Learning and Development

Help the helpers…

“Daddy? What is it you do again?”

My daughter looked up from her drawing and fixed me with her questioning stare.

You can’t explain what I do to a four year old. Even one who had watched me all morning: resetting passwords, setting up new users, installing software, checking performance reports,etc.

Saying “I’m a system administrator” isn’t going to work. Not today. Despite what she had seen while she was drawing and writing and being polite to every single one of my workmates.

Especially when she had convinced me to take her into work that day.

I thought for a second. I got nothing here. The answer when it came was as natural as breathing.

“I help people do their job,” I replied. So satisfied she went back to her drawing : pen and pencil circling and meeting each other on the paper. Maybe she will stay the day, I thought. But by lunchtime,  she’d had enough. So I took her home.

That conversation stayed with me for years through my career. From system administration through PC support through  service manager finally to trainer.

But I was wrong.

The clue to the answer began with two successive groups of trainers. They needed to know how our web site worked so they could train others.  And naturally I helped them: trainer guides, instructions even eLearning videos.

But something was missing. In both cases, I felt I had not really helped them. Yet I had as said to my daughter helped them to do their job. 

So what was missing?

I did notice in many of my subsequent roles, I was what I called the support trainer. The one who deals with the tempers of mismanagement, creates a separate training project schedule, creates or finds a better training scheduling system,  organises and tracks all the myriad documentation, etc, etc. All of which I dismissed at the time as doing the administrivia no one else wants to do.  Or being a responsible eldest child. Or helping people do their job better.

The answer when it came was during an orientation session for my present role.

Another person was asked, “Why did you join?”

Her reply was mine. “I wanted to help the helpers.”

But, but , I spluttered to myself, that’s my answer. Which I had only found out a few weeks earlier, in reflecting upon why I had accepted the role.

Help the helpers. That’s what I do. Besides what else is there?

Learning and Development

Technical Writer? Or Instructional Designer?

“You tidy words up, don’t you?”


Perhaps you’re curious. Perhaps you’d like to know what a technical writer really does?

Don’t they wall themselves off, hibernate from humanity and only emerge through a single person crevice?

Do they then re-emerge brandishing a finished, poetically written, exquisitely prosed work instructions? Or a golden policy or procedure?

Or is there more unwritten pages to the role?

“Are you a spy?”

Close but no unbuttoned trenchcoat. We do find out hidden secrets. We find out those closeted snippets of knowledge that enable an organisation to operate. That knowledge that lies between the known documents and the unknown expertise.

“So you ask questions then. Are you an interrogator?”

Only if your answers are monosyllabic. Only if your answers already are documented and you’re confirming known knowledge. Besides if you think I’m an interrogator, I’d be sitting back and telling you all my past secrets hoping you’d tell me yours.

“A historian?”

“Yes you are good. Close but not yet there.”

Technical writers are much like historians. We take the past and are able to interpolate it in the present. Much like the enquiring mind that can work out who really killed Arthur of Brittany!

“An archivist?”

” Only afterwards. Only after it’s determined what’s to be kept and what needs to be stored for history’s sake.”

“A spy, an interrogator, a historian and archivist rolled into one?”

All clues to the final answer.

A technical writer is an interpreter. He or she first takes the often unspeakable hieroglyphics that comprise business documents. Then he or she asks the missing questions.

With the answers found he or she structures, simplifies, summarises and sequences that documentation in the hope that it will be clear. As birdsong. A tune that only the right audience knows, lyrics that they can understand so they dance as they apply that knowledge to their working lives.

Unless I’m an instructional designer as well!

Learning and Development

Talent Or Persistence?

It’s still the cool of a yet to be hot summer day. I watch as two boys in whites walk onto the shiny green cricket field.

I can’t tell them apart. Same height. Pads, gloves, even shoes are the same. Only their hats and branded bats distinguish one from the other.

They’re still alike until they start to play. Two opening batsmen with completely different styles. One with beautiful talent and grace and speed. The other with timing, patience and persistence.

As usual,  I’m the scorer and sometimes umpire for my son’s junior cricket team.  He’s yet to bat. And obviously, he won’t be batting with one of the two out there.

And today, I know which batsman will be leaving the field first. And the summer of the two dissimilar batsmen was brought to mind when I started reading John Stepper’s You are Talented Enough.

In that article, he recollects how as a manager would choose people on talent only.  Those with talent were segregated, feted and developed to their potential. As for the rest, they would locked and boxed, then set aside.

