Archives for December 2013

A Closer Look: Myths Vs. Reality in Training

As humans, we tend to believe new ideas that reinforce current views and reject those that don’t. Thus we rarely clean our mental closets of popular but outdated ideas or question facts that support our notion of where we think things are headed. What follows is a sampling of recent research and opinion that challenges some popular but possibly outdated beliefs in the training field.

Engagement and informal learning

The notion: Open-plan offices encourage engagement and informal learning.

The reality: Replacing private offices with open space may not increase informal learning and innovation after all.

The authors of a recent study reported in the Journal of Environmental Psychology write, “Our results categorically contradict the industry-accepted wisdom that open-plan layout enhances communication between colleagues and improves occupants’ overall work environmental satisfaction.”

And they add, “The open-plan proponents’ argument that open-plan improves morale and productivity appears to have no basis in the research literature.”

Many office designers and managers appear to believe that once the walls come down, workers will be more likely to have chance conversations that inspire new ideas. However, research shows that although conversations are indeed frequent among employees in open offices, they tend to be short and superficial because of the lack of privacy.

Some argue that open space encourages people to learn informally by asking questions of their co-workers, but even this has a downside. In a 2012 study by German and Swiss researchers, participants who requested help with a task performed better, while those who supplied assistance did worse.

Frequently alternating between helping others and doing one’s own job imposes a heavy “cognitive load,” the scientists concluded, as the help givers are forced to reacquaint themselves repeatedly with the details of their own tasks.

Productivity and innovation

The notion: A messy desk inhibits work.

The reality: A messy desk is likely to foster innovation.

A new study conducted by psychological scientist Kathleen Vohs and fellow researchers at the University of Minnesota, published in Psychological Science, found that cluttered environments were more likely to foster innovation than tidy desks.

According to Vohs’s research, working at a clean desk may promote healthy eating, generosity, and conventionality, but the research also shows that a messy desk may promote creative thinking and stimulate new ideas.

“Today’s office environments (small desks, no walls) leave less room to make a mess,” she says. “While cleaning up certainly has its benefits, clean spaces might be too conventional to let inspiration flow.”

Right-brained vs. left-brained

The notion: People are either right-brained or left-brained and this influences both behavior and cognition.

The reality: Humans have no preferential left- or right-brained relationship. They use both hemispheres equally, and neither side is stronger. In other words, there is no such thing as brain dominance.

In a two-year study, researchers at the University of Utah used brain imaging to study almost 7,000 regions of the brains of more than 1,000 people. They found no evidence to suggest that one hemisphere is more dominant than another. However, their findings do not refute the theory that certain mental processes are specialized in either the right or the left hemisphere.

“It’s absolutely true that some brain functions occur in one or the other side of the brain,” explains Jeff Anderson, lead author of the study. “Language tends to be on the left, attention more on the right. But people don’t tend to have a stronger left- or right-sided brain network.”

The preference to use one brain region more than the other for certain functions, which scientists call lateralization, is indeed real, says Anderson, director of the fMRI Neurosurgical Mapping Service at the University of Utah. “For example, speech emanates from the left side of the brain for most right-handed people. This does not imply, though, that great writers or

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speakers use their left side of the brain more than the right, or that one side is richer in neurons.”

The Utah scientists’ research refutes the misconception that everything to do with being analytical is confined to one side of the brain, and everything to do with being creative is confined to the opposite side. In fact, researchers found that it is the connections among all brain regions that enable humans to engage in both creativity and analytical thinking.

Their study, “An Evaluation of the Left-Brain vs. Right-Brain Hypothesis with Resting State Functional Connectivity Magnetic Resonance Imaging,” was published in August.

Performance management

The notion: Performance management can be improved by installing the right software to manage performance data or changing the way people are rated.

The reality: Human nature plays a bigger role in performance management than any process or software.

“While those factors can be helpful,” writes David Rock, director of the Neuroleadership Institute and author of Your Brain at Work, “they don’t seem to guarantee a significant increase in the effectiveness of an overall performance management process.

“Research is leading us to believe that one of the key factors for radically improving the effectiveness of performance management may come from … an organization’s philosophical stance about human nature.” In short, writes Rock on his blog, “Whether organizational leaders believe other leaders are born or made may matter much more than we realize.”

