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What machine learning is today, and what it could be soon

February 18th, 2019

If AI is a broad umbrella that includes the likes of sci-fi movies, the development of robots, and all sorts of technology that fuels legacy companies and startups, then machine learning is one of the metal tongs (perhaps the strongest) that holds the AI umbrella up and open.

So, what is machine learning offering us today? And what could it offer us soon? Let’s explore the potential for ML technologies.

Intro to machine learning

Machine learning is the process of machines sorting through large amounts of data, looking for patterns that can’t be seen by the human eye. A theory for decades, the application of machine learning requires two major components: machines that can handle the amount of processing necessary, plus a lot (a lot!) of gathered, cleaned data.

Thanks to cloud computing, we finally have both. With cloud computing, we can speed through data processing. With cloud storage, we can collect huge amounts of data to actually sort through. Before all this, machines had to be explicitly programmed to accomplish a specific task. Now, however, computers can learn to find patterns, and perhaps act on them, without such programming. The more data, the more precise machine learning can be.

Current examples of machine learning

Unless you are a complete luddite, machine learning has already entered folds of your life. Choosing a Netflix title based on prompted recommendations? Browsing similar titles for your Kindle based on the book you just finished? These recommendations are actually tailor-made for you. (In the recent past, they relied on an elementary version of “if you liked x, you may like y”, culled from a list that was put together manually.)

Today, companies have developed proprietary algorithms that machine learnings train, or look for patterns, on, using your data combined with the data of millions of other customers. This is why your Netflix may be chock full of action flicks and superhero movies and your partner’s queue leans heavily on crime drama and period pieces.

But machine learning is doing more than just serving up entertainment. Credit companies and banks are getting more sophisticated with credit scores. Traditionally, credit companies relied on a long-established pattern of credit history, debt and loan amounts, and timely payments. This meant if you weren’t able to pay off a loan from over a decade ago, even if you’re all paid up now, your credit score likely still reflects that story. This made it very difficult to change your credit score over time – in fact, time often felt like the only way to improve your credit score.

Now, however, machine learning is changing how credit bureaus like Equifax determine your score. Instead of looking at your past payments, data from the very near past – like, the last few months – can actually better predict what you may do in the future. Data analysis from machine learning means that history doesn’t decide; data can predict your credit-worthiness based on current trends.

What the future holds for machine learning

Machine learning is just getting started. When we think of the future for machine learning, an example we also hear about are those elusive self-driving cars, also known as autonomous vehicles.

In this case, machine learning is able to understand how to respond to particular traffic situations based on reviewing millions of examples: videos of car crashes compared to accident-free traffic, how human-driven cars respond to traffic signs or signals, and watching how, where, and when pedestrians cross streets.

Machine learning is beginning to affect how we see images and videos – computers are using neural networks to cull thousands of images from the internet to fill in blanks in your own pictures.

Take, for instance, the photo you snapped on your holiday in London. You have a perfect shot of Big Ben, except for a pesky pedestrian sneaking by along a wall. You are able to remove the person from your image, but you may wonder how to fill the space on the wall that walker left behind. Adobe Photoshop and other image editors rely on an almost-standard API to cull other images of walls (that specific wall, perhaps, as well as other walls that look similar) and randomize it so that it looks natural and organic.


This type of machine learning is advancing rapidly and it could soon be as easy as an app on our phones. Imagine how this can affect the veracity of a video – is the person actually doing what the video shows?

Problems with machine learning

We are at a pivotal point where we can see a lot of potential for machine learning, but we can also see a lot of potential problems. Solutions are harder to grasp as the technology forges forward.

The future of machine learning is inevitable; the question is more when? Predictions indicate that nearly every kind of AI will include machine learning, no matter the size or use. Plus, as cloud computing grows and the world amasses infinite data, machines will be able to learn continuously, on limitless data, instead of on specific data sets. Once connected to the internet, there is a constant stream of emerging information and content.

This future comes with challenges. First, hardware vendors will necessarily have to make their computers and servers stronger and speedier to cope with these increased demands.

As for experts in AI, it seems there will be a steep and sudden shortage in the professional manpower who can cope with what AI will be able to day. Behind the private and pricey walls of Amazon, Google, Apple, Uber, and Facebook, most small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) actually aren’t stepping more than a toe or two into the world of machine learning. While this is due in part to a lack of money or resources, the lack of expert knowledge is actually the biggest reason that SMBs aren’t deeper into ML. But, as ML technologies normalize, they’ll cost less and become a lot more accessible. If your company doesn’t have experts who knows how you could be using ML to help your business, you’re missing out.

On a global level, machine learning provides some cause for concern. There’s the idea that we’ll all be replaced in our jobs by specific machines or robots – which may or may not come to fruition.

More immediately and troubling, however, is the idea that imaging can be faked. This trick is certainly impressive for an amateur photographer, but it begs an important question: how much longer can we truly believe everything that we see? Perhaps seeing is believing has a limited window as a standard truthbearer in our society.


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Reaching the Cloud: Is Everything Serverless?

