Wednesday Jan 14, 2009

Balancing Optimism with Going to Jail

The current issue of Fortune magazine has an article about the cry for blood of those on Wall Street who misled at best—or knowingly deceived at worst—their investors and stakeholders. Optimistic earnings statements are contrasted with meltdown dates, sometimes as close together as 24 hours. Yet, as Colin Powell said, “Optimism is a force multiplier.” What’s a leader to do? Where is the balance between providing an optimistic way forward and turning a blind eye to dangers so perilous that only the naïve or self-deceived could miss them?

Fortunately most leaders in large organizations don’t have to carefully position themselves to analysts, since only a few leaders in any organization have the role of presenting the company to Wall Street. As Fortune points out, if a CEO is transparently honest about the state of the company it can cause a devastating drop in share price, at the cost of his/her head. Overly optimistic, and a pair of handcuffs could be waiting.

Particularly in the United States, we are inspired by optimism and hope. Our favorite stories are those of the underdogs who rise above adversity to achieve greatness. Brought up on those stories, we paint ourselves as the heroes who can fight through any battle to ensure that justice and right prevail.

Life etches a different picture though—one with more complexity and ambiguity than our childhood stories or our favorite movies. In my own role, facing a reduction in force in the next few months, my natural tendency toward optimism and openness is tempered not only by the need to protect the confidentiality of those who will be most affected, but also by the uncertainty that the current world economic conditions may get worse before they get better. Optimism in the face of so much ambiguity seems disingenuous and false.

Yet we hope or, at least, I hope. I hope that those who are affected will find safe harbor soon. I’m grateful that Sun is a company that provides a fair package for those who must leave. I’m committed to using all the resources at my disposal to help those who leave by keeping a private Facebook alumni group populated with job openings that come my way. I treasure every small win we get with customers and, fortunately for SLS, even some big wins lately. And I hope that in the near future, I can unabashedly exude my optimism for what we can become. Because we all yearn to be great.

Wednesday Oct 22, 2008

The Power of the Human Spirit

Someday--when all the dust has settled from the current financial crisis, the stories have been written, the lessons have been learned, and the historians have analyzed--I believe that people will look back and honor many of the decisions that were made for the greater good, sometimes at personal expense. On Monday of this week I heard Anna Eshoo and Zoe Lofgren speak at a Women’s High Tech Coalition meeting. One of the audience questions was, “What was your decision process to vote for the bailout?”

In her answer, Eshoo told of another congressman who confided to her, “If I vote for this, I won’t get re-elected. But it’s the right thing to do for the country, so I’m voting for it.” She added that 50% of her constituents here in California were opposed to the bill and the other 50% were violently opposed to it. But after listening to the arguments and hearing the Secretary of Treasury describe the potential consequences she voted with her conscience.

That started me thinking of times when conscience and the human spirit have overcome hardship and I pulled out an old Times article I had clipped, coincidentally, from this same date one year ago. It was the story of a child of a bohemian poet from the U.S. living in the Italian Alps just as the WWII broke out. When the boy was four years old his mother was taken away to Dachau, forcing him to live on the streets with other abandoned children, stealing food, and living a nearly feral lifestyle. Eventually his little gang landed in a hospital where conditions were only slightly better. To ensure the boys didn’t run away, they were not given any clothing. Five years later, released from Dachau, his mother searched for him extensively and brought him back to the United States. Sixty years later, Mario Capecchi--who spoke no English, was illiterate at nine years old, and had never been to school--won the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

What gives us this ability to overcome even the most extreme hardships and achieve greatness? At the moment, many of us around the world are worried as we watch our investments shrink, our companies struggle as key customers disappear, and face the potential of our own jobs being affected. As I’ve told my team, it’s easy to be a leader when things are going great. When things aren’t going well, but you know what to expect, then it’s easier to see a brighter future and lead a team toward that future. But when there’s so much unknown--and only fools would predict the future at this moment--then the stamina of a leader is fully called into action.

How will we help those who work with us get through this period? We each have a choice to make--whether we formally lead others or we lead informally--since we are all leaders. Do we want to be remembered as someone who authentically inspired during uncertain times, without crossing into banal optimism? Can we provide genuine hope, transparency, and resolution of ambiguity while facing personal uncertainty?

I know that others are sacrificing now, as in the case of the congressman who knows he will not be re-elected. And others have suffered in the past, like Capecchi. We each have a choice to make as we deal with our own emotions and fears during this economic crisis. We can be leaders and be remembered as leaders. Or we can let circumstances overcome us. Because I am inspired by those who have chosen to rise above their circumstances, both inside and outside of Sun, I hope and aim toward that myself. Now. Because now is the time that really matters.

Monday Oct 06, 2008

Not the Academy Awards...But for Us, It's Close

I want to thank my whole team in Sun Learning Services (SLS) and tell the whole world how proud I am of them. In the course of just one week, we have received some incredible validation from our industry.

It started on September 25th, when two separate organizations honored us with five different awards on the same date. This is such a great endorsement of all our hard work. Even though there is always room for improvement and still a lot of opportunity for us to grow, it's nice every once in a while for someone else to notice your achievements.

