Archives for December 2014

Content Writer’s Guide: Simple Tips to Hook, Engage and Teach Trainees

A good eLearning course makes a complex concept easier to understand and to act on.

But eLearning courses don’t always turn out that way. Despite good intentions and earnest efforts, sometimes something seems to be missing. As any instructional designer knows, the course is always more than the sum of its parts. When the parts lack finesse, the course doesn’t work.

Examples include instances where visualization doesn’t fit the content or screens with too much text. Maybe the language feels stilted or the layouts look sloppy when you’re three screens into the course.

This article is a kind of toolbox, or even a handbook, that outlines some basic devices that can tackle frequently encountered challenges of content design. We’ll take care of these one challenge at a time.

Too Much Content On the Screen…And All of It Is Important

We generally chunk and group related content and present it as a cohesive unit. However, translating this on a display may seem too verbose. The dilemma then is what can you remove from the display when all of it is important? (Assuming you have asked yourself some hard questions and realized that all of it actually is important.)

Content Lab:

Here’s an example of what we could do to overcome this challenge. The following content relates to how to arrange store shelves to attract consumers:

Visual guidelines provide a strong, clear graphic message to the customer. To optimize the planogram (a diagram or model that indicates the placement of retail products on shelves in order to maximize sales) of an outlet, brands need to be placed left to right in order of premiumness. Note that you will place standard brands on the left and premium brands on the right.

In a linear arrangement, brands must be placed from bottom to top in order of premiumness. Sometimes though, the shelf will not have enough space to stock complete brand families. In this case, ensure that brands of the same families are on adjacent shelves close to each other. Also important are shelf branding and its sync with product placement. The top shelf of branded shelves must display the same brand as shown in the display on top of the rack. The higher the shelf share, the closer the outlet is to becoming a perfect outlet.

To get a higher shelf share, it is important to focus on hotspots. A hotspot is an area, location, or point within an outlet which attracts disproportionate consumer eyeballs. Leverage hotspots for communication, branding, and other such activities. Some other hotspots are the “visibility diamond” and the counter. Additionally, there are different kinds of guidelines that pertain to various types of signage such as those for the main facade, any other outside branding, in-shop branding, and non-permanent point-of-sale material or POSMs.


Break the content up into headings: Overall, we can see that these visual guidelines can be categorized into the following areas: Planograming, shelf-branding, and signage. A straightforward way to redesign the screen would be to use headings: Visual guidelines provide a strong, clear visual message to the customer.

Planograming. To optimize the planograming of an outlet, brands need to be placed left to right in order of premiumness. In a linear arrangement, brands must be placed from bottom to top in order of premiumness. Sometimes though, the shelf will not have enough space to stock complete brand families.

Shelf share and sync with product placement. The higher the shelf share, the closer the outlet is to becoming a perfect outlet. To get a higher shelf share, it is important to focus on hotspots. A hotspot is an area, location, or point within an outlet that attracts disproportionate consumer eyeballs. Leverage hotspots for communication, branding, and such activities. Some other hotspots are the visibility diamond and the counter.

Signage. Different guidelines apply to various signages such as the main facade, any other outside branding, in-shop branding, and non-permanent point-of-sale material or POSMs.

  • Use bullets for large chunks of paragraphs: Shelf-branding guidelines
    • The top shelf of branded shelves must display the same brand as shown in the display on top of the rack.
    • Leverage hotspots such as the visibility diamond and the counter for communication, branding, and other such activities.
    • Higher visibility share of the focus brand has a bigger impact on the perception of the brand by the customer.
  • Make the content scannable: When information is easy for learners to read through (scan), they are more likely to get to the core message at a glance. When we make information scannable (easily readable), it reflects the most intuitive way we consume content in daily lives.
    A good way to do that is to make the key terms bold: The top shelf of branded shelves must display the same brand as shown in the display on top of the rack.

Too Much Content, Not Enough Relevance

When we have to abstract a screen’s worth of content from a 40-page document, what we select or leave out makes a lot of difference in earning a learner’s indifference or interest. A good way to establish relevance is to convert clichés into something meaningful.

Content Lab:

You are working with company-related information that you must design in a way that provides an overview of the business to customers. Too many slides talk about how, “Company A has effective technological solutions that have been designed on breakthrough technology.” This sentence means little. The solutions were effective according to whom? What is the breakthrough technology?

