About Jo Cook (@lightbulbjo)

Virtual classroom train the trainer

What is digital body language?

I’m interested in how people communicate and connect when they aren’t face to face or even communicating in real time, perhaps through an asynchronous forum or community such as Slack or Yammer.

Lori Niles-Hoffman, Chief Learning Officer at Fuse Universal, has experienced “the seismic shift from classroom to digital” in her career and this is what many professionals are dealing with – either embracing or struggling.

This is a pretty epic blog post exploring the topic in a fair amount of detail, with lots of links for you to read more.

What’s the short version?

The short version of this blog post is:

  1. Digital body language is all of the electronic stuff we do (or don’t do) online that you can analyse to understand people and what they want to do
  2. It comes from marketing, but we can, and should, apply it to L&D
  3. Face to face communication and training is changing, so we need to understand how to communicate with people differently
  4. Digital body language applies to groups, forums, enterprise social networks, social media, internal and external electronic behaviour, communities, webinars and virtual classrooms.

And here’s the long version…

What is DBL anyway?

According to Lori, it was Steve Woods who developed the term “Digital Body Language” in 2009.

Steve explains it this way on his blog:

Digital Body Language is the aggregate of all the digital activity you see from an individual. Each email that is opened or clicked, each web visit, each form, each search on Google, each referral from a social media property, and each webinar attended are part of the prospect’s digital body language.

In the same way that body language, as read by a sales person managing a deal, is an amalgamation of facial expressions, body posture, eye motions, and many other small details, digital body language is the amalgamation of all digital touchpoints.

This is a great introduction from the Clicktale e-book about customer’s body language:

Clicktale goes on in the document to say:

The same level [as face to face] of interaction and interpretation is achievable in the digital world. Every mouse move, hover, scroll, tap and pinch exposes structured behavioral patterns that determine customers’ digital body language and mindset.

Digital body language is a customer’s subconscious online behavior. Being able to interpret this digital body language is a must-have standard for the next wave of digital commerce.

Jamie Good, in his LinkedIn article, defined digital body language as:

The aggregate of an individual’s passive and active online activity

This focuses on the data generated when using computers and associated devices. It’s looking at what you click, or don’t click and a huge amount of other online measurements too. It can bring up issues of privacy and who owns the data, which Jamie’s article starts to discuss.

Also this TLDCast discussion I hosted with HT2Labs CEO Ben Betts addresses some of the opportunities and challenges with data, xAPI, Learning Record Stores (LRS), the implications of GDPR and who owns what data.

This is all very well about data from platforms and websites, but we need to think about how this can apply in learning and development.

From face to face to digital comms

There’s a lot of change in corporate communications, sales, marketing and of course the way that not only do people learn, but also how we as L&D professionals communicate with our learners.

In her eBook, Lori Niles-Hoffman highlights that:

Sales and marketing departments experienced a similar challenge [to L&D departments] when customer relationships moved from face-to-face, nurtured relationships to online transactions.

…Connections are now developed via multiple and rapid online interactions.

Building on this point, Clicktale share some HBR insight:

We are increasingly seeing this change with learning offerings: not only through an LMS (learning management system); but also online communities/groups/forums as well as digital content offerings and virtual classrooms.

In her book Lori gives the example of what digital body language analysis can enable:

DBL analysis can show which content format is most appealing and at what time of day or week the customer prefers to engage.

From a marketing point of view Lori continues to explain that:

Once the DBL of a customer is decoded, then marketing can design content and campaigns that respond to these preferences.This increases the probability of positive and ongoing engagement with the brand and company.

And we can adapt this for learning and development when we are putting together learning campaigns and digital content for people at work. To this point, Lori shares that:

This type of thinking has not yet arrived in the learning industry. Every drop-off, click, or share is a learner shouting their likes and dislikes. These actions are the eye-rolls, smiles, and arms crossed from the classroom, simply in digital format. But we are not listening.

Read more about why Lori wrote her Data-Drive Learning Design eBook here.

Problems with digital body language for learning and development

Refocusing on the L&D professional, Lori highlights that that change with technology-enabled communications and learning transactions means that:

The in-person relationship is fading. Companies are shifting to digital modalities to avoid the associated travel and accommodation costs of face-to-face delivery.

