Sunday, 11 December 2016

Will the App Become the New Classroom?

(this article first appeared in the Spring 2016 Edition of Training Industry Quarterly)

iphone-410324_640Classroom education emerged in a world of information paucity. A minority of people could read. Knowledge was held by the few and education was deeply entwined in the oral tradition. Many of the early education models in the West were driven by religious texts that were read aloud. Memorization was a critical skill. Rote learning was the way to get ahead. The classroom was a critical tool.

However, each one of these attributes has been turned on its head over the past 150 years.

We now live in a world of information abundance. The vast majority of people can read. Knowledge is openly and freely available and education is a complex process of reading, listening, finding, sense-making, sharing and doing. Education is now driven by government policy and the needs of employers. Memorization is only required for critical, conceptual elements of our work as multi-channel access via the Internet and to networks of experts means that ‘find’ is often now a more critical skill than ‘know’.

Yet much of today’s education and training in the world of work remains fixed to an era long gone. Classroom learning, by definition, is separate from the point-of-use of learned knowledge and skills. We know that the closer learning is to the point of need, the more effective and impactful it is likely to be.

Peter Senge, author of the Fifth Discipline and creator of the notion of the learning organization, explained the situation thus:

‘A simple question to ask is, “How has the world of a child changed in the last 150 years” And the answer is, “It’s hard to imagine any way in which it hasn’t changed” and yet if you look at school today versus 100 years ago, they are more similar than dissimilar.’

Exactly the same could be said of adult training and development as of child education. We may have added some technology, better lighting, and more comfortable chairs, but our organizations’ classrooms and approaches today are little changed either.

Is the Classroom Still Relevant?

smartpad_learningA fundamental question is whether the classroom still relevant in 21st century organizational learning.

There is no doubt that sometimes learning together with others in the same room is the best option.

There is probably no better way to help people who are new to a role or to an organization to quickly build understanding of organizational culture and practices, what’s expected of them, and how they’re going to be measured than by getting them together in a room to do so. Good face-to-face onboarding programs that focus on rapidly building conceptual understanding (rather than developing knowledge of detailed tasks) will continue to be an important use of classroom learning until technology delivers much better virtual reality environments than are currently available.

Classrooms (or ‘rooms’ at least) also remain relevant for learning through group discussion and group problem solving when people are co-located or in close reach with each other. The flipped classroom is a good example of this, where people come together to collaborate and share, and where knowledge building had been transferred to better channels of delivery.

Apart from the two examples above, it is hard to find a situation where classroom learning offers an advantage over learning in the workplace, via technology, or over the water-cooler.

Technology offers huge opportunities for social learning, peer feedback, and access to information at the point of need. In our world of information abundance, Google is the largest educational provider on the planet. Google needs no classrooms.

The New Classroom?

Mobile apps are increasingly being built and deployed by organizations to support workers. One large Australian bank already provides its people with a full HR suite of apps for their mobile phones. Others provide rapid access to performance support.

It’s not difficult to see the large-scale development of learning and performance tools and services via apps. That future world is not far off. Within the next few years mobile apps or their successors will be the prime way L&D will support learning and capability building.

The app will then become the new classroom.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

2016 Top Tools for Learning

top100The Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies’ 10th Anniversary ‘Top Tools for Learning’ Survey closes midday UK time on Friday 23 September 2016.

Jane Hart’s work in establishing this survey and encouraging people to reflect on the tools that they use to support learning of others, and also the tools that support their own personal and professional learning, is laudable.  Each year’s survey output is both extremely interesting and useful.

The submissions are published as an overall listing, and Jane also sub-divides the data into categories for different contexts:

  • Top 100 Tools for Education – tools for use in schools, colleges, universities, adult education
  • Top 100 Tools for Workplace Learning – tools for use in training, for performance support, social collaboration, and other workplace learning contexts
  • Top 100 Tools for Personal & Professional Learning – tools for self-organised learning

If you haven’t already voted in this survey, please take a visit here and do so if you’re reading this before the close date for this year’s list (23rd September 2016).  If it’s too late, make sure you’ve marked up the action to contribute to next year’s survey.

Last year’s ‘Top 10 Tools Survey results are here

I’ve listed my 2016 votes (in the ‘Personal & Professional Learning category) below.



