Archive for October, 2012

What is it that makes 007 the suave, confident and cool agent that he is? As impressive as some of his gadgets have been – from dagger shoes and garrotte watches in his early adventures to his Sony Xperia T mobile phone in Skyfall – his outstanding array of personal communication skills have proved time and again to be a more effective arsenal of weaponry at disarming foes and lovers alike.

As my colleague Moira noted in a previous post, communication skills vary from person to person. And although we should all aspire to be the best communicators we can be, some people appear to be naturally better equipped than others in this department. Whether you consider yourself a natural communicator or not, Bond teaches us all some important lessons when it comes to communicating effectively.

Style can be as important as substance

James Bond was never known for his substance; something of a lonely, mysterious figure, he is better known for his Rolex watches and Tom Ford suits. So while I agree with Moira that substance is more important than style in matters of fact, one’s style is a matter of great importance nonetheless. Bond’s immaculate Tom Ford suit in Skyfall complements and supports the message he conveys throughout with his strong body language: power and confidence. No matter how tense or dire the situation, he manages to maintain his composure – always engaging in eye contact and with good posture.

Of course, style is an issue of great importance to us here at Saffron Interactive. Like James Bond, we ensure that our style supports our message; whether it’s in relation to e-learning we’re producing with clients or Saffron marketing communications, we have to be aware of our audience and communicate in a style that best conveys our intended message. But unlike James Bond, we have substance. The challenge is to use our unique style to give, rather than take, information in the most appropriate manner.

A failed plan doesn’t necessarily mean failure

I have yet to watch a 007 movie in which things go according to plan. Indeed, things are not supposed to go according to plan and, as with all action movies, a large part of the enjoyment is intended to be derived from seeing how the main character (Bond) improvises to find another way to achieve his goal.

During a recent discussion with a disability consultant, I came to a renewed appreciation of the challenges those with diverse needs face when using computers. Needless to say, e-learning can very easily not go ‘according to plan’ when used by someone with special needs. Such a user should never be expected to improvise to make a course work, so accommodations – for want of a better word – should be built into the course from the outset. Contingency planning should be central to an e-learning design process, and it is certainly something MI6 do before sending Bond on a mission – even if he does end up improvising!

Breaking the ice

Times have changed since the sixties – as the BBC notes continually – and although Bond’s sense of humour has changed somewhat since his early adventures, he still deploys wit as a powerful weapon in his communication skills arsenal.

Casino Royale:

Vesper Lynd: [introducing herself to Bond] I’m the money.
James Bond: Every penny of it.

Although jokes per se won’t necessarily add value to a conversation, humour disarms those Bond is talking to and makes him altogether more approachable. The lesson we can all learn here is that people are social animals; Bond recognises this fact and deploys wit to lower people’s defences. In the context of e-learning, the use of wit and humour doesn’t achieve this purpose. It can, however, be used strategically to enable learners to relate to the content more effectively.


Magda: He suggests a trade. The egg for your life.
James Bond: Well, I heard the price of eggs was up, but isn’t that a little high?

Why do companies offer compulsory compliance training to their employees? To meet the company regulations that are in place. When staff training is approached in this way, many individuals may have reservations before they even begin, because ultimately, they do not have a choice in how their learning material is delivered.

Let’s look at the bigger picture.

I’ll take a simple example. In hospitality, employers have a duty to inform their staff about food and hygiene. One way to enforce hygiene standards is to ensure your hands are clean at all times – this will likely bring back memories of the “did you wash your hands?” interrogation repeated every so often by our mums – something we all pushed our luck with by cleverly running the tap without touching the water or using any soap.

Now that we are all adults however, we reluctantly admit that our mums were right all along and now we all religiously apply these precious pieces of advice and guidance in our every day lives. But what about the employees in hotels and restaurants? For them, hygiene is not a matter of personal cleanliness, but something that is strictly required to meet UK and EU health and safety regulations. Without this strict governance, bacteria that thrives on the hands of all chefs and bartenders would be transferred to your food and drink, and most likely leave you feeling rather unwell, even seriously ill!

This point may seem irrelevant; however the concept can be applied to e-learning. Compliance training exists so that employees and companies are trained to abide by the laws and regulations in place. Most compliance e-learning, or e-telling as we call it, will just overload the learner with drab subject information, and upon successful completion will record an employee’s outcome as “trained”. This however, does not attempt to really change the behavioural outcomes of the individual. If a company wants to deliver an e-learning course on a subject as serious as compliance, why not actually change the non-compliant behaviour?