This loss for learning professionals means the inability to real-time assess the engagement of learners.

Lori confirms what many face to face trainers, facilitators, teachers and presenters are afraid of:

The opportunity to read and adapt to the body language of participants in a classroom has vanished.

With regards specifically the virtual classroom, I wrote this article for Training Journal about facilitating A Group You Cannot See and what technology features are available for interacting with and engaging your attendees.

When thinking about the data to analyse, there are challenges in how to capture it. The Granify E-Commerce Blog, in an article by Lacie Larschan, highlight that:

The usefulness of digital body language depends heavily on the granularity of data captured…and even more challenging to interpret this data.

They highlight that there are ways to overcome the challenges:

This is why recent advances in machine learning have propelled the use of digital body language in marketing and sales campaigns.

A system powered by machine learning can detect patterns that might be hidden from even the best of human analysts.

This is another reason that, whilst you as an L&D professional might not specialise in this area, an awareness of computer and data trends are important as they will impact on how we work in the future.

Opportunities for digital body language

In their research paper Data-driven Learning: A Student-centered Technique for Language Learning, Touraj Talai and Zahra Fotovatnia reference Tim Johns about Data-Driven Learning:

Johns (1988) expressed that DDL entails a shift in the role of teachers and students. In other words the teacher works as a research director and collaborator instead of transmitting information to the students directly and explicitly.

If you want more depth, you can read a bit more from Tim himself in his paper Should You Be Persuaded – Two Samples of Data-Driven Learning Materials.

This is moving into an area of potentially using technology to provide curated materials to attendees, as well as analysing their online behaviour. We are moving into looking at not only the learning intervention and the ‘session’ as it is live, but also the broad and varies social interactions that surround this.

Is this still digital body language when looking at social media and the various platforms that people use for work and learning (remembering of course that there’s huge overlap between those two).

Perhaps digital body language is a strict marketing term and in L&D we should focus on different terminology to describe further what we do. Is it “electronic body language” or “virtual body language”. Is it actually about “online communications” or “online behaviour analysis”.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter and the semantics aren’t the issue here – it’s more about understanding what we CAN include rather than exclude, and what we actually do.

What can digital body language help us do?

Community Roundtable co-founder Rachel Happe wrote on her blog about digital body language:

After years of watching people interact online it is clear to me that you can infer quite a bit about people’s unwritten intent.

Rachel goes on to give some examples, such as these based on Twitter:

  • How and when someone inserts themselves into a public conversation
  • What and who a person RTs [Re-Tweets] or shares
  • How reactive and emotional individuals are (are they quick to judge or slower to respond to good/bad news?)

This is then focusing on the behaviour of an individual, and we need to include ourselves in this – as our professional profile, business owners, learners ourselves and of course in understanding the people we are interacting with in ways other than face to face.

On the Business 2 Community website, PureMatter CEO Bryan Kramer wrote an article about mastering your digital body language and stated that:

A company’s digital body language is an assessment of the collective behavior across the Internet, including marketing initiatives and user interactions in the earned, owned and paid sectors online.

As opportunities to interact socially are growing infinitesimally, paying attention to your personal digital body language – as a representative of both your personal brand and your company brand – is becoming critical.

….When you’re able to build a digital body language that reflects your authentic personal and corporate brand, true magic happens.

Bryan goes on to share ways to shape your own digital body language, which go towards the perception of your company or professional brand. His first point is “create and share heartfelt content” in order to “be authentic in everything that you represent” and avoid seeming manufactured.

Following this line of thought, Lisa Attygalle, Director of Engagement at Tamarack, wrote that:

There is a need for community engagement to become more focused on relationship-building rather than being transactional.

…Developing an understanding of digital body language may be helpful. I thought about some digital body language cues that may be visible in typical online engagement initiatives and suggested what they may infer.

Lisa goes on to give examples such as “on Facebook, responded as ‘Interested’ (not attending) to an in-person consultation event” the inference might be that they are “interested in contributing but the timing or location of the consultation may not suit.” Lisa also makes suggestions of your responses, such as inviting people to share their story on your blog if they have already commented in social media.

