Monday, 7 December 2015

Listen Up!

This blog has lurked around for a while, unpublished. I wasn't convinced it 'had legs'. So I want to thank Sukhvinder Pabial ( @sukhpabial ) for his joyous weekend blog Acapella Music and Pentatonix which reminded me why I penned this in the first place.
I have started listening to music again.

"Why is this news?", I hear you ask. Maybe not of much import to or impact on you, but it's another step along my cardiac bypass recovery and readjustment path, and indeed, links to and supports another of my 'life themes', 'Look Up! See blog, "Things Are Looking Up"

I have grown to value silence. During my recovery, when I was not out walking and building up my stamina and strength, I spent a lot of my time alone during the day, as Mandy was at work and the children (young adults), albeit home for the holidays, were doing their own thing elsewhere. I 'switched off' from the noise of social media and any work-related activities.

And in this new-found silence, I resisted back-filling it. I only watched breakfast TV, and then switched everything 'noisy' off - no TV, no radio, no iPod/Pad/Phone, no stereo system (remember them?). On my walks, as well as 'looking up', I have been 'listening up', hearing birdsong, wind in branches, waves on pebble beaches, seagulls calling... And just taking it all in.

And I've been wondering why I haven't been inclined to listen to music. I have wide musical tastes (I shan't bore you by listing them) and have always enjoyed both recorded and live performances. So what changed?

I had to travel up to London on the train recently, and after being on the train for 10 minutes, I chastised myself for forgetting my earphones. And there it was! I didn't want to listen to music on my 'phone for the pleasure of listening to music itself - I wanted to drown out the intrusion of the chatter, laughter, crying children, leaking personal stereo headphones and incessant service announcements which permeate modern train travel. I was taken right back to my commuting days and the 'familiar bad feelings' associated therewith.

I realised that I had begun to associate music with an unpleasant experience by using it as a distraction, a disconnect, if you will, from that experience and the people around me and thereby I devalued something that has given my heart and soul much pleasure and comfort over the years. This realisation made me sad.

So I determined to lay the ghost and reconnect with my music. We have a large collection of CDs and online music. I decided to re-explore that collection and other sources - and write this blog. As I have written, revisited and edited, I have been accompanied throughout by music that I have not 'listened' to for a long time.
So Listen up - this blog is brought to you by the Philip Glass Ensemble, by the Michael Nyman Band, Jeff Lynne's ELO, Elton John and, right now, by The Eagles. But there is so much more to discover and enjoy out there.

I'm listening...!

Monday, 23 November 2015

New Normal

It's now just over six months since I had my triple coronary bypass operation and coming up to three months since I was made redundant. In what was already going to be a momentous year for me and the family (Mandy's 60th Birthday, Natasha's Graduation, Our 30th Wedding Anniversary and my own impending 60th Birthday), these two sudden and unexpected events have brought me up short and made me question what I do, how I do it and - critically - why I do it.

Unsurprisingly, it has taken all of these six months to get my head (and my heart) into and around these questions. In many respects, I have been given several gifts - more time, better health, incredible support, counselling and reflective space being just some of them - so I have not felt the need or the impetus to get back to the busy. In slow time, I have tried to shift my thinking from what do I NOT want to do any more (it's quite a long list!) to what really matters to me and what I want my 'New Normal' to be in the time I have left.
Truth to tell, having experienced the rest and peace that these six months have afforded me, I can visualise - and would be quite happy to start - retirement. Financially, that's not an option quite yet. But what is emerging looks like an initial 5-year Plan followed by another 20 years which will mostly be about standing on roundabouts, shouting at traffic...

Received wisdom nowadays is that 60 is not a great age to find oneself out of work and looking to find more. But here's where 'Niall's New Normal' has already kicked in; I'm not stressing or worrying myself about it. Life is - literally - too short to do that any more.

Things happen for a reason. Things present themselves when you are open to allowing them to so do. The Universe offers opportunities that you will miss if you're not paying attention, if you're not listening, if you're not present - if you're too busy trying to get back to how things were (and what caused the problem/s in the first place). Letting go and endings are as much a part of moving forward as are shaping futures.