  1. Twitter: My first port-of-call every morning to get daily insights into what my wider network is reporting. Twitter works as a window to my professional world. I use Facebook for family and personal friends, and Twitter for my professional social network. Maybe I’m not ‘with it’ to share everything across all platforms, but I prefer to keep things compartmentalised to a degree.
  2. Google Search: ‘Professor’ Google is still the person I call on whenever I need a quick answer to a question or problem. He almost invariably comes up with the answer (except to the question ‘where have I left my glasses’).  Sometimes I need to wade around a bit to find what I need, but the world’s largest searchable index usually does the job. Google Search and the new generation of successors to Google Glass will herald the end to pub quizzes and memory tests and the dawn of personal external intelligence ecosystems. Access to knowledge has already replaced retained knowledge as power. Google search will no doubt play a role in raising that to a new level.
  3. YouTube: probably the best visual performance support tool around. It’s a good conduit to publish and share video material, and a great resource for ‘quick tips’ when I need to know how a piece of software or a broken shower works. YouTube has saved me from needing to attend any number of ‘Excel pivot tables 101’ and ‘household plumbing for beginners’ courses. It also contains enough guitar and banjo instruction lessons to last several lifetimes.
  4. Google Scholar: Scholar opens a rich world of academic work at the click of a button. I can recall spending weeks in university library stacks searching abstracts and then agonising to decide whether to pay the money to photocopy the papers and possibly also have them translated. Scholar has opened Pandora's box – not a box of the evils that were contained in the original, but one that fosters a desire to spend days following breadcrumbs of fascinating references and leave everything else undone.
  5. Flipboard: allows me to bring news, blog posts and sites of interest together in an extremely simple way. Flipboard is the second resource I turn to each morning after Twitter. This social magazine has replaced a number of different interfaces for me. Its easy and seamless interface makes jumping between news, blogs, journals, magazines and applications/sites such as Flickr simple and straightforward. Flipboard is a pleasure to use on an iPad or any mobile device.
  6. Evernote: I’d drown or die trying to find that useful article or piece of information without Evernote. Having Evernote shared across all my devices makes life a lot easier on a daily basis. Evernote makes it simple to clip an article or post. The tagging and search functionality is good. too. I find it useful to throw all my meeting notes in there as well. It can even find scanned handwritten words and, like Dropbox, spans and syncs across all my devices.
  7. Dropbox: a utility I simply couldn’t do without. Offerings of the likes of Microsoft’s OneDrive, Apple’s iCloud, Amazon’s Cloud Drive and Google’s Drive haven’t been able to lure me away from Dropbox. It works seamlessly across PCs, MacBook, and all my ‘i’ devices. Dropbox should be given an award for reducing the cost on global health services. If local devices fail or a hard disk goes AWOL then Dropbox keeps blood pressure and levels of agitation to a reasonable level. It’s a great way to share resources and project documents and to make materials that others often ask for easily accessible to them.
  8. Skype: I don’t like the way Microsoft has taken this great application and is trying to manipulate its users, but in its ‘raw’ form Skype is still a great communication tool and easy to use on virtually any device. Microsoft has built Skype into its Office suite (I’m yet to find a good use for that, but I don’t work in a corporate with a global deployment anymore, so I might have found a purpose if I were in that situation). But Skype feels a little like it’s creaking at the edges – status flags are often wrong, message sync is flaky, it often drops after a while even when there’s plenty of bandwidth on both ends. This may be the last year it appears on my Top Tools list.
  9. PowerPoint: despite its many restrictions, PowerPoint continues to be my tool of choice for most of my presentations. The Office 2016 version has some nice features (even the Help function has improved) and its new ‘zoom’ feature is an attempt to break out of the linear straightjacket we’ve known and despised for years. I also use PowerPoint to create simple diagrams and graphics which can easily be exported as .JPGs and ‘PNGs.
  10. Wikipedia: is an amazing free source of information. Jimmy Wales has received a lot of well-deserved awards for his work and should be lauded for not selling out at the first whiff of money. Reports of his net worth are around $1 million (I thought that might surprise some people). Not in the same league with the billions of Zuckerberg, Bezos, Koum and their ilk, but Wikipedia provides an equally if not more useful service than many of the tools those have built. Wikipedia Invariably has the answers to the questions I’m asking and acts as a springboard for deeper learning.

There are other tools I use in the course of my day and which contribute to my continuous learning. These include Blogger WordPress, WhatsApp and Google Translate and some more. But the 10 above have been my principal daily workhorses for the past year.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Being Bold and Imagining the Different

Zion Park

Last Thursday 25th August marked the centenary of the US National Parks Service. The natural beauty of these places across the North American continent is unquestionable. They are amongst some of the greatest treasures the USA and the world possess.

But they haven’t always been seen that way.

The father of today’s National Parks was John Muir. Born in Dunbar on the south east coast of Scotland, Muir was the son of a Calvinist who believed anything that distracted from Bible studies was frivolous and punishable. Muir’s father, it’s said, emigrated to the United States because he found the Church of Scotland ‘insufficiently strict in faith and practice’.

John Muir’s response to his father’s view of the world was to turn the Calvinist work ethic he’d grown up with towards his own ‘redwood cathedrals’ with an unsurpassed enthusiasm. His life’s work was to protect the beauty that has become the National Parks. His writings convinced the US Government to protect first Yosemite, Sequoia, Grand Canyon and Mount Ranier and later all the other 55 national parks across the USA and its associated territories.

Muir left as his legacy an incredibly pristine natural beauty that everyone can share. Without John Muir much of the beauty that exists in the National Parks would have become utilitarian resources.

What’s the Link with Learning & Development?

Today the world of L&D is a little like the world the young John Muir confronted. This is a world where some good work was taking place to open eyes to new and exciting environments, but where the dominant mindset was constraining even better things from happening.

In Muir’s case the dominant mindset he challenged was the desire to conquer nature and make it useful for man. The view was that if some preservation efforts could be made along the way, then all well-and-good. But the principal mindset and focus of the day was management and control of nature in the service of humans.

The course and programme mindset

We’re in a similar predicament in the L&D world today. Most of L&D’s work in done within the ‘course and programme’ mindset. It’s the natural fit for management and control.

This is understandable because many of today’s learning and development practices emerged during the second half of the 20th century. Following the Second World War the drivers were industrialisation and mass production. The need was perceived for a solid skill base to ‘feed’ the factories and enterprises on the back of building strong economies. The solutions that were developed to help build workforce capability in this context were invariably built on the idea that learning and working were best carried out separately. It was believed that if we removed people from their day-to-day work they could ‘focus on learning’ better. So structured learning interventions became the standard approach. Training became a huge industry.

Structured learning is a relatively easy process to manage and control. It fits with the industrial mindset. Fred Taylor (‘Principles of Scientific Management’) had told us that developing good management practices was simply a process of applying science to management.  So developing good L&D practices for developing managers and others should be the same.

But they’re not.

We now understand that the closer to the point of use that learning occurs, then the more effective and lasting it’s likely to be. Context is critical for effective learning.  Knowledge and skills are not enough. We need to have the understanding to apply knowledge and skills in context to deliver high performance. 