He concludes that new research about nature versus nurture suggests that people’s beliefs about whether talent or intelligence is born or can be developed affects the success or failure of a whole performance management system.

Performance feedback

The notion: All feedback is good.

The reality: Not always.

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has found that not all praise is equally helpful. Praising children for being smart is a less effective performance motivator than praising them for effort. Dweck labels the two mindsets created by such praise as “fixed” and “growth.”

That finding may remind some of the research of psychologist Albert Bandura, who in 1977 introduced the concept of “self-efficacy”—a belief that one can succeed. Years later, he and others showed that managers’ beliefs about an organization’s capability to change influenced the success of change efforts.

In The Crowdsourced Performance Review: How to Use the Power of Social Recognition to Transform Employee Performance, Eric Mosley argues that social recognition, a practice in which many people use social media to consider and recognize an employee’s performance on a daily basis, can improve performance more effectively than either the one-on-one performance review or 360-degree feedback.

Makeup of the workforce

The notion: The U.S. workforce is getting younger.

The reality: Despite the flow of Millennials into the workforce, the average age of the U.S. worker is increasing for now because senior employees are not retiring as early as they once did.

The sheer size of the Baby Boomer generation means that the number of Americans reaching age 60 each year is climbing steeply. Also, labor force participation rates have increased for adults between ages 60 and 74.

In the past quarter century there has been a steady improvement in older Americans’ educational credentials, both absolutely and in comparison to the qualifications of younger workers. People with more education tend to stay in the workforce longer than the less-educated.

Mobile technology

The notion: Tablets in the classroom will disrupt learning.

The reality: Successful use of tablets to transform learning will depend on teachers as well as technology. Companies are well-advised to invest not just in technology, but also in developing trainers who can use it to their best advantage in achieving their goals.

Mobile devices, particularly tablets, used for training represent a vast commercial opportunity for their manufacturers, but will they really transform learning? Two things need to happen, according to many observers.

The first is that more tablet-trained kids need to enter the workforce and replace the late-age adopters of technology who still outnumber younger workers. The second is that trainers need to acquire new skills, including:

  • tech-based classroom management skills, such as the use of polls, discussions, and exercises, that facilitate individualized instruction in real time
  • the ability to personalize learning or to become a personalized learning environment facilitator (an actual title at tablet-maker Amplify for people who help instructors learn to use tablets)
  • multitasking in the virtual classroom, for example promoting research, discussion, practice, and mastery simultaneously
  • the ability to use data about learners to improve the learning experience and its results.

Disruptive technology

The notion: Disruptive technology refers only to hardware and software that causes radical change.

The reality: There’s more; way more.

Mark Oehlert, self-described iPhonographer and socialtext’r in the learning realm, tells us, “Technology can mean more than hardware and software. It can also mean the application of knowledge to serve a need. The most important trend of the next 24-36 months will be how well we apply different thinking about how organizations should be set up.”

Oehlert cites the flat structure of gaming company Valve as an example. In Valve’s 2012 handbook, a section titled “Welcome to Flatland” describes the company structure. “We don’t have any management, and nobody ‘reports to’ anybody else. We do have a founder/president, but even he isn’t your manager. This company is yours to steer—toward opportunities and away from risks. You have the power to green-light projects. You have the power to ship products.”

Valve employees select and prioritize their own projects, and move their desks, which are on wheels, to whatever location makes sense. “These efforts and others like them will be the most important ‘technology’ of the next two years at least,” says Oehlert.

In times of such flux, he advises learning professionals to think deeply about their value to the organization and about how to leverage their skills across new learning products and new training dynamics.


The notion: Electronic technology improves communication.

The reality: People are communicating more but saying less.

Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who opines often about the unanticipated consequences of immersion in electronic technology, has been expressing concern about “the crisis in the ability to talk.”

Interviewed by Carlo Rotello, director of American Studies at Boston College for The New York Times, Turkle said, “High-school teachers are already complaining that their students are fixed on programs that give the right answer, and they’re losing the notion of talking and listening to each other.”

Broadcasting and posting opinions is not a conversation, she warns.

Women in the C-suite

The notion: Women are making headway in the executive ranks. Just look at Marissa Mayer (CEO at Yahoo) and Sheryl Sandberg (chief operating officer at Facebook).

The reality: The top roles of Mayer and Sandberg notwithstanding, there are still very few women in top leadership positions in large, high-profile organizations, and high-tech is especially notorious for its mostly male leaders.

