Thursday, January 23, 2014

ASTD TechKnowledge - Day 1

The first day of TechKnowledge is officially over. I'm completely exhausted, but also delightfully full of knowledge. I also reek of smoke, but this is Vegas. I suppose such things are expected.

As usual, here are my thoughts and feelings about the sessions I attended (for even more detailed notes, definitely check out the live tweeting I did earlier today).

1) General Session 1
Speaker: Jeff Dyer
Typically what I look for in an opening general session is a speaker and topic that get people thinking in a new way. Dyer's session on how to be a better innovator definitely fit the bill nicely.

He opened with a discussion on whether creativity comes more from nature or nurture. People typically think of creativity as an inborn talent, but research says it's not. It's something you build. And yes, as a former art teacher I'd most thoroughly agree (my rants about the perception that creativity comes from some sort of stroke of luck rather than years and years of hard work will have to be saved for another full blog post some time in the future). This rest of this session was designed to give people ideas for how they could actually go about the process of building their own creative abilities.

To do the talk a bit of a disservice and give you guys the Cliffs Notes version, Dyer feels that there are several skills that are vital for being a creative innovator:
  • Associating: The ability to connect ideas in new ways. Dyer recommended two ways to build this skill. First, he suggested a thought exercise where you brainstorm ways to combine two seemingly unrelated products, which forces you to think about things in a flexible, innovative way. Second, he talked about ways to use questions to help groups think differently. Depending on the situation, asking questions that impose constraints, completely eliminate constraints, or create substantially more questions can be incredibly useful for helping a group to innovate together.
  • Observing: The name really sums up the task here. Too often people go about creating things based on assumptions or because it's the way it's always been done. True innovators do lots of observations and look for things that surprise them. What can help you think about solving a problem in a new way is to do these observations from the perspective of focusing on the task, not the tool used to accomplish the task. On a related note, Dyer also suggested that doing observations outside of your typical work environment can be incredibly helpful. Your newbie eyes may see issues those close to the task would miss.
  • Networking: Most of us have an informal list of people we tend to go to when we want ideas for how to solve a problem. However, for many people that list is filled with individuals who are just like them: the same industry (maybe even with the same job title), the same age, the same work experience, the same socioeconomic group. The thing is, when you're always bouncing ideas off of people with the same experiences as you, you're probably always going to get the same answers. That's why you need to build a network that also includes people with substantially different experiences from you too. To do this, Dyer recommends tapping in to experts who have solved problems like yours before, attending networking events, and joining a networking group. I'll also add that Twitter is an amazing place to meet fantastic people with a wide range of experiences and interests, but all of which share the love of simply sharing knowledge. Seriously: getting hooked up with Twitter was one of the best things I ever did for my own creativity.
  • Experimenting: Test ideas, seek new experiences, and take things apart. Challenge yourself to learn skills that, at the surface, seem unrelated to your work because you never know what these new skills might be able to inspire in your work, now or in the future. Try prototyping to test out your ideas and see if they actually work (and if some work better than others). Don't be afraid to make a mistake, particularly if that failure means you learned something important that helps you do better later or gives you new insight. I also recommend doing the mental equivalent of going around and poking new things/ideas with a stick to see what happens. It's a fun way to learn.
Overall this session did a great job at framing exactly why no one can get away with saying "I'm not a creative person" anymore. It also was pretty much exactly the energy booster I think a first session should be.

2) The Special Sauce of Social Learning
Speaker: Marc Rosenberg
The premise of this session was simple: social learning isn't anything new. It's something we've actually doing for ages. What is new, though, is the technology that we're using for it and the way we're trying to integrate it into learning situations. L&D is, as a group, quite behind the curve on both social learning and social media and we need to catch up to how society on a whole has already started using it. Now, this doesn't just mean we should shove everything into a social media tool and call the job done (no surprises: this doesn't work at all). It means we need to really grasp social learning as a strategy and then understand how to leverage things like social media to enable this kind of learning.

Rosenberg then went on to talk about what he sees as the next generation of learners: impatient, multi-tasking, more purposeful, not "clock-bound", tech savvy, and social. And here's where I'm going to disagree a bit and say that's not a set of learners that's coming in the future... that's many of the learners we have now. Heck, it's me, and I'm by no means super young. So maybe what's more realistic to say is that these are the preferences of more and more of our learners now.