McKinsey’s report on ‘why leadership development programs fail’ clarifies this point very well. The McKinsey study found that four common mistakes, made over and over again, are leading to the waste of a large percentage of the $14 billion spent annually by US organisations alone on improving the capabilities of managers and nurturing new leaders.

The four common mistakes the McKinsey researchers identified are:

  1. Overlooking context
  2. Decoupling reflection from real work
  3. Underestimating mindsets
  4. Failing to measure results

Each of these could be contributed in part to the ‘course and programme’ mindset. If we separate learning from the work, and thus remove most of the context, we are likely to produce sub-optimal solutions. If we don’t adopt new mindsets we will never be able to meet the changing needs for rapid and continuous learning. If we spend our time inventing ‘learning metrics’, rather than simply working with our clients and stakeholders to measure what matters to them, we will never understand whether our solutions are making a difference.

If we’re going to be bold and make Muir-like differences we clearly need to step beyond the course and programme mindset.

It won’t be easy.

Moving the dial

Most of the standard models still used by learning and development professionals, and still taught by many organisation across the world as they prepare people for careers in learning and development, were developed with structured learning away from work in mind. We have refined the planning and structure of the ‘perfect programme’ to the ‘nth degree’ but the question is whether we are aiming our efforts at the right target.

To an extent, I think we are still ‘perfecting the irrelevant’ in a world that has moved on unimaginably over the past 25 years.

Of course all structured development isn’t irrelevant. Sometimes it is vital and the best way to help people improve. But a good deal of structured development has little effect on the participants’ ability to do their jobs better and our continued focus on it to the exclusion of other approaches is leading to many L&D teams being unable to effectively support their organisations. In other words, the course and programme mindset is limiting other opportunities.

Typical offerings to prepare our future professionals reflect the dominance of the course as virtually the only the mechanism to get any attention. As such, they are constraining our ability to deliver real impact by supporting learning in the daily flow of work. These ‘learning separate from work’ models are the antithesis of what my Internet Time Alliance colleague Jane Hart calls ‘Modern Workplace Learning’ and what my 70:20:10 Institute colleagues and I call ‘70:20:10 practices’.

The inertia is strong - effective L&D professional development is critical

The formal training industry is huge and is well embedded in HR practices. The annual performance review and development objective setting process is witnessing some changes, but it is still widespread. Development objectives still predominantly materialise as the need to attend courses or programmes. Of course this is evolving, but the inertia is strong and change is slow.

When we look at the way professionals in this field are themselves developed we can get an idea of the vortex that’s helping to hold fast the course and programme mindset.

HR, L&D and OD development is still predominantly based around training to deliver ‘faster horses’. Even if Henry Ford didn’t utter the famous words when asked what he thought his customers wanted (and there’s no evidence he did), history suggests he thought along those lines. Ford’s genius was was to develop a new mindset about production and delivery. One of L&D’s challenges is that its profession must do the same.

Ara QuoteAlthough a few professional bodies are making some progress (the UK’s CIPD is an example) when we look at the majority of development opportunities for professionals in the learning and development sphere we see preparation for a world that is in the past.

Today’s world requires L&D professionals to be agile and support their ‘customers’ in their workflow. L&D needs to focus on the ‘70’ and ‘20’ – supporting learning as part of work and learning from (and with) others.

However, most professional development offered by commercial companies for L&D practitioners is still rooted in the training paradigm. Even though L&D leadership development is couched in different words (and possibly held in more up-market locations) it is still predominantly structured in the training paradigm. Command and control – even if some role-play and simulations are included.

This type of L&D professional development is typified by the description below of a train-the-trainer course (taken today from a publicly available brochure):

“This lively and interactive course will help delegates develop and hone their skills so they are able to plan and deliver effective training. 
Delegates will learn:
- How to define objectives that meet both business and trainee needs.
- How to plan and design training to gain the trainee’s commitment and enthusiasm - Even reluctant trainees!
- How to recognise the different psychological and sensory learning styles of trainees.
- How to adapt training to meet ALL of these styles
- How to deal with challenging trainees and resistance to training.
- How to deal with trainee concerns about training.
- The pro’s and con’s of different training methods.
- How to ensure training is interactive and participative and not simply a presentation.
- How, why and when to adopt a facilitative or directive training style.
- How to ensure and check that training:
  -  Is really effective
  - That objectives have been met
  - That real learning has occurred
  - What to do before and after training to ensure the best outcome for the business and trainee

This could have appeared in a 1990s brochure – and may have looked dated even then. It’s rooted in the idea of training being something that needs to be presented in a particular way to make it palatable.  And it is typical of thousands upon thousands of ‘course and programme mindset’ offerings still being promoted to develop L&D professionals (and others who want to develop up-to-date L&D skills) around the world.

‘Imagining the different’

If we are going to ‘imagine the different’ there is a requirement to be both bold and focused. We need a galvanising vision to do things differently and better.

We have to take a lesson from John Muir and find a way to break our reliance on the dominant mindset of the day. We must re-think the options we have to both support our stakeholders and clients with solutions that provide learning in the flow of work and, at the same time, think about ways we can help our own profession develop beyond refining training processes. If we don’t step beyond the course and programme mindset we will forever under-deliver on the promise to support high performance in the best ways possible.

“Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.”  John Muir in a letter to his wife in July 1888

644px-John_Muir_CaneJohn Muir, American conservationist. Photograph by Professor Francis M. Fritz in 1907
Public Domain

The wonderful Scottish singer Dick Gaughan tells John Muir’s story in ‘Muir and the Master Builder’, written by songwriter Brian McNeill, here.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

The Power of Reflection in an Ever-Changing World

(I wrote the original article this is based on for Training Industry Quarterly in Winter, 2012 but feel it still speaks to a key issue for building high performance that has barely been touched by many L&D professionals).

