Interview with Jo Cook by Personel Plus magazine

On the 12th April 2018 I’m speaking at the E-learning Fusion conference in Poland.

This is an interview with Personal Plus that is being published in Polish, so here’s the English version for you.

Personel Plus: Jo, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. As you are probably guessing, the topic of our conversation will be… e-learning. For me it’s a very broad concept, capacious as far as the variety of didactic formulas that it can contain is concerned: from typical e-courses, short films, skill pills, online webinars…And how do you perceive it?

Jo: E-learning is term that, as you say, means different things to different people. I always use it to mean a click-next, self-paced module that is often held in an LMS somewhere. Often people have experienced this as compliance training in their organisation. Some people do use e-learning as a much broader term to include things like communities, forums, MOOC style curated resources and courses, webinars, virtual classrooms and more. I prefer to use the term “digital” when talking about that, as it’s a much more general and catch-all label.

Personel Plus: The Polish e-learning market is still learning it; it’s looking for a new approach based on getting learning closer to company’s business goals, but also to the employee. What were the beginnings of the e-learning market in the UK and what does it look like today?

Jo: I recall the rise of “educational software” as home PCs became more affordable in the mid-1990s. As the internet developed and individuals had access to more computers at work, it became a great way to capture and deliver training to people that was thought to be for everyone – hence a lot of compliance training or computer based programmes. Some people may remember ECDL, the European Computer Driving Licence. Ah those were the days! Today there are some parts of e-learning that haven’t changed much in their approach in that time, though technology changes, such as Flash being widely used for about 20 years, and now HTML5 is more important. There are also areas that are doing amazing work in making sure that the content that is designed, developed and deployed are strongly based on the needs of the organisation. The consultancy and design piece I think is separate from the technical elements of putting an e-learning module together.

Personel Plus: On numerous occasions my clients ask me what to do to encourage people to sign up for e-learning courses as willingly as they enrol for traditional courses. Could you share your experiences with us?

Jo: I think when people ask that question they have the best of intentions – they want people to be able to access and learn from the materials that they have spent time and money putting together. However it’s looking at the problem without seeing the bigger picture of people at work, how and what they need to learn and why. Some people find e-learning valuable, and some research from GoodPractice has highlighted that UK managers have stated that this is the case. A lot of people at work either don’t have the time or don’t want to spend the time on a traditional e-learning module where they think they won’t get the value. What people are wanting is more immediate answers, or more learning conversation and support from real people – which is why communities, forums, coaching and virtual classrooms are often great ways of doing this. I would get people to look at what people really need at work for doing their jobs and trying to match the learning to that. This way you can develop great quality e-learning that really is valuable for people, as well as a range of other resources and options for people.

Personel Plus: How do you see the role of traditional courses and the roles of coaches and trainers in the digital training reality?

Jo: They are a vital and imperative part of learning offerings. There are many different tools to use for people’s learning, development and improving their work performance. It’s always about ‘the right tool for the job’. Face to face training sessions are amazing to bring people together to discuss, to synthesise their learning and really get to grips with new ideas and the practicalities of their work. Some of this can also be translated into webinars and forums/communities and also virtual classrooms. Coaching and mentoring are also really personal and highly specific ways to develop individuals and should be encouraged at all levels in an organisation – not just senior management. If managers have good coaching skills it changes the dynamic of conversations with their teams and allows support of learning and work performance so much more.

Whilst these face to face methodologies are, rightly, here to stay, in a lot of instance they aren’t cost-effective or the best way to support people’s learning. This is where technology can be the right solution. That could be e-learning modules, or some of the other things we’ve discussed so far. The challenge is three-fold:

  1. Senior decision makers often haven’t experienced a lot more than face to face and coaching done really well to make an impact. Therefore they go back to the modality that they are comfortable with.
  2. Similar with L&D professionals, there is a subset that are not comfortable with new technology, or any technology, or updating their skillset. These are often the people in the organisation holding back an L&D department or being a roadblock for people wanting to achieve performance support in more modern ways that are appropriate to the learners and organisations.
  3. The learners themselves! There’s an element where some organisations don’t have a culture of people owning their learning and self and career development. This makes it challenging when learning opportunities are presented which don’t include the traditional face to face classroom, as people often feel that they haven’t had any investment in their development and they don’t value other options.

Personel Plus: While designing solutions I often wonder about choosing a suitable method for training and business goals that the particular solution should fulfil. I have my own best practices, could you share yours with us?

Jo: Great question, and something that more of us in learning need to focus on. I certainly know from past failures that it’s much easier with a methodology. One that’s very good and popular is Nigel Harrison’s Performance Consulting. Something with similar values is Cathy Moore’s Action Mapping, which I use a lot in all sorts of client conversations and different projects. Either process, and others, allow you to focus on more than the need as it presents itself. In other words, it’s about asking questions to reveal the needs of the business more than just “we need training on X”.

Learning teams need to know the business goals and the specifics for the teams and departments they are working with, so that when a problem is found, it can be investigated properly. A Training or Learning Needs Analysis assumes that training is part of the solution. Performance Consulting and Action Mapping both start with asking about the business fundamentals and investigating a whole range of areas that can help, such as the environment (is it too noisy, to cold, the software doesn’t work, the process is outdated..?) or communication. Learning solutions aren’t always the answer, but if they are, it’s then that understanding the people and the problem in more detail, as well as very specifically what people actually need to do at work, means that the focus of the design and delivery is on developing that performance. Too often people come away from a training session happy, but actually not able to do the job as well as they need to.

