This Is Why We Do It - Examples of a Culture of Learning

Reflections in Learning

As the year comes to a close I have been reflecting on my own learning journey. I remember when my children were first born and I was a new mom. I, like most every other parent, treasured every little step they took on their journey to adulthood. As they turned into toddlers and the subject of pre-school came up, I anguished over the decision to put them in daycare or preschool. The world said that giving them a 'head-start' was important. I am not here to claim that I am the world's best parent or that my way of parenting is the 'right way' but I did finally find some comfort in the philosophy of teaching my children to love learning, rather than engaging them in formal learning experiences from the time they were young. I felt that if I could x the schools where they would go as they got older would have no problem educating my kids. So we began our journey by spending as much time as possible reading and exploring together. I can't count the number of times I would read one, two, three or four books before bed and still have them begging for more. One Christmas we decided to read "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever". My oldest was about five and my youngest was two. And of course, there was a middle child! I got the book out one Sunday afternoon in the middle of December with the idea that we would read a chapter a day until Christmas. Four hours later we finished the book. They would not let me stop at the end of each chapter. Four hours is a long time for children that age to sit still and listen.

We traveled a lot when the kids were young and always listened to audio
books on our way. I had several children's books committed to
memory... Popcorn Nell had a popcorn shop. The popcorn there went pop, pop, pop. It popped all day and it popped all night
.... In addition, we found children's museums in most places where we
stayed and spent hours there exploring. They loved science museums and animal parks most.

When they got a bit older and the Harry Potter series came out we were often times camped out on Friday waiting for the next book in the series and there were many discussions over who got to read the book first. Rarely did a weekend go by where all three of the kids had not read the whole book before Monday morning. Each took their turn and would stay up all night for fear that the other child might get the book and not return it quickly enough.

A few years later I had another child and life was much more hectic. Much to my dismay, I did not spend near the amount of time reading to him or exploring. He went to formal daycare. I carefully selected what I believed to be the best option. I loved Montessori because they encouraged learning through exploration and play. I believe he was born with some type of learning challenges but I oftentimes wonder if some of those could have been alleviated had I have been in a position to spend more one on one time with him, instilling that love for
learning that he lacks to this day. He spent all his school years struggling and even though we employed many interventions, which I believe were the only reason he made it through high school, he never had that passion for learning.

Later in my career, I began training people with disabilities to use assistive technology with computers. There was not a lot of formal training in that area so I ended up writing much of own. That is where I got my 'formal' start in the world of corporate training. True to my nature, I was passionate about learning and wanted to share that passion with others. I  did not comprehend that all people were not like me... I just thought everyone got excited about learning new things and I was excited to facilitate that avenue of growth.  (Link to Dragon Story) That is when I discovered that many people looked at training as 'another thing we HAD to do...' not an opportunity for growth. With my youngest, I learned that learning in and of itself could be challenging and not an avenue to success. So I sat down and evaluated why people had so many varying opinions about learning. Could it be because they did not feel it was benefiting them? Was it just more time away from work and it was boring? Then when you return to work you are just that much farther behind and what you learned was not being implemented in your work environment?

I am sure the list could go on... but at the core, for people to be  passionate about learning, I believe they need to see it from a cost/benefit ratio. If it is helping me further my goals... I am in! If it is just another 'checkbox', I will comply and move on.

Learning is ultimately the key to success for anyone and everyone. As learning professionals, we need to find a way to make it meaningful to the learner. In my estimation, that should be at the core of all we do!


Additional Information


After spending many years training people with disabilities to use computer technology, I was finding it difficult to get jobs in the corporate learning space without a degree.  Thus, I went back to college thinking I could learn more new and innovative things to apply in my job.  On some level I was right, but for the most part I was not right.

During my time at Digitalk, Inc. (my training company) I worked with a variety of individuals.  Some had physical disabilities, some intellectual challenges and others were not considered disabled but simply wanted to use voice recognition technology to transcribe their notes or thoughts, like doctors and lawyers.  In addition, each had a different need for the technology and used different hardware configurations and software applications.  So, I needed to know a lot about the hardware and had to learn a little bit about a lot of different software.  I did not have the money to pay someone to train me, so, where did I get my knowledge and experience…  from reading and applying what I was learning, directly to the situation. Needless to say, my clientele base was diverse.  Since it was just a two man show, I had to be certain that what I taught them stuck with them or I would get many, many tech support calls, for which I was not compensated.  I also had to learn what each person needed to succeed and what motivated each learner to engage with their newfound tools to freedom.