Twitter, for example, approached its 2013 IPO with only one woman among its top officials, no women on its board, and only one female executive officer who had been in her job just five weeks.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a political scientist at Princeton University and head of the New America Foundation, has said that women will not gain equal footing or pay at work until caregiver and breadwinner are equally acceptable social roles for men and women.

A warning

Whether or not you believe the facts in this article may depend on the “illusion of validity,” a term coined by Daniel Kahneman to describe the fact that the confidence we have in our judgments is not affected by statistical facts that contradict our judgment.

The mind is prone to making shortcuts, explains the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and author of Thinking Fast and Slow. “We’re wired to construct stories out of imperfect evidence. The data we have could be slight, partial, or biased, but we automatically make the best story possible because of our ‘antipathy toward effort,'” says Kahneman.

Reprinted from T&D Magazine

Instructional Designers as Content Curators: Tips and Pitfalls

In his bestseller on forecasting, The Signal and the Noise author Nate Silver likened our post-Internet information explosion to the events and epochs following the introduction of Gutenberg’s printing press. Besides democratizing literacy and triggering centuries of holy wars, the printing press enabled the same runaway proliferation of information we face today.

Then, as now, Silver writes, “The amount of information was increasing much more rapidly than our understanding of what to do with it, or our ability to differentiate the useful information from the mistruths.” Sound familiar?

How does this relate to training? If we design solutions and create the content ourselves, we control both quality and quantity, right? Increasingly—not so much. More and more, sources for all manner of content are available for distillation and mash-up.

As instructional designers and content developers, it’s no longer enough to just be a great writer to create great training … it requires a bit of mad science to concoct the right learning solution.

Today’s students have a million ways to seek knowledge outside the confines of your training, from the Internet to their digitally connected peers. This unchecked access to content is both blessing and curse. Your learners are drowning in the same ocean of information you are, leaving them distractible, unproductive, and vulnerable to misinformation.

Enter content curation, an oft-prescribed solution for this malady. And rightly so—being able to gather and filter content is becoming as important an ID skill as creating it.

Tips for Content Curation

Ironically, content curation itself is a perennially trending topic with many meta-levels: Plenty of curators share valuable best practices, and there’s no shortage of tools. But for now, let’s focus on content curation tips for training professionals, and some pitfalls to avoid:

Diversify: Get beyond the single-learning-event model. Instead of predictable, templated eLearning courses, gather video demos, create practice activities, recommend articles for further learning, and attach spec sheets for performance support later.

Share the sharing. Students are curious and want to consult with their peers; encourage information exchange through wikis, commenting features, and chat functions. Moderate if necessary or have an SME do it.

Remember quality control. You may not create all the content for the learners, but hold onto your standards. Avoid presenting information that’s amateurish, low in production value, or akin to shovelware.

Be cohesive. Even when curating top-notch content, a lurking pitfall is the patchwork learning solution. For example, be mindful of your client’s style guide and make sure none of your chosen materials violates those standards. Design the training’s scaffolding (such as navigation and graphics) to give learners a consistent experience, even with a variety of content types.

Be authentic. Curation works best when readers see the curator as a credible proxy for their own tastes and preferences. Engage learners with user-centered design, and user-test to get insights into their behavior.

Explore the Experience API. Want to know what learners are reading outside your course? Look into Experience API (xAPI). If you haven’t yet investigated the possibilities of this new specification, start by clicking here. By capturing a learning record store of your learners’ activities, xAPI provides insight about what content learners find useful, which could shape your curation efforts.

Does Letting Go of Content Creation Worry You? Relax.

These tips all apply to good training design, curated or not. But if the idea of letting go of content creation makes you insecure about your ID role, breathe deep and realize:

Remember, it’s not just aggregating and collecting; it’s you thinking through the design of your courses to unearth the juiciest and most salient materials for your audience. No matter who creates

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it (you or your curated authors), you’re still supporting the learning activities that correspond to the learning objectives. Nothing new, right?

Reprinted from Learning Solutions Magazine

Half of Survey Respondents Believe ACA Will Raise Insurance Costs

Employee skepticism about the Affordable Care Act is presenting employers with a new challenge: how to communicate the law and its relationship to workers’ health benefits.