To transform this company information into something a learner actually cares about, we could add in details. For example, “Company A has technological solutions that have impacted the ROI of 50 companies and more than 6,000 users.”

Technical Content, And It All Reads Dry

At times we script courses on subjects we don’t know much about. In such cases there is a tendency to detail out every nut and bolt in fear that we might leave out something. Alternatively, we may omit something fundamental. If the technical content is for technical experts, the challenge can be even more complex. In a sense, you are preaching to the converted.

For example, an automobile designer doesn’t need to be sold on the importance of knowing the definitions of booster nomenclature or other components of a brake system. You, however, are the novice who believes that every word written in the SME manual is imperative. Of course, it’s the rare SME who will disagree with that.

However, the risk of alienating the learners is high when you start teaching basics they already know.

Content Lab:

Here, consider using a pre-test to tease out what learners actually know about the subject. Or even check whether learners can apply their existing knowledge to a new domain. For example, can engineers apply their knowledge of automobile systems to a project management crisis? Or can learners with prior knowledge of personal finance apply their knowledge to corporate taxation?

Ineffective Images

For a picture to be worth a thousand words, visualize one core idea and not the thousand. Ineffective screens have ineffective images—some that are direct and others that are metaphors; some that directly relate to the content and others that make oblique references to the content. The way we get such visual chaos is usually because we want every word on the screen to have a pictorial depiction.

Content Lab:

Here are some things that can pare down the busy-ness of a screen:

  • Script the details such that you reduce the number of elements. Visualize no more than three items and visualize those strongly.
  • Instead of many disparate elements, converge the elements into a composite infographic. This works because it is easier to get our heads wrapped around one big idea than many smaller ones.
    Let’s say you would like to depict the following information: “A limited way to approach our existence is to regard the human species as more important than the amoeba, the fauna, the animals, or the starfish in the sea. Instead, human beings are another dot that stays connected to the other forms of life.”
    One way to do this is to create two composite images that convey the central theme of this message. For the first, we could use a pyramid with an icon of the human being right at the top and different species forming each layer below. For the other, we could show an image where all forms of life are arranged in a circle, and the human being is just one more dot in the circle, connected. A pyramid indicates hierarchy. A circle indicates connection. It’s never the image—it’s always the idea.
  • Refrain from segregating content into boxes. Consider alternative methods such as proximity and clustering, typography, and content to categorize content. This cleans up the space.

But what if the screen looks too empty?

  • Try a front-and-center layout and integrate the text and image. This doesn’t need to apply only to diagrams or process or organizational charts.
  • Also, it’s important to remember that a minimalist screen is better for the course than one that is filled with unnecessary visual clutter.

What if the information is just legal or accounting guidelines?

Consider using meaningful icons along with labels. For example, a course on finance usually has a lot of content that pertains to documentation regarding operation costs and revenues. Instead of simply putting in a number of moneybag or currency icons and folders, you can differentiate them. The icons can be yellow for costs and green for revenues.

The Scenario Scene

Scenarios allow the learners to try on a concept for size. You should design them to get learners to explore a world, make a few mistakes, and get a sense of what the repercussions are of getting it wrong.

If we have to script a scenario about teaching negotiation skills through a character, Marlene, who has to get the right price from the shipping vendor for her shipment, there need to be enough details for learners to care about Marlene and her problem.

Content Lab:

  • For scenarios to work, the level of detail is important. There should be enough detail so that learners can relate to the world in which the scenario is based. However, if a scenario has too many details, the scenario’s objective is likely to get lost.
    We definitely want to know Marlene’s designation in the company, a bit about the vendor company, the products for which Marlene is scouting around for shippers, and some sense of the business reasons to understand exactly why the shipment cost is important for the product. However, we do not really need to know the fiscal details of either company or the number of their employees.
  • Use realistic dialogues and visual cues. Pay attention to what characters on screen are wearing, the weather in which they operate, and the words and jargon they use.

Most importantly, don’t lose track. The scenario was set up for a reason. Marlene was supposed to negotiate her way to a more competitive price without losing the vendor’s services or compromising her business’s interest. Any incident that helps Marlene on this track needs to stay. Anything that does not help, you need to leave out.

