Monday, July 25, 2011

Storyboarding at Kern

Recently, we had a client request us to storyboard on Microsoft Word. Whenever I hear this request, I cringe as I recollect my previous experiences of storyboard on Word. Why?
  • Word is a 'text-centered' tool. Word encourages me to write long descriptions of what will happen in each screen. Using drawing tools in Word is a pain. I am a more visual person (or so I have been told). While storyboarding, I have to see:
    • how my screen looks
    • where are the elements placed
    • what is the sequence of animation 
    • what is the visual hierarchy and how will the eye move 
  • Do you know how painful it is to work on tables in Word? Typically, Word storyboards have tables with screen number, OST, Audio, graphic description, and so on. The first time, it acts perfect. By the second review, the text and/or images will start disappearing. I can't tell you how frustrating it is. 
  • Word storyboards leave the course characterless and there is a huge dependency on visual designers to bring life into the course. 
  • Scanning across pages becomes a tedious affair because pages are top-down scroll. It requires a lot of concentration to identify what you are looking for. 
I am going to share a few examples of how we used different Microsoft Office tools to storyboard at Kern Learning Solutions.

When do We use Word for Storyboarding?

I remember using Word well for storyboarding, when the instructional approach was simple branching stories. 
Why did we use Word? We used it because we did not want to focus on visualization just then. We had the more important task of ensuring that the content flow was right and that there were no loose ends. Every option had a consequence and therefore, we used the hyperlink feature to keep track of how the stories end.

When do We use Excel for Storyboarding? 

We used Excel for simple, branching MCQ.

Why did we use excel? The ideas was to show a negative consequence immediately and ask the learner to reconsider. It was important for us to keep an eye on all the consequences. We had to ensure that all options were extremely plausible and there was no repetition.

When do We use PPT?

We extensively use PPT as a storyboarding tool.

In this case, we created a wireframe in PPT. The learner had access to different resources. He/she had to glance through before making a decision. The complexity of questions increased as we went along. The hyper-linking ensured a close to real experience. The PPT also helped us give a visual feel.

Again, we designed a visual storyboard. Where information was displayed in a easy to read and interesting format.

What are the advantages of this:
  • The ID thinks through where things are placed on his/her screen. 
  • The essence of the storyboard is communicated not only to the visual designers but also to the client. It is easier to show people outside the industry how it will work. 
  • It helps give a base for the visual designers and really good visual designers add further value by giving it the right finish and adding their own touches.
  • This helps minimize text on screen. The ID constantly thinks 'How can I display information in a easy to read and interesting fashion?'
  • We don't use templates in PPT, but use grids and guidelines in a disciplined fashion. The storyboard communicated uniformity and consistency.
What are your experiences working with Microsoft tools for storyboarding? How have you used them best?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Power of Learner Analysis

When I starting writing this blog, I posted 'Why I like doing what I do'. Every other juncture in my life, I continue to reflect on why I like doing what I do and surprising my list only grows longer.

Understanding the inner workings for the learner
I think the importance of learner analysis is understated. There is so much we can learn by talking to the people we are designing the training for. The more obvious results are training needs, but what interests me more is the psyche of the learner. When you meet 'real' people with 'real ideologies and beliefs', you know before hand what will work and what won't.

I recently conducted face-to-face interviews with learners from an automobile research and development company. The management knew that they wanted training on time management. Now, when I heard time management, I thought of a noisy company with overworked staff who are continuously missing deadlines. I was in for a pleasant surprise. After I spoke to 5 people, I began to see a trend. This organization had a dream work culture and ideal work timings. Being a European company, working late was frowned upon and working over weekends was a sure no. As I walked through the office to reach the cafeteria during the lunch break, I was stunned by the hushed tones and the 'quiet'. I remember thinking to myself, the biggest distraction at work must be the silence. :) So, why did they need a session on time management? Well, as I spoke to people I realized that while the work culture and timelines was relaxed, they still missed deadlines. Therefore, it was important for the people to understand the value of time and how they can manage their self better.

