Here Comes Lean Learning Part 2

This post originally appeared on the Learning Hacks blog

The Lean Learning Philosophy

So that we have some more to discuss let’s propose some guiding principles for adopting a lean learning approach.  The tools for executing a lean approach to learning will continue to change at a rapid pace but, if valid, the underlying principles should not.  These principles, in some cases, challenge long held beliefs of the industry but are core to successful implementation.

#1 Learning is no longer solely the domain of the training department

Learning professionals must accept that they are the accelerant and marketers for behavior change not the keepers of the brain.  Learners, like customers in every industry, have become “prosumers” both taking in and creating learning content.  Unless training is willing to accept the validity of learner created content, it will never be able to move with the speed necessary to keep up.  This is not to say that on meta issues like structure and technique the pros don’t have a leg up.  It is only to say that the contribution of the salesperson, on closing a sale, may deliver as much value (I think more) as the approach taught in the sales program.

#2 Training organizations are intermediaries

Unlike I.T., (my least favorite analogy for the learning industry) training departments don’t actually make anything.  They source, structure, market and manage the product.  In my post (New Analogies Apply Within) I called training professionals “marketers” selling “Gatorade for corporate athletes”.

Lean learning calls for a laser-focus on what is needed.  With the Internet, someone who wants to learn about anything is only a click away from a video, blog, or Yahoo group.  Lean learning is about creating a compelling product (from any and all sources) and “selling” it to the learners that need it.

#3 You don’t know what you don’t know…and that’s O.K.

The purpose of the lean approach is to acknowledge that the right solution is likely not found in the training department’s offices or even in the learner assessment study report.  The solution is what works in the field.  Full stop.  Companies are moving so fast that, even if you could design an assessment and select the right sample, you would still be missing the mark on timing.  And, since training often delivers to the lowest common denominator, you incur relevance, credibility and time costs for learners who may be above that line.

Lean approaches this by allowing the learners to co-create the solution through their feedback and actions.  Not sure which part of the sales process is creating disappointing results?  The answer is found in the fact that the most used tool rolled out in your MVL is on the topic of qualifying buyers.  Not sure where customer satisfaction is falling apart?  Look at the long discussion of setting expectations on the discussion board.  In any number of ways learner feedback will help to shape the most impactful learning.  Combined with hard metrics, (see#4) a lean approach helps an organization to prioritize and grade performance support efforts.

#4 Business metrics are essential, learner metrics are observable

By treating the learner like a marketplace, you can readily observe their levels of satisfaction with the product (did they use it? did they forward it? did they contribute to it?).  As we discussed above, their actions will provide important feedback to the development of the learning product.

But, the essential measures of lean learning are the business metrics that the learning product is targeted at.  Whether it is strategy implementation or increased performance in some business activity, these metrics are the dashboard in much the same way that customer conversions are for start-up businesses.  The phrase “bought in” is frequently used when strategies or new approaches are rolled out for good reason. It is fine to attend a class, visit a wiki or watch a video but it is not until the learner puts that new knowledge to work have they actually “bought it”.

#5 Perfect is the enemy of “good enough”

Instructional designers, like the software developers of yesterday, are often guilty of what I term “the long build and the grand reveal”.  After defining the specifications of the solution, they go away for a while (sometimes a long while).  Only to return when the learning solution is perfect and ready for pilot.  Returning to the value of a lean approach, this is an extended “time to value”.  This is also a lost opportunity to learn from early adopters and to get more iterations of the product completed.  Lean learning requires the learning professionals and the organization to be comfortable with this iterative “good enough” approach.

Final Thought

Lean learning is a concept that seems right on, for right now.  The pace of business is not slowing down anytime soon and learning professionals’ ability to build solutions off of “knowns” is not likely to increase.  It is time to stop trying to force an approach that was built for another time to work in this new environment.  Instead, it is time for innovation and new approaches, lean or otherwise.  If we can’t learn something new, then how can we expect to help anyone else do it.


Here Comes Lean Learning

This post originally appeared on the Learning Hacks blog

Lean Learning Anyone?

I have worked in the training industry several times since I left it a decade ago for the worlds of venture capital and private equity.  But, not since 2001, have I had the opportunity to spend significant time taking a deep look at it.  And coming back to it with fresh eyes and the experience of 10 years of business building has caused me to question the pace of change in the industry.

Many of the same industry players exist, as do many of the thought leaders and industry organizations. As a result, the means and techniques used to produce learning have also remained relatively constant.  While the tools, delivery channels, and underlying theories have improved, the instructional design methodology has not moved far from its linear approach.

needs analysis => design => develop =>pilot => implement

This standard production approach, with its emphasis on needs analysis and careful progression through each step no longer fits with the pace of business.

Training Gets Lean

Steve Blank is the leading proponent of the Lean Start-up methodology.  As a former entrepreneur, and now professor of entrepreneurship at Stanford, Blank saw the traditional software development process for start-ups as misdirected.  Development’s linear process, build it and then go find a customer, led to excessive spend with an unknown result.

