Sunday, January 25, 2009

On the road again and again and again

So the conference season will have officially kicked off for '09 as of next week. First up is ASTD Techknowledge in Las Vegas, then Training '09 in Atlanta in February. After a quick breath, we'll be all over the eLearning Guild's Annual Gathering in Orlando and Defense GameTech User's Conference '09 the same week, also in Orlando. The end of March I'll be heading out to GDC in San Fran, then skipping down to DC in April for 3D TLC, the enterprise spinoff of the Association of Virtual Worlds conferences. In May, we're still considering SPBT in Chicago, immediately followed by Corporate Learning Exchange also in Chicago.

I'm tired just thinking about it. 

So why do all these conferences? We're still new, so its helpful to get some exposure. Obviously we're hoping all this activity leads to sales. But I do think that soon, the only conferences we'll really be interested in attending are the ones that we're speaking at. And maybe, MAYBE the occasional conference to just keep up with trends, like GDC. 

And maybe I'll give the virtual conferences a try. After all, its good to practice what you preach.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Making history

Today was inspirational. Barack Hussein Obama, our 44th President, assumed his new role as leader of our country for the next 4 years. I am not envious of the tasks he faces. In fact, looking at the mess he's stepping into, most people would back slowly out of the room. 

True leaders look at a mess and see the opportunity. True leaders know that when things are a mess, you have the biggest chance to do something amazing. True leaders, whether they admit it or not, want to change things so much that they, in some way, make history. 

Most of us will never be President. So, how then will you make history?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Getting your house in order

I'm getting close to the one year mark for Tandem Learning, and I've been thinking a lot about what I've learned in this first roller coaster of a year. One of the biggest lessons is one I'm just now learning and taking care of. 

People who know me well know that I'm a bit of a control freak. That said, I've learned over the years that there are things worth me controlling, and things that aren't worth it. A lot of the things that aren't worth it may be inconsequential, or in many cases, they are just outside of my scope of expertise and are better "controlled" by someone else who knows what they are doing. This is where trust comes in. 

You have to surround yourself with smart, capable rockstars to be successful and to allow yourself to delegate confidently. You have to have good, challenging communication with the people you work closely with, and you have to trust them to do their jobs without you looking over their shoulders. That said, you have to have systems in place for them to report back to you on the state of affairs in a way that you can keep things on track if they start going astray. 

In some areas, I did a fine job of this in the last year. But there were some new areas in starting Tandem Learning that I really had no clue and had to rely more heavily on others than I'm honestly comfortable with. Legal issues, insurance, IT set up and support, bookkeeping and accounting...all new things that I had to put trust in others to handle for me. Some of these relationships worked really well and my leap of faith was rewarded (did I mention how much I like my sharkweasel?). But there were some other areas where I just never got comfortable.

SO...the lesson I learned? If you don't feel comfortable, make a change. Perhaps more than anything, I have more confidence in trusting my gut. I let a few things go on too long this year, in part because I wanted to trust the people I was working with and in part because I didn't know what I didn't know. But from the beginning, there were some things I just didn't feel 100% comfortable with and now that I'm taking control of those things, I feel so much better. 

Friday, January 16, 2009

Instructional design is dead

Let me start by saying that for many, many years, my title was some variation of "Instructional Designer." And so, its with some amount of hesitance that I say that the field of instructional design is, well, crap.

I'm not a traditional instructional designer, having a Master's degree in education instead of instructional design or instructional technology. I somehow backed my way into instructional design, working in a whole department of instructional designers in my first ID job. Some of those IDs are among the most brilliant people I have known and worked with, and it was an honor to have the opportunity to cut my ID chops in such talented company.

That said, I immediately noticed some problems with the field of instructional design and more importantly, in how instructional designers are "trained." So, although there are definitely instructional designers out there that are talented and know what they are doing, my experience is that they are few and far between. There are many, many other instructional designers who are a product of how instructional design is taught and marketed, and its killing the art of instructional design as a respected, professional expertise.