If my trainer had gone into the training program without knowing this, we may have delivered a canned training program with the 4 quadrants and prioritizing theories. It is important to understand what makes the learners tick and then build a program that will be effective.

Strategies for any training are thought of as a result of learner analysis. Understand the people, the need and then device the solution. We designed a product training for sales force of an MNC. The product was meant to help smokers quit smoking.We realized that the learners had to empathize with the smokers to understand why people were addicted and then how the product works. We designed a case study approach where we introduced a couple and helped learners understand that while a smoker may want to quit, it is not an easy task. But, how can we help him? This made the problem of smoking very real and therefore, learning of how the product works was very useful.

This is why I love doing what I do. Every project I work on is different from the other. A client of ours once fell love with a course we had designed for another client. They told us you can follow the same style. But, did we? No! It is easy right, follow the same strategy, don't use your brains too much. After all, CLIENT requested it. After we spoke to the learners, the strategy, automatically fell in place. It was not only visually different, but also in terms of the instructional strategy used. The instructional strategy is dependent on the work culture, the people, and the learning objective. Work culture plays an extremely crucial role and it would help to understand this well enough before you storyboard. In this organization, the hierarchy was very clear. If I am the manager, you listen. Knowing this helped us design really good scenarios that people could relate to.  

During lunch break of the time management training session, two really sweet participants kept me company. During small talk, they wanted to know what I do. I explained that I was an instructional designer and so on. One of them asked me, 'How do you decide which session should be elearning and which ILTs?' Now, the real answer to this (as it happens in most organizations) is the client decides based on their own logic and budgets. Some of the weirdest reasons I have heard are:
  • 'Learning is effective only when it is face-to-face. There has to be a human contact.'
  • 'People don't take onus of learning and therefore, have to be put in a classroom.'
  • 'Complicated topics have to be tackled by experts face-to-face.'
I have designed strategies for both eLearning and ILTs and have immense respect for both. What should be the deciding factors?

  • If you want to discuss personal issues such as workplace violence, sexual harassment, conflict management, personal hygiene and so on, eLearning is possible your solution. Why? Because learners may not come out and discuss these topics. With eLearning, they can reflect on these in their own space and be honest to themselves.
  • If you want to the people in the office to mix with each other and (like most companies in India) do not have social media support, you can arrange an ILT. People come and share their experience and learn from each other as well as from the session. It helps for them to understand that there are people who experience similar things. 
  • If you want a refresher, eLearning works like a dream. The content can be really crisp and always available for people as they work.
  • When you want sustainability of learning, it has to be a blended approach. Learning is most effective when it is holistic. 
  • Finally, I think both work extremely well, if designed right. 
 All the effort we put into learner analysis pays off when we sit behind our learners and watch them take our course during learner testing. We always get inputs and value ads, but till date we have never been off our mark. Recently, we got a rating of 6.5 out of 7 for our course and it was reason enough for all of us to rejoice. If learners like it, we have understood them well and designed for them. The satisfaction you feel for doing your job right is incomparable. So, do you understand the inner workings of your learner?    

Friday, April 15, 2011

A Little Professionalism Please?

Is professionalism going extinct? The more I interact with people outside my organization, the more I realize that professionalism is becoming the thing of the past. For those of you who are professional, the following list may seem very obvious. But, trust me, the people who are not need to read this:  

1) It is not OK to take credit for another person's work. Whether you are a vendor, a senior, a junior, a stakeholder, SME, client, you have no right to take away credit from hard work done. In today's age of collaboration, it is very unprofessional to steal the limelight to look good in front of others. Always give credit where it's due. If you see good work/manners/attitude, appreciate it openly. You can do the same with anyone regardless of your age or position. It is becoming more and more common for people to say "I am putting in far more effort than I was required to." Why do you feel this way?
  • You didn't understand the effort involved right at the beginning. You probably went wrong in your time/effort estimation. No point blaming anyone else. 
  • You are not working efficiently enough. You keep thinking of new things to add or do or you work in a very unstructured fashion. 
  • You are probably doing a million other things and therefore, feel stretched. You may not be putting in extra effort, but feel over-worked. 
  • You are not the only one working hard. It is important to acknowledge that it is a team effort. Respect other people's time and effort. They have brains too you know. 
SMEs especially think they are doing 'too much'. It was always their job to provide and check content. Therefore, if the review cycles are longer its mostly because they are adding content and making changes at a later stage. Let us NOT expect anybody else to do our job please. 

