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Monday, December 20, 2010

That's all well and good but who's picking up the tab...

We hosted the Internet Time Alliance in London on Thursday last at an event which focused on the practicalities of using informal learning/social learning/smarter working in the workplace.

There was quite a lot of back and forth in the day. I would say that everyone in the room was enthusiastic about the idea that rather than pay people to train your employees it is a good thing that there are internet tools and internet enabled networks that will enable employees to develop themselves for free (or significantly less).

However, for many employers this does not lead irrefutably to switching off the controls of the company firewall and letting all staff use Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube etc etc. For more on this see Jane Hart's post on Top 10 reasons not to ban social media in your workplace)

As with many things, when we got into the detail it was a little more complicated than expected. There is definitely an element on the part of employers that the elephant can't see it's just a twig (learned helplessness). Equally, it's all very well for Jay Cross to criticise the European Commission for not seeing any value in Twitter but then a day later this happens...

On Friday, I heard that Yahoo is puling the plug on Delicious. (Michele Martin writes a very good obituary here). Now Delicious is possibly my favourite web 2.0 tool. I think it is brilliant. Over the last two years that I have been singing its praises, I have often soothed the doubters who question all things free and web 2.0 by explaining that Delicious was a different proposition to all the other start ups as it was backed by Yahoo and so wouldn't fold just as you were getting used to it. (Oops!)

At our event with the ITA last Thursday I had a brief chat with Clark Quinn explaining that I had been an e-learning sceptic in the first generation bubble that burst so spectacularly in 2001. I had persistently resisted jumping on the bandwagon of e-learning as I saw it as a more expensive way of doing something worse (as the poorly animated PowerPoints of early e-learning seemed to me). Eventually the lower price point and less than infinite target audience would catch up with the hugely inflated development costs. Hmmm, parallels?

Now the point for me about social learning is that you are not paying inflated costs for development indeed often the user is generating their own content. And yet Delicious, however useful, did not have a revenue stream and has been consigned to the dustbin.

This leads me back to my underlying issue in social learning. Where is the value added, to whom, how much and how can you charge for it? If you cannot answer these questions, you do not have a business. You might have a movement but is it sustainable in the longer term?

Friday, October 29, 2010

Same infrastructure different application...

I know that anyone who really knows what they are talking about in the internet arena will tut in a slightly annoyed manner with me and say, 'do try and keep up Greenway...' But I can only go as fast as my ageing brain allows, which is increasingly not very fast.

Two fascinating conversations I had recently are fermenting slowly in my head.

The first was with Chris Locke the MD of the GSMA Development Fund (and a lovely man to boot) who was telling me about how mobile phones are being used as a leapfrogging technology in parts of the world that lack a traditional infrastructure. The concept of delivering lessons to paying users for less than the price of a cup of tea is a destructive innovation that anyone in workplace learning should be worrying about now.

The actual learning is often deliberately low tech (it can be as simple as an SMS telling you to turn your TV to a particular channel) because of the pressures on cost. But the point is employing a network for a different use rather than coming up with expensive bells and whistles. Fortunately for those of us in the lazy and complacent developed world, they are focusing their attention on the parts of the world living on less than $2 a day. But it wont take long before they look at other targets.

The other conversation was with an old Serbian friend (and also a lovely man) who was telling me about a mayors' environmental conference he had attended recently where a chap (I forget the name) had come up with a solution for the infrastructure problems facing electric cars (to whit it takes hours to charge the battery and there are not many places where you can do it). The solution is genius. Owners buy the car but rent the battery. So when you go to a petrol station or other outlet, you don't have to plug your car in and leave it for five hours, you swap your flat battery for a fully charged one. One in classic Blue Peter form which 'has been prepared earlier' which allows the electricity grid to balance the demands of battery charging (which is the other problem with electric cars being charged overnight at home - everyone plugs them in at the same time whereas petrol stations can charge batteries at a steady rate throughout the day).

Again this employs an existing network for a different use.

I need to think about networks some more...

Friday, October 1, 2010


I'm rather fond of the meerkat adverts. And simplification has been a theme of this week. It is interesting how when a particular idea resonates with you, you find it cropping up with alarming regularity.

My thought this week has been. If you're not getting through, make it simpler. Don't blame the other person for not understanding - although heaven knows there are people you would like to slap round the face with a wet haddock - take it upon yourself to articulate better.

But making things simple is really difficult! Hence the desire to blame the other person for being stupid, lazy or both.

Making things simple takes time, which we often have not got. It takes effort, which we often have not got.

