UK Mediation sponsors the Big Issue London to Paris bike ride

Personal Send feedback »  7729 views
UK Mediation sponsors the Big Issue London to Paris bike ride

UK Mediation, a national mediation services and training company has kindly sponsored me for the Big Issue London to Paris Bike Ride.

If you or your company would like to add to the sponsorship fund, please go to the secure fundraising page.

UK Mediation logo

Configuration management systems - boring but essential

Technology, Open Source, Reviews Send feedback »  8391 views

Like many of us, I get drawn to the new and shiny toys that seem to arrive every week. We are told that each one, whether its hardware or software, is better, faster or more useful than the one before.

But change comes at a price. It's fine if it's just you and your wallet. That's your decision. But when other people are involved, whether it's your clients, your team, or even your whole organisation, then any change needs to be carefully managed.

The more complex your setup, the harder you'll have to work to prove that the change is either necessary or low impact.

Somewhere you'll need a list of everyone that might need to be consulted - every system, business process, and technology that might be impacted by the change you're wanting to introduce.

This is where Configuration Management Databases (CMDB) come in. They keep a record of "Configuration Items", their relationships with each other, and any changes that have been applied to them. This then allows organisations to build change management processes with information flowing to the right people at the right time in order to gain approval for changes.

CMDB's are a core part of ITIL™ (Information Technology Infrastructure Library), which, like PRINCE2™ (for project and programme management) comes from the UK's Office of Government Commerce.

ITIL gives detailed descriptions of a number of important IT practices and provides comprehensive checklists, tasks and procedures that any IT organisation can tailor to its needs. (From ITIL on Wikipedia 27/4/11)

Configuration management is the part of ITIL that ensures that any changes to configuration items are appropriately:

  • Identified
  • Planned
  • Assessed
  • Approved
  • Tested
  • Communicated
  • Released
  • Maintained

The object is to ensure a stable system, that continues to meet the needs of the organisation, whilst adapting to changes in the environment.

Configuration items don't just mean bits of technology (whether software or hardware). They also include core business processes (eg. when and how the organisation communicates with clients, or the process by which a certification is gained by a learner).

It's also important to realise that no, one, database is going to contain all the information about all your systems and processes. For example, you will probably have a inventory database that is separate, but needs to be known to (and queryable by) the CMDB.

The solution adopted by Combodo (a French IT Services company) is shown below:

Combodo solution

It's based around their open-source iTop CMDB.

iTop Screenshot

If you're working in a place where open source (specifically PHP) applications are accepted and used, then I'd recommend taking a look at iTop. As well as configuration management, it also handles incidents, changes, service contracts (for suppliers and customers), known issues, outage notification, and issue notification from end-users.

iTop is designed for people who are offering IT Services to a number of client organisations, and provides dashboards and reporting across all clients and for specific clients.

Although, by necessity, the application is complex, it has a consistent and easy to learn interface. To get the best out of it though, you'll need a decent grounding in the ITIL processes - just to help you make decisions about where to store which bits of information.

Thanks to Xyleme

Not yet categorised Send feedback »  5436 views
Thanks to Xyleme

Thanks to Xyleme - the Learning Content Management System provider - for their generous sponsorship of the Big Issue London to Paris Bike Ride.

If you or your company would like to add to the sponsorship fund, please go to the secure fundraising page.

Review of Balsamiq Mockups

Technology, Reviews 2 feedbacks »  6398 views

If you're a designer of any sort of software, whether elearning content, web applications, mobile apps, or even OS-specific applications, this review is for you.

It can be really hard to help your clients understand what they're going to get. So, quite often, even at the pre-sales stage, software designers build mock-up designs. This approach can be fraught with problems - especially if you haven't yet got a good feel for what the client's real needs are.

Particularly problematic is the expectation that these mock-ups raise. As designers we want to show off all the glitzy features that are possible. If we do it too well, this then becomes the end product, with very little room to manoeuvre.

Elearning designers are particularly at risk, with their "rapid-development" tools. Unless you've got a very good relationship with the client, that allows an agile development approach, then you'll probably be trapped into a waterfall design methodology. But, if you've given your client a view of the finished-product up-front, then you won't be able to respond to what you later discover about the client's requirements.