Lisa’s blog post is a really valuable list of behaviours, understandings and suggested responses to help with your thinking about your community, be it in a specific platform such as our own Lightbulb Moment free virtual classroom and webinar group, or your followers on social media.

So what?

With the different ways that we communicate in business, in our working lives and as learning professionals ourselves, we all need to know a little bit about digital body language. We need to understand the personal brand we have and as part of the organisation we work for.

In our organisations we need to start thinking about what data there is already that we can analyse, what can we perhaps start to collect and what we can do with that – especially with the learning management system being an ever-changing beast and there being so much rich data outside of it’s digital walls.

When thinking about our communities of practice the digital body language analysis we can make from an admin point of view of the data, as well as what community managers and contributors can understand and interpret as invested users or individual participants are going to be part of our daily lives, if they aren’t already.

And when we come to deliver learning solutions that include social learning through discussions groups/forums, maybe MOOCs and of course virtual classrooms and webinars, we need to be able to understand what the online behaviour is of people.

In the modern working and learning world, we can’t see everybody face to face. So it’s time to face up to digital body language.

Face to face communication and the virtual classroom

This blog post details research about how our brains react to different types of communication and what this means for how we design and deliver virtual classroom training sessions.

Through examining research that highlights the special nature and importance of face to face communication I make recommendations on how to achieve something similar in the live online learning environment, and ways that technology can mitigate the risk of not achieving this.

Do our brains struggle without faces to watch?

In this Forbes article, Carol Kinsey Goman shares this insight:

…According to Dr. Thomas Lewis (an expert on the psychobiology of emotions and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the university of California San Francisco), when we are denied [these] interpersonal cues, the brain struggles and real communication suffers.

I haven’t been able to find anything else on the Internet from Dr. Thomas to directly reference this or read more from him, so take the quote with a pinch of research salt. Assuming that the context is reliable, what we need to do when communicating live online or asynchronously, such as through forums, is to be able to address those struggles. We need to be able to represent those “interpersonal cues” in different ways so that our communication doesn’t suffer as much as it could.

Further to this, in The Human Face, by Brian Bates with John Cleese, they focus on expression as part of how we build relationships and deliver messages:

We need to be more clear about what we are losing.

Expressions are a potent part of our connection with one another.

What are the consequences of communicating without them?

What do you think these consequences are? For general communication, it’s about what messages get lost, either the entire point or some of the nuances that go along with the key point. By removing some of the expressions, facial and body, as well as the interpersonal cues that Dr. Thomas mentions, it impacts on the potential to make and build relationships over distance.

From a learning or training stand point, there are concerns about not only delivering the message well enough when live online, but also the intercommunication to check on the learning and understand the questions and comments from attendees in virtual sessions.

What makes up good communication?

We have to be careful that we don’t look at communication with incorrect, or misused research data. The screen grab below shows some of the image results from a Google search for “communication pie chart” – the kind that you have probably seen in general communication or presentation skills training or resources.

The trouble is, this is based on research that has been vastly exploded to the point that it actually isn’t relevant and, frankly, wrong. You can read more about this in my Training Journal article “Drop the Mehrabian communication pie charts, now” and on the TJ podcast section “L&D on Trial: Mehrabian“.

Face to face communication is better

What else are we missing out on in the live online classroom? A pertinent study about Neural Synchronization during Face-to-Face Communication was published in the Journal of Neuroscience. The results of the experiments:

Showed a significant increase in the neural synchronization in the left inferior frontal cortex during a face-to-face dialog between partners.

In a critical review of the paper Kyongsik Yun explained that:

The left hemisphere is dominant for language function and that the left inferior frontal cortex and inferior parietal cortex have been known to be closely related to action understanding and imitation, i.e., mirror neuron system… The inferior frontal cortex has been particularly associated with empathy and social cognition.

By being able to scan the brain whilst people took part in various communication activities in pairs, the experimenters Jing Jiang et al where able to see that when the people spoke together face to face, there was a change in cerebral blood flow to these parts of the brain.