Online learning was becoming a new thing and I was using it, in conjunction with a partner of mine in California.  We were pioneering its use.  He was programming the tool and I was building the learning piece that would allow us to train people in remote areas and not have to spend a lot of money on one person, which was not cost effective for us or the agencies which we served.

He eventually went on and patented the technology and is using it to this day.  We parted ways but still stay in touch.

But this did not seem to impress anyone on a resume, so back to school I went at age 35 to get the piece of paper some require to work for them.

I knew I wanted to work in the online learning world but there was no specific degree at that time that would help me achieve that goal.  So, being the practical learner that I am, I decided to create my own path.  I figured I had the learning piece down, but thought a few classes along those lines would help me improve my skills in that area.  The areas where I really needed help were with graphics and beefing up my computer skills.  I knew that online learning required a certain level of visual learning and so I enrolled in a school that had a graphics art program.  I also took my basic required classes to achieve the credits needed for an associates degree.  By then online colleges were coming in to vogue so I decided that attending one of those would help me better understand the learner experience as an online learner.  I enrolled in some computer networking, database and simple programming courses and accumulated enough credits for far more than a bachelor’s degree.  But you see, a degree was not my goal.  I was under some misguided idea that learning was supposed to teach you the skills you need to perform better in your job.  Well, that is not exactly how things work.  The goal of going to college is to get a degree, not an education that will forward your skills.

Despite all that, I did get a job working for a printing franchisor.  They were in the process of building a new online learning program, complete with courses and a new learning management system.  And, believe it or not, the COO who hired me was far more interested in what I could do, than if I had a piece of paper certifying that I had completed coursework.

The first corporate learning program I experienced at this franchisor was an excellent program.  But they felt online learning could make it better.  So, we went to work selecting technology and tools to build a new program. I was not an expert in this area yet but I would soon begin my journey to mastery.

The current program required that new franchisees attend a three week classroom/hands-on program before being awarded a franchise of their own.  They spent two weeks in the classroom learning about printing tools, various types of ink, layout and graphics programs and marketing.  Then they spent a week in the mockup store running a real life operation, minus the business side and marketing piece.  Although they learned a little about selecting a location, pricing, financing and setting up equipment, they simply learned about it – not how to do it.  But for one week, they did learn how to operate an existing store and print real life orders.

During this time we did tons of due diligence in selecting an LMS, online authoring tools and basically learning how to put learning online.

We did not want to remove the in-person piece because one of the real values in the in-person piece was the networking opportunities that exist to build relationships with other new franchisees and existing franchisees (the instructors) who would help them along their path.

So my little foray into graphic art and computer science was helpful, not in getting a degree, but in what I really wanted to do!  I pretty much ran the show when it came to selecting tools and technology to bring some of the learning online.

In the end we settled on a learning path for franchisees that included some pre-work (before the three week onsite learning) to prepare them for new terminology, what a Franchisor does, various equipment types, etc.  That was delivered via the LMS and was constructed with online authoring tools, using Michael Allen’s learner centric philosophy for online learning.  Make it engaging, meaningful and practical.

Once they completed that segment, they attended the in person piece where they dove deeper in those topics and learned more about setting up your business from a tax perspective, selecting a location, negotiating leases, purchasing/leasing equipment, etc.

And then they continued on to the mock up store and they ran that store, complete with real life orders for another week.

Once they mastered that information, the rest of their learning journey was more customized.  We continued to provide learning resources around marketing, selecting a location, negotiating a lease, etc. ‘at the time of need’.  In other words, they only accessed the learning resources when they were actually engaging in those types of activities at their new location.  There was no requirement to complete a set number of courses in a certain order.  The order was determined by where you, as the franchisee, were, in your progress toward opening a store.  You also had access to coaches and mentors (other successful franchisees) to help you with these hard to teach topics as each situation is unique.

This new model for learning improved the success rate of first year franchisees by over 50%.


New Opportunity


But management changed and the new team was not as interested in online learning.  So, I decided to explore new paths to success.  A recruiter called me and shared an opportunity with a company across the country.  This company had already purchased an LMS but was not actively building online learning.  They were not happy with their LMS and they wanted a technology guru (Business Analyst) to come help them get the LMS functional and explore new ways to implement online learning.  It sounded like a new adventure so my husband and children packed up and moved.  


