Thursday, May 29, 2008

Eight Thoughts about Essential Skills (Basic Literacy for the Workplace)

The second major plenary session of the Work and Learning Knowledge Centre was devoted to literacy.

Thought One: Although my mother started in training as a literacy trainer, I typically don’t give it much thought. To be honest, few of the training sources I follow do either and, when they do, the coverage they provide is small. It’s usually an elective session or secondary article in a magazine or journal.

Instead, the training sources I focus on tend to focus more on leadership, management, technical, and sales training. Then I remembered my statistics of who gets the most training and this limited coverage of literacy was clear—basic skills training is usually at the bottom of the list of the types of training provided by employers and the one on which they spend the least.

Thought Two: In many cases, literacy skills are what holds people back from advancement in the workplace. These jobs seem like double dead-end jobs to me now—not only do they pay bad and offer no advancement opportunity, but they’re the employees in which employers are least likely to invest any development dollars, so these people are stuck in these jobs forever.

Thought Three: That’s bad enough, but general understanding of literacy is really simplistic—and reporting of the numbers isn’t much better. The current statistic is that 42 percent of the Canadian workforce has literacy problems.

That number doesn’t seem credible because nearly all of us hearing it assume literacy solely means functional literacy—that is, the ability to complete job forms, read official correspondence, and generally read, write and conduct arithmetic at the fifth grade level. When that definition is used, only 16 percent has problems (though the reports apparently bury that statistic, preferring instead to highlight the larger number).

The additional 26 percent lack some other type of literacy skill that’s deemed essential in the workforce today. In some cases, people are functionally illiterate in English or French but are quite facile in their own languages. (Doesn’t help much in the workplace here, but some credit should be given.)

In other cases, complex modern life requires several other types of literacy: computer, financial, health and so on.

Thought Four: Most employers don’t want to provide any training on these skills because they feel like the employee will walk once they get skilled and the investment is not worthwhile.

That’s probably a false assumption because (a) employees who receive this training tend to be a bit more loyal (indeed, some feel obligated to stay as a way of thanking the employer for the training), (b) employees who receive this training tend to be more productive if, for no other reason, they’re able to understand things on their own and do things without receiving additional assistance. Not surprisingly, some business groups that have studied the impact of literacy training have found that it has a great return on investment (ROI).

Thought Five: The Toronto-based group ABC hired a marketing firm to develop a campaign to promote literacy training and its benefits. Although I felt the effort was well-intentioned, I felt that the images used and stories told would be as appropriate to describing my weight loss with Weight Watchers or a recovery process from drug or alcohol addiction as it was to describing literacy. (Although I happened to really like an image with Velcro, suggesting that the more literacy one has, the more good things that come to you.)

As a result, I don’t think it could have the impact it could have.

If it were me, I’d be far more aggressive about promoting this issue—confronting the double dead-endness in these jobs, the changing definition of literacy—including offering a self-test in which a large number of people who thought they were literate (indeed, they might even have a university degree) would actually qualify as illiterate) and, eventually, directly confront the inequities in training investments between executives and lowest level employees (which are as high or higher than the salary inequities) and how that ultimately plays out in flat earnings.

Thought Six: Most of the people at the conference believe that governments need to fund this efforts because the private sector won’t because of the fears stated earlier. And with most of the recipients at the lowest end of the wage scale, expecting learners to pick up the cost of their training seems to be unrealistic.

To be honest, government’s record here isn’t so consistent. Most projects seem to be pilots that are cut off after 2 to 4 years. Even when a program works, it isn’t likely to continue because the funding is going to be yanked. The issue becomes a political one rather than the more basic issue of helping people become more effective (and, if they earned more, they would also pay higher taxes).

More significantly, the federal government here apparently used to fund most literacy efforts but these were cut in the 1990s to reduce the budget deficit. Although the budget is in surplus now, responsibility for literacy training has been devolved to the provinces, who also have to pay for primary and secondary education, health care, and the crumbling infrastructure, among other things.

Thought Seven: It seems that some out-of-the-box thinking might be helpful here. Some thoughts: Because popular understanding of the concept of literacy differs significantly from that of the experts, the public needs some literacy training on what literacy is.

