The Infinity Room (The House on the Rock) (Justin Kern/Flickr)

7 key questions when designing a learning system

Reda Sadki Learning, Learning design

In the design of a learning system for humanitarians, the following questions should be given careful consideration:

  1. Does each component of the system foster cross-cutting analysis and critical thinking competencies that are key to humanitarian leadership?
  2. Is the curriculum standardized across all components, with shared learning objectives and a common competency framework?
  3. Is the curriculum modular so that components may be tailored to focus on context-specific performance gaps?
  4. Does the system provide experiential learning (through scenario-based simulations) and foster collaboration (through social, peer-to-peer knowledge co-construction) in addition to knowledge transmission (instruction)?
  5. How are learning and performance outcomes evaluated?
  6. Are synergies between components of the learning system leveraged to minimized costs?
  7. Have the costs over time been correctly calculated by estimating both development and delivery costs?

These questions emerged from the development of a learning system for market assessment last year, thinking through how to use learning innovation to achieve efficiency and effectiveness despite limited resources.

Photo: The Infinity Room (The House on the Rock) (Justin Kern/Flickr)

LSi's 2015 greeting card

Bring on 2015!

Reda Sadki About this blog

A year ago, I announced the creation of Learning Strategies International, a talent network to connect learning leaders who yearn to solve ‘wicked’ knowledge problems. In its first twelve months, LSi has engaged with 700 leaders from 280 organizations to contribute to over 100 projects. In 2015, we will be announcing new services and partnerships emerging from connections initiated, nurtured, and strengthened in 2014.

It is therefore with gratitude for your support and engagement that I share our Year 2 greeting card to wish readers of this blog a faster, smarter new year.


Photo credit: The Comet in Queenstown, 12 July 2012 (Trey Ratcliff/Flickr). Typography by for LSi.

Speaking of effigies (Dayna Bateman/Flickr)

Make a wish

Reda Sadki Learning strategy, Thinking aloud, Writing

Is the CLO really the ‘fifth wheel’ in the organizational strategy wagon? Learning leaders tend to roll their eyes upward in sour-faced agreement about ending up as an after thought – after strategic alignment has been completed everywhere else in the organization, or being considered as a support service to enable and implement rather than a partner. So, what to wish for?

First, I would wish for an organization that is mission-driven. This is what everyone wishes for, of course, so let me try to be specific. The mission should inspire, giving everyone something to strive for, to encourage people and structure to reinvent themselves to face global complexity – with clarity that reinvention is a constant, not a one-off. It would require strong leadership, not command-and-control, but modelling the values and practices of the organization and the acceptance that uncertainty requires calculated risk-taking, now and tomorrow. Such distributed leadership requires a strong, vocal chief executive attuned to the hyper-connected, perception-driven world we live, and can be brought to life only by a talent and learning team that excels at hiring, developing and retaining people who don’t fit traditional profiles, who recognize misfits as potential superheroes. The people function needs to be fast – keep a potential candidate waiting for months, and she’s gone.

So, what does such a profile look like? We all recognize that most of the learning that matters is embedded into work… and then go back to organizing workshops, building online courses, and demanding resources so that people can stop their work, go off and study. Therefore, unless she is a digital native, our L&D misfit cum superhero sidekick may have to unlearn her own vestigial L&D workshop and training culture and its overemphasis on formal training  – and figure out how the lead the organization through that same process. How? Like an anthropologist, she should be able to unpack, read, and decipher the organization’s learning culture, invent new ideas to capture and share informal and tacit learning, and engineer embedded, adaptive systems to institutionalize these ideas. Immerse, observe, and learn to connect the dots between learning culture, strategy, and mission, knowing that culture drives performance.  Through this process, iterate ideas, experiments, and pilots, and do it fast enough and often enough to collapse the distinction between ‘stuff you try’ and operations – stretching the organization’s knowledge performance a little more each time. Think in the yoga of organizational development: stretch and stretch, but accept that you won’t get there the first time. Accept what is ‘good enough’, knowing that you get to try again, and that what is perfect now would not be so tomorrow, anyway. This circles back to leadership for learning – with the learning leader as sidekick, depending on the vision and the will of the chief executive to bring such a vision to life.

