Monday, March 30, 2015

Ancient Fables...

There is a story behind the Panchatantra. And the Hitopadesha. And the Jataka tales.

In the case of the Panchatantras, it is all about teaching a few princes, some things about life. (and the wiki entry confirms it). Vishnu Sharma was entrusted with the task of teaching 'niti' to three princes and he does so using these fables.

The five principles (Pancha-tantra) are all about: (from the wiki page)

The five books are called:
  • Mitra-bheda: The Separation of Friends (The Lion and the Bull)
  • Mitra-lābha or Mitra-samprāpti: The Gaining of Friends (The Dove, Crow, Mouse, Tortoise and Deer)
  • Kākolūkīyam: Of Crows and Owls (War and Peace)
  • Labdhapraṇāśam: Loss Of Gains (The Monkey and the Crocodile)
  • Aparīkṣitakārakaṃ: Ill-Considered Action / Rash deeds (The Brahman and the Mongoose)

I read them mostly through Amar Chitra Katha, as I suspect most Indians of my generation did. But I was reminded of them as I read through some modern fables (which I put out in the last post).

The others are along similar lines and each of them has a beautiful maxim to be put to use. Yes, we humans love stories, don't we. 

PS: Now that got me curious about the difference between a fable and a story. The wiki link gave the difference between fable and parable. (The wiki entry was very useful - it is animals and fables). 

That means Goal and Team Dysfunctions are parables are not fables. 

And clicking from there into a link that says, Traditional story took me here

Alright, I have much to learn :)

Learning from Fables

The Panchatantra, The Jataka tales and the Hitopadesha have been with us long enough (more about that soon).

But, let me write now about three business fables I read.

The first one is Goal. This to me, remains the definitive fable I have ever read. Its sequels were nowhere close the original. But, if one is to learn about operations and concepts, this is an amazing book.

The second one is Team Dysfunctions by Patrick Lencioni. This book actually takes you through how to resolve team dysfunctions and in a corporate environment it shows how to resolve them. And the best part, it also shows that tough decision need to be taken and how that is important in running a passionate team.

The third one is on Critical Thinking - called Engage the fox. This book was a chance that I picked it up to read on the kindle very recently. And it has been an engaging story using animals.

(Aside, Animal farm remains one of my favorite fables, though the context is slightly different)

So, what makes a fable good.

In my mind few elements. A fable is sticky. Very very sticky. So sticky that is impossible to get it out of your heads. Second, it is non-threatening (because of the characters?) Third, in business fables atleast, the context is fairly straight forward. Third, it has characters of all hues, covering most of the bell curve. Thus, it brings situations to life - far better than a case study can (a well written case, does for sure). Fourth, most likely, there are some sort of mnemonics that add to the stickiness. Fifth, fables by their very nature are simple. However complex the plot, the characters, ultimately there is a layer of simplicity. And that is perhaps the most important takeaway for me atleast. 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Co-creation and why it is used rarely?

Few years ago, I had the good fortune of attending a few design thinking workshops and learn about it.

I attended a prototype workshop and went on to co-facilitate a couple of sessions as well. There was much energy in designing this approach. For one it was novel. Second, it was beautifully designed. Personally, I believe that the way we structure the first two phases above helps in getting a better third phase.

But this is one of the few methodologies (in my limited knowledge) that harness the power of co-creation.

Wonder why other trainings do not use it as much. Simply put, I think it is too painful for the people to think and design it thoughtfully (that requires time at both ends - design and delivery). And if it is done, it is not very effectively positioned in my view. That means people usually end up doing it was a superficial activity.

And I do not mean creating an action plan - which to me is the simplest form of co-creation, but fairly overused in many aspects of training - but it is something which has potential provided it is positioned the right way. One place where we had attended made people fill a sheet on what they would do in 6 months and 6 months later, it was delivered at our desks as a check to see 'did you achieve what you promised you would'.

I also do not mean just doing some activity there like a case study using instant memory and forgetting about it.

Sure there are sessions like joint business planning where some work happens. But unless it is backed up with pre-work and commitment it becomes just another top of the mind exercise.

I think this is one area that has good potential - of doing something there that has a tangible output and can also be used to build recall later - much later.

Developing thought...

Is a hackathon an example of co-creation? I think it is and it is a tool that usually has very good effects. A great example of learning by doing and co-creation. Plus a host of other benefits. Probably the best example yet of co-creation.

Why are trainings designed poorly?

Lets face it. Most trainings are badly designed. Indeed, training design, as opposed to instructional design is a field that generally lacks thinking.

Pick any vendor you engage. Or any training you have attended.

There are exceptions, but mostly these are tightly designed activities or simulations. Some trainings that are high on activity also appear well designed, but they score more on the engagement side rather than on the learning side.

What may be the reason?

It could range from bad diagnosis to bad execution. It could range from boredom to objectives not understood. Or the lack of engagement from the leader. Or a tick in the box approach. Or too much of subjectivity. Or too much objectivity. Trying to do too much. Too little. Too soon. Too slow.

But is there a single one way to design a training?

I think there is not, but I personally feel that there is a lot of laziness in training design. And that trainings are not meant to be just designed, but crafted, with passion.

Like a curator, you go through the problem, consider the audience, the objective and craft a training that allows you to navigate everyone of those aspects. Curate and design the activity. Curate and design the engagement. And bring it all together. As a process. Not an event.

