher education, whether technical training or a collegiate experience they will be wage earners.
Let’s just say the IRS, attaches form 1200A, Education Contribution Benefit Designation to every return. This document is a rubric with these elements:

  • A space to name teacher(s)
  • A series of metrics, say a Likert scale (1-5 or NA) where they could identify and rate teachers based on objective criteria. For instance, did the teacher on line 21 provide you with the information you needed to be hired in the field/job you sought. Or did the teacher prepare you for acceptance into a higher education program. Did the teacher help you create a portfolio or college essay that allowed you entry into your field of study?
  • Another series of metrics would be subjective, though not less important. Any psychometrican can compose, scale, and provide weight with regard to the value of these traits. For instance, did the teacher in line 24 provide the emotional support you needed when you were in crisis? Did s/he mentor you influencing you in a positive way that has made you a better person? Can you appreciate the differences among cultures, countries, and people unlike yourself?
  • A space for supporting statements whether written by the constituent donor or other material provided as evidence the teacher is eligible for a contribution benefit.
  • A space to work out the amount designated to be apportioned to the named teacher(s).
  • Perhaps none of the above except the name of the teacher and the amount to be contributed.

If you teach for 30 years, regardless of level or subject you will have influenced, not just taught content to thousands of youngsters who are now adults and hopefully earning a living. Every year the numbers of ex-students enters the workforce and are added to the roles of possible ‘donors.’ Kind of like compound interest!

I would propose each contributor/donor be obligated for life, with contingencies of course. This serves two purposes; contributing is understood as a very serious commitment with long range consequence and contributions end only if the individual is out of work or retires; furthermore, it ensures the amount cannot fluctuate downward (unless circumstances such as the above occur) so the teacher can budget and rely on that income well in to retirement. Most importantly, I believe the contributor can add a teacher’s name at any time for as we mature it is only from a distance do we begin to fathom the impact a teacher has had on our lives.

OK, some of you might define this plan as merit pay or reimbursement of extraordinary value. Others will see it as a ‘tip’ –a surcharge for what should have been the norm in the first place. I see it more like a legacy reward for a lifetime of great service recognized by customers… AND an immediate way to shake up the profession by the scholars hood and wake up potential. We can declare non too subtlety that, with some inspiration, even if in the form of—gasp—money, teachers can be moved to higher levels of overall performance. Finally it shakes up the worst offenders in the education realm—schools of education whose teacher prep programs are at the least out of touch… and at the worst criminally deficient allowing virtually anyone who pays tuition, is drawing breath and can prep for the tests into the classroom. You know the adage…what do they call the one who finishes last in medical school…doctor.

That’s the plan. Talk about it, argue over it, but don’t pass it by. We rank far below even the poorest countries on many education scales of measurement. I believe a major reason is teaching and our myopic view of schools. The public coffers are empty and education at all levels is being starved. Here’s a place to jump into the dialogue. Or not, but I hope for better. Lastly, I believe I have the chops to write this; I taught K-12, was a university professor and a school administrator in urban settings. I’ve seen education from inside and as a corporate educator working with schools throughout the world.

I’ll end on a positive note. I want to thank Miss Libman my first grade teacher at PS 194 in Brooklyn for her compassion and humanity. Miss Nurnberg who found my talent for art in grade 6 and allowed me extra time at the easel, also at PS 194. Frank Pelligrini who insisted I not turn in less than perfect work and rejected much of my efforts until I got it right, and last but not least, Dr. Peter Bohan, now gone, whose inspiration and love of subject made me a life-long learner and seeker. I would gladly tithe to any and all.

FEAR OF BRANDING – 10.1 Reasons to Move On

Mulling over branding and applying logic to emotion has become more meaningful to me on a professional and personal basis. In some engagements, I’m compelled to live within the ecology of a company’s personality that is expressed in many ways through its brand. And on a personal level, who has not been bombarded into submission in to formulate a noteworthy and memorable—not to say powerful and compelling brand: can’t communicate your value instantaneously without being commoditized. Let’s face it; anyone who has read Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs bio, or had prior knowledge of SJs commitment to establishing, protecting, and defending the vision and personality of Apple learned what an oath of fealty to branding means.

This whole scenario brings back the idea of corporate culture.
The fundamental concept is a company has a belief system and a vision as the basis from which a brand is established. We accept a brand as the vocal, linguistic, and visual embodiment of what the company claims and promises. Far too often organizations for too many reasons compromise their brand when their products fail to live up to the brand promise—or the brand overstates what the company is capable of producing. In either case the disconnect leads to distrust of the company and its products. So if your outfit claims it backs its products with outstanding customer service, any encounter that is less than 110% remarkable means the customer has lost faith in the product and all your branding goes out the window. Remember that branding carries the emotional promise of taking care of the customer at all stages of the life cycle of the product. Relate this to corporate culture where inside the organization says it stands for X but carries out its internal affairs with its employees as minus X. Then the culture devolves to what it really is, not what management claims it to be.

Branding has two major components
One, company claims and values as they appear in advertising and public relations and the other being the product that should express claims the company makes as the physical manifestation or promise of performance of its values. Most companies spend big telling you who they are and what they believe. Look at the logos and tag lines, advertising and websites of the Fortune 100, and even those of your neighborhood dentist. Striving to be known for something to differentiate from competitors. The question is can the company deliver and is the dentist painless like he claims.

When Jobs claimed, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” and ensured that ‘Think Different” was not “Think Differently, “ he was defining branding as the core attitude pervasive at Apple. By manically guarding every aspect of design and production, Jobs ensured that simplicity would lead to products (that were and are) sensuous and easy to use. Apple is first encountered through bright white ads and web sites that set the stage for the products, to the intuitively understandable and pleasurable—from the anticipation of opening the box to the touch and feel of every product including the Apple stores. Jobs branded Apple a total immersion experience. Not many companies have a CEO who can be that hands-on let alone fanatic. But the point is, stating what the company is and producing products must be in sync at the atomic level.

An interesting business challenge arises when an existing company desires to change its brand. Moreover, it is a difficult challenge; it’s going in to the DNA of any enterprise and rearranging its genetic structure and then nurturing, announcing and bringing this new version of itself to the public. However, many companies take a hard look and must re-brand; not to do so would be organizational complacency and that can lead to early death.

Moreover, there is a conundrum.
When is good enough brand not good enough anymore? What are the metrics and key performance indicators that say, ‘change now’ to convince bean counters of the necessity of the expenses accrued by such change? There’s a lot of brand thought that relies on intuition, a pill not easily swallowed by many business folks. Whether the brand change is evolutionary or revolutionary, it can’t be just aesthetics whether you make products or render services. Once again it’s worth noting Apple built great products not just because it had a good design universe held by the gravitational force of Steve Jobs; to think this way makes you only half-right. It’s what Jobs and his select team believed design should do and be that molded blobs of plastic in to iPods. To be clear we’re NOT just talking about the logo—I’m referring to the entire backbone of a company vision. How these are expressed through a multitude of verbal, visual, and written modalities…and in some cases products, are the medium communicating the message.

