Wednesday, October 07, 2009

From the Reading File

Some encouraging news—and some discouraging news—in this week’s news clippings.

First—the good news:

  • In Soon, Bloggers Must Give Full Disclosure, published in the New York Times, October 5, 2009, Tim Arango reports that the US Federal Trade Commission will start to require that bloggers who receive free samples and other consideration from companies when blogging about a product will be required to disclose this relationship. This provides readers with an important piece of information in determining the extent to which the blog entry is credible. In the research community, having a stake in the outcome is considered to be an important source of bias. In legal circles, it’s called a conflict of interest, a concept that Howard Levitt, writing in the October 7, 2009 Financial Post calls “infidelity,” because it suggests a dual loyalty. Read about the new regulation at

  • In Rethinking the Shape of Everyday Life published in the New York Times, October 4, 2009, Alice Rawsthorn explains how the hardware and software of information and communications technology have revolutionized everyday products like the telephone in the past few decades, and suggests five areas for similar revolution in the coming years: autos, lighting, street furniture, e-readers for books, magazines, and newspapers, and even computers. Read all about it at

Now, for the discouraging news:

  • Although new FTC regulations will help consumers better decide the credibility of blogs about products by requiring that authors disclose their relationships with suppliers if such relationships exist, consumers in other areas still need more protection. One area is prepaid debit cards. These cards perform an important services, as they provide people who would otherwise have no access to such cards (or credit cards) with the service. But these people often pay excessive fees for these cards—and the fees are not clearly disclosed to them. Read about the problem in Prepaid, but Not Prepared for Debit Card Fees, available at the New York Times online at
  • Similarly disturbing was an article on page FP12 of the October 7, 2009 National Post. On the surface, the article had encouraging news—hiring in information technology fields is growing now, even as other fields continue to shed jobs. But hidden in this good news article was a piece of disappointing news; the article lists a number of specific IT jobs and their salaries. Technical writing was listed—but it’s the lowest paid on the list (and there were 27 jobs on the list). And it’s not just that the jobs were the lowest paid—the next lowest job paid 14 percent more. That may result from the fact that, in Canada, most IT jobs require a bachelor’s degree and most technical writing credentials in Canada come from community colleges, who only offer associate’s degrees. But given some of the employment issues with technical writers in the US, I have a feeling that the low salaries might result from a more serious issue about the perception of—and presumed skill base of—technical writers. The related article is available online at But the list of jobs and salaries is only available in the print edition.

  • • If I thought that my job as a tenured university professor was safe, the article, College for $99 a Month, Kevin Carey’s recent piece for Washington Monthly, suggests otherwise. He describes a StraighterLine, a relatively new online learning service that intends to provide online versions of large section undergraduate classes . So why should I worry about that? I primarily teach graduate-level courses. Carey explains how these large section courses are the cash cows of universities, subsidizing other courses. And although accreditation problems will limit the impact of this service for now, when those accreditation problems are resolved (and Carey asserts that they will be solved and I tend to believe him), the effects on academia could be as devastating as the current defection of news readers from paper to the Internet has been for newspapers. He also suggests that university indifference to poor teaching quality in these economically vital courses will only make the StraighterLine more attractive when accreditation makes it a viable replacement for classroom instruction. Read the entire essay at

Saturday, October 03, 2009

How Research Moves into Practice: A Preliminary Study of What Training Professionals Read, Hear, and Perceive

My article, How Research Moves into Practice: A Preliminary Study of What Training Professionals Read, Hear, and Perceive, co-written with Regan Legassie, Shaun Belding, Hugh MacDonald, Ofelia Ribeiro, Lynn Johnston, Jane MacDonald, and Heidi Hehn of the Canadian Society for training and Development, was just published in the Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, the journal of the Canadian Network for Innovation in Education. Following is the abstract.

In the growing body of research on the practice of training and development, several studies suggest that use of research-based findings in practice is low. The present study was designed to better understand the research-practice gap by exploring these questions: (1) Which published sources in the field are practicing professionals reading? How frequently do they read these materials? (2) Which conferences and meetings do practicing professionals attend? How frequently do they attend these events? (3) In what formats are research content most usable to practicing professionals? (4) What are practicing professionals’ general perceptions of research publications and presentations? Key findings point to publications having a wider reach among practicing professionals than conferences and, of those publications, professional magazines have a wider reach than peer-reviewed journals. In terms of the manner in which the content is presented, practicing professionals prefer case studies from the workplace over other types of content.

Dans le corpus croissant de recherches portant sur la pratique de la formation et du perfectionnement, plusieurs études suggèrent une faible utilisation des résultats de recherche dans la pratique. La présente étude a été conçue afin de mieux comprendre l’écart entre la recherche et la pratique par l’examen des questions suivantes : (1) Quelles sources de publications du domaine les professionnels pratiquants lisent-ils? À quelle fréquence lisent-ils ces publications? (2) À quelles conférences et réunions les professionnels pratiquants assistent-ils? À quelle fréquence assistent-ils à ces événements? (3) Dans quels formats les contenus de recherche sont-ils le plus facilement utilisables par les professionnels pratiquants? (4) Quelles sont les perceptions générales des professionnels pratiquants envers les publications et présentations de recherche? Les résultats principaux indiquent que les publications rejoignent davantage de professionnels pratiquants que les conférences et que, parmi ces publications, les magazines spécialisés ont une portée plus vaste que les publications évaluées par les pairs. En ce qui concerne la manière dont le contenu est présenté, les professionnels pratiquants préfèrent les études de cas en milieu de travail aux autres types de contenu.

(To read the entire article, visit

Friday, October 02, 2009

Addressing Implicit Age Discrimination in Your Job Search Activities

My article, Addressing Implicit Age Discrimination in Your Job Search Activities, was just published in Intercom, the magazine of the Society for Technical Communication. Following is an excerpt.

When the mass media stresses youth (most television networks prefer their viewers between 18 and 49, or, even better, no older than 35), professional magazines talk about the technological agility of younger workers, and the general business press openly talks about the high expense of experienced workers, those of us who have a bit of experience and the gray hair to prove it have good reason to be concerned about age discrimination in our job searches.

Indeed, despite anti-discrimination laws in most countries and corporate statements guaranteeing equal opportunity, age discrimination does exist in the workplace. If you’re un- or underemployed, cosmetic surgery and Botox treatments probably aren’t viable options for covering your age.

So what can you do? This article—an update of my 2003 Intercom article on the same subject—offers five suggestions.

(To continue reading, visit You need to be an STC member to see the article.)

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Three Future Directions of e-Learning

My article, Three Future Directions of e-Learning, was just published in Learning Circuits (ASTD's webzine on e-learning). Following is an excerpt.

At the beginning of the 1990s, experts predicted two trends in food. (I promise to show the connection to e-learning in a moment.) One trend was an emphasis on healthy eating. To encourage it, lower fat versions of popular foods would be developed, like low fat ice cream and fat-free potato chips.

The response to all of this healthy eating came in the second trend. To congratulate themselves, people would indulge in new lines of premium foods (in terms of calories, that is)—ones that were even less nutritious than their 1980s counterparts, like higher-fat ice creams (think Ben & Jerry’s and gourmet potato chips (think Cape Cod Chips).

When asked about the trends in e-learning, the contributors to the E-Learning Handbook: Past Promises, Present Challenges, saw a similar dichotomy. On the one hand, almost everyone thought the quality of e-learning would improve and become more responsive to learners. On the other hand, nearly everyone saw the emergence of less expensive, less thoughtful e-learning. In addition, the contributors saw one other trend that might help to reconcile this dichotomy: e-learning as a way of life. The following describe their insights.

(To continue reading, visit

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Truth, Honesty, and Privacy

n Ads Follow Web Users, and Get Much More Personal, published in the New York Times, July 31, 2009, Stephanie Clifford reports that companies are linking your online behavior with the information that offline companies have tracked about you, to create a thoroughly personalized profile of you. Advertisers can use these profiles to provide micro-targeted messages to consumers, complete with appropriate offers.

Clifford explains how this excites advertisers and scares privacy activists. Regardless, this definitely provides a practical application of research.

Read the article at

Truth, Honesty, and Evidence

Evidence-based practice is an area of focus within the field of education in general, and in training and development in particular.