This is where Balsamiq Mockups comes in.

It's an inexpensive software tool that allows you to create page/application designs quickly, with end results that look like hand-drawn screen diagrams, like the one below.

Balsamiq mockups sample

Screens can be linked together, so you can easily demonstrate user workflows, and even create interactive PDFs.

There are third-party tools that enable you to create real code from the mockups (although I've not tested any of these!)

Virtually any interface element can be quickly and easily built from the pre-built element library, but there's also a community-generated set of UI components.

I've tried Axure, which is a similar tool, but far more expensive and complex. Axure is in the next league up, and designed for helping project teams build major applications. For a small team, or an individual designer, in most cases it's probably a bit over-kill.

Balsamiq is invaluable for showing clients what is possible, but without the impression that they're seeing a finished product.

There is just a couple of things I hope the team at Balsamiq implement at some point:

  1. Managing large projects can become awkward, as the only way to navigate between pages is through the tabs at the bottom of the screen. This quickly become overcrowded. I believe this is on the roadmap, but then large projects might be better managed with Axure and other, similarly-priced products.
  2. At the moment, if you need to change a menu item that appears on every page of an application, you have to manually change it in each Balsamiq page. There needs to be some way of templating common UI elements so that you only need to change them once for the whole project. Again, it looks like Balsamiq are working on this. I'm looking forward to seeing it soon!

    [EDIT: @Balsamiq has informed me that the new "symbols" feature allows just this functionality!]

So, overall, a great little tool. If you've ever needed to build a quick website or application layout and not wanted to worry about code or colours, then I'd highly recommend Balsamiq Mockups.

For those viewing this in an RSS reader, there's a video below that shows some of the key features. And, if Balsamiq want to sponsor me for the Big Issue Bike Ride that would be very gratefully received (although this post was written without any expectation of sponsorship, and I'd have said the same things anyway!)

Xyleme Voices podcast: Getting the most from your LMS

Technology Send feedback »  4226 views

I had the privilege recently of making a podcast with the team from Xyleme Voices.

From the podcast blurb:

Mark ... makes the case that companies are spending thousands of dollars on creating training content but they are locking it away in their Learning Management System (LMS). In today’s podcast Mark will be discussing how to get more from your LMS.

In the corporate learning context, Mark argues that learners cannot quickly get the information they need because the content they require is sitting inside the company’s LMS without the ability to search for it. Mark explains how the problem lies not with the system itself, but with how it is used in conjunction with other systems and he offers his advice on how corporations can best address this issue in the workplace.

Nothing new from what I've been saying for a while, but the podcast seems to capture things quite succinctly.

You can listen to the podcast using the player above, or go to the Xyleme Voice page where you can subscribe to the podcast RSS feed.

Being Creative in a Digital World - follow up 2

Presentations & Workshops Send feedback »  3233 views

I had the privilege of running another "Being Creative in a Digital World" online workshop this morning.

Like last time, we used Webex, and again followed (roughly!) the structure outlined here.

The conversation ranged widely - with only four people it meant there was a fair bit of scope for discussion.

We discussed how, when working in the social media space, having an authentic voice is absolutely critical. I recommended reading the Cluetrain Manifesto (free download), as it really opens up how organisations should connect with their markets.

We considered how to get the best out of tools like Twitter, Yammer and Socialcast. As I wrote in my Best Practice Guide to Yammer:

You walk into a conference room. It's your first time at this particular conference and there's no welcome pack. You can see quite a few people standing around drinking coffee and eating small pastries. But no-one's talking to each other.
You have three options:

  • Turn around and walk out.
  • Find someone you know and begin a conversation about one of the conference themes.
  • Introduce yourself to someone you don't know and look for areas of common interest

Social media tools can sometimes feel like that conference room. For many people it's a strange new environment. There are no clear rules on how to behave or what to do. We know the value of networking, but doing that online can be daunting at times.

We also looked at how RSS feeds can make it a lot easier to keep up to date, maintain your connections with your information sources, to filter out what you don't need to see and to share what you've learnt. (See Harold Jarche's guide to Personal Knowledge Management). The key thing is to find your trusted sources, and the best way to do that is through personal recommendation, but also to seek out those sources who do not necessarily agree with your own point of view.

