Thursday, 16 March 2006

March Madness and Productivity Loss

March Madness, three weeks of college basketball tournaments in the month of March, has been estimated to cost U.S. companies 3.8 billion dollars of lost productivity.

Various estimates and commentary:


There can be upsides to such an energizing event as well, of course. What I wonder is whether any learning or organizational development initiatives might be wrapped around such events. Imagine the following:

  1. Company intranet portal offers March Madness links, and also includes corporate advertising of key business initiatives, strategic messages, or even training opportunities.
  2. Maybe company even makes links unavailable except through this central march-madness portal.
  3. Managers initiate business-critical conversations in staff meetings after highlighting the latest results for the office pool.
  4. Managers utilize March Madness frenzy for reward and recognition.

Anyway, those are just some ideas off the top of my head. I'd love to get your more thoughtful ideas in the comments. Better yet, have you seen any real-world implementations? Have they been successful?

Bird Flu Epidemic and Learning

The Bird Flu epidemic is coming. Perhaps. If it does come, and if it's as bad as they say it might be, our lives, our families, our jobs, and our learning will all be disrupted. Here's some of the headlines:

  • The Red Cross says to stock 2 weeks of food.
  • Schools will be shut down for up to 3 months.
  • Employees will stay home from work.
  • Some businesses may lay off their workforces.
  • The food supply might be cutoff temporarily.
  • Medical institutions may be overwhelmed.

NPR had a great radio segment on this. Check it out here.

The implications for business are almost incomprehensible. From world economic collapse, to laying off the workforce, to protecting employees, to enabling work from home, to utilizing training and development to limit the repercussions.

Training-Learning-and-Development could be vital in at least two ways: First, it could help mobilize and educate workers. Second, it could ramp up to provide extra learning services during the crisis. If workers can't work, they can learn. Certainly, businesses will want the workers to work, but if they can't, perhaps this is an opportunity for strategic, revolutionary organizational change. A time for reflection, learning, bonding, and helping others.

To learn more about the flu, you can check out Elliott Masie's compilation of sources.

Friday, 10 February 2006

Learning Requires Avoidance: Can I Avoid Watching the Olympics?

As I type this, I can hear the opening ceremony of the 2006 Winter Olympics emanating from our living room.

Oh damn.

Two weeks of discipline required. If I start watching--if I take just one sip--I'm doomed to fall into the hypnotic seduction of the thing. Earlier this week I wrote a piece suggesting that we embrace popular culture to figure out what grabs people's attention and imagination. Good advice, but I just don't have the luxury to spend time watching people in tights for two weeks. I have too many other things to do; too many things to learn.

Learning takes time. Learning requires that we NOT do something else. Just like a good business strategy forces a company to decide what NOT to do, individuals who want to maximize their learning must have a good learning strategy. They must decide what activities to forgo.

Hmmm. What leverage can I gain from this knowledge in terms of instructional design? I don't know, maybe none. It's certainly relevant to individuals deciding whether (and how) to spend time learning something. But can I use this nugget to improve the instructional results or informal learning of the learners I am charged to help?

  1. Well, we might remind learners' managers that learning takes time, and that they can help by protecting learning time.
  2. We can try to make learning more efficient, enabling our learners to forgo fewer other activities.
  3. We can think about whether our learning efforts are really that important, and just cut out those that don't hit the threshold.
  4. We can measure learning to ensure that it's really making a difference--instead of just taking this on faith.
  5. We can create compelling learning designs and focus on high-value, highly-relevant content, drawing our learners away from their distractions, vices, addictions; away from the mindless fluff of our entertainment culture; away from their spouses, children, parents. Okay, well maybe we should just make page turners.
  6. We can take over NBC (or whoever's running the Olympics this year) and add some learning content to it. We could add some info about nutrition, exercise, genetics, ethics, international diversity, the unfair playing field for athletes from countries impoverished with lack of money or a lack of snow and ice. We could teach media literacy, and show how the networks--the advertisers really--try to control our minds and our actions.
  7. We could just watch the damn Olympics and take a freakin' rest for pete's sake.

Go Bode go!!