As I have been clarifying my thinking about those futures and how I want to operate, how I feel about 'stuff' and how I think I can be useful, events have opened up which have been relevant and attuned to those thoughts. I have finally caught up with Jamil Quereshi's talk at September's 'LearningLive' conference. Much of what he said resonates strongly for me - particularly about changing thinking to change feeling to change action and how important it is for our lives to have meaning and purpose. I have been able to participate in several other conference, learning and networking events recently, mostly through my Personal Learning Network, professional associations and social media communities, all of which have spoken to me in significant and timely ways of how I can be in #newnormal - and out of these interactions are starting to emerge potential professional opportunities, none of which involve having a full-time, role and salary-defined responsibility, but which could be autonomous, developmental, fun and rewarding. That seems to me to be a good start for now...

Watch this space!

Sunday, 27 September 2015


Recently, I've been updating my social media profiles. Mostly, this just involved adding "ex-" in front of my job/role description, because, in early September, my employer and I parted company after 10 years. This was a mutually-arrived-at decision, the discussion thereof having been postponed from May due to my sudden and unexpected cardiac bypass surgery and subsequent weeks of recovery.

All due process followed, I exited the business on the 7th of September and was able to 'go public' with my team and ex-colleagues and also with my peers and personal learning network at the Learning & Performance Institute 'LearningLive' conference a couple of weeks ago.
On Friday, I trudged up to the London office to return my ex-employer's laptop, Blackberry, passes, data sticks etc and pack up my few belongings and books for them to courier back home for me (I still can't lift heavy boxes, due to my bypass recovery). It was a bitter-sweet pleasure to see and chat with erstwhile colleagues Emma, Jennifer, Dominic and Lee and I managed to 'keep it together' right up until the final moment when I left the office for the last time.

I'm going to organise an off-site 'leaving 'do' in October for ex-workmates, and then, quite literally, my work is done. For now.

Because now I've got even more time to consider my future options. What have I learned? What will my new normal look and feel like? What do I want to do? (What don't I want to do?) What inspires and enthuses me? What's my proposition? What - and more importantly, who - matters? Who do I want to play with? Who wants to play with me? S'exciting.

Feel free to chat with me about any and/or all of the above, via the usual channels, or add a comment here. Thanks.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Heart and Soul

jordan mcqueen under CC0 1.0
Last Friday was a milestone in the ongoing story of my coronary bypass recovery, as it was exactly three months since my surgery - three months of steady, if slow, progress, rebuilding my strength and stamina. My scars are healing nicely, my walking distance is increasing and I am now starting to look towards returning to work. 

And I am also beginning to properly reflect on what the impacts have been and will be - on my family, on my friends and colleagues and on my future self. My own sense of self has been fundamentally challenged. I am not immortal! Despite years of good health and fitness, I have been ambushed by my own body and by the rapidity with which I was overtaken by angina symptoms, investigation, surgery and recovery.  In many respects, I feel as though I have been a passenger in all this, with the only 'control' or decision-making I had being no control at all - why would I say 'no' to surgery when it was made evident to me by the experts that I had serious, life-threatening heart disease and multiple coronary artery failures?

So now I find myself pondering such issues as Who am I? Where do I fit? What is my 'new normal' going to be? What's my role, function and purpose now and for the next 25 years, in relation to myself, my family, friends, acquaintances and colleagues? How do I go on from here - living and operating in my family, social, work and virtual lives? What does work look like now? What do I want? How selfish can/should I be? I'm now in the process of finding a talking therapy counsellor so I can start to explore some of this stuff - and whatever else may come up - with someone who is not involved in any of the above.

Coincidentally, all of this has got me pondering on the language we use - and mis-use - in thinking and talking about this sort of thing. I now firmly believe that my body, and more specifically, my heart, was talking to me long before I began to experience angina symptoms in April. I just wasn't actively listening to it. At various times in the last year, I knew that 'my heart wasn't in it', that I was 'heartily sick' of things (like moving house and commuting), that my 'heart's desire' was for some change to the routine and that it was becoming increasingly stressful to be at 'the heart of the action' at work, at home and in the virtual, social and professional arenas within which I was active. And my conclusion is that, in not paying proper attention to those emotional and physical voices, in continuing to push through ('cos that's what I do), I literally 'broke my heart'.

But now I'm fixed, now I've dodged the bullet, I shan't be so deaf to what my body, my gut, my heart's telling me. I shall wear my heart on my sleeve and look after myself better. I owe it to myself and to those who love and who have supported me through the last four months. Obviously, there are more conversations to be had, but there will be no more lip service to 'work/life balance'.  Onwards...!