(Before going further, let me define evidence-based practice. It’s a decision-making process in which people base their choices on evidence from the research, adapted according to the characteristics of the situation.)

In the ABCDEs of Learning and Development’s Next Paradigm, published in the August 2009 issue of ASTD’s T&D Magazine, Benjamin Ruark serves as an enthusiastic proponent of evidence-based practice. In the article, he describes six reasons why it’s Learning and Development’s next paradigm.

Among the many reasons he proposes: it provides “a more accurate predictive focus,” it allows the discovery of “connections between . . . ‘research crumbs of effectiveness’;”it presents a broader, big-picture view; and it emphasizes the

Just one thing: evidence-based practice is NOT a completely new paradigm. It’s just the latest incarnation of a concept that’s been around for a while—that research needs to be transferred into practice. In fact, ASTD—the publisher of the article—published a whole series of “What Works” books under a contract from the US government to transfer research on training and adult learning into practice.

About 5 years ago, ASTD launched its Research-to-Practice Conferences, complete with published proceedings, that had the same general goal.

What’s different about evidence-based practice is that it doesn’t make recommendations based on a single study, as might have been inferred from previous efforts to transfer research to practice. As Ruark notes, “Research in the form of individual case studies being generalized into global performance improvement solutions is tantamount to deadheading into a curriculum’s instructional design based solely on some e-learning tool’s capabilities.” (And a body of evidence in management in general, and growing in training and development, suggests that managers primarily make decisions on instinct.)

Ruark acknowledges the limitations of the current system for transferring research to practice. As a solution, he suggests that a central authority is needed to vet and transfer research, that “new effectiveness findings from researchers get disseminated to the work world” and that “practitioners conduct what’s known as practice-based research, submitting preliminary actuarial data to a central research agency, university, or similar affiliate, for rigorous experimental replications. “

Like most other recommendations for transferring research to practice, these are not practical. Establishing a central authority sounds easier on paper than it will prove in reality. Who will organize the authority? How will all of the different disciplines that feed research into our work be accommodated—not only the obvious ones, like adult education, educational technology, and human resource development, but also fields like educational psychology, learning sciences, industrial psychology, and human resources management? Many work with different world views and research standards; agreement becomes a challenge.

As far as disseminating research to practicing professionals goes, the importance of doing so has never been questioned. What no one has figured out is how? Some studies suggest that practicing professionals aren’t reading research publications; editors of professional publications often have a journalism background and might not have awareness of current research in the field, much less historial research. There’s an interesting situation mentioned in a 2002 study by Rynes, Colbert, and Brown, in which the research indicates that graphology (handwriting analysis) is not a good predictor of future work performance, but a practitioner magazine published by a professional organization promoted graphology as the next big thing in selection.

If we are to disseminate research, it needs to start with the editors of publications becoming familiar, to make sure that the research evidence supports the suggestions for practice that they publish.

As far as practicing professionals engaging in research and submitting their data—one of the challenges of that is that the data that would be submitted would have to be open to verification. Given how protective many organizations are of their data and how sloppy others are with it, this bank of data is likely to have limited applicability.

This is not meant to throw cold water on the suggestions. Rather, it addresses the frustration with many such suggestions, most of which come from the researcher’s perspective.

Suggestions need to be more realistic, taking into account the reality that most practicing professionals lack the resources to conduct the type of research that would be necessary to provide validated data and have little time to familiarize themselves with the research.

Other models exist, but they do not exist within the mainstream of training and development. One practical model for disseminating research to practicing professionals is the website, website. This website provides guidelines for designing effective websites. It not only summarizes the research for each guideline presented and provides references, but also identifies the strength of each recommendation (that is, how much research and what type of research underlies the recommendation).

Read Ruark’s article at (you might need to provide a userid and password to see the article).

Friday, August 07, 2009

Truth, Honesty and Confidentiality

As doctor-patient and lawyer-client confidentiality is so essential that it’s protected by law, so is the role of confidentiality between researcher and participant. In fact, before researchers can start work on studies, they must explain how they plan to protect the their participants—and that plan must receive the approval of a research ethics committee.

Although researchers do not have to provide confidentiality, when they say they plan to do so in their research plans, then they are bound to do so.

Further binding participants is the informed consent agreement they must sign before starting a study. In it, the researcher must explain whether participants’ identities will be protected and, if so, how it will be protected. If participants are promised confidentiality, then that’s stated in the agreement and that becomes a legally binding promise between the researcher and the participant.

Of course, when the participants are well-known people, people are naturally tempted to know the results.

But legally, if researchers have promised confidentiality to the participants, they have a legal obligation to abide by it.

Whether all of these protocols were followed when baseball players participated in drug testing in 2003, I don’t know. What I do know is that they were promised confidentiality and it was violated.

In his opinion piece from the August 4, 2009 edition of the New York Times, Doug Glanville eloquently explains the sense of violation felt by the players whose drug test results have been leaked to the public.

Having had my confidential comments leaked, I can empathize with their feelings.

Read Glanville’s piece at at

Thursday, August 06, 2009

More Truth and Honesty in Research—the Concern this Time, Perception and Dissemination

When sex crimes, blood, guts, and questionable fires highlight most local and national newscasts on television, online, and in the paper, the most shocking news is in the statistics--crime is going down in the US.

That’s actually been happening for well over a decade.

But everyone assumed the great recession would drive crime rates up but, according to current FBI statistics, crime is actually continuing to drop in nearly every major city.

Shaila Dawan explores this unexpected phenomenon in “The Real Murder Mystery? It’s the Low Crime Rate, in an August 2 article the New York Times, as well as the challenges of explaining this situation this situation poses to the experts.

As a resident of a large city and visitor to many others, this information is certainly reassuring.

As a news junkie, I’m surprised I’m just reading about this, and find it odd that this information seems to be invisible on other news sources. Perhaps I missed it, but—as a happy couple makes for a lousy soap opera, so safer streets make for lousy news ratings.

As the child of an elderly parent who’s perhaps unnecessarily concerned about crime, I wish these reassuring numbers were more widely reported.

And as a researcher, this situation proves, once again, the importance of letting the data speak. It often says things we do not expect.

Read Shaila’s article at

Truth, Honesty and the Reporting of Research

I don’t know “Medical Papers by Ghostwriters Pushed Therapy” shocked me, Nathasha Singer’s August 5, 2009 article in the New York Times about professional medical writers preparing scientific articles for peer-reviewed (scientific) journals that would be by-lined by working scientists. Some scientists are notoriously lousy writers and need the assistance of a ghost writer; others are so busy with research that they don’t have time to write articles themselves. Because scientists’ work performance is measured by the number of publications they have, they have to publish and hiring writers to help them creates a lot of opportunity for scientific and technical writers, one of my two professions.

Singer explains however, that court evidence indicates that the pharma companies paid for the articles, the scientists credited for writing these articles have little involvement in writing them, and the articles seem to overlook or, worse, omit unflattering results from experiments. Most of the articles in question in the article were articles reviewing other studies on Hormone Replacement Therapy, and called it the “gold standard,” while some studies had indicated serious problems.

Because scientists assume scientific journals to give balanced and unbiased results, and because the peer review process is supposed to flush out missing information, when a published article calls something the gold standard, that’s a standard against which a practicing physician can make a decision.

Apparently not. The article calls into question the actions of the pharmaceutical companies, and this should be questioned.

It also notes that some journals are now asking authors to attest to their role in writing articles with their by-lines.

But I have to wonder why the missing negative evidence was not noted in the blind review?

Worse, because of the lawsuits, the problem of providing partial results is getting raised in medical research. But what about social science research, like educational research, where some researchers are so committed to the programs they’re researching (and usually designed), that they fudge the results to make some programs seem more effective than they really are.

Read the article at

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Twitter: Now It's for Mom and Pop

On the one hand, I’m haven’t been a Twitterer. I don’t think I’m becoming a Luddite. But I had not been convinced that Twitter was anything other than a way for attention-starved people to annoy people with the irrelevant details of their painfully bland lives.

I don’t need Twitter for that; I already have people in my life who fulfill that purpose.

But I read an article in the New York Times about small business owners finding new customers or, at the least, mentors through Twitter. So who knows, maybe my next mentor might be found there.

