Stop in the Name of Attention Theft!

I remember my first experience with theft. It was over twenty years ago and I had just landed in Germany, en route to my second year of teaching in Poland. To be truthful, I flew into Frankfurt to visit my then-boyfriend in Bonn. However, as far as my parents were concerned, it was “cheaper” to land in Germany and take the train to Gdansk. Ah, the days before widespread internet and a very trusting mom and dad.

After getting my luggage, I stopped to use a pay phone (yup, it was a long time ago). When I hung up, I noticed that my wallet was no longer in my backpack. My first reaction was anger. My second reaction was, I need to cancel my credit card and fast! Fortunately, I had already bought my train ticket to Bonn. Unfortunately, it was leaving in less than five minutes and without the credit card, I could not change my ticket. There was no time or means to sort the situation out, so I legged it for the platform and boarded. 

Two hours is a very long time to sit and hopelessly contemplate that your credit card is being charged to the limit on imagined first class tickets to Spain. I tried to relay my situation to the conductor in my pathetic German (Spoiler alert: my German is still brutal). He did his best to understand, but I had no success. Instead, he took generous pity on me and asked, “Rot oder Weiss?” repeatedly. Confused I said “Weiss” (white) and he promptly returned with a bottle of white wine. Let’s just say I tumbled off that train in Frankfurt 90 minutes later definitely less worried and angry!

So why the story? Well, I have been thinking a lot about theft lately. Mainly, my thoughts are around “attention theft” when ads are pushed to captive audiences who have not given consent. For example, you are stuck in a lift and there’s a TV playing a commercial. You have no interest in the ad, but when in a 6’x 6’ box suspended by cables with twenty other people you do not want to make eye contact with (because I am an urban Canadian), you are a slave to the message. It is maddening and disruptive, but part of our lives.

How many times do we commit attention theft when we design learning? From my experience, an awful lot. From designing to the lowest common denominator so the majority is sitting through content they already know, to spray and pray learning interventions that push modules that have little specific relevance to the learner but cover a broad swath of topics. Sure, we can do a fancy ROI to “prove” our learning was effective, but here’s an interesting little experiment I once did (location to remain anonymous): We took a data-sanitised list of top performers based on end-of-year ratings and compared these to their learning histories. Over 90% had only done their mandatory compliance training and never touched another object in the LMS in the past year.

It would be wrong to say these people did no learning all year, because obviously they were able to perform extremely well. When we spoke to a few of these people, they said they could get the content they needed quicker via their own search skills. Our courses were simply too slow or broad for their needs. Our content was simply attention theft.

Yes, these revelations certainly felt like a punch to the ego gut, but I have paid serious heed to this feedback. Consider the current rise of micro- and nano-learning: we all know learning needs to be shorter. That said, I get really twitchy when I hear these terms bandied about.

It is not about the length of the video or module. A poopy video is still poopy even if it is only 90 seconds long. Making content under five minutes does not magically render it immune to bad design.

Oh, the crimes against humanity I have witnessed committed with GoAnimate! To truly stop attention theft, we must design beyond length and look at the data.

It is no secret that I am in a love affair with xAPI. As a tool, it is built to track all learning experiences on and offline, and beyond the confines of the LMS. Bonus round: use it for detailed reporting on exactly how an audience is interacting with a piece of learning. Did they bypass the drag and drop? How many seconds did they spend on a page? Did they repeat an exercise? This gives you intimate knowledge on what is, and is not, important to your learner. It is then your job to revise based on these insights. If a page is often skipped, look deeper to see if you are committing attention theft and delete. If that content is critical, then present it in a different way. Then run it with xAPI and see if you increase engagement.

Not ready to use xAPI? (I would seriously question that decision) Simply pop your videos onto YouTube or Vimeo. Both will give you detailed analytics on how long your viewers are watching (Another spoiler alert: average watch time of short videos is 2 ½ minutes). Also, pay attention to the metrics of your peers in this space. I see a lot of microlearning being shared on LinkedIn with big hype, but when you look at the number of views on YouTube, sometimes the number is less than stellar.

