Sunday, 18 December 2011

Age - Appropriate

Age.  Funny old thing.  I read somewhere recently (probably on Twitter) that 'old age' gets older the older one gets.  I get that.  Last week, I turned 56, which is the same age that my father was when he passed away - a few days after his birthday - from liver failure brought on by cancer.  I was 27.

When he and I were younger, I thought of Dad as a much more mature - OK, older - man than I think of myself now at the same age.  His generation seemed to have had age imposed on them - he was a child during the Second World War - and from my earliest recollections, he and my mother seemed permanently middle-aged.

When he died, it was relatively quick. A previously dealt-with bowel cancer had returned and unbeknown to us, had migrated to and knackered his liver.  When he went in for investigative surgery, they took one look, closed him back up again and advised my mother that he only had a few weeks left.  Because the liver was shot, he never truly came back out of the anaesthesia and over a couple of weeks, gradually drifted away from us in a relatively pain-free, opium-fuelled dream state.  If I'd thought he was older before, he certainly was an old man when he eventually slipped away between visits, a few days after his 56th birthday.

Now that it's my own 56th birthday, I have been giving a lot of thought to my Dad. On reflection, it seems that when he died, whilst I was concerned for my Mum and my Brother, I was mostly preoccupied with  how unfair it was for me to be left fatherless at 27; that I wasn't yet ready to step up and be the man he was. I had lost my 'final arbiter', the one person I still had to impress. It was as if he had said to me "Right, you're on your own now Son; time to be a man."  Poor me!

What I failed to realise then - and why I am writing this piece - is how much life he should have had ahead of him, with my Mum, whilst my brother and I forged ahead in our lives, married our wives, raised our children - his Grandchildren - started to succeed in our respective careers, etc. And what times he and my Mum would have had to share for many more years together.  He had worked so hard to get to where he was, to  provide a home and support for Mum, my brother and me.  He deserved to get to his well-earned retirement and enjoy his family and Grandchildren, who I know would have given him so much pleasure.  But cancer took that away from him when he was still a young man.

I can say 'young man' now, because I'm now that age, and I consider myself to be a young man still, with all of that good stuff still ahead of me.  My children are now nearly 20 and 16 (even younger again than I was when Dad reached 56).

But I have also recognised that my clock is ticking and I have much still to do.  So, in my 57th year, and as we approach 2012, my New Year - and every new new year's - resolution is to have more fun, travel, learn more and look after myself - for me, for Mandy, for Tash and Sam and maybe one day, my own Grandchildren.  

Thanks Dad.  

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Just in Time

I met up with a colleague while passing through Bristol Temple Meads station this afternoon, to discuss her request for some help with MS PowerPoint 2003. I totally understood one of her issues straight away, as I had had the same problem myself (running custom object animations in a presentation) when I created my WOLCE presentation.

But could I remember the command?  I had done it myself only a month ago but, try as I might, I could not now remember how to repeat it.  I spent 20 minutes of our time together trying to remember and/or find the relevant command on my laptop, but was completely stumped. To say I was embarrassed is to put it mildly.

Realising I was wasting my colleague's and my own time, I stepped back and acknowledged that I couldn't do this. I picked up my mobile phone and called  Debbie (@macabroad) in my team.  I explained the problem and she was able to point me to the appropriate Menu, Dialog Box and Check Box (Slide Show / Set Up Show / untick Show without animation - See below, if you're interested).  Sorted in two minutes. Thanks Debbie.

And that, right there, is the point of informal, just in-time learning.  And the value-add is that I have now consolidated that learning for myself by writing this blog AND I have now shared it with you.

It's good to talk.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

A Qualified Success

I've been reflecting on a fun learning experience I had a few weeks ago.  I spent a weekend in a learning environment where most of the time I was up to my waist in murky water (see pic. I'm the guy with the male pattern baldness, back to the camera).  Yes, after 21 years living in Hove, I finally decided to have some windsurfing lessons, and spent a Saturday and a Sunday morning in a Beginners' group of six at the Hove Lagoon.

Now that we are experiencing 'proper' Autumnal weather, it seems remarkable that on that weekend we had temperatures of 24 degrees in Hove, and the water in the lagoon was actually tepid.  Downside of the fantastic heat was that there was hardly any wind, which kinda took the 'wind' out of 'windsurfing', but that didn't stop us learning, developing a new skill and having fun in the process.

What I loved about the experience was how immediate it was - how quickly we went from theory to practice - and practice - and practice again. Our instructor, Helen, had us in the water, our boards rigged, within 15 minutes and within an hour, I was able to stand up for more than 5 minutes at a time with the 'boom' in my hands and the sail and the board pointing in the right direction. After 3½ hours, I had mastered the basics and stopped falling in, although I frequently found myself steering inexorably into the far bank of the pond, rather than managing to turn round (or 'tack' as those of us in the know now call it) back from whence I had come.  