There are many reasons why instructional design has become a bit of a joke. Among them:
  • Instructional design relies too much on process: there's nothing wrong with having guidelines for design. Let's be honest. There's one model, ADDIE, that pretty much sums it all up, and any other ID model that anyone comes up with is basically ADDIE rebranded. Looking for some examples? Here are just a few: Dick & Carey, ASSURE, MRK, Knirk & Gustafson. Not only does ID have a process for the overall stages of ID, but each step in the ADDIE model has specific process around it. Basically, ID as it is currently taught is just following the process, step by step. It's not rocket science. What IS rocket science (or at least a lot harder) is to figure out how to apply process with the endless number of variables that affect any learning need. This is where ID falls short. Instructional designers in too many instances are so tied to the models and the process that the variables and subtleties of  good design are sacrificed.
  • Instructional design doesn't follow process enough: Ok, so to immediately contradict myself, with all the process that instructional designers have developed to guide our practice, the irony is WE DON'T FOLLOW IT. Let's be honest, the first things that go in the ADDIE model are the A and the E, arguably the most important steps in the whole process. In most corporate settings, people other than IDs determine what the learning needs are of the organization and what should be done about it. They bring these projects to the instructional designers to design and develop, and like sheep, instructional designers comply. Where is the analytical step in that? Maybe the real learning need has been identified, and maybe the appropriate solution has been decided upon--but MAYBE NOT. We do ourselves a disservice any time we become corporate order-takers and passively accept the conclusions of others. And evaluation? Evaluation of learning effectiveness is not just an assessment at the end of an e-learning module, and any ID worth his or her salt knows that. 
  • Lack of ROI measurements as a rigorous part of our practice: I was lucky enough to work with a company recently that provided me with sales results after a huge training event that we could ALMOST draw a direct correlation between the training and the results. How often do we get any data on the effectiveness of our learning solutions? How often do we include that data collection as part of our process is the real question. Yes, measuring ROI is hard. It requires work, and analysis, and reflection on all of the factors that can contribute to learning outcomes. Let's be honest. If we're doing our jobs up front, we are identifying learning objectives that are measurable. Even better, we're identifying measurable performance objectives too. Did I mention that we should be doing this UP FRONT? Its a whole lot easier to measure improvement in something if you have a baseline measure, and set the expectation that the learning you are designing is intended to improve that baseline measure. Instructional designers will be taken a lot more seriously if we show our value. Which leads to...
  • Lack of research to show learning effectiveness: Not only should we be examining the effectiveness of our projects, but we should be encouraging academia to be doing research to show which strategies are most effective for different types of learning needs. Its nice to toot our own horns, but its even nicer if unbiased third parties are showing how effective we are. We should be encouraging this type of research whenever possible. We should be opening up our process for rigorous review. If we are learning professionals, let's lead by being open to learn what's effective about what we're doing and what's not. 
  • Instructional design ignores context: This was the first observation I made when I started working as an ID, and I'm sorry to say my opinion hasn't changed. I had been teaching at a charter school in Philly before my first ID job, and I brought with me many of the skills and perspectives that teachers employ to develop engaging curriculum. I joke sometimes that I've designed learning for the toughest audience I can think of: inner city eighth graders. You won't find a more challenging and skeptical audience. You have to design to motivate and keep in mind both the learning environment in the classroom and the influencing factors outside of the classroom. This is no different than designing learning for adults. Call it education or instructional design...its all learning. So where do ID's fall short? To a certain extent, its following the "process" too closely. People are complex, learning is complex, motivation is complex--and no process is going to address all of these complexities. Good IDs know this and aren't afraid to go "off the reservation" when they need to. Most IDs don't.
  • Perception is reality: This is really just my fancy way of saying that I truly believe people learn constructively, based of their previous experiences and previously held beliefs. All things that aren't really taken into consideration in much of the ID process. How people experience any learning event depends on what they bring to it. Too few IDs acknowledge that and try to build a common experience and frame of reference for the learning experience.
Ok, so what does this all mean? It means that designing effective, motivating learning is actually really hard. It means that instructional designers need to be really good critical thinkers. It means that as a profession, instructional designers need to be trained to not only know the process, but also how to recognize the limitations of process. 

More than anything, if instructional design is going to survive and thrive as a profession, we need to be leaders--leaders in research, leaders in our organizations, and leaders in our field, not accepting the mediocre. Otherwise, instructional design is dead.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Doing good

Last night me and most of the other Tandemites attended a (the second) Refresh Philly meeting. High level, about 100 design and development professionals in Philadelphia showed up to learn from each other and figure out how to use our collective talents to make Philly a better place. 

Also this week, a discussion about mission and vision statements prompted me to look up the vision statement that my team had created at my last gig. (It reminded me how much I truly miss those peeps!) We had spent a lot of time thinking about what would make us truly fulfilled in our work, and as a result, a significant amount of our team's vision was focused around how we could give back to the community.

Sure, we're all in business to make money. But truth be told, a lot of us want more out of our lives than that. We want to build community, we want to contribute, we want to leave the world a better place than we found it. 

It's not easy to balance the demands of work with giving back. But its important. 