More words, more data and more opinions do not help. They hinder. If all you do is compile reports and discuss their contents at meetings, you may think you are a strategic manager where, in fact, you are merely an administrator with a pie chart. I would argue that there is one thing that defines a manager. It is making decisions and accepting responsibility for them.

Have a lovely weekend!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Pushing water uphill with a rake?

Further to a thought I had earlier this year, I have been wondering about how to raise issues about workplace learning with clients. I think it is fairly clearly established that employers have cut their spend significantly on L&D over the last 18 months. Yesterday at a networking event I was interested to see significant anecdotal evidence that one of the more common responses from L&D departments is to cut or cease spend with external suppliers but to do very little analysis of internal training teams.

Now first up I am bound to moan about this as I am an outsourced training supplier and training service provider (so please add you pinch of salt now). Equally, I know that turkeys don't tend to vote for Christmas. But I am fascinated that people still fail to consider the total cost of learning. Cutting tens of thousands of pounds from external spend whilst keeping internal trainers delivering less than 75 training days a year is absurd.

I am quite happy to get beaten up on price and quality we should all strive to be making learning happen faster, cheaper and more effectively but it galls when others are not held to the same measure.

I worry that too often in learning and development:

Those who understand and care don't have the authority and those who have the authority don't understand or care...

But this is not reason for despair. I just have to find a better way to articulate the problem...

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Two wheels good, more wheels bad

Today was an excellent day for being on two wheels. I imagine that the unions will be quite content with the fuming blockage they managed to provoke on most of London's roads. It's interesting to note that much of France is on strike today so maybe there is something in the air.

Returning from a nice long holiday - so generally in a good mood already - my good mood was further enhanced by tootling past the miles of traffic on my Vespa. If you commute between five and fifteen miles in London, I seriously recommend you consider a scooter or motorbike. It just makes you happier.

Friday, August 6, 2010

It doesn't matter what you say...

it's what you do that counts...

Jane Hart is trying to get a little campaign going for why social media should be allowed in the workplace.

I am a fan of informal (social) learning.

BUT. Today I agreed that we would shut off access to Facebook at our firewall! What a hypocrite I am

We have been looking into a number of system issues this week and our event management suite has been running very slowly.

It turns out that a number of my staff had been using the thin client application on which our system is presented to get round the group wide restrictions on the Internet. Essentially although Facebook is blocked at the firewall for the whole group, they had cleverly found a back door.

This showed up on the traffic reports which spiked at lunchtime.

Having found the problem our IT people deleted over 7GB of temporary Internet cookies from the server allocated a little more virtual memory and suddenly it's like we have a whole new application.

So maybe I shouldn't be allowed to lend my support to Jane's campaign. But in my defence people can still see LinkedIn, Twitter, Slideshare, Flikr, Google Docs, Google Reader, Ning, Blogs etc. So it's not all bad.

The 10 reasons not to use social media that Jane is responding to are:

  1. Social media is a fad.
  2. It's about controlling the message.
  3. Employees will goof off.
  4. Social Media is a time waster.
  5. Social media has no business purpose.
  6. Employees can't be trusted.
  7. Don't cave into the demands of the millennials.
  8. Your teams already share knowledge effectively.
  9. You'll get viruses.
  10. Your competition isn't using it, so why should you?

Someone else can take up cudgels on number one and provide stats for the companies who use it. Number two is the job of the IT department. Number three is so absurd is hardly bears repeating. Numbers 4,5,6, 7 & 8 are all the same point poorly reformulated. If your employees goof off it's your fault as a manager; either give them something more interesting to do, motivate them, accept an element of goofing as part of life or find people who don't goof off. Number 9 is naive in the extreme, anyone who thinks they can control information has no job in management. And as for number 10, well that can't be answered just yet, only time will tell.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Field of dreams...

"If you build it, they will come", is the death knell of many a self obsessed business model.

I have been wondering this week why so many people persist in paying significant amounts for something pretty, polished but ultimately irrelevant when it comes to workplace learning when they could have somethings (but admittedly not all) much more relevant for free or close to free.

Why do fully grown adults still fall for, "LOOOK! Shiny!!"?

Is the issue with social learning and open source solutions that we don't place enough emphasis on the cost of engagement? The cost of getting the horse to the water. Ultimately if you can get a horse into a classroom or onto an e-learning course you can shut the door either literally or figuratively and leave it at that. A tick goes into a box on the LMS and that's that.

We get so enthusiastic about all the things that the horse can do (I know I'm wringing the life out of this analogy) that we fail to get it there in the first place.

Would it be better to start by requiring a budget of £30k pa to cover staff time to prompt, provoke, post and other things beginning with p? Rather than focusing on the open source and free nature.

