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Learning from Observations

This week I have been preparing for my new role as a tutor on the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s programmes. It has got me really thinking about how people learn to do particular jobs and how formal programmes like this combine with less structured learning experiences that you have on the job. An example of this is how as a trainer you learn how to move from the expert deliverer of set materials to become more of a facilitative trainer who can handle uncertainty in the learning activities like discussions where there is no clear outcome or correct answer. I was exploring this in more depth with a friend of mine who is also working in the field and we were sharing the different elements that had encouraged us to move away from the scripted form of training. For me one important element was having the opportunity very early in my career to watch and to work alongside others.

 

It was the value of observational learning that linked with another conversation I had earlier in the month. A friend of mine works for a health authority and had done some observation and facilitation work with the team who were setting up the incident room for Swine Flu for the authority. They were facing a tough job in challenging circumstances and were in many cases following a set of emergency procedures already laid down. One observation struck me, when they were setting up the incident room they installed a large plasma screen TV. When asked what this was for the managers replied that it was so that they could play BBC News 24 continuously so that the team would be updated about what was happening with swine flu. The fact that they would be supplying the news to the BBC did not seem to strike them as negated the need for a massive TV. Further probing discovered that the managers believed that all incident centres need massive TVs.

 

This learning was not from any real incident centres in the health authority (this was their first one), probing questions established that the team were unconsciously using as their models incident rooms they had seen on TV and in films, all of which featured large scale screens. What is scary about this story is how believable it is, how much of our learning is from watching fictional examples and taking this in without any further critical analysis and then implementing strategies and approaches based on our observations of a ficitionalised situation.

 

It made me realise that valuable as observations are of both real situation and from other sources they are only part of the picture. The discussions that I had with my colleagues after the event, the reading that I did for my professional qualification and my own reflections on the observations all of these lead to the development of what I consider to be my good practice in facilitative training.

 

www.bellthompson.co.uk

Facilitation is More Than Having Fun with Post Its

Yesterday I worked with a group of facilitators. We are working on a project to create a high level accredited pathway in facilitation. The first activity we worked on as a team was to share all the different tools, techniques and models that we each use within our own facilitation practices. The photo below demonstrates the wealth of experience that we shared.

 

Tools Techniques and Models for Facilitation

Tools Techniques and Models for Facilitation

What was great about the experience was that we had created an atmosphere of trust between us so that we could ask each other to explain tools which we were not sure of. This is a significant step amongst professional groups; I have often observed a tendency for people to cover up their lack of knowledge because they don’t want to be seen as lacking by their peers. This creation of trust meant that we were willing to explore the ideas put onto the board and to test if they were models, tools or techniques or should we define it as a theoretical underpinning.

 The chart that emerged of the theory we were using as facilitators to inform our practice grew as the activity went on. We all shared stories of “bad facilitation” where an individual used a tool without the underpinning knowledge. This often happens when an inexperienced facilitator sees a tool in use or reads about it and quickly jumps to implementation stage without a deeper consideration of whether this is the right tool for the desired outcome and for the group they are working with.

 Sometimes it is easy to dismiss facilitation as “messing about with Post It notes” and “having fun with groups” and it is this approach to facilitation which we are setting out to challenge. This means facilitators having a deeper understanding of the different models but also being willing to spend time understanding more complex theoretical underpinnings to our work.

 One of the topics we talked about was Appreciative Inquiry. This is another example of a technique which can be used inappropriately and can lead to a frustration when it fails to deliver the promise. I came across a great blog:

http://aiconsult.wordpress.com/2009/07/14/appreciative-inquiry-better-ways-of-doing-the-design-stage/#comment-29

What I really liked about this blog is the attention that is given to what happens with all the data collected in the first stages of a facilitated event. This is one of the areas that I want to study as part of my quest for qualification. I can see lots of techniques for generating data and the way we do this is often creative, engaging and inspiring but then I watch people get lost as the data is reduced to something more manageable for an action plan. It is great to see some practical examples of how this stage is tackled for one specific method.

 Christine Bell – Bellthompson Ltd

Linked In Learning

Using Linked In for Learning

 I joined Linked In about four years ago and have found it a helpful way of developing my social network in the business world. I have also found it a really valuable learning tool and I am often surprised how under used it is by the managers I work with as a way of increasing their knowledge and skills.

The most obvious learning from Linked In is how it can work as a social networking tool. It is not as “in your face” personal as Facebook and the connections that you generate will be work orientated connections and you are unlikely to be updating with information about professional contacts’ drinking habits!  For people who are nervous about on line communities I think it is a good entry point application.

I have blogged previously about using group forums for questions http://bellthompson.wordpress.com/2009/05/21/the-power-of-learning-in-on-line-communities/.

