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Dinner Conversation Turns to War

A recent dinner party I attended included three individuals who have given a lot of thought to the topic of war:

  • Phil is a retired entrepreneur who’s currently doing extensive research on his grandfather, who served with the Canadian Forces in Belgium in World War One.
  • Leigh teaches a course on the ethics of war at a local college.
  • Derrick, Leigh’s husband, joined the Canadian Forces at the age of 40 because, as he says, he “needed a career.” Just last summer, Derrick returned from serving in Afghanistan.

Phil’s research project is fascinating. Using the letters written by his grandfather, Ross Campbell Playfair, to his wife, Mary (née Ferris) Playfair, as a starting point, Phil is piecing together his grandfather’s experiences overseas. Phil is documenting and sharing his research, titled the Ross Playfair Letters Project, on the Web.

At one point in the evening, Phil mentioned that his grandfather asked to be transferred from a comfortable—and safe—desk job, to the front lines. He asked Derrick—who himself chose a longer tour of duty in Afghanistan in a relatively safe role over a shorter tour of duty at the front lines—why a soldier would make such a choice.

Derrick mentioned three reasons:

  1. Honor and duty: A soldier may support the military cause or may wish to play a more active role in helping his or her colleagues at the front lines.
  2. Boredom: We think of war as Hollywood portrays it, all bombs and flying debris. War, however, often comprises weeks of boredom interspersed with minutes of terror. Boredom is likely reduced at the front lines.
  3. Training: A desire to put the skills obtained through training to use.

We rarely give thought to the fact that a significant number of people undergo workplace training programs to develop skills they may never use. Military personnel fall into this category. So do disaster response teams. Doctors need to be prepared to treat people with diseases or injuries they’ve never before encountered.

Providing training in these areas presents interesting challenges. The person must be completely prepared for events that may never occur. In most cases, the individual hopes to never need to use his or her skills. (No pilot hopes to one day attempt a potentially disastrous emergency landing.) In others situations, such as the one described by Derrick, and perhaps experienced by Ross Campbell Playfair, the desire to use their newly acquired skills could be strong enough to risk their lives.

Beyond Dissecting Frogs in Biology With a Partner

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending my colleague Janet Clarey‘s Webinar on Multi-Generational Learning in the Workplace. To illustrate the educational experiences of a person born on the cusp of the Generation X and Baby Boomer generations, Janet asked me to say a few words during her presentation about my formal education. Reflecting back on my grade school years, I realized that my time at school differed significantly from the education currently provided to my 10- and 15-year-old daughters.

Classrooms in the 1960s and 70s had desks lined up in rows facing the teacher and the blackboard. Group projects were practically non-existent. One of the only times you collaborated on a project might be to perform a dissection in biology class. (Clearly, the high cost of dead preserved frogs was the main impetus to having students team up in biology. Had dead frogs been cheaper, we would have performed our biology experiments as we did all of our other school work: alone.)

Contrast this to the modern K12 classroom. Desks in my youngest daughter’s classroom are arranged in groups of four, kitchen table style. Students work facing each other, not the teacher. Every day, students spend time on group projects. On the first day of each month, my daughter comes home from school and announces the members of her new group. If she’s lucky, she’ll have one of her best friends seated with her. If she’s unlucky, she’ll have the kid who likes to watch horror movies and provide detailed summaries.

Whereas students today spend their days working in groups, they don’t spend as much time after school with friends as my generation did. When my daughters’ school days end, they attend organized activities such as dance classes or figure skating practices, or they spend time relaxing at home. They might connect with friends after school through Facebook or text messaging, but, in my neighborhood, playing with friends after school is a rarity.

When I was their age, all time outside of school hours was spent outdoors with friends. If any of us were home after school, it was likely due to illness or, more likely, detention.

I’ve always assumed that most children today don’t roam free with their friends after school because of the influence of overprotective parents who have watched too many news reports of abductions. But, perhaps this isn’t the case. Maybe kids shun friends after school because they need downtime from an educational system based largely on group learning. Perhaps they’re just sick of people by the end of the day.

Alternately, kept separated in rows and working alone on our studies in the 1960s and 70s, perhaps my generation was hungry for human contact. The ringing of the end-of-day school bell at last signaled our freedom to satisfy social needs. Days filled with individual learning created nights playing kick-the-can and stargazing with friends.

The amount of group and individual learning we experienced may influence how we like to learn. Janet mentioned in her presentation that Anoush Margaryan, a lecturer at the Caledonian Academy, Glasgow Caledonian University in the UK (who was in attendance for yesterday’s Webinar), has found that students’ attitudes to learning appear to be influenced by the approach adopted by their lecturers.

Ms. Margaryan’s findings suggest that the next generation of workers may expect employee training to take place in groups. Individual learning may be seen as unusual and socially isolating. The use of learning technologies that enable connections with others may appear more natural to these workers than self-paced online courses they undertake alone.