Reprinted from Learning Solutions Magazine

4 Things Benefits Pros Should Know About Obama’s Immigration Plan

Through an executive order announced Nov. 20, President Barack Obama took steps to expand resident and employment eligibility for up to 5 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States.

In a televised address to the nation, the president said his order shields undocumented immigrants from deportation and allows them to live and work temporarily here, so long as they have lived in the U.S. for at least five years, register with appropriate federal agencies, pass a background check and pay taxes.

Although the action falls short of the wider and more permanent protections immigrant advocacy groups and business leaders would like, most experts agree that the order could make living and working in the U.S. easier for undocumented workers and their potential employers.

After a broad scan of news and analysis on how the president’s order affects employers, here are the top four things HR and benefits professionals need to know:

1. Prepare for a potential influx of resumes. The visa proposals for highly skilled workers included in the president’s order would add about 147,000 people to the workforce by 2024, according to the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers. In addition to immigrants themselves, the administration is seeking to allow the spouses of workers with H-1B visas to legally work as well.

Also, tech companies in particular stand to benefit; one of the proposals would extend beyond 29 months the time that someone with an American science or technology degree could work at a company after graduation.

2. Payroll tax withholding and entitlement administration may be more complicated. Under the president’s order, undocumented immigrants may apply for permits to work legally in the U.S., which means they would be subject to payroll tax withholding for Social Security and Medicare.

This could become sticky for employers as undocumented workers come out of the shadows. Virginia-based attorney Christine Mehfoud told website HR Hero that “employers may have an increased number of employees presenting with new identities and wanting to change their name, Social Security number, etc., on file with the employer. This has become a tricky situation for many employers, especially those who have a policy of disciplining employees who provide false information to the employer.”

In addition, employers also would need to appropriately communicate with and oversee employees who become eligible to receive Social Security and/or Medicare benefits if they reach retirement age while still in the country.

3. Health care becomes thornier as well. Obama was explicit that the order does not allow undocumented immigrants to be eligible to buy or receive subsidies from health insurance exchanges. That means employers who hire them would be exempt from the $3,000 per employee penalty for not providing them health benefits. This move especially angers anti-immigration groups, claiming it gives employers a $3,000 “incentive” to hire an undocumented worker over a native-born American.

4. Be patient, but stay vigilant. Most experts concur that even if it’s unchallenged, the president’s order won’t be fully implemented until the first quarter of 2015 at the earliest. It could take a year or more, some say. Further, employment attorney Charles Gillman told Expert HR, “the devil is in the details,” and noted “there is still a lot of uncertainty as to when these changes will come to fruition.”

In general, though, Gillman said, “It should make it easier to employ foreign nationals and streamline the process. The takeaway is that most observers believe the administration has put itself on a path that should help employers.”

About the Author:

Kelley M. Butler is the editorial director at Benz Communications, an HR/benefits communication strategy firm. Before joining Benz, Butler spent 11 years at Employee Benefit News, including seven as editor in chief. Reprinted from

‘Pre-Mortem’ Training Pays Dividends For This Organization

By focusing on “Exceptional Project Execution” as a strategic corporate goal, commercial construction company McCarthy Building Companies, Inc., has become one of the best in its industry at proactively managing risk. The company has many training tools on safety, quality, and legal issues, but a non-traditional training tool called the Pre-Mortem has become one of the most effective ways for project teams to communicate about, identify, prioritize, and assign responsibility for managing risk.

Sponsored by McCarthy’s president/COO, all leaders VP-level and above have been trained in Pre-Mortem use, and the Training Team offers facilitated sessions when requested. A Pre-Mortem is an engaging way of getting a team to recognize and plan for avoiding the most likely and impactful risks. Inspired by a mental simulation exercise in “The Power of Intuition” by Gary Klein, McCarthy adapted its method to identify real areas of risk and take proactive action to avoid them.

Program Details

The McCarthy-adapted Pre-Mortem is a five-step process designed to be facilitated with a team:

Step 1: Imagine a Fiasco

Imagine your project has failed. Not a partial failure but a complete, devastating and embarrassing failure.

Step 2: Generate Reasons for the Failure

Ask, “What could have caused this to fail?” Spend the next five to seven minutes writing down all reasons the failure occurred. (Everyone should respond, increasing the number of discussion points.)

Step 3: Consolidate the Lists

Record each person’s responses, eliminating duplicates.

