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Monday, September 29, 2008

What happened to good old fashioned skepticism?

So, I'm another year older and, therefore, entitled to be grumpy. And today I'm grumpy with a capital GRR!

It seems that more and more people, particularly in the media, are prepared to accept things at face value without question.

1. "Fish Oil makes children smarter, study claims" is the headline in the Telegraph (I wouldn't mind if it was the Sun, the Sport or the Mail) despite the fact that if you read article you see the significance of the lurking comma. If you want to dig behind this story go to Ben Goldacre's excellent Bad science page.

2. I'm getting stupider as I get older. My elder niece got 10 A's in her GCSE's this year, of which, five had stars attached. I am very proud of her and would not suggest for a moment that she did not deserve these grades nor that the exams have got easier (I think I got one or two A's in my "O" levels. However, helping with her "A" level history at the weekend, I realised that she does not even have a cursory understanding of the difference between left and right wing politics. This despite the fact that she was being invited to address the reasons for the Labour government's loss of the 1951 election and the conservatives staying in power for over a decade.

Cut a long story short, why argue every year about standards falling, when demonstratively they have not. Ask about the standards themselves. If your yardstick is the percentage of pupils attaining 5 GCSE's graded A-C including English and Maths, then a growth in that is what you will get. Not a growth in the numbers of people who can think for themselves.

3. Blame the spivvy short sellers for the credit crunch. Even the Church denounced short sellers last week despite being happy to profit from it. I got into quite an entertaining discussion with my father at the weekend on this. I suggested that him blaming the hedge funds for the financial crisis is a bit like blaming the little boy in the story for pointing out that the emperor is wearing no clothes. It couldn't be our fault for spending money that we don't have and perpetuating a myth of ever rising property prices, could it!?

He countered that his problem was really the "obscene" amounts of money earned by bankers and that at heart he was really a socialist. I suggested, fresh from my conversation with my niece, that the problem was the dialectic between equality (or if you wish to be British, fairness) and freedom and that you couldn't have both. The crime of the right is disproportionate wealth the crime of the left is disproportionate waste. (come on Andy K you know you want to argue that one...)

Ask more questions, argue and more interesting things come up. Don't believe everything you read in the papers or on the web.

Monday, September 22, 2008

To learn lists - the thought is father to the deed

In response to Tony Karrer's "Big Question" this month:

"Jim Collins, in an essay in Learning Journeys, wrote, “A true learning person also has a “to-learn” list, and the items on that list carry at least as much weight in how one organizes his or her time as the to-do list.”...

...Are to-learn lists really important to have? Are they as important as Jim Collins tells us?"

I don't think a "To learn" list is important in and of itself, other than as an indication that its author places sufficient importance on self-development to actually have one. It would be very easy to formulate a list but it is worthless without action. Most organisations could argue that a reasonable personal development plan (PDP) is a "To learn list". Yet every year when appraisals come round how much of the list from the previous year has actually been addressed?

Equally PDPs are generally created in consultation with a line manager or a mentor. A "To learn" list, however, sounds like a more solitary pursuit and risks failure for the same reasons that personal "to do lists" slip soundlessly into oblivion.

Unless it is published and, by this, I mean beyond the employee and his/her manager being able to see it on an LMS. If a "To learn list" is published in a blog it advertises the behaviour that its author seeks to have and by its nature invites support and advice. It takes unstructured, accidental learning and gives it a degree of intent or at the least opens the door for measurement. How many people lie about whether they have kept their new year's resolutions or even made them when they already lie broken and crumpled in the waste bin.

Much earlier in my blogging life (about eight weeks ago) I committed to change certain aspects of my working behaviour (What to stop). I would call this a "To learn" list and would reflect that I am making some progress particularly on points 1,2 & 6. Potentially this is because I drew attention to it. It may be the case that publishing a "To learn list" in a blog might help individuals get over the initial motivational hump of actually doing something. (see also "Who will drive us "and "A journey of a thousand miles")

At the beginning of the year I wrote my new year's resolutions against which I have had much poorer progress quite possibly because I didn't advertise them. The ones I am prepared to share here are:

1. Get my Day Skipper's ticket so I can take the family sailing in the Med
2. Pass my part 2 motorcycle test
3. Improve my Serbian (my wife is Serb and it is my weakest language)
4. Put together a more structured plan for retirement (PPP's and property are probably not enough)
5. Take all my holiday
6. Complete the outline of my book
7. Work on my work/wife balance

Let's see if I make any better progress now I have shared them. Anyone else prepared to share?