  • Because literacy encompasses far more than reading, writing and arithmetic, perhaps governments might (a) continue to sponsor efforts to define these other literacies and (b) publish a series of guides for the general public—perhaps provided freely on their websites and for a fee in print form—that helps people self-assess their own literacy, (c) encourage private providers to develop materials to develop materials to build their own literacy skills (in instances where that might work, like financial literacy) (my guess is that they we’d end up with a series of books like the Dummies books

  • Sponsor annual or bi-annual surveys of training (like that conducted in the US by TRAINING Magazine) to identify the distribution of training among workers and to make the public aware of this distribution, to raise awareness of the problem of too little literacy training.

  • Provide significant incentives for employers who provide literacy and related training for workers, especially those in the lowest paying jobs. Tax credits certainly help; so would cost-sharing programs.

  • Because, in some instances, the primary literacy issues are in the area of language, perhaps governments might provide incentives and financial support to employers who will hire highly skilled workers who lack these language skills. Because this is not practical unless the problem can be limited to a limited number of languages that the employer needs to manage, such a program could encourage employers to provide skilled work in a particular field in a particular language or two. For example, one company might agree to hire engineers who speak Spanish and Farsi; another might agree to hire social workers who speak Mandarin. Workers would also receive language training in English or French as part of the agreement. In this way, immigrants would also get the Canadian work experience that some employers say is a barrier to considering them for employment.

As I learn more about Quebec’s Law 90 and how it has evolved over the years, however, I am increasingly convinced that this becomes a good structure for other entities to promote training.

Thought Eight: And I say this as a general believer in the free market. I am only a “general” believer, however, because left solely to its own, it often does not behave in the interest of the greater good (even though the theory suggests otherwise). Look only at the tainted product scandals, sub-prime mortgage mess, Enron, and the general failure of the trickle-down economy to provide real income gains for the average worker even with sustained economic growth.

Or, to use a more commonly understood metaphor, as sports games require referees to keep the playing honest, so the market does, too.

Monday, May 26, 2008

A Panel’s Worth of Interesting Ideas about Informal Learning

I’ve participated on a number of different panels and found that, when I take notes in such situations, I usually do so to remember a point made by another panelist that I’d like to elaborate on the next time I speak.

But when I participated in the opening plenary on informal learning, I found myself taking notes for the same reasons I usually take notes in other types of sessions, because I was learning so much from the other panelists. They changed my perceptions of not only informal learning, but of the larger context of learning in the workplace. That rarely happens in any presentation at a conference.

The panelists who taught me so much were Robin Millar from Centre for Education and Work, George Siemens from Learning Technologies Centre at University of Manitoba, and Christine Wihak from Thompson Rivers University. Lynn Johnston, the ever-patient president of the Canadian Society for Training and Development moderated with her usual charm, quiet diplomacy, and acute understanding of her audience.

Some of the interesting points that arose included:

  • Our world is complex, not complicated (George Siemens). In my own words, complicated is difficult to master, but can be done because such a world follows defined rules. Complex involves the interaction of many separate systems and, as a result, even when they’re established, the rules don’t always apply so mastering the world becomes an ongoing challenge.
  • George noted that most people kill technology learning through “death by buzzword” and so he banned the word Web 2.0 and suggested alternative terms, like participatory technology and the read-write web.

    He added that noted that informal learning isn’t managed, it’s supported. This is a foreign concept in most learning departments.

  • Christine Wihak presented a definition of informal learning that presents it as a continuum, which nicely addresses a lot of the controversy about what informal learning includes and what it doesn’t. At the two ends of the spectrum are formal and informal learning. The dimensions include:

    • Process, from external (formal learning) to internal or self-directed (informal)

    • Location, from classroom (formal) to wherever (informal)

    • Purpose: To learn specific, defined things (formal) to learning as a byproduct (informal)

    • Content: From acquisition of existing content (formal) to creating new knowledge (informal)

    She credited this approach to a professor at the University of Leeds.

    Christine noted that the model leaves out conscious and unconscious learning.

  • My comment: No single situation is necessarily fully formal or informal; that’s what I like about this model.

  • Christine added that courses don’t necessarily provide certain things in context, like decision making.Robin noted that the process of assessing informal learning involves identifying what was learned, assessing it, and recognizing the achievement.