After a bit of noodling around and research as well, here’s a list that might help clarify when the time is right to address your brand. This is in no way comprehensive nor highly nuanced. Nevertheless, if it sparks ideas there’s plenty of information out there to put a fine point on things.

Address your brand when:
1. Your reputation is diminishing prospect or customer activity
2. The scope of the business changes
3. There is a lack of internal or external understanding or clarity of what the business does or what its products promise
4. The company or products require repositioning
5. There has been meaningful innovation in the product line
6. The competition has caught up, is about to or has surpassed you
7. You want to attract a new segment of buyers and need them to listen
8. Company values are, or have shifted; new ownership or management need to assert a shift in the business
9. The value exchange principle is askew: does the product deliver value in excess of its price or must the firm deliver products at a price in excess of their cost. If the latter, branding might be a primary way of introducing the ‘new’ company values and therefore its commercial model
10. The brand—and its visual appearance has gone bland and dated so no matter how new or innovative your products, customers have to overcome the ‘hurdle of history’ before they’ll trust the new products or service
10.1 Finally, when your efforts have determined the essence of your vision and mission and there is a   disconnect between what you believe you are and what your outward facing information communicates, bring in objective experts to untangle the gibberish.

At too many enterprises, the desire to simply change advertising and collateral forestalling a brand renaissance hobbles what could be a life-saving adjustment. Case in point: Consider a firm that enjoys a modest commercial success. One competitor with a brilliant branding strategy—from language to design—but not necessarily a better solution—has better sales results. As we know all too often the perception of a company’s products is compared to the competition’s even before the products are viewed side by side. Even if unspoken the perception has taken hold in the buyer’s mind about which is the better product. In real terms, this means objections must be overcome even before selling begins. Prospects require re-education before solutions can stand on equal ground. Think of the cost in terms of effort and maybe lost opportunities.

Companies often cannot see an immediate payoff from a reconstituted brand. There is no direct bottom line profit to be measured in a relatively short period. However, over time, a rebranded enterprise has more clarity about who they are, and perhaps, what and how they should be making. However, armed with fresh attitudes, language, visuals, and all the other tools needed to gain tactical marketplace advantages prospects have a different understanding of the enterprise. The company’s sunk costs fade and expenditures for routine changes in every area from business cards to training costs demand less time, energy, resources, and money. The tendency will be your client facing associates can step in front of prospects knowing their company is forward thinking and carry on with pride. It’s worth noting while a company might be strictly cognitive, the selling process and sales people are emotional, and a new brand will serve them well at the point of attack. On that basis alone, branding renovation might be worth the effort and capital.

THE TEACHER-BUILT TEXTBOOK REVOLUTION IS HERE: A GIFT TO PROFESSIONALS OR A POX ON INSTRUCTION

In the modern era, the textbook is still the spine from which teachers deliver information. Despite the ubiquity of Wikipedia and the web, most teachers rely on a single source to reference the bulk of instructional material for knowledge transfer to their charges. Some texts are terrific; contemporary information well researched, written and compelling with story-based content attractive to the mass of students. However along with soaring prices, how up-to-date can they be—and how often will new editions replace dated volumes?

Textbooks are generally written by more than one primary author and reviewed by committees of content experts, practitioners in that field, and university educators. They are often generated as often by changes in information in the field as by publishers whose teams of researchers not only scan for the latest information but for the need to sell books.

Which text is selected is as much political as pedagogical; sometimes by fiat resulting from state or national tests to which the textual content must align, or on the local level by committees of educators who select from a narrow range of choices that must satisfy the same requirements. Texts compel teachers adhere to the proscribed curriculum so a higher percentage of students will pass their state’s test. Text selections can, unfortunately become an expression of political or cultural orientation. When school boards—think Texas or Kansas here—demand textbooks align to standardized or ‘high stakes’ tests that themselves are replete with prejudicial, politicized and questionable information the truth dies in the false rhetoric among the vehement and vocal critics of modernism . Darwin, the barometer of scientific objectivism and generally accepted fact, like climate change, Reagonomics, the Civil War, the canon of literature and other hot issues—might be revealed in a realistic and balanced manner in some texts, but meet fierce opposition in these municipalities. In such places you can be sure publishers will accede to the wishes of the textbook purchasers—customers—and modify their product to sell. Put succinctly, in some states, school districts and schools, dinosaurs died and became oil, yet in those same oil-producing states, dinosaurs were domesticated as transportation.

Into the fray steps the software, Apple’s iBooks Author:

“So, the big story is really about how this effects the billion(s) dollar industry of textbook publishing. Apples iBooks will sell for no more than $14.99. So, if the publishers are looking to keep their profits at current levels that most likely means someone is going to get cut out of the deal. It’s obvious that someone is the author. But the good news is that with a free authoring tool and the iTunes/iBook marketplace, I think the authors may end up getting the better end of this deal.
I’ve been it for several years now but I’ll say it again, “Teachers will be the next millionaires.” (Emphasis by the author) With today’s technologies, and the new technologies just around the corner, there is no reason why a great teacher couldn’t produce content for sale, and mentor students for a fee, and make a very good living.” (“Apple Announces Textbook Revolution.” www.elearndev.blogspot.com, 19 January 2012)

At first blush, this seems fantastic. Taken from a purely instructional perspective, the ability to create a multimedia text that will surely fascinate this generation of learners and incorporate disruptive technologies is profound. Kids live in this world every minute. Finally school catches up to real life. Wow! Couple this with online sharing and collaborative ventures and we are in reach of best in class teaching and reference materials. Note the author quoted above (Brent Schlenker in this case, a very sharp educator and aware blogger) grows misty over ‘great teachers’ producing ‘great textbooks.’ This presumes only great teachers will master the tools and build terrific texts–up to the minute, media rich and iconic.

What about the mediocre teacher who also has the technical chops to produce a compelling volume? Even if their books are clearly viewed as insipid, who is to say they won’t be adopted somewhere? The contrarian in me (a former teacher, administrator, university professor and state consultant—and textbook author) worries that we may be launching a confabulation of substandard information produced by competent software manipulators with substandard or politicized content. And where will teachers get the energy and time to organize and design and develop unique interactive texts. Even with the relative simplicity of the tools. It’s possible they’ll default to the lowest common denominator amongst content to push out material viz, rapid elearning, to speak to students in their ‘umwelt’ and that looks close to entertainment or at best edutainment.