Reflective Practices

3762182349_77fa97705f_bIn a world where speed and agility are the driving forces for most of our organisations we tend value our ability to look forward rather than to backwards. Yet one of the most useful tools for effective learning and development is reflection.

Critical reflection is one of the four fundamental ways in which we learn and improve. This holds true for learning in the workplace and in life. Yet many organisations have lost sight of the value of reflective practice as an effective means of development as well as a way to identify where and when things have gone wrong (and have gone right).

Of course there are exceptions. Military after-action reviews (AARs) are tremendous structured processes that analyse what happened, why it happened and how it could be done better. The US military four-question AAR, for example, could serve as a template for any organisation to help embed a culture of reflection. It may only take a minute but can be used as a simple technique to reflect and analyse how things can be done better next time. The four questions of the typical AARs are:

1. what did we set out to do?
2. what actually happened?
3. why did it happen?
4. what will we do next time?

Reflection as a Critical L&D Process

The speed of learning and development in our organisations is often reduced to a slow walk focused on following defined processes and procedures – and often on content-centric ‘knowledge transfer’ - without acknowledging and taking time to understand errors (and we all make them from time to time) and deciding the required changes in behaviour and action to ensure the same errors are not made again. Helping people reflect and analyse what’s going right or wrong are rarely core parts any L&D kitbag.

Even if your organisation has an after-action or project review process it is always helpful to spend some time reflecting individually and in small teams on a regular basis quite apart from any specific project process. Some forward-thinking organisations now encourage this type of reflection and narration of work by providing the facility for personal blogs on the intranet or by implementing storytelling. Qualcomm, the global mobile technology company, uses its successful ’52 weeks’ program to encourage employees to use structured storytelling for reflection and to share information, attitudes and behaviours across the company. Initially started as a weekly email for new hires, the program is now firm-wide and provides a key repository of reflective stories and experiences.

Learning in 4 Steps – the Role of Reflection

There are many deep theories of learning, but we can boil the process down into these four key areas:

4 steps

  • Learning Through Experience: we learn a huge amount through exposure to new and challenging experiences. ‘Work that stretches’ is often the best teacher any of us will ever have. Research tells us that immersive learning and learning in context provides the most memorable learning experiences. This is one reason for the increased interest and activity in experiential and social learning in the past few years. However, experiential learning is still often under-valued and under-exploited by learning professionals. As the late professor Allan Tough said ‘most of the learning is under the waterline’.
  • Learning Through Practice: we learn through creating opportunities to practice and improve. Without practice we can never hope to become high-performers. We can’t for a minute imagine our great sportsmen and women rising to the top of their game without hours and hours of practice, even when they are world champions. What makes us think becoming high performers in our work is any different?
  • Learning Through Conversation: we learn through our interactions and dialogue with others – through informal coaching and mentoring, and building social networks inside and outside work. Conversation is the ‘lubrication’ of learning and development. Jerome Bruner, the greatest educational psychologist of our era, once said ‘our world is others’. We often forget this fundamental fact.
  • Learning Through Reflection: Reflection is the ‘glue’ that we need to exploit the other forms of learning. Charles Handy, the management ‘guru’, writer and observer, points out that ‘experience plus reflection is the learning that lasts’. We learn through taking the opportunity to reflect both in the workflow and away from our work. We can then plan further activities that will incorporate our learning and improve our performance further.

Reflective Practice

A good starting point for embedding reflection into daily workflow is to approach the practice at two levels; individual reflection, and then reflection with colleagues and team members. Reflective practice itself doesn’t ‘just happen’. It is a learned process. It requires some degree of self-awareness and the ability to critically evaluate experiences, actions and results.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Inaugural Jay Cross Memorial Award

Reposted from the Internet Time Alliance website.

The Internet Time Alliance Jay Cross Memorial Award is presented to a workplace learning professional who has contributed in positive ways to the field of Real Learning and is reflective of Jay’s lifetime of work. Recipients champion workplace and social learning practices inside their organisation and/or on the wider stage. They share their work in public and often challenge conventional wisdom. The Jay Cross Memorial Award is given to professionals who continuously welcome challenges at the cutting edge of their expertise and are convincing and effective advocates of a humanistic approach to workplace learning and performance.

We are announcing this inaugural award on 5 July, Jay’s birthday. Following his death in November 2015, the partners of the Internet Time Alliance (Jane Hart, Harold Jarche, Charles Jennings, Clark Quinn) resolved to continue Jay's work. Jay Cross was a deep thinker and a man of many talents, never resting on his past accomplishments, and this award is one way to keep pushing our professional fields and industries to find new and better ways to learn and work.

The Internet Time Alliance Jay Cross Memorial Award for 2016 is presented to Helen Blunden. Helen has been an independent practitioner at Activate Learning since 2014. Her vision is to help people stay current in a constantly changing world of work and do this by working and sharing their work and learning in a generous, open, and authentic manner. Helen started her career within the Royal Australian Navy across two branches (Training Development and Public Relations) as well as working within Service and external to Service (with Air Force and Army and Defence civilians), then with the Reserves. Helen later worked as a Learning and Development Consultant for Omni Asia Pacific, and subsequently with National Australia Bank as a Social Learning Consultant. Helen is an active blogger and is engaged professionally on various social media platforms.