A journey of a thousand miles..

... starts with a single step (or something like that). A couple of ideas collided in my head this morning on my ride into work (yes I have bought myself a new scooter as the insurance money came through and I just couldn't stand public transport into London any longer). Both are related to the question, "How do you get someone to take a step that they perceive as too large?". How do you make change seem less painful in advance?

I met Stefan Gatt on Thursday last week. Stefan apart from being the first man to climb Everest and then snowboard down it is an infuriatingly nice guy. In general, I find I want my high achievers served with some serious personality defect. This makes it much easier for me to forgive myself for not being as good/successful as them. I say to myself, "I wouldn't want to: be a multi-millionaire/swim the English channel/be an award winning novelist/represent my country at sport if it made me that rude/humourless/self-obsessed/insert personality defect of your liking.

Stefan is none of these indeed he is a charming man (I wont embarrass the member of my staff who told me just HOW charming) who appears to spend nearly all of his time doing things that he loves (I think that the answer might be lurking in this sentence somewhere). He leads expeditions, runs leadership and team building programmes and builds challenge courses (the rope ladders, wire bridges, death slides between trees that are now becoming increasing popular throughout Europe).

We have developed a programme with Stefan called the Alpine Leadership Challenge which takes managers and aspiring leaders into the Austrian Alps for five days and, through a variety of exercises, reframes their understanding of themselves and their attitudes to leadership and teamwork. In short it helps them understand that they are capable of much more than they thought and that the only thing holding them back is themselves. It is a truly amazing course!

But that is just words. The essence of the programme is the experience. Actually knowing that you have just done something that you didn't think you could.

Stefan and I met to discuss how to make it more successful. We discussed the fact that the marketing material might be seen as hyperbole or it might just be too big a step to go from a comfortable desk to flying to Austria and tackling the Klettersteig. So I asked him whether he could think of something we could do in London in a morning or afternoon that would give people a facsimile of the experience.

His immediate response was, "Why don't we put a zip line between two buildings? No that's too easy can why don't we walk round the outside of a skyscraper?"

You gotta love this guy. I responded telling him that I knew a company who had two floors near the top of the Gherkin and near the top of Canary Wharf. Minutes later we were in a cab to St Mary Axe to see if we could set up a wire traverse at either of the buildings. The idea is to get people entirely safe but over 100m up walking along a wire on the outside of a building. Conquering fear.

Well it's early days and we may well be defeated by health and safety but this is what we are going to try to arrange.

Then I thought this morning how can we devise a baby step for all those who have not yet embraced collaborative tools in their work because it's just too hard or it takes too long? It is exactly the same problem. Any ideas on how to tackle this or any help on setting up a high wire stunt in London will be gratefully received.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Not with a bang but a whimper..

The world didn't end last Wednesday when they switched on the large Hadron collider...

Just a thought but how would we know if it did? In any event I got up the following morning and went to work. It would upset me horribly if it turns out that the world has ended and I have failed to notice...

Then the world ended on again on Monday this week with the disappearance of two of the world's largest financial institutions (Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers) and further evidence was provided, were it needed, that we are heading for a spot of turbulence.

The collaborative learning community have been talking for some time about what it will take for the emerging opportunities for learning and development facilitated by the Internet to start to become mainstream. One of the driving forces may just have been handed to us.

Our industry has waffley tendencies at the best of times. Now is an excellent time to show our clients that there are multiple concrete ways to change behaviour and become more efficient. Why commission an expensive manual when you can build a wiki or record a jing file? Why drown slowly in emails when you can collaborate and chat in real time in a Google doc? Why cram for a test when blogging and sharing ideas embed learning more efficiently Why attend a training course either virtually or in person?

Because it will make you more efficient.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Who will drive us?

Pulling together a few strands of thought on the bus this morning (my beloved Vespa having been stolen 10 days ago my commute is longer) I was wondering where the motivation element of learning will come from in the future. If collaborative learning and P2P learning really do put the learner in control. How will the learner deal with those days when he/she just can't be bothered?

I think there is a parallel with gym memberships. Gyms dont actually want you to get fit. They want you to pay membership and not use the facilities. That way they can make more profit. People who can afford them, use personal trainers but lots of people cant.