Schools of education are totally in the Stone Age here so don’t expect teachers to experience development techniques to help them become instructional designers. Not all teachers are good writers, nor have they been trained in the profundities and nuances of graphic and interactive design. Besides the very real daily issues of keeping groups of students on task and in line are still job one in most classrooms.

Here’s a rubric that I believe tosses into the ring a way in which to examine what teacher-built texts could be.

It’s certainly not comprehensive, rather a point of departure. I’d like to start some dialogues here, look forward to a debate about the realities that will eventually present themselves as the tools roll out, and teachers commit to self-authoring. So I’ve drawn my line in the sand. I hope great teachers can not only master the technology but gain the time to produce first-rate contemporary texts—ones that can change as real facts become known. And students will be the real beneficiaries to the extant they can respond in kind by building their own materials questioning and inventing other realities. But it’s all too likely that without standards that had better evolve quickly, there’s an equal chance given the history of school progressivism, teacher built texts can be equal to the worst produced by publishers.

THE ACCIDENTAL LEARNER

There seems to be a revival of interest about informal learning. I suppose the definitions range from information gleaned from informal sources—everything from Wikipedia to People Magazine to storytelling, to disruptive media like tablets and smartphones. Some suggest it’s content discovered while looking for something else. Kind of like an accidental scavenger, a web surfer. No matter how the information is presented, gathered or used it appears the single best notion is that it was unintentional and/or secondary to the main thrust of what is or was to be learned.

Let me suggest we might think of informal learning as ‘Ad Hoc.’ This is not to say passive though it could be serendipitous – just because you ‘come across’ something worth spending time with doesn’t mean it won’t support formal content. If learning is as brain scientists tell us, empowered by the relationships of ideas, the gymnastics of making connections provides meaning and quite often enrichment; then hurrah for informal learning.

Here’s an example of, at least for me, the best kind of informal learning. My wife and I recently saw Woody Allen’s terrific film, “Midnight in Paris.” Aside from the story and plotline, the director paints the cityscape with a loving hand and inhabits it with characters from the Parisian heyday of the early to mid nineteen twenties. We get to meet Picasso and Dali, Gertrude Stein, the Fitzgeralds and Ernest Hemingway among others. And they are brought to life with dialogue they might have, and in some cases actually spoke. This is particularly true of actor Corey Stoll’s portrayal of Hemingway. Spurred on by his characterization I decided to read ‘A Moveable Feast’ the author’s description of his life in Paris as a young and struggling writer. Then too, the soundtrack with familiar tunes in some cases—and quite arguably—performed as in the case of Cole Porter just as he might at an evening soiree, that made the movie even more potent. So I purchased the soundtrack as well.

Let’s add up the ‘learning’ from a movie I intended to watch for entertainment only.

  1. A study of Parisian architecture from photographic angles and perspectives not seen in guidebooks, documentaries or even after a couple of visits.
  2. Information about art and artists, music and musicians, writers and their works.
  3. How the relationships all of these young and vibrant talents thrown together, that made what Stein coined the ‘lost generation’ such a roiling pot of creativity.
  4. Finally, the effect of this environment and people on the protagonist with whom we as an audience bond transported in a personal way.

Anyway, we went to see a movie for pleasure. However, I was encouraged to study the writing and music of the time and received enrichment and delight.

Is this informal learning? In a sense yes because the information I sought afterward was assembled organically and from curiosity. So is that a bad thing? Is the learning less important or salient? No, if you want to learn what you want to learn. When there is great enjoyment, the endorphins kick in and there is potential for exponential personal growth. Everything will have meaning to the learner.

Tablets and smartphones have made made information more readily available; time and space mean even less. If you’re intrigued about a topic then follow a thread until you are sated by a sense of completion or as has been known to happen, sensory overload.

Once we formalize the process of learning and form expectations, objectives, outcomes, KPIs, and other performance measures two things happen. The core information is delivered in a linear and focused way so it can be measured and the the opportunity to ‘drift,’ that is find casual connections is diminished. One might be told to look elsewhere for examples and so on, but nonetheless it’s scripted. There’s no denying we have to learn things we might not find particularly entertaining or mind expanding. There’s no adrenaline rush from studying topics of minimal interest even when they have career importance and possibly tied to an extrinsic reward. Nevertheless it must be done. Even if there is useful information on the periphery learners are not encouraged to seek it out.

In the field of education, one of the latest trends is that of open courses, called MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses). Such courses are based on the theory of connectivism and on a network where a lot of  people are doing independent but interrelated work. It’s collaboration on a global scale. Generally, everyone is working to assemble knowledge and learn about a particular topic but individuals are free to come at it from any angle. In this way, the subject is examined from multiples of different approaches. The content is infused and enriched. I wonder if MOOCs are the beginning of a hybrid of formal and informal learning.

Could this be a model for schools?
In most secondary schools, separate classes and courses compartmentalize instruction. Students have no one place to put their learning’s together to make a cogent whole. The relationship of one course’s content to another’s goes unexplored—there is neither opportunity nor invitation for reflection. Instead of individual courses we might allow for the type of learning…based on discovery… that will resonate with students, inform them factually and humanistically. Just like “Midnight in Paris,” was a nucleus from which students set off on explorations of culture, history, literature, art, and architecture, each strand could then be explored in depth, individually. In fact, what made Paris the center of creativity in the twenties was in some part the result of the First World War, so there’s another even more potent theme just waiting to be revealed. Of course, this mean school needs to be reinvented and there really is no interest in a meaningful reconstitution of education. But let’s not get into that.

The Corporate Venue
This might be tougher, especially if the topic is narrow, technical, and the skills learned must be applied in a direct and rigid way. In addition, this is often necessary. Learning to run an application, program a website, or design a manufacturing process to take costs from production offers few opportunities for exploration of happenstance. And yet, ask anyone who programs in code how they get into a zone and become fabulously productive for a given and fixed period of time. What sets this the ball in motion? Creativity is spurred on, we know, when there is a deep emotional response or a rich intellectual insight within the grasp of an individual. Could it be the distillation of informal and passive explorations can provide this jump-start? Moreover, if so, how will corporate educators adjust for that kind of opportunity, the kind that seeks to spur on creativity on a wholesale basis? I don’t think anyone would be surprised to learn the greatest creators in the past few decades have emerged not from formalized training programs in education settings but rather from the fringes of experience earned by ‘messing around’ with ‘stuff’ that captivated and later drove them to explore more formally ways to capitalize on their ideas.

