Monday, November 30, 2009

Business Briefs

It is an antonym, actually. Briefs are detailed descriptions expressed in short notations for immediate exchange and action.

Going beyond the brief is expected, but not an accountable job description. When you apply yourself to the context, doing what it takes, you get the meaning of the brief.

  Absence of a brief is when problems arise. Mis-communication, missed timelines, missed effort targets, missing quality points, can all be traced to the absence of a briefing session and brief document. A fundamental rule is to have a business brief, creative brief, technical architecture brief, lexicon brief, style guides, and like when you start an assignment.

Have you given a briefing session and documented the minutes anytime ? This is the basic "quality gate" that you need to pass for an effective project management.

How many documents you create and how many briefs you give during your projects? How successful has it been ? Looking forward to your answers in the comments section.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Principal Room

Even today, I enter the principal room with unreduced fear, respect and awe. That time tensed about the occasional digression. This time for my daughter admission.

Which statement is more apt :
A student always a student for every teacher? OR
A teacher always a teacher for every one ?

What does it teach about the space design and meaning of power imbibed in such a simple word ?

e-Learning Media: Self made Constraints : Part 4: Visual Designer is never Information Designer

Is it the same with Visual Designers round the world. At least in my part, I see the creativity with strokes, sketches is not matched by their vocabulary set.

Anyways, that is not the point here. The point is a visual designer in e-Learning is a passe.

  1. For CBT's they were essential.
  2. In early days of WBT, they were required.
  3. In Web2.0 medium they are optional.

One field and skill that has transformed beyond the early vintage designs and job description is that of visual designer. Today, a VD is more of a painter where artistry is required. The artistry in VD is to visualize the details, design the information, present the semantics rather than support text in alternate medium.

Information Visualization and design are 2 most important skills that shape the beauty of today's e-Learning courses. How many of them have adopted this professional line and how many of them are getting there ?

The answers in my circle are far and few. Unless this transformation is complete, e-Learning courses will continue to be boxed between colored header and footer without relevance to content at hand.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

e-Learning Media: Self made constraints : Part 3: Content, the bottleneck

This is the issue #1 to solve. This is hard work. This is time consuming. This task needs more than simple motivational tactics. This task requires dedication.

The final output quality is square times the base content quality.

As per my experience and analysis of projects, the typical duration is as follows:
  1. 45% - Content Creation and Gathering
  2. 25% - Instruction Design and Course Material Writing
  3. 20% - Visual Design and Production
  4. 10% - Testing and Project Management
  • The irony is that #2,3,4 are costlier than #1 by a handsome 25%.
  • #1, originates within the employee base and getting them in company wide domain is the most tedious task. Is it really tedious as sought out to be ? The answers vary.

1. If bosses, say collaboration and knowledge sharing is important but the systems do not see a presentation or any value-centric documents shared from them, it is lip service. Every one in the team will give the same.

2. If external consultants come in and ask queries about business, it more often leads to tutorship of the consultant in the domain which for most part is resented or handed down as a mechanical routine.

3. I have seen recommendations that state that 2 hours of time is all it takes to gather and create content. This is good for vendor as the project can be completed. But is it worthwhile for the company ? To an extent, yes. But as long as the content has not been widely circulated and commented, getting a 2 hour content session into e-Learning is fraught with swirls and loops of iterations which gets costlier as the phases progress and the content grows in age over time.

What good then does such content and e-Learning systems provide. At best, a transient knowledge, converted to a learning structure and subjecting wide user base to read , comment, follow and collaborate.

Isnt there a way? There is, but the hard work still does not go away. Knowledge framework systems, like ours, allow organic capture of content over a period of time. As a consultant, we unobtrusively ping with senior management help in putting the pieces, one at a time in the basket with individual stakeholders. This, of course being organic takes more time to develop the complete program.

With a critical mass, we take the risk of moving towards e-Learning. The final program is reviewed for aesthetics and user experience than for content accuracy or content structure or content scope. The desire created to provide more such information that each of the reviewers have in wider topics in e-Learning model is a better way to overcome the constraints of a content-strapped e-Learning initiative. This gets the repeat and further orders for an annuity business in helping the performance-oriented organization.

Any better methods of content collection, creation and assimilation before launching e-Learning courses ? Rather the most important question is, do all customers allow to spend this time ?

e-Learning Media: Self made constraints : Part 2: Glory of ID sung less

ID role is a very misunderstood one. Not only by customers, but by other teams within e-Learning as well. I can bet that a PM, VD or a tester in a same project will definitely have a different version on the role of ID on their project.

So why and where has this confusion coming from? Hasn't it been addressed so long and why ? Isn't it then a major problem but a localized one ?

The consumption of services from ID requires a constant marketing pitch.

  1. ID role requires language proficiency as a primary skill, any person with good language skills feels ID is a logical next step. This is possible but often the argument is confused with good communication skills which is different.
  2. Further, a trainer, who has their material and conducts training, feels parting with their material to a non-subject matter specialist and depending on good output is not an appealing feature.
  3. Cost of ID services are always priced higher in comparison to other skills by the industry.
  4. Often the roles of subject experts, trainers and ID's blur. Hence IDs do a bit of all and may be others too feel can chirp in.
But ID is an important and a good acquired skill. The exact nature of work needs quantification. The work done needs a portfolio and showcase. The allied fields have similar profiles in different names. One such skill is "Information Architect". The good practices of these similar skills needs to be embraced. At times, I feel the ID role secludes them from an inclusive approach, which leads the perception differently.