Inspired, I sent a couple of long Twitter-like rants through Facebook, expressing my concerns about the increasingly endangered health care bill in Congress. I don’t expect those rants to change the course of the legislation. But they have, at the least, given me a visible means of expressing my views on the topic. Another benefit of micro-blogging.

Read the entire article at

Monday, August 03, 2009

What's with all the Thumb Work?

Among the many sights seen during my recent vacation in Los Angeles and New York City, were countless texters. They texted in the airport and the food court in the mall. They texted in Macy’s and Starbuck’s, in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They texted while they walked and while they drove.

At the least, it’s annoying to find yourself slowing down in traffic because some twit is tweeting on his or her blackberry—and driving 20 to 50 percent below the posted speed limit.

Or to watch as some poor sales person is trying to serve a texter. Even though the texter has invested time in waiting for the service, he or she is usually so engaged in the Blackberry or iPhone conversation that he has no attention for the person who’s trying to help him.

At the most, it’s downright frightening to think of what could happen. OK—the girl who was foolish enough to tweet on laptop in the bathtub—and plug it in for extra power—was probably an exception. But what about the girl in Toronto who got run over while texting, or the train conductors in California and Boston who were too busy texting to attend to the safety of the passengers in their care. And let’s not forget the recent research suggesting the dangers caused by cell phones in cars.

I know; I sound like an old fogey. But I have a right.

And it’s not because I’m approaching that age.

It’s because I’m increasingly the person who’s behind the texter and cell phone user who’s not only annoying the crap out of me, but also risking his or her own life and the life of those around him or her.

And what for? Multitasking and getting more things done? The research on multitasking is starting to come in and it’s not validating the practice.

To be honest, I don’t know what’s so urgent that we have to communicate with all of these people all of the time. All I can think of is a Seinfeld card I bought years ago, saying something to the effect, “The reason for the cell phone, fax, e-mail, and pager is that we have nothing to talk about, but we have to do so right away.”

To see:
• A recent New York Times editorial about the dangers of driving while using cell phones, visit
• A summary of research about multi-tasking, visit

Perhaps We're Not So Short

Although Talent Management magazine and other human resource magazines suggest that there’s a talent shortage looming, other evidence suggests otherwise.

An editorial in the July 24 issue of the New York Times suggests that a significant number of the new jobs are opening for non-skilled and partially-skilled workers, who receive lower end wages.

Similarly, Leah McLaren’s column in the July 23 Globe and Mail explains why so much opportunity is opening up at the bottom end. Middle-end jobs seem to be going away because the middle segment of business is going away.

Although sharp rises in gas prices and the prices of most foods have caused us to believe that all prices are rising, the cost of many products and services—especially electronics, clothes, and appliances—have remained the same or gone down in the past decade. I’ve also noticed that the hourly wages for independent technical writers and instructional designers haven’t budged much in that time, and the day rates for freelance instructors has dropped precipitously.

Furthermore, the New York Times article that describes the lack of success of many job re-training programs, suggests that economists often do not predict well what jobs will be needed in the future.

In other words, as the middle drops out of the market for goods, so the middle drops out of the market for jobs. And if that’s the case, then what’s all this fuss about needing skilled labor? And what does that mean for the future of our job market?


(o) The New York Times editorial at

(o) Leah McLaren’s column at

Sunday, August 02, 2009

For all you Twitterers

Wondering how to stretch your 140 characters in Twitter? Check out Ben Schott's column in the August 3 edition of the New York Times at

More about De-Skilled Jobs

Despite all of the talk about the knowledge economy and the jobs of the future, one of the oft-overlooked facts about that economy is that a large number of the jobs that it will open are unskilled and de-skilled jobs, as I noted in a recent blog post.

Unskilled jobs are ones like counter staff at a fast food place, which require little, if any, incoming skill.

De-skilled jobs are ones that, in a previous time, might have required specialized training but, thanks to job redesign and technology, can be performed by someone with little or no training. Meat packers are one example. So are typesetters.

For those in unskilled jobs, opportunity exists in moving into related skilled jobs, such as moving from a nurse’s aide to a licensed practical nurse; or from a baker at a Tim Horton’s to an assistant manager. Where the Jobs Are, an editorial published July 24, 2009 in the New York Times explores the challenges of unskilled workers.

For those in de-skilled jobs, one of the issues is that technology often de-skills once skilled jobs, and then de-skills them some more. Consider typesetters, whose job was deskilled with the rise of desktop publishing. Anyone could set type and, at first—when a shortage of desktop publishing experts existed—these jobs commanded a premium. Some could even wordsmith text, and called themselves technical writers. .

But the primary skill of so many of these desktop publishers was manipulating the software, a skill that, with each successive release of the software they knew, became less exclusive as the software manufacturers made the desktop publishing software so easy to use, specialists were hardly needed except for the most challenging of tasks.

This has the devastating effect of lowering wages for once skilled workers and reducing opportunity for many. The article, In this Recession, Older White Males See Jobs Fade, in USA Today, July 30, 2009, explores some of these challenges, as it covers the problems facing older, skilled, workers who have been laid off. (The only positive in these negative stories is equality is coming to unemployment.)

I’m not sure that too many specialists in HR and workforce dynamics are paying a lot of attention to it—at least, not many of us specializing in Human Resource Development and Technical Communication.

To see:
• The New York Times editorial, visit
• The USA Today feature, visit

The Nice Politics of Minnesota

One of the nice things about vacation is catching up on the reading in my pile. One of those items was a New York Times Week in Review piece about the election of Al Franken as senator from Minnesota.

I thought the piece would be about Franken. Instead, its author David Carr presents an ode to the uniquely participatory and relatively clean politics of Minnesota. He describes some of the colorful characters whom Minnesotans have elected and how these people have not only risen to the occasion but often served as innovators.

Carr also describes some of the uniquely Minnesotan approaches to precinct politics, regional needs and voter registration that give Minnesotan politics its unique characteristics.

The article made me proud to have started my adult life in Minnesota, and I see how the values I learned then remain a part of me today.

Read the entire article at

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Life and Death Decisions

One of the concerns that people express about reforming health care is that the government will be making end-of-life decisions.

First of all, for the majority of people facing these issues, the government is already involved through Medicare.

But for those facing these issues before they reach senior citizenship, consider the following:

(o) Most medical protocols require the involvement of medical ethicists in making these decisions, as well as others. So ethical guidance is usually provided.

(o) Private insurers are already making these decisions, and they’re not always in favor of the patient. Consider the case a couple of years ago, in which Aetna (it might have been Cigna) refused a liver transplant to a young woman, claiming it was experimental. Their former Director of Communications later admitted it was merely a cost-saving effort. Although public pressure forced the insurer to reverse its stand, such a situation was exceptional.

(o) Doctors make these decisions on-the-fly in emergency rooms all the time, often without consulting either the insurer or the patient, because of a lack of time.

All of that said, all of the proposals on the table for health care reform preserve the right to private insurance, if the patient so wishes. What it does, however, is ensure that the patient has coverage for pre-existing coverage, and won’t lose it should a serious condition continue.

On the witness stand before Congress, the leaders of the major insurance companies could not promise that they would do that without being forced to by law.

In other words, for those of you worried about preserving your options, just remember—under the current system, your options can be dropped the moment some number cruncher in the insurance company decides you’re too expensive to insure.

As David Brooks wrote in his Friday column in the New York Times, it's time to overhaul the system.

Worried about Health Care Reform

I am very worried that health care will not pass. When you've known people who had their insurance dropped immediately after a cancer diagnosis, gone bankrupt as a result of health care bills, or gone without care because of the cost, it's heart breaking.

I am similarly worried about the mis-information about the Canadian health care system that's been portrayed in the US. Although it's not perfect, it costs a lot less than health care in the US and people live longer. That might be because of the cold weather, but it might also be because health care isn't that ineffective.

Check out this backgrounder on how one national health care system works:

And contrary to popular belief, research by some of the best health care policy researchers in the US has found that Canadians are NOT crossing the border in large numbers to use the US system.

And paying the hospital and emergency costs of the uninsured drives up costs for everyone.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Online Learning Component of the Obama's Community College Proposal

One key component of the Obama proposal for community colleges is online education.