February 18th, 2019

As it goes in technology, as soon as we all adapt a new term, there will assuredly be another one ready to take its place. As we embrace cloud technology, migrating functions and software for organization, AI potential, timeliness, and flexibility, we are now encountering yet another buzzword: serverless.

Serverless and the cloud may sound similar, both floating off in some distant place, existing beyond your company’s cool server room. But are the cloud and serverless the same? Not quite. This article explores how serverless technology relates to the cloud, as well as, and more importantly, whether you have to adapt a serverless culture.

What is serverless?

Serverless is shorthand for two terms: serverless architecture and serverless computing.

Once we get past the name, serverless is a way of building and deploying software and apps on cloud computers. For all your developers and engineers who are tired of coping with server and infrastructure issues because they’d rather be coding, serverless could well be the answer.

Serverless architecture is the foundation of serverless computing. Generally, three types of software services can function well on serverless architecture: function-as-a-service (FaaS), backend-as-a-service (BaaS), and databases.

Serverless code, then, relies on serverless architecture to develop stand-alone apps or microservices without provisioning servers, as is required in traditional (server-necessary) coding. Of course, serverless coding can also be used in tandem with traditional coding. An app or software that runs on serverless code is triggered by events and its overall execution is managed by the cloud provider. Pricing varies but is generally based on the number of executions (as opposed to a pre-purchased compute capacity that other cloud services you use may rely on).

As for the name itself: calling something “serverless” is a bit of a misnomer because serverless anything isn’t possible. Serverless software and apps still rely on a server, it’s just not one that you maintain in-house. Instead, your cloud provider, such as Google, AWS, Azure, or IBM, acts as your server and your server manager, allocating your machine resources.

The cloud vs. serverless

While the cloud and serverless are certainly related, there’s a better reason why we are hearing about serverless technologies ad nauseum. Because cloud leaders like AWS, Google, Azure, and IBM are investing heavily in serverless (and that’s a ton of money, to be sure).

Just as these companies spearheaded a global effort to convince companies their apps and data can perform and store better in the cloud, they are now encouraging serverless coding and serverless architecture so that you continue to use their cloud services.

Serverless benefits

Is everything serverless? Will everything be serverless soon? In short, no and no.

The longer answer is that serverless architecture and serverless computing are good for simple applications. In serverless coding, your cloud provider takes care of the server-side infrastructure, freeing up your developers to focus on your business goals.

Your developers may already be working on serverless code – or they want to be. That’s because it frees them from the headache of maintaining infrastructure. They can dispense with annoying things like provisioning a server, ensuring its functionality, creating test environments, and maintaining server uptime, which means they are focused primarily on actual developing.

As long as the functionality is appropriate, serverless can provide the following benefits:

  • Efficient use of resources
  • Rapid testing and deployment, as multiple environments are a breeze to set up
  • Reduced cost (server maintenance, team support, etc.)
  • Focus on coding – may result in increased productivity around business goals
  • Familiar programming languages and environment
  • Increased scalability

Traditional code isn’t going anywhere (yet)

While focusing on your core business is always a good goal, the reality is that serverless isn’t a silver bullet for your coding or your infrastructure.

Depending on your business, it’s likely that some products and apps require more complex functions. For these, serverless may be the wrong move. Traditional coding still offers many benefits, despite still requiring fixed resources that require provisioning, states, and human maintenance. Networking is easier because everything lives within your usual environment. And, let’s face it: unless you’re a brand-new startup, you probably already have the servers and tech staff to support traditional coding and architecture.

Computationally, serverless has strict limits. Most cloud providers price serverless options based on time: how many seconds or minutes does an execution take? Unfortunately, the more complex your execution, the more likely you’re go past the maximum time allowed, which hovers around 300 seconds (five minutes). With a traditional environment, however, there is no timeout limit. Your servers are dedicated to your executions, no matter how long they take or how many external databases they have to reference. This can make activities like testing and external call up harder or impossible to accomplish.

From a business perspective, you have to decide what you value more: only paying for what you use (caveat emptor), with decreased opex costs. Or, perhaps control is tantamount, as you are skeptical of the trust and security risk factors that come with using a third party. Plus, not all developers work the same. While some devs want to use cutting-edge technology that allows them to focus on front-end logic, others prefer the control and holistic access that traditional architecture and coding provides.

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When Technology Moves Faster Than Training, Bad Things Happen

February 18th, 2019

Technology is changing how we design training, and it should. Unfortunately, many instructional designers are not producing the learning programs and products that today’s technical talent needs. Not because they don’t want to, but because many companies don’t support their efforts to advance their work technologically or financially.

That’s a mistake. Technology has already changed learning design. Those who don’t acknowledge this appropriately are doing their organizations – and their technical talent – a disservice.

Bob Mosher, chief learning evangelist for Apply Synergies, a learning and performance solutions company, said we can now embed technology in training in ways we never could before. E-learning, for instance, has been around in some for or another, but it always sat in an LMS or outside of the technology or whatever subject matter it was created to support. That’s no longer the case.