Digital content providers and marketers have been in the data game for nearly a decade. There are thousands of articles on how to increase viewing times on YouTube to what attracts audiences in a headline. L&D has a lot of catching up to do for us to truly understand and design the way our learners want content, but with tools like xAPI, there is absolutely no excuse not to. I truly believe that in a few years time we will look at learning metrics as less about completions, and more about maximising engagement. I am excited for that paradigm shift.

I did get my credit card replaced without damages, which was a great relief. As for the then-boyfriend in Germany, I married him a decade later. Thankfully I did not meet xAPI until a couple years ago or he would have had some competition. As for my parents, I think they figured out my alternative travel plans but we never discuss it.

Note: photo for this article was taken from graffiti outside our local high school. Some things never change…




Road Trip!

Looks like I have a full dance card this autumn, which is Über-exciting. The best part? This mini-tour is an opportunity to actually *gasp* meet many of the people I have been connecting with virtually over the past year.

If your calendar can swing it, here’s where I will be speaking September-November:

September 14, Webinar

Human Capital Institute

September 20, Toronto ON

Canadian Community of Corporate Educators – CCCE

September 28, Chicago IL

Degreed Lens

October 5, Toronto ON

Swiss VBS Learning Summit

There are a couple webinars which are TBD, but I will keep this page updated.

Really hope to see you at one of the stops – let’s collaborate, debate, and maybe have a drink (or two…mine's a vodka and soda).

Follow the Unsung L&D Heroes

I was travelling for a while in Central America and my iPhone frequently moved in-between dead zones. This made for long hours of silence and then a flurry of buzzes when we reached a town. Sure, I could have probably disconnected but that’s never been my style. I also liked the false sense of IT security while I avoided monkey poop and tarantulas (no exaggeration: howler monkeys do indeed throw their excrement at people who get too close. I stayed away).

Around Day 2, most people had already gotten my out of office notification and so my feed was distilled down into LinkedIn notifications, email newsletters I subscribe to, and my parents on WhatsApp. For the latter, this was usually my mother asking if I was okay, did I like this Ikea lamp (link to catalogue page), and my absolute favourite: my daily reminder that it is officially mojito o'clock. If you do not have a Polish mother, you have not lived. I digress…

Looking carefully at my inbox, it occurred to me that I get a lot of L&D noise email. This is not a surprise. There is a lot of exciting stuff happening in this space and I get stoked when I see provocative content. Few people are happy with their LMS and are finally starting to voice their frustrations (YAY!). People are questioning much of the junk science we were fed about theories like learning styles and interactivity (WOOT!). These are all good and valuable discussion to be had. It can, however, be hard to pick out the premium rum from all of the bottles on the shelf (insert mother mojito homage).

An interesting secret I discovered about our industry is that there are a remarkable number of senior leaders who are not actually L&D professionals. They are people who excel in a particular industry who then decided that they have a “passion for learning”. This is noble, but does not always mean the best voice in the crowd. Sometimes, they start bubbling to the top of your threads because they are really good at social media, or they have content marketing bench strength behind them. For an interesting take on this topic, see this brilliant post by Alan Walker. Anyone can call themselves a guru.

I am honestly not having a go at these folks. They spark conversation. A lot of great companies out there have solid ideas and products. They must push digital content from their marketing engine to build communities and sales, or wither on the vine. It is the cycle: resident thought-leader pens an article, marketing creates a campaign, they rally their advocates to love bomb with retweets, shares, and likes, and repeat. It works.

Additionally, there is likely a debate on what really constitutes a learning professional. Is it someone who has a Masters in Adult Ed? Full disclosure: I don’t. My only claim to fame is starting as an ID and hustling my way along. It keeps me fed and watered, but it is not traditional. This is a topic for another blog post.

My point is: as I sift through the emails, tweets, and posts swirling around me, what sometimes gets lost in the shuffle are the unsung voices that have the x-factor; a savvy combination of hard-earned experience, technical acumen, and usually some other random interest or skill that augments their mindset.

These are the people to pay attention to. They may not be bloggers, or eloquent (some are). They may not use twitter or post frequently (some do). Their feeds, however, are a stethoscope on what any strategic L&D person should be paying attention to.