On day 2, I managed to sail across the wind, upwind, downwind, tack, jibe, avoid other lagoon-users in dinghies, paddle-boards and other sail-boards and self-rescue if I had to.  More theory, knowledge-checking and voila, I had my Royal Yachting Association 'Start Windsurfing' Certificate - my first new qualification for several years!

And what else did I learn, apart from basic windsurfing?  Well, I hadn't realised how much sailing language has come to be embedded in our day-to-day language and conversation - "Changing tack", "Sailing close to the wind", "Niall, what ARE you doing?", etc.  As an L&D Manager and Trainer, I also got the following: hook your learners in early and let them experience quick results; make it fun; allow them to make mistakes; praise and reward them; incentivise them to come back for more...

Oh, and don't rub sunblock and salt water into your eye if you want to be able to see for the rest of the day!

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Er... I've spoken!

Well, 'tis done.  Yesterday, at the World of Learning Conference (#WoL11), I had the great pleasure of sharing the stage in Conference Room 1 with Clive Shepherd and Nicholas Owen (BBC News Journalist and Conference Chair). 

I blogged previously on my thoughts and feelings as I prepared for what would be my first conference speaking engagement in several years. Yesterday was the day when I had to step up and deliver my presentation.  Clive and I had met over lunch in Brighton a couple of months ago, to agree and scope out what we would each cover in our respective parts of the session and, apart from a couple of email exchanges since then, we had not managed to confer again.  So I was delighted when we sat down on the sofas for a chat during our technical set-up to discover how closely aligned we were.

Under the collective banner of "Integrating the Formal, Informal and Social in Learning", Clive was speaking on the new Learning Architect, and how learning professionals now have to consider all aspects of blended learning when in consultation with their customers, internal or external.  I had elected to take the audience on a learning journey, analogous with a train journey, discussing examples of how we have developed and delivered learning solutions more creatively, by leveraging existing tools and resources, whilst developing our skills and toolsets 'under the radar' of our current corporate technical and other constraints.  I included points for the audience to vote as to how closely aligned each particular approach had been in relation to Clive's LA model.

We both recognised that our respective inputs would probably be longer than our originally planned 15 minutes each, but we expected to be able to flex around that and still have time for a Q&A session at the end.

So, how did it go?  What would I do again and what would I do differently? What did I learn from the experience?  

I was very pleased with my slides!  Very subtle corporate branding, no bullet points - indeed, no text - and relevant graphics only (some photos and some screen grabs from our learning solutions).  

No chance of reading off the screen, so I had my notes on the podium.  Next time, I'll have my notes better written and be more familiar with them (see "Practice" below)..  Clive did his presentation without notes, as did several speakers at the Learning and Performance Institute Conference I attended a couple of weeks ago. I should have taken the hint then!  That said, I didn't get lost and the presentation flowed as I hoped.

I had a couple of radio microphone issues, with the clip slipping back inside my shirt, which necessitated the tech guy coming up onto stage during the session to re-clip it.  Of course it would have helped if I hadn't kept hitting it with my hand every time I thumped myself on the chest (not something I was hitherto aware I did!)

And the biggest lesson - practice!  We started the session late and both Clive and I over-ran in our respective slots, meaning, as 'tail-end-Charlie', I was the one who kept people late for their break and didn't allow time for the Q&A session.  If I had practised my session more, I would have been well aware of the timings and trimmed accordingly.  I hope that everyone who wanted to comment or converse with us afterwards will find us online and continue the discussion.  

I'm collating the audience voting results, so that I will have an overview of their opinions as to how well the various learning interventions we have developed/are developing and have delivered/are delivering map against Clive's Learning Architect model.  This will help to inform our strategy planning for L&D, IT Training and Learning Technologies, and I'm more than happy to share those results.

Some thanks: to all my colleagues at work and on Twitter, for their encouragement and support (great to meet so many of you at the event too); to Clive Shepherd, for the pleasure of working together, for the opportunity to dig deep into his Learning Architect model and co-present our session; to Nicholas Owen for excellent, non-starry Chairmanship and interesting 'train' chats (he's a bit of a railways anorak, like me - who'd have thought?); to the guys at TurningTechUK for their help in enabling the TurningPoint voting handsets and results onto my voting slides before and during the presentation; to Laura Overton at Towards Maturity, for suggesting I speak in the first place; to Tracy Shah at Venture for excellent organisation of the event; and finally to Mandy, for her patience and support in the midst of her own challenges.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

On taking my Daughter to University

Having received some valuable feedback recently about my blogs, including the suggestion that perhaps I tend to over-think things and could say 'more with less', I am going to try a different approach with this blog and just try to riff with the thoughts and see how it comes out. I'd be very interested in your feedback about this approach.

So, yesterday, I took our first child, my daughter Natasha, to Nottingham, to move into her Halls of Residence as she starts her first year at University next week.  A significant moment in any child's - and parents' - life.  She's 19, having done a Foundation Diploma between her A Levels and starting University; and, whilst we are used to her being away for several days, indeed weeks sometimes, at a time, this is that big moment when she really starts to separate from us and starts her independent adult life.