The critical review further explains that the “quality of communication in each condition was assessed by self-report, and face-to-face dialog represented a higher quality of communication”.

Jing Jiang et al state that:

These results suggest that face-to-face communication, particularly dialog, has special neural features that other types of communication do not have and that the neural synchronization between partners may underlie successful face-to-face communication.

Face to face communication was not only found to be be better by participants themselves when they self-reported, but also by independent scanning of specific brain regions.

What was it that made such an improvement over the other experimented states (of sitting back to back when speaking, of monologues and more)?

Kyongsik states that this improvement:

Could result from either a higher quality of communication or from the face-to-face setting, in which various nonverbal cues were present.

To address this challenge Kyongsik explains of the original experiment that:

Jiang et al. (2012) performed an additional analysis wherein they separated time points showing the nonverbal communication between participants, such as turn-taking behavior and body language.

Time points in which facial expression and gestures occurred showed significant neural synchronization compared with other time points in the face-to-face dialog condition only.

The results suggest that the increased interbrain correlation mainly reflected nonverbal interaction.

This suggests that it’s not just the words and how you say them, but all of the other gestures and elements that make up our body language that improved the communication and relationship between two people.

Research relevance and limitations

This is one scientific piece of research about connection, relationship building and communication. Kyongsik explains the importance of this work:

The study suggests that face-to-face communication has important neural and  behavioral features that other types of communication cannot rival, and the interbrain correlation results may have implications for understanding the neural mechanisms of
social interaction.

He also highlights what we must always remember about a single piece of research:

Face-to-face communication offers a superior form of communication in the context of this study.

What this study doesn’t focus on, obviously, is comparing this to communication over the phone or where video is present, such as a Facetime or Skype call. Similar experiments whilst using technology would give insight to any or what differences there are, both in brain scanning and self-reporting.

For now, what we know is that the strength of a face to face conversation is in both individuals feeling that the communication was better, and in the connections with others due to our neurons synchronising.

Detail for virtual classroom design and facilitation

Something to take specifically into account in this research is that Jiang Jang et al state:

Another major difference is that face-to-face communication involves more continuous turn-taking behaviors between partners, a feature that has been shown to play a pivotal role in social interactions.

Being able to see someone’s face and gestures, along with this significant element of interaction behaviour is important to take note. I’m very aware in some of my virtual classroom sessions that I’m doing a lot, if not most, of the talking. Whilst some of this is reading out what people have typed into the text chat area, it’s still me voicing it.

Text chat as dialogue?

When I read something from the chat window, make a comment or ask a question and that person quickly types a response, is that a form of turn taking that would have a correlation in brain activity as was measured in this experiment? In terms of self-assessment of the quality of communication, positive feedback from attendees in virtual classroom sessions I deliver of the amount and quality of the interaction during a session could be included.

Conversation live online

What we can also take from this point in the research is the importance of verbal dialogue and discussion within a virtual classroom session. This means that designing activities and time for discussion is imperative for people to make connections with each other. I argue that this is likely then to increase understanding, remembering, recalling and using the information and skills focused on in the virtual session.

This discussion is important to have verbally, across telephone/microphone between an attendee and the facilitator – not just the question/answer model but a truer interaction with turn taking discussion. Doing this multiple times across all of the attendees will be important for building those relationships and breaking down the technical and distance barriers that are present.

Breakout activities

Another way to use this research information is to build in the time and activities for attendees to discuss with each other, using the social interaction norms such as turn taking, to deal with the challenges of the topic they are learning. Breakout rooms are ideal for this because they allow for private verbal dialogue between two or more participants. Usually software also allows for webcam too, which potentially can increase the connection, as shown by this research.

Digital body language in the virtual classroom

Jeffrey Ventrella wrote a book on Virtual Body Language focused on live online learning, which is a nice summary to this blog:

In a virtual classroom… For education to be effective, we have to capture that nuanced and magical spark from the wise men and women who are skilled at dialog and debate, fuelling a sense of wonder and confidence, and showing students how to communicate with their whole bodies.

…Virtual body language will become a key factor in the future of global business.