Disclosure: No one on this list solicited an endorsement or recommendation. This post was inspired by a colleague who asked for a Top 5 LinkedIn People to Follow (thank you Josh Cardoz – he is hella smart – check him out). All of the people were selected based on my own opinion and because they do not post Zig Ziglar quotes. If anyone wishes to be removed, drop me a line at my blog.

Here's my list, in no particular order with links to profiles:

Quick note, the other quick way I whittled down my inbox is to dump any email newsletters that are not mobile enabled. You simply cannot be serious about invites to webinars on digital disruption if you picked a marketing automation engine that does not render on my iPhone. *raises mojito glass*

Play safe in the traffic, kids!


Learning From Monkey Business

In the immortal words of Prince, “Dig, if you will, a picture…”:

Company ABC is introducing a new CRM solution and migrating from Outlook to Slack. Bonus points: they have dismantled their entire L&D team. Not one piece of internally developed learning content, SME blessed, and wrapped in shiny SCORM foil, will sit on the LMS. There will be no classroom event and you can forget about that continental breakfast. Employees will receive a few communications about the change and the following Monday, arrive to a new desktop.

Some experiments are cruel. Case in point: Harlow’s Rhesus monkey case study. In case you missed it, baby monkeys were separated from their mothers and given wire or cloth pseudo-mothers so psychologists could learn about attachment. Yay science! Not so good for the baby monkeys.

Few, if any, would be willing to take on the Company ABC experiment, which is sad. It is an interesting scenario to postulate upon, especially on a snowy afternoon like today.

If we delivered no support tools, infographics, or job aids, what would be the outcome on an audience? Would there be shrieking and poop throwing, or would teams learn to adapt, eventually settling back into banana eating and grooming?

This is what I think would happen:

Yes, there would be initial uncertainty; likely complaining and a loss of productivity for a spell. Eventually, there would be adaptation. Sales staff hungry to close deals would team up to figure out the CRM through trial and error. They would ferret out job aids and tools on the CRM product website, and join online forums to ask questions to other users. As for Slack, there is a short tutorial from the developers, plus a Slackbot to answer questions. As incredible as it sounds, users just might figure it out. Dare I say, they would *gasp* learn. And they would do it without our efforts.

One of the most common complaints I hear from L&D professionals is that learning is always consulted too late. By the time a project team thinks about training, the timeframe to design, develop, and deploy, is too short. Or is it? Nature abhors a vacuum and the more projects I oversee I have discovered that L&D people love to fill space. Without supervision, we happily performance consult, document performance outcomes, write learning objectives, draft storyboards, three rounds of SME feedback, Alpha and Beta testing, and do not forget Kirkpatrick levels 1-4. Cue the dopamine rush!

For those who follow my posts (thank you!) know I have been on this soapbox for a while. Interestingly enough, my last article, “Dear ADDIE, it’s not me, it’s you” actually generated some LinkedIn hate mail. I was in equal parts, both horrified and impressed. There were also a large number of people who are ready to move to more agile models, which was inspiring. (As for ADDIE, I quote Taylor Swift: “We are never, ever, ever, getting back together”).

It is not so much about challenging the status quo, but it is about thinking hard about what a learning experience is. Do we need to architect every bit of the 70:20:10? (And yes, I have my skeptical thoughts on 70:20:10, but I will be quiet) Applying a new lens, I now view learning initiatives like big adult colouring books. The temptation for us to fill in every single space is great…cue dopamine rush #2. Maybe we leave some blanks for learners to colour in.

Consider the course navigation page. We used to build these when eLearning was still new to our audiences. It supposedly reduced stress within the learning environment. That was ten years ago and some courses still have this page and they do our learners a disservice. First of all, if your design is not intuitive, that is to your shame. Secondly, spoon feeding navigation does not allow for the natural increase of digital literacy and competency that comes from exploration and doing (remember that 70%?).

Take a long look at your learning objectives and consider: what pieces of content design fall into the “obvious” category? Detailed job aids on technology platforms may ensure every eventual question is covered. They might also result in over-reliance on the tools instead of being learning to be self-sufficient at problem-solving within the application. It is the proverbial, give a man fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for life.

