Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Invisible LMS: the LMS is not dead, but it needs to be invisible – front it with a chatbot

Good is almost invisible. As the most powerful piece of back-end, consumer software ever built, it hides behind a simple letterbox. Most successful interfaces follow this example of Occam’s Razor – the minimum number of entities to reach your goal.
Sadly, the LMS does the opposite. Often difficult to access and navigate, it looks like something from the 90s – that’s because it is something from the 90s. The clue is in the middle word ‘management’. The LMS is largely about managing learners and learning, not engagement. But there’s a breakthrough. What we are seeing now are Learning ENGAGEMENT Systems. It is not that the functionality of an LMS is flawed but its UI/UX is most certainly flawed. Basically repositories, the LMS is insensitive to performance support, learning embedded in workflow and makes people do far too much work. They put obstacles in the way of learning and fail the most basic demands for data, as they are trapped in the hideously inadequate SCORM standard.
First up - we must stop seeing employees as learners. No one calls anyone a learner in real life, no one sees themselves as learners in real life. People are people, doing a job. It’s why I’m allergic to the ‘lifelong learning’ evangelists who often see life as a lifelong course, or life coaches – get a life, not a coach.
So how could we make the LMS more invisible, while retaining and improving functionality?
First up get rid of the multiple sign-ons (to be fair most have), nested menus, lists of courses and general noise. Talk to people. When people want to know something they usually ask someone. So front your LMS/VLE with a chat function. Most young people have already switched to messaging, away from email and even traditional social media.
This is the real screen of a real person, she’s 19. There isn’t even a browser or phone icon – it’s largely messaging. Dialogue is our most natural form of communication, so front learning with dialogue. A chat interface also dramatically reduces cognitive overload. This is why it is so popular – ease of use and seems natural.
Meet Otto
Otto, from Learning Pool is the best example I’ve seen of this. Ask a question and either a human or the back-end LMS (now invisible) will respond and find the relevant answer, resource or learning experience. It can access simple text answers, pieces of e-learning and/or external resources. So, when someone comes across something they don’t understand or need to know for whatever reason, they have an opportunity to simply ask and the chatbot will respond, either with a quick answer or a flow of questions that try to pinpoint what you really need. If the system can’t deliver it knows someone who can.

It’s not just the LMS that can be made invisible, it’s the whole structure of ‘learning’ – the idea that learning is something separate, done in courses and formal. Training gets a bad rap for a reason – it’s all a bit, well, dull and inflexible. At one point in my life I point blank refused to be in a room with round tables, a flipchart, coloured pens and a bowl of mints for inspiration. The sooner that becomes invisible the better. Book webinar on chatvbots in learning here.

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Monday, December 04, 2017

The Square and the Tower – networks and hierarchies

The Square and the Tower by Niall Ferguson takes the public square in Sienna and the tall tower that looms above, as a metaphor for flat, open networks and their accompanying hierarchical structures.
My friend Julian Stodd starts his talks with a similar distinction between open, flat networks and formal, hierarchical structures (although both are networks, as a hierarchy is just one form of network). Networks tend to be more creative and innovative, hierarchies more restricted. In most contexts you need both. Ferguson’s point is that history shows that both have been around for a very long time. Indeed, he tries to rewrite history in terms of these two opposing forces. He sees history through the lens of networks, the main distinction being between disruptive networks, often fuelled by technology, such as tool making (stone axes etc.), language, writing, alphabets, paper, printing, transport, radio, telegraph television and the internet; then institutional hierarchies such as families, political parties, companies and so on. Networks come in all shapes and sizes. In terms of communities we have criminal networks, terrorist networks, jihadi networks, intelligence networks, and so on. In terms of technology, social networks, telephone networks, radio networks, electricity networks. History, he thinks, understates the role of networks. We now even have cyberwars between networks. This is age of networks.
Technologies and networks
We can trace this back to the fact that we are a species that has evolved to ‘network’. Our brains are adapted towards social interaction and groups. We, the co-operative ape, have distributed cognition and this has increased massively as technology has allowed us to network more widely. Technologies have been the primary catalysts. Nevertheless, much human behaviour has been tempered with Chiefs, Kings, Lords, Emperors and so on… hierarchical structures that lead and control, even the web is now spun by hierarchical and rapacious spiders – the giant tech companies. His analysis of Europe’s failure is interesting here, as we have Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Netflix in the US, and Baidu, Alibaba and TenCent in China. Europe merely regulates. These Oligopolies, dominate the networks.
The study of networks goes back to Euler’s seven bridges problem with a more fulsome look at nodes, edges, hubs and clusters. What is clear is that networks are rarely open and low density. They collapse into clusters and tribes. This in itself still produces, not so much six degrees of separation (actually closer to five), as 3.57 if you are on Facebook. There is an attempt to identify common features of networks; No man is an island, Birds of a feather flock together, Weak tis are strong, Structure determines virology, Networks never sleep, Networks network, The rich get richer.
Then, by example, he takes some deeper dives into the Medicis, as he regards the Renaissance as the first of the truly networked ages. Then the age of discovery, the catalysts being navigational technology and trade networks. But the big disruptive network was the Reformation, partially caused by printing. The fact Luther did (or did not) nail his 95 theses to the door is beside the point. What matters is the printing press that allowed the spread of these ideas and freedom of expression to challenge the hierarchy of the church. The control of language through Latin and of knowledge through scripture was blown wide open.