“Now I don’t have to leave the CRM or ERP software, or cognitively leave my workflow,” Mosher explained. “I get pop ups, pushes, hints, lessons when I need them, while I’m staring at what I’m doing. These things guide me through steps; they take over my machine, they watch me perform and tell me when and where I go wrong. Technology has allowed us to make all of those things more adaptive.”

Of course, not all learning design affected by technology is adaptive, but before adaptive learning came on the scene, training was more pull than push, which can be problematic. If you don’t know what you don’t know, you may proceed blindly thinking that, “oh, I’m doing great,” when you’re really not. Mosher said adaptive learning technologies that monitor learner behavior and quiz and train based on an individual’s answers and tactics, can be extremely powerful.

But – there’s almost always a but – many instructional designers are struggling with this because they’re more familiar with event-based training design. Designing training for the workflow is very different animal.

The Classroom Is Now a Learning Lab

“It’s funny, for years we’ve been talking about personalized learning, but we’ve misunderstood it thinking we have to design the personalized experience for every learner,” Mosher said. “But how do I design something personalized for you? I can give you the building blocks, but in the end, no one can personalize better than the learners themselves. Designing training for the workflow is a very different animal.”

In other words, new and emerging technologies are brilliant because they enable learners to customize the learning experience and adapt it to the work they do every day. But it’s one thing to have these authoring technologies and environments; it’s something else for an instructional designer to make the necessary shift and use them well.

Further, learning leaders will have to use the classroom differently, leveraging the different tools at their disposal appropriately. “If I know I have this embedded technology in IT, that these pop ups are going to guide people through, say, filling out a CRM, why spend an hour of class teaching them those things? I can skip that,” Mosher said. “Then my class becomes more about trying those things out.”

That means learning strategies that promote peer learning, labs and experiential learning move to the forefront, with adaptive training technology as the perfect complement. Antiquated and frankly ineffective technical training methods filled with clicking, learning by repetition through menus, and procedural drilling should be retired post haste in favor of context-rich learning fare.

Then instructors can move beyond the sage-on-the-stage role, and act as knowledge resources and performance support partners, while developers and engineers write code and metaphorically get their hands dirty. “If I have tools that help me with the procedures when I’m not in class, in labs I can do scenarios, problem solving, use cases, have people bounce ideas and help me troubleshoot when I screw up,” Mosher said. “I’m not taking a lesson to memorize menus.”

Learning Leaders, Act Now

Learning leaders who want to adapt to technology changes in training design must first secure appropriate budget. Basically, you can’t use cool technology for training unless you actually buy said cool technology. Budgetary allocations and experimentation must be done, and instructional designers have to have the time and latitude to upgrade their skills as well because workflow learning is a new way of looking at design.

“Everyone wants agile instructional design, but they want to do it the old way,” Moshers said. “You’re not going to get apples from oranges. Leadership has to loosen the rope a little bit so instructional designers (IDs) can change from the old way of designing to the new way.

“IT’s been agile for how long now? Yet we still ask IDs to design in a waterfall, ADDIE methodology. That’s four versions behind. Leadership has to understand that to get to the next platform, there’s always a learning curve. There’s an investment that you don’t get a return on right away – that’s what an investment is.”

For learning leaders who want to get caught up quickly and efficiently, Mosher said it can be advantageous to use a vendor. They’re often on target with the latest instructional design approaches and have made the most up to date training technology investments. But leadership must communicate with instructional designers to avoid resistance.

“Good vendors aren’t trying to put anybody out of a job, or call your baby ugly,” he explained. “It’s more like, look. You’ve done great work and will continue to do great work, but you’re behind. You deserve to be caught up.”

The relationship should be a partnership where vendor and client work closely together. “Right,” Mosher said. “If you choose the right vendor.”

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Reflections from a Reluctant Servant Leader

February 2nd, 2018

If today’s leaders are going to succeed they have to develop a new skill – the ability to serve. They have to learn there’s no shame in following someone else’s lead.

The idea of servant leadership would strike a traditional leader as odd. A traditional leader is brought up to think of him or herself as a kind of warrior. Not a paint black stripes on the face, or carry a spear type, but someone other people are glad to stand behind when things get tough.

That leader-as-warrior mentality carries many leaders through their early careers. They may even build a track record of success with that kind of behavior. But then life happens.

You have setbacks, you work hard to overcome them, but you still fail. And the leaders ahead of you will, at some point, fail to live up to your expectations. On the other hand, sometimes they inspire you in unexpected ways. It’s that ability to inspire, to create something meaningful out of failure that makes a servant leader.

If we’re lucky, we learn that lesson while we’re young and malleable, our leadership style is not yet fully formed. New approaches still fit, and you can learn on the job.

It’s the best kind of leadership development, on the job, dealing with real problems, in real time, with real deadlines. There are consequences for your actions. And let’s face it. Some of us need to learn the hard way.