That might be a tall task given the findings of a recent National Business Group on Health study. Respondents say that health care reform will increase how much they pay for health insurance during the next several years — despite admitting to an overall lack of familiarity with the legislation.

“This research points to the importance of employers taking an active role in helping their employees understand the choices and implications that flow from the new legislation,” said Thomas Parry, president of the Integrated Benefit Institute.

More than half of respondents said they believe their health insurance premiums will rise during the next 12 months because of the ACA, and slightly more than half said they expect costs to jump in the next three to five years, according to the survey. A total of 1,520 employees at organizations with 2,000 or more employees responded to the survey.

“Increasing costs are the reality, not just a perception,” said Jennifer Benz, CEO of benefits consulting firm Benz Communications. “Employers are seeing costs increase as a result of ACA, coming from specific changes in coverage as well as fees.”

While respondents think costs will climb and quality will drop, only 4 in 10 said they are familiar with the ACA. Respondents are familiar with some of the law’s specific parts, such as the provision that individuals must have insurance or that midsize employers must offer insurance. However, fewer than 4 in 10 are aware of the creation of public health insurance exchanges.

“While employees have some knowledge about the ACA, they need to recognize that health reform brings with it additional costs for their employers and that, ultimately, they will be sharing in these costs,” said Helen Darling, president and CEO of the National Business Group on Health, a nonprofit association of more than 375 large U.S. employers.

“Neither employers nor the government can bear these added costs alone,” she said.

Reprinted from

The Rise of Executive Coaching

Learning and development professional Susannah Baldwin has been satisfied with her track record of late. One of her students, a senior director, was recently promoted. Another was moved to lead a different part of the organization.

But Baldwin, a leadership development veteran with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, isn’t an in-house practitioner or a training manager. She’s an executive coach.

Coaching, traditionally associated with athletics, is taking the executive education world by storm. In a 2012 study by the International Coach Federation, or ICF, the coach credentialing body said there were 41,300 active business coaches worldwide, with North America representing about a third of them.

The study also estimated the industry’s annual revenue at about $2 billion — a pittance compared to other industries, but noteworthy considering the industry’s youth.

Coaching is increasingly being used in executive education, shaking off the method’s reputation as a fix for remedial performance problems. In a 2012 survey from executive coaching firm CoachSource, 97 percent of organizations reported using coaching for leadership development. Thirty-five percent said they use it to fix performance, and 42 percent said it’s used for executive transition.

A number of factors powered executive development’s shift toward coaching. For starters, most coaching is personalized; individuals are given targeted learning to address specific skills gaps. Also, the one-on-one nature of a coaching relationship provides a sense of trust and engagement that other learning mediums may not be able to — a boon, experts say, when the goal is to change behaviors.

Executive coaching is also convenient. At the pace most executives move, coaching sessions can spread out over months and happen over the phone. The learning content is also the job content as coaches help address real-time issues. Instead of taking a weeklong retreat for soft skills development in a classroom, coaching provides constant feedback without taking extensive time away from the job.

This is especially the case in the high-tech industry, where Baldwin, based in San Francisco, does most of her work. As the tech industry grows, technical skill-based youngsters are increasingly being asked to lead public or soon-to-be-public companies with little formal business leadership experience.

“You go to Twitter, you’ve got a million senior directors who are 29 years old, don’t know jack about leading,” Baldwin said. “… It’s much easier for a hiring manager to just insert someone into their process and help them with the flow of their work.”

But coaching is not as much an alternative to executive education as it is a supplement. Many coaches, practitioners and executive education experts say coaching is most effective when used as a situational tool for high potential or top-level executive officers. Instances where coaching is applied to broad employee populations, while effective for some, are generally few and far between.

Of course, not all executives are receptive to coaching. And forced coaching, experts say, is a waste of time and money. “It’s not a quick fix,” said Kathleen Sack, senior director of talent and organizational development at the American Red Cross. “It’s not like sewing a button on a jacket.”

Reprinted from Chief Learning Officer

Connecting the Dots: The Ultimate Challenge for HR

The typical Human Resources department has responsibility for a broad set of activities — from ensuring that people get paid, maintaining employee data, complying with labor regulations and reporting mandates, to administering health and retirement benefits, managing recruiting, training, performance management, and a host of other talent management activities.