Or do we take the first law of Russian economics in the 1990's, "If you can't sell something, quadruple the price". Because what people don't pay for, they don't value...

Monday, July 19, 2010

Nascent thought about roles in learning

I went to my daughter's sports day last week - a classic of the reception class "involved-not-competitive and yet just a little competitive anyway" model. I was interested by the differing attitudes of the parents from the uber-coaching (some of whom had been out on the common with stop watches the previous evening I am told) to the completely laid back.

The following day I met with Teodora's reception class teacher, who is an absolute delight, for the end of year parents' evening chat. I was immediately taken back to something that she said to me earlier in the year... When I talked about how defensive my daughter can occasionally get when I correct her reading or writing or even gently model the correct form without even correcting, her teacher just laughed and said, "What on earth are you doing trying to teach your own child? I gave up on that long ago!"

I have recently been reading Martyn Sloman's ebook soon to be published at the Training Journal website and in amongst his nine principles, number three is "disregard anything that was written in the last century". Now he is being deliberately provocative and I am sure he is not getting rid of the whole "standing on the shoulders of giants" theme. But he does have a pop at the structured approach to learning. His suggestions for replacements are dependent on the context.

Which brings me to my thought. Is the future of learner creation - since that is what I think we should be about - dependent on surrounding learners with people or networks which perform a set of appropriate roles? I don't know what these roles will be but they might include (trust, productive communication, challenge and question, etc etc) In the same way that a child builds their own model of the world from the relationships of their family and immediate environment (father, mother, lover, friend) and the healthier the role models and the environment the healthier the eventual adult.


Friday, July 9, 2010

Size of UK market for employer L&D

I have been asked a lot recently by a number of clients for benchmarking data on the trends in learning and development. And I have to say the one trend that shows no sign of abating is the exponential growth of assertions unsupported by data...

So I thought I would share some thoughts, where possible supported by data. If anyone has better sources I'd love to hear about them.

Size of the UK market for employer L&D
There is a range of valuations here from IFLL's 2009 figure £2.95bn (which I think is a bit silly) through the CIPD's figure of £6.3bn, UKCES at £19bn to the CBI at £39bn.

Now some of the above are hard costs (cash) and some include soft costs (time off work) but non of them are particularly clear or consistent.

According to the ONS the UK's working population is currently just shy of 29 million. If you take a reasonable average spend per employee of £250 per annum you get £7.25bn.

What percentage of employer spend on L&D is outsourced or insourced? Well it's difficult to get any figures here for the UK but in the USA there are two sources: Bersin's Corporate Learning Factbook and the ASTD's Annual Industry Report. Interesting the the former thinks there is a trend towards insourcing where the latter thinks the opposite.

In the UK one figure I am fairly comfortable (as it comes from NIACE via HMRC) with is that the number of UK companies registered for VAT that describe themselves as training providers has doubled since 2000 to almost 13,000 . This does not necessarily mean that people have left employer L&D departments to set up on their own but it would correlate.

I think that this one is actually a revolving door as L&D departments grow and then are cut back when they get too big and flabby or the economic cycle turns against them.

One source that crops up constantly is the Keynote Industry Report which I gather was set up by some former Reed employees but I happen to find the Merlin Scott report more useful in that it casts its net a bit wider and has better financial analysis. That said you can find most of the information for free if you are prepared to look and it only costs £1 to download accounts from companies house.

That'll do for today. On another day we'll look at KPIs for training delivery.

Monday, June 28, 2010

"Learnings" from football

First up, I think that those who talk about "key learnings" should be given multiple paper cuts and rolled in salt. It is a an awful neologism that seems to be gaining ground despite there being a perfectly good noun in existence (Lessons) . I only added it to the title so I could vent about it.

More importantly, yesterday's England performance...?! Wow, that was abject. I've lived through some dreadful England performances but that was properly excruciating.

The xenophobic hacks in the tabloids will, no doubt, try to hang this one round the Italian coach's neck and it is true that as leader he must shoulder his fair share of the blame. Others will trot out the, "paid too much to care" argument which is equally fatuous. We are all complicit in their salaries by watching the game and paying our Sky Sports subscriptions; in the same way that by buying Heat or other seminal weekly publications, we have made millionaires out of Peter Andre and his ilk.

Talking to my FD (a former semi-professional footballer) the other week about football in general, I learned that in Germany you are not allowed to sign a professional contract until you are 18 and there is strong encouragement to complete your education, which is largely absent in the UK. I wondered if there is a learning element to our recent failure.