  • She added that a good learning is labeled “motivated” by a manager. But motivated is a characteristic that’s hard to change. She notes that many learners labeled as motivated are actually god learners—who have mastered certain learning processes and that “good learner” is a characteristic that can be changed.

  • Robin told the story of informal learning in the most tightly controlled of contexts. In McDonald’s, where workers are told to make 9 burgers at a time, some teen cook figured a way to make 12 at a time. When asked how he figured out how to do that, he just figured it out and did so because he knew that making 12 burgers at a time might ultimately lead to more profitability.

    My thought: In many cases, technical training increasingly focuses on “just do this,” and takes out the “why we do this.” This is, in part, to get people to performance quickly and, in part, to simplify the work. In the short run, that’s good. But if, in this case, the company had a reason for only making 9 burgers at a time (perhaps health reasons) and never shared that reason, no one would be aware of why the guideline existed in the first place and might be tempted to break it when they really should comply. In other words, at some point, dumbed down work needs to be re-smarted at some point.

  • A number of the panelists commented on who owns the learning. For prior learning assessment purposes, this seems to be an important issue, so learners can get credit for what they did. Also important in terms of giving credit for higher pay status.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Two Cool Ideas from Quebec’s Law 90

The government of Quebec has fostered some of the most unique and amazing work in identifying and promoting skills development in North America. Its Law 90, which requires that employers with a payroll of $1 million or more per year spend at least 1 percent of payroll on training—or pay the equivalent into a fund that goes to promoting workforce development—has had many positive effects.

In the long run, it has significantly increased the participation in learning programs by adults. When the law was passed in the mid-1990s, participation was well below the Canadian average. Now it is near it.

But it’s also fostered some really creative thinking and programs. Some ideas I found really interesting:

Good Idea One: Right now, Quebec is certifying skills in a number of job categories (mostly skilled trades from what I understand). This not only allows people to focus training, but also to help identify transferrable skills so that, should a factory be closed (as happened a lot in my own neighborhood, when the clothing manufacturing was transferred to China earlier this spring), the transferrable skills become more easily identified, other suitable forms of employment are more easily identified, and employers are more comfortable that they’re hiring appropriately skilled workers.

(In fact, I heard a really inspirational story about a group of women immigrants in their 40s who were laid off of jobs at a clothing manufacturing plant. A job counselor spoke with them at length about their past work and skills and, in analyzing these discussions, teased out the transferrable skills. She determined that these women would make great machinists in other manufacturing operations and convinced a metal manufacturer to hire them, where these women are now working.

This is all the more significant because many of these women had not worked for any other employer in Canada and, on their own might not have found such skilled employment that could help them retain their salary levels.)

This also confirms my belief that e-portfolios and similar tools, alone, are not enough. Only skilled analysis by qualified reviewers can tease out and use the information in these portfolios for good purposes.

Good Idea Two: Although organizations whose annual payroll is below $1 million are not required to set aside 1 percent for skills development, Quebec still tries to help them. One ways is the establishment of training consortia (mutuelles en francaise) among small and medium enterprises, which are essentially training buying clubs. In some ways, they work like these small investor clubs by pooling everyone’s resources together to buy in bulk. So a small organization that might not even have enough people to warrant a private management training class (and would have to pay significantly more to send a single student to class) now can work with other organizations in either their geographic region or industry (as these mutuelles are organized) to purchase the class and hold it onsite.

But mutuelles go further: they are nonprofit organizations and have a small staff that not only conducts the purchasing, but works with members to identify their training needs. To be honest, that’s kind of a necessary practice. Without knowing what’s needed, how would the staff of the mutuelle know what training programs to schedule?

I thought this was significant because, before I left the US, a number of large training vendors were trying to get Fortune 100 corporations to outsource their entire training operations to a single vendor. For the most part, this value proposition never flew. But Quebec was able to make this happen by working at the other end of the size spectrum (small to medium enterprises), and by using a nonprofit consortium rather than a for profit vendor structure to sell the service. In addition, the Quebec government provides some additional financial support for these mutuelles through funds available in the 1 percent fund (the funds that organizations pay into if they have not met their minimum on training.)

Most significantly, these mutuelles help small and medium enterprises provide a level of development to their staffs that most might otherwise neglect.