PS: Are you listening to your body? Is your heart still in what you're doing and how you're doing it? Or does your heart ache? My advice would be to tune in before you tune out!

Wednesday, 17 June 2015


Just over a month ago I had a triple coronary bypass operation and am currently signed off work for several more weeks as I recover. This all happened very quickly, as a result of experiencing some chest pain in April and attending the doctor to discuss.
An initial diagnosis of angina, followed by an ECG and blood tests, quickly led to a consultation with a cardiologist, an exploratory angiograph (x-ray of my heart) and revelation of the fact that not only had I had a heart attack late last year (whilst Mandy and I were in the throes of a very stressful house move) resulting in a completely blocked coronary artery, but also that two other arteries were in the process of closing up due to coronary heart disease and my heart was now struggling to function adequately, hence the chest pain. 
Needless to say, and on the advice of my cardiologist that I was otherwise sufficiently healthy and 'an ideal candidate', two days later I was under the knife in Southampton, blocked arteries bypassed with re-directed chest arteries and veins 'harvested' from my legs and, within the week, was despatched home for a three month recovery period.

This was a huge shock, not only to me, but to Mandy, recently started a new job, and to my children, both of whom were in the final stages of their University year work - Tash completing her Finals and Sam completing his Year 1 work. With very little time for reflection or for debate, my life was turned upside down and inside out. All my attention was now focussed on 'getting better', a slow process initially whilst my body was effectively in post-traumatic shock from very invasive surgery and it's only in the time that I have been given at home, as my body heals, that I have slowly started to reflect on the emotional and psychological impacts.

I'm fortunate that I experienced angina symptoms sufficiently noticeable to discuss with Mandy and, on her insistence, seek immediate medical advice. I'm equally fortunate that things moved swiftly thereafter (within two weeks, I had the procedure) and that - apparently - everything has gone well. I'm healing physically. My chest scar and my leg scars are healing and easing and my mobility and stamina is increasing.

But my sense of self has been fundamentally challenged. What I thought was normal, may not have been normal. I have been living and operating in my family, social, work and virtual lives with a ticking bomb in my chest. That may have been having far more profound psychological, emotional and physical impacts - and for longer - than I, my family, friends, acquaintances and colleagues may have realised.  It's only now, a month later, that I am starting to 'allow' myself to consider these things and to reflect on what they mean for us now and in the future.  Much reflection and possibly some talking therapy to come. What's important? What's not so important? What does the 25 years that I've been given by this operation look like? How shall I/we spend that time? What does work and retirement look like now? 

We have much to be joyful about. I'm still here! Tash achieved a 2:1 BA in Interior Architecture & Design and graduates in late July, before starting her new job in August. Sam got straight B's throughout his Foundation Year and is guaranteed a place on the BA Film Production course at UCA in Farnham. Mandy is enjoying her new job in Brighton. Both Mandy and I turn 60 this year and it is also our 30th Wedding Anniversary in August. 

Previous readers may remember I blogged nearly four years ago about turning 56 and outliving my Father who died just after his 56th Birthday ("Age - Appropriate"). I said then that I had been gifted the time he never got and that I was going to make the most of it. Now, three years and one coronary bypass later, I have been given another gift. I do not intend to squander it.

PS: I could not have got through the last 5 weeks, nor will I get through the months to come, without the love, support, friendship and good wishes of many, many people, not least my darling wife Mandy and my two fantastic children, Natasha and Samuel. I love them and owe them everything, but my heartfelt thanks go out to you all.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Fear of Swimming

I had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with Caroline Walmsley (@carowalmsley), CEO of Brightwave, last week and we had a wide-ranging conversation about learning, learners, L&D, vendors and the ambiguous spaces betwixt and between them.

We talked about the shift that's happening in learning, the shift that's making learners, trainers and vendors take a good look at themselves and their current and future skill needs. And we wondered why so many of us are finding it difficult to evolve our thinking and our practice to keep up with, and stay ahead of, these changes.  We talked about arrogance and we talked about fear. 

© Copyright David Douglas and licensed for
reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
And I was reminded of learning to swim. I remembered going to swimming lesson at Paisley Baths when I was 8 or 9 years old. I remembered the panic of trying to keep my head above water, to stay in the world above the surface, the belief that I would not be able to breathe if my head went under the surface. The result of that thinking, of course, was that I spent all the time in swimming lessons struggling to 'stay alive' and paid no heed whatsoever to learning the techniques and thereby discovering the fun to be had in swimming.

That fear stayed with me for years. I denied myself the pleasure and the benefits of swimming, despite the many opportunities available to me, well into my late teens. When I did eventually - with the encouragement of friends and colleagues - learn to swim, it was still not with the unbridled joy and abandon that I saw in others. I was staying afloat, my feet were finally 'off the bottom', but I was still essentially expending all my energy in trying to keep my head above water.

And then, at the age of 22, I went to Corfu with my best pal for my first ever foreign holiday. I was determined that I would swim in the Mediterranean. Any Mike brought a snorkle and goggles. That combination of factors finally released me from the fear. At one and the same time, I found I was able to swim AND get my head under the water, whilst still breathing! It was a transformative experience. Not only did I not die, but the world underneath the surface was beautiful. I was surrounded by fish, I was 'flying' over an undersea landscape of forms and shapes and colours I had never imagined. I loved it.

And when I lifted my head back out of the water, I was a quarter of a mile away from the shore. I was a swimmer! (I panicked at that point, but had the sense to stick my head back under the water, and follow the undersea slope back to the beach - learning in action!)

That's what I think those of us engaged in UK Learning PLC need to do. We need to stop struggling to stay alive in the safe world we've always known, to put all our energies into keeping our heads above the water. We need to be brave, to find a way of getting our heads under the surface, to see the world of possibilities open to us, whilst realising that not only can we survive in that space, but we can develop new skills and have fun at the same time. We can operate in more learning environments than we think.

So, feel the fear and do it anyway. Stick your head under the surface, have a good look round and, in the immortal words of 'Dory' from the Disney Pixar film 'Finding Nemo', "just keep swimming, swimming swimming..."

Monday, 13 April 2015

MOOCs and Me

Photo by graur razvan ionut
I mentioned MOOCs to one of my team last week and was met with a blank stare and inevitable follow-up question - "What's a MOOC?" Other than being able to tell her that a MOOC is a 'Massive Open Online Course', I didn't have a lot to say about them.
"Hang on", I hear you cry. "Aren't you supposed to be some kind of Learning & Development Techie Manager, or something like that? Aren't you supposed to know about all this stuff?"
Fair point. You'd think that with a job title of Head of Technology Assisted Learning, I'd know everything you'd need to know about Learning Technologies and MOOCs and the like, wouldn't you? Well, as I say in my Social Media profiles, "I know a little about a lot and a lot about very little". And MOOCs is one of the areas about which I know very little! That's why I accepted Isobel Nancarrow's invitation to join the LinkedIn Group "Explore Social: Massive Open Online Courses" (here) and write a blog.
I know what MOOCs are. I kind of understand the way they work. I know and respect several people who have organised and run MOOCs. I have actually been interested in some of the topics they cover...
So why then have I not joined in and done one yet? What's stopping me from getting involved? I figure that if I have barriers - and I am an L&D professional with an interest in technology and social media - then exploring what they might be and then getting over them, may help others both within the profession and potential MOOC learners, to understand and reflect on their engagement with MOOCs.
Let's start with information overload. There so many online websites and networking groups presenting and sharing great content from so many enlightened - and some not so - professionals, that I struggle to take it all in. I have a day job; I'm a husband and a Dad; we're still unpacking and settling into our new home, 6 months on. I do my best to keep up - twitter (tweeting and tweetchats), LinkedIn, Google+, facebook, Pinterest, blogs and blogging, conferences/unconferences; I've just downloaded onto my Kindle two free training books by Paul Matthews at People Alchemy...  aaarrrggghhhh! And now I've got to make time to do MOOCs as well?
"What about your commuting time?" I hear you ask. "Surely you got time and space to do some more development then?". Well, apart from the 'no wifi on the train' response, there's also 'my time for reflection' (or 'sleep', as I have come to know it over the years).
All that said, I have accepted the invitation to write this blog; I have checked into the associated LinkedIn Group site and, from there, I have also enrolled in the Curatr MOOC, "Exploring Social Learning" (sign up here), so that I can learn more about MOOCs. It looks like a four-week commitment of around two hours per week, apparently. I've now completed the Onboarding and the Curating My Contributions modules and can now start Week 1's content.
I have dipped my toes in the water. I'm starting to see some possibilities; for example, creating and facilitating a digital/social media skills course for my L&D colleagues and others across the business. It's early days. I shall report back as my learning experience in this MOOC progresses.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

On Friendship

Mandy and I attended a surprise 60th birthday lunch for my best pal in London today. His partner, Clare, had asked me, as his oldest pal, to say a few words.  This is what I said...
I'm going to start by taking a quick a straw poll... How many of you here today call Michael by his full name - Michael - or by the more familiar, Mike?  (The majority of hands showed up for 'Michael').

So, apart from his sister Ann and my wife Mandy, I think I must be about the only person who calls him Mike. And I claim the right to do so and to continue to do so... because that's what everyone called him when we were at school together in 1970, aged 15, and I also claim the right to say a few words about my oldest - and best - pal...

Mike first came to my attention as a new arrival at our secondary school, the John Neilson High School, in Paisley, in our Third Year (that's Year 9 to you Sassenachs). We were 15. Difficult to miss even then, as he was taller than most of us - not too difficult in my case.  We didn't become pals until he showed up as one of the chorus in our school production of 'Oliver', and I have a very clear picture in my memory of him running (skipping actually, to music) onto the stage as one of a group of 'urchins' and seamlessly scooping up and removing a stool which had been used in the previous scene, without dropping a step or indeed, the stool itself.

I had a small group of friends and Mike fitted right in - bit nerdy, middle-class, musical, drama club and school show focussed - we would hang about in the corridors or the Music Department practice rooms. We also found out he and I shared an interest in steam trains - that made him more than alright in my book.

And Mike made me laugh. We shared the same sense of humour, fuelled by comedians like Eric Morecombe and Tommy Cooper, and as volunteer school librarians, our weekly top up from 'Punch' magazine. Eric Morecomble and Mike gave me the best laughs of my teenage years - you know that laugh that doubles you up, which makes you almost cry with laughter?  I will never forget the costume fitting for school panto - Sinbad - when he and I turned up to the Home Economics Department to try on our respective costumes in the classroom cupboard - I was Tinbad (Sinbad's naughty little brother) and Mike was.... Mrs Sinbad, my Mum! Picture, if you will, Mike at 16 yrs old, 6 ft tall, struggling to get into a dance of the seven veils-type costume, with yashmak and everything...! I was on the floor, weeping with laughter.  He stole the show every night, the perfect panto dame, with that essential incongruity of man-in-a-dress gruffness and campness.

We were in and out of each others houses all the time - our parents approving of each other's friend - and I have fond memories of Mike's Mum and Dad, both now sadly passed away. And again, there's the measure of true friendship; Mike attended my Mum's funeral in Scotland to pay his respects when she passed on 8 years ago, and I was privileged to be able to support Mike, Clare and Matthew at Joyce's funeral last year.

We followed our separate paths when we left school - Mike to the BBC in London and me to Drama College in Edinburgh, but we maintained our friendship over the years, into our working lives and all the other up and down stuff that 'growing up' brings with it. And here we are now - 45 years on. Both older and maybe a little bit wiser. 
Isn't it funny tho' how old gets older, the older you get?

It's a delight for Mandy I to be here today to celebrate Mike's 60th Birthday with you all. Please raise your glasses and wish the Birthday Boy a very Happy Birthday!
This stuff matters!

Monday, 2 February 2015


I had the privilege of Chairing two sessions on the afternoon of the first day of this year's Learning Technologies Conference at Olympia in London last week. I chaired a single LT conference session last year, but this year's felt like a bigger challenge with more responsibility.

I was first approached by Don Taylor, Chairman of the Learning & Performance Institute and the Learning & Skills Group, back in September last year, with an email simply asking if I would be prepared to take on the challenge of Chairing two sessions. He pointed out that he wanted to mix things up a bit at this year's conference and that there would of necessity be a larger commitment of time and effort required.  Always up for a new learning opportunity, I agreed.  Now, with the conference behind us, I have been reflecting on the experience.

There are now 128 emails in my 'LT15uk' folder since that initial request some four months ago. These represent the history of the to and fro exchanges between myself and Don and his team, as well as with the speakers in both of the sessions I was to Chair - five terrific professionals from different sectors, sharing their case studies and experiences in two discussions streams being run in two different conference rooms back-to-back on the same afternoon!  We're all busy people, with busy day jobs and full-time responsibilities, so we all had to balance our time and commitments accordingly.
If you want a masterclass on how to Chair conference sessions, I recommend you volunteer to Don to do so if and when he extends the invitation in the future. His requirements were clear; his timeline and gateways explicit, but the how and when to do these things he left up to me.  After advising the session speakers that I was their Chair, Don left us to get on with it.  Which we did.

I shan't bore you with the details of the several conference calls and email exchanges we had between then and Wednesday last week when we assembled at the agreed hour/s, got set up and ran our sessions. Suffice to say that juggling our time and effort had not been wasted and they went well.

Having spoken at several conferences before now, I have recognised the importance of a good Chair - someone who soothes speaker nerves (we all have them, no matter how experienced), keeps things in order and to time, sets the audience expectations and 'session norms' (not 'rules', you'll note), makes the necessary introductions - and then gets the h*ll out of the way until any Q&A discussion at the end, then makes sure as many people as possible get to makes their point or ask their question. I tried to live up to those standards last week and hope that that's what my speakers and attendees experienced. My
only 'innovation' if you can call it that, was to tweet several times before Wednesday, and on the day itself, inviting people to tweet me any questions they might have for my speakers in advance, so I could pose them for them 'in the room'. No-one did beforehand, but two people in the audience did tweet me their question during one of the sessions and I was able to pass it on to the panel during the Q&As (thanks to @happyhenry and @danroddy for those!)

So everything went well and I was congratulating myself on not having dropped the ball, when  Sukhvinder Pabial, another first-time Chair (and valued member of my #PLN - Personal Learning Network), tweeted the following...  
Sukh's tweets, together with an overheard comment from someone at the conference drinks later, that the conference sessions still seemed to be 'audiences sitting in a theatre being talked at by 'experts'', got me thinking; what could I have done differently to have made the sessions I chaired more interactive and even more engaging? 

I realised I had quite happily gone along with - indeed, set - the agenda and format of my two sessions in a traditional 'Intro / Speaker / Q&A / Sum Up' way and I had not, in fact, encouraged my speakers to think differently, to encourage audience involvement, challenge, conversation or debate during their presentations. I did throw a couple of unplanned questions at them during the Q&As, but that was about it. That said, all my speakers delivered interesting, insightful case studies in their presentations and the Q&A sessions were lively, added even more information and content and, as a result, were fully attended to the end.

So, if I am ever asked to Chair any future conference sessions, my challenge will be to think - and to get my speakers to think - outside of the traditional conference presentation format box and to see what innovations we can bring to the learning exchange that we are all there to benefit from.

What would you like to see done differently? Have you ever been to or participated in an Un-Conference? Would that format work within the context of a larger, multi-stream, multi-day, multi-venue event? What about running 'Ignite' presentations (20 slides, 15 seconds per slide, auto-timed)? I'd love to hear your thoughts or ideas.

I just want to finish by thanking my speakers for their cooperation and trust in the run-up to, and their contributions during, our sessions on Wednesday 28th January at the Learning Technologies Conference 2015 - Velda Barnes (@velbarnes) from Addaction, Jason Simeon from Selex ES, Jane Daly from Marks & Spencer, Edward Gallier (@EdwardGallier) from Jurys Inn and Kandy Woodfield (@jess1ecat) from NatCen Social research. Thanks also to Don Taylor (@DonaldHTaylor) for the giving me the opportunity to Chair these two sessions, and to Sukh Pabial (@sukhpabial) for making me reflect - always learning!

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Self Assembly

I spent a lot of time over the festive holidays on domestic tasks like putting up curtain rails, hanging pictures and assembling bedroom furniture. We moved into our new-build home at the beginning of November and I never really had time to attend to these tasks between then and breaking up for the vacation, so I was glad to finally put my own feet on the floor, so to speak.

I have accumulated lots of DIY experience over many years, so none of these tasks gave me any cause for concern, other than being unable to find my tools, which were buried in the garage when we moved in and remain as yet unrecovered. So, new drill and a new battery-powered, hand-held screwdriver duly purchased, I set to. I don't need instructions or training to put up curtain poles or hang pictures, but I did need them to put together the various self-assembly chests of drawers and cabinets we had purchased from the well-known Scandinavian furniture makers, Ikea.

And what great instructions they provide! No words, just illustrations. Clear, simple, well-drawn, specific to the particular piece of furniture being assembled and pared to the absolute minimum of content. They make no assumptions about the assembler's gender or literacy, nor their expertise with a very few basic tools - in this case a hammer and a screwdriver. They even indicate with arrows which way you should be turning the screws! They also relate entirely to the contents of the box. Indeed, they rely on the contents of the box being exactly as stated - x number of screws, y number of dowels, z number of thingys you use a screwdriver to turn to catch and lock onto the end of the other thingys you screwed into the other panel earlier. There are no unnecessary explanations. There's no padding. I found the instructions easy - a pleasure, even - to follow and, in so doing, I built and furnished our bathrooms and bedroom with 3 cabinets and 5 chests of drawers. I had achieved what I set out to do and had enjoyed doing it, thanks to their well-designed performance support materials.

And I got to thinking that I'm not sure I can say the same about some of the training materials I have been exposed to - and have either overseen the creation of, or, indeed, created myself - over the years. Over-engineered, wordy, illustration-free, full of jargon and assumptions and/or time-limited, they generally failed to do the job for which they were (badly) designed. And it's still going on.

This is becoming an even more important consideration now in the age of internet-enabled, always on, 24-7-available content and people's expectations of being able to access it as and when they need it. It doesn't matter how readily available it may be if it's still badly done!

So our challenge as training providers and facilitators is to think like those clever people at Ikea; to ensure that we design for clarity, brevity and relevance, making no assumptions about prior experience or knowledge, whilst also ensuring that we critically examine and curate content created by others to the same standard. No pressure there then!

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Are You a User or a Pusher?

Relax! I have no interest in your recreational habits. Let me explain where the question comes from and all will become clear.

I came into training as a novice. Having struggled for 12 years to make a career as an actor, and having spent most of those 12 years doing other work to keep the wolf from the door, my wife Mandy (@MandyRG) and I started an IT Training company with another couple in 1989. I had very limited previous exposure to using a computer, nor had I any formal training experience (although I did manage to last a whole term in post-graduate teacher training after I gained my  Drama Degree in 1976).

But that meant that I came to the IT Training business essentially untainted by a lot of background technical knowledge and expertise. I came in as a user of the technology with, frankly, no interest whatsoever in what was going on inside the box. I just wanted to know how to make the software do the things I needed it to do. And that software was still green screen Lotus 123 and WordPerfect!

It was several months - as we slowly built up our client base - before my colleagues were prepared to unleash me on an unsuspecting group of client  Lotus 123 learners. I had had the benefit of being trained by Mandy and had sat in and witnessed her and them training the course and done several dummy runs myself with their helpful feedback. I managed to hold it together and delivered a successful course - but it was to the letter of the albeit very good lesson plan and, if anyone had asked me any questions for which I had not been prepared (and let's face it, there are a million of those), it could all have gone horribly wrong. I was not entirely comfortable with being in that position.

And so we grew the business and I developed both my application and my trainer skills. But my ethos as a trainer was always the user/learner and the context in which they would be using these tools; to make the software work for them and not them to work for it. So we talked to them (as opposed to talked at them).  We asked them what they wanted to do and why they wanted to do it. And, yes, we did have to cover some basics in those days, but even then it was in the context of their jobs and their productivity - as users. 

This was radical stuff in those days! I'd experienced IT training from other people and it was clear that many of them, whilst technically very good indeed, had no understanding of nor empathy with their trainees. They were pushing their knowledge and information at them, rather than discussing their needs and contextualising the learning accordingly.  I personally never learned anything from the pushers, the show and tellers, who would sail through their 'schtick' without pause or concern for whether or not their learners were actually understanding what they were telling them.

And it's still going on. I still come across and hear about many different instances of trainers pushing information onto trainees. Facts piled upon facts. Bullet point after bullet point on text-heavy, graphically-challenged PowerPoint slides. No questions or discussion. And we wonder why people are turning their backs on traditional, classroom-based training.

So, here's an opportunity to reflect back on my original question. On the trainer/facilitator spectrum - are you a user or a pusher?

Your thoughts and comments are very welcome.