First, Chief Learning Officer magazine gave us its gold Learning Team Award for creatively solving problems to gain greater efficiencies while increasing market traction. We were rewarded for internal innovations--like our internal Sales University and online games that teach new hires about our business, mission and vision--as well as external results, such as our revamped partner program and our “iTunes meets YouTube” learning site, Sun Learning eXchange.

Then, through a process that included blind review by at least four judges per entry, Brandon Hall Research bestowed four Excellence in Learning Awards on SLS—more than any other organization. (IBM won three.) Winners were announced at a ceremony at the Innovations in Learning Conference in San Jose, California. We were honored in the following categories:

  • Best Innovation in Learning Technology – We won a “bronze” award for our collaborative learning environment, which is like an LMS on steroids--a resource-rich, Web 2.0, one-stop learning shop for employees.

  • Best Learning Team – We received another bronze award for teamwork, innovation, efficiency and results in delivering millions of hours of training in 120 countries across employees, customers, partners and our developer and college student communities.

  • Best Use of Mobile Learning – We took home the gold for Sun Learning eXchange because it's innovative, sophisticated and highly tailored to the needs of our users.

  • Best Use of Blogs, Wikis, or Other Content-Sharing Tools for Learning – Here, we earned a gold for the breadth and depth of our use of collaborative tools for everything from running our program office to our new hire site.

Finally, on October 2nd, we were recognized as one of the BEST learning organizations in the world by the largest professional learning society in the world, ASTD. This award also relies on a prestigious panel of judges who review lengthy applications while the companies' identities are kept masked. To win, a BEST learning organization needs to demonstrate an overall commitment to excellence, but we were also given special recognition for our innovation, the scope of learners we serve and for pushing the boundaries of informal learning. Sounds like Sun, doesn't it?

Once again, accomplishments this big don't happen without big contributions from a highly talented team. It's great to see that others agree we have a team that warrants pride. This is heady stuff, but we are still acutely aware of the areas where we can continue to improve.

One very valuable part of the award process is that the organizations that give the awards send back comments from the panel of judges to us, so we can see their ideas for how to keep getting better. Coupled with feedback from our internal and external customers, we are ready to take it to the next level.

Friday Sep 19, 2008

Practice Makes Per....

Practice makes perfect, the saying goes.

This week I'm in Asia and made a stop in Shenzhen to visit the CLO of Huawei. They are making an impressive investment in their people as they explode onto the international business scene. The facility we visited had more than 200 classrooms. Between technical and professional training, they have over 900 trainers globally. 900 is not a typo.

Clearly they are serious about ensuring their people have the skills to compete globally, as shown not only by their financial commitment but also by the priority Huawei's chairman has put on skills development in their annual goals: It's one of the top two objectives.

As we reviewed their philosophy and practices--which uniquely demonstrated a commitment to the integration of Eastern and Western management theory--they stressed how strongly they believe in the power of practice as preparation for on-the-job performance.

That led us to a philosophical discussion of practice. As many before me have pointed out, the truth is that practice makes permanent. If you practice perfect form enough times, you will permanently encode into memory the ability to perfectly perform when needed. If, however, you practice with imperfect form, you instead lock into permanence something less than ideal. Proof positive: my less than-perfect, ever-slicing golf drive, which has been practiced hundreds of times to the same sorry effect.

So practice makes permanent. If we want perfection, it takes perfect practice. That means we need a feedback loop, which is the value provided by a great trainer--or a great embedded trainer--such as the one in my Wii Fit.

I've been practicing a strength pose that requires balancing on one leg, and she's constantly saying to me, "You put your foot down, didn't you?" My response to her is not "fit" (pun intended) for corporate blogging. Maybe someday I'll be able to perfectly practice that exercise.

Wednesday Sep 10, 2008

To Hades and Back

Last week our CLO in Asia Pacific, Jae Bogadi, sent out an article by George Crump, a storage analyst with Storage Switzerland. Crump has highlighted an issue with how storage training is designed and delivered.

For suppliers to really help the channel get their product installed and running, they need to change the way they train. First, an installation class should cover -- get this -- installation. And besides installation, it needs to cover all the prep work for the product -- for example, site preparation, server preparation and network requirements. And a supplier might need a separate training class for presales system engineers. So many projects seem to go bad at the point of installation, when in reality they go bad at the point of design.

Storage training should also spend a lot of time explaining what to do when something goes wrong. Something always does; the training needs to cover the steps to get the product running if they're not painfully obvious. And the "when things go wrong" section should cover more than just the product itself, but also what can go wrong in the environment that will make the product fail or how the product can make the environment look like it failed.”

Setting some context: If a company wants to be an authorized reseller, most equipment manufacturers require a certain number of the reseller's employees to achieve certification on the vendor's products and services. Crump's complaint includes that the training is not aimed at tasks the employee will perform, since courses tend to be built to serve multiple purposes. As he describes, it's frustrating to sit in a course that targets the system administrator when you're a service technician who installs hardware.