And so…
I’m afraid I’ve raised more questions than provided answers. I suppose that keeps in the spirit of informal learning though. We do know that both formal and informal education is important and each has utility. If I pose any argument it’s that in our rush to inject learners with information we leave out experiences that will not only make the learning more colorful and retentive but we perpetuate the perception that there are two kinds of learning; formal for school and work and informal for pleasure and personal growth. And that’s just unfortunate.

DELIVERING IN THE 3.0 WORLD

I’m the owner and managing director of Wonderful Brain LLC. We offer custom learning solutions, knowledge & content management and program/project professional services with enthusiastic leadership to drive or support business strategies resulting in compelling user experiences, people performance, and major profitability.

 

WHAT I LEARNED AT CHRISTMAS

Let me make this clear at the outset; my birth family are the tribe of the Old Testament so my father’s association with the Christmas holiday was learned from coworkers, Nat ‘King’ Cole, the tree at Rockefeller Center and New York fragrant with good cheer – often lubricated with smoky liquids around the 25th. That is until he had grandchildren. This was of course the divine gift my wife and I delivered to him – most likely our lifetime’s crowning achievement.

My dad was a typographer, a craft job a composing lines of text in metal. His company on 45th Street in Manhattan set type for all the advertising agencies whose ads were designed in the day and required production overnight to be ready the next morning for inclusion in print publications. My father worked his way up from compositor to general manager owing not just to his skill on the stick, but with people especially. He was, in a word, a schmoozer. This made him the perfect guy to close sales over steaks and drinks at the Palm. In this he was, as always successful. It also provided him with, shall we say gifts, from very grateful vendors who enjoyed the contracts he would award.

During the year, often at odd times, I’d get a call, “Rich, do you need a new guitar, camera, slide projector, TV, frig, etc.” The same largesse extended to his wide coterie of childhood friends whose businesses did not offer such ‘perks.’ And to my wife, whom he called Red (Irish, as you may expect) anything she wanted. The point is he was disposed to spread his good fortune rather than scrooge all for himself.

Nowhere was this truer than at Christmas, an excuse for even his exceptional level of gift giving. And to whom better than my son and later my daughter. Not only his grandchildren for whom most share great love, my dad was excessive to the point of nuttiness. Perhaps his love had a psychological component. He was proud I had become a high school teacher after a short stint as an advertising creative, and owned a house (he always rented – how could such a busy man take on the responsibilities of drywall). He saw my talent in design and always had his employees set type for me in my little logo design/graphics business that added a bit to the family coffers – and said to my mother I was as talented as the art director’s whose work he ‘marked up’ from agencies like Young and Rubicam, BBD&O and Grey. In my gifted young son…his grandson, he saw what could be. Failing with my sister whose troubles he could not fix, he found a second chance with my daughter, who born with physical problems fought to live and thrive and at three was a both adorable and to his sentimental heart required the presence of a grand-champion.

Anyway, that’s the back-story.

The moral—and I’ll get it over with now—is that giving is an expression of not what you should offer—but all you must share no matter the cost in dollars, whether affordable or not. Time is fixed, but love expands. Memories become more powerful in the telling long after the actual events.

So Christmas at my house went like this—and I can assure you this is 100% true.

The week prior to the ‘day’ my wife, my son, maybe 8 years old at this telling (though this went on for 10 years) and my daughter 3, would bundle up and drive to the volunteer fire company lot and buy a tree. Though our living room had 12-foot ceilings, my wife whose love of the holiday exceeded her sense of geometry inevitably drove me to buy a 13-foot tree. Roped to the top of our station wagon (no SUVs yet) we trekked home where I proceeded to heft this coniferous beast (an enemy at the time) to the backyard where I could perform surgical machinations supervised by Mrs. Dr DeBakey. The tree had to be shaped just so but still touch the ceiling, always scratching off a coat of paint. And there had to be room for the angel. Decorating would begin. Jan, my wife, who has a way with home design things had very particular regulations, plus a host of antique ornaments handed down from generations past as well as our own rather eclectic (Surfing Santa) collection. Everyone participated but me, exhausted from cropping, schlepping, and balancing one hundred pounds of asymmetric tree that required guy wires to hold it steady. Music played and the job was happily concluded—always to spectacular results.

Then the event: Grandma and Grandpa arriving on the 24th. Grand kudos heaped on my wife for the spectacular house and tree. A wonderful meal, a little television, and then the ritual of putting the kids to bed. I always reserved this privilege. ‘The Night Before Christmas’ was our ritual.

The four of us adults would be tired. Dad, as always was planning to sleep with my son, no matter the size of the bed—both of them waiting for the sleigh bell. (I would do the honors with a real one later in the night). But before…

Mom:”Now Richard, we didn’t go crazy this year. It’s getting out of hand you know… The presents are on the back seat of the Buick so you might as well get them.”
Dad: Cornering me in the kitchen, sotto voce: “Everything is in the trunk; some of the toys have to be assembled.” (Thanks Pop. I never got to bed before 3am. Ever). You ever see the size of a 1977 Buick LeSabre trunk? Let’s keep in mind the Mafia found it useful in disposing the formerly alive. And I became, by default an expert in building Big Wheels, drum sets with missing parts, doll houses and furniture, Star Wars kits, hockey goals, miniature train sets, you get the picture. Dad had neither patience nor tool sense.He made up for it in the size of his heart.

Cut to the sound of jingling bells and my father and son giggling in bed—except for his rasp you wouldn’t know who the bigger kid was. Then finally, Christmas morning.

Picture this…A giant tree with lower branches completely pushed aside—a living room completely covered with gifts—virtually no floor space left.

Mom: Looking at my father. “Are you out of your mind? What is this…where did this come from. My God, Shad this is crazy. I swear you’ll spoil these kids. You’re ridiculous, crazy. I can’t believe you…blah, blah, blah.
Dad: A sheepish look for her, a twinkle in his blue eyes and devil set mouth. I’m sure he thought, ‘”Heh heh, beat you again. This is what grandchildren are about and you don’t get it—but look what I did. Hah!”

A staircase with a bend, pajama feet pounding down, and heads craning around the corner to see what Santa brought. And there he was. Santa standing back, arms akimbo, laughing more than the kids. Bursting with joy. Never said a word but how good the kids were and how Santa knew it. At that moment and for days after, that look and feeling sustained everyone reminding us the joy of the holiday was not just in the giving but in the love of the giving and the special sense that one person, imbued with goodness, wit and immaturity—could make every single Christmas special.

