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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Oh Accenture, you spent all that money and you learned nothing

Learning technology has its fads. One by one they are adopted by the big corporations who have one real goal: don’t spend a great deal of time on training people. 

In 1989, I was hired by Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) as a consultant to help improve their training which was mostly lecture based, at a training facility in St Charles, Illinois. Simultaneously, they gave Northwestern University a great deal of money enabling me to found the Institute for the Learning Sciences that tried to invent new ways of learning on the computer, and also took on ten Andersen people for two years master’s degree programs with the aim that they would bring back new ways of thinking about training to Andersen.

I happened to look at Accenture’s training site the other day:

I was curious what they were doing these days and wondering if I had had any effect on them. It was easy to draw two conclusions:

1- Accenture is now obsessed with the idea that all courses should last an hour and should be online. They are closing (or have already closed) the St Charles facility.

2. They learned exactly one thing from me. They learned that learning objectives for courses should be about doing rather than knowing. It doesn’t matter what people know (typically have memorized.) What matters is what people can do that they could not do before.

There seem to be hundreds of courses available. If you hit Risk Management, for example, about 100 course titles are listed. All of them seem to be one hour long (I didn’t look at every single one) and all of them have Learning Objectives that read like this one for Overcoming Challenges in Asset Management.

After completing this course, you should be able to:
Identify the top pressures and risks for asset management.
Recognize how top companies are addressing the growing talent gap.
Describe how to use remote asset connectivity for an effective asset management strategy.
Define how predictive analytics can strengthen your asset management strategy.

This uses the language of doing but objectives that start with “define how” are not really doing objectives.

And what does this one hour course involve the trainee in doing? It involves them listening to a one hour “webinar.” (The person giving this speech is working on a masters degree in statistics.)

Let’s look at another: Analyzing the Core Elements of the Strategic Plan. This one is one hour of online self study (which I suppose means one hour of reading). Its learning objectives are: 

After completing this course, you should be able to:
Determine how to create an effective mission statement at both the corporate and the divisional levels.
Recognize the role of objectives in the strategic planning process.
Identify the characteristics of an effective strategy.
Explain the function of tactics in a strategic plan.

I am impressed. I didn't know you could learn all that from an hour of reading. (The author of this course has an M.S. in Finance.)

So, clearly, I failed. I tried to change Accenture’s approach to training but failed. I already knew this because I hear from my former Andersen students from time to time and almost none of them are still at Accenture. And, ironically, my major clients are Accenture’s direct competitors. So, while I appreciate Andersen's help to me, so do their competitors. Accenture itself seems not to have learned much from me.

But, my real issue here, is trying to understand what you can learn and how you can learn, in an hour, since it this is now a fad that is driving demand for more and more one hour courses.

With this in mind, I asked myself what I might ever have learned in an hour (in a lifetime of trying and failing at many things.)

The first class (part of a graduate AI course) I ever taught (at Stanford in 1969) taught me a great deal in one hour. I learned how students at Stanford thought, what they paid attention to, and how Computer Science graduate students differed from me on what was important to think about. So I did learn a lot in hour. How?

I performed in front of people, tried to convey information by talking, and reflected on the kinds of responses I was getting back. Of course, I did this many times since I taught more than one hour of that course.

So, did I learn in an hour? Yes. Did I learn a lot? Yes. What motivated me to learn? I had to evaluate my own effectiveness.

In that same year, I learned something else in an hour. I taught one hour of a very different kind of course that was meant to encourage first year graduate students to sign up for a more intensive second semester course with the various faculty members who had that course. I was teamed with a guy named Ken Colby. He made people laugh when he talked. I didn’t. I had a lot to say in my hour. In the end our team signed up a large number of students. I was very proud of myself. I soon found out that they had all signed up because of him, not me. I asked him what I had done wrong. He said “you told them everything you know in one hour. If you can do that you don’t know much.” As you can see, I never forgot that. 

So, in effect I learned how to speak in an hour. One hour of failure and one comment from someone respected. I resolved to become a better speaker.  

My father once told me a story about how he had mistreated another lawyer when he was clerking after graduating from law school because that guy was dumb and he had graduated from a law school inferior to the one my father had attended. The punch line of his story was that that guy became the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New York. (My father hadn’t done much of note in his life.)

That was a lesson that was taught in ten minutes. But I never forgot it. In fact I learned two important things from that story. 

The first was not to be such a big shot because of what school you attended or how smart you are. I am sure that my father was unimpressed with how I had acted at some point which prompted the telling of the story.

The second thing I learned, after I reflected on this for some time, was the importance of just-in-time the story telling, which has served as the basis of my work in AI and in education.

The moral here is clear: stories are powerful and you can learn from them in a lot less than an hour, if, and only if, they are told by the right person at the right time.

So, I believe you can learn something in an hour. Here are some other things I learned in an hour. Each has a story associated with it, but in the interest of brevity I will omit the context of each:

1. Listen to what people tell you about themselves, they mean it.

2. In the academic world, be careful whom you attack.

3. Don’t assume you know the reason why things are the way they are. Dig into it and find out for yourself.

4. Politicians love to talk about education, but they really don’t give a damn.

5. Changing school is harder than simply making suggestions about what they should do.

6. You are not really encouraged to have your own point of view in college.

7. Life has its way of evening the score. 

8. Nobel Prizes aren’t awarded to revolutionaries. 

9. Genetics is powerful stuff. Most people don’t realize the extent to which their likes and dislikes and their ability to thrive under various conditions stems from thousands of years of evolution.

10. Smart is easy, but you are more likely to get a job by being smart and appearing to be cool. 

11. You know when you have won in sports. In real life, victory is never so clear cut.  

12. Education needs to be personalized and local at just the time when the country is trying to make it into one size fits all.

13. You can learn more by thinking about something and trying stuff out than you can by asking an authority for advice.

14. People rarely listen to the advice you give them

15. To produce great students help them to frame their questions and encourage hard answers. Asking a good question is much harder than answering one.  

16. Doctors seem to diagnose what they know, so find out what they know before you ask them whats wrong with you.   

17. Children are awful judges of their own childhood experiences, even as adults.

18. In the end, everyone just wants someone to pay attention to them. Good parenting is about paying attention while not overburdening the child with that attention.

19. Universities do not want to be “training school.” If you want to learn to do something practical, universities are probably not the place.  

20. You don’t really know what freedom is until you lose it.  

21. The goal of investors is to sell. The goal of inventors is to create. This always leads to conflicts.

All of these heave personal stories attached to them — experiences that taught me an important lesson in an hour.

So, can we build effective one hour courses? Yes. But they would have to not try simply to tell you something. They would need to put you in a situation you were in from which you could discover things about yourself and about the world.  Talking at people and telling them they will be learning to do things as a result of listening is simply wrong. We learn from actual experience and from reflection on that experience.

Here is a hint for Accenture. Instead of listing courses by their are and title, try cataloging the problems that you employees have on the job and create courses that help you resolve issues and problems that you have encountered. These shouldn't be listed alphabetically either. People think in terms of goals, and plans to achieve those goals, and problems they have encountered along the way.