I'm thrilled for the opportunity contribute to Refresh Philly (or as one of the Think Brownstone boys referred to it, a chance to be one of the Super Friends in the Hall of Justice). What is your super power? Can YOU use it to help save the world?

Thursday, January 8, 2009


I have a bad habit of saying things that I would like to do, only to be thwarted by time and responsibilities. Nowhere is this more of a problem than at home, where my eternal optimism and hopefulness are often a victim to the demands of work. I can't tell you how many times I say things like, "let's watch a movie tonight" or "I'm going to cook dinner" only to have my best intentions overcome by a work-related "something." 

You know that little strategy with clients called "under promise, over deliver"? Turns out that its also helpful as a life strategy, especially for new entrepreneurs and start ups. Its something I struggle with, because I do have good intentions. But keeping your promises is important, and making promises, even good intentioned ones, that are broken over and over leads to unhappy clients, disappointed family, and disillusioned friends. 

I'm making more an effort to be more realistic in the expectations I set, while not losing my optimism. I'm just keeping that to myself.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Girls and games

Why are all the serious games I've seen so male-oriented? War games, first-person shooters, disaster recovery, heck, even the sexual harassment serious games I've seen have some pretty clear overtones of male fantasy played out in the scenarios.

For better or for worse, the serious games industry suffers the same issues as the gaming industry in general. The games are typically built by young guys, and therefore the play experience is most appropriate for young guys. What about the 51% of the population that's not male?  This continues to be one of the biggest barriers to adoption that face serious games' integration into learning curriculum.

So what's different about the ladies?

Speaking in broad generalities, women interact with new environments, specifically games, much differently than men. They like to be shown what to do, and be able to practice without negative consequence or risk of failing. Men would rather just jump in and try things, more willing to learn from their mistakes. Most video games 
are set up with guys in mind: jump in, try things out, and when you've used up your "lives," you start over again.  For women, this causes anxiety and irritation, and accounts for the high attrition rates of women playing most video games. At GDC in Austin last year, I attended a session by Sheri Graner Ray who has also published this book on gender-inclusive game design. I would highly recommend anyone involved in designing games check it out.

For games designed for entertainment purposes, shame on them for not addressing known gender issues with game engagement. That's not to say that some progress hasn't been made. Nintendo has made great strides with Wii in designing gaming experiences that are pretty gender neutral, and incorporate many of the design strategies that attract girls to games. If you have any question, check out this somewhat disturbing video of kids overwhelmed with excitement getting a Wii for Christmas. Notice that just as many girls are excited as boys. While I think the video is a bit over the top and definitely biased, still, I was happy to see the reaction seemed to be "gender neutral."

For serious games designed for organizational learning, lack of acknowledgement of these gender differences and the absence of design that meets the needs of both types of engagement is an irresponsible waste of money. As more and more companies and organizations look to games to enhance learning experiences, it is critical that gender differences are addressed, or else risk the marginalization of women in your organization.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Bright shiny new year

New Year's Eve and New Year's Day are not my favorite holidays; in fact, they don't rank in the top 5. But the beginning of each new year, I tend to undergo a transformation of sorts, realigning myself and my goals for the new year. 

Most years, this results in a lot of work-related ideas, initiatives, and goals (read: lists). But this year, for some reason, my new resolve seems to be on a personal level. 

I have ideas for Tandem for the new year, make no mistake. But my new year's new focus, new attitude are more to do with me personally. 

Every year brings challenges. This year I feel a bit more prepared, a bit more resolved, a bit more ready for the year ahead. Maybe its the experience of the last year that has solidified my resolve. Or maybe its my eternal optimism. 

Happy New Year, everyone. 2009 promises to be bigger and better.

To do in '09

I don't make resolutions, but I do make lists. Resolve is finicky, but when I've got something to do on my list, there's much better chance that thing is getting done. 

Here's my business to do list for 2009, based on my learnings from 2008. 
  • Get contracts in place and finalized for any outstanding agreements, and don't start any new ventures without a contract in place from the beginning (I'm sure the sharkweasel will love this one...)
  • Review company financials and make adjustments on a weekly basis
  • Publish my book 
  • Speak/present at three or more events
  • Keep up with this blog and put some energy and thought into my new company blog
  • Meet 3 of my Twitter friends that I've never met in person
  • Explore 3 new social media tools and determine their usefulness for learning
  • Get 3 new clients 
  • Realize quarter over quarter growth
  • Resume the Rockstar meetings
  • Establish individual performance goals for each of the Rockstars
  • Hit our sales goals
  • Write another book
  • Hold a conference 
Not a long list, right? Just a few little things to do this year. 365 days to check 14 things off my list. Let's get this party started.