That was my Dad. He was, and will always be, Santa. Never to be replaced but for memories which grow stronger, and brighter every year. Though my kids are grown and have kids of their own—and our grandchildren, there is no contest to best the Olympian holidays my father choreographed. Though meant for my young children, his spirit continues to enrich us today. Which is why on this Christmas, this Jew, descended from another Jew tries to keep Christmas a special moment. It’s true I fail; there is some of my mother in me…and that made my Dad all the more special as the paragon of unfettered love. You know as well as I, the toys were for fun and laughs a temporary thing. The miracle was a great spirit touching one man who touched anyone else who could and would pay attention.

GAMIFICATION – PLAYING AT (NOT) LEARNING

When I first heard the term ‘gamification’* I had the sensation of a spider wiggling down my shirt at a picnic. It’s in the same league as ‘monetization’ and ‘level set’ and, ‘incubator’, words coined to make professionals sound, well, professional. I’m not against jargon in general; shortcuts are good if they are pithy and have substance. Not so ‘gamification.’ Defined originally as ‘funware’, it demeans both game playing and education. For the most part, game playing aims at developing recall. For lower level objectives, I suppose this would be tolerable if it weren’t distracting from higher-level intellectual outcomes.

For clarity, Games are well-crafted stories built in digital form with learning objectives frequently placing the learner in real life decision-making situations. They use the best practices of education and peda-androgogy and because they are dynamic and built to the same standard as say ‘World of Warcraft’ I find them admirable. I wish there were more and were applied with greater frequency but they are, as you might expect rather pricey.

Gamification is not Games. They’ve be clearly invented by instructional designers/educators in lust with technology. I have a wonderful cliff near my house they can be lobbed off. Its parallel in the public school universe is extrinsic reward schemes granted to students for showing up for class on time, good behavior and completing homework. In other words…as I see it, bribery. (I know this is contentious). I know there are many gamification fans and supporters out there and I respect your desire to improve public and corporate education. Just prove that the time, energy and money pays quality learning dividends and I’ll rethink my position.

VALUE

Let’s set the record straight: If game design is used to make learning through technology more interactive and engaging, count me a fan. When gamification means achievement badges, reputation points and virtual currency, contests, Farmville, or systems for rewarding the acquisition of knowledge or skills—especially in a professional enterprise—I raise an eyebrow at the quality of employees and the (lack of) management resources that sees the need to move them to action with these techniques. A little immature, don’t you think? Reward systems are best used, and have been employed as marketing tools by product managers and marketers to move stuff off the shelves or entice people into chasing a purchase. Wrapping this around new metrics like ‘engagement analytics’ purveyors believe they can empirically demonstrate positive results—commercial and educational. Gaming is a tool that’s become a practice morphed into an industry with commercial drivers. (By the way, note I have not given any space to naming these enterprises…I’m not shilling for them. Look them up if you’d like but don’t be swayed by the hot graphics, testimonials and the robust claims).

Frequent readers of this blog know I am a skeptic. So using any metrics, I challenge Gamification builders to reveal learning performance improvement by users in their real work achieved by Gamification techniques alone. And within a reasonable time period.

A last point: In a learning environment, game interactions become not just exploitations of the basic human trait towards distraction, but will defocus the learner from the real content to be transferred.

*(The term may have been first coined by Nick Pelling in March 2004 for his gamification consultancy startup Conundra Ltd, via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamification). I presume Pellings’ was a commercial venture process.

Seth Godin has recently written, “Knowing about a tool is one thing. Having the guts to use it in a way that brings art to the world is another. Perhaps we need to spend less time learning new tools and more time using them.” (Emphasis is mine).

In any learning environment, this is the common process applied, whether called A.D.D.I.E. or an analogue:

  • There are Problems
  • Preferred solutions are known and become objectified targets
  • Learners acquire knowledge and skills to practice solutions, first guided and then independently
  • They revisit decisions to modify solutions were they learn they have fallen short
  • Recap: A summation of the learner’s solutions aligned to the preferred solutions
  • Look back: Review for changes in performance shortly after the learning and at intervals as necessary

Here is a brief taxonomy of learning techniques in use now and when designed to meet objectives quite useful. They also obviate the need for games and reward systems. Also, while most are part of traditional computer-based elearning they can easily be designed as disruptive, via migration to tablets/smartphones.

Low Level Online Learning Interactions
These are used primarily as checks for understanding, previews, and reviews. Once coded the content can be dropped in matching desired outcomes.

  • They include– Rubber Bands, Fill In’s, Drag & Drops, Matching, and both verbal and visual constructions are typical. The names are generic with many names for similar actions
  • The media has traditionally been Flash when built locally
  • Off the shelf products, e.g. Articulate, Captivate, Camtasia, Lectora, and other rapid authoring tools support basic interactions but are somewhat superficial given the need to employ these in a variety of environments
  • Mass market availability permits any instructional designer with knowledge of the tools to design for a series of learning based checks

Mid Level Interactive Techniques – as Guided Practice

  • Scenarios: For instance: Replication of ‘Office Events,’ Selling, Soft Skills, Application Use (Step by step w/correction)
  • Simulations: For example: Decision Making > On point, real time type action –oriented Sims with feedback loops for self-correction
  • Media: Static Images w/Voice Over, Avatars w/Voice Over, Simple Animations, Flash, HTML5 Most are one-offs where the content is very specialized, e.g., healthcare, though most can be generated using an authoring template.

Higher Level Techniques – Best used when moving from guided to independent practice

  • Virtual Realities w/Active Role Plays as Real Time Events
  • Stop Action Realities – Decision/Crisis Points
  • Real actors/real dialogue, built as a ‘digital shorts’
  • Could be avatars as actors but roles and actions are true to life and specific to the client’ need
    Media: Video, HTML5, Flash
    Quite a few of these become fully realized Games as the content is completely bespoke – custom made for each experience.

SUMMARY

If these are done well, and have meaning and utility for the delivery of knowledge, skills and behaviors, in content as diverse from salespersons to management training, the concept of gamification is superfluous – rendering it cartoonish and beneath the intellectual and cultural status of the learners.

The reality is elearning is best when it is highly interactive with an emphasis on true situations. Gamification, with its emphasis on rewards for achievement is not a learning tool. It is an attempt to motivate; to actually move learners from passivity to those who are committed to the topic at hand. I trust that well designed instruction requires neither badges, awards nor competitive scoring to create effective learning uptake and performance improvement. Let’s do a great job of developing compelling elearning and leave the Gamification on the shelf where it belongs.

WITH REGARDS TO mLEARNING: A CASE IN POINT OR UP IN THE AIR

I promised a colleague a week ago I’d share an experience I had producing a mobile learning project for a major airline. So to him, I apologize for this installment being a bit late…think of it as slow 3G, OK?