I have nothing to substantiate the following assertion but from the level of punditry from former German and French international players I get the impression that the average level of education is significantly higher in continental European players. Jurgen Klinsmann, Marcel Desailly appear to have a more profound understanding of the tactics, systems and psychology of the game than their English counterparts. This is quite probable given the comparative levels of general education revealed by the latest OECD figures

I wondered if you make it manditory for every premier league team (and possibly championship depending on the finance) to get all of its players to a level three qualification at a minimum before they can sign a contract, would it make an impact over the long term?

You can't blame the footballers choosing sport over school. Football is a route out of poverty and many of them will have had awful experiences of formal schooling and can't wait to get out. But there is more than enough money at the top of the sport to pay for specialist tutors and more than enough subject areas to interest even the most jaded learning palate.

Getting more of these people to a level three qualification might engender more former footballers able to pass the FA coaching certificates and perhaps more home grown managers. But it might also develop a team of England players whose conceptual understanding of the game is a little more developed than, blood and thunder, thud and blunder.

Or maybe I should just take to following England at darts...

Friday, June 18, 2010

Spare the rod, spoil the child?

Indirectly, I stumbled across a piece in my RSS feeds this morning by David D. Friedman (son of Nobel Laureate economist Milton Friedman) on children and make believe. In it, Friedman one of the leading figures of anarcho-capitalism (no, I'd never heard of it before either) makes the case for bursting the bubbles of four year old children.

To paraphrase, he believes that you should play to win with you children otherwise they will never learn to deal with life, which to be fair is a view that dates back to the ancient Spartans at least.

But I think it misses the point on one of the most important lessons of life. It is not the competition which is important. Any idiot can learn to be competitive. The thing that we need to help our children learn is how to deal with defeat.

Too many people have unpleasant learning experiences early in life which put them off learning for good.

Whilst I entirely concur that it is pointless to wrap children in cotton wool, if you set out to scarify them, all you will create is insensitive scar tissue.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

New learning, old learning

Reading Charles Jennings's excellent post (which of course links in with the LCB Big question of the month) about which skills we should be teaching the workforce of tomorrow, made me think about an ongoing conversation I have been having with a number of people.

Anyone who has had the misfortune to follow this blog since it's inception will know that I am a huge fan of Randy Pausch (the link goes to a video that lasts an hour but it is an hour well spent). The last lecture is a conceit, we should apply to the question at hand.

If you knew you were going to die tomorrow what skills, knowledge would you pass on today?

It rather sharpens the mind doesn't it? But it helps significantly with filtering out all the extraneous noise and superfluous rubbish with which we clutter our lives and our workplaces.

Charles's taxonomy is very good (and I reproduce it in full below)

Search and 'find' skillsTo find the right information when it's needed
Critical thinking skillsTo extract meaning and significance
Creative thinking skillsTo generate new ideas about, and ways of, using the information
Analytical skillsTo visualise, articulate and solve complex problems and concepts, and make decisions that make sense based on the available information
Networking skills

To identify and build relationships with others who are potential sources of knowledge and expertise, within and outside the organisation

People skills

To build trust and productive relationships that are mutually beneficial for information sharing

LogicTo apply reason and argument to extract meaning and significance
A solid understanding of research methodologyTo validate data and the underlying assumptions on which information and knowledge is based

But I wonder if it can be refined even further?

One of the oldest university curricula in the world, which could be argued to predate Christianity but has definitely been around for over a millennium is the Trivium (logic, rhetoric and grammar). It was followed by the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy). These two programmes were the core of an early mediaeval liberal arts education which was preparation for life and seem to overlap significantly with Charles's suggestions above.

Now, I haven't got time to teach my daughter or my staff all of the above in my self imposed final day... So what would I settle for?

Probably to encourage confidence and curiosity, tempered with reason. If you have these then you can pick everything else up.


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Am I the dinosaur or the meteorite salesman

A lovely serendipitous collision of ideas yesterday.

Firstly, sitting next to Charles Jennings at Training Zone Live listening to Jim Kirkpatrick reprise his father's model. The new Kirkpatrick model includes the introduction of a protected term ROE (for Return on Expectation) which is preferred to ROI. I could be cynical suggest that this is because Jack Phillips's model was an addition to the original model and not owned by them (but there is nothing wrong with trying to earn a crust). However, as Charles tweeted during the session, the fact that session focused on the 10% (or thereabouts) that is classroom training, the whole argument was effectively putting lipstick on a pig.

We carried on our discussion after the session about how it is so widespread in our industry to conveniently ignore the whole cost of learning. Jim (citing Rob Brinkerhoff's research) claimed that 10% of the spend on formal L&D is wasted on incidentals and only 90% goes into actual value in the classroom.