Here's the paragraph from the proposal:

· New Community College Bill Includes Significant Online Education Component: Create a New Online Skills Laboratory: Online educational software has the potential to help students learn more in less time than they would with traditional classroom instruction alone. Interactive software can tailor instruction to individual students like human tutors do, while simulations and multimedia software offer experiential learning. Online instruction can also be a powerful tool for extending learning opportunities to rural areas or working adults who need to fit their coursework around families and jobs. New open online courses will create new routes for students to gain knowledge, skills and credentials. They will be developed by teams of experts in content knowledge, pedagogy, and technology and made available for modification, adaptation and sharing. The Departments of Defense, Education, and Labor will work together to make the courses freely available through one or more community colleges and the Defense Department’s distributed learning network, explore ways to award academic credit based upon achievement rather than class hours, and rigorously evaluate the results.

If I read this correctly, the courses will come from a centralized source--meaning that each college won't develop its own courses but, rather, will access them from a central source.

And if my understanding of that is correct, that has the potential for a significant centralization of learning content which, of course, has other implications.

To see the entire White House proposal, visit

Community Colleges Get Some Much Needed Attention

While everyone was watching the Sotomayor hearings, worrying about the secret reveal in the season finale of "The Bachelorette?" or just enjoying summer vacation, the White House announced a plan to significantly increase aid to community colleges.

According to Time's Laura Fitzpatrick, "President Barack Obama made a historic announcement on July 14 -. . . but you'd never know it from the crickets in medialand. CNN and Fox devoted no live airtime to the speech, which Obama delivered at Michigan's Macomb Community College, while MSNBC cut back to the Sotomayor confirmation hearings partway through. "

The New York Times' David Brooks lauded the bill, commenting both on the low status of community colleges, and the unsung, workhorse role they play, all the same, in the larger educational system. Among their many benefits is their potential to have significant impact on graduates' salaries.

But that's only if students at community colleges graduate, which the majority don't. So that's one of the problems that Obama proposal addresses. One solution: online education (which I'll tackle in the next post).

Nearly all of the press is noting the Rodney Dangerfield ("I Don't Get Any Respect") characteristic to community colleges. But for so many students, they make a lot more sense than university. As significantly, many university students who graduate with degrees in fields where they cannot find employment end up going to community colleges to learn practical skills that leads to a paying job.

Whether the proposal will be passed is another story. According to the news reports, funding will come from savings in a revamp of the larger student loan program. But that revamp has the government cutting out middle people who make a lot of profit on student loans, and who are fighting the proposal. If the student loan restructuring fails, then the community college proposal is in danger.

To see the entire White House proposal, visit

To see Laura Fitzpatrick's column in Time, visit

To see David Brooks' column, visit

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Understanding the Other Point of View

In his column in the New York Times July 12, 2009 this week, Frank Rich writes about Sarah Palin’s base constituency. Demographics might be working against them, but they’re loyal, angry, and loud and, as a result, efforts to lampoon her just might backfire.

Read the full column at

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Moving onto the Next Thing

Although some of us are still waiting to Google to make its all-in-one voice-e-mail box available in Canada (a huge boon for those of us who have several many voice and e-mail accounts but just one set of eyes and ears), the press has moved onto Google’s latest project, an attempt to build an operating system.

For example, in the July 12, 2009 New York Times, Miguel Helft writes about the new project, as well as its role in building, and implications to, cloud computing. (Read the entire article at at

The operating system sounds good enough for the majority, but the product really only works with Net-connected PCs. What about people in remote areas or who have limited web access in other areas (not just for issues of coverage, but also of cost)?

Monday, July 13, 2009

Maybe Something Is Broken

In “Survey Shows Gap Between Scientists and the Public,” published in the new York Times, July 9, 2009, Cornelia Dean describes a recent Pew Research Center study showing a wide gap between what scientists and the public believe about global warming and evolution.

For example, although nearly all scientific evidence supports the role of humans in global warming, a large part of the public is still skeptical of that, and some members of the public don’t even believe a global warming problem exists. The study reports similar differences on evolution.

This gap between the research community and the general public isn’t news to anyone who has been following it. For example, Rynes, Colbert, and Brown report a similar gap between the evidence unearthed by researchers and the beliefs of practicing professionals in their 2002 article in the journal, Human Resource Management, HR Professionals' Beliefs about Effective Human Resource Practices: Correspondence between Research and Practice.

In that article, they also raise the concern that editors of professional magazines in the field are similarly uninformed of the research, and have gone on to publish articles whose central theses are contradicted by the research evidence.

Part of the problem might come from differing interests. For example, in their 2007 article in Human Resource Management Review, An Examination of the Research–Practice Gap in HR: Comparing Topics of Interest to HR Academics and HR Professionals, Deadrick and Gibson compared the topics covered in academic journals and professional magazines on human resource management and found little overlap among the two.

But their conclusion, paraphrased, simply suggested that practicing professionals should pay more attention to research.

Perhaps the research community is ignoring the problem that’s staring us in the face; that our models of communication are broken. Advance online publication, like that described in a Scientific American editorial in 2006 (and reported by Geoff Hart in the newsletter of the Special Interest Group on Scientific Communication of the Society for Technical Communication) is a start, but we need to find a way to (a) help the public better understand the role of evidence in scientific communication, (b) distinguish strong from weak evidence, (c) take an interest in keeping informed about developments in science, and (d) bring along the popular and professional press for the ride.

No small order.

Read the complete New York Times article at

(And by the way, watch for an upcoming article of research that I led that explores the extent to which training and development professionals read research literature in the Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology. The article is ready for publication; just waiting for it to appear on the website. (

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Opportunities in Writing How-to Videos

I saw this article about how-to videos in the New York Times this week. Although the article focuses on, the article notes that several sites feature how-to videos, including (a quick Google search turned up several, including,,, and

As a technical writer and instructional designer by training, it’s nice that people are finally seeing the value in this type of material.

And for you future producers of how-to videos, the article suggests or implies several interesting teaching points:

(1) Interest in instructional content in everyday life is strong. A belief exists that users are interested. Businesses definitely are interested.

And for you guys—some of these companies are willing to pay a little bit up-front for content, as well as a share of future ad revenues should the clip become a hit.

Downside in terms of content: subject matter can be a bit on the trivial side and attention span for these informal videos is probably short, 3 to 5 minutes.

(2) Cost issues: Web-based videos are cheaper to produce than traditional ones. It’s not just that the cameras are much cheaper; video production can now occur on a typical computer (instead of souped0up ones) and can produce acceptable, commercial quality. Implications: lower prices for instructional videos (which were already at the lower end of the market to begin with).

(3) Ethical issues: when a company produces online educational content, how far do they go to promote their brand? In some cases, it’s essential (see discussion of Nescafe Gold, which also suggests that “intuitive” products aren’t always intuitive, and that intuition has a cultural dimension.) In some cases, brand promotion needs to be minimized.

Read the full article at

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Updating the Traditional Conference

In, Twice the Work, Half the Pay, Martha C. White describes the impact that the sharp drop-off of the conference market has had on conference planners, who earn their income from commissions on the meals, hotel rooms, and other services sold at these events. (Tasks that meeting planners handle include ordering the catering and making sure everyone is served; reserving meeting rooms, specifying how those rooms should be set up, and ordering the audiovisual equipment--and making sure that everything is set up and running properly; and coordinating registration and signage at the event.) With orders down by 50 percent and more, commissions are drying up. Read the story at

This loss of opportunity in face-to-face conferences creates opportunity for online programming. Consultant Mitch Joel describes how organizations are trying to integrate online connections into their programming. His article can be viewed at

To be honest, however, many organizations in the field of training have been experimenting with online formats for years. For example, ASTD ( been offering regular webinars for at least 7 years. The publishers of TRAINING magazine ( have offered online certificate programs since 2004. The e-Learning Guild ( has been running online symposia since the same time, and began offering webcasts before that.
in 2007, Tony Karrer (working with others) launched a week-long online "fest" that was preceded and followed by online discussions, included a number of live events during the "fest" week, and included lots of social networking. Jay Cross was among those in leading the followup event in 2008.

In my opinion, one of the things that's important about what's going on with training conferences is that people are experimenting a lot with them. What's sad is that, for the most part, people are not publishing what they're learning through these experiences, so there's little chance to share the lessons learned.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Does Job Re-Training Work?

