Friday, April 01, 2005

A Methodology of Learning 

I believe that every new tool or technology usually goes through 3 main phases:

ITC is a spectacular example of that. Just think of when new programming/analysis paradigms (OO) or business applications (CRM, ERP, portals) arrived. Each followed pretty well the 3 phases. A more recent case is e-learning/learning. Inspired very much by OO, the learning object concept was coined as a possible solution for reutilization and productivity, with mitigated success. While working on the learning object concept, I remembered conceptual analysis classes I attended at Université Laval with Daniel Pascot, Robert W. Mantha and Dzenan Ridjanovic. Most conceptual views of system design usually focus on identifying critical information first (database structuration), and then build treatments and interface upon it. The justification is rather simple: data is the most stable part of an information system. Treatments and interface are more likely to change often as opposed to data. This 3-tier architecture (database, treatment, interface) is now a de facto standard in system development, although it is sometimes criticized. Nonetheless, this formalization of system development has led to impressive gains in terms of productivity, quality and persistence.

Let’s translate this stability imperative to the learning field. What’s the most stable element of the learning experience?

The learner is also to least understood element and the most difficult to conceptualize. There is no way the learning experience can get significantly better without a clear representation of what a learner wants and needs in terms of learning. Sorry folks but all the rest (learning objects, collaboration tools…) is gravy. Learning objects won’t make a huge difference, neither social networking. They are all related to creating a learning context, but that in itself is inextricably linked to the learner concept, the foundation of learning.

No gain in the understanding of the learner, no gain in the learning. I don’t think our R&D efforts go at the right place…

Thursday, March 24, 2005

About “Performance Technology – the missing piece” 

Harold comments this week’s LearnNB event held in Fredericton that I also attended, and for which I helped design the program.

There is indeed an important piece of the puzzle missing in most e-learning/serious games discussions: how do we make sure that we help support performance? It all starts with understanding performance as a systemic phenomenon rather than an individual one, and being able to measure it. In some cases, even the best training doesn’t help better performance. The reason is usually quite simple: the problem wasn’t there initially.

Even if it has been over-exploited during the last decade, I like the toolbox metaphor a lot. First, the more tools you have in your toolbox, the better you can work on a limited set of tasks. Adding new tools always requires investment but can help you work better on current tasks and/or start working on new sets of tasks. Serious games are a new (but still expensive) tool. The problem is that we have a very bad understanding of how and when to use our tools, and especially this new one.

Monday, February 21, 2005

About Wikiversity 

Part of my work is to report on new trends in education and training in general, and also more specifically for community colleges. I’ve been saying for a while now that the value of educational content is going down as more open material gets freely available. MIT Opencourseware was the first spectacular demonstration of this a few years ago. Now initiatives such as Wikiversity bring a lot of people to question the value of what is being sold in higher education.

I’ve been asked by a number of people (often jokingly) if Wikiversity is something serious, if I think it can succeed. My answer: “I don’t know if this particular project will succeed, but the concept certainly has potential. After all, Wikipedia has now become a comprehensive encyclopaedia, and it’s free.” It’s usually the moment when I see the laughs fade away. “What! An encyclopaedia has been written following this principle? In only a few months?”

A critical question for higher education institutions is then to determine what it is that they are selling. If it’s content, they are in big trouble. If, it’s something else (certification, experience, social learning environment, reputation), they might be better equipped for what’s coming. In any case however, current educational business models will need to be changed.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Competitive Environment in the ITC Job Market 

A shift is occurring in the ITC job market. Harold describes how graduates in technical fields, such as CS, have to have some social skills on top of technical skills. Last fall I wrote a report for my employer that stresses this reality. Here’s an excerpt:

Outsourcing or Offshoring

In a globalized competitive environment, an organization is competitive either because it can produce at a lower cost (price-based differentiation) or because it can produce goods and services of superior quality (quality- and innovation-based differentiation). North America's traditional competitive advantage was based on quality and innovation. The North American work force was better educated and consequently more capable of producing high-quality, innovative goods and services than the work forces of other countries. Because of that advantage, workers were able to command the higher remuneration corresponding to North American living standards.

Offshoring is not a new phenomenon. The basic consumer products manufacturing sector, for instance, is now concentrated mainly in Asia, obviously because of the availability of abundant cheap labour. Most of the jobs and activities outsourced involve manual tasks requiring little specialized knowledge.

The nature of offshoring is changing, however, mainly because of rising educational levels in two countries: India and China. These countries are now producing millions of college and university graduates annually, and their skill levels are comparable with those of North American graduates. Therefore, North America's competitive advantage in terms of quality and innovation is diminishing as these two giants produce new professionals with globally competitive skills. Increasingly, North American jobs in business-related fields and especially in ICTs are being outsourced to China and India. This does not appear to be a passing trend. In fact, given the demographic weight of China and India, combined with their vigorous economies, lower living standards, and high-quality education systems, it is a trend that may well grow stronger in the coming years. That view is shared by Warren Jestin, chief economist with Scotiabank.