For instance, Iet’s say your team is struggling with an important project. Brash and impatient, you push and push, demanding longer hours and more commitment, as though they aren’t already working their hearts out. It’s a bad move, however, and it blows up in your face.

The day you’re supposed to present a polished, completed software prototype, you still have bugs, errors, a mess. Worse, you’re revealing that fact the day of the deadline, with no warning.

Why? Because you didn’t listen when your teammates tried to tell you, you were moving too fast, that they needed more time for testing, that the code wasn’t ready.

So, you have to go to your boss, who you admire, and tell him that you failed. Not your team, you. You failed to deliver.

You think you’ll be fired for sure. The code’s for a tough client with no patience for missed deliverables or excuses.

You go into your boss’ office head down, ashamed. You manage to look him in the eye as you recount your tale of woe, but it’s one of the hardest things you’ve ever done. And then you wait.

He says your name.

You look up, suck in a surreptitious breath and wait for the axe to fall.

“It’s okay.”


“It’s okay,” he repeats. “I knew you weren’t going to be able to make the deadline. I asked for an

extension a week ago.”

You stare. “We have an extension?”

He smiles and nods. “Now, show me what you’ve got, then we’re gonna get the team together, and we’re gonna tackle this thing a different way.”

You can’t believe it.

“You knew all the time that I was gonna fail?”

It occurs to you that you should be angry, but you’re too surprised, too curious, too relieved for that. You just want answers.

“I did,” he said.

“Why didn’t help me?”

“You didn’t ask for help.”

At that point you have to sit down. It’s so simple, and so poignant. You failed because you didn’t ask for help.

“You drove your team to exhaustion trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It never occurred to you to try something different,” he said simply. “To ask for a fresh perspective. You didn’t collaborate. You just barked out orders, and your team followed them.”

“To my doom,” you whisper.

He laughed softly. “Yup. To your doom. You ready to try again?”

You are. But first, you apologize to your team, admit that you led them in the wrong direction. Then you ask for their input, this time with your boss’ support every step of the way.

Ultimately, you finish the code, deliver the software, the client is pleased, and your team is happy.

And your boss? A few months later he promotes you.

“You’ve proven yourself,” he says when you ask him why. After all, your failure is no longer quite so fresh, but it wasn’t that long ago.

“This isn’t about your technical skills,” he explains. “You’ve proven yourself as a leader. The way you’ve managed your team. The way they interact with you. The speed you’re able to work and bring projects through to completion. It’s only possible because they trust you now. And more importantly, you trust them enough to ask for help when you need it.”

You thank him, and the experience becomes a frame on the reel of life’s great moments.

Leaders today are struggling between the traditional and the new normal. Change has become this weird, shaky bridge that too many leaders slip and fall off of. Only it’s not the mistakes that do them in. It’s the exit interviews with peers and coworkers, the sour reputations that follow them from company to company or into the media like a bad smell that provide that last thrust of the knife.

It’s why servant leadership works. When you’re a servant leader, the people around you are happy to share in the blame. They feel some responsibility for any failure to succeed or perform, and they’re only to happy too speak with optimism about their plans to recover, to create a new or better solution.

But when you’re a traditional leader who craves command and control, barking and yelling, pointing fingers and telling everyone around you what to do, you’re usually alone when things go wrong. Because to lead effectively, sometimes you must follow.

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Feedback: How Teams Learn, Fast

December 4th, 2017

Francis Briers, Senior Consultant with DPA Consulting, experts in leadership, strategy, and innovation, takes a dive into ways teams can learn fast for 2018. (more…)

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2 Surprising Skills You Need on Your Learning Team

November 20th, 2017

Employees expect the same learning experience everywhere, from the conference room to the living room. Businesses demand learning that is strategically aligned and tactically significant. Achieving all of this requires a rich, wide-ranging, and deep bench of talent. If you’re charged with staffing a learning team—or you’re a learning pro yourself—you should be giving serious thought to upskilling and reskilling. Here are two skills that should live in every learning team.

Marketing Skills

The American Marketing Association defines marketing as “…the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.” Imagine how compelling learning and development could be in the hands of a leader who has mastered these strategic skills. As we continue to make the case for learning as a business partner, leaders must be laser-focused on offering value. They should be keenly aware of every stakeholder who may be seeking that value and put their energies into defining how, when, where, and why that value should be communicated.

There’s also room on the team for tactical marketing skills. The best learning teams understand the fundamentals of persuasion. They are also plugged into what’s happening with their learners on the ground, and they design from that perspective. Design thinking has arrived in the learning space, and it’s a great springboard for advancing the marketing mindset. Design thinking is deeply connected to understanding the user’s experience of learning. That forces us to focus on the story that needs to be told and to skillfully tell it. Look for learning pros who are top-notch writers, have mastered the art of storytelling, and who understand how learners make sense of visual information.

Change Management Skills

Broadly speaking, change management is about helping people navigate change. At its essence, however, it’s really about creating awareness of change and cultivating a desire to undergo change. What is learning if not change? Viewed through a change lens, there’s more to consider when executing a learning program. Change practitioners have critical skills that learning practitioners should have in their toolkits.