Tuesday, 07 February 2006

Wrong About Cell Phones and Driving

Well, it looks like one of my previous brainstorms was wrong. Check out this link from the American Psychological Association on cell-phone use while driving. Initial research on cell phones while driving seems to suggest that cell phones Do hurt driving. Still not sure if drivers can learn to use cell phones more effectively while driving.

Monday, 06 February 2006

Hairbrained. Learning for Creative Performance

47 years old and I began hating my haircut. I was fine with my hair and then one day I just snapped. I needed a change. It's painful to fire one's barber/hairstylist, but I just had to find someone new.

But the problem is this. My hair's thin and thinning. I can't use any haircare products because I'm chemically sensitive, so many styles just don't work. No mousse here. No gels. No spray. My new hair professional has to be somebody who can really think, not just copy a style and apply it to my head. My head requires creativity and deep knowledge.

So I begin the painful process of finding a new hair cutter. Damn I hate this, but I gotta do it, so here goes.

The first guy who cuts my hair is a genius. He looks at my hair. He listens to my strange set of requirements. He talks to me. He cuts. Looks good. We talk.

Here's how he learned to cut hair. He started out cutting his own hair. He tried different things. He experimented. He built mental models of various cause and effect relationships. He's not afraid to try different approaches. He also has hair like mine. I like him, but he costs me over $50, which is too much. I'm cheap, and I figure maybe I can find someone else with a better value proposition.

The second person I try has one way of doing things. She's weirded out by my "no chemicals" request. She tries, but the haircut just doesn't cut it. She only costs me $20, so maybe I'll try her again. It could take a little trial and error. She even mentions this.

I'm probably drawing too much from these two data points of anecdotal evidence, but it reminds me of learning research I've come across in the past. To help our learners overcome "functional fixedness"---the tendency to limit the range of response sets we consider---it's helpful to provide learners with multiple contexts and to specifically help them avoid such fixedness by helping prepare them to analyze realistic situations.

The first hairstylist was better able to deal with my wacky hair requirements because he had developed more flexible and more appropriate mental models of how hair-cutting works.

We can help our learners in the same way by:

  1. Providing multiple contexts for practice.
  2. Helping learners understand the underlying principles, not just the obvious surface characteristics of the information to be learned.
  3. Avoid using blocked learning chunks, for example, by only presenting information in topic sections, chapters, etc., without forcing them to deal with all the information together (like they would have to do in the real world). In other words, instead of dividing our learning chunks into chapters, present it in ways that prompt learners to deal with it more organically, more authentically. This doesn't mean we can't start with Topic Sections, but we can't end there if we want to prepare learners for the real world.

I've noticed functional fixedness in our own performance as learning developers. Almost all instructional-design shops tend to gravitate to a limited number of learning methodologies to create their learning programs. They have a functional-fixedness toward instructional design. To create the best value and to be more creative (and to prevent themselves from being outwitted by more creative competitors) instructional design shops need to gather a wider range of learning methods.

It's the "If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail problem." Not only do we have to prevent our learners from falling into this trap, we have to prevent ourselves as instructional-development houses.

Here are some references on functional fixedness for those interested:

Chrysikou, E. G.; Weisberg, R. W. (2005). Following the Wrong Footsteps: Fixation Effects of Pictorial Examples in a Design Problem-Solving Task. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 31, 1134-1148.

Solomon, I. (1994). Analogical transfer and "functional fixedness" in the science classroom. Journal of Educational Research, 87, 371-377.

Langer, E. J. (1992). Matters of mind: Mindfulness/mindlessness in perspective. Consciousness and Cognition: An International Journal, 1, 289-305.

Antonietti, A. (1991). Why does mental visualization facilitate problem-solving. In Logie, Robert H. (Ed); Denis, Michel (Ed). Mental images in human cognition. (pp. 211-227). Oxford, England: North-Holland.

McKelvie, S. J. (1984). Relationship between set and functional fixedness: A replication. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 58, 996-998.

Arnon, R.; Kreitler, S. (1984). Effects of meaning training on overcoming functional fixedness. Current Psychological Research & Reviews, 3, 11-24.

Greeno, J. G.; Magone, M. E.; Chaiklin, S. (1979). Theory of constructions and set in problem solving. Memory & Cognition, 7, 445-461.

Thursday, 08 December 2005

Are Wiki's Inherently Flawed?

Wiki's are all the rage in the training and development industry, but are they really workable?