But this figure ignores cost of sale (to outsourced providers), procurement costs, finance costs, management costs, development waste and duplication, admin costs, travel costs, cancellation fees etc. I have long been suggesting that the actual spend on intellectual property or actual learning content as a percentage of total is probably less than 5%. But to accept this you must first accept that there is a large amount of waste and duplication in our industry.

And turkeys don't vote for Christmas.

Then Jane Hart send me a delightful tweet, asking me if I had drawn this picture.

I told her that I wished that I had as it summed up some of the conversations of the day perfectly but it was another Hugh who deserved the credit (the extremely talented author is Hugh MacLeod add him to your RSS feeds). Then I laughed as the incisiveness of Jane's wit finally dawned on me...

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Too busy to think

I notice that I have not been blogging much this month, which does not herald an awful self-referential blog on blogging. Euurk!

I always used to use reading as a barometer of a balanced approach to life. If I was reading books at a reasonable rate, then I was OK. If I wasn't reading at all, then something was out of kilter. Of course the solution was not to pick up a book but to address, where possible, what was going wrong elsewhere in life that was denying me the time, strength or inclination to read.

In any case I am now wondering whether frequency of blogging is a good indicator of balance too?

Over the last month (which of course contained the milestone of the first anniversary of my wife's death) I have managed to look after my daughter, work, sleep and precious little else. I still read my RSS feeds but I have been hitting the "Mark all read" button more often than usual. Fortunately, Twitter allows me to be as superficial or as profound as I like so I haven't completely missed out on the month.

Reflection requires effort... maybe that's why so many people can't be bothered?

Friday, April 30, 2010

Dangerous territory... politics

This is and has always been a learning blog. But it is impossible to ignore the fact that a general election is less than a week away, so I suppose it had to crop up at some point.

The Chairman of the Reed Group and my boss, James Reed has done some interesting little interviews of the three potential Secretaries of State for Work and Pension, which are posted on our jobsite. In them he asks each of the candidates the same five questions so you can compare their answers.

How on earth am I going to make this relevant to learning...?

Well, the thing that has been making my blood boil over the length of this campaign is the degree to which we are all complicit in allowing the three major parties to get away with adversarial positioning rather than actually testing their assertions.

A couple of quick examples:

Not safe in our beds: overall crime and nearly every individual type of crime has never been lower since records began. It has been falling consistently since 1996 (if you don't believe me go look at the British Crime Survey data). But you wouldn't know this from any of the major parties... Broken society? Words fail me!

This is going to hurt... but I'm not going to tell you how much. As Greeks are on the edge of open revolt against the further cuts in public sector pay and increases in taxes that are being placed on them as conditions of support from the EU, we in the UK blunder on naively assuming that our economy is much sounder than Greece's. Do you know how big the UK's structural deficit is? (If not click here). All the three main parties seem to be trading insults around the £6bn that Labour is accusing the Tories of threatening to cut straight after the election. Yet the Institute for Fiscal Studies has criticised all three of failing to disclose their real plans. (It's well worth reading Stephanie Flanders on the difference between British and Greek debt if the above worries you too much)

They are all behaving like embarrassed parents, who when confronted by a child who asks an awkward question they don't want to answer point into the distance and say, "Woo! Look at that! Shiny!"

My point is, if you are ever going to learn anything of value, don't accept what you are told. Go and check for yourself...

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

And stay awake because it will all change tomorrow...

With some sense of satisfaction and potentially equal concern, I think I am starting to understand the value of twitter (I have a tendency to be a little late to parties).

Having blogged before about the fact that I couldn't really see the value of it and admitted to worrying about those who have the time to fritter their lives away in twitter, this is mildly embarrassing.

I am an evangelical fan of RSS feeds and Delicious and love what I have learned through them over the past two years. But I have been immensely busy at work over the last couple of months and have not had the time to work methodically through the unread items in Google reader that are starting to pile up.

This was what I liked about RSS. Emails are generally chores and obligations, rarely ideas or motivators. RSS by contrast was stuff that I was interested in. But if it got on top of me I could always hit the "mark all read" button. However this always felt like a bit of a betrayal (the tyranny of the unread) and I've been doing it more often recently.

And so I got the joy in twitter. It doesn't mind if you go off and earn a living for most of the day. It will be there when you get back and will not pointedly remind you how much you have been avoiding it. And most of the good and interesting ideas get retweeted if you follow enough people with shared interests.

Learning without guilt. How marvellous!

Monday, March 29, 2010


I'm a fan of Dan Pink or rather I am a potential fan of Dan Pink, having thoroughly enjoyed his presentation on Ted talks about the science of motivation. I have bought but not yet read his latest book, "Drive".

