History is written by the victors it has been said. Hah! I will write Work-Learning Research memoirs anyway, if only for my own enjoyment.
In 1997, as I was running the leadership-development product line for the Strategic Management Group in Philadelphia, I got an itch. I had noticed that our field–the workplace learning industry–jumped from one fad to another and held on sanctimoniously to things that didn’t work that well. I decided, naively, that we lacked a common body of knowledge and that what was needed was for someone to bridge the gap between research and practice. I had been teaching leadership courses–including a course on how to champion change–and it occurred to me that I was a poor exemplar of leadership. Being a young single person with few responsibilities, I figured what the hell, let me try something.
One week, I took a vacation on the Maine Coast (my favorite place on earth), and used that time to investigate Portland Maine as a place to start my consulting business. Did it have an airport to get to places for paid work? Did it have sufficient research libraries where I could do my research? I wanted to live in Maine and so the answer was YES! By the end of the week, I had rented an apartment (on the rather seedy Grant Street), and called my boss from the Maine turnpike and told him I’d be leaving in three weeks.
My plan was to compile the research on learning, write a book, get famous, have people beat a path to my door, make a good living. Hah! It’s what new entrepreneurs don’t know that can get them into trouble–and what makes everything possible.
I jumped into the research, probably too deeply, because I never finished that book. It stands at over 700 pages unpublished, but no regrets! It helped me understand learning at a deeper level than would have been possible otherwise. My plan is to use some of what’s in there in future writing.
To fund my research, I did contract instructing. I could actually break even on my expenses teaching three days a month! Ah, the good old days, where all I needed was time, a sea kayak, and a regular dose of a research-induced flow state to keep me moving forward.
Dorothy and I married in 2001, a couple of weeks after the 9/11 attacks. Everything about life glowed bright. But still, I had to turn my passion for the research-to-practice idea into an income. We talked about children and they would need food and clothing. Dorothy had a good job and so it was possible for me to take the time to build a business. If you’ve ever worked for yourself, you’ve certainly learned that garnering an income stream ain’t that easy for most of us. I was fortunate. Okay lucky! My research message resonated. People wanted to help. I couldn’t afford to go to the ASTD conference, so I bought a $25 ticket to get into the EXPO, where all the vendors sold their goods and services. I walked around asking folks if they used scientific research to help them design their offerings. I told them I was starting a research-and-consulting practice and asked for advice. I offered to provide free research-based learning audits in exchange for helping me learn how to get better as a consultant. I got three clients from this effort. I was on my way. Over the next few years, I spoke at lots of conferences, did a ton of free work, and began getting paid client work. I am forever indebted to my earlier clients and benefactors for they made it possible for me to continue. Special thanks to Eric Shepherd of Questionmark, Annie Laures of Walgreens, Tony Irace at ADP, Jonathan Levy of Harvard Business School Publishing, David Holcombe and Heidi Fisk at the eLearning Guild, and JC Kinnamon at Midi (later SAIGlobal).
I wish that things had just taken off from there, never to come back to earth, but the truth is messier. Work-Learning Research has had very good years, but also very bad years, where I was not bringing in much money, where I was straining my family’s budget, where I was almost ready to quit. In the two decades since I started down this path, three times I’ve started serious job searches, only to be rescued by companies who sought me out–who wanted my services. I feel fortunate to be still at it, and I thank my wife and daughter for their forbearance. I thank all those who helped me get work, who hired me, who commiserated, who cheered me on!!
I’ve gotten the reputation as an industry curmudgeon, debunking the shiny objects that distract from good learning design. Some people like me for this. Some people think I’m just disagreeable. LOL. Maybe! I started by debunking the meme that “People remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see, et cetera. It’s still one of my most popular blog posts, getting dozens and dozens of hits every day. I put up $1,000 if anyone could prove that learning-styles worked. That was over a decade ago and nobody’s claimed the money. I’ve debunked the notion that neuroscience provides unique information for learning professionals. It hasn’t so far. Over the last few years, one of my most popular speaking gigs is my Learning-Research Quiz Show, where I ask people questions and then debunk the myths. It’s a fun time. Truth be told, I just get a kick out of debunking falsehoods and misconceptions.
My earlier naivety has given way to my current naivety. I had thought that it would be easy to transform the field into one that cared about research-based recommendations–that cared about being effective. I was wrong. I learned along the way that there are many forces that push us toward practices that are not ideal. But still, we are an industry filled with genius and passion; with many who want to improve what we do–with many who care about creating learning interventions that make a difference.
In the last few years, I’ve been focused on learning evaluation, writing the book Performance-Focused Smile Sheets: A Radical Rethinking of a Dangerous Art Form. The research shows that our traditional smile sheets are a poor source of feedback. More pointedly, our reliance on poorly-designed smile sheets as our primary method for feedback (on our own performance), has created a perverse increase in poor learning designs. Our evaluations are one of the biggest forces that push us toward poorly-designed learning interventions. So now, in addition to my keynote and speaking work, my learning audits, and my consulting; I spend about half of my time helping organizations redesign their smile sheets.
My intention is to keep doing what I’m doing, especially creating some more valuable learning objects (especially books, short videos, and research-to-practice reports) to share information about research-based best practices in learning.
I found some old pictures I thought you might enjoy.