Step 4: Force Rank the Risks

On a scale of 1-10, rate the impact of the issue, likelihood of the issue occurring, and quality of current mitigation controls in place. Calculate totals to drive discussion of the most important issues.

Step 5: Take Ownership of the Results

Using group discussion, build consensus around the areas of greatest concern. Use a matrix to assign owners and stakeholders for top issues.

The most influential element of the process and the most difficult to facilitate is the team’s acceptance that they are talking about the project as an actual horrible failure and not a possible failure. This subtle shift makes all the difference, forcing them to stretch their thinking about risk and impact.

A powerful example comes from one of McCarthy’s airport projects: A possible risk is accidentally cutting into a fuel pipe. Instead, imagine the fiasco of cutting into a fuel pipe and shutting down the entire airport because there is no way to fuel planes, stopping 1,600 flights and affecting 100,000 travelers It’s natural for most people not to imagine a failure of that magnitude, but a well facilitated Pre-Mortem forces them to not only imagine it, but plan to avoid it as well.


This training has dramatically improved McCarthy’s risk exposure across the board. On one Southern California project, the company reduced its cost and exposure by nearly $250,000 through identifying a high-impact, high-likelihood risk with the masonry skin. The team took ownership and made it a priority, eliminating the need for additional headcount and avoiding rework.

Pre-Mortem Facilitation Skills training has been conducted more than 50 times, and McCarthy’s success at proactive risk management and Exceptional Project Execution can be seen in its Experience Modifier Rate (EMR) of 0.49 (among the lowest in the construction industry) and a key factor in its top insurance bonding position, and Claim\Latent Defect Rate dropping 74 percent in the last year.

Reprinted from Training Magazine

How to Improve the ROI of Your High-Potential Programs

Organizations have long used high potential programs to develop successors. However, recent research shows that these programs haven’t always come with a significant return on investment.

In fact, according to a 2013 high potential program study by The Corporate Executive Board Co., despite increased investments in high potential programs, most human resources professionals lack confidence in them, with about half reporting that they’re either dissatisfied or highly dissatisfied with their programs.

Given the fierce competition for talent and the need to grow a strong bench of successors, high potential programs will remain an important strategy in employee development. What organizations need to do is understand how they can improve the success of these programs to build a stronger leadership bench.

First, define “potential” correctly. Many organizations confuse current performance with future potential. However, longitudinal benchmarks reveal that only 30 percent of today’s high performers are successful when promoted two levels up. Those organizations that have successful high potential programs recognize that employees need more than strong performance in their current role to succeed in future ones.

They also need to have the aspiration to rise to a more senior role, the ability to manage and lead effectively in these new roles, and engagement levels that show high commitment to the organization.

Without measuring each of these — ability, aspiration and engagement — organizations will be wrong more often than not in deciding who to bet on for the future.Next, measure potential objectively. Organizations in the U.S. have spent several billion dollars on high potential programs since 2012, according to CEB research. Yet, surprisingly, nearly half of them lack a methodical process for identifying and developing high potentials, and only a third of organizations use assessment data to identify candidates.

Manager assessments alone are subjective and may not be accurate enough to determine employees’ ability, aspiration and engagement. To ensure fair and valid identification of high potentials, organizations should adopt objective assessment tools and evaluation methods.

Then, create differentiated development experiences. The typical high potential program fails to prepare participants for roles they may hold in the future. Providing high potentials with targeted projects and stretch assignments helps them learn new skills. It also builds their ability to apply existing skills to different roles within the organization.

Finally, ask for commitment in return for career opportunities. High-potential employees are strong performers and are highly marketable, thus they are often confident in their ability to find work elsewhere. Yet, CEB research shows that only 11 percent of companies require formal commitment from their top performers.

About the Authors:

Jean Martin is executive director of The Corporate Executive Board’s Corporate Leadership Council, and Joe Ungemah is vice president and head of the leadership practice at The Corporate Executive Board Co., a research and advisory firm. Reprinted from Talent Management magazine

The Danger of Confusing Affirmative Action with Diversity

There is a common misperception among business leaders that “diversity initiatives” are synonymous with “affirmative action policies.” Some believe that companies looking to diversify their talent should prepare for a potential backlash. The problem is that this viewpoint only looks at one element of the issue: representation of traditionally underrepresented groups.