Work-in-progress...developing thoughts!

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Why do people learn?

Often we ask how people learn. And that there are adult learning theories and child learning theories. But I think the fundamental question is really less about how people learn but more about why people learn?

And the simple answer to that is, people learn when they want to. Whether it is adults or children.

That want can be a function of passion or fear. It may start from curiosity (I want to know that because I want to know, or because it is cool or because my friends are doing it or it is new or something like that...) or coercion (This is important for my job, for my goals, for my survival - think army as an extreme example, I need to pass, my parents will get angry, whatever).

Anything that a adult or child wants to learn out of their own self interest - they will learn. And if you can get to this point (preferably on the curiosity side, but the other side is effective as well though I prefer the former to the latter, competition also works), you can keep aside all learning theories. If (the big IF) you get to this point where they are convinced that they need to learn this skill.

By hook or crook. By asking. By trying. Failing. Falling. Getting up. Trying again. And finally getting it. They reach there. Every small triumph celebrated. Every small instruction internalized. And slowly, but surely, they scale up to unconscious competence.

Any doubts on that? 

Show me the activity

Many years ago as I worked with a process training team I asked to be shown through the content. This was new to the team since they never expected their manager to actually look at the content they had put together. Not that it was needed, but since I was newbie in training, they proudly took me through the content they had put together.

It was mostly Death by Powerpoint for me, but they said they had some activity. On investigation it was found to be that mostly the activities were about circling words or finding words or joining words. Apart from that, they had one activity that they were justifiably proud of. This activity was called jeopardy.

The slide looked like this:

And on clicking any of the boxes, a question opened and the participants had to open it and answer it. This was the activity that they were proud of. (There are templates available on this on the net I suppose).

And I thought, well not bad.

Turned out, this activity was the most used across all the trainings. Every training upon investigation turned out to have the same activity - Jeopardy.

Finally, there was a new training the team was working on and I asked them which activity are you going to use here? Pat came the answer - Jeopardy.

They never got around to using it. The activity was banned from all future trainings till I was in charge.

These kinds of activities fall into what I think are mindless engagement methods. And a lot more thought is required while putting in activities in training.

Another of my 'favorite' activities is where the great facilitator distributes chits across the room and guess what - they have animal names printed on them and team bonding is achieved when people walk across the room shouting in those animal calls. Once we ended up paying a bomb to a vendor who promised great engagement and came up with this juvenile activity. Needless to say, the vendor was banished for ever. 

On learning by clicking

The connection between learning activities and actual learning is an interesting one especially in elearnings.

In a lot of elearnings, you will find such embedded activities in the guise of engaging the learner. What you get is for learning by doing is mostly flash gimmickry, which may range from dragging a box to the right position to clicking the correct answer (usually a quiz) or even (my favorite-sarcasm alert) jeopardy.

How much does this animation help? Today, in powerpoint presentations, animations are largely discredited - and to be used only sparingly - and that too when powerpoint presentations itself are being used.

So, while building an elearning, how to make the learning faster, better, stickier? There are no easy answers (and we haven't found one yet).

The conflicting demands are as follows, some of them:

On the hand there is an impatient audience that wants everything quick and on the other hand there is a learning team that demands time to teach material that is complex.
On the one hand there is a need for people to own their learning and on the other there is a need to figure out if people have 'got' it.
On the one hand we need training to be a pull and on the other hand it is so much easier to push learning and tick boxes.
On the one hand, everybody thinks more courses are the way forward and on the other hand investments in them aren't always justified.
On the one hand the learning has to be engaging and on the other hand there is a plethora of information to be covered (everything here is mandatory tell the subject matter experts).

And these are just some of the contradictions.

It is easy for learning by doing when it is a simulation of a tool, process or something else. That is easy. But what if we are trying to teach something that is abstract?

PS: Here are my thoughts from an earlier instructor led session design.  Some years ago, I attended a session by Dr. Simon Priest and he had brought this out very beautifully in front of a live audience. But these are about instructor led sessions.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Tell me another story

I was reading a Neil Gaiman introduction to a book and there he identifies the fundamental element of a great story as just 4 words.

As he says, A story should make the person go...and then what happened?

That phrase got me hooked for a while.

I remember telling stories to the little one, when they were quite little and you could see their eyes - they would be totally engrossed in that story, however simple and they would wait with bated breath, patiently, absorbed, hanging onto every word, savoring every twist and turn and then finally either sleeping satisfied that the story had a happy ending or with surprise or laughter.

But mostly it ended with - Tell me another story.

Ah, isn't that that two things we all want from a learning experience!


A learning experience often is not about telling me something I don't know. That is easy. The sum total of what one person does not know as opposed to the sum total of what one does know is far greater. So, telling someone something new may not be that much of a stretch.

However, making them see an existing thing in a new light is far more difficult. If you are used to doing something in a particular way, doing that in a different way is far more difficult than doing something totally new.

Therefore, in a learning experience, insight happens when I am shown something that I already know or rather think that I already know and then use that insight to move me from what I know to what I don't.  Insight is that powerful question that makes you pause, and go, hmmm..that is a different way of looking at it. That is insight.

Insight most probably does not mean a complicated solution - the problem may be complicated for sure, the analysis may be complicated for sure, but most likely, the answer may not.