Strategic change management skills should be a key part of any learning initiative. In a change management engagement, we take a close look at stakeholders to understand who has influence, who has power, and who has interest in what’s changing. We also explore areas in which we might encounter resistance. Wouldn’t that be helpful when presenting an organization with a new learning tool, curriculum, or program? Or when facilitating a learning strategy meeting?

Tactical change management skills are also a key asset to a learning team. A significant part of change management involves mastering relationships with executive sponsors of key initiatives. This includes identifying and evaluating the best sponsorship candidates, informing them about your project, and coaching them on the most effective ways to advocate for your cause. Teams who know how to finesse these relationships and coach senior leaders to better support learning are at a distinct advantage over teams without a direct line to the executive suite.

Another key change management skill for learning teams is strategic communications planning. Whether you’ve built or bought your learning solution, your ability to develop a compelling message about it and deliver it with savvy and discipline can determine whether you sink or swim. Unfortunately, the communications planning process is often an afterthought, conducted in a scattershot way after the “real” work of learning product development is completed. The success of your initiative depends on doing this right and having the right people to do it.

There’s a marketing aspect to communications, for sure, but there must also be a focus on the nuts and bolts ability to design and execute a disciplined communications campaign. Someone on your team should have a good grasp of messaging and an understanding of channels, branding, integrated campaigns, and communications planning, at a minimum. There’s a discipline to this, and reskilling or upskilling yourself or your team members in this direction will pay off. 

As we look to 2018 and beyond, learning and development pros won’t be immune to the forces roiling other professions. Making learning work requires skills found in far-flung corners of your organization. Make friends with this idea–and with some of those people who can expand your reach in your organization.  

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A Look at Learning in 2018

October 30th, 2017

Although learning leaders will continue to grapple with some evergreen challenges in 2018—balancing global and local control, for example—changes in technology and talent will require learning leaders to reinvent themselves and their functions. Here are three questions to ask–and some fresh thinking to consider—in charting a course for the coming year.

Learning Governance

How do we execute on enterprise learning so that we seamlessly align with our businesses AND realize efficiencies at a global level?

We’ve heard and heeded the call to revolutionize learning for some time now. We risk irrelevance unless we’re positively influencing performance in a way that benefits the bottom line. This often means that we’re putting more energy into cultivating learning programs driven by the business side of the house, a task made easier given the ubiquity of free learning content.

Taking this to heart without executing on a purposeful strategy, however, can lead a thousand flowers to bloom across an organization without much of a discernable vision or a cost-effective way of governing them. Holding the reins too loosely undermines our efforts to impact the bottom line and often creates confusion and frustration for learners who are looking for a frictionless learning experience like the learning they do in “real life.”

As organizations assess these challenges, some are bringing learning more directly into the global fold. Others are experimenting with the development of next-generation federated models to define and leverage the benefits of global and local ownership of key learning drivers. As 2018 plays out, we’ll continue to see new ways of navigating this balancing act.

The Evolution of Learning

How do we leverage the profound changes driving career learning in the talent marketplace?

In the last month, we’ve heard about free career training, tools, and scholarships from Grow with Google. We also learned that the newly launched Woz University is providing skills training to get people into tech positions quickly and affordably. Meanwhile, the momentum continues to build behind white-collar apprenticeships and their role in filling skills gaps. Work changes fast, but we can now inexpensively train, upskill, and reskill with agility.

These career learning solutions inspire a host of questions. How can we leverage apprenticeships to source new talent that’s tailor-made for us? How can we grow our candidate pool by engaging with candidates in these learning pools, much as we would recruit at college campuses? How can we improve retention by reskilling, upskilling, and facilitating in-house career changes using these resources? What are the impacts of training and tuition reimbursement policies? What’s the potential impact of this learning on our leadership pipeline? The career learning marketplace has significant implications for learning and development and cements its role as a key enabler of talent strategy. It’s critical to stay ahead of this game.

Staffing the Next Generation Learning Practice

Is it time to consider a new role for learning practitioners?

Curation is currently a hot topic. It helps employees manage the avalanche of content that rains down upon them. It’s also now considered a core competency in the learning practitioner’s toolset, alongside instructional design, coaching, instruction, and other skills.

Until very recently, that vision worked fairly well. Today, however, the digital learning content realm is enormous and constantly changing. In addition, the burgeoning career learning marketplace is beginning to demand more attention than an ad-hoc internet search.

Perhaps it’s time to consider hiring for the role of Learning Broker: a “guidance counselor” or “concierge” for employees who is intimately familiar with the external learning marketplace. The person in this new role would stay abreast of developments in digital learning content and learner experience platforms. He or she would also establish relationships with providers of local and regional career learning opportunities. Internally, he or she would provide a single point of contact to employees in crafting learning pathways and plans, defining cost-sharing arrangements, and providing referrals to external resources. As organizations look more frequently to outsourcing learning solutions, the market will demand more devoted attention than we’ve given it, and a dedicated resource may be in order.