Of course it seems obvious that vendors would provide training targeted at the trainee's role. But it turns out that's easier said than done. When a new product is in development, it's usually a race to the finish to get all the accompanying training materials and documentation ready before it's released. Usually changes are happening right up to the end, so if multiple courses are developed it's a configuration management nightmare at a critical point in the process. Developing role-specific courses can be complex and expensive so it's rarely done.

But if we put the learner at the center of the universe, then we as course designers owe them learning targeted to their needs. We've been laying the foundation for easily configuring this customized learning without breaking the bank. Over the past two years we've banned monolithic, one-size-fits-all courses in favor of classes comprised of short modules that can be reassembled to fit an individual's needs. We've recently shortened that to what our Design & Development team calls "Task-Based Learning Objects," which will even allow the learner herself to configure at the course level when our dream is fully realized.

This is a new framework for addressing our learners' needs in which we fully evaluate the customers who buy learning from Sun Learning Services so we understand what their intentions are when they come to us. Whether they want to learn about a specific product, get a career-enhancing certification, build out their qualifications for their job role or find solutions to problems, we want to provide a learning solution to fit their needs.

Internally, we call this intention-based curriculum redesign “Project Virgil,” since Virgil was Dante's guide through Hades. Sorting through all these dimensions is complex for us because we have to understand our learners thoroughly and all the ways in which they might use Sun technologies in their environment.

Metaphorically, we are on a journey through Hades to figure out how to build and configure this framework all around the globe in a scalable, affordable fashion that essentially delivers mass learning customization. But we believe learners deserve simplicity. Even if we have to go through Hades to get it for them.

Tuesday Aug 26, 2008

Four Doors for Busy Non-Dummies

Russ Powell, one of Sun's instructional designers, has written a nice summary of the Four Doors approach to eLearning, created by Dr. Sivasailam Thiagarajan--Thiagi for short. For those of you who are intrigued with alternative learning methods for online learning, this is a very interesting and easy way to envision something different from the classic page-turners of traditional eLearning:

Thiagi's Four-Door Approach to eLearning – An Overview

What Is It?

The Four-Door Approach to eLearning, developed over the last ten years by Dr. Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan, is a simple instructional design model that helps training and non-training professionals build eLearning programs that address the needs of many types of learners relatively quickly and cheaply.

The “four doors” represent four different areas or components of the learning environment.

Four doors graphic

  • Library – This area contains the content of the course or module—the information required to master the test objectives and to successfully complete the final performance test. It typically contains pre-built or existing content: videos, documents, slide shows, photos, audio files, etc. Learners are invited to study the content in any sized chunks they prefer.

  • Playground – This area contains fast-paced Web games that provide practice in recalling and applying the content from the library. The games typically require the learner to type or choose short answers. Learners can play each game repeatedly at up to three levels of difficulty to increase fluency.

  • Café – This area contains social learning activities. One common activity is the open-question game which uses open-ended questions to encourage the user to reflect on the content presented in the library. Learners respond to each question by typing an answer in a text box. When complete, the learner can review the answers given by experts and fellow participants/peers. The café may also include other social-learning components such as wiki sites, blogs, message boards, etc.

  • Evaluation Center – This area, sometimes affectionately referred to as the Torture Chamber, contains the final performance test. Typically, instead of using multiple-choice questions, the evaluation asks the learner to complete or participate in an actual job-related assignment.

Why Is This Important?

Training professionals are looking for, and learners are demanding, alternatives to what has become traditional eLearning—the PowerPoint slideshow souped up with an audio component. These programs are typically very linear and do not offer much control to the learner. If you are designing training for traditional play-by-the-book learners in their 40s and 50s, this is no problem. But if you are designing for learners who grew up with Nintendo, Playstations and MySpace—the Gen Y or Millennial crowd who put the chaos in EduChaos—your audience is going to grow bored quickly. When organizations have loads of revenue they can invest in eLearning, they can address the needs of these groups with expensive research and applications. In today’s era of cutbacks and often severe fiscal limitations, however, Thiagi’s 4D approach offers a fresh and relatively inexpensive alternative that can be very effective.

The model, depending on how it is implemented, offers almost total control to learners. They get to choose how they learn. According to Thiagi, “If you...

  • ...are a law-abiding type of participant, you may begin at the library and proceed through the playground and the café to the torture chamber.

  • ...are a wild and impulsive participant, you may hop, skip, and jump your way among the modules and sections. You may go to the playground first, get trounced, find out what types of questions are asked, and then work your way through the library.

  • ...feel lucky (or have an inflated sense of self-esteem), you may skip all of the studying, go directly to the torture chamber, and complete the assignment.

  • ...are a grasshopper, you may skim through the library, jump to the café, enjoy the games in the playground, and then return to the library for some serious studying.”

