Why Learning Centric Instruction is the Future of Training

By: Jordan Orzolek

Very few announcements induce a sense of irritation in employees more than that of mandatory training. Who can blame them? This means that they will soon be subjected to hours of lecturing by a speaker who repeats things already known, ventures into irrelevant topics, or drones on while the learners are watching the clock, eager to leave. This seems inevitable but truthfully, it isn’t. Through a system I refer to as Learner Centric Instruction (LCI), I believe that this common behavior can be averted and replaced with a more palatable experience.

In this system, e-learning (computer-based instruction) takes precedence over traditional instructor-led learning experiences. The focus on e-learning allows for the learning experience to be controlled and delivered uniformly, thus eliminating the variance that instructor-led training is often subject to (though it is not to say that instructor led training would be eliminated entirely – it simply would be used for circumstances that specifically require it). In LCI, the learning is broken up into convenient micro-modules that cover specific content, and is paced appropriately for the target audience. These micro-modules would be short (5-10 minutes) with more complex subjects broken up into multiple modules. This may seem like too little time for a topic to be appropriately covered, but it is necessary given that the average human attention span is a mere 8 seconds. The allotted time for the micro-modules allows them to be taken at the learner’s convenience.

How does LCI become a fun experience? It comes down to the way in which the content is presented. Humans have a natural affinity for stories (especially well-written ones). Through engaging stories and scenarios, the learner can envision the content in context. The media of LCI is fast-paced and engaging, with content presented in a manner that allows the learner to have a multi-sensory experience. The screen is not over crowded with massive blocks of text; instead, voiceovers narrate the content in a casual, engaging manner. In compliance with 508 requirements, a complete transcript of the narration is also available to the learners.

What about the experience surrounding LCI? In order for LCI to be effective, it must be easily accessible. If the learning experiences are not easily accessible, the learner’s interest will be lost before they even reach the content. This requires the use of a quality Learning Management System (LMS) as a convenient portal for learners to access the content in a single location. The completion of a micro-module would be automatically logged into the LMS and viewable to administrators.

LCI presents a “win-win” situation: employers can train their employees in an effective manner and reach company goals, and employees can receive training in subjects areas of interest to them and find it exciting and engaging in the process.

Uncovering the Mystery of Blockchain in 2 Minutes

By: Trevor Brown, Senior Project Manager

blockchain

So Blockchain…what is it? Let’s start with what it isn’t. The term is tossed around quite a bit, as it relates to Bitcoin, on sites such as The Silk Road. Blockchain, at least in some circles, seems to be synonymous with nefarious activities and shady online personas,  but that shouldn’t be the case. Blockchain technology, in all of its forms, has many reasonable and perfectly legitimate business, government, academic, and social applications. So while Bitcoin certainly uses Blockchain technology, that particular cryptocurrency is a very small example of the overall power of Blockchain.  

Now, what IS Blockchain? Most of the time, people are talking about distributed ledgers, i.e. a list of transactions that is shared among a number of computers, rather than being stored on a central server. A decent working definition is “a distributed database that maintains a continuously-growing list of data records hardened against tampering and revision,” according to The Economist.     

Confused yet? Yeah, the concept, and the underlying technology, can each be a bit obtuse. Let’s use an example to illustrate:

I think one of the best commercial applications would be an aggregated rewards program, maintained in a closed Blockchain system by a series of horizontal industries that do not compete in a direct manner, but rather share many clients across a spectrum. The rewards, we’ll call them “MagaPoints” for simplicity, would be used to buy services at all participants. Picture a car rental company, a national coffee chain, an airline, and a hotel chain.  

One customer will likely use this collection of services during a single trip, whether for business or leisure. So within the confines of the closed network, a client could use their rewards points from a coffee purchase to upgrade a flight or use the rewards points from a car rental to acquire a hotel room.   

The client has ease of transaction, without having to juggle multiple rewards programs, while having peace of mind, knowing that at no time was their personal information utilized. Therefore, saving them from exposure to identify theft or fraud. The entire transaction, and all of its parts, are stored in an open public forum, allowing for a seamless transaction that was 100% transparent.