The Open Source Movement

The open source philosophy can be simply stated as follows: a community of interest decides to work together to develop free software applications. The movement is gathering momentum with technologies such as Linux and OpenOffice, which are capturing a considerable market share. It might seem at first that an industry that gives its products away could not possibly thrive for very long, because its workers still need food and clothing. In fact, however, the open source movement is simply a new business model. Profit-seeking companies such as Red Hat and Sun Microsystems are definitely in business to make money, and yet they are among the leading companies in the open source movement, paying thousands of employees to develop free software applications. The trick is that while the software is free, the technical support and training are not. The application per se has therefore become a loss leader that creates a market for the ICT service industry.

The open source movement is exerting strong downward pressure on the prices of other software applications. Market value is therefore shifting from production activities to service activities.


The two trends described above do not appear to be temporary phenomena, but rather new systemic realities. Like the manufacturing sector in the past, ICT manufacturing as such (programming, hardware, etc.) is increasingly being outsourced outside North America. However, the service that adds value to the product sold is still provided here, because the biggest ICT market is still here (i.e., in the United States). Since we know that value added is now generated more by services than by products, it would be wise to redirect our training initiatives toward development of service expertise, be it in ICTs or in business. Here is a list of keywords suggested by the above-mentioned trends.

  • Service
  • Client
  • Training
  • Support
  • Consulting
  • Management

These keywords indicate where North America's strongest potential lies for the coming years. The offshore competition is still at a disadvantage when it comes to the service sector. Also, since product value is decreasing as service value rises, the service sector is the one in which salaries will probably be highest, which means it will be more in keeping with our North American lifestyle.

Monday, January 24, 2005

The Art of Listening, Or How to Really Manage 

Listening has become a forgotten art over time. People have developed the habit of rushing through newspapers, TV programs and conversations. Listening is not about accessing content, it’s about reflecting about it, make meaning out of it and connecting better with people by understanding them better.

I think it’s James Farmer who wrote that most people, instead of listening during a conversation, are usually busy getting their reply ready. That is so true. Modern conversations have become simultaneous monologs. True listeners are rare, and I’m not one of them though I’m working on it.

For me management is more about listening than talking. However, most managers are usually much better talkers than listeners. Listening is critical in management in that it’s the first step in putting information and thoughts together. That is fundamental in organizational meaning-making.

My impression on James’ Bad Management or Too-Much Management would be that we just lack quality listening.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Ethics of Advergaming 

The use of videogames as advertising media is a new trend that is gaining a lot of momentum. GameDev.net has just posted an interesting article on the topic:

To reach kids and teens to promote Disneyland's 50th anniversary this year, Walt
Disney Co. will use one of the hottest — and most controversial — gimmicks in
the media business: "advergaming." Advergaming is when companies put ad messages in Web-based or video games. Sometimes the entire game amounts to a virtual commercial for a TV show or product. Sometimes advertisers sponsor games; sometimes they buy ad space integrated into them.

But ad critics such as Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital democracy decry
them as "digital infomercials" that blur the lines between content and commercials and often collect data on consumers playing the games. "These are not just harmless games. It's part of the brainwashing of America," Chester says.

Forrest Research predicts advergaming will grow into a $1 billion business
this year. As marketers try to target kids and elusive Gen Y consumers, Madison
Avenue is waking up to the fact that Webwise younger consumers like video games — and disdain pop-ups, banner ads and other less-subtle forms of online
advertising. And rather than get a kid's attention for just 30 seconds with a TV
commercial, advergames can capture them for minutes or hours.

Ethical issues will obviously come out of advergaming. One of them is that it’s getting increasingly difficult to determine whether we are being exposed to ads or to “content”. With TV ads for example, we usually can differentiate main programs and ads. Advertisers are however increasingly inserting marketing messages into the programs themselves, like with a cereal box left very visibly on a table.

Watching TV is a passive activity as opposed to the immersion of gaming. The active interaction with advergaming then has a tremendous marketing power, as well as much mass manipulation potential…

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Meaning-making in Leadership 

Harold Jarche treats of something that is really important to me in Thinking Longer. Because of the financial pressures of modern economy, organizations focus a lot on short-term ROI as business continuity is now seen more as a 3-month issue than a 5-year one. At 30 I’m professionally old enough to remember a time when businesses were doing 5-year and 3-year strategic plans that would remain relevant throughout their expected lifetime. Strategic planning is now seen more as a “work-in-progress”, meaning that by the time we get it right it’s already outdated and needs to be reshaped.

A discussion I had yesterday highlighted the fact that many modern senior managers are actually managing financial performance and public image rather than being leaders. That leads to the inevitable question: what is leadership. Here’s an interesting discussion on the topic. It states that despite the fact that research on leadership tends to focus on financial performance, a large portion of it is actually related to “meaning-making”. Many modern senior managers who are very poor meaning makers are still considered great leaders ($$$). It’s OK to make money, but it’s much better to do it with a smile.

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