Last year Saffron Interactive created a course for a major public transport provider which has now been shortlisted for an eLearning Age Award. The focus of the course was not straightforward compliance, but on improving the mental resilience of staff members. In this case, taking unexplained sick leave instead of addressing the problem and putting it to your Occupational Health Officer was seen as broadly non-compliant behaviour. Developed in cooperation with an occupational psychologist, this highly realistic and scenario-based piece of e-learning aimed to reduce paid absence resulting from stress and mental difficulties.

Our course wasn’t mandatory, or “compliance” based in the traditional sense, but because it changed behaviour and actually helped employees to do their jobs, the business impact was huge: over £7 million saved so far through changed behaviour on a large scale and a corresponding reduction in paid absences.

Organisational compliance training should therefore not be a matter of training individuals for the sake of being able to ‘tick a box’ to support any unfortunate legal cases. At Saffron we recognise that there is a grumbling child in all of us, and know that actually changing non-compliant behaviour is the only option for e-learning to have a real business impact.

Some of you will have no idea what I am about to talk about considering your lack of experience in e-learning.

Don’t you just hate condescension? Well, learners do too, and that’s exactly how you may come across if you start treating experienced learners like they’re at their first day at school (I don’t think grandma would be happy receiving an egg-sucking lecture!).

Here’s a simple way to avoid this common pitfall. We all too often forget the value that a pre-test can provide when designing a learning experience. Your learner may be an experienced employee looking for ways to increase their performance in their job, so, the learning experience should focus on helping them to achieve just that! If you’re unsure how much the learner already knows, use a pre-test!

A well-designed pre-test, combined with a strong ‘what’s-in-it-for-me’ statement can make the difference between aggravating learners and actually making them realise where they stand in relation to company requirements.

A pre-test can also be a valuable tool that can help reach common ground between finicky Subject Matter Experts (SME) and diligent Instructional Designers (ID). If the SME is of the opinion that an extra bit of information is vital enough to devote two screens to, whereas the ID is confident that it may be something most employees are already familiar with, all you need to do is include questions from the information theory in a pre-test for the learner. If the learner answers correctly, don’t bother them with the screens! It’s a win-win.

I feel pre-tests should be used to provide employees with an option to skip the training and subsequent assessment, should they pass. In this case, what you’ve done is help the company (hopefully) save a few training hours that can be used in their daily tasks.

And have you ever thought about the effect it has on staff morale? Employees that obtain a good score are automatically more confident, and will be even more so if they are allowed to skip the e-learning. For the few who do not pass, it could be a signal that they overestimated their knowledge on the subject, and are therefore better off taking the training.

And for those of you who didn’t quite get the ‘sucking-eggs’ reference, it is an old English phrase used to describe people who try to give advice to others about a subject they already know lots about. The actual process involved sucking the content out of eggs to keep the shells intact so that they could be used for other decorative purposes.

Little boy: “You see, Grandma, before you extract the contents of this bird’s egg by suction, you must make an incision at one extremity, and a corresponding orifice at the other.”
Grandma: “Dearie me! And we used to just make a hole at each end.”
Punch cartoon (circa 1980s)

The review of employee engagement that was commissioned by the previous Government is an exciting initiative aimed at investigating the state of employee engagement in UK businesses. This initiative, currently being led David MacLeod and Nita Clarke, has been put in place in to contribute towards growth in the economy. After years of gloomy economic news, including a double-dip recession, the UK economy needs all the help it can get.

Departments such as corporate communications and marketing certainly play a key role in engaging employees in the workplace, but learning and development departments also have an important role to play in supporting employees to feel more connected and engaged with the organisations they work for.

e-Learning comes in many varieties. At its worst, it’s a series of dry text-based screens which simply ‘tell’ learners about a given topic. I’ve seen many examples of this which are still being used to train people on business-critical topics. An investment in this type of learning solution is a wasted opportunity, as it’s likely to do little more than offer a brief distraction from work with little long-term benefit to the learner or their employer.

There is an alternative, however, to this kind of training which provides learning and development departments with an exciting opportunity to deliver effective business outcomes and a learning solution which supports employee engagement.

At Saffron, we believe that e-learning can and should play a key role in helping to support employee engagement. We’ve worked on numerous projects that have supported companies to deliver successful outcomes. This year, for example, we delivered a bespoke e-learning solution for Jaguar Land Rover to engage its employees with the company sustainability agenda. One of the key outcomes of the course was that employees were asked to make a pledge to do something which would support the company’s sustainability goals. That’s a great example of getting employees actively involved and engaged.

We’ve also recently worked with Transport for London on a course which helped employees to prepare them for the pressures of increased passenger numbers during the Olympic Games. One of the enduring memories shared by many people who were in London during the Olympics is of smiling and helpful TfL staff!