Seven Things You Don’t Need to Know About Me

My colleague, Gary Woodill, has tagged me in a recent post, requesting that I provide you with seven things you don’t need to know about me.

1. I’m a figure skating dad.

My youngest daughter has been skating for, as she says, “more years than I’ve not been skating.” She’s 10 years old and began skating at the age of four. Two afternoons per week, we head to the rink. I sit in the stands watching her skate, and, like the ending Dr. Seuss’ the Grinch, I get choked up and my heart feels like it has grown “three sizes too big.” For the last six years, these afternoons have been high points of my life.

A few weeks ago, my daughter came in first in a skating competition. She had never before finished in the top three. She now has a gold medal on her bookcase. I sneak into her room when she’s at school to look at it.

2. I’m a cyclist.

I can think of few things I love more than to get onto a bike and ride country roads on a warm day. I believe bicycles are one of humanity’s greatest inventions. They are inexpensive, non-polluting, quiet, and contribute to health and fitness (as long as you don’t get crushed by a car.)

The biggest benefit for me, though, is that I always have more ideas and clearest thoughts while riding. I’m not sure if this is due to increased oxygen intake or entering a state of “flow.” Inevitably, the fastest route to my finding a solution to a problem is by riding for a couple of hours. Perhaps this is the type of thing John J. Ratey, M.D., is writing about in Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.

I own two bicycles, a road bike made with a Russian-made magnesium frame that could ignite in a blinding explosion if it were to get too close to an open flame, and a single-speed, fixed-gear “winter bike.” (Yes, I ride in the winter, even with snow on the ground.)

3. I’m a musician.

I’ve been playing guitar since the age of 10. I stopped playing for quite a few years after graduating in music from McGill. I rediscovered my love for the guitar a couple of years ago. As luck would have it, my next door neighbor, Theresa, is a fabulous singer. She and I regularly get together to play a very eclectic repertoire that includes traditional Irish ballads, Leonard Cohen, Coldplay, et al. One day, we’ll let you hear us (maybe).

4. I’m considering a possible hobby building steel string acoustic guitars.

A spin off from #3. More research required.

5. I’m a (very) amateur photographer.

I have a point-and-shoot camera. I point it at things and shoot photos. No fancy gear (for now.)

6. I love to cook.

With the exception of one dish I made years ago featuring squid that could still be in the process of being chewed today had we not given up, I get no complaints from my family. By the way, speaking of food, I think Dave Ferguson’s description of salt cod as a “bit of misguided humor masquerading as food” is one of the funniest things I’ve read.

7. I believe we’re in a golden age of non-fiction books.

It seems as if, every week, a book is published that has the potential to change how you see the world. Could it get much better? Here are some of the best I’ve read in recent months:

The Brain that Changes Itself (Dr. Norman Doidge)

The Black Swan (Nassim Nicholas Taleb)

Survival of the Sickest (Dr. Sharon Moalem)

Well there you are. Seven things about me (published quietly on a Saturday, possibly under the radar).

An Opportunity to Serve My Alma Mater, McGill University

mcgill_logoI’ve just been named to the Advisory Board of the McGill University Centre for Continuing Education (CCE). For the next two years, I’ll be doing what I can to help grow the centre.

I’m thrilled for a number of reasons.

First of all, I love McGill and am happy to be provided with a chance to give back to the university that gave me so much. I attended the University between 1983 and 1987. It’s at McGill that I did the following:

  • I touched my first computer keyboard and typed my first line of code.
  • I discovered the joys of singing in a choir and learning that a Bach Chorale can make anyone cry.
  • I entered buildings and felt completely overwhelmed by the greatness of the people who had taught and studied there.  (I recall getting dizzy and having to sit down after reading a plaque recognizing that Ernest Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics, was appointed as McGill’s chair of physics in 1898. While at McGill, he did the work that led to his 1908 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.)

McGill is a fabulous university. It was rated 20th in the world in the 2008 Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Prepare to hear me boast of this often.

I’m a big believer in lifelong learning. University continuing education departments play an important role in society by encouraging people to pursue an academic education in any stage of their lives.

I’ll get a glimpse into how the academic world has changed in the last 25 years:

  • What learning technologies has the university embraced?
  • What role is social media playing in academia?
  • How do students view their education?

I’ll keep you posted on what I learn.

This Blog Certified 100 Percent Economic Bad News Free

nobadnewsSaturday mornings are highlights of my week. I stay in bed with a pot of tea, the newspaper, and my youngest daughter cuddled up next to me watching cartoons. (Gosh, I love this.) This past Saturday, I set aside the front and business sections of the paper because I’ve been making an attempt to lower my consumption of bad economic news. This news is demoralizing and anxiety-producing, and, with the exception of spending my money at the small local stores I like and want to have around in two years, there’s little I can do about the recession. (Yes, I can get bicycle tubes cheaper elsewhere, but I want my local bike shop to survive, so I pay the extra two bucks per tube there.)