Mandy and I are not the first parents to experience this separation anxiety, nor will we be the last.  Indeed, judging by the faces of many of the parents I saw leaving the complex yesterday, it's yet another heart-tugging part of the ever-developing role of parents everywhere.  So, here's what I want to reflect on in this blog - what I consder to have been, and continues to be, my greatest learning journey, being a Dad.

Like many parents nowadays, we were late starters, having our first child, Natasha when we were in our late thirties and our son Samuel (henceforth Tash and Sam) on Mandy's 40th Birthday!  I still treasure the obstetrician's description of Mandy as an "elederly prem", tho' I'm not sure she does.  We have been blessed with two beautiful children who are growing up, or in Tash's case, have grown up, into personable, articulate, emotionally intelligent and creative adults.  How did that happen?

Niall's first rule of parenthood - there are no rules!  It's the ultimate seat-of-your-pants, non-formal, on-demand, experiential learning opportunity.  Just as you've managed to reflect and re-apply what you've just learned, the goalposts move and off you go again.  What works for child 1 does not necessarily work for or apply to Child 2.  They are their own people, from day 1, and I learned that I had to go with the flow, adapt and flex, whilst we tried to maintain a safe, loving and nurturing environment (OK, Home) for them - and us - in which to grow.

So, one down, and one to go.  Sam has just started 6th Form College, as did Tash three years before him.  And guess what - it's a completely different experience for and with him than it was for Tash!  Good, but different.  So, we're flexing here!  Again!  Sam's still living with us while Tash is now living away, and we all have much to learn from each other before he sets off on his adult journey - I'm relishing the thought.

Many different books have been written about parenting.  There's probably a book just in Mandy's and my experience of being and learning to be parents.  But it's our story - a never-ending story - and we're too busy and engaged in living it to write it down and share it.  Except this blog, of course.

To conclude, I'll just quote you from the text message I sent Mandy as I left Tash to drive back to Brighton yesterday evening - "7:20 Just leaving now. Choked. Nx"

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Er... I'm speaking!

It's just over two weeks to go until Clive Shepherd and I deliver our session at the World of Learning Conference in Birmingham on the 27th of September.  We're discussing Integrating the formal, informal and social in learning, using Clive's book, "The New Learning Architect" as the yardstick against which I'll be sharing our experiences at FirstGroup, and then inviting thoughts, comments and questions from the audience.
It's been a few years since I last spoke at a large learning conference and a lot has changed in those years.  The focus has changed, the terminology has changed, the tools have changed and the discussion has changed. Just in the last week or so, the Institute of IT Training, of which I have been a member (and long-time Fellow) since its inception, has changed its focus and name to that of the Learning and Performance Institute.  And I've had a role/name change too!  When I was invited to speak at WOLCE and all the marketing materials went to press, I was the Group IT Training Manager.  I will stand up in front of the audience in our session and introduce myself as the Head of HR & Learning Technologies!  That's how quickly the learning agenda is changing.
As I write this blog, I am in the process of finalising the content and format of my short presentation for the session, the draft of which I have to hand over to the organisers on Monday. And here's where all those changes have come home to roost! In the last five years we have seen an explosion in the availability and use of Social Media site, tools and devices such as Prezi, Twitter, Facebook, Wordle, Smartphones, iPads, QR codes and the like.  Back then, I thought I was racy using MindManager 6 to capture feedback in a seminar session, and I'd never, ever, considered writing a 'blog', whatever that was...
Recently I've been to less conferences in person than I have virtually via the Twitter backchannel and I fully expect a high proportion of the audience who will be attending my WOLCE session to be the same.  But not all.
So, even 'tho I'm going to be talking about some SoMe tools at the Conference, I'm going back to basics and concentrating instead on the story - our challenges, our successes, our high and lows - and where we still want to go. I'm stepping back from worrying about which whizzy social media and presentation tools to use; indeed, as I write, it's entirely likely that the finished product will be on PowerPoint 2003, using our corporate slide template! (It will however, be 'graphic-heavy and text light'.) We will probably use Twitter to bring in the outside learning community involvement and we might even use the audience polling system.
What I do know is that I have a professional and organisational story to share, which is not yet finished.  I hope that the participants on the day - and afterwards - will empathise with my story, will learn something from it in and will want to contribute to it.  I don't have all the answers, and I want to learn from the collective wisdom in the room and in the wider L&D community, just like everyone else.
So what do you think? Am I taking the right approach? Are you put off by the thought of PowerPoint and corporate templates? Any hints and tips for me?  Any burning questions that you'd like Clive and I to deal with on the day?  All comments and questions welcome. See you in Birmingham.

Monday, 22 August 2011

A 'Novel' Learning Experience

I have just finished reading an intriguing and deeply moving novel called "The Warsaw Anagrams" by Richard Zimmler, which tells a story of life for the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto during the second world war.  That description completely underplays the magic, mystery and impact of the book, but it allows me to open up what I really wanted to talk about in today's blog.