While not all e-learning solutions may support company-wide engagement campaigns such as those at Jaguar Land Rover and TfL, the point is that all e-learning solutions can help to bring about tangible outcomes for a learner that, in turn, help to improve employee engagement and organisational performance.

As my colleague discussed in a recent blog, we’re helping companies to take advantage of new cross-platform technologies and hardware, such as tablet devices, so that they’re able to maximise the return of their investment in e-learning solutions.

We’re excited about the developments taking place in our industry and look forward to playing our part in helping companies to engage better with their employees.

I was at a party the other day which involved meeting and speaking to lots of people I hadn’t met before. One of the guests, a tall unshaven man holding a plate full of buffet food, introduced himself and asked me what I did. I didn’t tell him that I was an instructional designer because most people, understandably, don’t know what this is – instead, I told him that I worked for an online training company. As this didn’t pique his interest, and his conversation looked to be drying up, I didn’t bother elaborating and fired back the same question at him.

“I’m doing a PhD”, came the reply.
“Oh really, that’s interesting”, I said sincerely, “What in?”
“18th century Literature and the philosophy of language.”

He wouldn’t have known this, but I’m actually quite interested in the philosophy of language (and also have a morbid fear of single sentence conversations) so I enquired after the philosophers he was planning to write on and asked him what he was going to say. He was one year into his thesis so, presumably, this wasn’t the first time he’d been asked such a question by a layman so I thought he might have a little spiel ready which neatly summarised, in an accessible way, what his PhD was all about. Aside from the conjunctions ‘and’ and ‘on’, his reply reminded me of the sort of thing that you might get if you plugged a series of words into a computer and programmed it to provide you with a selection of these words at random.

His reply was thus:

“I’m writing on the epistemology and ontology of Ezra Pound’s modernist aesthetic poetry and exploring the way in which the philosophy of language manifests itself in his work. My motivations are rather obtuse.”

Now perhaps I got what I was asking for by asking an academic to tell me what they were doing, but when people talk like this at a party, I want to cry out “Know your audience! No one here has a clue what you’re talking about!” Do people speak in this fashion because they mistakenly believe that others will understand them? Is it because they’re trying to show off? Or is it because they aren’t interested in being understood by those outside of their field who might not be able to contribute much in return? As it happens, my degree was in Philosophy and I would hazard a guess that even most Philosophers would have had trouble gleaning anything from his explanation. And certainly, another party-goer, who had, by misfortune, tried to join in our conversation, had no idea what he was talking about, quickly lost interest and walked off in the direction of the roast beef and pasta salad.

When I recounted this conversation to a friend later on, he remarked that I was somewhat overreacting and that not everyone is as good a verbal communicator as me (thanks for the compliment but I disagree). He also remarked that my gripe with poor verbal communication was “because of what you do in your job” (as a non L&D person, he also forgets my job title). But I do feel that my friend got to the crux of the PhD student’s problem – poor verbal communication skills.

To rephrase an old adage, if you can’t communicate clearly and accessibly, then don’t bother communicating at all. When I said this to my friend, he responded that this would purge all of the fun and creativity from language. But whilst I agree that we wouldn’t want to apply my maxim to literature, I believe it would be welcomed by readers of non fiction who read non fiction for its messages, arguments or facts.

Take, for example, Darwin’s Origin of Species. If Darwin had articulated his theory of natural selection in words that only a minority of people understood, would it have been able to knock ‘Creationism’ off the top spot as the explanation of the origin of man? Conversely, if Karl Marx, hadn’t written Das Kapital in such a difficult style, then generations of people could have spent more time investigating whether his ideas would work in practice rather than debating what his actual ideas were. That’s why popular science books like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics or, more recently, the BBC’s excellent three-part documentary series on the economic ideas of Keynes, Marx and Hayek are so fantastic – they communicate complex ideas in ways that can be understood by the majority of people without glossing over any of the subtleties. No reader of A Brief History of Time would claim that it was an ‘easy read’ – but if anybody failed to grasp the message, it certainly wasn’t because of the way in which it was written. Writing in a manner that only a minority of people will understand is only further down the spectrum from when the Catholic Church would only give its services in Latin to an overwhelmingly English speaking public.

That’s why I say that, when dealing with matters of fact, style should and always ought to be the servant of substance; style should be used as a tool to help to communicate the substance or fact.

So I shall end, with a few lines from a poem of Ezra Pound’s, who, as I just found out from Wikipedia, was a remarkably lucid communicator.

“I got out of a train at, I think, La Concorde, and in the jostle I saw a beautiful face, and then, turning suddenly, another and another, and then a beautiful child’s face, and then another beautiful face. All that day I tried to find words for what this made me feel.”
Ezra Pound, In a Station of the Metro (1913)

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