So if these are the learner needs we need to get better at responding to, and social learning can better help us address those needs, what should we do to incorporate legitimately good social learning in the work we do? Well, here are the suggestions Rosenberg had:
  • Make your social tools and technology extremely easy to use. That way the user sees the tools as a natural way of doing things (Apple, we're looking at you here).
  • Nurture authorship. Let people contribute. You'll need to walk a fine line between not putting too many barriers in their way but also acknowledging that not everyone who creates content creates good (or even accurate) content.
  • Support mobility. Sharing shouldn't only happen in restricted situations (like only when you're at your work laptop... AND it's connected to the corporate intranet). It should happen anywhere.
  • Identify clear, meaningful goals for your social learning that are actually important (both to the company and to the learners).
  • Make membership in your social learning meaningful. Give people an answer for the question "Why do I want to participate?"
  • Put effort into facilitation. Sometimes social learning needs the help of certain people who work to guide the conversation or push it in new directions. This doesn't mean this role has to be be filled by specially trained official facilitators, though. You can even ask one or more of the learners themselves to take on this task.
  • Get leadership on board. A great way to do this is to talk about social learning from the perspective of how it benefits the business (rather than fussing about the tools you'll use). Also, start small with easy to implement tiny pilot projects rather than massive, full scale ones.
  • Remember that management can't be all "Big Brother" about social learning. People need to know that they have a safe place to share or else they won't share at all. Keep management at bay and remind them that this isn't the appropriate place to monitor employees closely.
  • Align your social learning with more formal learning. This is a good way to ease people into social learning habits and techniques.
  • Develop a knowledge-sharing culture. People need to see the benefit of sharing knowledge rather than hoarding it (and the business culture needs to reflect this change in mindset too).
  • Make sure your learners know how to learn. Many people have gotten into the habit of expecting learning to be a passive experience where all the content is pushed out to them. Social learning requires them to become more comfortable with the idea of seeking out and sharing information themselves, which can take some adjusting to (depending on your audience).
Using these tips you can begin to build a work environment that fully utilizes social learning. That said, I do wish Rosenberg had spent more time directly addressing the problems corporate culture can create when trying to integrate social learning into a workplace. I personally see this as one of the biggest hurdles most L&D folks will encounter when trying to increase their use of social learning. Because of this, I would have liked to have gotten more of his perspective on how you can reshape corporate culture in a way that's more friendly to the habits you need to have to make social learning work

3) Choose Your Own Sim-venture: Branched Simulation Basics
Speaker: Bianca Woods
Oh look! It's my own session!

Okay, obviously I'm not going to review my own content. However, because I always share my full slide deck, presenter notes, and resource links, you yourself can review this content on your own. Yeah, it's more fun when it's actually me presenting it, but it's the next best thing.  ;)

Here's the link to my full session materials.

4) Leveraging Devices to Create Amazing Mobile Learning
Speaker: Chad Udell

This was my last session of the day and, while I quite enjoyed it, it's nearly impossible to capture with a blog posting. Basically what happened was Udell talked about how we need to become better at designing for the specific affordances of mobile devices. And what exactly is an "affordance"? It's a quality or feature of an environment or object that allows you to perform a a task. For example, three of the affordances of binoculars include magnification, a dial to adjust focus, and an adjustable size.

Mobile devices have their own unique affordances (an overview is captured in this blog posting from Float Learning), but when we design mobile content many of us don't fully take advantage of these fantastically useful features. So what the rest of this session was designed to do was to help us become more aware of what these affordances of mobile devices are and what sort of ways we can consider using them for learning. Udell took advantage of a tool called Poll Everywhere to let the entire audience text and message our thoughts about the learning application of specific mobile device affordances (like a camera, device sensors, and geolocation) into one big brainstorm. Udell is planning on collecting all the ideas from this session later in the week, and I'll post that link here and on Twitter as soon as I have it (Edit: here's the link). Suffice it to say, there were a lot of creative and useful ideas proposed.

So, this session was all about pushing people to see mobile in a more accurate and broad way. For those of us who routinely push the boundaries of what our mobile devices can do, this didn't really shock us. That said, I still really enjoyed the exercise of it. For others, though, that had previously thought of mobile in a more limited fashion, this was a great way to see mobile in a new way. I thought Dan Steer did a fantastic job of summing up the session from that perspective on his blog.

So, overall, a good first day. I'm still looking for that session that completely shakes up my own thoughts about some L&D-related topic. While today I found a number of sessions that reinforced my own beliefs, I haven't seen one yet that makes me question them. Crossing my fingers that I come across that in the next two days.


  1. Hi Bianca,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to write all this and share it with those of us who couldn't be there! Can't wait to read more of your commentary and insights. Enjoy the rest of your time!


    - Shum