While much attention is paid to how to execute these activities and benchmark their performance, relatively little is directed at how they connect to each other, and more importantly, to how the outcomes of these activities drive organizational performance.

i4cp’s People-Profit Chain™ model illustrates the influence of these people-management factors on organizational performance. It represents a high-level schematic that shows the connections between key human capital domains — Market, Strategy, Culture, Leadership, and Talent — and how their outcomes work together to drive market performance.

Vail Resorts, described in a recently published i4cp case study, provides a compelling illustration of how one organization identified and connected the dots that matter most. In particular, this case example demonstrates how HR leaders can go beyond the traditional responsibilities of the human resource function to play lead roles in defining integrated market vision, business strategy and cultural values while ensuring that leadership and talent programs and practices align with them.

A Common Challenge Met by an Uncommon Leader

Vail Resorts Management Company operates businesses in three distinct areas: mountain resorts, lodging (including luxury hotels, condominiums, and golf courses), and real estate development (linked to the areas near the company’s resorts). Senior leadership had the perception that Vail Resorts’ three business areas lacked interconnectedness–a sense that their operations were not synchronized–that motivated company leaders toward change.

They aspired to create an integrated, holistic strategic plan to drive long-term success. At the same time, they sought the synergies that grow from an engaged, cohesive workforce, and the economies inherent in consistent processes and enterprise-wide purchasing power.

The effort to tackle this challenge was initiated and led from an unusual place: the HR organization. Mark Gasta, Executive Vice President and Chief People Officer, guided this effort.

Defining Values First, Then Customer and Business Strategies

Gasta’s first move was unconventional. He started by examining the company’s culture and values rather than customer needs or business strategy. He formed a cross-functional team that engaged staff at all levels across the entire organization. The team identified six key principles that define Vail Resorts’ culture, then worked to infuse each principle with an action orientation and created colorful icons representing each one to make the values more memorable for employees. The simply stated values include: “have fun, be safe, serve others, do good, do right, and drive value.”

Vail used these mission and core values to define their core business–to operate ski mountains–and a strategy built on providing an integrated set of products and services that delivered on its mission to create the ski experience of a lifetime. Having clarity about the core business made it possible for executives to prioritize, and helped leaders make tough decisions about other product, service and business opportunities.

The values were also incorporated within key talent and leadership activities. Says Gasta, “in fact, we’ve built our communications around them, and we include them in new-hire orientation and in development programs. Our employees get these, they resonate, they make sense.” Gasta says that the values now figure strongly in Vail Resorts’ employee performance appraisals as well.

The Result: Strategic Clarity and Organizational Synergy

Vail Resorts integrated HR strategies and practices and also identified and applied a single defining logic and set of values to its business strategy and operating model, which sharpened the company’s competitive differentiation and galvanized its workforce. With those vital fundamentals in place, it became possible to gain new clarity about the organization’s core business competencies and to craft a compelling vision strong enough and inspiring enough to move Vail Resorts toward a unique and successful future.

Gasta says that the several years of effort by company leaders and the Culture Team enabled Vail Resorts to “galvanize everyone around a shared mission, shared values, clarity around our core, and where we’re going to focus so that we really have one agenda for the company.”

Lessons for HR Leaders

Gasta sees the work accomplished by Vail Resorts as a good illustration of the valuable role of HR at the strategic level.

“It’s facilitation of cross-functional, cross divisional groups and who else can take the lead? HR is well-positioned to do this kind of work and begin integrating agendas toward a common purpose. We may not be subject matter experts in every piece of this, but we’re facilitation experts who can bring people together, establish a shared vision and begin creating movement toward that. The value is strategically significant for the organization, but it’s also the reason we are in HR–enlisting our employees in a greater purpose–something more than themselves. It’s getting them fully involved in the organization, providing services and creating products because they are passionate, connected and engaged.”

In other words, connecting the dots for all employees to the company’s vision, values and strategy.

Gasta cautions HR leaders to avoid the tendency to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the work to be done and advises: “Envision the future state you want, and begin your roadmap with just the first few steps. The thing about vision is that you may not be able to chart your course all the way to the end, but if you just know those first few steps, you can see a little farther from there. Then the next step will become clear.

“Too often, we don’t act because something seems too big. Just do what you can. Momentum builds momentum. You’ll look back a year from now and say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe how far we’ve come.'”

Reprinted from i4cp

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