The games of the playground provide review and practice opportunities. The games may not be sexy, but they offer the designer an easy way to help learners engage with the content. They give learners an addictive way to test their knowledge of the content. Among other possibilities, well-crafted games help learners:

  • Recall and organize factual information

  • Associate components with different stages and steps

  • Emphasize critical features

  • Identify major differences among concept classes

  • Gain fluency in recalling information

The café approaches Learning 2.0 in its purest form—learning through social interaction. More and more, it's what Gen Y and Millennials are demanding. They tend to see this as the most profitable educational experience.

The evaluation center contains the measurement component. For learners it provides a final opportunity to test their knowledge of the library’s content. In an ideal situation this assessment simulates the real-life scenario the lesson is preparing them for.

To summarize, the 4D approach combines the effective organization of online documents (in the library), with the motivational impact of Web-based games (in the playground), the power of collaborative learning (in the café), and authentic performance tests (in the evaluation center).

Pros and Cons of the 4D Approach


  • It is faster and cheaper than traditional approaches. One of the best things about this approach is that, with the right tools in place (i.e., a good game generator, Web 2.0 tools such as blogs and chat rooms, etc.), training professionals can put together instructionally savvy eLearning programs quickly and inexpensively. It provides a lot of bang for the buck and gives learners a great deal of control over how they learn.

  • Students engage with the content more directly, more closely simulating content-interactions in the real world. There is an old adage that suggests that in any given instructional project the person who learns the most is not the student but the instructional designer—the person who combs through the content, parsing and sorting as they go. In this model, instead of the instructional designer chopping up the content into appropriate chunks optimized for a mythical average learner and disrupting the flow with questions of trivial value, the learners are permitted to read the content in any sized chunks they prefer.

  • The playground, for Gen X and Gen Y who grew up on Nintendo and Playstation, offers a way to learn though channels programmed since childhood.

  • Allows trainers and subject-matter experts to design, develop, and deliver Web-based games in a matter of minutes without any complex programming requirements.

  • In its simplicity, the model offers a great deal of flexibility in how it is applied.


Many of the drawbacks to the approach are merely the flip side of some of the advantages. Some of the drawbacks of the approach include the following:

  • If not planned well, the 4D environment can be difficult to navigate. The learner has to study and learn the learning environment in order to figure out where to go next. If the content in the library is extensive, navigation and search components must be added.

  • The frame games of the playground reinforce basic knowledge components (the cognitive domain of Bloom’s taxonomy). They do not provide a high level of simulation. Typically they must be paired with a simulation that more closely approximates real life (field-level work) with a well-planned final activity in the evaluation center/torture chamber.

  • If you do not have a game generator, or the game generator is limited (i.e., it produces only closed questions, not open-question items), you may have to invest in game development efforts.

  • At first glance, simple models of the 4D approach are not well received by audiences used to more glitz and glamour in their online experiences. And it often costs a little extra to make the approach look and feel attractive to users. The instructional approach may be sound, but if it does not look good and function well, it may be tough to get learners to participate in it.

How Can I Learn More?

5 June 2008
Russ Powell

Monday Aug 18, 2008

The Times They Are A-Changin'....

The roots of instructional design can be traced back to behavioral psychology and B.F. Skinner. According to Skinner, a stimulus triggers a response and, if we could shape that response, we could achieve a desired change in behavior. Rewards, positive or negative, were key in shaping the behavior, which led to some interesting and nasty psychological experiments. Skinner, for example, was notorious for keeping his daughter in a boxed-in area for most of her youth so he could control her environment. And my kids thought I was tough!

Of course, the theory behind learning has advanced to include my favorite vein, constructivism, but when you dissect any typical course, you can see those behavioral roots peeking out. Repetition, frequent feedback, and more repetition are the forensic clues to a behavioral model of design.

Now consider this: When Skinner was first developing his theories in the late 1940s and '50s, the U.S. population was about half what it is today, computers and copiers barely existed and Sony Corp. was getting its start in Japan selling cutting-edge learning technology--a tape recorder weighing almost 40 pounds with tape made of rice paper.

Even though the world has changed dramatically in terms of the information available, the ways we dish out learning have changed little. Many of the courses delivered via eLearning are simply rote learning digitized, which explains why so many people rate eLearning as their least-preferred mode. So much of it is just plain boring. The gems that capture our imaginations and engage us are lumped into an ugly category ruled by page turners and insipid questions or obtuse content.

Instructional designers--the people who develop learning content--are wrestling with changes in the world that include an overload of information, the ability to access endless content with only a mouse click, and the diverse needs of a global audience. The theorists are still catching up to this new world, forcing the practitioners to experiment and test their way through the changes caused by technology, globalization, and the information explosion. One of the most-watched videos on YouTube covers these forces with some interesting tidbits. Did you know that a week's worth of New York Times contains more information than a person was likely to come across in a lifetime in the 18th century?

Our instructional designers (IDs) at Sun are on the leading edge of thinking about how to leverage technology and how to sort between what needs to be delivered in a traditional course format versus what knowledge can be accessed through other means. Is the role of an ID now to understand the context of the learner and organize their access to relevant content and skills development in the most effective way, which is a much broader role than figuring out how to teach a specific topic? Will IDs be responsible for identifying more clearly what expertise looks like and offering multiple routes to achieve that expertise, rather than a one-size-fits-all option? If yes, it could mean a far less structured route than traditional methods but could also mean a very interesting path of innovation.

