Bringing Down the Mammoth

Below is a interview I did with Bloomfire, leaders in collaborative learning.  I titled it Bringing down the Mammoth because thinking about collaborative learning sparked a vision of an old textbook image showing the hunters all working together and learning-on-the job to bring down the mammoth.  Apologies in advance to People for the Ethical Treatment of Extinct Animals (in metaphors).



Q. Stakeholders of training and development initiatives face different challenges. In your experience, what challenges have you seen?

In reality, there are only business initiatives and business stakeholders. Today most face the same challenge: How to produce the desired business results with smaller budgets and fewer resources. It is on a more macro level for senior executives and a more micro level for individual contributors, but the challenge is consistent across functional areas.



Q. Do you think that technology helps workplace collaboration?

Workplace collaboration has been successful in many organizations long before Web 2.0. New collaborative learning platforms can simplify authoring, sharing, and finding important information. It helps capture and disseminate tribal knowledge that gets passed down from mentors. In an increasing distributed, global workforce, technology platforms that help bridge the geographic divide and allow communities to form and collaborate will provide competitive advantage for their organizations.



Q. Are there technology trends of today that will affect the future of business?

At a high level, cloud computing is driving down the cost and increasing the speed of technology deployment. This makes it easier and cheaper for business leaders to deploy just-in-time, on-demand business applications. Also, the increasing speed and proliferation of wireless networks and devices like the iPad are freeing people up to consume learning and other content effortlessly remotely.



Q. Are the certain innovations that will change the way training and development might look like 5-10 years down the line?

With the rate of change increasing and new disruptive forces emerging, I don’t plan much beyond 24 months. However, some things are clear including:

  • More focus on the 70% of learning that happens informally
  • More use of video, particularly streaming video
  • More realistic remote collaboration with technologies like Cisco Telepresence and holograms blurring the lines of “being there”
  • Training professionals will increasingly be in a facilitator role, helping SMEs develop quality user-generated content, instead of a construction role where they are creating the content and falling behind the demand
  • Computer interfaces will be gesture driven and more 3D, allowing for more rich computer-based simulations of events that happen in the real world (hello Matrix)


Q. Will “online learning communities” be a part of this future?

Communities of practice within organizations and within whole industries will be the standard bearers, the developers of best practices, content creators and the reviewers/authenticators of content. Think Wikipedia on a functional, organizational and industry scale.



Q. Our readers are asking us about these two terms: “social learning” and “collaborative learning.” Maybe you’ve heard of these buzzwords. What comes to mind when you hear these terms? In what ways might these two terms be interchangeable and in what ways might these two terms be different?

To me, collaborative learning is the type of group “project” work that has gone on since the beginning of time (e.g., let’s try working together this way, this time to bring down the woolly mammoth). It is a team working together to learn something new, often while solving a real problem.

Social learning to me is using new “social” Web 2.0 tools and technologies to expand the collaborative learning environment to groups that are geographically dispersed — allowing the same type of collaboration to occur even though people are not in the same physical location. It also means archiving the learning experiences so that other learners can benefit from the resulting content, whether from a blog, course, video, etc.

True collaborative learning is where the culture of an organization supports learning and collaborating as part of how people do their jobs, whether in person or facilitated by Web 2.0 technology. True collaborative learning is the final stage of learning where learning is seamlessly integrated with work; not a separate event or process. In essence, working is collaborating is learning.



Q. How will social learning and collaborative learning be weaved into training and development in the 21st century?

There will be less emphasis on rote memorization, as organizational, factual knowledge is available at the nearest “Search box.” Learning will be more integrated with work. Collaborating and sharing knowledge within organizations will be seen as a key role of all people in the organization. Training and development groups will help facilitate this knowledge exchange but will not control it.



Q. Tom, we appreciate you sharing you time and thoughts. Are there any books, blogs, and/or magazines would you recommend for fellow trainers?