The Linked In Questions element is worth emphasising. The great thing about Linked In is that you can ask a question to any of the groups you are a member of, you can ask a question just to your own network or you can broadcast a question to the whole of the Linked In membership. It is this variety of options which I think makes Linked In such a valuable tool for learning. If you want to get replies which are more personal in nature then sending a question to your own network will often generate some really insightful comments. You can choose whether you want to send it to all of your connections or just choose the connections you think may be able to contribute some useful information.

The benefits of asking a question to everyone on Linked In will be the range of responses you will get . I find these responses help me to think about the question in a wider manner and can help prevent “silo thinking” that can so easily happen when we get locked into our own little world of reference points. The insights which others may share can challenge the thinking you originally had on the topic. This happened to me when I was asking some questions about customer service with non native speaking customers.

Joining groups in Linked In can also be a good way about learning about current themes within your professional and interest groups. There are thousand of groups and one way of finding relevant groups is to explore the groups that your connections are already members of; this may also help you to find areas in common.

The other areas where Linked In can help individual learning is through the recommended book link. You can sign up for this free application and it means that you can recommend books you are reading to others and can get the insight of others on books you are interested in reading.

I would be interested in hearing from others about how you use Linked In to help  your own learning?

Appreciating the Good Things

One of the complaints I get from managers is how their own managers only notice the bad stuff that they do. At the same time as saying this they will talk about all the bad things that their employees do and list the problems in the organisation.  I often wonder why we do this, and I know that I am not perfect myself, so my learning challenge is how to get out of the “isn’t it awful” and “if only” type of conversation into something that gives more potential for moving forward.

I use a couple of different tools and techniques to help move the conversation on. The first is a model used by colleague Ian Cunningham(http://www.stratdevint.com) called the 3 P Model. The Ps referred to are puzzles (there is a solution) problems (there may be a solution but not currently known) and predicaments (the only solution would require massive change in government/organisational policy). In my experience lots of energy is spent in organisations trying to work on challenging the predicaments. The nature of predicaments means that they are difficult to change.  For more junior managers predicaments might be the inflexible nature of the pay structure which makes it difficult for them to give the financial rewards that they would like to. As a facilitator I might suggest that they accept the nature of the predicament and look at what they can influence instead.

The next tool I use is Appreciative Inquiry. This is a model developed by David Cooperider and others and there is a good website which gives a detailed overview. http://appreciativeinquiry.case.edu/

My work is mainly with Northern Europeans who can be very cynical about anything which they perceive as too Californian, referring to it as “happy, clappy stuff”. So whilst I have yet to convince an organisation to adopt the whole approach advocated by the Appreciative Inquiry movement I have used it to change the way that we review and plan. Instead of starting with “what are the problems in this team” I encourage managers to ask the questions about what is going well, what can I build on in this team? It just helps to shift away from a negative viewpoint to something that gives some needed energy and boast to the team and the manager.

The final technique I use is the Strength Based approach. One of the advocates of this is the Gallup Organisation and their book “Strength Finder 2.0” is one I recommend to managers who want to take a different approach to appraisal, recruitment, talent management. I also use a set of card which I ordered from St Luke’s Innovative Resources www.innovativeresources.org. There are 54 cards each of which describe a strength. I encourage individuals to select strengths that they think they have or their team have and explore why this will help the team develop further.

These tools start to help a shift to seeing the world through a slightly different lens. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t still problems and that everything in the world is lovely but it does help to look at how we can move forward from the “isn’t it awful” coffee talk into something that might help contribute to better organisations and governments.

World Cafe – Real Conversations

This week I have been exploring using The World Cafe method with a number of different groups. I love The World Cafe website, it is a great source of good practice examples. There are photographs so you can see how different groups have organized their cafes. There is even a group in Russia who are using a real café for a regular exchange. The site has resources you can download. It is all maintained by volunteers and through donations: www.theworldcafe.com

 I have used the method with a variety of different groups and in different situations. The biggest cafe event was in Rome for a group of 150 senior executives. The cafe format fundamentally changes the environment of the average conference room from the formal seating useful for listening to expert speakers to a more democratic, informal setting which is much more useful for listening to each other. In the ideal world there would be the perfectly formed small circular tables and comfortable, easily movable chairs so a group of 5 people can easily talk to each other across the table.  The group size is important, if you have more than 5 then it is less easy for most groups to self facilitate, this tends to mean that more dominate people get more air time and the less extrovert participants will not get a chance to input.

 Having established a cafe type of environment the next task is to get people talking and listening to each other by the use of a carefully worded question. An interesting open question is enough to start the process of dialogue. In a cafe environment the focus is on the quality of the conversation and not about coming to a set outcome. It is a model of facilitation where the emphasis is on people talking openly with each other about a topic which is important to them. If the question is good enough then the conversation will flow.