Reading mood and tone of text

Further from my blog about personality in text communication, I’m digging in deeper to the idea of being able to read the digital, or virtual, body language of someone without seeing them face to face.

In that last blog post, I shared about someone “knowing me” over instant messaging communication. A CBS News article highlights that:

As with real body language, it helps if you have a baseline on the individual. In other words, everything is relative to how a person ordinarily communicates.

Reading body language of any sort with confidence is partly about knowing the other person. Is that the same in physical body language?

Erica Dhawan writes in her paper “Misunderstood, solving digital miscommunication at work” along these lines too:

Our connections are no longer limited by geographical distance. We know more people, but many of these relationships are superficial. Depth of relationship underlies each of the above communication shifts.

Familiarity can fill in the void of digital body language. You are more forgiving of a late night work text from your long time colleague than you would be of a text from the new guy.

Look at this Twitter exchange between people (including me) that knew each other to greater or lesser extents:

Did you get the humour in it? The affection and playfulness? What highlighted that to you? For me, it was:

  • Double explanation mark from Ainsley
  • Use of “hahaha” written by Blake
  • I was intentionally informal with “nah”
  • I used winking smiley face emoticon and a tongue poking out too

Or, did you read this conversation differently? Whichever way you read this, it’s interpreting information, or virtual body language.

Erica Dhawan, in her paper “Misunderstood, solving digital miscommunication at work” paper comments that:

As the disruption persists, we will continue to experience new forms of misunderstanding. The solution is not in new technologies…

Instead, the solution is in understanding the new rules of engagement; in building a communication skill set that reflects the demands of our digital workplace.

What are some of the “new rules of engagement” that you are seeing and experiencing?

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!

Designing an intervention – some first steps

When you are new to learning and development or training, you may well have done some training in the past and got some positive results. This has probably piqued your interest and got you thinking about how you can do even better, or perhaps overcome some of the challenges you’ve experienced. That’s what this post is about, some pointers and thoughts about designing learning interventions when it’s a bit newer to you.

If you are attending the CIPD #FacilitationFest you’ll want THIS LINK for the slides on your mobile device. 

Hold tight, fast ride

What makes a great learning experience for you?

For me it’s all about:

Learning should be a fantastic activity. Something that has fun, lightness, lots to make me think and lots for me to do! Yes, I need reflection and thinking time, during and after, but I also need lots of opportunities to discuss what we are grappling with and be able to apply it.


What are some of the challenges you face when thinking about designing your learning interventions?

Could it be around what to actually cover in the session (as opposed to pre-work, inter-session and homework) or to have as a digital/blended option (such as e-learning, virtual classroom, webinar, asynchronous discussion and so on)?

Perhaps it’s about the overwhelming amount of material you’ve got – either just the subject area, not knowing where to start, or too much given to you from a subject matter expert (often referred to as SME or “smee” — but don’t confuse with a Small/Medium-sized Enterprise in business).

You may be designing a live session (face to face or online) and wondering what activities exist and which you should choose to suit your audience and learning goals.

What to consider

I’ve assumed that you have done the due diligence with regards what the problem actually is rather what is being presented, as that’s a whole other topic. When starting with designing the actual training session there are some things to take into consideration.

One of the first is NOT to focus on learning styles. There’s a lack of scientific empirical evidence that it’s useful to design and deliver in this way. See my Scoop.It curated resources for more information.

Another is to NOT get overloaded by all the different learning theories out there. Yes, you should know about some of them and apply them at some point. But if you are newer in your career in L&D or as an Instructional Designer, then you can come back to them or get a background in them to support what you are doing.

What you should be focusing on, is the audience, the environment (which live online platform or what is the room setting?) as well as what people need to do at work after your learning intervention.

It’s this focus on the actions or behaviours people need to show at work that drive what we put into our training session.

Outcomes, but not as you know it

When designing, we need to know the outcomes for the session. These aren’t the traditional “learning outcomes” that often start like this:

By the end of this session you will…

  • Understand why time management is important
  • Describe an effective time management strategy
  • List the top three time stealers
  • Recognise good time management techniques

What’s wrong with these? How do I really know you “understand” something? You might well be able to “describe”, “list” or “recognise” something, but does it mean you are fully equipped to go back to work and actually do something?