Once you have filtered out this “obvious” content, what can you embed to increase or enhance other competencies on top of the set learning objectives? This is the “team a man to fish”, or what I like to call, the 2-for-1 special. A course about effective sales conversations could also increase mobile learning literacy. Likewise, a module about agile project management might also sharpen triangulation of data skills.

There is a lot of talk about whether we are seeing the death of the instructional designer. I think we are seeing the cannibalization of L&D. There are so many ways we need to evolve, but stall. It is not enough to simply be faster, we need to develop smarter. At the start of your next project, instead of performance consulting (which is valuable), ask one simple question: “What would happen if there was no learning?”. Work backwards, and ruthlessly, to build your framework. Streamline your design to give your learners opportunities to stretch.

Thinking back to Harlow’s poor experiment, maybe the baby rhesus monkey is actually, well, us. We are the wide-eyed, panicked stricken ones clinging to the cloth of ADDIE, or the artificial wire frame of learning styles (which are total BS). That position is una-peel-ing (my bad banana pun).

On The LMS Campaign Trail

No, this is not a post about politics. When I see political debates on LinkedIn, I’m quick to unfollow. For me, those very important discussions (and they are important) belong on Facebook and other outlets. Of course, I also unfollow anyone who posts Zig Ziglar quotes, which to me sound like, “Do not question whether you are the humble bologna or noble turkey breast – just know you are part of an bigger sandwich, blah, blah, blah”.

No matter who you voted for or support (again, no debates in the comments section, s’il vous plait) what can be said is many insights about online behaviour and engagement were demonstrated during the run-up to the election. Mainly, that there were many who were surprised by the presidential win based on what they were seeing on their social media feeds. People had created their own filter bubbles to serve up to them a world of opinions that matched their own values.

I am 100% guilty of this. In addition to my annoyance with Zig Ziglar, the other posts I ferociously weed out on LinkedIn are:   

  • My son/daughter is graduating this year and is looking for opportunities; Do your kid a favour and help them build their own LI profile and network, then I will happily engage
  • Anyone posting about Learning Styles and MBTI; you make me itchy
  • Real Estate agents stalking me; I’m not selling my house and you are creepy

But this is not a post about LinkedIn grievances and politics. Rather, this has me thinking a lot about how we push content to our audiences and the complex and nuanced relationships that exist online.

Part of my Predictions for 2017 in L&D was the death of the traditional LMS. I quickly learned that this was a provocative statement, but I still stand by it. While LMSs are improving, the majority of the big players are simply not evolving fast enough. More importantly, as learners naturally gravitate to their own fields of beliefs, it is important that we begin to understand how these arenas of influence operate.

Some LMSs are embracing the social. There are portals, communities, shares and likes, to entice the learner into engaging with content. This is a far cry from the graphic-free, non-HTML automated generic email, from the monolithic LMS, advising that Employee # 83H627 (FYI: that’s you) is overdue on their Code of Conduct training #bigbrother.

Likewise, other content providers curate daily feeds to their audiences, based on algorithms of their likes and previously viewed learning. This interests me because I am all about using data to make informed design decisions. If we do not seek the insights based on our learners’ digital body language, then we are wasting our time (shameless plug: here’s the free eBook).

While both social and curation are eons ahead of where we were, they have one fundamental flaw: the learner can make themselves cozy in their filtered bubble. This is great when the learner is keen on a topic. It does not function as well for a company undertaking a culture shift or transformation. Sure, you can force messages, but then you are back in Compliance Town, living on Lockstep Avenue.

What I would really like to see is an LMS with an embedded marketing automated engine. Yes, I know. L&D people hate the M-Word, but hear me out. Consider this standard scenario: To make a purchase or download a whitepaper, you provide your email address to a company. Behind the scenes you are segmented according to profile and are funneled into a text or email content campaign designed to spark interest and engagement with their offerings.

This campaign is not a linear path, but rather a flowchart of if/then actions to guide you towards a solution. Of course, parts of the campaign take into account your expressed preferences, while other parts of the campaign (and this is key) are curated to drip-feed content you may not have searched for on your own, or might not even be aware of.