The journey has begun.

Monday Aug 04, 2008

The Next Generation of Learning Technology

Wow! Our team has been working away on some very impressive projects that are recently or soon to be released, and we've already won awards for some of them. We can't say which ones yet, but soon! Let's suffice it to say that I'm not the only one who recognizes what a brilliant group of learning professional we have assembled here in SLS.

One of the challenges we're working on is how to make it easy for people to find the information and acquire the skills they need when they need them. This has led to a couple of new learning platforms, led by Charles Beckham's team. One of those platforms is is Sun Learning eXchange (SLX), which has been up and running for a while, but has its official grand opening this week. Essentially, think of a secure YouTube-like environment, with the ability to post all types of files or media, Web 2.0 features such as rating and tagging, and fixed categories for the traditionalists. Why is something like SLX needed/important?

No training function can develop and provide training for all the topics that people need to know in order to perform their jobs. Prioritization happens. Reality sets in. But what if we could unleash the power of open source knowledge, and allow experts to share with others, and let the community create content? Of course this would require training functions to let go of control of all content, and instead create a learning platform. If things really worked out well, would we even need a learning department?

Absolutely! Albeit in a different role. The learning department can then focus on performance standards, setting achievement goals, testing against those goals, and developing learning products that are strategic to enterprise goals. We can authorize content developers as super-users, or adjunct faculty, spreading our capabilities across an army of volunteers.

Is there some risk here? Yes. People could post information that is wrong or misleading. But that happens already, especially with outdated files. With a platform that allows comments, rating and tagging, (think of your Amazon buying experience) the first person that finds the information is questionable can comment and rate the learning nugget, and others will be forewarned.

Is there some benefit to the learning function? Yes. We'll be able to watch the tag clouds, such as the one below from Wikipedia on the topic of Web 2.0, and see what postings are getting lots of traffic, and in a way, have one more input to a corporate-wide needs analysis. It will be an interesting journey of innovation, and one reason why I love working at Sun.


Thursday Nov 22, 2007

What Turkeys Learn and Learning 2.0

At the moment I'm reading “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable,” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (NNT)\*.  He describes a Black Swan as a highly unpredictable event that has a massive effect.  To make sense of it, we are programmed to rationalize it as being far more predictable than it was.  From the moment we are born, we develop rules to guide us.  Once we develop those rules, we hang on to them viciously, only seeking to confirm our view of the world, rather than keep an open mind.  Even when staring at evidence to the contrary, we figure out a way to make the rule stand, more inclined to rewrite our memory of things past than to adjust the way we think in the present.  But once in a while, a seemingly random Black Swan event will come along that forces us to rethink our rules, and when we do, our typical response is, “I should have seen it coming.”  We then rewrite how we thought we thought to reinforce our (slightly adjusted) rule-bound worldview.  In a sense, we're like turkeys.

Borrowing from NNT (who in turn adapted from Bertrand Russell): “Consider a turkey that is fed every day.  Every single feeding will firm up the bird's belief that it is the general rule of life to be fed every day by friendly members of the human race 'looking out for their best interests,' as a politician would
say.  On the afternoon of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, something unexpected will happen to the turkey.  It will incur a revision of belief.” p. 40

Picture 1-6-5

As you can see from the graph adapted from NTT, day 1001 is dramatically different from all the days preceding it.  If the turkey could, would he have adjusted his thinking to “I should have seen it coming?”  How often do we extrapolate the future from the trends of the past, assuming no Black Swans will appear?

“But in all my experience, I have never been in an accident ... of any sort worth speaking about.  I have seen but one vessel in distress in all my years at sea.  I never saw a wreck and never have been wrecked nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort.”
                E.J. Smith, 1907, Captain, RMS Titanic (p. 42, NTT)

Now, to my own field.  The learning field, like many others, is full of rules that are self-reinforced by an industry filled with consultants, vendors, professional societies, and technology products that build their products and services in support of those rules.  Should a disruptive technology or way of thinking come along, of course the industry itself would be inclined to reject it should that disruption require an alteration of all the products and services sold in the marketplace.  Incremental adjustments would be fine, but disruption would be too threatening to this $100 billion dollar industry\*\*.  Here are some widely accepted, but not formalized coda:

For every hour of instructor-led training, it takes 40 hours of design and development to create it.  Computer-based training (deliberately using an old-fashioned term) takes 5X as long but pays out in the long run for large audience size.

People need to interact when learning “soft skills” and that can only be done in live face-to-face sessions.
Executives learn differently than everyone else.
The job of the trainer is to control the learning environment so that learners can learn.
The process of learning is as important as the results from learning.
Learning is an event.
And so on ...