I saw an admittedly disheartening article about the poor results of job retraining programs in the New York Times. People are attending retraining programs, but the majority aren’t finding jobs in their new fields (and if they are, they’re not staying in those jobs for a long time).

The problems seem to stem from a few issues. First, these programs don’t address some of the challenges that arise when a person who has had a lifetime of employment in one industry try to work in a different one (a problem not only for the worker but of convincing hiring managers that the worker is worth hiring). Second, the data on which workers base their decisions about which fields to study is not completely reliable. Last, a weak and unpredictable economy has not produced any jobs in many fields; opportunity will not open up until the economy does.

Although looking at the issue from a different perspective, the findings in this article are similar to those of a study I read about in the mid-1990s, in which researchers compared the employment prospects of low-skilled workers who went to a several-month-long training program with those who merely went to a one- or two-hour resume writing workshop. Researchers found little difference in results among the two groups.

On the one hand, I work in the education industry, so on an instinctive level, I believe in the value of an education. Furthermore, I work in career-related education, so I believe in that, too. On the other hand, I do not have a blind faith. An education in a professional field alone does not guarantee someone a job. The job has to be there and, if it is, employers need to be willing to hire the candidate.

Much of the problem described in the New York Times article, however, results from the failure to properly identify what job skills will be in demand. Given the unpredictability of the economy, not sure how to fix that one.

Read the entire article at

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Culture Wars?

If the recession can be responsible for anything positive, perhaps it’s the quieting down of the culture wars. In a recent Week in Review piece for the New York Times, Sam Tanenhaus provides evidence of this quieting down.

No real reasons are given, though many can be proposed, including the currently visible favorites like the implosion of the Republican party to the well-documented differences of priorities of younger voters.

But perhaps the recession is the reason. With many people out of work and wondering how they will meet expenses, perhaps attention is being focused on more fundamental issues.

Read the entire article at

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Big Businesses Mentors Small Ones

In a recent article in the New York Times, reporter Elizabeth Olson described a unique program in which large companies mentor small ones in reaching a level of stability and health. One of the ways that prospective protégés come to the attention of the mentors is when they unsuccessfully bid on contracts for the large companies.

On the one hand, I have always expressed concern in a blanket belief in the power of mentoring. In many ways, it’s like dating and the success rate of formally arranged mentor / protégé relationships, especially ones with no other structure and preparation provided, matches that of blind dates.

On the other hand, I have also always believed in the power of mentoring when all of the stars are aligned, as they seem to have been in the cases described in the article.

Read the entire article at

Could Michael Jackson Be Michael Jackson Today?

An opinion piece in last week’s New York Times suggests why Michael Jackson, the pop culture phenomenon, is a product of his times and, in today’s media market, could not repeat itself.

At first, I agreed. But the more I think about it, it seems that the most successful celebrities today have found several pathways to their audiences. Think of Beyonce, who—in addition to her singing—dances, acts, models, and even has a fashion line. What the current media landscape means, however, is that attaining celebrity requires more work for less attention.

Read the entire article at

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

How the Canadian Healthcare System Actually Works

And for those of you who are interested in how Canada’s health care system works, check out this recent posting at the New York Times online.

(What is not explained here, however, is why do I have to read an American newspaper to find out how my Canadian healthcare system works?)

For the full description, visit:

A Canadian Perspective on Canadian Healthcare

As Americans debate a new system to pay for health care, you’re hearing a lot about the Canadian system.

So I thought you might be interested in this editorial from the Montreal Gazette, “Americans being misled about our health care.”

Admittedly, the Canadian system isn’t perfect. But neither is the American system. And the bottom line is indisputable: In terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Americans pay much more for their healthcare than Canadians, and Canadians live longer.

For the complete article, visit

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Failed Promise of Innovation in the U.S.

A blog in the New York Times led me to Michael Mandel’s cover story, “The Failed Promise of Innovation in the U.S.” in Business Week. In it, he asks whether the growth in innovation—and resulting growth in US productivity—was merely an illusion. Specifically, he asks:

“But what if the conventional wisdom is wrong? What if outside of a few high-profile areas, the past decade has seen far too few commercial innovations that can transform lives and move the economy forward? What if, rather than being an era of rapid innovation, this has been an era of innovation interrupted? And if that's true, is there any reason to expect the next decade to be any better?”

He goes on to explain that much of the innovation and growth experienced in the last decade can be attributed to the bubbles in the financial industry. In a sidebar article, “Growth: Why the Stats Are Misleading,” he explains how calculations of import prices are misleading and, as a result, do not capture the true cost of items.

Mandel offers some long-term hope, explaining that some innovations touted ten years ago are still on the horizon, but implementing them has been more challenging than expected.

As a teacher of human performance technology, I find Mandel’s primary article illustrative of the challenges in measuring performance, and the sidebar a good illustration of ways to break down the numbers so the person reading them can determine the extent to which these numbers can be trusted.

Read “The Failed Promise of Innovation” at

Read “Growth: Why the Stats Are Misleading” at

Monday, June 08, 2009

Designed Against Repairs

In “Appliance Anxiety: Replace It or Fix It?” published May 27, 2009 in the New York Times, Julie Scelfo reports on the financial and logistical challenges faced by consumers of appliances.

On the one hand, approximately 1 out of 3 major appliances breaks in the first three years.

On the other hand, repairs are priced to make replacing the appliance more attractive than fixing it. One major reason: for just a few hundred dollars more than a repair, a consumer can replace the faulty device. The major culprit: prices for replacement parts, whose retail prices can be as high as half the price of the appliance.

And even if the consumer opts to service the device, getting someone to come is a challenge in its own right. So sick of visits that ended with “I need to get a part,” one frustrated consumer in the UK held the repairman hostage until he finished the job. (She admits she wasn’t proud of that.)

A Consumer Reports reporter cited in the article advises consumers to buy the simplest appliances because the more electronics and gadgets it has, the more that can break and the more expensive the parts. Having had just gone through my second faulty Cuisinart coffee maker with the built-in grinder that doesn’t grind, I’ll take that advice.

See the entire article at

Sunday, June 07, 2009

The End of the Conspicuous Consumer, The Rise of the Focused One

In, “The Recession, Wal-Mart Style,” published June 7, 2009 in the New York Times, Stephanie Rosenbloom reports on “the new normal” in retail trends. A few noteworthy ones:
  • People are trading down on protein, from higher priced cuts of beef to ground beef and chicken if possible, cheese and increased carbohydrates if necessary. (My thought—the movement to increased carbs does not bode well for weight control.)
  • People are staying in more, as evidenced by increased sales for home theater, popcorn makers, and similar items for entertainment. “Consumers are trying to make being cooped up as painless as possible.” (Apparently, even though we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for our homes, and tens of thousands more to furnish them, we see spending time at home as a curse.)
  • People are handling more of their own simple repairs and maintenance, as evidenced by increased sales of fuel oil, and basic home improvement supplies, not only at Walmart, but also at Home Depot. (Clearly, these people must have the mechanical aptitude I lack.)
Even consumer behavior in store is changing; the executives cited in the article commented that customers go into their stores with lists and seem to stick to them, without browsing the rest of the store. A sidebar article mentioned in this one indicated that Walmart will be rearranging their stores to accommodate such targeted visits.

See the entire article at

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Freefall and Trainers and Technical Communicators

In several other blog posts, I've posted links to articles about the freefall of the newspaper business and the near-freefall of the broadcast television business.

For those of you who are trainers, instructional designers, or technical communicators, you're probably wondering, "what does any of this have to do with me?"

On the one hand, on an instinctive level, I always figured there was a link. As the commercial industry goes, so goes the custom (private) industry. On the other hand, I wasn't sure, at first, how it would play out.

Then I saw the article, "Customer Service? Ask a Volunteer," by Steve Lohr in the New York Times (Viewed at and the implication hit me like a ton of bricks: user-generated content.

So many of us are excited about Web 2.0 and the opportunity to have users generate content. But if users are generating all of the training and documentation, who needs professionals?

To be honest, I think there IS an answer to that question and some organizations will get it, and value what these two professions--ones in which I have invested years in both academic and industry environments. But I also believe that there's a similarly large group of organizations that will ask "who needs professionals?" and conclude, "certainly not us!"

And that, in turn, could have serious implications for future employment of people in both fields.