Here is Helen in her own words, “In my observations, it’s not only learning teams in organisations or institutions that need to change and recreate the traditional ways of training into learning experiences. It’s wider than that. I have smaller businesses, some of whom are vendors who offer training products and services to the public or to organisations who are scratching their heads trying to figure out how to get ‘into the 21st century’ as their clients ask for more blended programs – shorter programs – but still achieve the same outcomes. Dare I say it, the tools that Jane Hart offers as tools for professional development are not for learning people alone – they’re for everyone. This is where I’m grappling to understand the enormity of the change and how, for the first time, you’re not only helping a client design and develop the learning experience – but you need to teach them how to use the tools so it becomes part of their social behaviour to build their own business, brand and reputation.”

Helen will be formally presented with the award in her home city of Melbourne by Simon Hann, CEO of DeakinPrime, the corporate education arm of Deakin University.

It is with great pleasure that the partners of the Internet Time Alliance present the first Jay Cross Memorial Award to Helen Blunden.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Language Learning - an Exemplar of a 70:20:10 Approach?


Humans are an incredibly inquisitive and extremely social species. The characteristics that helped us reach our dominant position on planet earth are intimately linked with our search for understanding and our social nature. These also drive our learning patterns. And our ability to learn continuously the way we do has underpinned our success and our creativity throughout history.

We are all life-long learners. There is no doubt about that - even more so than we may imagine. Recent research has demonstrated that we not only learn from cradle to grave but that we were all learning even as babies in the womb, too.

And the first thing we were learning was language.

The Amazing Phenomenon of Language Learning

Children usually learn to speak their parents’ or social group’s native language relatively easily. The experts tell us that our brains are naturally ‘wired’ to assimilate sounds and create meaning. The more we’re exposed to words and sounds the more likely we are to absorb and remember them. So most children develop effective verbal communication skills early in life.

But language learning has some very specific characteristics, including the fact that we all started this aspect of our learning journeys not at birth, but before we were born.

In one piece of recent research into language learning carried out by professor Christine Moon at the Pacific Lutheran University, Washington State USA, and her colleagues in institutions in Sweden, the researchers tested the different responses of unborn babies to vowel sounds of their mothers’ native tongue and to those of other languages. The babies responded differently when they heard the vowels of their mother’s language spoken. The research demonstrated that “unborn babies have the capacity to learn and remember elementary sounds of their language from their mother during the last 10 weeks of pregnancy”.

Another research project by cognitive neuroscientist Eino Partanen at the University of Helsinki showed that babies retain memories of sounds they have heard before birth. Partanen and his team fitted newborn babies with EEG sensors to look for neural traces of memories from the womb. "Once we learn a sound, if it's repeated to us often enough, we form a memory of it, which is activated when we hear the sound again," he explained. This memory speeds up recognition of sounds in the learner's native language and can be detected as a pattern of brain waves, even in a sleeping baby.

So what do these extraordinary insights, and others like them, tell us about learning in general?

Language Learning and 70:20:10

'RIP Steve Jobs' by Alec Couros. Licenced under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0All of the above research reinforces the fact that language learning seems to be an exemplar of the 70:20:10 approach.

Learning to speak a language is a continuous process and not just as part of a series of structured learning ‘events’. This becomes apparent if ever you’ve joined a language class as an adult. Without a lot of work outside the classroom you’ll never gain proficiency.

We learn language primarily through social interaction and experimenting (the ‘20’ and ‘70’).  Language learning is also integrally entwined in everyday living. We learn because it’s natural for humans to want to get better and to hone our skills. As Daniel Pink observed in his book ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us’, humans are ‘purpose machines’.

In all other respects, apart from its extremely early starting point, learning a language is very much like learning almost anything else. We do it to address a need. We achieve our learning through exposure to new experiences (sounds and other stimuli in the case of language learning), through taking every opportunity we can to practice (just observe a baby’s efforts to learn), through learning together with others (our parents,siblings and friends in the case of language learning), and by using reflective practice smartly.

Added to these fundamental principles there are some others that come into play. We have to possess a need and desire to learn (the ‘drive’).  And we need to understand the consequences of not learning. If you’ve ever found yourself in a foreign town or city you’ll know the consequences of not learning even some basic vocabulary. So we stretch ourselves and, where necessary, draw on help and look for resources to enable us to communicate better.  Morgan McCall (who’s 1988 book with Michael Lombardo and Ann Morrison ‘The Lessons of Experience: How Successful Executives Develop On The Job’ explored the ‘70’ and ‘20’ elements of learning) explained these principles clearly in this 3-minute video clip.

Starting with the ‘70’ and ‘20

The 70:20:10 framework helps extend our focus on where and how learning occurs. It isn’t a new interface for traditional training, nor a new learning theory. It is a reference model that describes the way people tend to learn.

One of the key elements of 70:20:10 is the principal that the learning which is most likely to be effective, and the learning that lasts, is the learning that occurs closest to the point of use. This is a simple principle, but a challenging one for many L&D professionals.

If we think about language learning, it is almost inconceivable that someone could learn a language without using it extensively (the ’70’) as part of the learning process and also continually learning from others who use it around them (the ‘20’). Of course some structured learning (the ‘10’) is extremely helpful to get started and also to provide some guidance along the way, but structured training in language learning, or in any other domain, will not alone produce high performance. 

High performance in language ability and in other fields is almost invariably associated with five common characteristics.

Five Characteristics of High Performers

High performers are often fast learners. They usually display the following characteristics:

1. They tend to quickly master the basics. Usually, but not always, using some structured support.  (this is the ‘10’ part)

2. High performers have usually spent hundreds of hours in practice, with trial-and-error, and often self-testing to hone their new abilities. Again, this is often in a structured way (the ’10’), but also through self-directed activities and with colleagues, coaches or using technology to provide feedback and guidance (this is the ‘70’ and ‘20’).