So naturally I am following him on Twitter as it is easier to read 140 characters than a whole book... Which lead me to his blog post today... Which cited some interesting research conducted at a university fund raising operation.

University call-centre fundraisers were split into three groups. Group one were given information on the benefits of being a good fundraiser [personal benefit] ; group two were given information on the benefits their fundraising provided to those who received the scholarships [task significance] and group three were given no information [control].

"What happened?

The results were “amazing,” says Goldstein. Employees in the Personal Benefit and Control groups secured the same number of pledges and raised the same amount of money as they had before the intervention.

But people in the Task Significance Group, the ones who read about what their work accomplished and how it affected the world, “earned more than twice the number of weekly pledges (from an average of 9 to an average of 23) and more than twice the amount of weekly donation money (from an average of $1,288 to an average of $3,130).”

Is it really that amazing?

Or just further evidence that people sell better when they understand the benefits derived by purchasers from the product or service they are selling. In this case those donating money are more likely to give it to someone who can tell them specific stories of how donations change people's lives; rather than to someone who wants to make the commission on the donation or is building his/her CV for employment after university.


Thursday, March 25, 2010

Moore of the same... or something else entirely

Sorry. I'm a sucker for pun.

I was at a think tank/discussion forum yesterday where I learned that Intel are currently claiming a 2% advance per month in processing speed. To those who are interested, if you compound this rate you get a doubling of processing speed every 36 months or so.

Moore's law originally said 24 months but it is still pretty impressive that close to exponential growth has been maintained since he introduced the concept in 1965.

The gentleman who shared the information with me also claimed that this will lead to better decision making as more data can be processed more quickly. But I wonder whether more data actually means "better decisions" or rather bigger decisions which in turn means more risk.

Which suggests that the next crash will be even bigger the last....!

Monday, March 15, 2010

When you're ready...

A number of things over the last few weeks have caused me to reflect further on the nature of change in people.

Two of my friends, less than 24 hours apart, said to me more or less verbatim,

"Of course, I've heard it said hundreds of times, people have told me again and again over the years but it wasn't until I experienced [insert perspective changing experience] that I finally understood"

Like the old joke about how many therapists it takes to change a light bulb... "One, but does the light bulb really want to be changed?"

In the current revolution that is social learning, maybe we should put the word, "training" quietly to sleep.

"perspective changing", "experience facilitating", "reflection forcing"... too convoluted?

Or just stick with, helping learning happen.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Maths from scratch

I was recommended a blog on Maths by a colleague that I am thoroughly enjoying. The author Steven Strogatz is taking his readers through mathematics from 1 + 1 = 2 to as far as he can go. It is engaging, charming and stimulating. Here are the first three articles:


While I'm at it, an interviewee recommended a wonderful blog about teaching in an inner London comprehensive, To Miss With Love. Equally brilliant

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Last week, it being half-term, I took my daughter and her best friend and family to well known amusement park near Paris.

I feel like I ought to pause to allow the magnitude of this fact to sink in. I am not someone who ever thought they would allow themselves to be mugged by a grinning rodent and I have caved in before my daughter is even six.

Needless to say the experience was an unpleasant one. While standing in a queue for over an hour for a roller coaster ride that lasted less than five minutes, I found myself calculating how much it was costing us to wait. The answer was about £50 an hour, which gets even more interesting if you add that to the cost of the (and I hesitate to call it this) "food" that they served.

Much as I would love to continue moaning about the experience, the point is that my daughter and a large number of people in the park loved it. And I mean really loved it. They didn't notice the queues, weren't worried about the absence of nutrients, they were just having fun.

I am forced to wonder if my obvious prejudice against the place created my reality. And this leads on to wondering about whether the same is true for other areas of my life. Am I really a sceptic?

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Still haven't got it

I am beginning to feel a little left out. I still haven't managed to "get" Twitter. I know I ought to throw myself into it to be able to really benefit. But I can't. It just seems to demand too much time. And I can't just leave it on in the background as it starts to annoy me like a television left on in a room when you are having an interesting conversation.

I like RSS. I like the fact that I can make time to read things that I am interested in without extraneous noise.

Occasionally I'll spot something go by on the Twitter Gadget on my iGoogle home page and follow the link. But generally I go to Reader first. I like the more considered pieces rather than the instantaneous.

I will accept that Twitter is good for asking questions that are not answered by search engines.

Maybe it's me. But Twitter just strikes me as too needy...

Friday, January 29, 2010

How not to run a bank

Today we launched a new learning programme for Bankers called SMART CB. Together with the Chartered Institute of Bankers in Scotland, we are offering a fast track route for senior managers to obtain Chartered Banker status. Below is an excerpt from my speech at the launch event.