2) It is not OK to dangle the carrot in front of people till you get what you want. Please say no and people will appreciate far more than adding a list of ridiculous conditions. If you are not the decision-maker, do not arrange meetings where decision making is required. If you have doubts, voice them out loudly. Do not push people in the corner and expect them to do their job well. Do not get so well entrenched in the work and then make demands because it may be tough to replace you. This is just not the way it is done.

I actually had to sit through a call where two stakeholders discussed what working was not coming to me. This is the heights! Please carry out all internal meetings before your call with the consultant. Then, share what is coming to her.

3) It is not OK to lash out. This is extremely common. You raise a point of concern and the other party lashes back with a list of things you have done wrong. Let us understand we are all human and trying to work as efficiently as is possible. Let us also stop the blame game, we are not children any more. Let us please think before we write out an email. Respond with our heads and not react emotionally. Here's what you can do:
  • Use facts and figures to make your case. 
  • Do not be judgmental and assume that the other party is useless. Respect the people you work with. 
  • If you are upset about a mail, do not respond back immediately. Take a break. Come back to it when you have thought it through calmly. Seek a second opinion when in doubt. 
  • Always be honest to yourself and those you work with. If it is your fault, accept it. 
  • Understand what happened from all parties before you respond. There are managers who blindly respond without having all the information. Be informed. 
If people are lashing out, don't take it lying down. Some really unfair things come out when people are lashing out and it is important to make your point. But do so in a professional manner. Other can rant as much as they want. You be in control. 

4) Use some tact and discretion while sharing information. If your association with me is at a business level, I would appreciate if you don't cross certain boundaries. I do not want to hear a word against my organization or my colleagues. Being friendly, does not amount to listening to anything and everything that you may have to say. I am not your counselor. Use discretion when sharing information with people outside as they are bound to use it against you or your company at some instance. Taking feedback is fine, but if people are not tactful, you have all rights to get offended. Everyone thinks that the vendor/client is out to cheat them. Trust people and see before you tarnish their image. Be sensitive to others feelings. If you are writing a blunt mail, do not cc the world on it. It makes it more difficult for the person to see your point.

5) Do not look for a scapegoat to make yourself look good. Some people believe that there are here to make a big difference. Which is great and long as you don't think the way to do that is to whip those around you. Be collaborative and this will be more fruitful than breathing down a person's neck.

I have sat through uncomfortable meetings where the manager questions an employee's actions. I am an outsider, why make your own employee feel uncomfortable. Isn't common sense that you put a common front to me? These kind of managers are always looking to pass on the blame. They will lash out saying 'This is not what I expected!' You point out that these were the expectations and they immediately turn to find another scapegoat. If you are managing the project, every flaw in the product is as much yours as it is your employees. You need to be aware of what is happening. It is not cool to wash your hands of everything. I have seen how great managers take criticism for the work that their subordinates have done. I have admired them and learnt from them. I wish it were more obvious to some other people.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Respect for Age - An overrated concept

Have you ever come across a situation where you are not taken seriously because of your age? Have you had to throw in a line about your child to ensure that you are seen as a responsible person? Just take a minute and look around you, you will find several people who either look younger than their age or those who strive to look younger than their age. Noone is trying to look old. But I got this bizarre request from a client that has me thinking will this change soon?

Coming to the request, here's the conversation:
Client: Can you please share profiles of trainers who are older and have some grey hair?
Me: Sure, but they charge a bomb because they are thought leaders.
Client: Oh ok. Actually, I don't need older trainers but trainers who look old.