Our experience tells us that focusing exclusively on a representation-based approach without connecting the diversity initiatives to the strategic business plans and without working on creating a culture of inclusion — defined as leveraging similarities and differences to achieve a common goal — can indeed backfire. The 21st century work world demands more.

Organizations need leaders who have the skills and capabilities to manage and leverage all types of differences. They also need a broader talent pool to offer a myriad of perspectives that truly reflect the marketplace to improve their products and services and connect with the needs of their diverse customers. And they need the innovative thinking from high-performing and heterogeneous teams to be relevant globally and locally to penetrate new markets and be sustainable.

Diversity drives competitive performance

Multiple research studies demonstrate that diverse teams with inclusion that are well managed outperform homogeneous teams or diverse teams who aren’t well managed. Consider these statistics:

  •  McKinsey’s 2012 “Women Matter” study found companies that have leveraged both inclusion and diversity for business impact have doubled their company valuation as well as their employee engagement and are 1.8 times more likely to innovate.
  • In “How Diversity Can Drive Innovation,” Harvard Business Review states that teams with a member who shares a customer’s gender, culture or generation are 158 percent more likely to understand and build customer rapport. And leadership that understands, supports and values diversity and inclusion is 45 percent more likely to report market share growth and 70 percent more likely to report new market capture.

Backed by these findings and driven by business imperatives, many organizations now seem more comfortable having conversations about inclusion and engagement than they are talking about diversity. Diversity seems to be a term too much linked to the old paradigm of affirmative action. But business leaders and diversity practitioners need to be careful about “throwing out the baby with the bath water.” Diversity may not be as effective without a focus on inclusion, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t need to have a diversity strategy to better represent the marketplace.

As of November 2014, only 26 Fortune 500 companies had female CEOs and women occupied just 16.9 percent of Fortune 500 board seats. According to a U.S. Senate report in 2013, African Americans comprised between 8-9 percent on corporate boards, and only 4 percent on executive teams. Latinos made an unacceptable 4 percent of representation on boards and 3 percent in executive teams.

This isn’t just about helping women or minority groups break the glass ceiling. Having a critical mass of leaders with diverse perspectives across an organization and at the top is proven to have a direct correlation to better financial return. McKinsey’s “Is there a payoff from top-team diversity?” study measured a 53 percent higher return on equity and 14 percent higher earnings before interest and taxes for global publicly traded companies that have the largest share of women and foreign nationals — the latter being a proxy for cultural diversity — on their executive committees.

But Doesn’t Merit Still Count?

Clearly, paying attention to diversity of talent does not mean only the recruiting and advancing underrepresented groups, but also widening the pool from which to recruit and advance those qualified yet traditionally underutilized. Of course, the notion of “best qualified/merit” always applies — it may just look different in today’s workplace. Companies need to rethink what is needed to be successful going forward.

In our 21st century VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world, it is proven that “what got them here won’t get them there” — an entirely different set of backgrounds, experiences and skills are needed.

“Merit” may look different now that the ability to work across differences and across cultures is becoming a key skill for success. And in order to counteract the perception of special treatment and lowered standards, managers need to be aware of and support those new skills, and be sure to be transparent about the reasons for hiring or promoting a woman or a minority over a traditional candidate.

What about them “beat” the competition? Is it that new skill set? Is it the fact that in order to be innovative, a diverse set of ideas is needed on the team? And if so, managers need to be sure that this diverse set of ideas is actually being heard and leveraged so that employees understand that it’s not about having “one of each” on a team but that the company is serious about leveraging their diversity for business results. That’s the inclusion part in “D&I” initiatives.

While there are still misunderstandings and difficulties around how to effectively operationalize diversity initiatives in the workplace, there is no denying that doing so in a business context is more urgent and relevant than ever before. That is why it’s important not to underestimate the latest efforts of technology companies like Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and others to continue to pay attention to the representation of their workforce from a more holistic and integrated perspective: by embracing a paradigm shift to build the next generation business-focused diversity and inclusion initiatives.

In our complex, competitive and globalized economy, organizations from all over the world are realizing that their success is inextricably linked to their ability to attract, advance and retain a diverse and agile talent pool that is encouraged to be innovative and culturally competent to bridge gaps and geographies. The key will be how well these organizations succeed in the “I” part of the D&I equation.

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