"I should like to tell you a little story to underline the importance of professional standards in banking that is a little closer to home than you might expect.

I want to tell you about my great-great-grandfather, George.

From the early 19th century the Greenways were bankers in Warwick. Although initially very successful, the bank was taken over by my great-great-great-uncle Kelynge Greenway after the death of his father. Under the terms of his father's will, £25,000 in capital was removed from the bank leaving just seven pounds to the remaining partners. That the bank survived the withdrawal of £25k at all, is a testament to its strength up to this point. What happened next is an object lesson in how NOT to run a bank.

Kelynge asked his brothers, Thomas (a Colonel in the army), George (a solicitor and my great-great- grandfather) and Charles (an architect) to join him in the bank. Now, you would have thought that with only seven pounds to their name, they would take the opportunity to recapitalise the bank.

But no, they decided instead to run the bank with NO CAPITAL WHATSOEVER! According to the British Banking History Society in December 1886 of the banks £278,000 of assets, £210,000 were the partners' overdrawn accounts and this included extensive tramway speculation (grandpa George was also the Chairman of the Magdeburg Tramway Company).

The bank failed on September 6th 1887 after their agents in London, Glynns, refused to honour their cheques and the trial of the partners began on October 27th. George was sentenced to five years' penal servitude and Kelynge to 12 months' hard labour, Thomas escaped sentence due to his "almost complete ignorance of banking" and Charles had died five years previously.

grandfather Walter told me that his father Cate (who had been 11 at the time of the crash) never spoke of the affair. One can only speculate on the impact it would have had on a young boy but he overcame it, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the army, serving in India and China ultimately winning the DSO at Gallipoli. Indeed you will be glad to hear, my family has steered clear of banking since; sticking almost exclusively to the things it knows about namely teaching and the military.

I think it is safe to say that neither George, Thomas or Charles knew of the canons of lending; still less of how to properly assess credit risk. It is clear they knew absolutely nothing of best practice in capital ratios.

I think it is also safe to say that my family knows the fundamental importance of professional standards in banking.

Mark Twain once said, "History never repeats itself but it often rhymes". I don't think you need me to point out the parallels between my ancestors' short-comings as bankers and the factors which contributed to our current economic situation.

There is a wealth of knowledge in the path to Chartered Banker and knowledge is, I believe, the only long term way to profit. I hope it is a path that you join us on."

I thought I'd share this here as it was only through working with CIOBS that I found out about this element of my family history.

Monday, January 18, 2010


Janaury blog posts are often about resolutions. Big, sweeping, ambitious pieces. But I haven't made any resolutions this year. I shall simply state two objectives:

1. To simplify wherever possible
2. To have fun. Or more specifically, since I don't think one can simply will happiness to exist, to try not to miss opportunities for enjoyment

That latter one sent me on an enjoyable five minute diversion. I was sure that there is a Samuel Johnson quote about happiness along the lines of, "Any plan for merriment seems doomed by its own nature". I eventually found it as:

"Nothing is more hopeless than a scheme for merriment."

But not before I had throughly enjoyed his wit and 'resolved' (eek) to try and read more of him.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The tale lessens in the telling

I've just watched a documentary on diarists presented by Richard E Grant. In it he suggests that diaries are an attempt to make sense of that which does not. I can' t think of a better explanation of the urge behind this blog. To try and unravel the knot which is my wife's death from cancer.

I have been sorting things at home this weekend. My daughter is five in a couple of weeks and I am trying to move her out of my bedroom and into her own room (she has slept with me since Jelena's death last May). I wonder whether I have allowed this to continue because it is as comforting to me as it is to her... In any case the only way to do this has been to involve her in the grand project of the creation of her new bedroom, choice of colours, furniture etc. I am converting Jelena's old study because it is adjacent to my room in case she is frightened in the night.

This has meant the sorting out of a lot of old files and difficult decisions over what to keep and what to give or throw away. We cleaned out Jelena's wardrobe a couple of months or so after the funeral with her sister and nieces all in attendance so everyone got something to remember her by. In fact we did a fairly poor job because one of the wardrobes is still almost full. I just cant summon up the strength to face it.

I am trying to put together an archive for my daughter but somehow it feels wrong that I should edit it. For instance I found in a file of memories Jelena, amongst all the (fairly predictable) schmaltzy romantic cards and letters I had written her early in our relationship, had kept a letter I had written her after we had had a blazing row which resulted in me storming out of the house. In the letter I had tried to say all the things that you don't get to say in fights between long time partners because you both know too well how to push each others buttons. But I wonder if this should be preserved...