So, tossing the front and business sections of the paper aside to be used to capture potato peelings for a dinner this week, I turned to the Life, Style, Travel, and Science and Technology sections for escape. Unfortunately, there are few places you can go to avoid economic news. Producers of news and commentary are framing almost all of their discussions of any topic around the economic downturn.

  • The Globe and Mail’s wine columnist feels compelled to write that a certain Bordeaux is “a smart way to drink better, without drinking expensively, during the recession.”
  • Style columnists speak of the return of thrift and second-hand clothing stores.
  • Relationship columnists write about newly unemployed bankers discovering the joys of spending time with their families.
  • Travel writers speak of inexpensive places to visit in the downturn or the joys of traveling virtually. No sun block required.
  • Food writers are focusing on cheap meals made with Spam and other canned meats.

Newspapers aren’t the only ones to blame. Later Saturday morning, I listened to NPR’s “The Splendid Table,” which featured an interview with Jancis Robinson, a fabulous wine columnist. It took minutes before the host turned the discussion to “what wines should we drink during the recession?” Apparently, based on having come across the topics of wine and recessions twice in one day, it’s impossible to discuss wine without at least a passing mention to sub-prime mortgages and the global credit markets.

Is there anywhere a person can turn to avoid news of the economic downturn? I believe the incessant economic framing of discussions on any topic is making matters worse.

  • It’s feeding a sense of panic.
  • It’s hurting businesses by scaring people into not buying the items they may want and can afford.
  • It’s making it impossible for people who have been hurt by the downturn, or who are worried about losing their jobs, to find any place to escape.

Let’s remember that the ratings of news sources such as CNN GO UP in bad times. They and others benefit by feeding us non-stop coverage of the recession.

The recession is being discussed in the learning community as well. Most are trying to assess whether the economic downturn hurts employee training, as companies cut training budgets, or whether the slowdown will drive greater adoption of cost-saving learning technologies. (Full disclosure:  I, too, have framed some recent blog posts on Workplace Learning Today around the economy.)

I’ve hit a saturation point on economic bad news. So here’s my pledge to you. I will not be framing my discussions of learning around the recession. Starting with my next post, I certify this blog to be 100 percent economic bad news free.

My 2009 Goals and Resolutions

kokedama-moss-ballEach year on January 1, I enjoy a wonderful meal of “ragout,” a traditional French Canadian stew, with my family. Seated at the dinner table, we take turns sharing our goals and resolutions for the new year. Here’s what was presented last night:

  • My 80-year-old mother-in-law kept hers short and to the point: “to not die.”
  • My mother, tired at the age of 76 of shoveling her car in the winter, wants to find an apartment with indoor parking.
  • My teenage daughter does not believe in goals or resolutions, so she chose to sit this out. (Her lack of goals seems odd to me considering she’s a disciplined and very driven high achiever, an honors student who views any mark under 85 as failure.)
  • My youngest daughter wants to “land her axel” in figure skating.
  • My wife wants to become a great squash player.
  • My sister intends to get a better job.
  • My sister’s boyfriend wants a vacation down south with my sister.

The great composer, Igor Stravinsky, once said that it’s important to end a piece of music sooner instead of later. You’re not looking to satisfy the audience; you want them to leave the hall wanting more. Each year, I break this important rule when sharing my goals.

Listing my goals and resolutions adds a brain-numbing, filibuster-like feel to the evening. Let me be clear: I have goals and resolutions. Lots of them.  I keep them in lists. I then keep lists to keep track of my lists. Here are just a few of my 2009 goals and resolutions related to learning and work.

Make blogging a higher priority

For most of this year, I wrote a post once per week on this blog and a daily post on our group blog, Workplace Learning Today. In the last few months, my frequency posting to my personal analyst blog has dropped to once per month. Going forward, I intend to return to a weekly schedule.

Why? Blogging provides quiet time for reflection. In our more/faster/better world, it can be an oasis in a person’s weekly schedule. In addition, maintaining a blog is a great learning tool. Writing about a topic is, in my experience, a more effective way to learn than to simply read about a topic.

Continue finding ways to increase my productivity while reducing stress

I reread David Allen’s “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” this year. It’s a fabulous book. Putting his methodology into practice has never been completely successful for me. I’ve tried paper-based lists in notebooks, folder structures in MS Outlook, and lists in Google Docs. The problem has been a lack of one central repository for everything. In November of 2008, I discovered Nozbe, a fabulous online organizer that’s designed around David Allen’s methodology. For the last two months, I’ve used Nozbe daily for everything from listing my projects and next actions to using it to take notes in meetings, to using it to store important files. This is now the most valuable piece of software I use. I’d be lost without it. (BTW, that’s where I store my very long lists of goals and resolutions.)