The storage functionality of Blockchain is literally without limit. It could store your car title, the information on postal packages, or your bank records – just to mention a few uses. Because the technology is stored on a decentralized ledger that is accessible to nearly everyone, each of those would be nearly tamper-proof. This is because changes to the ledger are added instantly and are accessible by any user. So where does it go now? The technology has endless possibilities across data storage, monetary transfer, government transparency, and more. I say embrace it and enjoy the ride…

5 Tricks to Create Privacy in an Open Office

Open offices can save money and increase collaboration, but they also increase distractions, noise levels, and the potential for more introverted team members to be overwhelmed by constant social interaction.

When such spaces are well-designed, these drawbacks can be mitigated with clever seating arrangements and a “quiet” office culture that limits conversations to designated meeting spaces. But if you’ve just moved into an open office and feel the need for more privacy, there are a few strategies you can try.

1. Think like a ninja

In an open office, noise and distraction can sneak up on you when you least expect them in the form of chatty coworkers, loud phone conversations, and people walking around or entering or leaving the room. In order to combat these distractions and find space to recharge, it’s crucial to be proactive, taking every opportunity for focused, individual work and recharging.

Elan Morgan, a blogger on the Quiet Revolution site, advocates making space for solitude, even if that means not joining the gang for lunch every day or skipping the daily watercooler or coffee station chit-chat. If constant interruptions are leaving you drained, identify every possible moment of quiet in your day and guard each one like a vitally important meeting.

If possible, find other ways to interact and make yourself available at specific times for collaboration and discussion, but make your own energy and productivity needs a high priority.

Office 2
Brilliant or terrifying? Image via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

2. Build a “soft wall”

Building your own cubicle out of books, furniture, or lumber might send the wrong message to your more extroverted colleagues, but “soft” barriers like plants, artwork, or even a coat rack with a big puffy coat can offer some visual peace and quiet, depending on the layout.

As for auditory distractions, noise-cancelling headphones are great, but it may also be necessary to come up with a system to let people know when you’re unavailable. If your company uses a shared calendar, block off certain times as busy and others as available, or set your status to “busy” on company chat systems.

Don’t have either of those? Do as one commenter on Quiet Revolution suggested and make a deal with your colleagues – you’ll block off time for one-on-one meetings or to help them with their work if they’ll return the favor and let you work in peace for a block of time each day.

3. Find a retreat

If your company is moving to an open-plan office to save money, offer to work from home a few days a week. Not only does telecommuting reduce costs, many people find they are considerably more productive without the distractions of an office and the time spent commuting. If you can improve the company’s bottom line while still making time to build connections with colleagues, you’ll have a solid argument.

For the days you are in the office, pay attention to the typical schedule and try to do your most focused work when everyone else is in meetings or at another location. Or consider booking a meeting room for you and any introverted friends where you can complete important work in silence and then return to the camaraderie and banter of the bullpen.

Office 3
Camaraderie… banter… what’s not to love? Image via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

4. Propose a change

If the office layout is reducing your productivity, ask for a few accommodations such as dividers, movable furniture that creates sound and visual barriers, or definitive “quiet hours” where people can focus on individual tasks and then reconvene for collaboration.

Well-designed open office spaces usually include smaller spaces like meeting “pods” where groups can hold private meetings or individuals can find a quiet place to work as well as large, open areas for discussion (or headphone-mediated silence).

If management isn’t willing to modify policy for the entire office, ask if you can at least move to a quieter corner where you’ll have fewer visual distractions. Chat tools like Google Talk, Slack, and Skype can also allow for discussion that doesn’t break concentration in the same way as a tap on the shoulder.

5. Stand up for yourself.

If management won’t consider your (politely worded) requests for fewer distractions (or the evidence that open spaces decrease productivity), consider looking for another position. It’s easier said than done, but good management should empower employees to do their jobs, not hinder them.

If working in an open office and coping with unfriendly management is damaging your health, driving your stress levels through the roof, and making you dread going to work, make it a priority to look for other options. Many people find working in an open office difficult despite its potential benefits.

