Saturday, April 09, 2016

5 tests to see if your organisation's values are bogus

A brief conversation with a young woman, in the queue for lunch at a corporate ‘values’ day, opened my eyes up to the whole values thing in organisations. “I have my values,” she said, “and they’re not going to be changed by a HR department.... I’ll be leaving in a couple of years and no doubt their HR will have a different set of values… which I’ll also ignore”. Wisest thing I heard all day.
You’ve probably had the ‘values’ treatment. Suddenly, parachuted out of HR, comes a few abstract nouns, or worse, an acronym, stating that the organisation now has some really important ‘values’. Even worse, an external agency may have juiced them up. I genuinely like organisations that have a strategy, purpose, even a mission. But the current obsession with organisational values I don't entirely buy.
Try this authenticity test to your company values. Sniff out the hubris and bullshit.
Test 1: Bad acronyms - values created to fit word
If your values are an acronym, they’re likely to be inauthentic. The net result of fuzzy thinking is so often the ‘bad acronym’. Chances are that someone has shoehorned some abstract nouns into a word that sounds vaguely positive, completely losing sight of the original intention. Are they telling you that their values ‘just happened’ to fall into that acronym? Actually, what happens is that at least some of the values emerge from the acronym. That's inauthentic.
How about this from a Cheshire voluntary group: FLUID: Freedom 2 Love Ur Identity. Or another real example of a crap acronym: VALUE: This HR person actually went online as she could only think of Value Added….. and wanted others to fill the acronym out! They did, and she was delighted with, Value Added Local, User friendly Experience. What a load of puff. When values are created to fit a word you want to say, it’s a joke. Even worse is the use of middle letters, rendering the acronym, as an aide memoire, completely useless. Here’s a real example. It’s a cracker. PEOPLE: Positive Spirit and Fun, HonEsty and Integrity, Opportunties Based on Merit, Putting the Team first, Lasting value for Clients and People, Excellence through Professionlism. One overlong, impossible to remember acronym with eleven nouns, and I love the way they have to use the ‘E’ in the middle of HonEsty to make it work. This, by the way, is from an HR consultancy.
It’s not that I hate acronyms (Abbreviated Coded Rendition Of Name Yielding MeaningS). They’re great as memorable cues. For example, I rather like ABC (Airways, Breathing, Circulation) in first aid. I also have a soft spot for funny acronyms, such as ALITALIA (Airplane Lands In Turin And Luggage In Ancona), BAAPS (British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeon) unbelievably a real organisation, and DIMWIT (Don't Interrupt Me While I'm Talking).… it’s just that I’m a fully paid up member of the AAAA, the Association Against Acronym Abuse. And let's just quietly forget Microsoft's 'Critical Update Notification Tool'.
Test 2: Negative test
Lists of values are often so obvious that they are hardly worth mentioning. Sure, you can say we all need to be 'Customer friendly' and so on. But who would say that being Customer unfriendly was ever on the cards? The ‘negation’ test is a useful filter. Ask whether any normal human being would deny have the stated opposite or negative value. If the answer is NO, it’s not a value but a basic, common sense belief. Human nature is a complex thing and people are too different to be corralled into value sets. Beware of BIG words like integrity, imagination, creativity, innovation…… If your values are simplistic platitudes – no one will care.
Test 3: Are they really values?
A value is something that determines a moral decision. Yet many organizational ‘values’ are not values at all. ‘Imagination’, for example, is not a moral value, neither, I would argue is 'Creativity'. I’m not sure that ‘Leadership’ is an intrinsic value, in the sense that Pol Pot was a leader. So, for this test, look at each value in turn and ask whether it really is a value or activity, competence or other thing?
Test 4: Diversity problem
There’s something odd about having diversity as a value within a non-diverse, fixed value set. Empirically, people have different sets of values. We know this from large-scale studies, such as the World Values Survey, going since 198, in over 100 countries. An organisation is likely to have a mix of nationalities and cultures; religious, secular, liberal, conservative, individualistic, communal. Imposing a single set of values from above may not fit with this diversity of cultures and values. If diversity of values matters, the imposition of a set of fixed values makes little sense. To live with diversity is to live with a diversity of values.
Test 5: Sniff test
It’s usually quite easy to expose the hypocrisy of an organisation that exhorts ‘values’ by looking at its a) tax affairs b) senior staff salaries, c) senior staff bonuses d) customer list e) behaviours. If the company plays the tax avoidance game using offshore tax arrangements, or transfer pricing – that’s almost every large tech company, Starbucks etc. etc. then you can stick their ‘do no evil’ values back in the hypocrisy box. If the CEO earns a ridiculous amount of money but doesn’t pay a living wage to the people at the bottom, the value of their values is nil. To be more precise, if your company pays the CEO way more than x10 the salary of the lowest member of staff – question the values. If, as a bank or other organisation, you’ve missold, ripped people off and generally fiddled the markets, ripped off suppliers, don’t pay on time - don’t talk about values. I've worked in public, educational organisations and heard people rail against the private sector, while they send their kids to private schools - that's BS. Read Nagel's Equality and Partiality. It doesn't take long to work out that people's stated public values are often different from their personal values. The same with organisations. You get the idea. Subject your organisation to a sniff test. Take the values and really ask – of the people who have told you that they matter – whether they’re applied at the top of the organisation and in its financial dealings.