Although we’ll be looking at these three areas in the year to come, the old saw still applies: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Skills, technology, and markets may change, but the key challenge for learning leaders remains: anticipate where the market is headed, and plan accordingly.

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Does Job Specification Improve or Hinder Performance?

October 25th, 2017

Specialization is a common differentiation strategy in the business world. Finding a niche market and dominating it with specialized products or services has been an effective competitive strategy for over a century. Marketing gurus since the 1980s have preached the virtues of specialization. Employees have been told a similar story: Develop a specialized skill set for employment security.

There are numerous illustrations of successful companies that specialize. There are lending institutions specializing in home loans and construction companies specializing in commercial property, for example. But there’s a downside.

A business striving to corner a niche market may sacrifice their capacity to be agile. These companies replicate their specialism internally. They segment and organize the enterprise around functions or clusters of activity. This division of work is not dissimilar from the Ford Motor Company assembly line 100 years ago. Forming people around specific functions—while undoubtedly efficient—creates challenges in flexibility, responsiveness, and adaptability.

A barrier to agility is job specification. The time-honored practice of erecting clearly defined boundaries around jobs makes superficial sense. Narrow and clearly defined job design is about control—controlling the process and output of the worker. By restraining the work of the job-holder, employees can be held accountable for a few clearly defined tasks by management.

So what’s the price to pay for this clarity and accountability?

An agile enterprise has three workforce characteristics:

  • A highly skilled workforce.
  • A high degree of flexibility within its workforce.
  • Employees are in a continual state of honing and improving their skill set.

Job specification impedes these fundamentals, particularly the last two. The inherently inflexible job specification can, for instance, put the brakes on internal mobility. Learning skills beyond the explicit limits of the job-holder’s position description isn’t encouraged, and even discouraged. This learning barrier raises the question: Can the enterprise achieve the three agile workforce characteristics and—simultaneously—reap the benefits of job specification?

Flexible Deployment

An alternative approach—flexible deployment—doesn’t abandon job specification altogether. Flexible deployment means accumulating a range of experiences and retrofitting skills and competencies outside the scope of one’s job specification. In other words, it’s deploying the job-holder’s current specialized skills in a variety of ways beyond their job description. Flexible deployment builds new capabilities upon the foundation of specialization.

A professional public speaker can now diversify into giving presentations online. Or, a mechanic can work with customers to sell more products, leveraging off their product knowledge. In both cases, the specialist in deploying their current skill set in different contexts. They subsequently broaden their capacity. This is in the mutual interests of the individual and organization.

Flexible deployment doesn’t, however, mean becoming a jack-of-all-trades. It isn’t about transitioning from specialist to generalist.

Through flexibly deploying their capabilities the employee appreciates and understands a bigger scope of operational activity outside their job limits. The systematic deployment of competencies across an enterprise leads to organizational agility. Being adaptable and maneuverable contributes to greater responsiveness, increased speed, and—ultimately—more agility.

Where did job specification originate?

Job design and scientific management

Scientific management was the genesis of job design. Specialization has its origins in Frederick Taylor’s scientific management philosophy. Taylor broke the assembly line up into a series of specialist tasks and treated each component separately in his analysis of how performance could be boosted.

The driver for specialization was reducing waste and increasing efficiency. By identifying the best way (What Taylor referred to as the ‘one best way’) of performing a task, wastage in time, resources, and effort is abated.

Taylor studied each job in the factory to determine the least amount of time and effort required to complete it. Standardized methods of job performance were central to Taylorism. Each job on the assembly line would be meticulously planned in advance, and employees were paid to perform particular tasks in the way specified by management.

So, the present day people management practice of job specification originated from Taylor’s job specialization. A job specification entails breaking down a job into its simplest component parts and assigning them to a job-holder to perform the tasks in a consistent and efficient manner.

There are several obvious advantages to designing work around a job specification. Breaking tasks into small elements—with clearly defined repetitive processes—lessens the skill requirement of the job itself. It also decreases discretionary effort in the execution of the tasks and therefore lessens costs. Training timeframes are short and standardized, recurring tasks are broken into simple parts, and the success of the learning experience is likely to be high. But job specification has drawbacks in the transformed workplace we now work in.

Breaking a job into small and simple component parts can make the work dull and repetitive. Boredom can lead to lower levels of engagement and higher levels of absenteeism. Job specialization is ineffectual in dynamic and unpredictable marketplaces. In these volatile environments, the workforce needs to adjust its approach to respond quickly to changing circumstances. Selling products or services in a new market with a different culture, for instance, requires agility. A ‘one size fits all’ approach won’t work.

Taylor’s philosophy of scientific management paved the way for automating and standardizing work, virtually universal in today’s workplace. The concept of the assembly line—where each worker performs simple tasks in a recurring fashion—is Taylorism in action. Job specialization eventually found its way into service industries, too. One of the biggest success stories of the application of scientific management principles is the McDonald’s franchise operation.