I would love to do the same: build out a learning campaign based not only on algorithms for personalization and interests, but also a flowchart to insert content to meet performance outcomes; as in, the topics the learner might not naturally gravitate towards but are important to the business. I believe it is a way to socialise new concepts and continuously engage and challenge audiences. It also removes one from the filtered bubble.

Have a quick look at your LinkedIn Pulse. You are probably seeing content your connections liked, plus articles trending in your network, along with overall popular LinkedIn topics. A good benchmark in marketing is that a new concept has to be viewed 3-5 unique times before clicking. Single email notifications are not going to cut through the digital noise our learners receive. Learning campaigns are a way to craft that curiosity.

Another item on the wish list? An aggregate view of webs of influencers and connections on a social LMS platform, please. I want to understand how interwoven an audience is, who the trusted posters, and where are the outliers. Digital relationships are finicky. BS detectors are set to max because we lose the visual cues normally found in face-to-face conversations. This is why establishing trust and credibility are paramount. Previously, an email communication from the CEO was de rigueur.

For better or worse, you are more likely to pay attention to someone you have digital respect for rather than someone you have never had an online conversation or relationship with, regardless of the senior CEO title.

A better understanding of the landscape could mean increasing cross-pollination of silos and strengthening advocacy for a certain learning object.

Learning from past posts, let me be upfront and say that I am but a humble consultant and have no means to invest in an LMS. If you are in sales and your LMS has these functionalities, I would love to hear about them, but I am budget-poor. If you are an LMS, or even an LRS, vendor and think these are intriguing ideas to consider building, then you know where to find me.

Dear ADDIE: It's Not Me, It's You

It’s a brand new year: time for fresh starts and resolutions. Mine? I’m getting rid of the old. ADDIE, the time has come for you to know exactly where we stand. Yes, I see your blog posts. I know you have been on my social media feed. You struggle to get my attention in job postings and articles. Bluntly speaking, lose my number.

Sure, twenty or even five years ago, you were relevant: a cutesy little acronym that would unite all L&D professionals in a tidy process of Analyse, Design, Develop, Implement, and Evaluate. Marching in mnemonic unison, we could build bountiful mountains of quality learning that are perfect in meeting business outcomes, and end with pristine Level 1-4 Kirkpatrick Evals. *sparkle*

These promises quickly fall flat. The more we try to shoehorn learning development into neat and well-groomed steps, the more time we waste waiting, documenting, and tracking. I know you want to argue that ADDIE is simply good project management, except it isn’t. It assumes there is always a straight path to solution. This does not allow for insights and innovation along the way.

Consider the following true story: Once upon a time, we were building a piece of e-Learning that happily started out with performance outcomes, learning objectives, high-level design, plus a storyboard. Although the dev team had been involved in all of the initial work, when presented with the storyboard, they felt that a vertical layout would be better than a horizontal one. They were right…except no one wanted to change the design. This would mean going back to change the previous project documentation and contacting SMEs. We stuck to “the plan”.

It cannot be ignored that ADDIE forces adherence to the gospel of documentation that was signed off weeks before development. Just like family road trips, it does not matter who is tired, bored, has to pee or barf. We are going to make it through Alpha, Beta, and Gold testing, and we will like it, damnit!

It begs the question: Why can’t graphic design work on an initial look and feel at the same time that IDs are drafting learning objectives? If these tasks are consecutive, graphic design is confined by the ID work. If they work collaboratively, you have a symbiotic relationship and better design thinking. It also pre-empts roadblocks.

It’s true that ADDIE was once helpful when teams worked in different ways. Today, any L&D department not using WOL or collaboration tools like Slack or Trello is doomed. How many hours are spent building status updates and emails to multiple people, dozens of times? One central project location and open-air virtual communication builds transparency. Everyone is one the same page.

Another pitfall: with ADDIE, Evaluation is a final step. I’ve said it before: when I go to the doctor, I want a diagnosis, not an autopsy. Waiting until the end of a deployment to evaluate gives no opportunity for course correction. If we truly want optimal design, evaluation must become an iterative part of development. Launch in sections and monitor usage and adoption. Then refine based on data tracking. Infinitely better than deploying a ton of content only to find out it stunk.