Wikipedia is the most popular wiki in the world. It compiles information when users add, modify, or delete entries. Wikipedia is intended to mimic an encyclopedia, but wikis have other uses. For example, the Learning 2005 conference used a wiki (and is still using a wiki) at

John Seigenthaler was recently wikied when someone edited his Wikipedia entry in a most unflattering way, describing him as involved in John F. Kennedy's and Robert Kennedy's assasinations. He was not. Now his wrong information has spread all over the web. Not only that, but "vicious, vindicative, almost violent stuff, homophobic, racist stuff" about him was later added to his entry. Seigenthaler has thoughtfully suggested that there are "incurable flaws in the Wikipedia method of doing things."

You can listen to Seigenthaler tell his own story along with the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales. It's a fascinating online interview by the host of NPR's "Talk of the Nation."

Wikipedia is changing it's methods to minimize these types of issues, but the question is, will these methods be enough. Jimmy Wales states that "You should take Wikipedia with a grain of salt. I think you should take almost everything with a grain of salt, but in particular Wikipedia is definitely a work in process."

The underlying belief about wikis is that "all of us are smarter than a few of us." This is comforting illusion in theory, but is just plain wrong in practice. The mediocre don't always understand enough to judge an expert's pronouncements. Groups of people often tend toward groupthink or mob psychosis. Powerful interests often control the public conversation and thus become the final arbiters of what is fact. Conspiracy theories often have ninety-nine lives.

Wikis, blogs, websites (indeed, all forms of communication) carry with them the possibility that the information conveyed is not true. The more widely some information is dispersed, the bigger the potential problems. The more our communication channels have validators who correct inaccuracies, the more we tend to move toward the truth. For example, the press has traditionally played a role in holding public officials to account and conveying the news to people. Competition, as between political parties, can surface truths sometimes. Peer policing, as academic researchers do through research referring mechanisms, offer a correcting mechanism. Credentialling standards or agencies control who gets into a field or who advances.

Sometimes having more people can bring more truth to light. There are recent cases where political bloggers have uncovered facts regarding scandalous actions that have otherwise gone unnoticed. Reading a newspaper's letters to the editor is often quite enlightening, offering improvements and corrections to the regular writers' commentary.

In my work at Work-Learning Research, I have tried to track down myths that have led us astray in the learning-and-performance industry. By now you have probably seen my investigation of the notion that people remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they see, 30% of what they hear...etc." Read this and you'll see that it's not true.

In using Wiki's to promote learning and knowledge, consider doing the following:

  • Consider who will be able to add and/or edit the information. The higher the percentage of expertise in your population, the better. The lower the opportunities for personal gain, the less likely you'll get intentionally troublesome information.
  • Build in some validation methods. Build in some skepticism.
  • Consider not letting anyone post anonymously.
  • Consider forgoing the goal of knowledge creation or learning, and instead focusing on creating hypotheses and generating ideas for future consideration and judgment, networking to increase informal-learning connections.
  • Consider building in some sort of assessment system on the value of entries, whether through community scoring, expert scoring, or openness about a person's posting history and background.
  • Insist that each posting include a section entitled, "Why should anyone listen to me about this topic," or some such addendum.

Friday, 18 November 2005

Learning in the Citizenry

Learning is a many-splendored thing. Want evidence? Consider the overabundance of theories of learning. Greg Kearsley has a nice list. To me, this overabundance is evidence that the human learning system has not yet been lassoed and cataloged with any great precision. Ironic that DNA is easier to map than learning.

Being a political junkie, I'm fascinated with how a population of citizens learns about their government and the societal institutions of power. Democracy is rooted in the idea that we the citizenry have learned the right information to make good decisions. In theory this makes sense, while in practice imperfect knowledge is the norm. This discussion may relate to learning in the workplace as well.

Take one example from recent events. On September 11th, 2001, the United States was attacked by terrorists. The question arose, who were these terrorists? Who sent them? Who helped them? One particular question was asked. "Was Saddam Hussein (dictator of Iraq) involved?" I use this question because there is now generally-accepted objective evidence that Saddam Hussein was not involved in the 9/11 attack in any way. Even President Bush has admitted this. On September 17th, 2003, Bush said, in answer to a question from a reporter, "No, we've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with September the 11th." Despite this direct piece of information, the Bush administration has repeatedly implied, before and after this statement, that the war in Iraq is a response to 9/11. We could discuss many specific instances of this---we could argue about this---but I don't want to belabor the point. What I want to get at is how U.S. citizens learned about the reality of the question.