We then went on to think about how the tools at our disposal encourage creativity across organisational and even national boundaries. The first couple of minutes of Chris Anderson's talk at TED really highlights this in the context of dance - through Youtube kids are sharing moves and building on what they're learning.

We looked at tools that are making it easier to share content:

More tools in the extensive list on Jane Hart's directory - summarised beautifully in this PDF

We made the point that free tools might not necessarily be appropriate for large-scale use. You need to understand the business model as well as the risks of putting your data on servers you know nothing about.

Finally, one of the delegates highlighted an example of a truly collaborative and creative project, the Johnny Cash Project

As with all these sorts of workshops there's no real end result, other than an increased awareness of what is possible. It's then up to the individuals to then go work out what will work for them, in their context.

Raising money for the Big Issue Foundation

Personal Send feedback »  3436 views
Raising money for the Big Issue Foundation

If you weren't aware of this already, later this year I shall be doing a 230 mile bike ride from London to Paris in aid of the Big Issue Foundation (an established UK-based organisation that helps homeless people to get back on their feet).

Thanks to the people at Excel Everest and Onlignment, I'm already over 20% of the way towards my target.

If you are a company in the learning technology / training / education field, I will happily put your logo and a link on my blog sidebar in return for a donation (£100 is suggested, but I'll accept less!) - Please see the small print though.

If you donate more than £100, I'll write an independent review.

If you are an individual and wish to donate, please let me know how I can help you in return.

Small print

This blog (according to my software's hit counter) gets about 800 direct browser hits per day. Although that has gone up to 5000 when a post gets picked up by the L&D community.

I will reserve the right to choose whether or not an advert or review is appropriate. Basically, I'll include anyone if your product is legal, honest and decent, and you're selling to any of the following sectors:

  • Adult learning
  • Workplace learning
  • Organisational development
  • Internal communication

If you're not sure whether you fit the readership of this blog, then contact me first.

Reviews will be independent and honest. They may contain criticisms and ideas for improvement. You will have the opportunity to respond before the review is published.

Reviews that are written as part of this scheme will include the Big Issue Bike Ride logo.

Adverts placed on this site do not indicate that the owner of this site is recommending the products.

I will take none of the monies raised - although, it must be said, that some of it is paying the costs of putting on the Bike Ride.

About the Big Issue Foundation

The Big Issue Foundation is dedicated to the well being of Big Issue Vendors, working with over 2900 individuals across the UK. Their skilled staff work one to one with vendors, tackling issues ranging from health and accommodation through to money management and aspirations.

The Big Issue Foundation is about taking control, moving forward, gaining independence and rebuilding lives. They exist to enable vendors to continue on their journey away from homelessness.

Did you know that life expectancy on the streets is only 46 years old?

You can help support me, and The Big Issue Foundation, by making a secure online donation using your credit card at my fundraising page.

Flipping the classroom

Learning, Context, Management & Implementation, Change Management 2 feedbacks »  16326 views

There's a lot of thought flying around the web at the moment about the concept of "flipping the classroom" - using the internet to provide pre-classroom lectures and the classroom to embed that knowledge through exercises, coaching and discussion.

Key posts include:

Donald Clark - flip the classroom, every teacher should do this

Karl Fisch  - We see this as the future of higher education

Salman Khan on TED Talks - Let's use video to  reinvent education

This is a model that's been working reasonably well in workplace training for a number of years now. It does rely on there being some sort of motivating influence to do the pre-work though. Generally, given the choice, most people will just rely on being able to bluff their way through the classroom session.

The key thing is “appropriate use” of the resources at our disposal. It’s about enabling flexibility of choice for the teacher and for the learner.

We need to balance financial cost with the effective and efficient use of time, and with the underlying motivational level of our students/trainees.

We need to consider whether 1:1 coaching would work best for a particular student/context, or whether a small group discussion, or even a 1:many lecture.

The problem with much of our educational/training infrastructure is that it’s built on a highly inflexible classroom-based model of teaching. The investment has already been made in those buildings and the administration processes that surround them.