A caveat. So many of us are involved in love affairs with the latest technologies sometimes we forget to brake our enthusiasm and learn after too much money and effort that the latest isn’t always the greatest. Case in point is the following true story—a real business event that occurred far back enough that if executed today would be much more powerful because of current technology. Of course, the outcome would not be substantially different because the desired results would still be the same.

A few years back as a VP for a large computer solutions company in New York, one of our account executives specializing in elearning opportunities had managed to seduce a notoriously reticent airline into considering change from their mostly instructor led training to online education. Their target cohort was employees who worked, in their jargon, ‘above the wing.’ This title refers to anyone whose employment had nothing to do with aircraft, maintenance, baggage handling, etc. Instead—and most important to our story—these were the folks customers dealt with at the airport, at check in and on the concourse; ticket agents, gate agents and personnel, support staff and customer service agents assigned at two of their New York City airport locations.

This was, and actually still is, a young airline; established and branded for quality service and a unique series of amenities on their aircraft. Moreover, their preferred hires were/are youthful, adaptive, and enthusiastic. These trainees had the right stuff but lacked knowledge of procedures, policies and in some case behavioral insights into how to deal with all sorts of customers. They were also paid in ‘prestige’ dollars—not too far above minimum wage.

Training on the Fly
After hiring, a cohort of at least thirty trainees would be exposed to a minimum of 45 days in classrooms at their HQ not far from one of the airports. The training and the trainers, based on our observations, were good and often better, effective at conveying all the obvious information and many of the nuances of operating in a regulated environment with the general public. After passing a series of qualifying tests trainees got their uniforms and were sent out to the concourses and ticketing stations for field experience.

So far, so good.
After a week to ten days working in the real environment, meeting all sorts of challenges for which the airline thought they had been prepared, the drop-out rate—that is the number of resignations, topped 35% and sometimes upward of 40%. Extrapolating the training costs, the quant’s figured each loss was worth about $30,000. Each. Yikes. At a minimum, each training class represented a loss of around $300,000. What to do?

To their credit, the trainers devised an exit instrument asking each drop out specifically why they were leaving. In addition, before starting the next series of hires, managers spent much more time at the airport observing the activities of each trainee.

The results were brutal.
Though trainers thought they were preparing new hires to be self-sufficient and make good decisions, they discovered something unusual. While, almost to a person, trainees knew policies and procedures, they were paralyzed when situations veered away from the typical. For instance; while they could modify ticketing and even handle families needing special requirements, passengers who needed to make late changes to their itineraries and other point of attack problems, when a real crisis arose—for which neither they NOR THEIR SEASONED COLLEAGUES had been formally trained, they panicked. In those situations where a resolution came about it was because someone had learned through trial and error, ways to handle the challenge. Realizing no one can be trained to handle every type of emergency; nevertheless, without a substantial set of guidelines the organization was placing too much responsibility on inexperienced…mostly new trainees. Faced with too many nail-biting situations…and realizing neither the romance of air travel nor the respect they had anticipated with the uniform hardly balanced out the anxiety, abuse and low wages, there were substantial resignations.

This was the situation uncovered by my colleague. He also realized that the airline had no real solution—not one that was economically viable. Trainers recognized, to their credit, training had to change in a significant way. But how?

Here is what we proposed
Those parts of the training that worked well, like procedures, regulatory issues, basic airline operations and the roles and tasks for each position should remain in place. However, the time needed to accomplish competence, especially with a new manual and meaningful assessments we would design together, could be reduced if we migrated much of the rote material and built it online. This component would be replete with simulations and scenarios that would build more lifelike experiences into training EARLIER in the process. This would accomplish specific goals; transfer information for use in nominal situations and then prepare trainees for some of the real life challenges they would face on the job. In addition, invite those less committed to bolt before too many training dollars were exhausted. The online experiences would be reinforced with classroom role-plays that were frighteningly realistic. I know…I wrote them.

However, this was still not enough. In challenging situations, not so atypical of life on the concourse, no one could be expected to rise from panic with Zen-like tranquility, and resolve every issue. No, we figured, above the wing personnel needed the kind of manual pilots had when systems were not, shall we say, cooperating.

So we devised as part of the new manual and online learning, a smart help feature with plain language key word searches wherever possible. Using their Palm Pilots (I told you the technology was ‘old), which held the manuals and the full course in memory, trainees and experienced personnel could get immediate answers when called for by keying in simple phrases. In addition, we configured it to learn—so that when a new situation arose it could be posted and all above the wing personnel throughout the system could review it. What we found was that in more than 90% of the cases, some clever or talented employee had a viable answer. This would be added, after tagging, into the course for learning and smart help feature as well.

Here’s a real example
A young mother approaches the ticket counter at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York as the late afternoon rush of business travelers started to crowd up the lines. She is pushing a stroller with an infant and has, by the hand, her 3-year-old daughter. She beseeches the ticket agent to move her seats so she can have easier access to the toilets. While the agent is reconfiguring the seating chart, he hears the mother say, “Honey, I told you not to eat that whole hot dog…now your tummy hurts…I know. Well as soon as we get done here, we’ll go get something to drink and go to the bathroom, OK?’ The child says, ‘But mommy I don’t feel so good now…” She then projectile vomits on her mother’s legs, the front of the ticket counter, and for good measure on the shoes of the businessman in the adjacent line.

Let’s just freeze this scene for a moment. Here are some things you should know, and that the gate agent had learned. Firstly, vomit is considered a hazardous substance. Hazmat regulations apply in all cases. Secondly, as we know all too well, the odor is a contagion that can set off ‘sympathetic’ reactions. Finally, the material was on not only the mother, but also airline property, the carpet and another customer.

What does this mean? Most importantly, the agent, even if he knew how to clean it up, and he had the implements to do so, was prevented by law from doing so. He knew that but what could he do? He whipped out his Palm and keyed in one word, “Vomit.” And unfurled before him was the entire procedure for handling such a case beginning with calling for security and a Hazmat team. Furthermore, it instructed him to close down the line, come out from behind the counter, and move everyone away from the affected area. Upon completing each operation, he checked it off the list. Thus, a record was generated of all actions taken. Also, it automatically sent the location of the event and alerted supervisory personnel. Clearly, this accomplished a huge gain in ameliorating a terrible situation, supported the agent preventing HIS panic, averted a larger catastrophe, and projected competence and professionalism manifested before the general public.

To sum up, by changing the training to an integrated education and knowledge management model resulting in just-in-time access to information through mobile learning, the airline not only began to resolve its somewhat informal emergency procedures, but was able, as new trainees were hired, to prepare them with a much more complete repertoire of real-life events to study. Finally, with real time access to help in emergencies, trainees had confidence in the procedures for those real life panic situations. When finally exposed to the concourse, trainees were better prepared for all situations. The retention rate held—only 12% dropped out.