The mantra is to maximize efficiency and effectiveness to become a strategic business partner. On efficiency, technology’s economy of effort removes the necessity of distinguishing between internal staff development and the needs of your external audiences (customers). This is key to working frugally with minimal human and financial resources. However, the organization should be skeptical of claims that efficiency or scale trumps effectiveness. Witness the slow agony of the LMS, the massively profitable industry of clunky content containers that require massive investment but depend on transmissive, behaviorist pedagogical models of the past, fail even at the purpose of compliance for which they are designed, and seldom deliver tangible knowledge or performance outcomes.

I believe that it is reasonable to proclaim that in our knowledge-based economy, an organization’s ability to learn is key to both its survival and growth. However, this raises expectations about the relevance of the learning function, its outcomes and return on investment. And yet, even with perfect alignment, we are adding small, single-digit percentage points to performance and business results that, in many contexts, will not be measurable at the time when they matter most, if ever. Here is how Doug Lynch sums it up:

The news isn’t all bad. The theory of human capital development suggests that if we develop people, they will become more productive. The problem is, empirical research suggests between 66 and 80 percent of the variance in performance is not captured by human capital development models. At best, we are able to impact 34 percent of the performance variance. And yet, the space seems to operate like learning is an elixir, curing any ill.

The elixir fallacy results in part from our own legitimate search for relevance, alignment, and results. At the end of the day, you will be asked to “land it”, to demonstrate with fireworks and marching band how learning altered the organization’s DNA and made a difference. But what if that takes time, and looks more like a process of grains of sand washing up on the beach rather than a maelstrom of disruption? What if the part of L&D practice that matters is really, as Karen Watkins calls it, the “little R&D”, the unimpressive, slow-and-gradual process of trying new things, experimenting, getting it wrong and then right…?

So, the last item on my wish list is for an organization that acknowledges that strengthening learning culture requires a mixed methods approach, alternating  between slow, gradual change-over-time that leverages smart technology and pedagogy that can impact everyone in the organization with shock-and-awe leadership and high-potential development, action learning, wicked problem solving, innovation tournaments, and other highly visible acts of disruption to shake up business as usual.

Photo: Speaking of effigies (Dayna Bateman/Flickr).

Wicked signs (Aukje Dekker/Flickr)

What is a wicked problem?

Reda Sadki Innovation, Quotes

Climbing La Soufrière in Saint Vincent (Ian Usher/Flickr)


Reda Sadki Publishing, Quotes

“What I like,” whispered my dinner companion, “is that these publishing types have survived the fire of digital transformation, emerging out of the boiling pits of disruption, and all of that. Some were dismembered before, during, and after – acquired and merged, sold and resold. All paid a terrible price, but bear their bruises and scars proudly. They are not only smart but also scrappy, battle-seasoned veterans whose eyes still gleam with the thick knowledge that they produce. The culture (and, yes, the economy) that sustains their work is very much alive, circulating in networks that don’t care whether they are made of silicon or white matter. Blood, sweat and tears, man! And, yes, most if not all are showing a profit!” And then, like a drop of sulfuric acid on the rusty metal plate separating ‘education’ from ‘publishing’ in our fragmented knowledge universe: “Beats babbling on about 70-20-10, eh?” Indeed.

Photo: Climbing La Soufrière in Saint Vincent (Ian Usher/Flickr).

Pyramide d'abricot à La bague de Kenza (Paris)

Bite-sized update: higher education in fragile contexts, discovery without analytics, and the epistemology of learning culture

Reda Sadki Thinking aloud, Travel

As much as I wish this blog could document my reflections as I read, research, speak, and listen… it cannot. Knowledge is a process, not a product, in this VUCA world we live in. I know that I am doing too much, too fast, to be ale to process everything. Accepting this is part and parcel of navigating the knowledge landscape. So here is an incomplete round-up with some schematic thoughts about where I’m headed.