Taking and applying that principle to our two opening batsmen, the talented one would receive all the coaching.  After all, the talented one is scoring all the runs, isn’t he? And the persistent one, he’s racking up dot balls (no scoring shots), making less runs and isn’t worth the effort.

Until you asked the scorer (me) what was really happening. For each and every game was the same. The opener with ability scored runs quickly. But not for long. He always got out and returned first. As for his partner, he would still be out there, persisting in developing his talent. And slowly getting better despite the setbacks. Cricket has plenty of those.

And as John Stepper wrote large companies look for talent and nurture it . And I would imagine that such people didn’t always last the distance. Yet the ones with passion and persistence are the valuable ones, the ones that make my day, the ones I learn from and then the others I write or train.

Whether as player, scorer, cricket coach, subject matter expert interviewee, trainee, workmate, colleague, you get the idea.

Only one of those two players returned the next season. He kept persisting.




Learning and Development

A Book for a Business Card? Working Out Loud

Within moments of my arrival, at the Edutech Sydney – What’s In it for Training and Learning Meetup, I had received a free book (Working Out Loud).

The deal was that I had to give up my business card. The benefit was I didn’t have to as I knew the giver (Michelle Ockers) who had finished presenting to the conference.

Which was lucky for me. For,  after reading this book, I don’t have enough business cards to make the exchange worthwhile!

I began as writers do. I turned the book over and read the summary. The following phrases leapt out at me : “Investing in deeper relationships“,  “Lead with generosity…You make your work visible and then frame it as a contribution.” That was enough for me. John Stepper had described the ideal workplace!

But how does Working Out Loud achieve even progress to that ideal? What is it all about?

Working Out Loud as defined by John Stepper is “an approach to work and life. It helps you achieve your goals and feel better about work while you discover more possibilities.”

I read that and my curiousity was quickened. Then he continues….”Think of Dale Carnegie’s (How to Win Friends and Influence People) meeting the internet.  I’m laughing out loud (on the train). I have a clue what this is all about. For John Stepper has mentioned one of my favourite all time non-fiction books. Although How to Win Friends and Influence People deals specifically with getting along with people. Working Out Loud takes that further…

Stepper mentions the following steps…

  1. Purposeful Discovery.
  2. Building Relationships
  3. Leading With Generosity
  4. Making Your Work Visible
  5. A Growth Mindset.

And I want to know more.

I’m interested that Purposeful Discovery evokes adult education, specifically being a self-directed learner, and using critical reflection to discover and apply knowledge.  So far so good.

And that Building Relationships evokes Dale Carnegie. Another tick.

And that Leading With Generosity mentions Give and Take by Adam Grant. This was the book that diagnosed and helped resolve one of my major work and personal issues. I’m too generous and I burn out. But from that book I learnt how to manage  my workplace giving. But not to give up on serving others which is the best form of leadership (see Robert Greenleaf and his work on Servant Leadership). Excellent!

Working Out Loud !

And then Making Your Work Visible.  Here is the real reason that I’m holding this book. For this is the challenge for me. Up until now I thought Working Out Loud was blogging about your day. It’s not. Yet I want to share but not overbear when I do. And that’s the challenge. But there’s yet hope…






A Growth Mindset. Stepper talks about learning by effort. And me being me, I think of cricket. Especially how the determined players improved themselves and often bettered the more talented ones.

Better get started. It will be an interesting journey.


Learning and Development Problem Solving

Ongoing Learning for Professionals: The Reflective Partitioner

One would expect that the professional you deal with is always learning. Right?

Doctors, nurses and medical specialists are learning about new drugs and their effects, disease treatment, surgical techniques and treatments, etc…


And lawyers too, are learning. They learn about new legislation, litigation and precedents, etc.

But what happens when things go badly? When a critical incident occurs? How do they learn from that? Do they reflect upon what they learnt? Or not?

Firstly, what is reflective learning anyway?

Defined succinctly, it is analysing one’s learning rather than merely absorbing it!  It usually happens when learning does not work as well as one would expect.  See Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning by Jack Mezirow for the full academic treatment.

And why is it useful?

Often it results from a critical incident where the normal learning failed to work or new learning occurred. The participant is encouraged to reflect upon what they learnt and use it in the future. Often this is seen in sport, for example, a batsman in cricket has a certain weakness which is then exploited. Once the batsman realises the weakness, changes in technique can be applied.

But professionally?

The subject arose during aTwitter discussion on reflective learning for lawyers.  The discussion centered around the necessity of reflective learning. That discussion led to the following article which talked about reflective learning in the context of legal studies.