 Rotating the groups is one of the great assets of the cafe style, and the rotation is organised to ensure that everyone gets a change of people to talk with so that they can explore the question from some different perspectives.

 What is great about hosting a cafe session is that you can watch the changes in people. At the beginning everyone is a little hesitate and uncomfortable with the changes in their usual environment. There is a degree of discomfort in having to actively create conference content instead of passively listening to an expert speaker This is all evident in the tense body language in the room and then something happens as the process starts. During the first rotation I will notice people smiling, listening intently and starting to become more animated. By the second rotation the groups are leaning forward, animated conversation begins and the volume in the room increases. It is a very satisfying process as I know that real conversations start in these groups which follow on after the cafe has closed.

 The World Cafe format is a fantastic format to encourage networking and practice sharing. Far too often events have time set aside for “networking” but it is essentially free time and for the more introverted participants this can be a very nerve racking time where they dread being trapped in a corner by a talkative salesperson, with no chance to escape.

 I hope that one of my conversations this week will result in our team of facilitators being asked to run a cafe in my home town of Leeds. One thing we need more of right now are ways to help people to connect, to share and to find ways out of the mess that some of these great experts have got us into. We need to turn to each other to find our solutions.

www.bellthompson.co.uk

Learning in Ukraine

Last week I was in Ukraine running a leadership programme for software engineers. The programme I ran was based on a programme I had run for the company in the UK and so one of the challenges was adapting this programme for a younger, less experienced group of leaders and where English would be the second language. The common challenge would be that they were a group of intelligent engineers who were now taking on a leadership role and would be leading teams of talented intelligent engineers so it was important that the materials I used were not too basic or designed for simple instruction giving styles of management.

 As I wrote and rewrote the materials I realised how often we use idioms when explaining concepts in English. I also realised that my standard handouts were not always clearly written in the best grammar! It took me many hours to get each handout to an acceptable standard and even them my client in the UK was able to identify further improvements to the grammar and sentence structure so that we could ensure clarity of understanding!

 Working with the group was a wonderful experience, from the beginning the group were willing to get involved and to communicate with each other. They valued the participative nature of the workshop. It would seem that their previous experience of training was based on listening to a talk given by an expert so my approach, which is much more facilitative, was totally unexpected. It was the first time I have returned to my room at lunchtime to find participants excitedly showing other colleagues their work on the walls of the room.

 One of the challenges for me when facilitating the groups was that when they worked on activities they would naturally communicate with each other in Russian. This meant that I missed overhearing some of the discussions which they were having. It did make me aware how much we pick up through non verbal communication, I could usually assess if a group needed help before I asked them. I also wished I had learnt more Russian, my basic phrases were helpful in navigating the city but more words would have increased my ability to pick up concerns early on in the process.

 At the end of each day I made sure that we reviewed the tools we had used during the day. This was an interesting experience as it gave me some insight into the tools that they felt they could apply, and not just what I thought I had “taught”. Using visual imagery was a tool which they felt that they could use to influence their teams and I was impressed about how they were able to use visual images to express a vision for team meetings.

 There was a real sense of sadness when we finished the training and a marked reluctance to leave the room; this was a contrast to some sessions in the UK where there is a speedy walk to the door as soon as you have completed the workshop closing statement!

 Lots of my friends and contacts have been very curious about the experience of actually working in Ukraine. I was based in the east of the country and I had very little knowledge of the country before going out there and had never worked or visited further East than Prague. I realised how many stereotypes I had absorbed without realising it and how I expected the people and the place to be very different to the UK. In fact what I observed on this limited visit was a lot of similarity and some differences.

 The emerging nature of the nation grappling with its infrastructural investment was clearly evident; the roads are in a bad condition in the city. The walking experience was much better than in some more “developed” cities. The walk back to my hotel was along a major duel carriageway, something I would avoid in the UK but it was really pleasant due to the wide nature of the pavement which was tree lined on both sides. The park was full of life and was a hub of activity with all different generations represented. Again the amount of trees was beyond my expectations; somehow I expected a more Soviet style grey uniform.

 

Another useful insight came one evening over dinner. I was talking with two of my Ukrainian colleagues about the need for courage in the business world. I often use the tale of “The Emperors New Clothes” to illustrate this point. My colleagues had not heard of the tale of the Emperor but when I explained it some more they knew it as “The King’s Clothes” and their story involved a rather stupid western King, I realised that our story involves a rather stupid Eastern Emperor, and this realisation that it was the same but different was a good insight into our joint understanding.

www.bellthompson.co.uk

Learning Technologies – Using Photographs to Enhance Learning

One of the requests I hate to get from events is “can you type up the flipcharts?” This request means that I have to carry lots of paper with me and then balance it on my desk as I try to type it into some kind of coherent order.  With the aid of Google’s excellent free on line photo album, Picasa (www.picasa.google.co.uk) I no longer need to do this.