Ask the person in the street if large organisations have served society well in terms of values? Banks? Supermarket chains? Tax dodging tech companies? Tax dodging retailers like Next or Starbucks? Football organisations like FIFA? Football clubs in general? Athletics organisations? Political parties? Mobile hacking newspapers? Saville infested broadcasters? No. We have a crisis of values, caused by large organisational hubris and lobbying. They are the last place we, as people, look to for values. The ‘values’ obsession is just another example of overreach by HR. It keeps them occupied and gives everyone the sense that moral purpose has been served. It may even mask the reality of selfish behaviour. When I hear people discuss values, or see ‘values’ training, it’s like little-league religion. Lots of back-slapping and ‘aren’t we great’ type platitudes. We’re all different. It’s work not a moral crusade. To be honest, I find it all a bit hokey and patronising. A select group at the top come up with 'values' and we all have to march in step to those values, even though, as most of us know, the further up an organisation you go, the more rarified values become. People have values, organisations don’t.

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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

One book on learning that every teacher, lecturer & trainer should read (7 reasons)

I have shelf upon shelf of books on learning but if I had to recommend just one book it would be Make It Stick by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel. It has one big weakness, and I’ll come to that later., but what makes it compelling is it’s its laser like focus on contemporary research on optimal methods of learning, while swatting pseudo-theories to one side.
1. Counterintuitive
By far the most important message in the book comes at the start when they boldly claim that most good learning theory is counterintuitive. They set the scene by explaining why most students are misled by institutions into the wrong strategies for studying. Intuitively, reading, highlighting, underlining and rereading seems productive but the evidence suggests it is a largely hopeless strategy for learning. In fact, the evidence shows that we are very poor judges of our own learning. The optimal strategies for learning are in the 'doing' and some of that doing is counterintuitive. 
We kid ourselves into thinking we’re mastering something but this is an illusion of mastery. It’s easy to think you’re learning when the going is easy – re-reading, underlining, repetition…. but it doesn’t work. To learn effectively, you must make the going harder and employ a few counterintuitive tricks along the way. They neatly explain why the research is NOT about rote learning, the charge that is usually levelled against them - just to head that one off at the pass.
2. Effortful learning
This is the premise – effortful learning. It’s what most of the people I admire in the learning world have been saying for years – Schank, Downes and most academic, cognitive scientists. By effort they mostly mean retrieval practice This is the one strategy they hammer home. Use your own brain to retrieve, or do, what you think you know. Flashcard questions, simple quizzes (not multiple-choice) anything to exercise the brain through active recall, not only reinforces what you know (and so easily forget) but may even be even stronger, in terms of subsequent retention and recall, than the original exposure. That’s a killer finding. Recall is more powerful than teaching.
3. Testing
Practically, they recommend regular, low-stakes testing for teachers and learners. And before you get all tetchy about ‘teaching to the test’, they don’t mean summative assessment but regular formative exercises, where recall is stimulated and encouraged. The evidence here is pretty overwhelming. Test little and often – that’s what makes effortful learning stick. To repeat - they don’t mean testing as assessment, they mean learning.
4. Solve before being taught
Interesting research is also presented for the idea that having a go, even when you make mistakes and errors, is better than simply getting the exposition. The active learning seems to have a powerful effect on retention and recall.
5. Spaced-practice
I’ve been banging on about this for decades but they nail the research, namely its efficacy, and the fact that it is NOT mere repetition. All of that Bjork stuff on ‘Deliberate difficulties’ is also in here.
6. Interleaving
Rather than doing a homogeneous set of learning or retrieval tasks, try interleaving them. The evidence suggests that this makes gives you higher retention and you are much more adaptable when it comes to solving new problems in the future.
7. Delayed feedback
An interesting one this. Apparently, instantaneous feedback can be less productive than delayed feedback. I’ve used this recently and have to agree that I see the point.
The book cleverly employs the methods they recommend in its structure but it has one big weakness - the third author. Whereas I had heard of Roediger and McDaniel as well published academics, I had never heard of Peter Brown. It looks as though the publisher has made them hire a novelist to bring their research to life. Brown introduces each chapter with overwritten stories to illustrate the research but I found them wearisome. Interestingly, none of their research supports this approach to learning and stories and storytelling don’t even appear in the index. Read them if you want - I just skipped them.
The book gives a brilliant update on recent research in cognitive science on how we learn. (You don’t see Vygotsky in the index of this book, thank God.) It's the result of over ten years of focused research on 'Applying Cognitive Psychology to Enhance Educational Practice'. It’s practical and gives plenty of advice on both how to teach and how to learn, the point being that knowing how to learn is a necessary condition for good teaching.