3. High performers are invariably embedded in their professional communities both within and outside their organisation. They regularly share their expertise across their network and also call on others when they need advice and help. (this is part of the ‘20’)

4. High performers will have on-the-job performance support at fingertips. They know where to find the answers to the challenges-at-hand, whether the solution comes via their own PKM (personal knowledge mastery) systems, workplace resources, other tools and systems (the ‘70’) or simply by knowing who will be best able to help them (the ‘20’). 

5. All high performers will have been exposed to many hours of experience, practice and reflection, sometimes alone, sometimes with their manager and team, and sometimes with their professional network (more ‘70’ and ‘20’ learning)

The Right Mindset

High performance also goes hand-in-hand with growth and development mindsets. The belief that learning is an important part of everything we do is a critical element in reaching high performance.

Having a mindset that focuses on striving to do better, whether it’s in language learning or any other endeavour, is critical to achieve mastery and, especially, maintain it.

Images:  Ancient Khmer Script. Petr Ruzick. CC by 2.0
              'RIP Steve Jobs' by Alec Couros. Licenced under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Friday, 3 June 2016

The Driving Test: the canary in the mine for formal training?


702010-towards-100-percent-performanceThe first chapter of ‘70:20:10 towards 100% performance’ (the recent book by Arets, Jennings & Heijnen) is titled ‘the training bubble’. It takes a quick look at the history, the lure, and some of the problems that have been brought about by thinking only in the formal training paradigm rather than in the performance paradigm.

The training bubble chapter starts by discussing our reliance on formal driver education and successful completion of a driving test as measures to ensure drivers are equipped to safely navigate our various nations’ roads.

Most countries have driver education and driving tests and, without exception, the assumption is that by requiring new drivers to undertake a formal education programme and the written and practical tests the probability of them having accidents will be lowered.  

Formal Driver Education Does Not Reduce Accidents

However evidence suggests that formal driver education does not significantly reduce the risk of accidents when compared to learning in other ways, such as under the supervision and guidance of a usually older non-professional driver.

Willem Vlakveld, a psychologist and senior researcher at the Institute of Road Safety Research in the Netherlands has shown that not only does formal driver education not reduce accidents, but that intensive driver education (where new drivers undertake day-long consecutive driving lessons) is likely to lead to an even higher level of accidents in the first two years of driving when compared to more traditional, spaced, lessons.

In another research paper, Vlakveld reported that driving simulators may speed up skills acquisition, but will not help make novice drivers safer. In other words, simulations of real situations might help, but not necessarily in the way we might expect.

The Existing Driver Education Market is Going Nowhere, Fast

China driving simulationDespite the research, the formal driver education market is vast, and still growing.  I read an article in the 19-20 March 2016 edition of China Daily while in that country. The China Daily article reported (on the basis of data obtained from the Ministry for Public Scrutiny) that China now has more than 300 million drivers, the highest in the world. It also estimated that this number will increase by 20 million each year in the foreseeable future.

The article went on to report that this will create a training market worth more than 100 billion yuan (US$15.45 billion). Already technology is being used to help ramp-up the formal driver training industry boom (the photo on the right is illustrative of this).

The question this raises is ‘why would we encourage the development of a training industry using methods that have been shown to be ineffective in the past?’

Haven’t we, as professionals in the field of human learning and performance, learned anything ourselves?

I feel there is a fundamental lesson here for Learning and Development approaches generally.

Learning to drive a car is similar to many other skills acquisition processes. We develop capability through experience, practice, and reflection (individual and shared) over time. Often this capability-building is carried out with others. At other times it is done alone. Sometimes we may be able to increase the speed of acquisition of skills, but simply making formal education experiences more compressed or concatenated or more ‘sexy’ with technology won’t necessarily improve outcomes. Formal education and testing isn’t the key to improving performance. It’s the ‘70’ and ‘20’ learning – learning in context with plenty of practice – that that has most impact.

There are two elements that must be present when we need to improve our performance at achieving almost anything. First we must have the need and the desire to learn. And then we must spend plenty of time immersed in the environment where we are going to use our new skills and capabilities. Learning has its greatest impact the closer to the point of use it happens.

For driving motor cars, the first element is rapidly disappearing as technology overtakes the 20th century motor car, and the second – formal driver education - has been proven to be often ineffectual at helping reach the desired goal (driving safely).

The Very Short Lifespan of the Driving Test

A very short history of the driving test can teach us some lessons about the way we need to change and adapt to new conditions and to the evidence from research.

The driving test provides a ‘rite of passage’. Once a new driver completes the formal education and passes the test, the road is theirs. This is similar to almost any other formal education/test process, whether it’s an Microsoft MCSE or a Cisco CCNA technical ‘badge’ or a DMS or MBA business ‘badge’.

Yet in many ways the driving licence as we know it – a ‘badge’ received for scoring a ‘pass’ in the driving test - is fast becoming an artefact from a bygone era, even though it seems to have been with us forever.

In fact, the driving test in most countries is only a relatively recent development.

imageKarl Benz, the inventor of the modern automobile, needed written permission to operate his car on public roads in 1888. This was a licence of sorts, but there was no test. 

Compulsory driving testing was only formally introduced in the United Kingdom in 1934 (the first country to do so).

My father’s driving licence of July 1937 (here on the left) wouldn’t have required a test and I know my mother was never required to take a driving test throughout her life.

Some countries, such as Belgium, allowed people to drive without a test until relatively recently. In Belgium the driving test was only introduced in 1977. The Egyptian driving test until recently required the new driver to move just 6 metres forwards and backwards. The test is now more slightly challenging- drivers need to answer 10 questions (and get 8 correct) and negotiate a short S-shaped track.