Data versus Instinct in Design

In “Data, Not Design, Is King in the Age of Google,” (New York Times, May 10, 2009) Miguel Helft reports the very public departure of Douglas Bowman as Google’s top visual designer. In his blog, Bowman explained that he left Google because:

Google was not friendly to designers.

Mr. Bowman’s main complaint is that in Google’s engineering-driven culture, data trumps everything else. When he would come up with a design decision, no matter how minute, he was asked to back it up with data. Before he could decide whether a line on a Web page should be three, four or five pixels wide, for example, he had to put up test versions of all three pages on the Web. Different groups of users would see different versions, and their clicking behavior, or the amount of time they spent on a page, would help pick a winner.

The article then explores the tenuous relationship between data and instinct in making design decisions and considers the limits of user data in making design decisions.

On a personal note, I’ve seen articles exploring the same issue in Business Week (which covers design better than any business publication), which provide examples from the auto industry of the limits of consumer data in making design decisions. Even soap operas (readers would know I would have to bring this up some time) have failed, in part, because they’re being written to please focus groups, rather than to surprise viewers.

Read the full article at

Another Take on the Freefall of Print Journalism

In “The American Press on Suicide Watch,” Frank Rich becomes the latest in a string of New York Times columnists to discuss the sharp, sudden decline of the print new media. (Maureen Dowd seems to have been writing nearly exclusively about this for a month or so.)

On the one hand, he does not feel that this is necessarily the end of the world, talking about the strong resistance with which radio and movies initially greeted television, a resistance that would eventually fall and a reinvention of both that eventually occurred. On the other hand, he notes with concern that online readers don’t seem too keen on paying for news yet advertising alone will not cover the cost of serious news gathering by Internet-only organizations (indeed, he notes, that Google doesn’t pay for news (it merely links to other people’s news)).

In the process of making that argument, Rich also notes that the distinction between opinion that passes for much of news these days and real news gathering—as well as the impact of that effort on democratic societies.

As an aside, Rich notes a little-reported statistic in the broad media coverage of Twitter: that 60 percent of subscribers drop their subscription after a month. He doesn’t draw any conclusions, though my assessment is that Twitter—like much social media—is still in tire-kicking mode. People want to try it out to see what it’s all about, but we’re still a ways off from long-term, effective uses of it.

Read the full column at

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Why the Internet Is So Costly at the Hyatt, Hilton, and Marriott

In “The Price of Staying Connected,” (New York Times, May 10, 2009) Michelle Higgins describes the high cost of Internet service in high-end hotels. In contrast, wireless Internet is usually free in most medium- and low-end hotels.

Among the reasons: money. Differences in the way that hotel chains are compensated for their affilitations with high-end hotels (management contracts, based on revenue) and medium- and low-end hotels (franchise agreements—fixed fees), results in separate charges for Internet at high-end hotels, and free Internet at others.

Read the entire article at .

The TVs I Have Been Waiting for

In “Can Widgets Save the Television Industry?”--one of the articles--in Business Week’s special section on the future of television, Helen Walters describes how the new Internet TVs work.

She described the Yahoo-Samsung TV, which is out now and due on other brands of TVs later this year (and not just in the US, but 17 other countries, but I don’t know whether those countries include Canada), and raves about its clear, nearly intuitive interface. (The only thing that interferes with the intuitive—ness of the interface is that applications (widgets—“ small software applications that offer tailored, pared-down versions of sites found online”) are divided between Samsung-suggested applications and Yahoo-suggested ones, a division resulting from licensing contracts and not the logic of the division.

I’ve been anxiously awaiting the convergence of high-definition, Internet, and television before making a significant investment in TV (well—other than shacking up with someone who already had a high-definition TV), and this looks like the one I’ve been waiting for. (But as my partner advises, it also needs to have wireless communication with speakers.)

Read all about the device at

Friday, May 01, 2009


In an April 2, 2009 post on the blog of the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia, Seb Chan talks first about the people behind the entries in the Wikipedia.  Then he describes how the Wikipedia is the largest referrer of visitors to the Powerhouse Museum website and the implication of that to the museum.  As a result of that, his museum set up a meeting with some keep Wikipedians in Australia.  The museum provided the Wikipedians with a tour of its facilities (including its storage), then described its mission and some of the challenges of using its resources online because of copyright and licensing issues.  

View the entire blog post at 

Thursday, April 30, 2009


In his article March 28, 2009 article in the New York Times,  "Wikipedia: Exploring Fact City, " Noam Cohen compares the experience of using the Wikipedia to that of exploring an ancient, well-built city, and the etiquette of  contributing to the Wikipedia to that of living in a city. 

Interesting food for thought.  

(Too bad it took me a month to get around to reading this.)  

View the entire article at 

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Food for Thought

In his recent New York Times article, "No, You Can't Get an Upgrade," David Segal describes an upgrade-oriented approach to life, from the upgrades one receives as compensation for a bad customer service experience to the upgrades in friends that people inevitably go through.  

The concept reminded me of a book I read about (but, admittedly, have not yet read): Sunnyvale, The Rise and Fall of a Silicon Valley Family, by Jeff Goodell, which describes the fallout of a planned upgrade.

View Segal's article at

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Carrots, Sticks, and Copyright Laws

In his recent New York Times article, "Sneaking Into the Movies," Michael Cieply describes how large media companies are using both carrots and sticks to ensure compliance with copyright laws.  

The sticks are well known-mostly lawsuits.  The article suggests that most media companies realize these efforts will have, at best, limited impact on pirating copyrighted music, movies, and television shows.  

The carrots are not well-known, but primarily involve creating "events" around the music and movies, such as using concerts-not records-as a primary revenue stream for performers and creating one-of-a-kind events around movies, which  viewing the video can't repeat (like the opening events associated with Disney's documentary, Earth.)

View the entire article at 

Monday, April 27, 2009

Checking Up on New Employers and Other Tips for Using LinkedIn

In "Ten Ways to Use LinkedIn," re-published at the LinkedIn blog, Guy Kawasaki offers a number of useful tips on getting value from this service.  Some of the more interesting ones:
  • Using LinkedIn to investigate a potential employer by checking up on the hiring manager and possible high turnover in the organization
  • Using your LinkedIn profile to improve Google search results about you 

View the entire article at

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Could SuperUsers Replace Super Technical Communicators and Instructional Designers?

In his recent New York Times article, "Customer Service? Ask a Volunteer," Steve Lohr describes a trend in which organizations seek out super-users to voluntarily contribute insights and advice in their online communities, speaking specifically about a trial project at Verizon.  

As a scholar, the discussion of research on the different classes of users was helpful: a class of super-users who provide expert advice to others and suggest improvements to product design (sometimes making the improvements themselves), who comprise about 1 percent of a user community; a second group of users that actively participants as raters of experts' advice (about 9 percent), and the majority (as much as 90 percent  of users), who simply read the contributions of the other 10 percent.

As a teacher of future creators of content, however, the Verizon trial (and other projects like it) seem like the embodiment of the "informal learning future" that so many in training and instructional design describe.  But this vision of the future doesn't really hold much room for company staff, except to reward the 1 percent who contribute.   

View the entire article at

Friday, April 24, 2009

A New Way of Viewing the World

In “Lit Critics Who Peer Under the Covers,” New York Times contributor Patricia Cohen discusses the impact of the work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a co-founder of queer studies who, in the process of co-founding a field, challenged academics to look at the world in new ways.

Cohen writes:
For starters, the ideas that she and others developed helped to usher in the era of multiculturalism, which challenged traditional scholarship as well as the primacy of Western thought and peoples. The resulting battles over ideology and values that composed the culture wars made their way into the national conversation.
Cohen adds that Sedgwick felt that all “defined categories” fail to “capture reality.” More than focusing on GLBTQ issues, Sedgwick had an impact on all of the identity studies. Sedgwick noted a tension between the “universalizing view,” in which minorities should be treated like everyone else, and the “minoritizing view,” in which miniroties should be viewed as “oppressed.”

Cohen notes the impact of Sedgwick’s scholarship not only on academe, but in the broader community and suggests that it was one of the drivers of the conservative outrage at academic scholarship.

To be honest, I’ve noticed the tension between the universalizing and minoritizing not only in the queer world, in Quebec (which struggles with language issues), and in the Jewish community, which struggles with isolation and assimilation.