The first year was challenging because the LMS vendor was more of a talent management system with a ‘bolted on’ LMS and they were building the functionality as they went.  The Performance Management System and Succession Planning tools were intact and very useful but the learning platform was severely lacking.  After many discussions over contractual language and requirements sessions, it was decided that the LMS was never going to do what was needed so we decided to do the due diligence to select a new LMS.  I had experience in that space and so we went down that path.  They did not have any online authoring tools, nor any vendors who built online learning.  My experience with Michael Allen had been good, so we brought him in to help us learn more about building effective online learning.  It was about this time that gaming was gaining favor in the learning world (Orey’s experience) so I started to look at ways to learn more about that.  


We were primarily focused on the LMS and getting their technical writers converted to Instructional Designers.  Sodexo had an employee learning program where you could earn your Masters’ Degree through an Action Learning program (link to Action Learning).  I was really excited about this program.  It was a project based learning approach to getting a degree.  I quickly enrolled.  My project was going to be taking technical writers and turning them into ISDs.  I would build a curriculum around their needs and in the space of 18 months, they would be equipped to build online learning for the company.  


The most exciting part was that I would be learning while doing - not learning and then hoping I could do it at a later time.  In addition, the program I was building was going employ the same principle - learn by doing.  


I got busy putting together a curriculum to train the technical writers and help them contrast writing technical instruction with building learning experiences.  Most people think that Instructional Designers are primarily technical writers, and some are.  They write technical document and instruction, but to me an Instructional Designer’s primary function is to design and build learning experiences that change behavior and build skills.  


To begin the project I was assigned to write my reflections with learning up until that point in my life.  From there I interviewed several potential points of contact for the program and got their input on the program and goals and objectives they would like to achieve from the program.  I designed the program keeping in mind the activities that would best help the learners achieve the desired performance based objectives.  We had to prepare the learners by providing information based learning before moving them into practice activities.  We designed assessments that would allow them to demonstrate where they were on the path to mastery.  Mastery was always the goal, not certification or a grade.  I would act as their facilitator and coach.  


Then I had to put together a detailed project plan complete with a customized learning path for each learner, costs, timelines, and risks.  The primary risk in this particular project was that the  technical writers may not want to move on and become ISD’s but if they did not complete the program they would either be terminated or moved to another area in the company that could utilize their technical writing skills.  We also experienced a major change in management during the course of my master’s program.  This introduced an unplanned variable that we could not control.  It was an 18 month program.  


Every three months I was required to give project updates to senior leadership and re-evaluate the project plan and make any required adjustments necessary to keep it on track.  I had to collaborate with various individuals that would help me design alternate paths when our original path failed to yield the desired results.  


At the end of the program I would be evaluated, not on the success of the program but on my ability to execute, adjust, implement changes and keep the project on task, within budget and yield the desired results.  The desired results were not whether or not the people in the program became ISDs.  There were too many variables that we had no control over that would affect that outcome.  First being, did they WANT to become an ISD?  Second, Did they want to stay in the current department under new leadership?  There were others, but these were the primary variables that were not within our control.  I would be evaluated by the learners, based on their perception of the program and if they felt like they had the knowledge, skills and attitudes to move on toward mastery as an ISD.  Thank goodness I scored well on that outcome because none of them wanted to become ISDs.  They were not happy with the new management and most felt the role of an ISD was too divergent from a technical writer and required more ‘creativity’ than logic and reason.  But none the less, I succeeded in achieving my degree because I was able to plan, implement and execute a program that met the desired outcomes and stayed within the timeline and budget.  


My final paper was a reflection on this experience and all the things I learned.  I also was required to detail how and why I learned what I did and how that learning would benefit me in my future role with the company.  And how it would benefit the company.


My favorite project


While working at Sodexo, I was tasked with taking a three day course with three three inch binders full of information and turning it into a 20-30 minute online training.  Once again, not sure who decided that online was the best delivery method or where they arrived at the 30 minute number, but nonetheless, that was my task.  With new leadership I was not in a position to challenge them or their current methodology (or lack thereof).


So a colleague of mine and I got busy.  We attended the three day training on sustainability.  Sodexo is a food service and property management company, of sorts.  In this particular situation Sodexo managers at the various property locations were trying to convince the property owners to invest in more sustainable food choices and cleaning supplies.  This was going to cost the property owners more money.  For each location and each purchase, the manager would need to put forth a proposal that would outline the cost/benefit ratios.  The goal of the program was to help managers understand the various terminology and agencies that serve  the sustainability industry, understand Sodexo’s mission and commitment to supporting green initiatives along with keeping current on sustainability trends.  