Our outcomes need to be performance based, behavioural actions. In other words, what we can see people doing at work. Far better would be:

  • Create a detailed agenda for each meeting
  • In the calendar invitation justify why you have invited each person

I can physically see whether you have performed these actions. I can see the quality of them, such as the difference between a few bullet points of an agenda versus a full page of times, sections, people assigned to different topics and so on.

Also what this does, when designing our training sessions or other learning materials, is focus on activities that people can do to learn and practice those actions.

Understand vs do

If my training session has the outcome of “understand why time management is important”, in my experience with inexperienced or poorly performing trainers, this lends itself to a boring lecture.

It doesn’t have to – as a trainer we can pose this as a discussion point at the beginning of the session and have all sorts of debate and activities. It’s just that a lot of people won’t do that.

With the outcome as “create a detailed agenda for each meeting” I could still lecture. I could give you a terrible photocopied example and drone on through the example. Hopefully though, the switch in approach and focus inspires more action from the delegates to actually do some of this stuff!

Presentation, lecture, discussion… it’s all still valuable stuff and I use it a lot myself. I just make sure I focus on what the attendees can also do in the session in order to perform back at work.

This is summarised nicely in a blog post from James Clear, Stop Thinking and Start Doing: The Power of Practicing More where he says:

Let’s say your goal is to write a book. You can talk to a best-selling author about writing, but the only way become a better writer is to practice publishing consistently.

James also uses a great diagram to show the difference between learning that can be very passive and the activity that is practice. Follow @James_Clear on Twitter.

Steps to achievement

We have our outcome as “create a detailed agenda for each meeting”. For designing any kind of learning intervention it’s good to list the sub action points, or perhaps steps, for achieving this.

  • List of topics to address
  • Split topics into sections
  • Add times to topics
  • Assign people to topics
  • Distribute to all meeting attendees
  • Print ahead of the meeting / have digital document link to edit

And so on. This gives us a great structure for the session already, as we know the steps people will have to complete at work, so we need to tackle those in the session.

Training activity ideas

At this point you can start thinking about the types of training activities you can select from in your session.

I’m not going to go into detail here about those ideas and suggestions as it’s a big other topic, but here are a few links to get you going if you need them:

And that’s the basics to get you going with the beginnings of your design. After that, it’s matching up the activity to the work outcome and putting it all together.

Join our webinar and virtual classroom Facebook page

#WomeninLnD 2018

How women are treated at work and what women are able to do in work is an important discussion to have. This blog post is going to grow and change a little bit as new elements come to light, even on the day I published it!

Donald H Taylor recently published a follow up to his 2015 Women don’t get as far in L&D article, Women in L&D – still not at the top. Based on research of 2,635 members of the Learning and Skills Group, it showed that the senior roles in learning and development were filled more often by men than women. An infographic in the article highlights the split in the support roles as predominantly female, the practitioner and mid-authority roles as not quite 50/50 and the massive 69% of senior authority roles that are held by men.

Pay gap

This blog isn’t specifically about the gender pay gap, though that is part of the wider challenge for women in work.

The video below highlights the average differences between male and female pay, which in some cases is a lot. It’s important to note that this average includes both genders at the top and bottom, rather than like for like jobs. However it does highlight that if there are more senior men paid well (which there are a lot of), then this is where the huge disparities can come from.


From Don’s 2015 article, Lauren Keith of Brightwave wrote Why I don’t wear dresses: The status of femininity in the workplace. Lauren wrote about how she feels she behaves differently, “like a girl”, when wearing more feminine clothes and the impact that can have in the workplace. Lauren points out a summary of the problem women in the workplace are dealing with:

  • “We’re not socialised to be as confident and assertive as men.
  • Our ‘feminine’ characteristics are subconsciously judged biasedly by male bosses against a different set of ‘masculine’ ones.
  • Our ‘masculine’ characteristics are considered suspicious by our bosses.”