Books: Informal Learning, Wikinomics, The 2020 Workplace, The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning, Socialnomics


Other Resources: Jay Cross, Social Media in Organizations, The eLearning Guild, Amber Naslund

The Quick and the Dead - Wikis in the Enterprise

Below is an impromptu talk I gave on the use of wikis in the enterprise. Basically, not a good idea. Neither, using wikis in the enterprise; nor posting impromptu talks on your blog.

5 things I learned about using wikis in the enterprise:
  1. Wikis are great lightweight authoring tools that allow non-technical staff to publish and share articles quickly and inexpensively within a community.
  2. Wikis often grow virally as a grass roots effort within a community and grow beyond their intended community, but they lose momentum and end up containing outdated or incorrect information.
  3. Most wikis are designed for open sharing among small communities and don't provide granular security to manage user access to information on an enterprise scale which can lead to serious compliance issues.
  4. Wikis often grow quickly but provide very crude search capabilities, so valuable information can remain locked inside.
  5. Wikis can contribute to information sprawl; providing additional destinations for knowledge workers search for information to do their jobs. Okay, I am getting email, I go to the corporate intranet, there is SharePoint, now there are three different wikis to search with different URLs.

Informal: The New Normal

I Attended ASTD 2010 in Chicago recently. The big buzz was informal learning. Yes, 70/20/10 bar graph slides were rampant. You know, 70% percent of learning happens informally through on-the-job training (OJT); 20% of learning comes from bosses and mentors; only 10% of learning is acquired through formal learning programs.


The really interesting statistic is that 90% of training budgets still go toward formal training.  If we were marketers and proposed investing 90% of the budget in an initiative that, year-on-year, delivers only 10% of sales revenue, would our marketing budget get approved? Would we be employed?


The other big point repeated about informal learning, as it enters its hype cycle, is that informal learning is not new.  It has always been there and has worked well enough to make up for what is not handled by formal learning.  What is new is that organizations are beginning to put research, budget, technology, and measurement against informal learning.  Although, as one CLO panelist put it, we just need to be careful not to formalize it to the point that we screw it up. The other "aha" is that the training organizations have never controlled informal learning and probably won't control the tools that are leveraged to facilitate informal learning going forward.

Another big idea from the conference is that learning professionals need to make a shift in how they operate to make informal learning successful in their organizations. Basically, it means letting go; facilitating great content and conversations, not just broadcasting small structured learning experiences.  Learning organizations do not have the subject matter expertise nor the bandwidth to keep up with the demand for knowledge in this long tail world.  Here's how training has to change according to Tamar Elkeles, CLO of Qualcomm, Inc.:


In several of the sessions, it was reinforced that technology tools can help foster informal learning but that many other factors were equally as critical to success:

  • Have thought leaders and management seed informal learning pathways with content to motivate others to contribute, show that management supports the effort, and give people "permission" to join the conversation.
  • Make seeking information and sharing information part of how employees are reviewed, recognized and compensated. Yum Brands actually branded the phrase "Building Know-How" to reinforce the need to seek and share information.
  • Informal learning adoption is much higher when it is implemented to support existing rubber-meets-the road business initiatives, particularly around sales.
 While a lot of the panel discussions at ASTD reinforced that informal learning happens organically in small groups, has happened informally for centuries, and we can't control it, the reality is that in an increasingly distributed, global workforce, prairie-dogging over the cube wall only scales so far.  Like most things we do in business, technology is not a replacement for best practices but it can provide scale and automation.  For those looking to use technology to help facilitate informal learning, here are a few nuggets:
  • Tools must be easy to use.  If you need formal training on your informal learning solution, you are dead in the water.
  • Tools should not increase the friction of finding or contributing information. Ideally, they should make the process faster and easier. High friction equals low adoption.
  • Desktop real estate is crowded like store shelves.  Make sure your tool is available where your users already spend time (e.g., Outlook Toolbar, browser plug-in).  If they have to go to a completely separate place that is outside of their normal workflow, you have an uphill adoption battle even if the content is good.
  • Allow users to post in native file formats (e.g., Word, PPT, Excel, Visio) so they can author content with the tool that best fits the content.
  • Search is the key. How many friends' phone numbers have you memorized lately? If your platform does not have powerful search capability, then this massive amount of content you are hoping to stockpile will be useless to users.
  • Make sure there is metadata attached to content and that the tool supports periodic content reviews by authors/SMEs to ensure ongoing relevance and accuracy.
  • Your tool should be able to mine existing repositories and deliver a relevant, consolidated set of results to searchers. There should also be pre-established hooks to popular knowledge repositories (CRM, SharePoint, Notes).
  • Make sure your tools are designed for the enterprise with robust security that keeps your private company information secure. It should also have granular permissioning so you can finely control who gets access to what information.  This is particularly important when sharing information with partners, suppliers and other third parties.
Well, to sum it up, I went to a formal learning event called ASTD 2010 and attended sessions on informal learning. I then captured my thoughts informally on my blog (with low friction) and posted them to the web to share with you. Hopefully, you learned something or I will have to update my bar chart percentages which will require formal Excel training.