Half way through the book, I suddenly realised that this was the fourth book I have read in the last year or so, which has been either directly or indirectly about Germany, the Nazis and the German people before and during the Second World War, and about the treatment of the Jewish people at that time.  This was not a conscious intent on my part - in fact, I was taken aback at this realisation, as if my subconscious had been leading me unaware down a literary path for which there must be some kind of reason.

In order of reading then, these four books are:

"Alone in Berlin" - Hans Fallada. A novel, based on an actual case, about an elderly German couple's passive resistance to Hitler, following the death of their son at the Front, by dropping anonymous anti-Nazi postcards across Berlin, and the authority's hunt to track them down.  Written during the War, it brought to my attention the oppression and hardships of the German people themselves under Nazism, something about which I was unaware.  I bought this book on impulse in a book shop.

"The Hare with the Amber Eyes: a Hidden Inheritance" - Edmund de Waal. This was one of my first e-book purchases for my Kindle e-reader, and I purchased it because I was aware of its coverage in the media, as Winner of  the 2010 Costa Book Biography Award and the 2011 Ondaatje Prize.  I loved this book and have recommended and gifted it in paperback to friends and family.  It tells the story of a Jewish family banking dynasty, through de Wall's investigation of the history of a collection of Japanese Netsuke (small, intricately carved ivory pieces), which he inherited.  Again, in a fascinating family tale starting in Odessa, through the Paris of the Impressionists, Austria and the eventual diaspora (dispersal) of the family, the most revelatory section of the story for me was how the Jews were systematically brutalised and disinherited during the Austrian Anschluss of 1938. At times difficult, this is a deeply moving and satisfying read.

"Fatherland" - Robert Harris.  Another e-book, I was drawn to this story by the 'alternate history' angle.  It is 1964.  Hitler won the War.  In a Greater German Reich, a Detective follows a murder and conspiracy trail, which ultimately leads him to the exposure of atrocities about which we know in reality, but which, in the novel, were suppressed from the victorious German people.  My Science, Detective and Historical Fiction 'buttons' all got pressed effectively when reading this well-crafted novel.

"The Warsaw Anagrams" - Richard Zimmler.  As I said at the start, this novel is set in the Warsaw Ghetto of 1940, as the Nazis seal 400,000 Jews inside a small area of the Polish capital. Children are murdered and an elderly Jewish psychiatrist investigates. A mystical, horrifying, moving, sometimes humourous and cleverly plotted sorta-detective story, I was gripped throughout.

I should just mention here that I did not read these books 'back-to-back'.  I read them over a period of about a year, interspersed with lots of other books, periodicals and blogs.  I'm a commuter, as I have mentioned before ("Under the Commute" 1st May 2011), so I've always got a book on the go.  Hence me not initially noticing that there might be an underlying theme going on in my reading choices.

So, why am I sharing this with you? What's the point?  The least I can say is "Here are some interesting books I've read and been moved by; you might want to check them out yourself."  This is not a piece of literary criticism nor is it a a set of book reviews. It's not an advert for the Amazon Kindle either.  I have written this blog more for my own reflection than anything else - but I have learned something along the way... 

I also mentioned in a previous blog ("Man on the Moon" 17th May 2011) that I am not a book-learner.  But I think that the four novels listed above have taught me something about looking deeper into 'received wisdom', about not just going along with the 'accepted view'.  And also maybe, about listening out for what my subconscious whispers to me.  Some of my views have shifted, and I am much richer for the learning I gleaned from having read these books than had I not.

What do you get from reading fiction, as opposed to factual books?  Do you read both? What other written materials feature in your reading lists?  And how do you access them - good old paper books, e-reader, tablet, smartphone, laptop? Where do you get your books from - online, bookshop, library?  I'd be interested in your experiences.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

What (else) I learned on my Holidays

In my previous blog, I shared some insights gained on my holiday with @MandyRG in Northumberland.  I usually make a point whilst on holidays of distancing myself from the normal daily news ‘noise’, but two almost coincidental events at the end of that week were unavoidable - the world was horrified to learn of the killings in Norway and shocked at the untimely death of singer Amy Winehouse.  So on Saturday evening, I logged into Twitter.

In my timeline, I read lot of tweets and comment along the lines of “RIP Amy Winehouse” and what a sad waste of a young talent.  Several people used the words ‘tragic’ and ‘tragedy’.  I took a different view and kinda got on my high horse; I re-tweeted and responded to one particular tweet with the comment “A Tragedy? Really? Tell that to the Norwegians”.  I got an instant and angry response suggesting that I should get a grip and that I had no more right to pronounce on the scale of tragedy than the author had.  This then stimulated a short tweetstorm amongst half a dozen of my followers around whether or not comparisons were valid (differing views) and I expressed the opinion that we tend to overuse the words ‘tragic’ and ‘tragedy’ nowadays, and that there was a big difference between Amy W’s sad death and the horror of the mass shooting of teenagers. However, having been ‘bitten back’, I was careful to make my comments general and not aimed at, nor in response to, anyone else’s specific tweets.