Bottom line? If you can’t make it work for you, take the ultimate proactive step and find a place that does. You’re not crazy, and you’re not alone!

Featured image via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Upgrading the Virtual Water Cooler

Telecommuting and remote working are popular cost-saving measures, but the benefits can extend far beyond the bottom line. Many companies are choosing to make remote working a core part of their organizational structure, capitalizing on the productivity gains of distraction-free environments and the lack of overhead that comes from working in already existing spaces. Thanks to a slew of new technology, this approach has numerous benefits, from being able to meet customer demands in multiple time zones to assembling a team quickly to deal with an emergency.

But remote working has a few key drawbacks, as anyone who’s worked from home can attest. Isolation, exclusion from important meetings and social outings, and endless conference calls can make working from home a disaster if it’s not managed successfully. How do the pros make it work? By using solid team management practices to cultivate community intentionally, regardless of where team members are located. And they don’t wait until problems arise; many companies that successfully employ a remote workforce find that solid team building starts from the very beginning.

Recruiting and On-Boarding

Although some companies transition well from an on-premise community to a partial or fully remote team, training employees for remote working is best done early. Candidates need to be able to manage time well, show initiative, and have enough patience to put up with the occasional frustrations of working with partners in multiple locations. It’s also important to hire (or train) good communicators and writers if much of their brainstorming will be done over email, video conference, or chat.

Perhaps most importantly, managing employees remotely requires trust. Hiring people who can be trusted to do their jobs well and contribute to the company’s culture from afar is crucial, as is continuing to trust them once they’re hired. Nothing breaks an employee’s spirit more than micromanaging, draconian check-ins and snooping software, so it’s important to hire people who can be relied on—and then allow them to do their jobs with personal, appropriate oversight. Trustworthy team players who will take the extra step to ask questions, get to know their teammates, and invest in people they don’t see every day are the key to making remote working a success.

Day-to-Day Communication

There are many tools available that will reduce the endless flow of emails and conference calls that consume many a remote worker’s time. Communication tools like Slack or Basecamp can organize multiple streams of conversation and even make space for virtual “water cooler” conversations.

Many companies also find it helpful to have a procedure or hierarchy in place for various kinds of messages. Quick questions that need immediate answers are often best sent through chats, instant messages, or texts, while longer questions that can wait may be more appropriate through email. Face-to-face conversations over Skype or other video conferencing software can be helpful for partners or small-group check-ins, while an occasional conference call can work well to disseminate updates or information to large groups of people.

Innovation and Collaboration

One of the main things remote workers miss out on is the opportunity for spontaneous idea-swapping and brainstorming. New research suggests diverse teams that offer a variety of social and industry-related perspectives can boost innovation, but even a highly diverse team still needs space to share and explore ideas in constructive ways.

Sometimes, distance can be an asset in this case. Introverted team members may feel more confident sharing their ideas when they have time to think them through and compose an email or post a comment on a shared project page rather than being put on the spot in a meeting, as long as intentional space is made for constructive collaboration.

Training employees to work in pairs, a popular option in programming and software development, can also promote this ideological cross-pollination. It requires some finesse to assign suitable teams and resolve conflicts, but done properly, this approach combats isolation, cuts the workload, and strengthens the cohesion and loyalty of the entire team.

Accountability

Although trust plays a big role in remote company relationships, appropriate accountability can keep team members on the same page and catch any problems early. It can also reduce isolation and ensure that all perspectives are given voice.

Time and activity tracking software can be useful tools, but team check-ins, quick reports, and planning meetings can also help everyone see how different individuals are contributing to overall progress and help team members get to know each others’ strengths and weaknesses.

For best results, these meetings should be short, focused, and positive, highlighting good work and setting the stage for a successful week. One-on-one check-ins can also help managers keep tabs on how different parts of a project are developing.