As much as I probably should not be admitting this (but to be honest, although I’m queer, but I’m not a queer scholar), I had not heard of Sedgwick but hope to learn more.

Read the full article at

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Integrating IT

In “Tech Skills Crucial to Any Career, Students Say,” Denise Dubie reports on an IBM Academic Initiative survey that:
“found that 80 percent of 1,600 college students polled agreed that high-technology skills will help them succeed, and a majority expect to have to master new technologies while in the workforce. More than 50 percent of the students said they plan to improve their technology skills before they graduate, with technology being the top skill that students want to pursue, followed by writing and marketing skills.”

True. But that’s not exactly a new finding. The late Helen Loeb presented a similar finding from her survey of engineering students over 20 years ago at the Society for Technical Communication Annual Conference (can’t remember the exact one; I think it was Denver 1987).

She also compared those results with a survey of students 10 years after they received their degrees. By then, they realized that communication skills were the most important in moving their careers forward.

What’s different by the IBM survey is that it was not conducted with technically-focused students. It encompassed students in other fields, like healthcare, and found that IT is basic to even these fields. Mark Hanny, an IBMer involved with the study, concluded that:
"Studying IT and technology in a broader sense is the right approach; it helps students understand how technology is applied to various businesses to help streamline operations," Hanny says. "IT is being embraced by students as a core competency across many professions and no longer considered a narrow, specialized skill set."
That’s an especially important finding for a field like educational technology

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Reason versus Emotion

In his April 7 column in the New York Times, David Brooks comments on the roles of reasons and emotions in making moral judgments:
. . . They are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain. Most of us make snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when we are babies, before we have language. And even as adults, we often can’t explain to ourselves why something feels wrong.

In other words, reasoning comes later and is often guided by the emotions that preceded it.
I now know why being logical rarely gets through to people.

For the full column, visit

Data-Based Decisions, Again

In Failing to Push Paper in the Digital Age, Gordon Pitts explains how AbitibiBowater, (it’s one of those huge companies that most people never hear of—it’s the largest manufacturer of newsprint) ended up in bankruptcy.

Many of the issues that this 95-year-old company are financial: the company assumed bigger is better and over-leveraged itself becoming big.

But a part of the problem is a failure to carefully read industry trends. Pitts describes how the company tried to continue growing despite a 20-year downward trend in the demand for newspapers, and never fully responded to that trend. Furthermore, one of the companies this one bought had as one of its best assets a top-notch CEO. But the purchasers did not that CEO in their top job. So when the bottom fell out of the news industry this past year, the bottom fell out of this company.

Read the full article at

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Elements of Style Turns 50

One of the pithiest books on writing style, Strunk & White's Elements of Style, turns 50 this year. Read about the book and its impact at

Skin Deep Toxicity

In his article, Managing Toxic Employees: How to Turn Such Individuals into Positive Performers, in BusinessWest (a business newspaper in Western Massachusetts), Edward R. Mitnick provides signs of toxic employees, explains how once-productive and positive workers might become toxic, and offers a step-by-step process for addressing these problems.

The problem with brief articles like this one that attempt to cover complex topics is that they oversimplify them and, in this case, barely acknowledge it. In this case, Mitnick focuses on the most obvious toxic performers—the kind of people everyone meets on the job.

The problem is, not all toxic workers are so obviously toxic at face value. But there are other means of identifying them—such as higher turnover (because people choose not to work with these toxic individuals).

Furthermore, the strategies that Mitnick suggests for addressing toxic workers are pretty standard, and look like they come straight out of a manual for managing marginal performers with a performance plan. The plan is the easy part; initiating the conversations regarding poor performance are the hard part and the article offers no advice on that.

In fact, one of the reasons that these problems arise is that managers avoided the problems when they first appeared because avoiding that unpleasant conversation was easier and quicker than having it.

(In fact, in Coaching in Challenging Times, published at the Training Zone UK, John Blakely notes that even executive coaches have been able to avoid these difficult conversations in their coaching until now but, because the clients paying coaches to addres the “‘coachee’s prejudices and shortcomings,” even executive coaches are going to have to have these “difficult conversations” and “confront” their coachees.)

To his credit, Mitnick suggests that toxic performers are often the result of bad management, rather than merely the worker’s own actions and that fixing the problem requires shared ownership.

Read Mitnick’s full article at

Read the article on executive coaches having difficult conversations with coachees at

It’s All in the Data

In his April 17, 2009 column in the New York Times, Paul Krugman analyzes the evidence that an economic recovery might be starting, offering “four reasons to be cautious about the economic outlook.”

For students of data-based decision making, this analysis provides an insight into the role of interpretation of data provided. For example, Krugman shows how optimists might be missing some important data in their analyses or choosing to ignore it, stating that “Things are getting worse” based on the most recent reports from the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank’s many districts.

He raises similar concerns about bank profits, noting how a change in the reporting period has removed one of the most difficult months from one bank’s quarterly report and, as a result, made the performance appear significantly data.

In other words, yes—data is important in making decisions, but the data needs to be sound.

Read the full column at

Monday, April 20, 2009

What Ails Higher Education?

In her April 18, 2009 column in the Globe and Mail, Margaret Wente suggests that one of the problems with university education today is that a large number of students admitted don’t really belong there and would be better served by a vocational education at a community college (Cegep).

As evidence, she cites a variety of evidence, including reports of grade inflation in Ontario schools (resulting in students who think they’re prepared for university, but are not), and polls of, and interviews with, university professors about the capabilities of their incoming students. She also notes that, once admitted, most students cannot flunk out.

Read the full column at

Friday, April 10, 2009

And Now, for the Positive News

In contrast to the pessimism of my earlier posting about the demise of mass media and the decline of traditional media, a commentary by A. O. Scott suggests that today’s media users seek pith and character and, in response, electronic reading devices like Kindle might lead to a the resurgence of the short story, just as the iPod changed the focus from the album to the song.

In other words, despite the sadness of the loss of what we know, something good might be on the horizon.

Read Scott’s piece at

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Differences between Unions in America and Canada and Europe

Unions in the US have always seemed different than the ones in Europe and Canada (especially Quebec).

I always sensed that the US public was less supportive of unions than the European union, as demonstrated by overall levels of union representation in the workforce (much lower in the US) and general attitudes in conversation (admittedly anecdotal information).

US unions also tend to be more on top of things in negotiations. They tend to stop working as soon as a contract expires, rather than working towards a settlement for what seems like an eternity like they do in Canada (some unions will go 4 or 5 years without a contract, get a lump sum payment for the difference--but the new contract is only good for a short time before the never-ending process begins again).

And when European workers aren't happy (as they aren't feeling right now with all of the job cuts there), they take to the streets.

A Week in Review piece from the April 5 New York Times sheds some light on these differences. Read the entire article at

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Corporate Trainers and Communicators Not Immune to Trends in Traditional Media

Any of us who work in the media, even if we work in a training or internal or technical communications group, must certainly feel troubled by the problems faced by the commercial media. The old media—newspapers, magazines, and television—is bleeding viewers, advertisers, and revenue. In response, most are cutting expenses, which translates into lost jobs and less coverage. Many new media sites—like webzines and web-based news—are either marginally or not yet profitable, so they’re not necessarily absorbing the losses.

More fundamentally, changes in the media will have profound social and intellectual impacts. Mass media has a near universal reach so it creates a common experience among all users. More significantly, because it serves a wide audience, it tends to emphasize some level of balance in its reporting and provides people with access to opinions that challenge the ones they hold. (Whether that balance is perceived is another issue.)

In contrast, the newer media—and the more profitable versions of traditional media—appeal to niches, like Fox News appeals to conservative and MSNBC appeals to progressives. According to a column by Nicholas Kristoff, these niche media rely more on reinforcing and supporting the beliefs and values of their users rather than broadening them. Similarly, partly because of their appeal to niches and partly because of economics, these niche sources rely more on commentators than reporters. Commentators may or may not rely on empirical evidence to support their opinions. These sources also solicit stories from "citizen journalists" who might have more immediate access to news, but have neither the training nor the professional ethic to get all sides of a story or to avoid speculation. And they’re less expensive than salaried reporters or news services. Staff at these media organizations become low-level production specialists rather than senior correspondents, lending less and less editorial expertise.