Here in Sun Learning Services (SLS), we are experimenting, we think successfully so far, with breaking all of these paradigms.  We've presented some of our thinking at ASTD, a CLO webinar, and at a few other symposia.  We think the world is changing dramatically, and as learning practitioners, we must change with it.  I'll describe some of these changes in an upcoming blog, and how we are using Web 2.0 tools to create Learning 2.0.  For a sneak preview, go to our new hire site.  If you're an employee, log in and participate.  If you're external to Sun, you'll be able to see about 60% of the site, but enough to get a sense for how we believe the world of learning is changing.  (You won't see the cloud tags, be able join the community of new hires, visit certain confidential sites, or get a leader board score for playing “Rise of the Shadow Specters.”)

Citing the SLS vision statement, “Learn to be open ...”

\*Note: I think it dangerous to supercondense the views of an author, especially NTT, as he carefully and logically builds a compelling, well-researched argument that takes 300 pages.  If you disagree with his views represented here, consider them my poor interpretation and kindly read for yourself before passing judgment.
\*\* Including educational spending.  Exact numbers are hard to verify, but GE claims to spend $1B a year in training and development.

Sunday Nov 11, 2007

Learning 1.0 and the Amygdala

Thanks to those of you who wrote to ask where I've been.  About six months ago I decided to shorten the commute and sell my house in San Jose, a 100-year-old Craftsman, and move up the peninsula.  I'm a very slow decision maker on real estate, and didn't even know what zip code I wanted to live in, so I rented a home on the water in Redwood Shores, a subdivision created where Marine World used to be, apparently.  As you can imagine, selling and moving have consumed all my spare time for months, but I'm now settled in and ready to blog again.

Of course living on the water calls for having a boat, since sitting on the dock and watching the sun set over the Oracle databases was getting old.  On Saturdays during the school year, the Stanford crewing team practices right off my dock, so I decided that something I could row would be just the thing.  After a month or two of searching, I came across the perfect boat, good for flyfishing (a hobby) and stable enough to take out the dog.  Lightweight Kevlar, so I could handle it on my own, with optional sculling seat to do a poor mimic of the Stanford crew team.  Here's a picture of the boat I purchased, and the accompanying vision I had of what life would be like:


Note the very obedient dog at the helm, the perfectly balanced weight in the boat, and the smile on the woman rowing the boat.  Uh huh.

The boat was unpacked on my driveway completely encased in a wooden crate.  Good thing I still had the tools from my last house for prying off trim to refinish.  Two hours later, the boat was uncrated and hauled around to the back.  It weighs 65 pounds, so no easy feat for a woman on her own.  End of day one.

This is the point that Learning 1.0 kicks in.  There's a training maxim that states: If it's easily caught, it shouldn't be taught.  Getting into a boat should be easy, right?  Uh huh.

Lesson #1: remember to tie the boat to the dock when getting in.  Feet were in the boat, hands were on the dock.  Boat floated away from dock; rower dunked into the lagoon.  And in case you're wondering, the Bay water is cold.  Fine.  Got it.  Tie boat to dock.

Lesson #2: remember oars.  I successfully got into the boat, untied it from the dock, and then it slowly floated out.  Ready to go.  Now lock oars into place.  Oars would be a good thing.  As you can see from the picture, it's a wide enough boat that leaning over and padding with my fingertips was not viable.  Before I got too far out, I decided to jump out, and in the process, sinking the boat.  A 65-pound boat filled with water in waist-deep water is another interesting exercise.  Boat and me back on the dock ended day two.

This is the point that Learning 2.0 should kick in.  Wet clothes off and hot shower later, I went on a google search for “how to get into a boat.”  I'll be interested if you find something better than I did, but after an hour or two of searching, I found nothing really helpful.  This will be the subject of a future blog – how we provide learning that is just in time, just enough, and just for you.  But it wasn't there for me.

Eventually through trial and error, and thankfully no more dunkings in the bay, I became proficient enough to really enjoy the boat, and take Harry the Labrador along with me.  Unfortunately, Harry doesn't stay quietly at the helm and that takes an interesting continuous blend of weight shifting while sculling, which I've mastered to the point that we can row about 3 miles in an hour.  Certainly not a competition speed with the crews, but it is a peaceful time.

Which leads finally to the amygdala, or why we learn so much from failure and mistakes.


See how close the amygdala is to the brain stem?  If we have a strong emotional (usually negative) reaction to something, the amygdala is the part of the brain that triggers that same emotional response--especially fear--should we ever encounter a similar situation.  Which means it's unlikely I'll ever forget to keep the boat tied to the dock or to leave the oars on the dock.  And that's a good thing ...

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Thursday Feb 08, 2007


What is so magic about fives in the networked world?  I have a friend who sends me these goofy, smarmy chain emails, about all the wonderful ways some group we identify with is special (women or dog lovers or Californians), and they always end with "Send this to five people you know and good things will happen for you."  Right.

So it goes with tag on five things most people don't know about me.  And Terry McKenzie needed to tag five people, so my turn -- something to help pull me back after 6 weeks offs from blogging.  Hopefully I can stay away from the too syrupy stuff.