For an hour or so thereafter, I sat back and monitored my timeline.  I picked up a recurring theme in the tweets and retweets, that people generally thought it was NOT OK to compare the two situations and moreover, that there was a real affection for and sadness at the loss of Amy W, which was different to the genuine distress felt over the Norwegian atrocities.  What surprised me was the depth and passion of some of those feelings and the implications that if one thought otherwise, as one tweet put it, “you are idiots!”  I began to feel a little beleaguered and paranoid but, as it was the last night of our holiday, thought it wisest to keep my counsel and step back.

The next day we traveled back to Brighton and during the 7 hour car journey, I mulled over what had occurred the evening before.  I reflected on my own opinion about the difference of the two ‘news’ events and definitions of ‘tragedy’; I reflected on the different views expressed by others within and outwith my immediate Personal Learning Network, some more mature and measured than others; I reflected on how I had been exposed to, and felt impelled to comment on, events and views outside of my usual Twitter L&D/SoMe themes, really for the first time; and finally, I reflected on how valuable Twitter and my PLN had been in making me  think more deeply about these things.  I was concerned about how I had ‘shown up’ and whether or not I had upset and/or alienated any of my followers, but equally, whether any of them harboured similar doubts or concerns themselves.

So yesterday, I tweeted to everyone who had been involved in Saturday evening’s conversations and thanked them for making me think more deeply about these things.  Within a very short space of time, I heard back from several of those same people, acknowledging the pitfalls of ‘firing from the hip’ but also recognizing the value of sharing thoughts and opinions in Twitter, and reflecting more deeply thereon. I will be mindful of these themes in the future.

I feel that I now have a more personal relationship with those same people, beyond the immediate 140 character ‘sound bite’ that Twitter can sometimes become;  I hope I have shown up as authentic and that our future dialogue will continue to enrich and add value to my and their ongoing professional and personal development. I hope that they feel the same.

I’d be really interested to know what thoughts and feelings last week’s events and social media commentaries brought up for you.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Things Are Looking Up!

A month since my last blog and here I am on holiday with Mrs G (@MandyRG) in the previously unexplored (by us) county of Northumberland - and we are loving it!  In previous years we have visited and walked in the Lake District, the Peak District, Devon, Cornwall and Wales and I traveled extensively in Scotland when I was much younger.  We live in a beautiful country and I heartily commend it to you if you have not yet taken the time to explore our own land.

Bamburgh Castle
This week, we have visited and walked coastline, town walls, castles and gardens.  And in our explorations, I have found myself looking upwards a lot of the time; at spectacular cloud formations, at the tops of trees and hills, at castle ramparts and frequently the ceilings of those same buildings. In the interiors of two of those castles, my eyes and attention have been drawn by the beautiful carvings and embellishments created over years by past master craftsmen, and often cleaned and restored more recently by today's generation of similarly talented and passionate artisans.  One of the castle guides today commented how infrequently people look up in their rush to tramp through the state rooms and get to the gift shop, coffee shop or toilets, and what artistry and beauty they miss as a result. 

I was reminded of some work I did many years ago when I was a Drama Student in Edinburgh.  I developed and led my classmates through a discovery and exploration of their 'personal space'.   I asked them to describe what they could see, how much space they had around them, above them, below them. I asked them to try to define that space, to claim it, to feel their way into, and to fill it in some way.  The results were fascinating; people drew circles on the floor, or created barriers with clothing or furniture, someone stood on a table and declared ownership of the space from ceiling to floor, someone else took to the top of the cupboards, someone shouted or sang loudly whenever anyone else came near his self-defined space, whilst others collaborated and defined a shared – and therefore much larger – space.

I was especially taken with those who looked upwards, who recognized that we earthbound creatures do not always realise the opportunity to explore and expand beyond what we can see and do at eye-level.  In exploring Northumberland, I have been reminded again of the value of looking upwards as much as possible.
 
So here’s my thought for the day – as we push on with the day job, focusing on the task in hand, getting the job done, we should all take some time emotionally and intellectually to pause and look up.  We might see something beautiful – either created by nature or by someone else – which might help us to think about and develop other ways of completing that task and maybe inspire others to lift their eyes upwards occasionally.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Releasing the Inner Cowboy - a professional confessional.

As I have mentioned before, I've had a variety of paid jobs over the years.  Apart from the obligatory 'student' Summer jobs and the like, most of these other roles came about because it was difficult to find and stay in work in my first chosen profession, as an actor.  In a professional acting career of some 12 years, I probably worked as an actor for about 5 of those years; the rest of time, I was "resting" (a bigger misnomer I have yet to find), and undertook a variety of other jobs between acting work to keep the wolf from the door.

I left school able to type (I have a Secretarial Studies SCE 'O' Grade) and I learned to drive in the Summer holidays before I started Drama School.  So between those two ‘essential skills', I was always able to find work in between my infrequent acting jobs - usually in some kind of audio-typing or transcription work or as a delivery driver.  And the typing jobs led to me being offered several permanent officework positions.  Why?  Because I was still acting when I took on those roles - I dressed the part, I walked the talk, I was articulate, accurate in my work, I stepped in where the need arose and tried to do the best possible job I could.

