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.