As the driving test was gradually introduced across the world it was believed that formal driver education and the driving test reduced automobile-related deaths. That was the prime rationale.

We now know that’s not necessarily the case. Vlakveld and others burst that bubble some time ago. Yet we still persist.

In other words this formal training and test model is built on sand.  Even though the authorities want to believe it has a positive impact, the research suggests it doesn’t.

Of course this is no reason to dismiss all formal training and testing out-of-hand. However, it should make us question our assumptions that formal training and testing (whether classroom-based or through eLearning) will change behaviour and build high performance. To build or even maintain our performance we need to continuously use our new-found skills. That’s obvious. It also helps if we are continually aware of the changes occurring around us and we have the ability to adapt to changing conditions.

In other words, we need continuous practice to build and maintain performance in any domain. And that practice needs to be ‘match practice’.

Match Fitness

Serena‘Match fitness’ is a well-known phenomenon. 

No matter how good your training (or your driver education) you need time to use your skills and capabilities in the flow of work (or on the playing field) before you can perform even adequately, let alone exceptionally. Performance is highly context sensitive. How many of us have shown we can deliver a great tennis serve or hit a long golf shot on the practice court or course, or deliver a compelling speech, only to make a hash of things once we step into a competitive game or onto a stage in front of hundreds of people?

And how many of us, on first passing our driving test , were disappointed that a parent refused to let us borrow their car because they thought we needed ‘more time to practice’. We’d passed the test, for goodness sake!!

Ted Gannan, the CEO of a performance support company in Australia has explained the need to regularly apply skills in the workplace in this short ‘match fitness’ article. It’s worth a read.

The Distance Between Passing the Test and High Performance

The distance between formal driver education, passing the test, and high performance behind the wheel is often a huge one. And mastery doesn’t come without time and experience in context.  In our daily work we also need ‘match fitness’ in order to perform at our best.  We tend to forget that fact. Tests and simulations aren’t suitable proxies. Formal training may sometimes be needed, but it’s never enough.

The End of the Driver Education Industry

Car or COmputerThere is another factor that’s driving the demise of the formal driver education industry. This could also serve as a lesson for us in other formal training endeavours.

It’s likely that the current generation of prospective drivers enrolling on their driving courses will be the last.

Motor cars are becoming more like computers. The human-motor car interface is changing. Hands-free,voice-enabled interaction is becoming commonplace.  Transport, like many other aspects of our life, is being re-imagined. The skills we needed in the past are no longer needed, or being replaced with the need for new sets of skills.

According to KPMG auto industry experts, the driverless car is analogous to the smartphone. KPMG predicts huge growth in autonomous cars and an increase not just in general usage but also in the nature of use. ‘Uber without a driver’ services and other innovations are getting ready to come on-stream. Some of it is already happening.

In a few short years we’ve come from some basic performance support in our cars – cruise control, electronic stability, park assist (1990s); through to the Tesla Autopilot, GM Super Cruise, and the Google Car (2010s); and we know that full self-Driving Automation is not far off.

Google CarIs the formal driver education industry adapting and preparing for these dramatic changes? 

The answer to this is question is ‘not much, if at all’.

Learner drivers still receive similar types of instruction to that delivered 50 years ago. The industry has changed very little apart from  the increased use of technology in the form of simulators. 

All this sounds like many other areas of formal education and training.  Methods have not changed much. Some technology may have been introduced to make the process ‘more interesting’ or to allow scaling, but overall the out-of-context way we design and deliver most training is still the dominant approach.

All this despite the fact we know that continuous learning in the context of the workflow is almost always the best way to develop proficiency and build high performance. We know that formal education in many areas of enterprise does not have the impact we desire or expect. It’s not just in driver education. It’s in almost every sphere of activity.  We need to think and act in new ways if we’re not to follow formal driver education down the carbon monoxide mine-shaft.

There is an answer to this conundrum. We need to bring learning and working together, not use one as a proxy for the other.

To learn more about developing approaches that exploit the ‘70’ and ‘20’ – learning as part of working – read the book ‘70:20:10 towards 100% performance’ or visit the 70:20:10 Institute website

70:20:10 towards 100% performance (2015). Arets, Jennings & Heijnen. Sutler Media
Hazard Anticipation of Young Novice Drivers (2011). Willem Pieter Vlakveld
2016 Internet Trends (2016). Mary Meeker.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

From Courses to Campaigns : using the 70:20:10 approach

imageOne of the major strategic objectives for many HR and L&D departments in 2016 and beyond will be to extend their focus and services beyond courses and out into the workplace.

There are many reasons why this objective makes good sense.

Firstly, we know that learning is a powerful and continuous process that occurs daily at work and throughout life. Courses may help with the basics, or to refresh our knowledge, but courses alone won’t deliver high performance. Other activities in the workplace – such as challenging experiences, opportunities to practice in ‘real’ situations, support, advice and guidance from colleagues, and reflection, are all more important than courses in helping do that. If we put all our effort and resource only into designing, developing and delivering courses we may be helping people to some extent, but we’re only supporting one aspect of organisational learning and performance improvement.

Secondly, we also know that context is vital for effective learning. Learning is more powerful and more likely to result in behaviour change when the learning context and the working context are identical. In other words, results are improved when ‘work is learning and learning is the work’ as Harold Jarche has pointed out many times. We almost invariable learn best by ‘doing’ in the context of our work. The next best option is where the learning context very closely represents the work environment where new capabilities are to be applied. That’s why there is such huge investment in immersive simulators for training by the military, the aviation industry, the nuclear industry, for space programmes, and an increasing number of other industries. It’s cheaper and more practical to learn how drive a tank, land an aircraft or space vehicle, or manage a nuclear power plant safely in a simulator than risk the cost and damage of making errors in the real thing.