The development of learning events follows much the same process as software with program piloting substituting for beta testing.  The resulting problems occur in training is much the same way the do in software development.  Companies are spending a great deal on training programs that are misdirected and ineffective.  And, by the time they realize it they often feel like they have committed to many resources to change course.

I am not suggesting that the lean training approach described below is right for all training, just as lean is not right for all start-ups.  But I do believe that in many situations a lean approach is better suited to today’s business challenges.

Into the Unknown

Blank recognized that the traditional linear process was designed based on “knowns”.  These “knowns”, known problem and known solution specifications, are requirements for the traditional approach.  If either of these is not known, or more likely wrongly known, the product won’t be of value to customers. Blank’s lean approach offers companies a better way when one or both of these items is unknown.

Traditional instructional design methodology has similar requirements.  Know your learner, and know the capability gaps or, just as with software, the customer will not find value in the solution.  This places a huge requirement on upfront needs assessment, translation of business objectives to learning objectives and learner definition.  Getting to the known takes time and it is time that most businesses no longer have.  So rather than enforce a requirement on the business to satisfy a methodology why not find a methodology that meets a business environment of speed and unknowns.

What Is Lean?

Blank’s lean methodology is just such a methodology and its adaptation to learning presents an interesting case for a new method of driving performance fast.  The biggest change in Blank’s lean approach is the blending of the needs assessment/specification stage with the development stage.  Rather than assuming “knowns”, Blank’s approach embraces unknowns.  By using a hypothesis of the customer and the solution, a company releases what Blank calls a “minimum viable product” (MVP). This is the smallest possible example of the value of the full solution. The company then uses this kernel of its solution to attract early adopters who in turn, through their behaviors and feedback, teach the company what additional features and functions are most valuable for the company to build.

Iterate through this cycle as fast as you can and the result is a solution with market validation that is ready to scale and a group of evangelists for the product to help it find more customers fast.  Companies often have to “pivot”, according to Blank, based on customer learnings and often find their ultimate solution in a place they had not originally thought of.

Lean Learning: What’s the Value?

In my search for a clear value proposition for lean learning’s approach, I found what I often find; someone smarter had already solved this problem in another area.  In the recently released book “Strategic Speed: Mobilize people, accelerate execution”, Authors Davis, Frechette and Boswell describe successful strategy roll-outs as having faster time to value and more value over time.  Perfect!

For the lean learning approach the same is true.  Through the use of the MVP or in this case “minimal valued learning” (MVL) the organization can almost immediately begin to reap the benefits of improved performance.  The value of this improved performance can rapidly grow through end-user feedback and proper metrics.  By including end-user content and validation this learning resource also remains ”evergreen” reducing the maintenance costs and extending the shelf-life of the learning.  This drives increased value over time.

What do you think?

I wrote this post to take advantage of another technology phenomenon, crowd sourcing.  This idea is not fully baked, nor is it perfect.  It is the seed of idea that I feel strong enough about to share.  Over the next few weeks I will be working to further develop this idea through feedback that I have already received from the unlucky few folks that I have already made to suffer through my ramblings on this subject.  What you find appealing and well-thought out in the above is likely the result of these kind souls’ feedback.  What you find wanting is all mine.  

Learning Hacks

This post originally appeared on the Learning Hacks blog

The term hack has had quite a life since it came on the scene around 1150.  Associated with everything from cleaver to clever, it has evolved and remained relevant.  Widely associated with computer programming languages the term hack has come to be understood as a “shortcut”, a “fix”, a new way to do something using pre-existing means. For example a college cooking “hack” is using your upside down iron to make grilled cheese ala dorm ( has an entire section dedicated to it here).

We chose the term hack deliberately.  It reflects the imperfect, non-traditional, playful spirit we approach training and development.  To be clear, we don’t think that today’s practioners are bad or that the current approaches are wrong.  We simply think that today’s business environment has changed dramatically from the one that existed only 10 years ago.  Combine this with the emergence of a slew of new technologies.  Now add new generations of learners with fresh expectations and we can’t think of a better time to take a look at how training and development is done.


The Call For Lean Learning

This post originally appeared on the Learning Hacks blog

Last week Ben Horowitz, who with Marc Andreessen has launched a few billion dollar companies and now plays VC, posted about why training is one of the most important things comapnies can do [full post here] I think he is right. Unfortunately, I think that most people’s willingness to skip training is driven by the misguided attempts they experienced in the corporate world. With start-ups realizing that building their product based on customer learning is the right thing to do, what about building their people with learning?

This idea has fascinated me since it was sparked by a series of discussions with some really smart people a few weeks ago. As a colleague of mine points out, lean is not right for everything. This is true even in the start-up space where Horowitz makes a great case for “Fat Start-Ups” (OK, I may have a bit of a man crush on guy who can grow companies and cites rap lyrics to support his points). However lean may be right for a lot of things and especially in a start-up where speed is valued much more highly.

Adopting the Blank & Ries touted customer development cycle to employee development would be interesting for those tasked with driving performance. Minimum viable product (MVP) becomes MVL (minimum valuable learning?). A course is actually co-developed by the people that will use it thereby building evangelists that will spread the word (no more dictating attendance). The focus is on speed and learning-based iterations not a big build and the hope that the market (learner) likes it.