Hey IT, Get off of my Cloud

I attended a great session on cloud computing last week at the University Club's Cathedral Hall sponsored by the DePaul College of Computing and Digital Media. If you have never seen this room, you should attend an event there just to see this place.











The panel included vendor and corporate IT executives from Google, Microsoft, Salesforce.com, Accenture, Transunion and other esteemed organizations. The surprising big idea I took away was that cloud computing is shifting the balance of power away from IT and toward business leaders.

In fact, the panel agreed that more CIOs are coming from the business side of the house as cloud computing makes deploying technology more of a switch-flipping business operations exercise and less of a black art.  What this means for corporate IT leaders is that they need to make sure they are managing this shift proactively and providing speed and flexibility to handle this new infrastructure; not being seen as the speed bump by the business stakeholders.

ROI for cloud computing is not about lowering IT spend.  It's really a wash. You are really just trading capital expenditure costs for more predictable recurring monthly costs.

Speed and agility is the real business benefit from cloud computing when a business opportunity arises, you can spin up servers or a whole platform and react instantly.  If it is a short term opportunity, you can spin up the servers, capitalize and then power them down when you are done -- without any capital expenditures or long term commitment. This allows companies to be more nimble and innovative.

Paying for just what you use is another big advantage of cloud computing. Annual performance reviews were cited as an example.  In the old world, IT would deploy two servers available 24x7x365 to handle typical load for the performance review application.  The real-world business issue is that the performance review application and servers sit idle for 50 weeks until the frantic two-week push by managers to get all review done so bonuses get paid. During this crunch, peak load would require the equivalent of 17 servers.  Oops, the COO just spent 30 minutes entering performance review data and the app timed out due to server overload.  If the performance review application was running in the cloud, the infrastructure could scale dynamically to meet the demand spike, avoiding the call from the COO.

Virtualization and outsourcing to managed service providers is pushing a shift in the corporate IT demographic away from server wranglers toward more business analysts and network engineers that have skill managing hybrid environments that include internal clouds, private clouds and public clouds.  Can you say, single sign-on and network security?


Decisions about where and how systems are deployed is becoming more of a business decision, not a technical one. It is no longer based on what is possible from a cost and internal IT capacity standpoint.  In essence, if Scotty can't give Captain Kirk more more warp power immediately, Captain Kirk will get it elsewhere.

At the end of the session, I talked to a tenured professor who told me he enjoyed molding young minds. I couldn't resist asking him if that was a manufacturing or chemical analogy. But that is a different story.

Whether Tis Nobler to be Cool

My work horse ThinkPad is getting old and ever-more prone to crash at inopportune moments. It is like an old friend in failing health. You pray for its recovery but know where things are headed. In fact, there should be an assisted living facility for ThinkPads that still can function well most of the time but require assistance with cooking and cleaning. Anyways, I was sitting with three Mac fanboys last week and my IBM locked up four times. Needless to say, I endured much towel snapping and derision.