Few overlooked impressions of an ID that always strike me as a Manager of e-Learning team are:
1. A good ID differentiates good content from available noise (mire of content)
2. An ID binds context to content and decouples the information from subject materials.
3. An ID, as opposed to Trainer or Subject expert, takes side with users and sees content through user lens.
4. An ID is a good teacher (am not sure how much this skill is useful, though).
5. A good ID, makes for interesting reading course materials.
6. An ID tailors a course to the audience. A trainer and teacher take these tailored courses to the audience with proper hand holding of the materials. A subject expert, shares all they know, while ID assists the subject expert to delineate the appropriate material suited to the audience.
7. An ID is equally creative as a visual designer and combines the expertise towards better user experience.
8. While ID writes explicit instructions most times, they provide subtle cues to assist in remembering facts, figures, points.

Any more points you could think of ? Please leave your impressions in the comments section.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

e-Learning Media: Self made constraints : Part 1: Estimation Models

I was discussing a project with a long time colleague of mine from the same industry. We quickly started to rue the fact that e-Learning has been stereotyped to be a screen based activity.

Screens would contain either
  1. Animation
  2. Interactivity
  3. Video
  4. Simple text and Graphic.
These over a period of time, has got slotted into level 1,2,3,... for quick estimation and budgets. This, I always maintain is the wrong estimation technique. It is
  1. Anti-pedagogy: It is the confluence of a chosen combination of these AS PER subject matter that defines the learning. Pre-configuring levels and fitting content into these levels is a dump of content in the determined areas.
  2. Anti Pattern for User Experience: When you define levels, you say, in effect, that the course I am giving you is going to contain simple text and graphic with page turner, or screens which have a said interactivity and so on. This is not user experience. Where did we care for users and ask them what would they like to see and how they want to experience e-Learning ?
  3. Opposed to the development teams real efforts: Levels define the output based estimates. But a delivery team takes in so much constraints, loose ends, additional but allied tasks, that they are not truly reflected in the estimates and hence the value of the entire project.

Still in my own team, I tend to join the chorus on discussing numbers with this model. So deeply entrenched is this culture, that the alternates are nowhere near main stream adoption.

Some alternates I have seen are:
1. Points based estimation: Have a unit for estimation and for various tasks, assign weighted points. These then sum up together multiplied by least effort value gives the total effort for which quote is given. This mimics functional point estimation in IT projects. However the unit figure typically is an abstract estimate, which needs more science for an effective measurement. It is best bet for approximation of efforts, does it give a framework for tracking efforts ?

Task based estimation: This technique is to list down the tasks in chronological order and rate the efforts against them. This is a safe bet and good estimation technique that allows for tracking as well. But the effectiveness of this depends on the granularity of defined tasks. Most of the time, we do so many out of the box tasks relevant to move the project that it seeps through the cracks of this estimation resulting in more variance.

3. Resource Loading based estimation: This at times really works. Though very crude and does not have scientific value, this gut estimation of resource loading over the project duration is normally close in measuring actuals. Yet, this measures efforts and cost of creating e-Learning. Does it measure the output and value of the package for e-Learning ?

Course-hour seat time based estimation: Suffers from same pitfalls as level based estimation, this is again anti thesis for pedagogy and andragogy. How can some one calculate the time I will remain in my seat for learning or studying ? May be reading. Yes. But is it e-Learning? What we talk here is only a notional time and I usually argue that it should be referred to with some good notation format and never as a value.

For example: SeatTime (Click Throughs):10 hours, SeatTime(Audio Length): 10 hours, SeatTime(Voice Reader): 10 hours.

These atleast suggest the various ways we arrive at the course hour and NEVER BY JUDGING LEARNING TIME.

Any other models, you use to effectively measure and track time of tasks, user feedback, value that is aligned with e-Learning and betters the above list. Please leave your comments.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Feedback from Field

This is something that I crave for these days.

I have been trying to impress upon my internal customers (Sales, Other practice heads, project managers) and my team of designers, developers, quality control members that they are my key critics who can give me the much valuable impression from their respective field.

However, often, I receive a muted affirmation or a non-compliance (I figure later through micro management) to the communication channels of either power point presentations, documents, excel based templates for number crunching or even short/long emails.

Johari window (nice explanation in this link) indicates that we need to be express ourselves (Free Area) and ensure that the eco-system perceives the same about us (address the blind areas).

The information process as per the quadrants is to allow for:
Expression > Feedback > Disclosures >SelfDiscovery/Mutual Enlightenment

Thus, Feedback from the field is the first key point that allows for closed loop communication. Going beyond this basic need is collaboration that allows for disclosures to open up hidden areas and through careful analysis move craftily to the open area from the unknown areas.

Wanna aim for perfection ? Insist on feedback and ask for critics eye review on the communication. Back channels or trackbacks are the easy routes that enable customers, vendors, project teams, client teams to work effectively as a true ecosystem enabling successes in business.

I rarely do get the feedback from field. Whenever it has come through, it has always been a revelation and innovations and marketing initiatives have been fast tracked making our maturity quicker. When a partner from the eco system takes interest in my work, then the work gets exciting and interesting.

Feedback from Field is a most respected job. Get that in place for all communications to be successful.

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