Take a look at polling data, which I found at I've marked it up to draw your eyes toward two interesting realities. First, look at the "Trend" data. It shows that we the citizens have changed our answer to the question asked over time. In September of 2002, 51% of Americans incorrectly believed that Saddam was personally involved in September 11th. Last month in October or 2005, the number had dived to 33%. The flip side of this showed that 33% correctly denied any link between Saddam and 9/11 in October of 2002, while today the number is a more healthy 55% correct, but still a relatively low number. If we think in terms of school-like passing-grade cutoffs, our country gets a failing grade.

The second interesting reality is how different groups of people have "Different Realities" about what is true. You'll notice the difference in answering these questions between Republicans and Democrats.

These data encourage me to conclude or wonder about the following:

  1. Even well-established facts can engender wide gaps in what is considered true. Again, this highlights the human reality of "imperfect knowledge."
  2. Stating a fact (or a learning point) will not necessarily change everyone's mind. It is not clear from the data whether the problem is one of information exposure or information processing. Some people may not have heard the news. People who heard the news may not have understood it, they may have rejected it, or they may have subsequently forgotten it.
  3. Making implied connections between events can be more powerful than stating things explicitly. It is not clear whether this is also a function of the comparative differences in the number of repetitions people are exposed to. This implied-connection mechanism reminds me of the "false-memory" research findings of folks like Elizabeth Loftus. Are the Republicans better applied psychologists than the Democrats?
  4. Why is it that so many citizens are so ill-informed? Why don't (or why can't) our societal information-validators do their jobs? If the media, if our trusted friends, if our political leaders, if our religious leaders, if opinion leaders can't persuade us toward the truth, is something wrong with these folks, is something wrong with us, is there something about human cognitive processing that enables this disenfranchisement from objective reality? (Peter Berger be damned).
  5. I'm guessing that lots of the differences between groups depends upon which fishtank of stimuli we swim in. Anybody who has friends, coworkers, or family members in the opposing political encampment will recognize how the world the other half swims in looks completely different than the world we live in.
  6. It appears from the trend data that there was a back-and-forth movement. We didn't move inexorably toward the truth. What were the factors that pushed these swings?

These things are too big for me to understand. But lots of the same issues are relevant to learning in organizations---both formal training and informal learning.

  1. How can we better ensure that information flows smoothly to all?
  2. How can we ensure that information is processed by all?
  3. How can we ensure that information is understood in more-or-less the same way by all?
  4. How can we be sure that we are trusted purveyors of information?
  5. How can we speed the acceptance of true information?
  6. How can we prevent misinformation from influencing people?
  7. How can we use implied connections, as opposed to explicit presentations of learning points, to influence learning and behavior? Stories is one way, perhaps.
  8. Can we figure out a way to map our organizations and the fishtanks of information people swim in, and inject information into these various networks to ensure we reach everyone?
  9. What role can knowledge testing, performance testing, or management oversight (and the feedback mechanisms inherent in these practices) be used to correct misinformation?

Thursday, 17 November 2005

Priming the Learning Appartus for Future Learning

Most of what we call "training" is designed with the intention of improving people's performance on the job. While it is true that much of training does not do this very well, it is still true that on-the-job performance is the singular stated goal of training.

But something is missing from this model. What's missing is that a learning intervention can also prepare learners for future on-the-job learning. Let's think this through a bit.

People on the job---people in any situation---are faced with a swarm of stimuli that they have to make sense of. Their mental models of how the world works will determine what they perceive. I've noticed this myself when I walk in the woods with experienced bird watchers. I hear birds, but can't see them, no matter how hard I look. Experienced bird watchers see birds where I see nothing. The same stimuli have different outcomes because the expert birders have superior mental models about where birds might locate themselves.

The same is true for many things. As a better-than-average chess player, I will understand the patterns of the pieces better than a novice will. Experienced computer programmers see things that inexperienced programmers do not. Experienced lawyers will understand the nuances in someone's testimony more than a novice lawyer.