I’ve experienced men reacting differently to me based on wearing skirts rather than trousers and so on. I didn’t feel offended by it, but is it right that I noticed the difference? Did it have an impact on what or how I was doing something or perceived? Is this something you’ve noticed about yourself or others?

Behaviour at work

A fascinating article on gender in the Harvard Business Review by Gretchen Gavett shared a research study where people wore sensors at work to get data about their interactions, as well as email and meeting schedule data analysis. Shockingly, the results of the analysis showed: “No perceptible differences were observed in the behaviour of men and women. They had the same number of contacts, spent the same amount of time with senior leaders, and allocated their time similarly. They also spend the same amount of time in online and face-to-face conversations. Yet women weren’t advancing and men were.”

The study concluded with “Gender inequality is due to bias, not differences in behaviour.”

Another study looked at bias in online classes, with a field experiment about responses in forum posts from names that denoted gender and race. It found that “instructors are 94% more likely to respond to forum posts by white male students” and that “comments placed by white females are more likely to receive a response from white female peers”. This entrenched gender bias is something that we are not always aware of, but something that needs to be tackled not only at a societal level, but also within organisations.

Our own behaviour

Between the first version of this blog and the second publishing, I was having a Skype text chat with Vivien Hudson as a general catch-up and part of our conversation rang so true to me about the challenges we are discussing here.

Viv is talking about being busy and, before this screen grab, some of the effects that has on her as a person. But the response is a picture of a female super hero – a supermum. That this is just part of being a working mum and she has to get on with it.

And this I think typifies a some of the challenges with our own behaviour and how females are perceived. Viv has been selected for a keynote presentation, which is a huge professional accolade. And whilst excited, she also then immediately adds a comment bringing her down to earth.

Even this morning I got some feedback that I’m too self-deprecating, to the point that it’s annoying and impacts my credibility. And yet we are in a society where we don’t want to be seen as arrogant or big-headed. It’s a challenge. And thanks for the insight Viv and letting me share our conversation.

If you can’t see it…

Going back to Don Taylor’s 2018 article, he found that there were different reactions when he published the piece. There where the “I recognise this” from some women, the push back of “wrong article, wrong title” from a few men and an interesting third reaction from some other men, around the concept of “I’ve always had women bosses”.

On the positive, this is good news – that personal experience doesn’t trump the wider data, but it does add to the conversation. Don’s insight is looking beyond that experience, and focusing on what can’t be so easily seen, which is the blocker to that woman boss getting to the next stage in her career and the organisation hierarchy.

Donald H Taylor and Jo Cook at Online Educa Berlin 2016Don comments on the findings that “as men, it’s not part of our direct experience, so we need to be more vigilant to see evidence of it. That will come from keeping our eyes open, and – importantly – from having open conversations with women about their experience of work.”

If you can’t beat them, leave them?

Don and I got into a conversation about the research sample, the above notes, the “why” is this a problem as well as the “what” we can do about it. Something I had been pondering for a while, as a small business owner, is do more women leave organisations to start out on their own because of this?

In Don’s research he found that gender attainment of senior-authority roles by age showed that there was a difference (i.e. more men were senior) in people’s early 20s of 5%, through to a much bigger 11% by the time people are in their 50s, with that gap really growing from age 40 onwards.

However when Don and I dug into the unpublished data a bit more, I was surprised. Companies with 20-100 employees had 75% men and even smaller companies of under 20 employees had 70% men in their makeup. My experience is of knowing many female company owners, consultants or the self-employed – but my experience is very obviously biased!

What to do about it?

This is a huge issue, related to history, geography, culture and so much more. Looking at this through an international lens Sue Bryant wrote for Country Navigator with some ideas that can help women in different leadership cultures.

In this Training Journal article from 2015, women in senior L&D roles were asked how they got to their positions, with elements such as authenticity, establishing a reputation to have a voice and flexibility being commented upon. In the article, “finding the right organisation” was a key piece of advice. In Don’s article he points out that women appear more likely to achieve senior-authority roles in larger organisations. Why is that? Culture? HR policies? Something else you can suggest?

Watch the panel discussion I was a part of and of course, your thoughts and comments below.