Sunday, January 3, 2021

AMA 2, are you learning?

 There's been several AMA questions, thank you so much! You can still send your question in, and resolve that burning feeling keeping you awake at night. I guarantee an answer.

This one comes from a friend asking about the learning culture in her organization. I want to respect her privacy, and that of her organization. Slightly paraphrased, she asked:
1 - What should teaching and learning look like at XXX?
2 - What are the top tools that we don't provide enough training and learning time for
3 - What would an ideal service desk do for you

Everybody spends the early part of their life learning. Fundamental things like how to use cutlery to eat without dribbling food all over the place, how to cross the street without getting killed, how to use a clock to tell time, the list is endless. Right from birth, a baby is learning how to manipulate the people around them to get fed. Even cats do it.

Some people have disabilities that prevent them from learning some things. People with Dyslexia have difficulty learning to read. Some people can't 'read' facial emotions and have trouble telling how other people are feeling. Some have problems so serious they can't learn to function on their own and will need care all their lives. These all need to be taken into account.

Generally, parents and family start the education process. Then school happens. Some kids love going to school and the system works for them. Others, well, not so much. I was one of them, I spent much of my school years afraid of the teachers and other kids. Part of the reason was that I was extremely nearsighted, and we only learned that in grade 3, after some incidents we need not go into now. This was in a time when it was not routine to get your kids eyes and hearing, and everything else checked early on.

School is a system invented to provide a mass education experience to prepare kids for the work world. The theory was that with universal education, the corporations would get literate and thus more productive workers. School turned into an assembly line, with certain topics taught at certain ages. You've probably heard the saying "The nail that sticks out gets hammered down" and that describes the education system to a T.

Then there's the formal post-secondary world, which I know little of, and the semi-formal world after that, of which I know a thing or two. I spent a number of years training adults to use software. On a training day the most important thing was to watch my students after I gave them the paper with their user name and password. Watching them type it told me everything I needed to know about how my day was going to go.  We aren't talking the esoteric strings of random character gibberish that get generated for passwords these days, we're talking about their name and a common word like baseball. 

So, now that the preamble is over (you know a preamble is the mark of a high quality blog) lets move onto question 1. One of things that people should learn is how they best learn. Do they absorb material best through reading, listening to it, or watching a video, or person to person practical demonstration? Of course, to some extent the subject drives the style of teaching, but people should know which they are best at. The system should be flexible enough to accommodate those styles as much as possible.

Somehow the system needs to track and document what a person has learned so they can move on to more advanced topics. There are many learning systems that do this now, and the ones I've used are a horror show. There's a voice track with a pompous fake hearty overly pronounced voice putting more words to the text that's being displayed practically a word at a time on screen, above a cartoon graphic. Personally, I hate learning by listening to someone talk, or watching a video. I want text. With text I can zero in on the space where what I already know ends, and start connecting the dots to get to where I want to go. I can skip over the irrelevant material. With a video, you're forced to slog through all the detours and possibilities and exceptions that the narrator thinks are important.

The single worst example is corporate ethics. A lawyer wrote it. The text is only marginally favourably compared to the standard software user agreement. It goes on and on, and much of it is not applicable to most of the people taking it. The video experience is abysmal. I chant to myself, "I'm getting paid by the minute to do this."

Teaching and learning should be customized to the individual, with a blend of context, demonstrate the skill, walk them through the skill, do the skill, practice the skill, demonstrate competence. Sometimes having a person involved is best, sometimes having a computer doing it.

The recent COVID epidemic has demonstrated the shortcomings of jamming many kids into a class supervised by an overwhelmed adult. We've proved that kids can learn at home, that adults can work from home, and managers can cope with remote workers. We need to learn from the experience, and modify our systems. The things that can be done via computer should be done that way. Practicing arithmetic comes to mind. The computer will never get bored reminding little Johnny that 3+2=5. 

The top tools? I don't know. Generally when people say tools now, they mean software tools. Learning systems or applications to do something, like Word or Excel. It used to be that corporate training was all about sending someone to take a course on Excel, which was a dreadful experience for all involved. The instructor demonstrated some canned problems, walked people through, and that was it. There was typically very little understanding of what the student needed to actually learn to do their job better. Both of those applications, and many others, are now so complex that nobody knows everything they can do. Even worse, what you know about one can mess you up in another. 

I used to say that the top skill that should be taught to people was typing. Keyboarding. Whatever you want to call it. The problem was the connotation of typing as a low skill task preformed by women in the typing pool. Most of the younger adults now seem to have picked up typing as a skill the way they learned how to use cutlery. Many older adults still struggle. It wasn't so long ago that I watched a guy that was about the age I am now, try to convince his co-worker to log him in, and then upon being forced to log in himself, had to hunt and peck at the keys. I found out later he bribed one of the office staff to do his timesheet, and would rather pay for something himself than fill out an expense report. I will grant you, filing an expense report at that job was a brutal experience, one that left emotional scars on all involved. He was hoping to coast through his last few years before retirement without using a computer. He didn't make it; he was bridged to pension, as the saying goes.