It used to be easy. Just buy another laptop. The only question was which brand of Windows laptop; Dell, Toshiba, Sony, Lenovo; these days they all work and cost about the same. It's around $650-$900 for a nice 16”, wide-screen Windows laptop, depending on processor speed, RAM, and graphics card.

But there is now a disturbance in the force. My boomer friends are buying MacBook Pros.  Is the Mac user experience that much better than a Windows laptop? Is it a less risky and less costly cool-brand association than buying a Harley? Not to get off track, but if your orthodontist has a Harley now, does the Harley brand really convey cool, rebel status anymore? Owning a Mac used to convey similar rebel status, more elegant for sure, but you were not a lemming dutifully taking your soma.

What owning a Mac says about you today is less clear. You could be a designer or a recent addition to the party like my boomer friends; you could have arrived on a Mac via the iPod gateway drug. The point is that you got there and you paid a premium to get there. A MacBook Pro with specs nearly the same as my new wide-screen Lenovo Y550 costs more than twice as much. I am not cool enough to pay that premium, particularly since my banker friend has lowered the cool to cost ratio.

I still want a Mac some day when my ship comes in. Kind of like I want the Audi A5 and a regulation basketball court in my backyard. The Mac interface looks cool, but I don’t spend a lot of time at my local Apple “Re-education Center” test driving Macs for the same reason I don’t test drive an Audi A5. I don’t want to endure the ride home in my Jetta. Mr. Jobs, regrettably, I am a PC (for now) and the $750 TrashBook Pro was my idea.

Digital Hobo Etiquette: Reflections of a Wi-Fi Squatter

I would see them around the Loop when I worked downtown; kind of in the background and anonymous. I would try to avoid eye contact or look at them with disdain, depending on my mood. I am talking about digital hobos. A digital hobo, as I define it, is a person who does not have a Chicago Loop office but needs to come downtown periodically for meetings.

Between meetups, digital hobos need a place to hit the head, check email, surf, and update facebook just like normal Loop office workers. In search of free wi-fi and electric power for their laptops, they crash the picnic like some many unwanted ants.

I know of what I speak because after a 13-year Loop office presence, I am now a digital hobo. I hold office frequently with other DHs at Cafe' ROM and Cosi.

I am not going to define my favorite spots or where the power outlets are as not to alert my competition. A little known fact is that most coffee shops and restaurants only have one electrical outlet (where they plug in the vacuum) and the competition is fierce.

In my DH days these past few months, I have witnessed some good and bad behavior. My goal is to pass along some basic etiquette tips if you find yourself down and out in the Loop.

Always buy something. Your purchase amount should be proportional to the amount of time, power, and bandwidth you plan to suck up. A bottled water is not appropriate if you plan to spend five hours, participate in a conference call and download videos from You Tube. Even if you have no social conscience, keep in mind that if these businesses see their infrastructure costs rise but obtain no sales gain, they may close the wi-fi spigot for all of us.

Avoid the lunch rush. It is not optimal to try to transact business amidst the deafening roar of the lunch crowd when seating real estate is precious. It is also not fair to the establishment nor the other patrons who are spending more money than you and need a place to sit.

Resist manifest destiny. I went to a Panera for lunch recently and witnessed one of the worst displays of digital hobo gluttony and wanton disregard; the kind of stuff that gives us good DHs a bad name. At 12:00pm on a Thursday, this guy was all spread out in a four-person booth, mucking around on Facebook and yakking loudly on Skype via headset -- with only a long-empty latte' in view. Other patrons who had retrieved their lunch orders were standing around like carrion waiting for the next table to open up. They were dumbfounded by his display of self-fullness. If you must DH at lunch, buy some lunch and take a bar stool seat or at most a two-topper, not a booth.

Share power. If you are lucky enough to get a seat with a power adapter, charge your battery and then give up that seat once your fully charged, particularly if someone else is eying your location. If they have no power left on their laptop battery, offer to move and share the wealth; maybe they will do the next for you sometime. It's a "golden rule" thing.