One Last Thing: Although some people might think that the 1 percent law is pretty excessive, consider it in relation to typical training expenditures. According to ASTD’s numbers, a typical organization spends somewhere around 1.5% of payroll on training. Organizations that have unusually high staff development needs spend 2 or more percent. These are usually in high growth and emerging industries, like pharmaceuticals, high tech, and biotech. Organizations in mature industries typically spend less, but around 1 percent. In other words, the 1 percent is a bare minimum of what organizations would spend anyway if they were like other organizations.

Investing more in training, however, has positive benefits. Laurie Bassi, a former Director of Research for ASTD, correlated spending on training with overall organizational performance and found that the higher the spending on training, the stronger the overall organizational performance. She ran the numbers for bad times and good and found the same trend. She believed in her work so much she left ASTD and founded a fund that invests in organizations, with the investment in training serving as a significant criterion for selection.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Downside of Knowledge Work

One of the interesting things I learned at the Symposium is that organized labor resists some efforts at competency-based training because they believe that, in the process of doing so, jobs might be redesigned and once-complex work will be split into smaller, less-skilled (and lower-paying) pieces.

On the one hand, I never made that specific connection before, but the issue itself is the ugly downside of human performance technology that we never address. As was noted in a Harvard Business Review article by years ago, the trend of turning “knowledge work” into definable-repeatable processes had the effect of developing two tiers of work—a creative, problem-solving work because some people were freed from routine tasks and mind-numbing work, which few people want to acknowledge. We’ve seen it in the transition of technical writers from creators of manuals to manipulators of RoboHelp and the same process, sad to say, seems to be occurring in instructional design, where some instructional designers have been reduced to Flash programmers or people who fill in forms in template-based systems. There’s a time and place for all of this work, but it does depress creativity, opportunity and eventually salary. A chapter that Margaret Driscoll and I wrote for Michael Allen’s upcoming annual addresses this issue.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Many Vantage Points on the Transferability of Workplace Skills and Credentials

I spent most of the week of May 12 at the annual symposium of the Work and Learning Knowledge Centre of the Canadian Council on Learning. The next several posts will address what I learned there.

* * * * * *
The Work and Learning Knowledge Centre sponsored a project to compile information about programs that facilitate the transition from school to work. One surprising statistic is that the completion rate for apprenticeships in skilled labor was only about 50 percent. Apparently, during the apprenticeship process, employers make permanent offers to their apprentices, so the apprentices begin work and don’t complete their training program. Sounds good at the time, but in the long-run, that’s kind of short-sighted as the young person now has no transferrable credential.

Transferrable credentials are important because they can be recognized by other employers in an ideal world. This, unfortunately, is not an ideal world and many skilled people with strong credentials can’t get work because the credentials aren’t recognized. Indeed, for many fields, there isn’t even a reciprocity agreement within Canada, meaning that credentials acquired in one province are not recognized in another. If someone moves, they have to essentially restart their career. Having had been in a similar situation, I empathize with them.
Moreover, it kind of makes one wonder if the claim that we don’t have skilled workers is that we really don’t have them, or we just refuse to acknowledge that they have skills.

The good news is that many efforts are underway to develop transferrable credentials. Quebec is developing competencies for many key jobs, with a focus on transferrable competencies. I believe that the intention is that these competencies be certified in some way so employers in other industries might recognize them. (The problem of recognizing credentials isn’t limited across provinces and countries; it also exists between industries. As one of the participants and I observed, a lot of industries like to think that skills needed in their industries are more unique than they really are.)
By the way, Robin Millar’s Centre for Education and Work at the University of Winnipeg put together a great tool for helping individuals recognize their essential work competencies. Available in print and online versions.
In the resulting discussions about these issues with other colleagues, the issue that our society has devalued technical degrees in favor of university degrees seemed to be universally stated. Even though a university degree does not guarantee one a great job (or even one in the field of study) and even though some good-paying, honorable jobs exist in the trades, perception is that a university degree is worth more than a technical degree. That’s said, because the demand and pay are there for these jobs (indeed, in some fields, the pay far exceeds that of some jobs requiring a master’s degree). More significantly, many people are better suited to skilled labor than university study and the jobs it prepares them for. If we encourage young people to marry a person who suits them, why can’t we encourage them into careers that suit them.