An actor friend put it this way, "When you put an actor into another job, you're employing a cowboy who doesn't necessarily know the 'rules' or the politics of the situation, who is 'quick study' and just gets on with it, but in a more creative and effective way".

Eventually, marriage, mortgage and a desire to start a family, coupled with a realisation that the next level of acting work wasn't happening quickly enough to achieve those aspirations, led me to take up one of those offers of a permanent job, and I became the Office Manager for a Transport & Planning Training Company in London.  Again, I learned the job on the job (the work is the learning is the work) and I was off on another professional career, which eventually led to training and training (now Learning) management.

But what I realised over the years is that the more 'professional' and good at the job I became, the less spontaneous, creative and engaged I felt.  I was gradually conforming to my different employers' cultures and politics such that my 'inner cowboy', the amateur pirate that got me into these positions in the first place, had become depressed and gone off in a sulk.  And you don’t want to be around a sulking actor, believe me!

Jump forward to last year. I attended a one day Learning & Skills Group conference, and got my first experience of Twitter, in a session run by Jane Hart and Barry Sampson.  People around me were whipping out their iPhones and laptops and we could all see something called a ‘Twitter Backstream’ projected from the Internet onto the screen.  People, identified by strange @names, were commenting, answering - and asking - questions; and some of them weren't even in the room!  Jane and Barry (or @C4LPT and @barrysampson as I have come to know them) kept things on track by getting everyone to use the same 'hashtag' (more magic), which meant that we could focus in on the topics under discussion.  I had vaguely heard about Twitter, but with no context or application, had never grasped its potential.

So I came home, signed up and got myself an account.  I said 'hello' and people I knew (and some I didn’t) said ‘hello’ back, and a dialogue commenced.  I started following people in the L&D and Social Media industry, and over the last year, I have developed an inspiring and challenging Personal Learning Network, to which I hope I have added some value myself.  I have re-engaged, conversed, argued, learned from and generally 'got my mojo back' through the conversations and discussions with these clever and creative people.

I’ve realised that there’s a parallel here with my professional career.  In between acting jobs, I was essentially an amateur at everything else I did, until they became more permanent, professional positions.  I started out as a Twitter amateur (an #amatwiteur, if you will) and have found the whole thing to be an interesting and inspiring experience.  It has opened my eyes to the potential of social media in learning, and by being 'under the radar' at work, has refreshed and re-energised my inner cowboy.  I have engaged with others, with my own team and with people at work in a way in which my 'professional' approach was not working - for me or for them.  We’re all now playing with and reflecting on the potential of these new technologies in the workplace.

Now, with a role change imminent at work and the refocus of a new leadership position in Learning Technologies, I am releasing my inner cowboy, my creative amateur, and starting to mix things up again.  I’ll be updating this story with how things are progressing, in my session with Clive Shepherd at the World of Learning Conference in Birmingham on Tuesday 27th September (#WoL11).  I hope you can be part of that too.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Assumptions in a Virtual World

In one of my previous blogs, I talked about my daily commute to London. One morning recently, my train pulled in to City Thameslink station and the usual crowd got up and left the train. In the ensuing - and brief - silence which followed, a woman standing at the door of the carriage called out "Is this City Thameslink?" Without giving it any thought, nor looking over my shoulder to see, I made a very presumptive judgement about her. "The station name's written on the wall! It's just been announced by the driver! Stupid woman." I didn't say that obviously, but I most definitely thought it!

But then I had another thought, "Hang on, who's being stupid here? What assumptions have I just made without checking? Maybe she's blind; or deaf; or both! Maybe she has learning difficulties, or is Dyslexic! Did I hear a foreign accent? Is English not her first language?" You see where I'm going with this. Because I couldn't see her or be bothered to find out anything about her, I made a horrible, knee-jerk, inappropriate judgement about her because of that one heard question. There, I'm glad I got that off my chest - confession is good for the soul!

Then I got to thinking how similar that situation is to that in which I have found myself when running virtual classroom sessions or webinars. My guess is that the majority of us don't use webcam or video in these sessions (bandwidth, etc), so we rely on our participants' voices, their web chat, their interaction with mark-up tools, responses to questions or polls, for us to get any sense of who they really are and the circumstances in which they are participating in our session.

But what don't we know or can tell from this? Are they private? Are they in a shared office? Can they interact freely? Are they shy? Do they have difficulty in seeing the screen? Do they need glasses? Are they 'newbies' to this environment? Do they not like the sound of their own voice? Is English not their first language? Is this session engaging enough? Am I encouraging participation with my questions, my polls, my arguments?

In the classroom, we identify some of these issues because we can see the learner and actively flex to engage them as we go along. Do we pay enough attention to the quiet ones in our online sessions, without those clues?

We talk a lot about non-verbal communication and how we rely on it to contextualise our face-to-face or classroom sessions. As my team and I look to retool, revitalise and revive our Virtual Classroom sessions and uptake, maybe we need to pay even more - and urgent - attention to our virtual interpretation and communication skills.