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Monday, March 28, 2016

I’m a 'storyteller' – yawn!

I’m increasingly introduced, or sharing a platform with people, who claim they’re a ‘storyteller’. I’m just perplexed, as I have no idea what this means. I know lots of people who can tell a damn good story down the pub and can hold a group entranced, but they’d never have the cheek to call themselves ‘storytellers’. When I try to teas out what their storytelling actually means, I find that it’s usually a synonym for being an underemployed extrovert.
Stories about what?
For one, it simply begs the question, ‘Stories about what?’ Now that you’ve told me you’re some sort of Homer, what have you got to say? I’ve known lots of oddballs who tell great stories but I wouldn’t trust them to hold a stick for two minutes, never mind regard their stories as sage advice. This is to confuse substance with form. Ever been collared by a ‘storyteller’ and felt internally as if you were going to expire with boredom?
Cock and bullshit
I’ve seen umpteen ‘futurists’ cull stories from the web and string them together to form story-based talks. It’s often cock and bullshit. Even worse, are those who present theories based on a flimsy list of words starting with the letter “C”, as if the world (as opposed to their limited vocabulary) is really that alliterative. The word ‘creativity’ will inevitably appear, that most hollow of men, but so will collaboration, critical thinking, community, character, connectedness….
Plural of story is not data
Now let me turn to another ‘storytelling school of thought’. In education and training, there’s plenty who profess, as if it were a Copernican revelation, that ‘it’s all about storytelling’. Don’t give me THAT story. We have, since Socrates and Plato, been warned about the dangers of storytelling. Its tendency to tell tall tales, romanticise, exaggerate, over-structure into a beginning, middle and a happy ends, come to unwarranted conclusions and be used as a form of fictional propaganda. Me – when I really want to learn something - I like straight stuff.  I like good research, straight to the point, concise and evidenced writing. Stories can get in the way. The ‘storytellers’ often peddle tales without substance, evidence or data. The plural of story is not data.
Storytelling s marketing
I’m OK with stories, in their place, but they’re not ‘everything’. They may even encourage the sort of long-form lecturing that plagues education and training. Sure, tell a narrative or story if that’s helpful, but the mantra, that good teaching is ALL about storytelling, is a caricature of the many methods one has to employ to teach – and learn. Stories that have gone wrong, as they were untrue and dangerous include; learning styles, L/R brain theory, Dales cone, whole word teaching, NLP, Myers Briggs, Maslow, Kirkpatrick and so on. Many of these are ‘stories’ have some triangle or concept grid, that is easy to tell and sell. The storytellers recruit ‘practitioners’ and through the storytelling that is marketing, they become Ponzi schemes. The same old stories, told again and again and again….