  1. I've lived in a house with no plumbing or electricity.  As kids, we were shipped to Arkansas to spend the summers with my paternal grandparents, who were hillbilly cotton farmers.  They had no indoor plumbing, no electricity, chewed tobacco (including Granny), and scrapped a living (barely) on 80 acres. 
  2. My parents taught me to play bridge when I was four years old, so I'm a halfway decent bridge player.  If I'm in town, I play on Friday nights with a regular partner at a local bridge club, and compete in tournaments across the country 2-3 times a year.  I've played against Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Omar Shariff.  (And won, or as we say in duplicate bridge, took points off them.  But in all fairness, when the first two were new players years ago.)
  3. Give me a task such as backing up a car with a trailer, or figuring out the best way to load a trunk, and I start drooling.  In other words, I'm idiotic at spatial intelligence.  It's one reason I buy into Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, and believe that our measurements of general intelligence are woefully inadequate, implicitly biased, and cause more harm than good.  Dont' get me started.
  4. My first full-time job was second shift in a plastics factory while in college, but after that, I didn't work full time until I was 32, taking time off to raise small children.  I've probably over-compensated since then, feeling like I fell behind 10 years in career progression.
  5. So, we'll soon see how many people read this far.  I'm a huge believer in giving back to the community, so I almost always support people raising funds through their participation in activities such as Team in Training -- reputable NGOs where people have a demonstrated commitment to personally participate.  Just ask.

Now it's my chance to tag five people --
Charles Beckham -- the SLS amazing chief technologist. 

Thursday Dec 14, 2006

Leadership and the curling ears of Napoleon's wife

Are your born with the ability to lead, or can it be taught? People frequently ask me that question, and I was thinking about it again last night after dinner with some people who simply live some of the best leadership skills I know. Before going to bed, I was reading from Parabola, a quarterly journal of tradition and myth.

This issue, in a side comment, a writer mentioned that one of Napoleon's wives could curl her ears, which was pretty much apropos of nothing in the article, but made me wonder how someone developed that skill. Were you born with special curling ear genes? Or is it hours of practice under the tutelage of master ear curlers?

The closest I could come to finding an answer was to search under ear wiggling. As it turns out, some people can pretty naturally learn the scalp muscles that control the illusion of wiggling your ears. But almost anyone can be trained if hooked up to electrodes in order to stimulate the muscles that control wiggling your ears. So almost anyone can be taught to wiggle their ears. As it turns out, the answer I usually give to people who ask about teaching leadership is that, yes, leadership can be taught. Some people are naturally gifted, and as a result of using that gift well, they excel beyond most. But I believe almost anyone can be taught how to be a better leader. For some of us, it may take the equivalent of electrode therapy. Eventually, however, we can get there.

If you want to learn how to wiggle your ears, here's one site I found.

You can also learn how to roll your eyes in opposite directions and all sorts of strange body maneuvers. I think I'll focus on honing my leadership skills for now ...

Tuesday Dec 12, 2006

Recipe for teambuilding

What makes a great team? For one thing, I think you have to have shared goals. If you throw a bunch of people together who happen to report to the same person, but don't share goals, it's almost impossible to build a strong team. They may learn to like each other and collaborate once in a while, but it's unlikely they'll ever become a great team. One teambuilding accelerator may be cookies. Especially cookies with rum. More on that in a moment.

We designed a new learning organization that we put in place almost six months ago now, and a deliberate part of that design was interdependencies. One group is customer facing -- the advocates -- and they rely on learning & content specialists -- the architects -- who in turn rely on a team of infrastructure people in technology and development. This allows us to share content across multiple audiences, and avoid creating the same courses over and over. But it does take a lot of work in defining roles, and in having quick and clean hand-offs. Easier said than done, and we're still in the early stages. There are a few early promising signs that all this work is paying off, but the proof will be in the speed and effectiveness with which we can deliver solutions to our audiences.

One of those early solutions is creating some short modules of on-line learning, taken from some of our customer courses, and making them available, FREE, on Just register with SDN, and you'll have FREE access to 11 courses with rich content on Solaris and Java. We've also created a number of offerings of training for under $99, to allow access now to not only corporate clients, but developers and students around the world.

If you're a Sun employee, stay tuned for the hundreds of eLearning courses we will be announcing, available at no internal charge, coming within the next week.

Now back to those cookies. We met as a team last week, and since we're watching costs carefully, we decided to have a team dinner at my house. A few items were picked up from a neighborhood bistro, but I made the appetizers and cookies for dessert. (The chocolate walnut rum balls from Gourmet Magazine, recipe here, were a big hit -- even a child could make them, but don't let them -- they're really 100 proof.) Being able to stroll around a home, gather in the kitchen and help, have a drink of your choice, eat over the course of a few hours, have another drink of your choice, and enjoy the holiday spirit(s) is also part of building a team. I once read that you aren't really close to another person until you've gone through tough times together, and see how the other person treats you during those tough times. We've gone through some tough times over the last couple of months, and that night was the time to tip a glass to each other and recognize that we're in it together, for the long haul. I couldn't have a better group of people to create a new vision and reality of learning at Sun. This holiday season, I am blessed.