Higher education in fragile contexts as a wicked problem: Most ed tech conferences I’ve attended are mostly male, and tend to focus on the education of those least-in-need. Inzone’s workshop on education in fragile contexts was at the other end of that spectrum, with a diverse team of scholars and practitioners coming together to tackle wicked learning problems such as how to ensure access to education for Syrian refugees in Turkey (access), what to do when refugee camp conditions are such that the committed Jesuit educators who staff the education program burn out after a few days or months, how to adapt courses to learners who lack resources or basic skills (quality), and  how to teach 21st century knowledge skills (spanning the range from keyboard typing to critical thinking) in such contexts. Workshop organizer, InZone director, educator, and interpreter (that’s a lot of hats) Barbara Moser-Mercer is doing an amazing job of building meaningful connections and collaboration with other teams from universities and international organizations. This is what a 21st century learning network should look like.

What use is discovery without analytics? Wednesday evening, I’ll be one of a jury of twelve for Semantico’s thought leadership dinner in London, which the digital publishing company describes as “as a way of bringing together leading influencers from the scholarly publishing ecosystem to debate a relevant topic over fine wine and food.” Sounds tasty. I read this as the question of epistemology: how do we know what we know about how people discover knowledge (packaged in containers like publications)? Are the analytics you get from publishing (number of downloads, time spent engaging with content) sufficient when education-based approaches can reveal so much more about what people do with our content?

Learning culture as strategy: The more time I spend with organizations and teams investigating their learning culture, the more it feels like a methodology that starts with diagnosis (measuring learning culture using Karen Watkins’s and Victoria Marsick’s DLOQ instrument) and then deepens individual and team understanding of the learning practices that foster continuous learning and connections with others. Asking questions about how we learn (beyond formal training) makes it obvious how little we reflect on experience. The lesson learned is what we tend to keep, rather than the journey that got us there. Without reflection, this is the Achilles’s heel of learning by doing. Epistemology again. The payoff when you figure this out is that actioning learning culture drives knowledge performance.

Knowledge performance: What is the relationship between individual creativity and an organization’s ability to learn? “We should just test people’s IQ and hire only the most intelligent ones,” is probably one of the silliest statements I’ve heard in the recent past blurted out by one of the smartest people (and dear friend) that I know. Leave aside the fiery debates about the biases of IQ measurements. Just consider that an organization’s ability to learn (no, organizations do not have brains but organizations that do not adapt and change, die) walls in your ability as an individual to exercise and productively apply your creativity, serendipity, and invention. In other words, no matter how smart you are, if your organization has low knowledge performance, you may come up with the most brilliant idea, but it is unlikely to translate into practice.

Photo: Algerian patisserie from La bague de Kenza (Paris), a personal favorite.

TC103-Tech tools and skills for emergency management-screenshot

Tech Change

Reda Sadki Innovation, Interviews, Learning strategy, Video

The Institute for Technology and Social Change is a private company based in Washington, D.C. Its web site offers a course catalogue focused on technological innovationTimo Luege is a communication specialist who has spent the last seven years working for the humanitarian and development sector, a period during which large-scale disasters intersected with the rapid rise in mobile communication. Starting on Monday, he will be delivering TechChange’s course on technology tools and skills for emergency management for the third time.

In this interview he answers the following questions:

  1. What will I be able to do after taking the course that I couldn’t do before?
  2. Why should my manager pay for this, or at least support me?
  3. Why should my staff development or HR people support me to take this course?
  4. How will this help me to deliver for my organization – or to find my next job or mission?
  5. Humanitarian training focuses on technical skills, yet everyone recognizes the need for critical thinking and analytical skills. Do you think that your course can help with these and if so how?
  6. Is TechChange accredited and, if not, why not deliver this course through a traditional university?
  7. How does a communication specialist become an online instructor?
  8. What is your experience of teaching online?