I wonder if there is a model for a personal learning trainer? I think this will be distinct from life coaches or executive coaches as there is a different skill set.

Will greater choice and freedom to learn actually inhibit action? A learning equivalent of slacker culture. Are we becoming mentally as well as physically obese? Do we actually need the harridan teachers and psychotic PE teachers in our lives to push us over the wall?

Friday, September 5, 2008

Customer servile

As my last post earlier this week provoked a repsonse, I thought I would return to it. Clearly my suggestion that the American way of service is to be aspired to was too much for Kevin who,

"couldn't think of anything worse than an american telling me the value of service"

Interestingly, Lucy Kellaway whose article originally prompted my thoughts had a follow up in which she experienced some great service (The pen is mightier than high-tech gadgets). So as Zine and Zein highlighted in their comments, I was generalising and my suggested course would probably not sell to them.

I had the additional thought that the internet might be responsbile for an overall decline in customer service, in the same way that text messaging has destroyed conversation. In that it has moved human beings further apart and therefore further away from an immediate reaction to what thay say or think. Being face to face with someone tends to temper most extremes of communication (think about how often you shout expletives after you have hung up the phone or walked out the door).

But then I immediately challenge myself that this could just be further evidence of myself getting older and heading towards the inevitable day when I moan in exasperation about, "The youth of today!!" (Incidentally you can shoot me when I start doing this). The Internet is not bad in and of itself. The point is what is facilitates (see Michael Wesch's original film "The Machine is Us" for more on this) and it should facilitate even better service.

Maybe it is the fact that 25% of us are unhappy in our jobs and a third of us do not feel engaged. The people from whom I have had the best customer service are the people who seem to care or show an interest, whether in the UK, the USA or elsewhere. Those who feel they are wage slaves are unlikely ever to serve the customer genuinely.

As to whether this is the responsibility of the employee to move to a job that they enjoy and fell valued in or the employer to make the employee feel valued and content, I fear the debate will never end.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Is it really that difficult to smile?

I have been thinking about Lucy Kellaway's article last Monday, "Turning customer delight into disgust" and I have finally conceded to my wife that the British just don't know how to do customer service. My wife, a Serb who has lived in Russia and America and thus experienced the extremes of the customer experience, has long been baffled about how badly we, the British, treat our clients.

I have generally curled my toes in embarrassment and tried to shuffle away from my wife as she berates the latest unfortunate for failing to provide even an adequate response (I don't think what we receive on the whole in this country even qualifies as "a service"). But the point is I am at fault not her. I think the root of it may be generational and lurks within the phrase, "Mustn't grumble".

This spirit was admirable when the Blitz was on and was indeed admired throughout the world as being evidence of our tenacity and spirit. It seems however to have evolved into never complaining to the people at fault and developing a sarcastic streak a mile wide to moan about our unfortunate lives with our friends. It is perhaps why comedy flourishes in the UK. We are not prepared to get off our behinds and confront poor service we would rather create jokes about it.

Lucy's experience at the hands of a low cost airline I have had with other low costs airlines and with flag carriers. I cant remember the last time I had a retail experience that could be classed as enjoyable - indeed my wife and I stormed out of a major electrical supplier at the weekend after wasting half and hour on the completely unreasonable expectation that there would be someone employed there who knew something about anything... I have had to threaten legal action against the company that sold me my scooter before I got what could be called service. And hotels and restaurants leave me cold. I went to a pizza restaurant in Balham with my family and next door neighbours on Saturday and there was a nail in one of the pizzas.

Had the nail been in my pizza or that of my wife or daughter we would have addressed it. However, it was in my my neighbours' elder daughter's pizza and they would not make a fuss. In fact she apologised to the waiter, after I had drawn attention to it and the waiter was already grovelling. My neighbour paid the bill, possibly to stop me from extracting a significant discount and causing further embarrassment.

Now I don't say this to ridicule my neighbour or their daughters, they are amongst the nicest people in the world. But this behaviour in the face of dreadful service goes to show that in the end we get the customer service we deserve.

I have been thinking of developing a training course, "Customer service: the American way" for some time but have held back for fear of offending people and it not selling. But now I think maybe that was just another way of avoiding embarrassment. What do you think?

As a service lead economy should we sort out our act to have a future or am I becoming just another grumpy old man?