Experience enables distinctions to be drawn between otherwise ambiguous stimuli. It enables people to perceive things that others don't perceive. It helps people notice what others ignore.

Learning can be designed to provide amazing-grace moments, helping those who were once blind to see. If we're serious about on-the-job learning, we ought to begin to build models of how to design formal learning to facilitate informal on-the-job learning.

Dan Schwartz, PhD (a learning psychologist at Stanford) has written recently about a concept called Preparation for Future Learning or PFL. Schwartz argues that generally poor transfer results may be due to the common practice of assessing what was learned but failing to assess what learners are able to learn. This makes a lot of sense given how complex the real world is, how learners forget stuff so quickly, and how much they learn on the job.

Schwartz and his colleagues are working on ways to improve future learning by using "contrasting cases" that enable  learners to see distinctions they hadn't previously noticed. This concept might be used in formal training courses to prepare learners to see things they hadn't seen before when they return to the job. For example, a manager being trained on supervisory skills may be taught that some decisions require group input, whereas other decisions require managers to decide on their own. Cases of both types could be provided in training so that relevant distinctions will be better noticed on the job.

A different way to prepare learners for future learning is to prime them with questions. In my dissertation research, I included one experiment that I asked college students questions about campus attractions. For example, I asked them what the statue "Alma Mater" was carrying. A week later, I suprised the students by asking them some of the same questions again. The results revealed that simply asking them questions (even when no feedback was provided) improved how much they paid attention to the items on which they were queried. Between the two sets of questions, learners apparently paid attention to the statue in ways they hadn't before. By being asked about an item, the learners were more likely to spend time learning about that item when they encountered those items in their day-to-day walking around.

There are likely to be other similar learning opportunities, but the point is that we need ways to design our learning interventions to intentionally create these types of learning responses. I'm going to be thinking about this for a while. My hope is that you will too.

Perhaps these meager paragraphs have prepared you for future learning. SMILE.

Wednesday, 16 November 2005

Cell Phones While Driving

There have been several published studies (and even more newspaper articles) that show cell-phone use while driving is correlated with accidents. The suggestion from these studies is that cell phones CAUSE accidents. The implication is that we should ban cell phones while driving.

This may be true. I was scared to death last week while my taxi driver was looking at his cell phone to dial numbers. He clearly did not have his eyes on the road. If anything unusual occurred (like the van in the next lane entering our lane right in front of us---watch out please watch out!), his reaction time would have been considerably slowed and we would have been much more likely to have an accident.

On the other hand, I wonder how much of the current problems are caused by a learning deficit. After all, for most of us cell phones are rather new. More importantly, driving while using a cell phone is also new. This kind of multitasking can be learned. There are research studies that show that experience doing multitasking can increase performance on the tasks being done. With enough practice, less working-memory capacity is needed, freeing up capacity to engage in the various tasks.

One hypothesis suggested by this is that cell-phone-related accidents will decrease with time as drivers get more practice using their cell phones while driving. Judging from the number of people I see driving and phoning, not many people are heeding the warnings, so lots of people are gaining more experience. Cell-phone accident rates will also decline as new technologies are utilized, namely voice-dialing and hands-free cell-phones.

On the other hand, a second hypothesis is that anything that prompts drivers to take their eyes off the road will produce similar deficits to cell-phone driving. Here’s a short list:

  1. People who read maps while driving.

  2. People who look at the radio to tune to a particular station.

  3. People who glance at the person sitting next to them while in conversation.

  4. People who look at their food before stuffing it in their mouths.

  5. People who admire the scenery.

  6. People who rubberneck at accident scenes.

People who look at their cell phones to dial a number are just asking for trouble. It probably helps to have two hands on the wheel, as well.

I’d be willing to bet that for most people fewer accidents will occur when using a hands-free, voice-dialing cell phone than when talking with someone sitting beside them in the front seat, assuming equal levels of experience doing both. The natural human tendency to want to look someone in the eyes while talking to them will prompt most of us to try and steal a glance at our conversational partners, increasing slightly the danger from unforeseen events.

Like most things in life, learning plays a central role in our cell-phone-while-driving performance. Like most things for us humans, our cognitive machinery sets the boundaries for this performance.