(And that works both ways; a person who’s better suited for the types of work that university degrees suit them for should be encouraged into those fields. Indeed, I hope that continues as that’s how I earn my living.)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Level 6: They Might Say You Can Do It, But What the Heck Is It Really?

A friend recently sent me a link to the article, “Take Your ROI to Level 6: Get Greater Return on Your Training Dollars by Comparing Web-Based, Instructor-Led, and Blended Delivery Approaches [highlighting in the title used in the magazine, too] in the web-zine, Training Industry Quarterly, Paul Leone of American Express claims to have evaluated a training program at Level 6.

My friend added, “This article makes me wish I was a master plumber.”

For starters, what the heck is Level 6? To be honest, I’ve always had issues with calling ROI Level 5. Impact is impact—whether it be measured financially (ROI) or measured with some other performance metric. That sounds like Level 4 to me.

Besides, years ago, Roger Kaufman proposed that Level 5 referred to societal impact. Although I don’t know how one would measure societal impact, that it was looking for an impact beyond that of the immediate organization seemed to build on the progression that is inherent in Kirkpatrick’s model—that is, that each level assess something that is progressively larger and has a wider impact.

With Level 5 already claimed and claimed again, I guess it was only a matter of time before someone proposed a Level 6.

But the Level 6 proposed by Leone has three significant problems. First, rather than assess something bigger than organizational impact, his Level 6 measures the transfer climate. More specifically, it seems to measure characteristics of the environment that foster the transfer of learning.

Which raises the second problem with it: why isn’t this considered part of the Level 3 assessment, as Level 3 assesses transfer?

More significantly, the assessment doesn’t consider the training program itself, it merely looks characteristics of the work environment that promote or inhibit transfer. Although this is extremely important information, it isn’t Level 6.

In fact, it’s not even the type of question that’s best considered in a summative evaluation. In an academic context, this is a basic research question. In a corporate context, it’s a question that’s better considered for a formative evaluation, while the training program is still under development. By identifying which characteristics foster transfer during the formative evaluation, instructional designers can design them into the “production” version of the course to ensure the highest possible transfer of learning.

In fact, that the study reports on the use of a summative evaluation (which is supposed to be used on a validated training course) to conduct a formative evaluation (such as the comparison of different types of training programs, to determine which version to prefer) seems a bit problematic.

On the one hand, it's great that the author reports on the comparative effectiveness of different delivery modes and the environmental factors that promote and inhibit training. The field needs more of these field-based studies. But on the other hand, it's lousy that the author mislabeled the nature of evaluation and didn't use terminology correctly.

Because he didn’t use terminology correctly. That's where the editor is supposed to come in, but the editor of Training Industry Quarterly failed to exercise appropriate editorial authority and correct the problem to avoid confusing the reading public.

But no one did anything to correct this significant error in terminology. This failure to use terminology correctly is not some abstract problem raised by some out-of-touch academic.

It’s a real problem. At the least, the misuse of terminology causes confusion and some professor will need to un-teach an over-eager student one day, probably after that student insists on performing an ill-guided thesis and has the proposal rejected (or worse, the final thesis) because of essential theoretical flaws. That the student saw this in print won't help the case.

At the most, should someone act on this error in terminology in front of an executive who really DOES know his or her terminology, the person will have made a fool of themselves in the moment, and may have dealt their career a serious blow for years to come.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Networking Event for Montreal Communication Professionals

If you live in Montreal and work as a writer (or something related), you might be interested in this networking event sponsored by six professional associations.

As the announcement notes:

"Organized by the Montreal Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication (STC-Montreal), this networking event is co-sponsored by:

(o) American Medical Writers Association (AMWA), Canada Chapter

(o) Editor’s Association of Canada (EAC), Quebec/Atlantic Branch

(o) Professional Writers’ Association of Canada (PWAC), Quebec

(o) Quebec Writers’ Federation (QWF)

(o) Association of English-language Publishers of Quebec (AELAQ)

The organizers promise that food will be served and will offer a cash bar.

Event details:

Thursday, May 22nd 2008, 7:00–9:00pm

Hotel Europa, 1240 Drummond, Montreal

Cost: None (though drinks will be additional)

For more information, contact: