Big Data, Good Information and A Way For You To Use It

In this article I want to explore 3 connected ideas. The first is about big data, the phenomenon that now makes available enormous, staggering, volumes of information almost instantaneously. The second is a condition that says information already known to us can limit how big data can be used because there are other types of knowing to expand thinking. And the third idea is the sum of the first two: that the intersection of big data and a different way of seeing information means a model must be designed to utilize large amounts of validated information in a reasonable way.

So the era of big data is here. Imagine Niagara Falls and the millions of gallons of water that shoot over the precipice virtually every minute. That’s the scale of information we envision when thinking of the amount of data we can reach out and grab—or in some cases is pushed to us—everyday.  It would be impossible to know it all. But one benefit of massive volume is, when looked at through a certain lens, we have an opportunity to connect seemingly unrelated bits of data and discover trends, make predictions, even pre-position products and services long before we click, point or touch. It’s the compilation of colossal amounts of data that presents a challenge. How do we pluck just the right information we need from this torrent of bits?  This is the difficulty with information management in the era of big data; it’s like trying to take a sip from a fire hose. Our need is not to get information it’s how to get just the right content to help us work with more accurate and insightful facts and, smarter and faster?

Clearly then we see how working out a process to employ big data and make quality business decisions is difficult. Furthermore consider this context, our second condition:

“There are known knowns” began an answer to a question at a US Department of Defense News Briefing made by Donald Rumsfeld while serving as United States Secretary of Defense in February 2002. Actually, here’s the whole tortured phrase… “there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.” Though it may seem convoluted it is a “brilliant distillation of a quite complex matter,” said Mark Steyn, a Canadian columnist and echoed by many others, even legions of his detractors.

While good information on its own is valuable its utility when combined with other data to discover other, perhaps new data and still newer meanings is really profound. Sometimes the information is known and we need to fasten it in context, other times we don’t know there is… and what is…  trustworthy information but have to discover it; and more abstract yet, as unknowns the potential of useful but opaque information demands we peer into the future and ask ‘what if’ and proceed to manufacture information on (hopefully intelligent and intuitively perceptive) speculation.

If you’re in the business of solving problems—and who isn’t really—you’ll need an information life cycle model to regard big data and the ‘knowns issue’ to manage a collection of information for maximum use. And beware; too much data without vetting and affirmation, means you might miss the really important stuff, an effect that keeps security services awake at night. And therein lies the third concern of massive information management.

By summary then, we face three elements in our quest to make big data work for organizations:

    1. Gathering information factoring the effect gained when combinations of content reveal even newer more, newer, meaningful data
    2. Respecting knowns and unknowns as  fact and as potential ‘black swans’ (an unpredictable or unforeseen event, typically one with extreme consequences) that can and will skew results if not discovered prior or during information capture or application
    3. Culling the really useful information or data—those bits directly related to the problem at hand—from the gargantuan amount of information flying about making it accessible, contextual and changeable.

Here’s a model than might help us slow down a bit, turn down the faucet and cull out know information and potentially new content when big data offers additional tonnage of content.

InfoMgmt

The flow chart illustrates how information would be categorically organized; a model for the standardization of an information life cycle in big data world.

Ultimately culling useful information from an almost limitless stream comes down to energy, resourcefulness and commitment. When building a learning course for example, your subject matter experts deliver very specific information as they must do. However, is there other data in text, as visuals, in video that might provide a different way to see the information? Clarifying content by shifting the context just a little bit can often shine a light into corners formerly unseen. Whether one has the time or inclination to make the effort to go shopping for more information is dependent on time and budget, yes, however, when looking to make learning better and richer, drinking from the stream is often a task worth enduring. Creating metaphors mined from a combination of newly discovered information can improve the user experience—and enjoyment—like spinning a kaleidoscope and seeing new patterns. Using a model such as the one proposed might make such an effort more reasonable.

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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.

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.

PLAY ME or TRADE ME

I’m writing this preamble dockside on a lake in Maine, early morning sunshine firing diamonds of light off the water. The temperature is mild and the bugs have yet to arrive for their fleshy feast. I’m in a good frame of mind–no curmugeonly thoughts or clever bon mots at the ready. All is tranquil. I point this out as so you’ll know there is no overarching agenda, no negativity anywhere in the vicinity of the words that follow.

There are some subjects I know very, very well; schooled, practiced and tested (and often get well paid for sharing this expertise)–delivering material that clearly rings with the tone of an expert. Maybe a notch below, my experiences and knowledge is pretty fair but I wouldn’t dispute a point with a respected expert–my words would only be a well-informed opinion. At the lower end of this taxonomy would be informal knowledge, reading fiction, opportunities gained from traveling, mixing and working with other cultures, present in discussions with all sorts of pros in all areas of interest in many different areas and general information resulting from a long life with open eyes and ears. I am lucky to have very broad, if not exceptionally deep, smarts in common and arcane subjects. I suppose this taxonomy is true of many people and I’ll bet—in an unscientific survey—more typical among consultants than many other groups.

Let’s concentrate on the very top of the pyramid—deep knowledge, significant experiences, expertise at all levels of work, and exposure to problems that required a significant amount of original thought and intellectual rigor—in the service of clients with specific problems to be solved.

The conundrum, which is the point of this brief article, is one that has me scratching my head in disbelief more often than I’d like. And listen, I don’t have much cushioning up there so this is a dangerous behavior! Why do many companies engage consultants for their expertise and then challenge either what we offer or ignore it in favor of some hybrid solution? Even more maddening is the person, team, or organization that attempts to change our minds about the very expertise for which we were contracted to deliver. Astounding, but true.

But hold on—that’s not quite my point.

In baseball, even a passing fan has heard the term, “play me or trade me.” Very apropos as an example of the fallout from management that pays for our services and then undermines our ability to get the job done the way we know it should be. As a ballplayer, if you are ‘on the bench’ you cannot ply your trade. Therefore, you will not have the opportunity to raise your batting average, make an impact on a game, impress scouts from other teams, and learn new skills from coaches and ballplayers who are in the game. When it comes time to to negotiate a salary, most likely with another team, he has few statistics with which to impress the general manager.

So, a double loss. The player cannot improve his skills by playing every day, nor can he provide a resume of accomplishments trying to make the roster of the next team.

A professional consultant, particularly in the learning field, is in exactly the same situation. Of course, education is much more subjective and in that way every problem solved, skill learned, profit enhanced, talent improved, etc., has fewer stats from which to judge the impact the consultant has made. Nevertheless, the parallel is darn close. Not only will the learning designer, et.al. have less chances to enhance their skills, knowledge and perhaps most importantly their reputation, there is no product to which they can point and add to their portfolio.

The message is this: Before you sign on the dotted line, don’t assume the latitude you will have, nor the breadth of your influence on the final project unless it is clear to the organization, the people with whom you will be working and most importantly yourself. Being a good questioner up front will help create not just a better working/scoping document, but a smoother working environment where you are in the game, if not as the manager than as a valued player. Don’t forget to listen to your intuition–some of us–hungry for work–tune out our internal radar. Influencing the solution for which you can legitimately claim credit means at engagement’s end, you’ll have a portfolio piece that will demonstrate not only new knowledge, skills and technologies but how you have used your powerful expertise to influence what will become an impressive resolution.

10.2 STRATEGIC WAYS to ENSURE LEARNING BEGETS PERFORMANCE IMPROVEMENT

“A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that works.”

Would you like to guess the year this hypothesis was coined?  That’s right!  1652. What a year!

If you find this concept plausible, if the clarity with which business results are expressed, then the more accurate learning objectives can be formed.  Further, the more likely instruction can be well designed to achieve the intended outcomes.  A + B = C. This is a simple system really – inputs and outputs built along a continuum.

But hold on – We can’t calculate, quantify, or qualify achievement unless measured against a benchmark.

While we can all agree a yardstick is required, we often have a hard time decoding points A and B, a decision provided by the business identifying current and preferable conditions.  Now pivot over to learning where content is made from the distance between those 2 points.

A valuable exercise would seek to align the delta of between A and B as content now expressed by outcomes defined by the business and subsequently the ability of learning organization to tightly couple the content to media, methodology, trends, and technology.  This is a simple system, quite linear and logical and when well executed, can sustain grand outcomes no matter the difficulty and complexity demanded by the challenge.  Though we are in the realm of change management education is either a tool or a driver of the desired change; either way it is central to a reconstitution of an organization or, for that matter, a brand.

Let’s step back a bit.  Gaule was a Church of England clergyman taking advantage of the newer technologies of his day, e.g. a rudimentary telescope and measuring instruments, good eyesight, resilience, and a compelling drive to ‘know’ wrote in 1652 that if one system made of many supporting facts was proven correct than others of the same kind would likely be equally correct.  When interconnected a more complex system was revealed.  But for a complex system to be true, all of its minor truths must be so.  ‘Here endeth the lesson,’  said at the close of C of E services no doubt Gaule led or worshipped.

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I hope readers are shaking their heads at this point warbling a mighty DUH.  “This is so obvious – it’s what we always do,” you’re thinking.  We follow ADDIE, or Gagne or Aldrich, et.  al. so we always meet objectives.  Really?  How many learning developers—from the inside the company or delivered by external vendors dare create true assessment—on the job results that reveal measurable business improvement metrics, or fall back on the (recently departed) Kirkpatrick settling for learner satisfaction that will magically morph employees into production megatrons, or build authentic appraisals that may expose the absorption of the learning but say nothing about how the learning becomes dollars.

The point is we have two simple systems; one for determining what will most likely justify the time and money put into benchmarking efforts  that expresses success—and another for design and delivering  a method that will most likely meet results.  Doing it right the first time means the business must be clear not only about content but about their expectations.  Then the learning team surgically examines these outcomes and designs a system to deliver performance improvement using the appropriate tools.

Two enterprises, two sets of tasks for one unique outcome.  How can we skew the odds in favor of building to square the first time?  Is there a magic sauce?  Well, no, but after almost 40 years in learning, and thousands of hours of design and development in every medium, at every subtask from writing narratives to managing multi-million dollar global rollouts I’ve observed the following characteristics present in successful engagements.  Perhaps there are others or more—these are the ones I’ve viewed and in which I’ve participated.

5.1 Simple Things A Business Must Do To Ensure Learning Will Yield Quality Results

1.  Know Exactly What Success Will Look Like.

Find the delta of what is now and what should be.  Whether quality or quantity, people or object centric, how will you know it when you see it. The business must identify where the failure lies, e.g., the poor commission of the sales staff is a micro issue; but failure to perform over time will have macro consequences.

2. Communicate Business Goals Throughout The Enterprise.

Everyone must understand what the business is about, what it does, who it serves and where and how money is made—and the drivers of that income.  When an employee has a panoramic view of the company and recognizes how their participation is vital, the door to learning opens.

3.  Define With Precision, Exactly What Is Expected To Change Post-Learning And Why.

And how it will be measured.  And by whom.  Following on the heels of #2, the specific nature of the learning initiative is clarified.  This will generate buzz, cross-talk and may be some push back.  That’s great.  Whether from professional staff or union reps, work towards understanding and acceptance before the learning is built.  This is an opportunity to introduce the concept of change management.

4. Bracket The Learning Experience By Time And Effort.

The demands made on the time of the learner—and whether learning will be part of the working day or on their own time needs to planned and accepted.  This is especially critical as we move to social media where technology to deliver learning on demand, including mLearning follows the learner around 24/7.  What is management prepared to do to encourage participation which by design might become an intrusion on ones private time?

5. Provide One Example Of An Observable And Positive Outcome.

Tell a ‘big win’ company story by communicating its history, good and bad decisions, solutions, heroes, and goats.  Publicize these ‘war’ stories.  Think reality TV.  From the CEO outward ‘soft’ communications changes companies into learning cultures.  Humanizing an enterprise, especially a multinational behemoth is critical to successful change.  Good internal marketing with collateral and internal PR goes a long way to make an individual feel like part of something grand instead of a cube farm drone (Remember ‘Office Space?’ If you haven’t seen it please do).

5. 1 Regression Test:

Everyone in the company should be encouraged to provide their own ‘war’ stories; tales of success and overcoming the odds.  And ensure these get compiled and disseminated worldwide.  Everyone likes to be noticed and in print (on the screen page), it carries a lot of juice, ergo loyalty and effort.  These stories will be part of the CXO’s/Enterprise wide communications practices.

5.1 Responsibilities of a Learning Organization that Yields Business Performance Goals

1.  Seek To Understand The Organization In Its Entirety.

Regardless of the scope of the project, the learning team must become virtual employees of the business.  It is seductive to believe you may achieve learning outcomes at arm’s length, resolve the immediate business goal, and consider the assignment successful.  However, to fully grasp how even modest courseware can influence the equilibrium of the organization, recognize, and learn operations, product, marketing, logistics, etc.  Then you can build better learning because you can see how your piece fits into the whole. Even if you work for the company you should do the same.

2.  Interaction with the client organization is necessary at all levels.

The more tightly coupled the learning organization is to the business the more effective the results.  While a project manager may represent  the client, direct evidence that senior leadership comprehends the outcomes of what this project means (even a limited project) to the enterprise is non-negotiable.  He or she must be a stakeholder in the initiative and must check progress even if infrequently.  Now there are three clients; the immediate project manager who needs the learning product; the real client, the learner; and now a CXO.  All expect actionable changes from their – and your efforts.

3.  Compel The Organization To Synthesize The Project In Writing.

A summation of the project, goals, schedules, milestones and QA reviews plus administrivia is the minimal communication required in an SOW or equivalent.  Typically, the goals of our learning solution would be  stated in behavioral terms.  That’s too broad.  Information must be more granular.

For instance, here’s an objective: The lab technician will learn how, and practice manipulating contaminant material.  Clear enough for the course — but too general for planning the learning.  What you really need to know are the underlying components of that objective: Why does the material have to be handled in such a way; what happens if the operator does not comply with material handling processes; what effects result from failures that exceed the norm?  How will you – and the company – be able to assess whether the operator is indeed following procedure and how often not.  You should plan – within the learning – a method of benchmarking compliance – what is and what is not tolerable. Moreover, do this first, before planning the learning design.  Capture all of this information, archive it, and treat it as a contract.  Share this with management as a check for understanding.

4.  Play To The Medium

Every learning program usually starts with a proclamation, “This will be online e-learning because it must migrate to 4 geos.  Or a blended learning solution, we’ve found, is the best way to engage learners.”  Frankly, that’s inductive reasoning – making generalizations based on individual instances – a not very reliable construct.  Be clear varying outcomes demand unique construction process and elements.  How you create interaction online, with mobile learning as an add-on, will be completely different then a blended approach with webinars.  Learning works best when built specifically to the strengths of the medium.

5.1 Ensure Your Customer Relationship Management Is Faultless.

Servicing the client is your mantra.  Know who has the gravitas to champion the project or the authority to pull it  The individual highest on the food chain who—if you’ve done everything right up to here—will defer to your judgement and insights.  However, if you believe – and can back up – a problematic element even if expected by the enterprise, speak up.  By now, your organization should be acknowledged as a team with a depth of understanding capable of making good decisions for their business.

5.1   Avoid Cognitive Dissonance

The discomfort felt at when there’s a difference between what a learner already knows or believes, and new information or a new interpretation should be resolved early.  Just as the business wrestles with decision-making and problem solving, discord among the learning team must be resolved or greater difficulties will arise during the build out.  If these issues leap the chasm and get on the companies radar, I’ve seen businesses torpedo the project fearing that infighting diminishes effort, a focus on quality, and a sense that the learning team works in conflict.

In the end, no learner should be left saying, “Yes, that was a great course and I learned a lot but they really didn’t understand how this affects me.”  With diligence and truth – your learning – built on a foundation of insight and accuracy – will meet or exceed the organizations expectations and make believers of skeptics.

So, two simple systems aware of each other’s challenges.  The learning team must broker the effort to make the project work.  Sometimes this means educating the business. And of course, the business must open itself to close inspection.  Success can be summed up as good communication, awareness of each company’s unique challenges, and respect for the process as much as the project that will ultimately improve performance and profitability.

Anyway, that’s what I know to be true.  I’ve seen it and lived it.  Sorry for the wordiness but it’s a big, important topic.

I’ll take questions now.