Have you got any similar experiences and/or hints and tips to share?

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Man on the Moon

Being something of an armchair astronomer (remember, I know a little about a lot…), I was recently asked to write a short, 300 word piece, on the subject of ‘The Moon’, for a local community newsletter. That was the extent of the brief; so I wrote and submitted the following:

TITLE: "There is no dark side of the Moon really..."

Towards the end of Pink Floyd's seminal 1973 album, Dark Side of The Moon, a character can be heard saying "There is no dark side of the moon really. Matter of fact, it's all dark." Sounds deeply mystical and meaningful, doesn't it? But it's wrong.

We assume that, because we always see the same 'face' of the Moon turned towards us, the other side must be dark. However, we see the different phases of the Moon each month - New, 1st Quarter, Half, 3rd Quarter, New - when the sun illuminates it from different angles as it orbits the Earth every 29 days. And remember, when we have an eclipse, the Moon comes between us and the Sun and blocks it from view for a few magical moments. At that point 'our' side is the dark side and the Sun is shining fully onto the other side.

We also assume that the Moon doesn’t rotate like the Earth does (our 24hr day). But it actually rotates one full turn during those 29 days!

Don't believe me? Draw a Man in the Moon face onto a ping-pong ball (your ‘Moon’), turn it to face another larger, spherical object (your ‘Earth’), and then, WITHOUT TWISTING your hand, move it in a circle round your Earth. You'll see the 'face' eventually turns away from the 'Earth' until, half way round, it has turned its back and faces away from the Earth altogether! To keep the same 'face' towards the earth, you HAVE to twist your ‘Moon’ round so that by the time you return to the starting point, you have rotated it by one full turn. Our Earth Month is one Lunar Day!

The truth is there is no dark side of the Moon really. Full Stop. (End of article)

So why am I sharing this article with you in my blog? What has this got to do with my professional life and interests - or indeed, yours? Well, the clue is the last paragraph, where I suggest a practical exercise to explain the concept. It’s not a theoretical exercise. I wanted to make an out-of-this-world scientific fact into something tangible. Having read up the science bit (fttp://www.universetoday.com/19725/lunar-day/), I did it myself to be sure I fully understood the principle, and then I talked my son through doing the same thing with a grape and an orange, to check that it was an understandable - and do-able - practical exercise. He learned something he didn’t know about our Moon, without us getting bogged down in complex discussions about orbital dynamics and tidal locking.

You see, I’m not a book learner; I need to do and see things for myself for them to make sense. That’s how I developed as an IT trainer many years ago, by learning to use software for myself. For example, any time I had to write a new word processing course, I used the actual software itself to write the course materials – Word, WordPerfect, AmiPro etc. - so I could walk the talk when it came to sharing with my students. It's how I'm learning to blog!

My limited knowledge and understanding of astronomy came initially from buying a pair of binoculars 20 years ago and pointing them at the moon (I was really trying to see Halley's Comet - never did). I subscribed to an astronomy magazine, which really whetted my appetite to see more. So I bought a telescope and hunted down some of the planets - Mars, Venus, Jupiter - and I will never forget the thrill I experienced the first time I saw the Rings of Saturn for myself through that telescope. Theory became reality by translating it into action, discovery and by looking closer.

That’s how I learn, and I’ve used that approach with many others over the years in IT Learning & Development. Make it real, make it challenging, make it fun and they'll be with you all the way. Don’t, and they won’t.

What are your techniques for keeping your training alive for your learners?

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Under the Commute

Another beautiful day in Sussex on Sunday, so @MandyRG and I hit the road to Ardingly Reservoir for a country walk - nothing as strenuous or as challenging as @BenedictBeau's recent South Downs walk (http://lionslastroar.blogspot.com/) mind you - and then I took myself off for another hour to walk down the Ouse to have a look at the Balcome Railway Viaduct and take some photos (see below).

There are a host of facts about this 1841, 37-arch viaduct, which I won't repeat here - you can find all that stuff easily on the Web.

So, why did I need to get up close and personal to this piece of our industrial architecture?  Well, apart from my natural geeky curiosity about all things 'trains', I actually pass over this viaduct on my daily rail commute to and from London, and have often admired the surrounding countryside as we sweep overhead at 75 mph.  I thought it would be cool to see both the viaduct and its setting from another perspective.

I was reminded of @StephanieDedhar's post last week "Looking at things the right way", where she discusses how seeing the same topic from different perspectives can add weight and understanding to a learning experience (http://stephaniededhar.wordpress.com/). 

And talking of perspectives, I can't think of a better illustration of that than the second photo, looking through the piers of the viaduct, from one end to the other.  They were built with hollow centres (to save bricks?) and can only be seen in all their glory by being directly underneath the structure.