But how were we going to take all that information and put it in to a twenty-thirty minute online module.  This was going to take some creative ingenuity.  


So rather than try to fix a square peg in a round hole, we decided to rethink the whole project.


What was really the business outcome we were trying to accomplish?  The managers needed to build a proposal to submit to property owners to encourage them to invest in sustainable products.  To do that they needed to better understand the sustainability products and the benefit property owners and customers would derive from using these products.  


In the end though, they needed a proposal.  So we went to work building a simple, clean, pretty and inexpensive learning module.  In it the learner watched a short video on sustainability and Sodexo’s commitment to the initiative.  They would then move on to play some simple games to better understand the terminology, the products and the agencies that served this industry.  It was simple and fun.  Learner’s had the option of downloading ‘cheat sheets’ to help them answer questions to the activities or they could simply answer the questions and get feedback with the information they needed to learn more about the industry.  We kept the information presentation section short and laser focused on the outcome of helping the manager learn quickly.  Managers are busy people and don’t have much time to spend learning lots of new information, even if it will benefit them in the long run.  The culture does not support three days of training on a topic like this.  Thus, they wanted it shortened and make easily accessible.  (See module here)


But the real genius in it all was the last section of the module.  It was a template creator that allowed the manager to create their proposal right in the learning module.  Once they completed the first (didactic) portion, they could skip it every time they opened the template creator, if they wanted to, or they could review the information if they came to a part of the template where they needed to refresh their memory.


But everytime they created a proposal they needed to use this tool and the first part of the template creation tool would be updated via xml with the latest trends in sustainability.  They were required to view that every time they wanted to create a proposal.  


From there they would walk through each section of the proposal and complete it and at the end, they could print/save it and review in a word processing program where they could edit it if necessary.  


Learning was embedded in the workflow.  Every time they opened the template creator they would learn more in a short period of time before putting a proposal together.  They had a work product at the end of the learning.


Moving On


At this point in my career I decided I would be better off not working for a company, but rather starting another business of my own.  I too was not happy with the new management and their philosophy on learning.  Our visions for learning did not align.  


I began my foray into the self-employment realm by securing a good contract with a refrigerated warehouse membership organization.  It had some specific challenges that were a bit unique in our digital world.  The membership organization wanted to bring learning online but their membership profile was academically illiterate (most had an 12th grade education or less)  and most sites did not have access to multiple computers to access the learning.  My job was help them build a comprehensive plan that would outline not only the content that needed to be built but once again help them select an LMS and content authoring tools.  We also had to build a strategy for making learning accessible and meaningful to this audience. Most of their learning was on the job and most of the current training came in the form of OJT with coaches and mentors.  Although I loved the idea of bringing learning online because it standardizes the learning experience, makes it available 24x7 and can be cheaper in the long run this audience did not seem like the right audience for this type of learning.  Few, if any (this was in 2008) had access to computers at home that could access the learning and the workplace only had one or two computers that the employees could access and that was mostly for time tracking.  But they wanted online learning.  So we explored all the various options that an LMS would give them along with some authoring tools and basic PDF document development tools complete with diagrams and simple instructions.  We set up the on the job training so that it could be tracked via the LMS manually with input from a manager.  We kept a tagged and organized library or job aids (PDFs) for use when they were learning on the job without a coach or mentor.  The primary use of the LMS was for compliance tracking and launching OSHA safety training and compliance training.  Employees had to schedule the use of the computer for their training during work hours.  They did end up purchasing a few more computers.  They also realized that they would have to hire some content authors so they included that in the plan.  They staffed a whole new department, dedicated to developing simple animated tutorials and job aids and ensuring that compliance training and other activities were being tracked.  


The next project


That was a fun and challenging project.  From there I secured a contract position with a large accounting firm (KPMG).  Their auditors needed to be trained in new auditing standards that would be implemented in the next year.  In the past they had audited organizations utilizing rule based US GAAP standards.  In the future they would be required to audit using new standards. A major difference between IFRS and GAAP accounting is the methodology used to assess the accounting process. GAAP focuses on research and is rule-based, whereas IFRS looks at the overall patterns and is based on principle.

With GAAP accounting, there’s little room for exceptions or interpretation, as all transactions must abide by a specific set of rules. With a principle-based accounting method, such as the IFRS, there’s potential for different interpretations of the same tax-related situations.