Timo assisted in teaching the first iteration of the course before taking the helm, and dedicates two full weeks to preparation for the course. This is especially important as he covers fast-changing topics. A number of guests are invited to deliver online presentation and contribute to discussions. Although there is no group work, there are many opportunities for interaction. The learning environment is a custom-built job on top of WordPress. The cohorts are typically between 20 and 30 learners, with a broad diversity of people and countries represented.

The fees for the course are US$445, but if you are interested, ping me (or Timo) on Twitter (or use the contact form on this blog) and I will share a code you can use to get a US$100 discount.

From my vantage point, I connected with Timo to chat about this course which I found profoundly interesting for reasons that should not surprise regular readers of this blog:

  • It aims to offer most-current knowledge in an area of innovation where the “half-life” of knowledge is short (and in fact Timo mentions that he finds it necessary to thoroughly update his content each time he runs the course).
  • It has been developed outside of in-service training and of traditional universities, with knowledge based on practitioner expertise acquired through experience
  • It is offered by a private company, leveraging relationships to the technology, humanitarian and development sectors.

On the other hand:

  • It is neither open (free) nor massive (and doesn’t try to be), and therefore difficult to scale up.
  • The pedagogical model appears to contain some elements of constructivist and experiential learning, but still appears very focused on information transmission.
  • The value of the credential remains to be demonstrated with respect to applicability to work, performance outcomes, and recognition by HR departments and managers.
  • It is unclear if or how learners interact during and after the course to form a knowledge community.
  • The cost structure and business model are difficult to determine without first chatting with the TechChange team.

Please note that I have never taken a TechChange course and have not (yet) met their team, so these are only my first impressions, from the outside, looking in.





Basketball practice

Practice practice practice

Reda Sadki Quotes

Is there any evidence that university-based continued professional development (CPD) fails when trying to develop competencies needed by humanitarian and development professionals? Or, to reframe the question, are traditional brick-and-mortar universities best equipped to support the lifelong learning journeys of people committed to this line of work? Then again, how could an industry that seldom evaluates its own training demand that universities be accountable for quality of learning outcomes?

Online delivery of education is also expanding rapidly to meet the career-specific education and training needs of adult populations. While such educational opportunities, including many at the sub-degree or certificate level, are increasingly important for social advancement and economic development, they are often not effectively accommodated within traditional higher education governance, financing and quality control mechanisms.”

Source: Tremblay, K., Lalancette, D., Roseveare, D., 2012. Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes feasibility study report  volume 1-design and implementation. OECD, Paris, France

Young man at a vocational education and training center, Marrakesh, Morocco. © Dana Smillie / World Bank

Making humanitarians

Reda Sadki Learning strategy, Thinking aloud

The industry to tackle growing humanitarian and development challenges has expanded rapidly since the mid 1990s, but not nearly as fast as the scope and scale of the problems have spiraled. Professionalization was therefore correctly identified as a major challenge of its own, with over a decade of research led by Catherine Russ and others clearing the rubble to allow the sector to make sense of what needs to be done. The bottom line diagnosis is a now-familiar litany: a shortage of people and skills, lack of quality standards, inability to scale.

Despite the growth of traditional university programs to credential specialized knowledge of these challenges and how to tackle them, young people armed with multiple masters find that they really start learning upon entering their first NGO. They face a dearth of entry-level positions (sometimes spending years as “interns” or other forms of under-recognized labor) and discover professional networks closed to them because legitimacy is based on shared experience, not formal qualifications.

Certified professional development run by universities fail because these institutions are ill-equipped to deliver sub-degree qualifications, and rely on methods that seldom provide experience. This problem is not specific to humanitarians, but may be more acute because of the nature of the work and the knowledge involved.

Meanwhile, specialized organizations that provide training, like REDR in the UK or Bioforce in France, have become increasingly good at developing competency-based certification for behavior that matches real-world needs. Their business model works best at small scale and high cost. They have also succeeded in establishing that the credential of value is one that is defined by and agreed upon by practitioners. However, their efforts remain mired in a legacy of transmissive training and a tradition of “workshop culture” that are difficult to overcome. Also, by the time a competency framework is described, new contexts and needs that dictate new behaviors have predictably emerged but cannot be captured by the rigidity of framework.