Pros vs. Cons

Remote working is a viable business structure and can even lead to new breakthroughs for companies, but it’s not a cure-all for overhead and expenses. Individual people are still the ones that make a company work, whether they’re working on-site or remotely, and investing in resources to help those people become more successful is not something to skimp on, regardless of employee location.

Photo by Kai Hendry, CC BY 2.0

Slaying the Slideshow Dragon

We’ve all been there, shuffling into an early-morning meeting, hoping that this time, things will be different. The presenter will be engaging. The slides, compelling. The room, awake! And then… the dreaded bullet points appear, and the morning becomes a painful offering to the Slideshow Dragon.

Nobody wants meetings to be boring or presentations to fail. But even the most engaging presenter will find it difficult to reclaim the audience once their attention has been devoured by black-and-white text or slides that could have been emailed out.

But what exactly is wrong with traditional presentations? Do you have to use newer tools like Prezi to save the early-morning meeting? Let’s break it down with some basic design thinking.

Who are the end users?

In a presentation, the end users are the audience, whether they are colleagues, employees, or clients, and success can generally defined by whether they engage with and remember your quarterly report/new marketing pitch/project update.

Because people like connecting with other people, warm, engaging, enthusiastic presenters can do a lot of this work themselves, so why use visual aids at all? Unfortunately, most people remember only a small percentage of information they hear.

Organizing that information visually can increase retention considerably, as well as make the presentation more interesting—thus the allure of the Slidshow Dragon. But this is where many presentations go wrong and the dragon shows his ugly side.

Here Be Dragons

(Creative Commons)
Photo by Milos Milosevic (Creative Commons 2.0)

In order to communicate information, the presenter can use words (spoken or written), images, colors, media, and sounds. Problems tend to arise when those elements are out of balance. If a presenter is spending most of the time talking (i.e. it’s not a discussion or roundtable), then the words are already taken care of.

It may be tempting to highlight key words or phrases with bullet points, but the brain can only handle so many words at once—and most people would rather read than listen, especially if they think they’ll get the information faster.

Some people try to combine words with cool animations to help keep people engaged. Prezi is built on the idea that flying back and forth across a giant canvas and zooming in on important points is more visually interesting than flipping slides.

But visuals that are too interesting (or dizzying) can backfire, keeping the audience’s attention even more firmly planted on the screen, not the presenter. And if the visuals are that engaging, then they might be better off on their own with a voiceover and posted online, rather than upstaging (or consuming) a live presenter.

Define the Need

Photo by Jan Tik (Creative Commons)
Photo by Jan Tik (Creative Commons 2.0)

The answer is to use slides that aid the presentation visually. That means focusing on images, symbols, colors, and movement to support your message.

  • Convert words to images, symbols, or metaphors. Did something decrease? Use a picture of down arrow with the topic at hand and then talk about what happened. Is there a logical flow of information? Use a flow diagram. Make your information beautiful, or give people a memorable picture to latch onto. Only use words that can be integrated into the image).
  • Use the right tool for the job. Is the information you need to present spatially related (like a map, landscape, or 2D diagram)? Then Prezi might be your best choice. But if your information is hierarchical or linear (A à B à C), stick with something like PowerPoint or Keynote to avoid distracting or unnecessary movement.
  • Make any movement part of the message. If you’re flipping to a new slide, start a new thought. If you’re zooming in on an object, zoom in to the details of the topic. If you have a big, dramatic transition to a new image, transition to a new topic or thought as well.
  • Choose visuals you (or the audience) can interact with. Pick images that you can envision someone asking you to zoom in on or that change based on audience participation.
  • Keep it simple. People are there for your content, not a feature film. Choose simple, clear, relevant images, and don’t overdo them, or the Dragon of Excess Clip-Art may yet devour your masterpiece.
clip art dragon
Beware the clip-art dragon! Image by Clarissa Ridney (Creative Commons 2.0)

In the end, good presentations are like any other form of communication. They connect the speaker and listeners and result in the mutual sharing of information. They increase engagement and generate new ideas. Don’t be the Slideshow Dragon’s next victim—regardless of which presentation software you use!

Featured Photo by Richard Fisher (Creative Commons 2.0)