As this picture was being taken on autotimer, a train thundered by overhead and I smiled to myself that, come Tuesday, I'll be doing that again myself, with several hundred other regular commuters. But I'll never take that particular part of my journey for granted again - I've been under the commute.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Appraising Appraisals


It's that time of year again, when people across organisations - Managers, Supervisors and staff alike - wake with a song in their heart, looking forward with eager anticipation to their annual appraisals. Managers thrill with anticipation at the prospect of conducting those deep and meaningful conversations - that they have so diligently prepared for - with their enthusiastic and motivated staff; whilst those same staff have assembled their evidence and documented their progress against the specific, meaningful, achievable, realistic and timely objectives which they agreed with their managers at their previous annual and then their interim review 6 months ago...

Hang on a sec! If there were a soundtrack attached to this blog, this would be where you would hear the record player needle scratch across and fall off the vinyl record, wouldn't it?

I am a big fan of Appraisals. I think that , done effectively, they are powerful tools, engaging and empowering managers and staff alike. I have been conducting them for over 14 years now, and being appraised for longer than that. I have worked with different appraisal models. For me, it's not the model itself which is important - it's the conversation, the human face-to-face interaction - that matters!

I particularly like the concept of a Professional Development Portfolio, whereby everyone has their our own folder (physical or virtual) into which they file their reviews, their agreed operational objectives, their development plans and their record and evidence of achievement. This is very effective, generating a real sense of ownership and personal responsibility amongst staff at all levels. It becomes a living document, reviewed formally twice a year, but updated by the owner throughout the year as they achieve objectives and gather the evidence from both planned and unplanned activity.

I've also found a simple Leadership Model - 'Set the Direction; Enable; Monitor' - to be the key to managing my team's performance, and being managed myself. I use the same approach in applying any appraisal system. Let's just look at that Model in more detail, by posing some questions that are particularly relevant whilst the annual appraisal round is in full flow everywhere (remember, this works bottom-up just as well as top-down):

'Set the Direction' - Did your manager set your direction for this year? Did you agree your objectives with him or her? Were they SMART objectives? Did you understand how your objectives contributed to the departmental and organisational strategy and plans? Did you agree with your manager what measures you would use to determine weather or not the objective had been met? Did you discuss whether or not you had the skills required to achieve those objectives, and if not, how you were going to acquire them (this leads us nicely on to...)

'Enable' - Did you have the right amount of time, the proper tools, the skills and the motivation, to achieve your objectives? If not, did you discuss this with your manager during your appraisal? Did you agree an under-pinning personal and professional development plan to ensure that you could? And did you take/were you given the opportunity to get that learning and turn it into the delivery of your objectives?

'Monitor' - Do you and your manager have formal or informal one-to-one's in between your appraisals? Do you talk to him/her if you have any issues between times? Do you keep him/her informed of your successes? Do you record them for inclusion in your Appraisal discussion? Does your manager know what else is going on in your life which may or may not be having an impact on your ability to do your job, and is he/she making provision for that? I guess the main thing for me here is - do you have an open and honest relationship with your manager?

I'm not sure that I can honestly say I have been able to answer all of these questions effectively as a Manager (Appraiser) or as a member of staff (Appraisee) this year. But as we all complete our appraisal forms and prepare for those discussions with our managers, I encourage you to think about those questions, and to consider the Leadership Model I have outlined above. Remember, good leadership is something we can ALL demonstrate, whether or not we are actually managing other staff, and thereby ensure that this year's appraisal conversations are authentic and meaningful.

What's been your experience and your thoughts on appraisals?

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

The Blog Bullet - Bitten!

Hello and welcome to my new blog.  This is something I've been procrastinating about for a long time.  I started 'micro-blogging' in the Summer of last year, after attending a Learning & Skills Group conference in London and experiencing Twitter for the first time.  That inspired me to get myself a Twitter account and to start interacting with others in the Learning & Development and Social Media world.  I began to 'get it' and to feel reconnected.  As of today, I have 'tweeted' 1,302 times, I am following 210 interesting people and organisation, and I am being followed by 198 people who really ought to know better!  All OK so far...

So why venture into 'proper' blogging now, and what's with the name, "A Little About a Lot"?

Well, I've already passed the Twitter 140 character limit just getting to here in this blog!  I've seen how others use their Tweets to lead interested people to their blogs and to engage more deeply in their topic.  I've seen colleagues and friends take their first steps into blogging and been surprised and impressed at the depth of their knowledge and wisdom.  And they've been encouraging me to do the same, despite my misgivings about whether or not I had something useful to share and even then, if others would be in the least interested.

So I started 'journalling', making an effort to regularly jot down ideas, thoughts, reflections, jokes etc in a notebook app on my laptop.  I started a document called 'Blog Ideas' and it's run to two pages already.

I've been many things in my working life - Fruit Picker, Postman, Delivery Driver, Shop Assistant, Theatrical Lighting Rigger, Stage Manager, Actor, Audio Typist, Barman, PA, Office Manager, Business Owner, IT Trainer and I've been a Training Manager for the last 14 years. I've been a husband for 25 years and a dad for 19.  So, I know a little about a lot and a lot about very little!

I look forward to sharing with - and learning from - you too.