A few organizations are trying to organize the online delivery of click-through information modules. Unfortunately, this approach has yet – to put it politely – to show measurable positive performance outcomes. And, admittedly, it is going to be tough to prove that three hours of clicking through bullet points followed by an information recall quiz corresponds to what 21st century humanitarians need to deliver. (Having said that, it is probably no worse than sitting in a workshop with a ‘trainer’ doing the clicking, whether in terms of learning efficacy or sheer pleasure).

Save The Children’s Humanitarian Leadership Academy stands out in a number of ways in the current landscape. Their analysis is grounded in the rock-solid research by Russ and others, and they have assembled a ferociously professional team that combines all of the right job functions, encompassing both folks from the sector and those who are new to it. The project is rightly ambitious, given the scope and scale of the challenges faced, and they have succeeded in securing a large chunk of their funding needs from the UK government. They aim to serve not just Save’s training needs, but to become the connector for a broad set of organizations working together, trying to convert decades of preaching about capacity building in developing countries into practice. Last but not least, they are trying to think strategically about their use of digital technology for learning.

Has the time come, as a respected high priest of corporate learning recently suggested, for a “Pan Humanitarian College of Conscience”? Could it be as simple as bringing everyone together to share content, resources, and determine quality and credentialing standards together? I don’t think so, mostly because the existing content, resources, and approaches are not getting the job done. We need to do new things in new ways, not an educational “We are the world”.

Truly disruptive humanitarian education leverages the affordances of educational technology to offer continual learning experiences that foster sense-making and network formation linking young and old humanitarians in global practices, strengthening existing professional networks because collaboration and team work are how you complete the mission. Such experiences could focus on precisely what is unsaid and untaught in formal curricula, and considered unattainable by training. Even formal courses that are about acquiring foundational knowledge can have learners co-constructing knowledge together. These peers then find themselves part of a knowledge community where, as alumni, they are now in a position to provide support – and benefit from the new learnings of others in a virtuous cycle. This paradigm shift occurs when how we learn is aligned to how we work: collaboration, team work and leadership are premised on peer-to-peer relationships, across the diversity of contexts and people that humanitarians find themselves in.

Such an approach fosters critical thinking and practice around specific areas of work but – and perhaps more importantly – around cross-cuting ways of thinking and doing. Yes, you could build courses that tap into knowledge communities around climate change, logistics, or market-based approaches. Focus on an area of work, zero in on its wicked problems, and drive learning efforts where they are most needed, producing knowledge that is directly applicable to work. Going further, new ways of learning foster new forms of leadership and innovation in the face of a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world, through courses that teach and deepen realist evaluation or tap into experiences from outside the sector – linking resilience and sustainability – to help new ways of thinking and doing emerge.

Last but not least, this new humanitarian learning needs to include not just future professionals but also volunteers. As the Red Cross Red Cross Movement has taught us , volunteers are far more than part-time humanitarians. They are embedded in their communities and learn to use the cultural and tacit knowledge from belonging to empower themselves, their families, neighbors, and every member of the community – whatever their status, in a fully inclusive way. Making sense of what happens in your community in this century, more so than ever before, requires that you establish a fluid two-way connection to global knowledge.

While these are admittedly lofty objectives, the science of learning combined with educational technology are poised to make this more than just wishful thinking. Scaling up is currently center stage in both education (thank you, MOOCs) and humanitarian realms. There have been a small but significant number of well-researched, successful, small-scale pilots to foster new forms of humanitarian learning. The learners who participated in such experiments got it – even if some managers and decision makers did not. The missing link remains the network of learning leaders willing and able to think and fund the foundations for such an endeavor, and then to start building its scaffolding. And, who knows, such a group might find that Pan Humanitarian College of Conscience is a good fit to name what we might make together.

Photo: Young man at a vocational education and training center, Marrakesh, Morocco. © Dana Smillie / World Bank