To take the telling of tales seriously, and some have, like Roger Schank, who, usefully in my view, used the word ‘script’, as opposed to story, you’d want to look at the way we learn in terms of short contextualised narratives. That’s fine, but few of the so-called self-styled, storytellers have this in mind. Indeed, as we all know, we have a tendency to get locked into those scripts and narratives, our stock of anecdotes, out ‘stories’. This often misses the nuances of teaching and learning. Learning is far too complex a business to be reduced to the idea of ‘stories’. And before you accuse me of just having told a ‘story’ – it’s not, it’s a ‘rant’ – there’s a difference.

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Saturday, March 26, 2016

Amazing, mind-blowing ‘people’ possibilities in VR and AR

When I demo VR to people they often struggle to see its potential application in the real world. One dimension they often miss is its potential to let you interact with other people - it’s social dimension. Far from being socially isolating, it may be socially liberating. The possibilities are mind-blowing.
Virtual Reality (VR)
Remember that Facebook bought Oculus for 2.3 billion dollars, when it had not a single customer. Why? Zuckerberg saw the social possibilities of multiplayer VR. He could see that Facebook, the world’s most successful social network, could be transformed by this technology. VR may be the future of social networking. Rather than the flat, text and pics medium we see today, we’ll be able to meet, socialise, do business, experience entertainment and learn in 3D spaces with anyone, anyplace at anytime. Multiplayer VR is already here. You can play games or train in a multiplayer environment right now.
Augmented Reality (AR)
Microsoft is also working on the AR angle with ‘holoportation’. The ability for you and anyone else to holoport to any place at any time really is on the horizon. Imagine teleporting from one place to another. If two people can wear their HoloLens they can see each other as being present in the same space. You have to see this to believe it. First you need to capture you’re body, so that it can be reconstructed online. We can all be created as virtual people,  compressed and reconstructed in the other person’s space, in real time. Note that with AR anyone can be seen in the room with you, as if they were standing there. This works through ‘live capture’.
Within VR or AR worlds you need to be able to move around, interact and do things. In VR, controllers such as the Xbox games controller, that comes with the Oculus Rift, are already shipping. Other devices such as the Oculus Touch are in development, along with haptic gloves and suits. You can already move around, manipulate objects and feel them in you hands.
In AR, Microsoft’s Bluetooth controller is a simple one button device that you strap to your fingers. Remember that voice recognition and is likely to play a huge role in interactivity and, of course, social interaction, along with gestures. Don’t forget the possibilities with the headtracking itself, as you know where the person is looking and can place sounds, other people and objects anywhere you want, dynamically, in relation to that movement.
As others see us
Weirdly, you can also put yourself in another person’s shoes and see the world from their point of view. A doctor sees as a patient and experience what it is like to have a visual, hearing or physical disability. A teacher can experience what the learner sees and does. A coach can experience what a sport’s person is experiencing during practice. A man can experience what a woman sees, does and experiences and vice-versa. This opens up possibilities in training of sexual harassment and equal opps. You can experience what it is like to be of any other gender, race, age or disability in any other place. There have already been experiments in experiencing life as a refugee.
Global experience
Virtual travel with a mountaineer or astronaut is possible. You can fly with a bird. You can actually be on the Moon or Mars. You can experience being in a concert or sports event and be with there on the field or stage. More than this, new forms of film and games will allow you to be inside the film or game and have other people in your team right there with you. You will be able to interact with these other people, just as you would in real face-to-face situations, whether they are AI controlled avatars or real people.
Global classroom
In learning, we really can have one-to-one tuition, as if the person was actually there, with you, in the same space. The Global Classroom becomes a possibility, with teachers and learners getting together, no matter where they are on the planet. Groups of people can learn together, even in other created VR worlds, such as outer space, below the ocean, at the atomic level, inside the body – anywhere. Imagine MOOCs where all of this is possible and millions can be taught by the best teachers using the best created worlds, as if you were actually there.

In both VR and AR, you will be able to connect with relatives, work colleagues, friends, teachers and other learners at any time, in any place. The world is literally in your living room or wherever you choose it to be. This is more than the global village it is the global room.

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