To become more flexible, some of these ways of working will need to be torn down before they can be rebuilt.

I can imagine a training or educational organisation that is based around a problem-based curriculum, which uses small Action Learning Sets, coaching, online lectures, searchable resource libraries, inspirational speakers (like TED talks), informal conversations and a whole host of other types of interactions in different sized groups. It would be complex. Sometimes it would appear chaotic. It would certainly be an interesting one to manage. But it would relate far more to the real world than our closed classrooms with a trainer/teacher and delegates/students.

The LMS as a marketing tool

Context, Management & Implementation Send feedback »  5928 views
The LMS as a marketing tool

The model of learning and development provision, up till now, has generally been a "Push" approach. Learners get told by the managers, or compliance, or whoever, that they should do a particular course (whether face-to-face or elearning).

As we move towards more of a "Pull" approach, with learners taking far more responsibility for their own learning, our training departments will find that they are in stiff competition with many other (often far easier to access) sources of learning.

For example, why would I choose to go on a Management Development course, when I can, for free, get access to an excellent set of management development resources, as well as an active community of practice? (ie. Manager Tools)

Why would I buy a course in HTML or CSS, or virtually any web programming language, when I've got free access to well-designed tutorials and resources? (ie. W3Schools)

Our L&D departments need to learn that they're now in the marketing game. They're not just selling to managers. They've got to sell to the learners themselves. This is especially true if your learners hold the L&D budget and can spend it as they like...

The Learning Management System has (or should have) a key role to play in marketing your training interventions.(I don't like to use the word "courses" and L&D is so much wider than just the course.)

Just think about the information contained within its walls:

  • the content you're making available
  • learner roles
  • learner team relationships
  • what learners are searching for
  • what learners have bought or used
  • when they did their purchasing / using

At least, the LMS should be collecting this data... Facebook's market value of $33bn is only that high because of the information it holds about its users. Why? Because it's highly valued by advertisers.

If our LMS's were doing their job properly, we'd see them looking less like process-driven, data entry systems and more like Amazon. In the image in this post (click on it for a larger version), I've highlighted some of the key things that Amazon does that could easily be transferred to an L&D scenario:

  • Global search - available from the home page onwards
  • Ubiquitous catalogue - with all products classified as learners would understand
  • Products able to appear in multiple categories
  • Promoted products appearing prominently
  • Links to products that learners have looked at but not yet bought
  • Links to products that the learners have expressed a greater interest in but not yet bought
  • Links to products that are related to ones the learner has looked at

There's more that's hidden inside the system:

  • Recommendations based on previous purchases
  • Learners able to sort and filter search results by best-selling, ratings, price
  • In our case, perhaps the ability to filter based on location, length, pre-requisites, level, qualification, whether online or face-to-face

I've been talking to a lot of learning technology vendors over the past few years, and I'm amazed how few seem to have understood the extent to which the learner is now in control, not just of their learning, but of the money that's being spent on it.

If they don't make their systems as easy to use as Amazon, Ebay, Youtube or even Wordpress - putting the user at the centre of the experience and building an effective marketing platform - then they will paint themselves into a corner that consists exclusively of "Push" training where budgets are held centrally.

I'm sure that's not a realistic way of doing business in the future?

Related posts

I have a dream (from 2005!)

Looking for a Learner Support System (2007)

Why search is critical (2011)

Why search is critical

Connected Learning Environment 2 feedbacks »  1372 views

Having a good search engine is a key component to any content-rich learning strategy.

It's important for your learners, as searching is the main place people start these days when they want to find out something. Providing a page that pulls together results from inside your documents, from your course descriptions, and from content/posts provided by other people is by far the best way to get people to use your materials.

It's important for your content providers, as, with judicious placement of "important" items near the top of the list, you can encourage your learners to make more use of the centrally-provided content.

It's also important for the "business", as, by analysing what people are searching for, you've then got the equivalent of a training needs analysis (as discovered by Google [watch from about 13:32 in the video] ) . This assumes you've got a reasonably-sized sample. If you have, then this is by far a simpler process than doing a full TNA.

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