 As I facilitate a group I take photographs as we go along of any “outputs” This could include activities involving sticky notes, it could be group activities where each group has written their own flipchart and it could be flipcharts I have written in response to suggestions from the group.

 When I get back to my office I upload the photographs into Picasa on my computer and I can crop the photographs to eliminate bits of door, window which are unlikely to enhance the learning. I then upload the photographs to the web albums and create a private album for that group. I can put captions and messages with the pictures so that they give more explanation if needed. I can put the photographs in an order which helps make sense of the learning.

 I can then send a link to the album in a follow up email to the participants. If individuals want to use the outputs in a report they can either insert the photographs or they can use the photographs to make their own transcript of the event. Only the recipients of the link can view the photographs and I do stressed this when checking at the beginning if they are ok if I take photographs.

 One of the additional benefits to keeping on line albums for each group is for my own professional development. I was reviewing some of my albums last week and I could see themes emerging in the way I was working with groups, over the last 2 years my outputs have become more visually orientated.

 I presented a conference last year and it was sponsored by 3M. This introduced me to the world of the Large Post It note, some of the ones I was given were A6 size. http://solutions.3m.co.uk/wps/portal/3M/en_GB/Post-Its/Post-It/Products/LargePostIt/

They are in amazing vibrant colours and really do stick to the walls. I think having these in my tool kit has opened up some different approaches to team facilitation than the old style “brain dump” onto Post It Notes.

 I have also been using image cards from St.Lukes Resources http://www.innovativeresources.org/ which are beautiful and enable groups to explore visual metaphors. It is fascinating to see this change in my portfolio so I recognise that the Picasa albums are part of my Continuing Professional Development log as well as being a great way of helping groups to keep a visual record and from enabling me to politely say “no I don’t type up flipcharts but I do provide a visual record”.

  www.bellthompson.co.uk to see some of my albums

Learning Technologist: All about Webinars

Today I have been learning about Webinars with the team at Reach Further (http://reachfurther.com). The demonstration was set up on DimDim (http://www.dimdim.com/ )which provides a free webinar facility. The limitations are that only 1 person (the speaker) can be seen by video and only 4 people can speak, so the microphone has to be passed around different people and this felt a bit awkward. The session was really useful because the only content was about the technology which meant we could explore different aspects of the software to see how it could be applied.

 I can easily see how I could use the technology to support learning; it would be particularly useful for a briefing before a programme so that I could easily give participants some information about the programme, answer their questions and agree expectations in advance. It would save on travel for these types of very short events. It would also be good for collaborative project work. An example was also given about how it was used to deliver a pitch when snow prevented the team attending the actual venue.

 The benefit over the traditional telephone conference is the whiteboard element which means you can explore a document together or add comments. You can also upload presentations and handouts to the site so that everyone can see them together and can comment either via the voice chat or the typed chat board.

 One of the challenges of the webinar over face to face will always be the perception of the format as something inferior. People are comfortable with the idea that you travel to a venue and attend a meeting with a group of people in a room. The value of this type of meeting is often in the informal news exchange and discussions which take place before or after the meeting. In comparison the webinar type meeting can feel much more restricted with a pure business focus. The unfamiliarity of the webinar and the emergent nature of the technology means that it can feel awkward and some of the topic learning will be lost as participants get used to the technology interface and are therefore distracted by the different elements of the technology. It made me realise that before offering this type of facility for content delivery I need to offer a short overview of the technology so that participants could have a go and play with the technology before the distraction of the actual content.

 There are free webinars advertised all over the internet, so one of my learning activities will be to sign up to various free events to see how others are using the technology. It would be great to hear about examples of good practice. It would be also good to get experiences of people who have participated in webinars. At the weekend I mentioned it to some friends and it got a massive “groan” reaction. They worked for public sector organisations in the UK where the webinar was being used in a way that sounded like a “Boreinar”. I guess that comes back to a common problem with standard presentations, just changing to a web based method doesn’t make the average presentation anymore exciting or interactive.

 With the credit crunch and the growing green agenda there is a pressing need to reduce the amount of business travel and Webinars might help towards this if they are used in a strategic and well thought out manner. If we simply try and reproduce the current “training” sessions and business meetings into a webinar format then it is not going to be something that people will willingly engage with and this is the learning technologist’s challenge.

I would really welcome any of your thoughts and experiences about using webinars in your industry.

Christine Bellthompson

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