One of the things that got me where I am, was investing the time to learn how to do specific things, usually in Excel, or in database query software, that would get me through my job faster. I could then leverage that time to learn to do other things faster, or with more confidence so I wouldn't have to spend time checking the results. I'd like to see corporations allow more time for their staff to do this. In school, they need to allow more time for structured play.

Service desk. Oh boy. The hardest thing about being on the service desk is trying to troubleshoot a user's problem, when you can't see their screen, and you don't know what they did to get where they are. Most of the time they're so flustered they don't even know what they did anymore. Which isn't a knock against them, it's actually difficult to teach someone to document their steps, so that when the software fails, you can tell the developer what steps will reproduce the problem, as a first step to fixing it.

I typically blame the application. Many of them are badly designed. A rule that works in one part of it, is not the rule in other parts. They let you take actions that have catastrophic results with no undo. They warnings are cryptic, sometimes framed in a double negative way. The auto-save feature is enraging when you work on a large document. You're in the groove, doing something complicated, and the system stalls while it saves, and sometimes even gives you an error message because what you're in the middle of isn't correct at that exact step. And people wonder why I swear at the computer a lot.

To the ordinary user, the service desk is a unitary thing. You finally get hold of an actual person, and you start to tell them all about your problem. But the service desk person is all about the service ticket, and making sure it's all filled out correctly so they get the credit for closing the ticket, I mean, solving the problem. All too often the user will find the person they're talking to isn't the right one, or they don't know the problem application. 

In some places the help desk person can take over the user's screen, which is pretty slick, actually. It doesn't help figure out how they got there, but it does get them past the 'do you see xyz on your screen, good, click that' stage.

I firmly believe that computer systems know when the human knows what should happen. If the human knows what happens when a button is clicked, the computer will go and do it. But if the human isn't sure, look out. I could tell you stories. I've been the victim, and I've walked people away from being the victim. 

As a user I want the service desk to respond promptly, and fix the problem. The end. But I get that there is no limit to the number of issues that will prompt someone to call the service desk. Many someones typically at the same time, and that's before there are actual computer or network problems. There has to be a system to deal with it, and document it. Going through the steps in an orderly way to understand the problem can be annoying to the person who already understands the problem, or worse, only thinks that they do. 

Somehow the service desk people need to ask fundamental questions without appearing to patronize the user. To ask "is it plugged in" is patronizing. To ask them to make sure the computer (or whatever) is off, then pull the plug out to check it for signs of an electrical problem, and plug it back in again, helps involve the user in solving the problem, and eliminates a potential cause without insulting the user. It's a real skill. All too often going through these steps sounds like the help desk person is reading a script.

I don't know how to say this without being accused of racism. Many organizations outsource their help desks. When a user calls, they have no way of knowing who the help desk person actually works for, or where they're sitting. It might be in a bullpen on the IT floor in the same building as you, or it could be anywhere in the world. And yes, sometimes the language skills aren't adequate. We gamed the system at one job. One of the people on our team spoke the first language for the help desk staff, so we had her make the calls, and do so in that language. That was better, and buying her lunch everyday was a small price to pay.

Taking a step back and looking at the whole system, it's clear that over the last few decades we've moved into a new world. Computers. Networks. Video conferencing. Databases. Cell phones. Mrs Google. A never ending explosion of knowledge that's important to function in today's world. We all know the one room school-house with multiple grades taught by a young woman is long gone. The model of an adult being the authority figure teaching a class of kids is gone too. In some cases the kids know more than the adult. In my day calculators were the new thing, along with arguments about if students should be allowed to use them. How quaint that seems now.

The model of a boss closely supervising a gang of workers in person and knowing all their jobs is gone as well. Throughout my so-called career, I've only had one boss that I could explain in detail what I do, and not have their eyeballs spin. I've often been the only person doing what I do, and sometimes it's difficult to explain to a boss who knows nothing of database complexities. In many organizations, when you get right down to the details, each person's skill set is unique. They don't need or want hour by hour supervision. Mostly they want to be left alone to do their assigned work. Meetings, emails, phone calls, all are distractions.

We need to figure out better ways of educating our kids, and continuing the education as adults. The world isn't going to stop changing. We are going to be creating better tools, and we need to learn to take advantage. I remember email being a new thing, a marvellous tool for communication. Now email is being phased out of organizations, kind of like fax machines. Which is good for most people because they hate dealing with email, and bad for me, because I sort of like dealing with email. I'm good at it. Pity that so many others are so bad at it.

Which sort of makes me a bit of a Luddite, I guess. Not one to be creating systems to deal with this new world. But at least I recognize we need those new systems. Some people my age are all about the school room of their youth, thinking all we need to do is the three R's. Bah! Reading, yes, a thousand times yes! But I'd almost rather teach a kid how to do information analysis to pick out political and corporate lies, than teach them arithmetic. 

Of the Day

1 comment:

  1. Hello, it has been a while. First to this ama. Training and support will continue to be broken, regardless of the tools use, until the compensation models and values change. And now to my contribution to ama. What changed or didn't change in your photography practice last year and are there aspects you would like to change this years? I'm afraid I will not be able to completely catch up on my commenting. Cheers, Sean


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