I wonder if one of the reasons I am so drawn to writing about this is that Jelena wasn't. She fought her cancer all the way to the end. She didn't write a letter to her daughter or record a video because that would have been an admission of defeat. Am I compensating for something I feel she has been cheated from.

Consequently, I never really talked to Jelena about death or dying. That wasn't my role. I was her advocate. It was my job to find another oncologist or surgeon if the one in front of us didn't want to do what she wanted or said something she didn't like.

You don't plea bargain with death.

I imagine, although I don't know, that changing doctors is fairly commonplace for those who fight cancer over a protracted period of time. It is only human to start to blame the doctor for your continued illness after all they are the one giving you all the bad news. So we moved around a lot. Jelena fell out with British surgeons who, in her eyes, would cut first and ask questions later.

I had bought Jelena PPP's most expensive health insurance several weeks before we were married because we wanted to have children. We were living in Moscow at the time and didn't really want to trust the state health care. Unfortunately most international health schemes viewed pregnancy as a self inflicted illness and didn't provide cover. However, if you weren't pregnant when you took out the PPP policy of for three months afterwards they would cover you. So I took out that one. This accident probably gave Jelena an extra ten years of life.

Moreover, having this policy meant that she could be treated for her illness almost anywhere in the world (apart from the USA which was too expensive). So we were able to shop around for oncologists and surgeons and consequently spent quite a lot of time in Germany (about whose health system I cannot sing enough praise). But even if we had not had the insurance policy to fund it I am fairly sure we would have travelled in our fight to beat Jelena's cancer.

Jelena was a fighter to the end.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Where is the beginning?

It seems appropriate to begin writing around midnight. My wife Jelena died of ovarian cancer last May 12 at around fifteen minutes past midnight. She had fought the disease for 11 years having been initially diagnosed two weeks or so after our wedding in June 1998.

I am not sure what I aim to achieve with this blog. I acquired the address almost 18 months ago and this is my first post. My initial thought was to blog about my wife's illness while she was fighting it. Partly as therapeutic reflection for myself but also to put something 'out there' for the spouses and primary carers of other cancer patients. There seems to be no shortage of literature for cancer sufferers but an absolute dearth of information for those that support them.

I procrastinated or decided not to start because it felt somehow disloyal to Jelena for me to blog about her illness while she was alive. It was "her" illness after all. Although to me it very much felt like "our" illness. And this feeling of disloyalty is at the heart of being the supporter of someone with cancer. It is an asymmetric relationship and this takes its toll over the years.

I remember very early on in her fight, probably after her third cycle of Carbo-Taxol in the winter of 1998, she said something to me which introduced the idea which was to eat away at me over the years.

'You know the one thing that keeps me going... It is your absolute conviction that I'm going to be OK'

I pulled her to me and hugged her because I didn't want her to see my face. Inside my head I was thinking,

'Sh*t! But those are just words. You're going to die'

I had, of course, done my research. Jelena had been diagnosed with a stage 1c left ovarian adenocarcinoma (she also had a rare genetic disorder called Lynch syndrome type II which essentially meant that she had lost her father and all of his brothers to cancer). She had had only a left salpingo oopherectomy (they only took out the ovary with the tumour) and adjuvant chemotherpahy because she desperately wanted to have children and had ignored the advice to have a radical hysterectomy and bilateral oopherectomy. With this diagnosis at the time Jelena had a five year survival expectation of around 90%. But somehow I got it into my head that she had a 5% chance. Like most reasonable, educated, balanced 29 year-olds.... I had completely panicked and failed to take in the most important bit of information.

My ignorance is not really the issue here although it contributed. The problem was that now Jelena had cancer I could no longer tell her everything. She could cry in the night about how scared she was and wail about the injustice of it all. I could not.

What she said to me was,

'...the one that keeps me going... is your absolute conviction that I'm going to be OK'

What I heard was

'I want you to lie to me. I need you to lie to me. You can't tell me how scared you are. I'm not strong enough to carry your fears...'

Neither was I but that is for another day.

If you are the primary carer of someone with cancer, please find someone you can talk to about your fears. It will make your life much much more bearable. I laboured under some kind of demented superman complex that I could carry my wife, her family and my own on my back for almost three years before I got any real help. I have been seeing a therapist on and off for about 8 years and this blog may become an extension of that process.

I set myself no targets with this blog. I will simply reflect upon the time I spent walking with Jelena and cancer and see what I learn along the way. I hope to unwind some of it in order to be as good a father as I can to our four year old daughter. If that is in some way helpful to others then that will make me happy.