Make deep dives into topics

The senior analysts here at Brandon Hall Research have annual goals. This year, I proposed a new addition to their goals. Under the section titled “Great team,” they are asked to identify a skill they’d like to develop. They will then be asked to deliver a one-hour presentation to the other analysts on what they’ve learned.

It’s ironic that, as CEO of a company that provides research about workplace learning, I have little time to spend learning at work. My days are filled with “doing,” and I rarely have a few hours to study something. From what I’ve read, this is a common complaint. Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes in the acknowledgments of his bestseller, “The Black Swan:”

“It is impossible to go very deep into an idea when you run a business, no matter the number of hours the occupation entails—simply put, unless you are insensitive, the worries and feelings of responsibility occupy precious cognitive space.”

I’m going to attempt to change this pattern in 2009. I’ll be blocking off time each week for work-related learning.

Out of fear that some of you are fidgeting and glancing at your wrist watches, I’ll end my list of goals and resolutions here for now. Please share yours.

Workplace Learning Today and Janet Clarey Nominated for Edublog Awards

bestgroupblogOn August 12, 2008, my colleagues Janet Clarey, Tom Werner, Gary Woodill, and I started Workplace Learning Today, a daily summary and analysis of news items and blog posts related to employee training and talent management.  We’re all thrilled to find our work nominated for an Edublog Award for Best Group Blog.

A special thank you goes to Gary Woodill. Workplace Learning Today was his idea, and his leadership with this initiative has made this blog a project we enjoy and hopefully one that brings value to others.

Adding to the excitement is that Janet Clarey has personally been nominated in the category of Best E-Learning Blog. Janet began blogging in May of 2007 and has since become a very strong and respected voice in the blogosphere. Anyone interested in blogging should study what Janet does. She’s an expert.

I’m the luckiest person to be working with such smart people. If you like our work, please vote.

Four Reasons Why Your CEO Should Blog

Last Thursday, I participated in a panel discussion about corporate blogging with my colleagues Janet Clarey, Tom Werner, and Gary Woodill. One of the questions I was asked was “should CEOs blog?” My short answer during this discussion was “yes.” Here’s my long answer.

For many, the title of CEO has become synonymous with privilege, moral depravity, and fat paychecks and bonuses rewarded regardless of whether the company is flourishing or going bankrupt. (To you few CEOs who have contributed to this reputation, I’m reminded of something Oscar Wilde once wrote: “Some cause happiness wherever they go, others whenever they go.”)

REASON #1 FOR WHY YOUR CEO SHOULD BLOG: Tell the world that CEOs can be ethical leaders. Help eliminate the prejudice that surrounds this position. Attach a human face to the title.

If an outsider were to observe the staff of an organization without being told who’s who, chances are they would not be able to identify the CEO. She could be the person on the phone handling a customer complaint or the man restocking the shelves of the office supply cabinet.

On the last evening of the Innovations in Learning conference last week, I had a great conversation with the CEO of a successful software company. I mentioned that a current challenge I’m facing as CEO is that my responsibilities have increased yet I’m still doing most of the tasks I’ve inherited over my eight years at Brandon Hall Research.

I asked this CEO if he’s managed to shed some of the tasks for which he’s been responsible over the years. He mentioned that, until fairly recently, he was the person who cleaned the company bathroom.

This immediately made me feel much better about setting up e-mail accounts, formatting reports, fixing software bugs, and sending team members reminders to complete their time sheets and status reports. (I also immediately went out and bought a pair of rubber gloves to keep in my desk drawer just in case bathrooms appeared on my list of responsibilities.)

REASON #2 FOR WHY YOUR CEO SHOULD BLOG: If the person who cleans the company toilet can blog, so should your CEO. (This may, in fact, be the same person.)

If a person has acquired the top rank of an organization by climbing its corporate ladder, chances are that individual knows a heck of a lot about the organization. Consequently, the CEO is in a great position to write blog posts that provide deep insights into the company. Having such a CEO remain silent is a lost opportunity.

REASON #3 FOR WHY YOUR CEO SHOULD BLOG: Your CEO may not know where the size two coffee filters are, but he or she knows the industry and company very well and should be in a position to provide a big picture analysis. (I take that back. Your CEO likely knows where the size two coffee filters are.)

Lastly, the question, “should CEOs blog” seems strange to me. No one would dare ever ask “should sales reps/customer service personnel/software designers/[INSERT FUNCTION] blog?”

REASON #4 FOR WHY YOUR CEO SHOULD BLOG: Everyone should be encouraged to blog. Multiple viewpoints provide a better perspective. Sharing opinions and insights improves collective knowledge.