Coda
A change in training management and budget considerations subsequently stalled the growth of the mLearning component. Interestingly, during the ensuing winter, freak snowstorms created havoc and this airline, with few procedures in place to manage a complex reshuffling of both equipment and personnel, could not sustain an angry public and government scrutiny. The CEO was let go, its once highly polished image and reputation for excellence in service tarnished (and— some say has never returned) and passengers loads shrank significantly for a long time. And, sitting in Fort Lauderdale International Airport waiting to see if my plane was one of the few, and last to leave, I watched in horror as the ticket and gate agents were forced to call airport security and then the police to keep order as passengers were panicking and personnel could not contain the chaos. Had our system been in place, a key word search for “grounded aircraft: storm”, would have directed a senior gate agent  to cordon off 3 lines for each of the New York bound flights, and begin to organize anxious passengers and further plan and communicate next steps.

I must admit I found it not a little bit satisfying. Oh, and even better, I did get the last flight out.

KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT IS A SIMPLE PROCESS ONCE THE RHETORIC IS REMOVED

The benefits of knowledge management (KM) are a monster value-add to any organization. Nevertheless, the more I learn how companies capture and leverage their intellectual property, the more disheartened I become. How could such a straightforward process for transferring information and learning become bogged down in dense MBA rhetoric taking what is essentially a simple idea and obfuscating it in layers of process and jargon? Some might think large enterprises require significant resources to carry forward a KM initiative. I’m not one of them.

A Flash History of Knowledge Management
I can remember lecturing graduate educators that schooling started when one man stood beneath a tree and told stories to his Grecian disciples who sought to learn. Then each would become a teacher and spread knowledge throughout the empire. Why is the oral tradition so different in the 21st century.  Certainly technology has made it even easier to move ideas with an immediacy not easily imagined in the not too distant past. Is, KM , as some claim become the fiefdom of experts with metricians and quants creating a lexicon and modality to which only they hold the password? If knowledge transfer has grown into a complex system, it’s only because the nature of organizations to pile on layers of management seeking justify the effort and deflect external examination has become endemic.

I know there are nuances and specifics necessary in many systems and it’s no different in KM. Nevertheless, KM is about smart enterprises discovering and sharing winning strategies and techniques to improve performances of many kinds. Creating a method to discover useful information that is ultimately accepted as knowledge, then storing it for easy retrieval and communicating how to access it, is far from the challenge some would have us believe.\So, if you indulge me a bit, I can deconstruct this business practice and translate it into plain language, offer basic guidelines for creating an effective and direct KM system and then release it to perform. Consider this KM for Dummies—No offense intended.

What is Knowledge Management
The ‘knowledge’ that we have internalized by experience or education is our ‘tacit’ knowledge. When we externalize it by communicating with others, our knowledge is made explicit. Explicit knowledge is what counts in knowledge management.

Where does knowledge come from if not tacit? Knowledge is a product of innovation and exploration. Usually this comes about when a problem looks intractable. Yet, within each organization—and perhaps inside all of us—there is a spark of genius that, meeting a challenge for which learning and experience has prepared us, yields a viable solution. These insights, concepts and experiences, when polished and vetted, tested and found to resolve the problem has enough value to be circulated. How this new found knowledge is expressed by an individual, discovered by the organization; how it is brought into a system where its application will have far-reaching effects is the management part.

Strategies & Practices
Knowledge management is a formal range of strategies and practices used by an organization to identify, create, verify, distribute, and enable adoption of insights and experiences. Once aggregated into a body of useful knowledge  the purpose of KM is to focus on organizational objectives such as improved performance, competitive advantage, innovation, the sharing of lessons learned, integration, and continuous improvement of the organization. Naturally, this demands a company commitment since these activities and will need creation, invention, and management.

It works like this:
There is a problem…

  1. An individual or group has a solution…but it requires testing and such a mechanism must be emplaced
  2. The solution is tested and found to be of further value and an important addition to an enterprise
  3. The solution is made available for distribution or dissemination…a location and method of retrieval requires development
  4. For those who encounter the problem, a solution has been developed and is now available…presuming the access system offers multiple ways to locate the information

Let’s not forget the climate for innovation and the dissemination of knowledge will only thrive when there is a culture of collaboration. Though an enterprise might have a slick mission statement and therefore a common mission, goal, or objective, sometimes we have to be taught how to effectively collaborate. But sharing valuable information throughout an organization so knowledge may be leveraged and intellectual property maximized is an achievement that often distinguishes winning organizations. Here’s the part where leadership steps up and says we believe in knowledge management and expect this initiative to yield an improvement of business.

Two Interlocking Parts
Managing knowledge effectively starts by identifying critical information that makes a ‘big difference’. Capturing and synthesizing new learning and ideas, and applying knowledge to make the best decisions, requires great communication and collaboration. If KM is about anything it’s using learning strategies and processes; methods, tools and techniques.

To benefit from a rich archive of proprietary intellectual property, designing the means of transferring, sharing, and ultimately disseminating knowledge is step one. Step two, retaining knowledge for the future and providing easy access closes the loop. The best part of a well-choreographed KM system is a problem solved once never needs to be solved again no matter where in the enterprise it subsequently appears.

This, in toto, is ‘knowledge management’. Done well, KM also provides so much fertile information it often generates a critical mass of ideas that, exposed to a large body of users, leads to further innovations—new ways of doing things company wide.

Here’s a working rubric that is but one way to define and assign responsibilities for making knowledge management work. The emphasis is on simple, direct communications with the goal to make the process less difficult than it need be. One caveat; there is often a need to bring in a consultant as a change agent to not only develop the systems needed to make KM work smoothly but to side-step internal politics that often obscure a clean shot at a great implementation.

Example:
After the introduction of a new financial product in the U.S., it became evident advisors could neither understand how it could benefit their prospects or client base, nor create an adequate story from which to describe its value. Therefore, it was undersold. However, in Brazil, a small team of advisors was having great success. Management wondered, “Is a cultural bias that would predispose local investors to accept this type of product, or, did the advisors have a key plan, language, and technique that invited interest, opportunity, and sales that could be imported back to the states.

Managers traveled eight thousand miles to the geo to discover what was driving this success.  They discovered that a three person sales team had devised language and selling scripts that communicated benefits with clarity. They were careful to make the discussion of value and risk not to dissimilar to others with which clients were familiar. Drawing comparisons for their prospects and clients allowed an easy introduction to the new product, meeting with fewer objections and faster acceptance.

The managers captured the processes and language, codified and tagged the elements and upon returning to headquarters archived them in the database. Only then was a company-wide communiqué released superseding the original collateral in favor of a selling guide that leveraged lessons learned for selling this product. Additional information and access to the ‘inventors’ was also part of the knowledge management strategy. The result was an enterprise wide uptick in the sales of this product.