McDonald’s was the first fast-food restaurant to incorporate the divisions of specialization; one person takes the orders while someone else makes the burgers, another person applies the condiments, and yet another wraps them. With this level of efficiency, the customer generally receives a product or service with reliable quality.

If specialization can be applied successfully in McDonald’s restaurants and is now a feature of many fast-food franchise systems, how is it problematic for agile performance?

Specialization encumbers adaptive behavior. Job specification hampers agility. Engaging people in repetitive and dull work is challenging. The job specification puts invisible blinders on the job-holder. People can’t see the forest for the trees. Flexible deployment is the antidote to these problems.

About the Author:

Blended Learning: A Training Strategy that Fosters ROI

October 23rd, 2017

Organizations of all sizes are constantly looking for ways to reduce training costs and improve profitability. Developing the necessary skill set and competencies so that employees may reach peak performance is a necessary, yet costly investment.

According to the 2016 Training Industry Report from Training magazine, the annual training budgets of US large companies averaged $14.3 million. For mid-size firms, the average expenditure was $1.4 million while small firms (defined as having less than 100 employees) allocated an average of $376,251 to training programs.

If we break it down even further, the difference becomes apparent as large organizations spent an average of $379 per learner while mid-size firms spent an average of $870 per learner and small companies an average of $1,052 per learner.

Aside from the monetary expenditure, there is the time factor. This same study shows that employees in larger firms are receiving 43.8 hours of training per year. For small firms, that number rises to 49.6 hours. That’s time that could be better spent on revenue-producing activities, such as business development, billing or production.

The question becomes: how do companies reduce training expenditures and boost employee performance while at the same time realizing ROI goals? The answer: by the incorporation of Blended Learning Strategy into corporate training programs. The two most significant benefits of the Blended Learning Strategy are learner retention and economies of scale which we review below. But first….

What is a Blended Learning Strategy?

To put it simply, blended learning is a hybrid strategy utilizing both classroom and Web-based learning methodologies. The methodology was first used in classroom environments to provide differential learning delivery but has been gaining much ground within the business sector over the past several years since the principles are widely applicable to corporate training needs. It is set to become the training method of choice across all industries.

In a blended learning approach, some of the learning will be instructor-led in a classroom while other parts will be conducted online via WebEx, podcasts, etc. An effective approach is to present a video or podcast followed by classroom discussion to clarify certain points. In effect, classroom learning is best reserved for structured activities that will benefit from live interaction such as a question-and-answer period or that emphasize the application of a given principle.

blended learning diagram


Blended learning has four primary components:

  1. Content planning: This is the material that will be presented based on the goal of the training. What are the knowledge or skill-based expectations?
  2. Classroom instruction delivered by a trained facilitator: As in the diagram, this can include direct instruction, peer-to-peer coaching, project-based learning, and game-based learning.
  3. Technical integration for online learning: What is the platform on which the eLearning will be based? In making this decision, keep in mind that you may have a mobile workforce (e.g. a field-based sales team) that will need to access training while on the road.
  4. Global Connections: This refers to the fact that the eLearning will enable instruction to be presented company-wide and enable employees in different areas to develop communication channels and support networks.
The ROI of Blended Learning
Pay Attention to Retention!

It is a widely-held education precept that knowledge retention is enhanced when new elements are added to the learning experience. Blending online instruction with in-person interaction results in a more dynamic learning experience and helps employees retain the information much faster than if they were presented with solely a two-hour lecture or two-hour WebEx video. The classroom session with in-person discussion and activities serves to solidify information in the learner’s mind since employees will be taking an active and interactive role in the instructional process.

One other advantage of the blended learning method is that it ensures all learners are on equal footing in terms of knowledge gain when attending the instructor-led training session. In other words, the video provides the same instruction to all learners, whereas a trainer-led session may have resulted in some material inadvertently being omitted or certain parts highlighted over others due to trainer bias.

Economies of Scale

The second major benefit of blended learning approach is that instruction can be scaled via online methods so that the information can be presented to many employees rather than a select group. Instructor-led training can then be used for any questions or issues that arise. An important benefit is that any face-to-face training will be shorter than a full-length session as it will only be comprised of Q&A and discussion.

Also consider that the cost to produce learning materials can be prohibitive, whether presented online or in a classroom setting. An eLearning approach fosters ROI because overall production cost is lowered the greater the number of employees participating and frequency of events. This explains why large companies report comparatively lower per-person training costs than smaller firms.

Research has shown that implementing a blended strategy lowers training costs and allows you to devote resources to other areas of the budget. This results in a highly effective training program in terms of retained learning.

Let’s look at some examples:

  • Implementing eLearning methodology allowed Ernst and Young to reduce its training costs by 35% and reduce overall training time to 53%: they were able to condense 2.900 hours of instructor-led training into 700 hours of online learning, 200 hours of distance learning, and 500 hours of face-to-face instruction. (An Assessment of the Effectiveness of e-Learning in Corporate Training Programs by Judith B. Strother).
  • In the report above, Strother also notes that IBM experienced significant gains by cutting training costs by nearly $200 million, which represented one-third of its training budget.
  • A case study prepared by Clive Shepard cited that Dow Chemical reduced its training costs to $11 per employee when it implemented a blended approach. This is a tremendous reduction when the previous costs with traditional classroom-based instruction were $95 per employee.
  • A second case study by Shepard shows that Cisco reduced its overall training expenditures by approximately 40% to 60% when the company incorporated eLearning methodology, while also fostering improved job performance and job effectiveness.

