Learning from Others, Oprah, Truth, and Groundhog Day

January 2006 was a very busy month for me. I spent it on three major initiatives. First, I got down to the business of writing a book on learning and instructional design. Second, I got LearningAudit.com up and running, a Work-Learning Research service providing benchmarking and assessment services. Third, I spent half the month at client sites, involved with two of the most innovative and effective e-learning custom-development houses in the world. I learned a ton.

Celebrity News. Start.

One of my clients told me this month that they hired a firm to help them garner insights about the training/learning/e-learning field, AND that the firm that they hired—obviously a world-class firm—analyzed the evidence and discovered through exhaustive data-analytic techniques that I, cuddly curmudgeon Will Thalheimer, was one of the top 5 analysts in the learning field.

Upon hearing the news, I buzzed with delight. "I made the top 5 mom!" But then I realized that I had no idea what an analyst does. I still have no idea how metrics could be made valid to rate the top analysts. But I guess being in the top 5 is pretty good. Right?

But why not #1? And what if this is like the Oscars and there were five nominees in each category? Maybe I’m just one of the four also-rans. And damn, now I’m going to have to rent a Tux.

And the real kicker is this. I keep trying to tell everyone that I don’t have time to be an industry analyst. Other people care a lot more about who gobbles up whom, who’s going where to work, and who’s sleeping with whom. I have too much real work to do already, providing my clients with insights and keeping up to date with the research on learning. I don’t want to be an analyst! Take me off the list, damn it!!

But here is a little secret I learned about the industry this month (just so I don’t lose my top-five ranking). Some of the best e-learning developers are becoming a bit frustrated with their clients because their clients won’t let them build the most effective learning designs.

So, if you’re out there buying e-learning, I have two pieces of advice. First, hire Work-Learning Research, Inc. (and the top-five guy) to help you find the best provider for your particular needs (shameless plug), and second, once you’ve hired one of these excellent providers, get the hell out of their way!!

I know it’s hard to trust anyone these days living in a society driven by a million little lies, but there are e-learning vendors out there who really know what they’re doing.

Different topic. Start.

Although I am a great proponent of research-based learning design, I have believed for quite some time that research has to be interpreted intelligently to be useful. From my work as a consultant, I have also learned that  practitioners regular create innovative and effective learning, sometimes based on research insights, but often not. That’s okay with me. If it’s effective, it ought to be celebrated.

The book I’m writing will provide a research-based perspective, but I want it to be more. I want it to provide examples of the best learning designs out there, whether they are intentionally research-based or not. If you’d like to nominate folks who are doing world-class work, please comment here or send me a private email. I’ve got some pretty good ideas about who is doing the best work, but I’m sure I’ll miss somebody if you don’t enlighten me.

In your estimation, which companies are building the most effective and innovative learning interventions? Who should I talk with? Who can I learn from?

Final Topic. Groundhog Day. February 2nd. Today.

Raised in Pennsylvania, I used to be partial to Punxsutawney Phil, the Groundhog reputedly able to predict whether winter will be long or short. If he sees his shadow, we get six more weeks of winter. According to Stormfax Weather Almanac, Phil has seen his shadow 96 times since 1887. He’s seen NO shadow 14 times. And 9 times no report has been forthcoming. The bad news is that the groundhog has only been correct 39% of the time.

This reminds me of the training industry. We see sunny weather for almost all our training interventions, but the reality is that we actually fail more than we will admit. We use crude and inappropriate methods for predicting on-the-job training transfer, just like those deluded souls in Pennsylvania who believe in their large sleepy rodent. We do things because of the commercial benefits, not because of effectiveness, accuracy, or appropriateness. Clymer H. Freas, city editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper, invented Groundhog Day in 1887 and the town of Punxsutawney has kept it going as a revenue-generating tourist attraction ever since. The predominant messages in our industry are created by or for our vendor elites.

Weird coincidence. Oprah Winfrey hosted the groundhog on her television show in 1995. This should have been an omen for Oprah watchers—the fraud of the groundhog perpetrated by Clymer Freas is very similar to the fraud perpetrated by the author of the Oprah bookclub selection, "A Million Little Pieces." The author was James Frey, who lied repeated in his book, but sold it as a non-fiction memoir. Did you notice the synchronicity? Freas and Frey. Probably pronounced the same too. Oprah originally defended Frey, saying the truth didn’t matter if the outcome was good. Later she pulled a stunning live-TV reversal, ripping into the author and his publisher, and apologizing for not previously upholding the value of truth. "Truth matters," Oprah said simply.

Is there a lesson here for us?

Do you smell a rat in the training industry? Are we destined to continue repeating ourselves like Bill Murray in the movie? Or does truth matter in our work?

If we really want to learn from our work, we need to measure our training outcomes.

Happy Groundhog Day!