From the Reformation came Revolutions, again fuelled by print and networks. In addition financial networks, sometimes ruled by family hierarchies, such as the Rothschilds. Scientific and industrial networks flourished giving us industrial revolutions. Intellectual networks such as The Apostles in England and the Bloomsbury Group. Marxism, Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism were infectious networked ideas.
Networks and hierarchies in organisations
Whatever the structure of your networks, communications, emails, social media posts, slack posts, blogs, stories and many other instances of social conversations will happen, over time. How does an organisation deal with all this, optimise these networks and drive performance?
First we have to recognise that social  both helps and inhibits performance. Open networks often collapse into powerful tribes of belief and power. Social activity is messy, soaked in biases and can be negative in output. Some of these tribes may be good and useful, where they generate innovation and get things done. But there’s also the crippling effects of the mob and its tribes that generate and consolidate groupthink and false beliefs. Gangs form but gangs are not often good.

A solution to this dilemma is to interrogate networks, harvest the data, objectify the process and analyse it to exclude mess and bias. One can look for insights, innovations and valid ideas, to separate the social wheat from the chaff. AI can come to the rescue here.

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Monday, November 27, 2017

Christmas Party shenanigans – let’s fight for the right to paaarty….. and call it a HR-free zone

The Christmas Party is a small, intense pool of chaos in the corporate year, a licence to misbehave, drink too much, say things you otherwise wouldn’t. Only on the surface is it is a celebration of the company and its achievements for the year. In fact, it is the opposite, a Dionysian release from the Kafkaesque restrictions of HR and hierarchy. It is an opportunity to let rip – be in the company but not subject to its rules. The worst possible venue for the Christmas Party is on company premises. What happens at the party stays at the party
The Christmas party has little to do with Christmas. Giving out presents would be bizarre, unless they were weirdly satirical. Carols are replaced by party hits. . This is no time to reflect on moral issues but a one a year chance to be amoral, even immoral, if at midnight you’re still capable of discerning the difference. A sure sign of this is the yearly debate about whether partners should be included – usually a charade that ends in their exclusion. Everyone knows that they are the one’s that would dampen the whole affair and encourage people to leave early just as the real fun begins.
When I was the CEO of a company I had to rescue a lad who had been caught with cocaine by the staff of the venue. I hadn’t even finished my soup! He was spread-eagled against a wall by the bouncers. Solution? I did a deal with the venue manager to use the same venue for the next year’s party if they let him off. We didn’t sack him – this was a party in Brighton, the town, as Keith Waterhouse once famously said, “that looks as though it has been up all night helping the police with their enquiries”. At another there was a discussion the next day on the sauna trip (famously seedy in Brighton) after the Christmas party where nipple rings, piercings and tattoos had been compared. There were always shenanigans and so it should be.
My friend Julian Stodd tells the story of two people being sacked because they posted images of them getting drunk and throwing up at their Christmas Party. The American CEO has got wind of this (why he’d be interested is beyond me) and had taken action, bringing the full force of HR bureaucracy down upon them. This is pathetic. It’s as pathetic as searching through Facebook to find what a potential employee did when they were a teenager. HR has no business being judge and jury, unless something has caused harm to others. The Christmas Party, in particular, is a no-go zone for that sort of bullshit.
Tales of Christmas Parties Past become part of an organisation’s folklore. The planning needs clear execution but everyone knows that the aim is to organise an event that gradually descends into chaos. We have as a species always celebrated through feasts and drinking. Long may it continue in work.

It’s the perfect opportunity to put the middle finger up to company values, not that anyone pays attention to them anyway, especially those idiotic acronyms, where the words have clearly been invented to fit the letters of the word or lists of abstract nouns all starting with the same letter. For example, “ innovation, integrity and i*****… what was that third one again?” People have their own values and HR has no business telling them what their values should be. They’re personal. Most employees will have values and they’ll be leaving your organisation for another at some time, where another set of anodyne words will be put forward as ‘values’. Keep it simple you need only one rule ‘Don’t be a Dick!’.
Back to the party - organisations need this Dionysian, release valve, as it vents frustrations, allows simmering relationships to form, people to show their true selves, not playing the usual office game, conforming to the sham that is corporate behaviour. Wear a stupid hat, dress up, pull a cracker, drink too much – be a little transgressive, be a dick. HR – leave your rules in the office and do the same.

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