Learning must be the focus of all organizations. In a video posted by Venture Hacks, Marc Andreessen states that there are two things to fund. Products that become companies and companies that can build products. Many of today’s start-ups fall into the first category. As they grow they must turn themselves into the latter. Markets shift, customers are fickle but high performing people are forever.


New Analogies Apply Within

This post originally appeared on the Learning Hacks blog

Training has long used I.T. departments as their role model. Once the misunderstood backroom of corporations, CIO’s now sit at the leadership table offering strategic insight and business value. Training aspired to make the same leap from oft-questioned expense to essential strategic investment. There is a big difference though. Training doesn’t make anything!

Just Learn It!

The mind-set of training needs to change from manufacturer to marketer. Training departments offer courses on leadership yet rarely sit at the head table of the corporate party. They train on sales, yet one look at attendance data will show you that the most attended trainings are frequently mandated, not sold to their audience. Training pros are marketers and packagers of a performance-inducing product. Like Gatorade for corporate athletes. Training should even steal the Investopedia explanation of marketing, “The ultimate goal of marketing is to match a company’s products and services to the people who need and want them, thereby ensure profitability.”

I unlocked the “SalesPro” badge!

Today’s digital and social media world has exposed the desire of many to be “prosumers”. Learning needs to let go of its “keeper of the knowledge” belief and welcome this change. Yes, learning is made more efficient by the use of proven methodologies and structures not known by every employee. The trade off is the authenticity and “real-world” endorsement of skill building activities, not to mention the increased engagement of employees in their development. By focusing on supporting and enhancing the work of the producers and easing the barriers to the consumers, training can accelerate and scale a company’s learning. This doesn’t just mean installing Yammer or Chatter to provide a platform. Where learning pros will add value is by acting as marketers to build their brand’s (high performance) connection to its customers. Training can achieve this by catalyzing the conversations (think aggregator sites) and constantly looking outside for ideas and analogies on how to incent learners (think FourSquare badges) or encourage sharing (think Like buttons and followers). There will always be a role for more traditional learning events but today’s business speed requires a new approach. One where user generated content and real-time adjustments are the norm.

Crowdsourced Learning?

The biggest switch for Training in this new analogy is in process. I.T. has for a long time embraced a linear and carefully structured design methodology. This process starts with a detailed needs analysis, design frameworks, pilot process and roll out. Training’s instructional design methodology follows a similar pattern. Marketing, on the other hand, with all the emerging channels and tools available to it, has been forced to adopt an experimental mid-set for customer-development. One where things are tried, learned from and improved. One where speed-to-market is increasingly seen as equally important as perfect-to-market. Today’s customers (read learners), it turns out, see “authentic” as more engaging than perfect.

But that’s next. Think lean start-up. Think lean learning.


The Spark That Started It All

This post originally appeared on the Learning Hacks blog

Over a dozen years ago I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time. I was a consultant with the Forum Corporation, a corporate learning and development firm. How I, with no formal corporate learning and development degree, came to be there is another story entirely but it was this very lack of industry indoctrination that made what came next so interesting. Forum released a book, “Running Training Like a Business”, that became all the talk in the corporate training circles. In the book, the RTLAB authors suggested…wait for it…that training focus on driving the core business of the company. This was revolutionary in an industry that ranked itself on classroom hours delivered and employee satisfaction. WTF? Since I had not drunk the Kool-Aid this seemed to me to be the most obvious of instructions on how a training department could increase its relevance.

RTLAB 2010

Fast forward to today. The book remains highly relevant to many in the industry and is in fact used in some university teaching. Is it because the book was so forward thinking or visionary? Is it because the results of applying its tenets have been so impressive? No. It is because the industry is still where it was when I left it a decade ago. Sure some companies have evolved their training function. The word “learning” has replaced “training” for most and the toys at the practitioners’ hands have changed. But real revolution? Not even close.

Change is hard. Anyone that has tried to get a large company to do anything new will tell you that. But change is no longer optional. And business-centric thinking is a requirement not something that makes you an industry leader. Over the next week or so I will be working to better define what I think running training like a business means in today’s business environment. As an industry, corporate training and development must re-examine everything from the way that it is organized, the way it produces its product and the measures it uses to determine its success.

Homo Learnicus?

I was lucky to be a small part in Forum’s efforts to make a change (I am mentioned in the acknowledgements which thrilled my Mom). But with a decade of business building under my belt it is time to take a fresh look. Economists talk about homo economicus, the perfectly rational actor in the market. Learning professionals have a similar prototypical learner, with identified general skill gaps and certain learning predispositions, whose performance they seek to improve. Neither exists. Today’s business environment requires ideas not ideals and the admission that the professionals are not the keepers of all the answers, the market (or the learner) is.

I do not wish to disparage the current learning professionals, many of whom I know and call friends. The best of them are smart, capable and making a difference in their organization, often with limited resources. This is also not about applying new technology in support of the current process. No this is about looking at the underlying principles and assumptions through the lens of today’s business environment. Self-preservation, both as an individual and as an industry is a strong force so I know I will likely upset some readers. If it in anyway advances the discussion then I am fine with it. And they should be too.