A Blended Learning Strategy offers an organization of any size the ability to significantly reduce training costs by fostering process efficiencies which enhance employee knowledge, skill development, and overall job performance. The combined benefits of lower training costs and increased productivity can’t help but positively affect your company’s bottom line;  investing in a blended strategy is money well spent—or, in this case, not spent!

About the Author:

Creativity: A Skill To Cultivate In The 21st Century

September 28th, 2017

As a learning and development professional in a tech field, you are affected every day by the demands of rapid change. To keep pace, workers at every level must be willing to adapt and learn continually. Alvin Toffler, futurist and author of the 1970 seminal book Future Shock, went so far as to say that being unable to learn, unlearn and relearn would be the 21st century equivalent of being illiterate.

To really understand what that means, let’s try this simple exercise. Go ahead and fold your arms. Now fold them the opposite way. Most people notice a big difference in comfort, and you could say that the latter is what change feels like. In the 20th century, you could fold your arms one way for your entire career. Today, we are asked to fold, unfold and refold in a new way many times throughout our careers.  

Someone who can change back and forth between arm positions might be considered flexible and adaptable. While this is critically important, it still might not be enough to bring job security in today’s fast-changing industries. To gain a competitive advantage individuals must regularly “go beyond the playbook”, often improvising with limited resources and being capable of inventing new arm positions that better suit new tasks. This is change at another level – the level of creativity and innovation.

Creativity is the ability to see new opportunities, to produce original ideas, to flexibly adapt to changing situations, and to apply one’s imagination to solve complex problems. While not everyone may have such a concrete definition, the fact remains that in report after report, creativity is shown to be rising in value among workplace skills. Most notably, the World Economic Forum published a report in 2016 showing that creativity had moved from a tenth place ranking in 2015 to the third most important work-related skill for 2020. And what is the most important skill for the workplace in 2020? Complex problem solving, a skill we would argue is enhanced by effective creative thinking.

We would also like to emphasize that this trend is not just a concern for leaders and management. According to The Report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, “Creativity, innovation, and flexibility… will be demanded of virtually everyone who is making a decent living, from graphic artists to assembly line workers, from insurance brokers to home builders.”¹

Improving creativity and creative-thinking skill has immense practical benefits for both individuals and organizations, for both the short and long term. Below we share some of the compelling reasons to develop creative capacity. Then, in the weeks ahead, we will explore how you can develop creativity in yourself and in others, pulling from fifty years of research that clearly shows that creativity is a skill that can be taught.

Seven reasons to cultivate creativity  

  1. Creativity drives innovation. Creative processes and people can come together to solve difficult problems and develop innovative solutions that meet the changing demands of clients and consumers.
  2. Creativity drives prosperity. Consider this example: three hundred firms were compared using measures for innovation. The most innovative firms enjoyed 30% greater market share.
  3. Creativity solves “VUCA” problems. You don’t always have a procedure manual for problems, especially those that are volatile, unpredictable, complex and ambiguous (VUCA). Problems of many shapes and sizes are made more manageable through creative problem solving techniques.
  4. Creativity tips the scales toward success. The best cognitive predictor for creative achievement is not intelligence but the ability to engage in divergent thinking, a skill that can be learned!
  5. Creativity increases employee engagement. Imagine a place where individuals feel motivated to do their best and regularly find meaning in their work – an organization that supports creativity and innovation makes that possible.
  6. Creativity makes you “future-proof”. While it is impossible to precisely predict the jobs of the future, organizations and people who continuously adapt – remember “unlearn, relearn” – can survive and thrive.
  7. Creativity promotes well-being and happiness. People who have the opportunity to express their creativity, and have more skills for solving problems, are more resilient in the face of change and more fulfilled in their daily lives. And they are physically healthier.

We hope this list raised your curiosity. There is much more to explore, and we firmly believe it is worth the time, money and effort to prioritize the development of creativity in your organization. It is also valuable to personally explore ways in which you might develop this widely accepted workplace and life skill. In the weeks ahead, look for topics that will inspire and prepare you to be a 21st century creative thinker and leader.  

¹National Center on Education and the Economy (2008). Tough Choices or Tough Times: The Report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Additional Resources:

10 Reasons to Flex Your Creative Muscle”.

Creativity 101 Video Series from the International Center for Studies in Creativity

Creativity as a Life Skill Presentation at TedX Gramercy

The Creative Thinker’s Toolkit from the Great Courses

By Gerard Puccio, Ph.D., Chair and Professor, International Center for Studies in Creativity, Buffalo State and Pamela Szalay, M.S., Creativity Consultant at Imagine &.