Conclusion
What it boils down to is first seek internal successes before reinventing the wheel. If a problem or challenge occurs, it most likely has a solution created by someone who has already met that situation and created a response. Accessing the answer and using it, even if modified, as is sometimes the case, saves hundreds of hours, enormous effort, and financial resources. Let’s keep knowledge management simple; for the straighter a line to the answer the more confident users become and the utility of the system ingrained within the corporate way of conducting business.

ACCEPTING THE LAW OF UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES

An Inability to Take Action Because of Practical Issues is Not Wholly the Cause of Inaction.

There are as many reasons for contracts failing to close, as there are flavors of Haagen Dazs. Unfortunately, if you don’t close many deals, you’ll be eating some house brand frozen treat. So a double yecch, right?

What brought this to mind was a TED video I viewed last evening. Malcolm Gladwell was discussing, as a point of departure about unintended consequences, the development of the Norden Bombsight, considered by its inventor that, by its precision, would limit unnecessary deaths of innocents in Allied wartime bombardments. That it failed to work as designed was formative to Gladwell’s point that when aiming to solve one problem one often creates another: the unintended consequences. In this case, it was that the instrument designed by its inventor to decrease wanton loss of life was used in the Hiroshima conflagration.

Now hold that thought for a minute.

At the same I was spurred on to re-read Moby Dick by Nathaniel Philbrick’s short volume about what can be gained by looking at this classic as an adult rather than a high school student. One takeaway for me was the enormous preparation required of the Pequod’s Quaker owners to provide everything necessary for human sustenance all the while ensuring the ship was primarily fitted to do the work of a whale-processing factory. Since a Nantucket whaler– over a three year voyage down the Atlantic and around Cape Horn to the Pacific whaling ‘line’ – never put in to port (even fresh water was stored as ballast), no ‘uh oh’ factor would be tolerable. Of course we all know that for all the preparationand well fortified the Pequod, she goes down with all hands but one, when the great whale stoves in the ship. Clearly an unintended consequence of obsessive madness.

I know you’re thinking, is there a point here for me—the learning developer/business person.In fact, there is much to be gained.

By experience I’ve observed the bigger or fresher or more inventive the project, initiative or idea the less it will meet with initial acceptance. Some of this can be put on the known attitude that many organizations are neither innovators nor early adopters – either a blind spot or risk aversion stultifies their movement into new waters. However, I propose it’s often their fear of something unplanned for which they are unprepared that will scotch the venture, taking them down with it. Even if the unintended consequence can’t be named or identified, the sense that doom is a real potential will outweigh what could be enormous benefit. Ergo, if you want to put forward a new idea, by this theory, your chances of success are built on two pilings: one, that risk will be more acceptable if the concept is narrowly focused and limited in scope, and two, that risk is mitigated by building a failsafe into the idea allowing a fall back or stoppage if there is a hint on of storm clouds on the horizon.

Considering unintended consequences, if you want to close the deal or the make an idea acceptable heed the following:

  1. The reputation of the creator/inventor/schemer/seller must be rock solid and preferably with winning projects as a de facto portfolio
  2. There is historical precedent that looks something like what is being proposed. Pointing to past success is—despite what every disclaimer printed or spoken— a reasonable enough foundation upon which new bricks can be laid
  3. Similarly, other risky ventures that have some semblance to this infant proposal or deal having been successful will have more credence than a virginal tender—even if brilliantly conceived and potentially profitable (by one measure)—since it carries unknowns with unintended outcomes.
  4. A capacity to mitigate, cordon off, sequester, or limit a meltdown often provides a wide enough crack of sunshine to permit a new scheme to move towards the light of day.
  5. Finally, sometimes the upside is too powerful or significant to ignore. This is true in highly competitive environments where often a first mover takes home the prize. Technology software, the hardware of war apparatus, even foodstuffs are brought to market with the potential of the blowback of unintended consequences must accept the risk. Sometimes the payoff is Google, sometimes it’s Google+. Pharmaceutical companies must take chances—in fact, their business model demands it even in the face of unintended consequences. You might remember—or should look up the tragedy of the sedative Thalidomide. From 1957 until 1961 when it was withdrawn from the market after being found to be a cause of birth defects it has been called “one of the biggest medical tragedies of modern times. Ever wonder why most television adverts for medicines consist of 20 seconds of conditional benefits, followed by 40 seconds of disclaimers? Still, circumstances demand invention for years of benefit (cash flow, goodwill, or advancement of the human condition) and with it the cellar door to failure.

Assuming all the hard work has been done already and your due diligence is complete then remove the negatives even if unspoken or even unthought…

  1. Make your design somehow quantifiable and measurable. It’s expected.
  2. Use respected key performance indicators from which the formative temperature of the initiative can be viewed against the organizations expectations and, most importantly risk triggers.
  3. As the parent of this change, keep your nose in the air for any whiff of worry that would cause a decision maker to get nervous. Intercede using any appropriate technique. Starbuck tried to deter Ahab refocusing the mission towards harvesting oil and away from the whale. The Norden Bombsight, at the time the single largest military expenditure ever, contained a self-destructive mechanism.
  4. Ensure your internal champion is a real believer, can take a political hit and either brush it off or weather it. If someone isn’t whispering about the containment of unintended consequences along with features and benefits, the deal will crash at the first push back.
  5. Tout every incremental success publicly, either within the organizational community or to the greater public. Then everyone is inoculated against a fatality if, in the end, the lab blows up.
  6. Publish and announce all risk mitigation maneuvers. The idea is to insulate upper management from appearing too enamored of greed to turn a blind eye to the potential for catastrophic failure. At the same time, everyone involved in the go decision understands their role if things go south. With the awareness, you can actually build more enthusiasm knowing the oxygen mask will fall from the overhead compartment and you can breathe normally.

Any idea, any sale, any interpersonal relationship comes with unintended consequences. If you are a mover, a driver, an innovator, get used to naysayers and realize they are making decisions on more than mere cost, effort, organizational concerns and as much from the unknowns contained within the concept of unintended consequences. You say, we expect these benefits so let’s move on it; others immediately wonder ‘what-if.’ There’s nothing wrong with that as long as it gets an airing and you can respond. Bear in mind this old maxim: No plan survives its first encounter with the enemy. While you needn’t see change as necessarily confrontational, remember this other quote: The only one who likes change is a wet baby.

While you plan your next great innovation design or sales methodology, in the next column over start listing potential unintended consequences and next to that column how you’ll survive with them—or in the best situation how you can make them work for you.

A Knowledge Management Whitepaper.