I’m certainly not the first one to think this way. For years, people have been ranting about ADDIE. The very, very, smart Tom Gram was writing about this conflict seven years ago. Yet, ADDIE persists in organisations as de rigeur. Sadly, often as a giant banner proclaiming that their thinking is a decade out of date. Now, I use an anti-ADDIE, pro-Agile opinion like a secret handshake; it tells me whether you “get it” or not.

So ADDIE, whilst I may have you listed under my skills and experience, there’s no future for us. As L&D shifts into a period of disruption and evolution, I cannot be held back. It’s not me, it’s you.


The Envelope Lesson

I didn't like high school. I skipped a lot of classes and when I did attend, I passed my days delivering a heavy dose of snark to a lot of poor teachers whom I sure only wanted to get to their next break. When I graduated, I slung my Doc Marten’s over my shoulder, and hit the road faster than you could say, “School’s out for ever” a la Alice Cooper.

The irony in all of this is that I did not hate learning. I always had my nose in a book and my Walkman on (pre-internet days, my darlings). What I despised about high school was the structure and forced delivery of content. Simply put, there was nothing that would get my ripped jeans twisted more than saying you “must do this”.

My eyes were opened when I became a high school teacher for a few years. It was then that I had empathy for all of the things that my teachers were forcing upon me. They had standardised tests, benchmarks, and learning objectives to achieve. I probably owe them a drink (or twelve). Although, I will say that teaching high school was the best job I ever had, hands down.

Now I work in L&D in the financial district of Toronto. En route to the office, I pass by multiple ATMs every day. This morning I was intrigued by two very different approaches to delivering the same messages:


I have blocked out the bank logos, although fellow Canucks might be able to identify the FI by colour palette (sorry). It is not my intent to name and shame anyone’s marketing department. I’m sure they did a lot of research and testing to come up with these ads. Still, messaging yields a visceral reaction and these caught my eye.

Both signs convey the exact same message: envelopes are no longer required to make deposits at these bank machines. Whilst “Envelope-Free” implies a value-add; “Envelopes not accepted at this ATM” is reminiscent of the TSA announcements regarding liquid restrictions – no warm and fuzzies here.  One is inviting, the other punitive.

So what does all of this rambling about high school and bank machines mean? Well, nothing too earth-shattering other than, as usual, I believe that L&D needs to leave its precious ivory tower. In this case, it is time to use a design-centric approach to content that motivates, rather than dictates.

Consider the reams of compliance-based training L&D is forced to produce. I think most of us know the dirty little secret that none of this content is about delivering learning. It is a CYA exercise to ensure your company does not get caught in litigation: “Your honour, the employee did the mandatory seventeen hours of ethics training and passed all eight quizzes so we cannot be held liable for their subsequent acts of money laundering”. Ta-dah!

Psst…Another industry secret? Every time you lockstep a module, a puppy dies. #fact

What if we thought differently about the reams of compliance content we are required to produce? Thinking hard about those ATM signs I saw this morning, I want to be on the “Envelope-Free” side. Some initial concepts:

  • Reframing the regulatory content with impact statements that grab attention. This means less “thou shalt not” and more, “this is how society benefits when we follow these laws”
  • Storytelling. And no, I do not mean the ugly avatar, comic style, that comes with a dose of saccharine. I am talking about editorial-type narratives of people whose lives have been impacted by the regulations we are learning about
  • Less legalese, more writing like journalists. I get that our SMEs like the lawyer-speak because they think it affords them some protection. It’s a false sense of security because the average reader will not digest what they read, especially if they are ESL. Instead, write with clarity and intent

I doubt that L&D will ever get away from regulatory learning. It’s the birthplace of the horrid learning management systems and rapid authoring tools that we have now. Still, I think back to my cynical teenaged self and I do not think she is too far off from today’s jaded learner. She simply has more black eyeliner. In the digital age, your audience clicks X or opens another browser window the first nanosecond they are not engaged. They are impatient and have high expectations. If we have to build it, at least consider methods to entice rather than order. At the very least, use the exercise to flex your instructional design muscles.

And here's me at 14...