And there’s evidence that similar trends are afoot in corporate communications and training. See David Merrill and Brent Wilson’s 2006 chapter on the rise of the instructional-designer-by-assignment in Bob Reiser and John Dempsey’s 2006 book on issues in instructional design and technology. And I have an upcoming chapter in Rachel Spilka’s book on the effects of digital technology on technical communication.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Apparently, Americans Don't Know their Civics

Apparently, Americans don’t know their civics. The average university-educated individual flunked a 33-question exam of questions ranging from the three branches of government to the nature of the market system. Although a bachelor’s degree was the single
Among other causes for the problem, the authors noted that watching television, including TV news, as one of the leading factors associated with poor test scores (watching cable news networks results in an average of .8 percent drop in score).

Take the test yourself at:

(For what it’s worth, I scored a 90.3. )

Monday, April 06, 2009

Age Discrimination? Is it Real? Can You Do Anything about It?

Despite laws forbidding it, age discrimination is a factor in job searches.
On the one hand, evidence suggests that older workers are having an easier time finding work in this difficult economy than younger ones. Steven Greenhouse describes the competition among younger and older workers for less- and moderately- skilled workers is in his March 20, 2009 article in the New York Times. (

But even with those odds, an older worker looking for a professional job, especially in fields undergoing extensive technical changes or that are characterized by younger employment, age discrimination is a reality. It will not be overt, but according to Eilene Zimmerman’s February 28 column in the New York Times, but will be a subtle factor (perhaps unconscious). Interviewers will wonder whether you’re up to date on technology or a luddite? Whether you have the energy to do the job or are going to take naps every afternoon in the office? Whether you are looking for something to bridge you until you’re eligible for Social Security or will make a longer-term career?

Read her advice for fending off these perception issues at

Friday, April 03, 2009

Netbook nation?

For years, I was always concerned that PCs had more power than the average person needed. Consider application software. MS Works not only has enough power for the average user--like my mom and step-sister--but is far less expensive than MS Office. But so many people think they need the more expensive versions.

Similarly, everyone always bought PCs and laptops with the most power they could afford, even though they rarely used even half of that capability. For example, many people don't play games or perform professional music and video editing. So why do they need all of that graphics and memory capability?

Building on the $100 computer that was developed for use in developing nations, manufacturers have realized that maybe some people in the developed world might be ready to trade down to a level of computing that's appropriate to them and started to offer similar low-power devices that run on the open source Linux operating system.

Called netbooks, these attractive looking and even more attractively-priced PCs have been a huge hit. At $300-$800 for a typical device (though higher priced ones exist), they're selling well. (OK--that's even if they're a bit hard to use. My fingers constantly type the wrong key on my ASUS eeePC.)

But a new partnership between mobile phone companies and manufacturers of netbooks could result in even lower costs. According to a New York Times article this week, as low as $50 in a trial program by AT&T Wireless in Atlanta, and maybe even free (with a commitment to a long-term mobile phone plan, of course).

And it sounds like the manufacturers of higher end computing products are concerned, as recent sales data suggests that netbooks will affect their bottom lines.

Read the entire article at

Whither Voice Mail

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm one of the world's worst responders to voice mail messages.

I always understood the psychology of it: with 4 e-mail accounts and 3 voice mail accounts, and office and home delivery of the mail, something has to give.

So my outgoing voice mail message suggests that people send an e-mail message.

What I did not understand that my behavior is part of a growing trend, as reported by Jill Colvin in "You've Got Voice Mail, but do You Care?" published in Friday's New York Times.

And, the article reports that, rather than being rude, the message that people send an e-mail message is considered to be appropriate behavior.

Read the whole article at

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Addressing Poor Performance in Schools

In a recent column New York Times’ columnist Nicholas Kristof describes the challenges facing the superintendent of schools in Washington, DC in addressing that school system’s weak performance.

Some of the most significant include providing all students with access to the best teachers, whose presence plays one of the most significant positive effects on student performance. Students in wealthy neighborhoods are far more likely to have access to such teachers than those in disadvantaged neighborhoods. In the process, she also needs to step up to poor performance in schools, a situation that reaches faces stiff opposition.

View the entire article at

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

An Intriguing Idea for Funding Academic Research

In their guest column, Research for America, researchers Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt describe the fundamental problem with the boom-and-bust approach to science funding and its effect not only on research but, more fundamentally, on the development of future research capacity.

To that end, they propose a program like Americorps but, instead of placing young people in teaching roles, the corps would place young people in research roles.

Among the benefits could be significantly improved training for research assistants, an issue that results in disappointing performance by student-apprentices and their mentor-professors.

The idea is proposed in the field of the sciences but might have even more applicability in the social sciences.

View the entire suggestion at

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Long Live Instructor Training

In "Long Live Instructor Training," I provide empirical evidence to challenge the prevalent messages in the training press that instructor-led training is going the way of the dinosaur and that informal learning will replace it.

Check out the article at:

The Limitations of Learning from Experience

Gail Collins' March 28, 2009 column, "How to Train a Governor," describes the after-effects of relying on on-the-job training when the job environment is dysfunctional.

And when the job is high profile and affects millions of people, the consequences can be devastating.

Check out the column at

Saturday, March 28, 2009

So how smart are those experts, really?

In his March 26, 2009 column (this past Thursday), Nicholas Kristof talks about the general limitations of “experts” to predict the future and suggests which types of experts have greater success in predicting the future.

In particular, he notes how a group of educators fell under the spell of an imposter expert. Makes me worry about the field.

View the entire column at

Failure to Train

The editorial “Walking a mile in the wrong shoes” in Thursday’s Globe and Mail suggests that one of the factors contributing to the tasering death of Robert Dziekanski is that the Mounties on duty let their training lapse. The one who used the taser took his training 4 years earlier and had not taken any refresher training. The most senior of the officers on duty let his first aid training (which comes with an expiration date) expire 5 years before the incident.
That raises two issues:

(1) Although the literature on training today tends to focus on return on investment in training, in many situations—especially those involving health, law, life, and death—the real value is the ability of workers to act appropriately when the situation demands it. Training provides the preparation, refresher training maintains the readiness.

(2) That the two Mounties missed their training is part of a trend that is increasingly emerging in the training research: the longer one holds a position, the less likely they are to get training. How many other risks arise because someone was too busy to refresh their knowledge?

View the editorial at

Saturday, January 17, 2009

What Airlines Can Learn from the Railroads

Travel was never easy and delays en route have always been a characteristic of travel.

The issue is--how does the travel operator handle the risk?

If it's an airline--nothing. Although people have checked in for a flight, or are sitting on a plane, and realize nothing is happening when it should (even the densest person can usually figure it out), flight attendants gossip with one another or engage in some similar behavior that ignores their customers and, more significantly, fails to acknowledge the obvious.

When the delay is a mechanical problem, airlines REALLY fail to share what's going on (because knowledgeable passengers know that, when the problem is mechanical, the airline is responsible for taking care of its passengers).

In a couple of instances, when bad weather forced the airplane to land at another location, the airlines did not even tell us we were being diverted until we were in the process of landing the plane.

If they're not sharing information, it's almost guaranteed that the airlines won't share complimentary drinks, snacks, or anything else while passengers wait and grow increasingly restless.

(One person tried to tell me that flight attendants are not there for customer service; they're there for safety. Although airline regulations might indeed require that, when someone is serving coke and asking me to consider their airline for my next trip--that person is giving the impression flight attendants are there for customer service and, thus, set up that expectation. So airlines should not be surprised that passengers expect customer service from flight attendants.)

I recently experienced a delay on a train that shows me how airlines SHOULD handle a delay.

First, they kept passengers informed throughout. As soon as a problem arose and they had an understanding of what it was, the staff made an announcement.

Soon afterwards, the staff served both complimentary coffee and snacks. (Usually, these are for sale.)

When the delay went beyond a half-hour, they offered all passengers discounts on a future train ticket. Through ongoing announcements (about every 10 to 15 minutes), staff kept passengers informed. (OK, I can't say I liked the news that the delay was extended, but would rather the staff be honest about it than pretend like a situation that clearly existed, didn't. doesn't exist.)

At the end, they thanked us for our patience.

As my old boss used to say, it's not how you handle the day-to-day things that make a difference; it's how you handle the extraordinary things that establish excellence in customer service.