Personel Plus: Classic LMS systems are more often said to be the synonym of ‘old e-learning’ which is naturally associated with the domination of the system over the key elements in the training process – the participant and the goals of corporate learning, which are gaining knowledge and skills essential for the job while having an easy and instant access to them at the same time. What is this ‘new’ e-learning like and what could be the substitute for LMS?

Jo: The Learning Management System is important to the organisation, in other words the learning department that needs to organise, host and track the learning, and the people that pay the bills and want to be compliant in their industry. A “traditional LMS” doesn’t always serve the needs of the people at work very well. Think about when you have a problem to solve, you may well Google it or ask your network of people around you or on a social network before you log in to an LMS to find a course.

As you say, the more modern LMS are places for resources which can bridge that gap, as well as being part of a wider talent development system, including appraisals and other tracking. Are they really serving the needs of the person at work who needs to learn something though? A lot of platforms are now doing a great job of this, but there are still many that need to develop what they are doing and how they support people.

LMS platforms are a HUGE industry, you only need to walk around a technology exhibition space like Learning Technologies in London to see that. So there is a corporate, commercial imperative for those organisations to perpetuate the need of the LMS. However what so many of the large vendors are doing is looking at the needs of organisations now and into the future, combining that with appropriate technology in order to be able to satisfy the needs we have. Using Artificial Intelligence in order to suggest the next course or resource that is appropriate for someone’s development needs for instance, or curating external resources on particular subjects. So if the vendors are listening to their customers and adapting to what is needed, there isn’t a need for a substitute.

A lot of smaller organisations perhaps don’t need an LMS platform, but they will have equivalent s – perhaps an intranet system or shared drive structure where there is information and resources. Perhaps they have outsourced some e-learning fundamentals and people log in to that website. They, like larger organisations, might also take advantage of social networking and the internal equivalents, such as Yammer or Slack, to sign-post learning, people and have the development conversations.

Personel Plus: At the conference you are going to talk about digital body language. Online training is gaining supporters also in Poland. The challenge is the attractiveness of the message, the means that can be used to make such training more engaging and interactive. I know that people learn when they experience… how can we build online space that allows it?

Jo: There is so much richness that you can have in an online world. You only need to turn to games and their impact on people’s communication and relationships to see that. Online training, or digital learning, includes so many options and tools that you can use together. It’s never a substitute for coaching or face to face training when it’s appropriate, but that’s the joy of true blended options; you select the right technology for the job you are trying to achieve. A lot of people have experienced forums where there is no conversation, webinars with no interaction, platforms with awful design that make the user experience excruciating, videos with terrible sound, podcasts that drone on without getting to the point and much more.

The key is to go back to the needs of the business in order to ensure that a learning solution is right in the first place; then you focus on what people really need to do in their jobs and focus the design and delivery of all of the different solutions and options around that. You need to include the right resources for people before, during and after any learning intervention, or the resource may be the only thing that they need. Any social element, such as in a Slack group or forum, is managed by someone who knows the topic and has time to spend with the people there. Live elements, such as a webinar, virtual classroom, need to be designed with the user experience in mind, not an information dump. By focusing on those practicalities and conversations, it makes the session inspiring and can bring people together. When it’s done well, it’s awesome!

Personel Plus: My last question is going to be completely different. Let’s imagine the following situation: you are approached by a corporate client who has never had any e-learning experience and digital learning is a new and important challenge for his company. This client has a goal, a will and a budget – what are the first 5 steps such a client should take?

Jo: A goal, will AND budget!? That really is good imagination you have! Often organisations have one or two of those, so to have three it’s important not to waste it.

  1. Get their internal team together – people from L&D, the operational teams involved with the goal, subject matter experts and also typical people working in the area. This panel of people all have important jobs in identifying the issues, challenges, success measurements and getting it implemented and running to make an impact.
  2. Discuss the issues way beyond the need that is being presented, so you get to the core of the organisation’s problem. From here you can determine the measure of success and if training is part of the solution.
  3. Assuming training is part of a wider solution, it’s then about getting to grips with what needs to change. It can be challenging to focus on the actions that people do at work and what needs to change in their performance. But this is essential to make sure that any learning solution really resolves that challenge.
  4. Taking an “agile” approach to the learning solution. Most organisations and people now don’t have the time to wait three, six or more months for you to develop a whole suite of learning solutions. It’s important to make sure you can put together the right e-learning module, webinar, face to face training, discussion group or whatever other options are appropriate. They can build on and support each solution for the differing needs that there might be across and organisation.
  5. Measure! Make sure you go back to the business measures of success and see where you are. Evaluate really well, and not just how many people came to the course, or how did they rate the trainer – it’s about did this intervention solve, or contribute to solving, the business problem? This should be an ongoing and iterative process that will then inform your learning and other solutions.

Personel Plus: Thank you for the interview and see you at ELF2018.

Jo: Very much looking forward to it, thank you!

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