Hmm. Here I am thinking whether I need to plan a new selection process for the trainer. How many wrinkles does he/she have? How many greys does he/she have? I do understand where they are coming from. In our culture, age is given a lot of respect. Therefore, the idea that the trainer will command respect through age and therefore, will have more control over learning. While I do respect older people, I also respect people who know what they are talking about. Regardless of the age, position, or gender, I am willing to listen to someone if what they have to say is worthwhile. A small example is when I conducted a session on LMS for Kern. I am an instructional designer and not a developer. But I have been involved in the LionSher LMS development process at Kern. People at the conference heard me out and enjoyed the session because I spoke their language (layman's), I believed in what I was saying, I had done my research, and the session was extremely interactive.

A trainer I know keeps telling me 'I am going to color my hair grey next time. I am not as young as I look.' This had me thinking, does age really matter. I have seen an 'older' trainer command respect and unfortunately instill fear in the participants. I have seen good trainers facilitate great learning regardless of their age and background. What I look for in a trainer is:
  1. Does he/she match Kern's way of thinking? 
  2. Does he/she put the learner in the center?
  3. Is he/she reliable? (It is totally uncool to cancel at the last minute unless you are dying.)
  4. Will the person have the energy required to carry off a session in a lively fashion?
  5. Is he/she collaborative in nature? 
If the answers are yes, then age really doesn't matter.  

Have you also come across a situation where your boss makes you the point of contact and similarly the point of contact at the client's end also changes? Why? Is it because they want people at similar levels to talk to each other? Why are some companies so hierarchical? Why do they fail to understand that the handover has taken place because of a specialization and not because it is not important enough for the boss to handle the project? I am grateful enough to say that clients have thought they can walk all over me, but have finally realized that I know what I am talking about (atleast where learning is concerned). Now, they seek my opinion and wish to work with me on their projects. See, age doesn't matter.

Have you faced similar situations? Do share. Would love to know that it not just me. :)

Friday, March 4, 2011

What is the 'Learning' World Coming to?

1. Need for Control: If I got a penny every time a stakeholder told me 'Our guys will just click Next-Next-Next and complete the course,' I would be the richest person alive. The demand to lock the Next button is becoming a common feature that really (and I mean REALLY) excites the stakeholders. Do we have such little faith in the employees and even lesser faith in the quality of learning?

My take: If the learner feels the urge to click next and finish the course, we have failed to create a good product. But we will never know till we test this and find out. Adding restrictions and forcing action surely seems like the wrong move. What ever happened to learner control and understanding of adult learning?

2. Unconventional Requests: You hear the most bizarre requests from time to time. The advantage of these are that they make you question why we have been doing certain things. And, if you have no explanation, you can accept the request. Else, you can make a good case to explain why you can't.
Special ones:
We want something far simpler. It really does not require so much work This actually means just come train and go and charge us close to nothing.
Do you really expect us to do all the work? Just to explain 'all the work' included giving us information about the internal process and validating content.
Can we use this really cool approach of blah and blah? I say Oh but it sounds like a force fit after a few screens. They say, yeah whatever but we like it. Okay then...
We know we want a course but we are still trying to figure what the focus should be. Each of us wants a different thing. What to do? You need help!

My take: Keep your feet grounded. Stakeholders will be more impressed with expert opinions grounded in logic than you being a 'yes sir' person. They have had too many bad experiences to trust you completely. Build it slowly. Always keep the learning objective and the learner in mind. There are some requests that are inconsequential to learning, go ahead and accept these. Never accept those that are detrimental to learning, regardless of who it is coming from. If the stakeholder insists, seek a compromise that does no/least damage.

3. Me, Myself and I: Till very recently, I thought instructional designers (including me) are full of themselves. Folks at work keep us grounded by giving due credit and respect to all roles involved in learning. But if you have had a chance to meet a classic SME or trainer, you will realize that they refuse to acknowledge instructional design (and you). A SME once told me you just put these slides together and while presenting I will make the program exciting. I had to tell that's not how it works. You give me all the dope and I make it instructionally sound. The more trainers I meet, the more convinced I am that the training they deliver is not instructionally sound. A trainer once said it is finally what we do and how we add spice to the program that makes it what it is. Well, thanks for taking away all the effort and credit that the others put in. A good trainer with poorly designed session can only make sure that people have fun, but may not be able to make the learning stick.