They wanted to take a three day course and put it online in a gaming format.  


At this point in time I had returned to school to take some gaming courses.  I had no real interest in pursuing another degree, I just wanted to learn gaming.  Once again, many more credits - no degree.  But the knowledge was going to help me with my new job duties.  


I attended the three day training in New Jersey.  I can honestly say that I have never been to a more dry training in my life.  Three full days of talking heads talking about things I knew nothing about.  It truly gave me a headache by the time I left.  I was certain I could improve upon this training.  


But… you learn something new everyday..  Once I left the training to return home, I was at the airport waiting in the boarding area when several of the attendees from the training came to get on my flight.  While we waited I eavesdropped on their conversation as they waited for their flight.  They were commenting about the awesome training they had just attended.  I did a double take.  What training did they go to?  I saw them in the same class I was in. I approached them and asked them if I could pick their brain a bit on the training and they happily complied.  I asked them what they found so appealing.  I did not taint their responses with my opinions, I wanted their perspective, not mine.  


They explained how important it was to them to ‘learn from the experts’.  Listening to people with vast experience and knowledge was a primary driver to motivate them to learn.  I explained that I would be building an online learning solution and they all balked.  They did not see how anything like that could be meaningful or effective for them.  Honestly, I was a bit concerned myself.  If they liked talking head learning, I could give that to them via videos of the experts, but we would lose a lot in terms of discussion and dialogue.  


In addition, another big concern of mine was that it is hard to teach soft skills effectively online.  They need to be taught within the context of what you do at work everyday.  If this were the rules based learning, that would be pretty easy.  Questions, quizzes and discussions had one answer, not several interpretations.  Making judgment calls in a learning environment requires that you have discussion about the pros/cons and implications of such decisions.  You cannot just ask a question and get a right or wrong answer.  


Thus, I began the project feeling like I had a hand tied behind my back.  With some creative thinking we decided to create a simulation based program.  We created a mock coffee company that had multiple locations, a production facility and several shipping locations along with shipping vehicles.  It would be a global company and thus audited according to the new IFRS standards.  We started the six hour online simulation with an introductory didactic learning module that would introduce the company to the learners along with the basics of the IFRS terminology and standards.  It would be a knowledge based learning experience where “experts” in the field would share their knowledge via short videos and examples with simple activities to engage the learners. There was an online library of resources and a virtual coach to guide you through the interface.   


From that point on, the next five modules would address a specific aspect of the auditing standard and the learners would be required to audit that aspect of the company.  It would be scenario based with multiple branching options based on paths the learner chose.  Their audit would be submitted to a coach/mentor who would review it and provide customized feedback based on the submission.


Once the learner completes all the sectional modules the final module will be a comprehensive audit.


They loved the solution and we gave the design document and storyboard to the offshore team to develop.  We did not build out the scenarios, just provided the architecture (design document and high level storyboards).  Shortly thereafter we got a call saying our services were no longer needed.  We were a bit baffled because we were contracted to build out the storyboards and then turn them over to the offshore team for development.  


I was devastated.  It was the first time in my life I had been “fired” and I was not even sure why.  There had been some misunderstanding about responsibilities with the offshore team while the team lead was on vacation and when he returned, we were canned.  


With every good failure in life, there is something to learn.  Many months went by and during that time I was able to secure additional work.  But my friend and I that were working on this contract (she was my boss before the management change at Sodexo) were bidding on another contract and she wanted to use the team lead at KPMG as a reference.  I was stunned.  Why would we use someone who basically fired us?  Well, she said, one thing you learn about contracting.  It is a cut throat business.  Most likely, while the team lead was gone on vacation and the offshore team got upset because, in their mind, we usurped their authority (they had been with KPMG longer than us) so they felt they were in charge while he was gone.  We did not know we were supposed to report to him and in the end we found out that we were in fact not supposed to report to him, but as soon as the team lead got back, they shared their version of the story with him.  We did not even mention the incident to the team lead because we didn't even know there was an issue, until then.  


My friend explained that most likely the team lead had gotten what he wanted from us and our bill rate was at least double their bill rate.  They got what they needed from us and the long term relationship with the offshore team was more important to them than the short term relationship with us, so he simply let us go.  They offshore team could pick up where we left off and run with things.


And, when requested, he wrote us a very nice reference.  In addition, the course went on to win an industry respected gold award.