Upon reading the article, it proved to be a brilliant example of the power of reflective learning. It showed how students can extend their knowledge by expanding the scope of their learning. Truly Transformational adult education.

But it sounded like a new-fangled idea!  Professionals applying reflective learning? Who would have thought?

Donald Schon did!

I can remember trawling through the library researching an assignment on adult learning. On one of the shelves was a leather bound book. I took it down and blew the dust of its pages.

It was Donald Schon’s The Reflective Practitioner. Underneath the dust was a treasure of wisdom.

Schon takes the view that professionals need to be less reliant upon theory but be continuously learning through improvisation and reflection to remain professional.

While he explicitly mentions architects, engineers, town planners, management and psychotherapists  his advice is easily expanded to accountants, medical staff, information technology specialists, consultants and lawyers. Perhaps even adult educators.

It’s still relevant today, perhaps more so, in our short attention span world.

Learning and Development

They Didn’t Mention the War : They Were Too Busy Collaborating

Last week, at work, the Aarnet (Australian Academic Research Network) is mentioned.  In my mind I slip away from the meeting and go back in time. To 1990, in fact, where I was witness to a remarkable episode of collaboration.

My then work colleague had done the unthinkable. He had talked management into connecting to the internet. But the only way to do so was through the Aarnet.

We had no idea what we were letting ourselves in for. The internet wasn’t the sexy World-Wide-Web as we know it now.  The internet seemed to be like a fairly disorganised library. It was made up of e-mail, news groups, search tools and file servers, all great tools that worked separately but never together.  That was to wait until the advent of the World Wide Web. "World Wide Web" by الهلالي - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

Some of us used email. My colleague used the search tools and file servers to find software. Everyone else used the news groups.

We could find out anything. We also could share anything too. But not just in our area of expertise, or interest or locality but internationally. This level of collaboration was best shown by an incident which could not happen now.

It wasn’t long after connecting to the internet that the first Gulf War began. We had the radio on to follow the latest updates. It was then we heard that Scud missiles were being fired at Israel. One work colleague spoke up and said he had a friend in Haifa.  We became nervous as events might have escalated very seriously.

But on the news groups it was a different story. Iraqi students had no idea what was going on. They were asking questions. American and Israeli students were answering them. It didn’t matter that a war was going on.

That’s what happens when you give people the ability to collaborate.


Learning and Development

Now What? I Found a Better Way Out

It’s Friday night. I’ve met my partner at her work. We walk across the road to the car park.
I’m handed the keys. I open the door for her. I get in the driver’s seat. I start the car.
To my left are two exit signs. I choose the one closest to me. I start to drive out the exit.
At the end of an exit is a parking attendant. He summons all his authority in his right hand and deposits it on me with a stop signal. I stop.
He says, “Don’t you know you’re using the wrong exit?” I think to argue, turn the car around and reenter the car park.
I choose the exit sign furthest from me. And leave the car park.
My partner just shakes her head at me and says, “We don’t do things like that around here.”
We laughed but it was serious.

What has this to do with learning and development you ask?

It illustrates a potential problem with learning and development in organisations.

What if you educate yourself and find a better way of getting out of the car park?

While learning and development in organisations still remains under the control of the organisation, course content and context can be tailored to satisfy organisational objectives. An example of this is the induction course which sets out the required expectations of employees. Another example is the information technology courses required to enable the introduction of new software. The philosophy behind these courses is pedagogical, imparting the knowledge, skills and attributes to enable learners to carry out certain functions or roles.

Even the introduction of more innovative training methods can create resistance. An example was that of an organisation who was introducing training using more facilitative methods. The intention of the training was to change attitudes of people who worked very closely with others who were dependent upon them. That training used role plays. Once the participants knew that, they resisted the training. However, as the organisation ultimately controls the training and it would be linked to their roles, the resistance would have been overcome.

But it is the advent of more online courses, that loosens the control the organisation has learning and development. By enabling learners themselves to control their own learning, that is, to be self-directed adult learners can create potential organisational problems.

The first is that they will enrol themselves in courses not related to their roles or outside their prescribed training plan. While an employee may learn a new skill, for example, customer service that he or she can apply in their job, there remains the potential for learning to be directly applied in the workplace. There is of course the potential that the employee may learn a new skill outside of his or her job and utilise that elsewhere, whether still within the organisation or perhaps outside it, in a new role perhaps.

The second is that the collaborative learning may enable self-directed adult learners to solve existing organisational problems. Again if the problem is minor, most organisations will embrace it depended upon its culture.  But if collaborative adult learning finds a better way out of the car park and meets the attendant, what then?