Thursday Nov 30, 2006

Idiosyncrasy credits, Colin Powell, and the ELT

While I was sitting in the Software review with the Executive Leadership Team (ELT) this week, (is that name dropping or what?) I had a few moments where my mind wandered thinking about what makes for a good presentation, and what makes for good participation at these type of meetings. I don't want to pretend that I know the answers to these questions, but I do have a few observations, open for discussion.

Later this month I'll pass my one-year anniversary with Sun, and one of the things I continue to be amazed about at Sun is that what really matters most is what you can bring to the table. Of course there's politics, as in any human organization, but so much less than anywhere else I've worked, I still remain amazed a year later. I've seen someone dressed in orange monk's robes in the cafeteria, a general counsel in gorilla get-up, Amazon warrior princesses, and, well, you get the picture. At this ELT review, at least half the presenters, and half the ELT wore jeans. This would of course be standard gear at a start-up, but Sun is not a start-up, so it's refreshing to see that what you wear is not what determines your presentation success. A bit of start-up, and the innovation and gutsiness that represents, still sits in the spiritual core of Sun.

If you've taken a presentations course, you'd be dismayed at what kinds of slides the best presenters were using. Lots of numbers, no great graphics, etc. But the credibility with which they presented, and their ability to answer any question directly, honestly, non-defensively, and sometimes with "I don't know," set the tone for the subtle signs of acceptance by the audience. That made me think of a theory called idiosyncrasy credits (Hollander, 1958 -- and unbelievably not in Wikipedia) that looked at why we sometimes let people go beyond the common expectations of group behavior, including grooming, speaking ability, and other norms. Hollander thought this was because we give people who have demonstrated extraordinary competence extra credits to have these idiosyncrasies. That would explain why we are sometimes OK with Chris being late, a brilliant developer, but not as tolerant of Pat coming in late, if Pat is barely contributing to the work group. During the presentations this week, those people who walked in the room with a lot of known credibility got a chance to use some of their idiosyncrasy credits, while those who didn't have as many may have gone in the hole. Just a theory ... since I've felt in the hole at times as well ...

So what about being a participant? If you're essentially a guest, that's tough. Do you remain silent, and out of the way, in good guest form? I once heard Colin Powell speak at a conference about what it takes for people of color, women, and anyone who doesn't fit the typical norms to make it to the top of a Fortune 500 company. His perspective, speaking from my memory, was that every CEO deserves to have 6-7 qualified people to fill every job that comes close to surrounding him/her. So first off, you'd better be comfortable being on a plane for 6-7 hours with the CEO, because that's what they're thinking about you when they decide whether you belong in a close role. If you can't imagine being comfortable with the person at the top of your organization on that long plane ride, then maybe you should be looking somewhere else to move ahead. And secondly, you should bring a unique voice to the table. Otherwise, why do you belong there? So if you're silent, how can you bring that unique voice? But don't overdo it. Heck if I know what the balance is ... but I'll let you know if I figure out a little bit more anytime soon.

Update -- starting taking the easiest Solaris course and I have to go a remedial tutor first (thank you, Charles!) since I didn't understand a number of terms on page 3 of the training. And page 1 was the title page. Bummer. That's what I get for having journalism/English, psychology, and business degrees. More to come ...

Tuesday Nov 21, 2006

If dogs can do calculus, I can learn how to explain the benefits of Solaris ...

This week Jonathan asked his leadership team to personally sponsor one of our top accounts, and then spent time showing his story of why the adoption of Solaris is so important to our strategy. Probably 90% of the leaders in the room are well-equipped to go out and be a great sponsor in a top account. But if you're an HR-ish type, who could easily explain a social constructivist position on adult education, explaining Solaris to a real live customer is, well, intimidating. As I sank lower and lower in my chair, I realized there was no hiding on this one. Damn.

So now I need to take the crash course on Solaris. I'm not going to fake it with a customer. Women of a certain age usually come to realize there's no benefit to faking it ... in anything. I'm going to take some of my own medicine, and take some of the fine courses produced by our own team here at Sun. Some of these same courses will soon be FREE – within weeks – to anyone. I'll write a review on each one as I take it, and let you know if it helps the Solaris novice, non-developer (Basic doesn't count, in my estimation, and besides, that was a loooong time ago). And I'll be honest.

Today I took Harry Winston (you get it – dogs are man's best friend, diamonds are a girl's best friend, ergo Harry Winston the Lab – named after the world's most famous diamond designer). Harry's favorite activity in the world is fetching a ball out of water – and today we went hiking at Del Valle reservoir in Livermore. There's a significant part of the park that allows off-leash dogs, Harry's version of heaven.

Once I throw the ball in the water, Harry will run along the shoreline and select the most efficient swimming route to get to the ball, an act of applied calculus, according to mathemetician Tim Pennings, watching his own dog Elvis use the same behavior.

Dogs Do Calculus Proof

Thus if Harry can apply calculus in his everyday passions, I figure I can take a stab at being able to meaningfully and convincingly promote Solaris. Pre-test = 0, without even taking it. I'll let you know about the post-test.





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