Tip the staff. The benefit of having a climate-controlled place to office is high to in comparison to the cost of a coffee and a bagel, so make sure to remember your wait staff. It's just good karma and it avoids the hairy eyeballs.

Hope these tips help you to be a more responsible member of the digital hobo community.

Tom Reilly, Digital Hobo

View Tom Reilly's profile on LinkedIn

Second Life; we hardly knew you

I heard Second Life was starting to fade from popularity so I thought I better get out there before it was too late. Okay, so I was actually late for my first virtual meeting in Second Life. Does that mean I am virtually passive aggressive? This get together was through Dirk Tussing’s Learning Leader’s group http://www.learningexecutive.com and was hosted by the folks at Centrax. This is Ed Prentice's company that does a lot of good e-Learning and e-Marketing design work. They must be doing well, come to find out they own their own island in Second Life!

Before we talk about the meeting, I need to give some autobiographical context to my experience with with games and simulations. I was there at the beginning with pong and blew my allowance at the arcade playing Galaga and Missile Commander. I was never very good at video games but I loved playing them. Castle Wolfenstein, Doom, Half Life; I played them all. Then along came kids, a house to maintain, and too many startups and I fell off the train.

So I was a complete newbie to Second Life when I signed up for the virtual networking event. I went and tried to get familiar the night before - after a long day at work, a game of chutes and ladders with my son, and a big bowl of pasta I slumped on. Okay, so I didn’t get very well prepped. Luckily, my colleague Adam gave me a primer and it was pretty easy to get the basic movements down for walking and gesturing, etc.

Changing your appearance is a little more esoteric. I didn’t want to look really cookie cutter and lame so I found the menu to adjust my appearance. You just click on yourself and pick “Appearance” from the round menu and start exploring. It definitely plays into American narcissism. I was finally able to get normal size ears and get those six-pack abs I always wanted. You guessed it, everyone looks good in their Second Life. And judging from the complexity of some of the “Regulars” hairdos and outfits, some people are spending a lot of time there.

Last week we took part in a Virtual Peer-Networking Gathering in Second Life, a Executive Learning Exchange hosted by our friends at Centrax. This is a picture of our group.
We took part in a Virtual Peer-Networking Gathering in Second Life, an Executive Learning Exchange event hosted by our friends at Centrax. This is a picture of our group.

I met up with my colleague Adam and the other meeting attendees at a convenience store on Centrax Island, a really cool virtual environment the 3D designers at Centrax created. I met some interesting people there though I am not sure who they really were because their Second Life names appeared above them. We also flew to a floating “Star Wars-esque” platform in the sky. Yes, I said we flew. You can fly in Second Life. It connects viscerally with that dream of flying we have all had. I did crash a few times (think Greatest American Hero) until I learned to use the PgDn key to float down.

I was enjoying the tour of the sky platform but a guy walked up to me, probably to network. In an instant, my first person shooter instincts took over and I shoved him off the sky platform. Needless to say that ended our future networking opportunities. Later, in the tour, my colleague Adam showed me a virtual sweater he created in Photoshop that featured our Trifus logo. This was great. Virtual tchotchkes! He gave me one and after learning about getting gifts from others and then searching my inventory, and then a little more techno-intricacy, I was proudly sporting my Trifus sweater. Adam ended up giving out a couple extra sweaters to attendees. Good virtual marketing Adam!

As far as e-Learning applications, I could see it being a great 3D role playing tool particularly for people in retail or medical where they need to move around and have positive, proactive communications with customers or patients. This was just a light Second Life intro, as you may have read, there is a whole economic model based on Linden dollars. You can buy land, build buildings, have a career, get married. Wait, that’s my current crazy real life. Why would anyone want two crazy lives? Some people have more disposable time than I do.

Adam gave me one final tip near the end of the tour. When modifying your appearance, your underwear is supposed to go underneath your pants; not on top. Thanks again Adam.