Thirdly, learning is invariably more impactful when we solve real problems and find real solutions ourselves. Business education has understood this fact for years, but rather than designing ways that allow experienced business school professors to support and mentor managers to solve their own real problems in their own context, most use a proxy called the case method. The Harvard case-study method was designed to allow emerging leaders opportunities to develop through the analysis of real organisations’ real problems. A good idea, but not the students’ own organisations or their organisations’ own problems. The resulting point of failure with the case method is that it often leads to superficial analysis with little or no understanding of the deeper, personal context. Henry Mintzberg of McGill University, and a renowned academic and author on business and management, has been challenging the ‘proxy’ learning via the case method for many years:

“The most obvious example, I think, of where it goes wrong is in the case-study method: give me 20 pages and an evening to think about it and I'll give you the decision tomorrow morning. It trains people to provide the most superficial response to problems, over and over again getting the data in a nice, neat, packaged form and then making decisions on that basis. It encourages managers to be disconnected from the people they're managing”1.

Looking across the entire landscape of organisational learning and development, we see similar proxies to the case method being used. Virtually all of them are wrapped up in an ‘event’ concept – often called the course, workshop, programme (or program), module etc. They are constructs which are based on the concept that experts are best placed to tell people what they need to learn, how they need to learn it and when they need to learn it2

Jane Hart in her recent article 2016: Rethinking workplace learning points out that this approach is really ‘workplace training’, and that although it may help, it is only one (small) part of the larger process of workplace learning. Another term for ‘workplace training’ is adding learning to work. Adding learning to work is only one way learning and work can be integrated. Adding learning to work is still learning focused (which makes it an obvious first step for L&D professionals). Adding learning is certainly better that removing learning entirely from work, but it is only one step towards integrated learning and working.

Beyond the ‘adding’ step there are others; embedding learning in work (through approaches such as performance support, checklists, FAQs and many other methods); extracting learning from work (through reflection, learning logs, work narration, personal micro-blogging and many other methods); and sharing learning with work colleagues (through ‘working out loud’, ‘showing your work’ – see Jane Bozarth’s great book of the same name, storytelling, team reviews and many other methods).


In her article Jane Hart also hits on one of the major change factors necessary to enable the objective of extending learning beyond the course and into daily workflow – the right mindset.

Beyond the Course Mindset

The ‘course mindset’ is a sometimes a difficult one to cast off. The default solution (a course or programme) to address human performance problems is deeply embedded in most HR and learning professionals’ psyche and also our own development experiences. We’ve all been through courses at school and college, on programmes at university and in our workplace. Why should there be better ways?

There often are better ways. But they require a different way of thinking in order to define the best solutions, and different approaches to implement them. This is why it is better to approach performance challenges with a campaign mindset than a course mindset.

  • In the course mindset, the output is seen as ‘learning’. In the campaign mindset, the output is improved performance – organisational performance, team performance, and individual performance.
  • In the course mindset, we start with an analysis of the training need. In the campaign mindset we start by understanding the business or organisational problem, the associated performance problems and the root causes of each.
  • In the course mindset we then undertake course design. In the campaign mindset we then analyse the problems, identify the desired changes and identify potential ‘70’, ‘20’ and ‘10’ solutions.
  • In the course mindset we develop our solution for individuals and, sometimes, for teams. In the campaign mindset we develop solutions with organisational performance in mind.
  • In the course mindset we focus on aligning learning with work. In the campaign mindset we work to embed learning in work, and enhance extracting and sharing learning from work as well.
  • In the course mindset, we’re principally input focused. In the campaign mindset, we’re absolutely output focused.

Finally, in the course mindset we tend to only produce ‘10’ solutions. These are structured learning solutions that sits within the ‘10’ part of the 70:20:10 model. In the campaign mindset, we produce ‘100’ solutions. These are solutions that draw on the ‘70’, ‘20’ and the ‘10’ aspects of 70:20:10.

My previous article ‘Start with the 70. Plan for the 100’ explains why the ‘70’ and ‘20’ aspects are likely to provide the greatest value. That’s where HR and L&D departments need to be focusing if they’re to extend their focus and services beyond courses and out into the workplace and therefore increase the impact of their work.

My friend Lars Hyland has also written about moving from courses to campaigns.  An article by Lars in 2009, titled ‘Get Real: Mission Critical E-Learning’, published in the UK Learning Technologies magazine, stressed the need for ‘joined-up’ working between the typically disconnected internal functions of Internal Communications, Training, and Performance Management. In that article Lars stressed  the following point: “Thinking end to end means adopting "campaign" rather than "course" led programmes designed to effect real changes in attitudes, behaviour and performance” as part of his AGILE approach. This is very much in line with the approach I am recommending here. 

Tools to Get There

The recent book by Arets, Jennings and Heijnan ‘70:20:10 towards 100% performance’ explains in detail how organisations can make this move from courses to campaigns by using the 70:20:10 approach, and architect effective solutions with the ‘100’ in mind.

In this book we’ve defined a new set of roles that need to be fulfilled and tasks that need to be completed to make the change. Each of the roles is focused on outputs – performance - and the tasks are, in many cases, very different to the tasks carried out in most L&D departments today. In fact, some of the roles and tasks are not specifically linked to L&D and may (or will) sit in other parts of the organisation.

We’ve also designed and are launching an Expert Programme to help organisations exploit the 70:20:10 approach more effectively. Details of the programme are here together with downloadable brochure with details and feedback from previous participants. The programme will be launched globally early in 2016.


Roles in the new world of 70:20:10


1 The Economist: An interview with Henry Mintzberg

2. Jane Hart 2016: Rethinking workplace learning