I have quietly heard out trainers going on and on about this technique and that game. All the time, I thought to myself 'good, they know their stuff.' But, I am pretty sure they are clueless about ID and that is because that's my job. I respect you for what you bring to the table, you can respect me for what I bring. Fair deal!

My take: Everyone plays an equally crucial role in making the product what it is. The reviewers, the IDs, GDs, VDs, SMEs, stakeholders, learners, trainers (if ILT), organizers and printers (if ILT). I have had trainers tell me that we at Kern design really cool ILT sessions. Coming from a trainer, it is a big thing. I guess I just need to wait for the trainers to work with us to realize the true value (and meaning) of instructional design. Give others credit where it's due and you will get credit for your work too.  

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Soft Skills - Don't Take it Lightly

I have been in this field long enough to know that soft skills training does not get any respect from the client, the learner and the vendor. I seriously feel we are making a big mistake by taking this domain very lightly. Here's why...

Myth: Designing technical training is far more challenging than soft skills training. 
Technical training is challenging because of the content itself. You as an ID come from a completely different world and so you need to understand a whole lot of complicated stuff before you design the training. But, the challenge with soft skills training is to make it work. You may design a fun program that the learner may forget as soon as they are out of the classroom. But, how do you make the learning stick? How do you make an impact on their psyche? How do you change attitudes and behavior? You decide now which is more challenging.

Myth: Soft skills does not require any customization. Communication skills is communication skills regardless of who it is for.
What is customization? Customization is ensuring that learning happens in a defined context, which is typically the learner's reality. While I do believe that age old games have their space, I do think that customized cases/activities are far more effective. Training is a very common occurrence these days. You need newer and more effective ways of getting a message across. Case studies, games, group discussions can be designed to bring out effective learning. High impact learning makes the learner think.

Communication skills for a team leader is very different from communication skills for a CEO. Telephone etiquettes is very different for a receptionist vs for a call center executive. Presentation skills is very different for advertising than for design engineers. I don't believe in mixing a few existing slides and customizing it on the floor. I have seen this happen to and trust me it doesn't work. The minute you go with customized learning, the learner trusts you. Why? Because you have taken the effort to understand his world and so, he will help you through this process of transferring learning.

My dad keeps asking me 'How can a person who has spent 0 hours in the field, come and tell me how I am supposed to work?' While this opens several other debates, I think if the trainer had understood my dad's work environment, he wouldn't have let on that he has 0 experience in the field.

Myth: Embarrass the learner to make an impact and see the difference. It requires a highly skilled trainer with great charisma to get away with whatever they say. Otherwise, it requires a very good understanding of how your learners will react to this technique. These techniques may work wonderfully or scar the learning experience. I remember the trainer was conducting roles plays and he was being very rude. A learner got up and said 'Sir, we are not actors.' Therefore, the impact was negative and I doubt whether people bothered to listen after that. Soft skills are such that everyone has their own take on it. There is a lot of gray here. Therefore, you have to allow that space for the learner to think. And, make a convincing case of why what you are saying is relevant to them.

Myth: Theories define personalities. A trainer was explaining some model. A learner got up and asked why? Guess what the trainer said? 'Because that's is the way it is. This theory is age old and has been discussed by several experts.' Theories are just theories and are pretty much useless in soft skill programs. People don't buy the argument that some great soul said it so believe it! Give them a more solid reason to believe. This can happen only if they can see the trends in their daily experiences.

These are all the things people get wrong when they approach soft skills training. Make soft skill programs activity based. Let people learn from each other. Don't use ancient techniques. Try innovative, thought provoking stuff.  Soft skills is not an easy domain. Even learner who need these skills think they already have it. It requires the facilitator to bring about a self-realization and reflection on oneself.