Complexity in humanitarian and development

Online learning 101 for humanitarian managers and decision makers

Reda SadkiLearning strategy, Presentations

I’ve just posted on a comprehensive (65-minute) presentation intended for humanitarian managers and decision makers working in organizations without prior experience in online or distance learning. It includes numerous practical examples and case studies, as well as a description of the best available learning theory and best practice approaches most appropriate for the humanitarian learning context.

Here are the 10 questions addressed:

  1. It’s not about technology. Really?
  2. What learning problems do you want to solve?
  3. What kind of online learning can prepare humanitarians?
  4. What do you need to know about costs, time, and complexity?
  5. Where’s the money?
  6. Do you need scale?
  7. Can you do more than transmit information with e-learning?
  8. If experience is the best teacher, how can e-learning help?
  9. Does e-learning work at all?
  10. How does all this fit together?

This slide set was originally presented to the Assessment Capacities Project (ACAPS) on 22 September 2014. It is available for members via this link. is a non-profit talent network for learning leaders from corporate, academic, and humanitarian/development sectors interested in solving wicked problems. (Note: there are some display problems on which should be fixed soon. Thank you for your patience.)



Thick knowledge

Reda SadkiContent strategy, Learning strategy, Quotes

Toby Mundy on books as thick knowledge:

“[…] Books have a unique place in our civilisation […] because they are the only medium for thick descriptions of the world that human beings possess. By ‘thick’ description, I mean an extended, detailed, evidence-based, written interpretation of a subject. If you want to write a feature or blog or wikipedia entry, be it about the origins of the first world war; the authoritarian turn in Russia; or the causes and effects of the 2008 financial crisis, in the end you will have to refer to a book. Or at least refer to other people who have referred to books. Even the best magazine pieces and TV documentaries — and the best of these are very good indeed — are only puddle-deep compared with the thick descriptions laid out in books. They are ‘thin’ descriptions and the creators and authors of them will have referred extensively to books to produce their work.”

I’ve found myself going back to searching for well-written, comprehensive, in-depth books for sourcing both foundational and most-current knowledge. This notion of ‘thick knowledge’ makes a lot of sense.

Photo: Rainbow (Katey/flickr).

Lenses rainbow

Unified Knowledge Universe

Reda SadkiContent strategy, Learning design, Learning strategy, Writing

“Knowledge is the economy. What used to be the means has today become the end. Knowledge is a river, not a reservoir. A process, not a product. It’s the pipes that matter, because learning is in the network.” – George Siemens  in Knowing Knowledge (2006)

Harnessing the proliferation of knowledge systems and the rapid pace of technological change is a key problem for 21st century organizations. When knowledge is more of a deluge than a trickle, old command-control methods of creating, controlling, and distributing knowledge encased in a container view do little to crack how we can tame this flood. How do you scaffold continual improvement in learning and knowledge production to maximize depth, dissemination and impact? A new approach is needed to apply multiple lenses to a specific organizational context.

What the organization wants to enable, improve and accelerate:

  1. Give decision makers instant, ubiquitous and predictive access to all the knowledge in its universe – and connect it to everywhere.
  2. Rapidly curate, collate and circulate most-current content as a publication (print on demand, ebooks, etc.) when it is thick knowledge, and for everything else as a set of web pages (micro-site or blog), or individual, granular bits of content suitable for embed anywhere.
  3. Accelerate co-construction of new, most-current knowledge using peer review to deliver high-quality case studies, strategies, implementation plans, etc.

How do you crack this? Here are some of the steps:

  1. Benchmark existing knowledge production workflows and identify bottlenecks, using multiple lenses and mixed methods.
  2. In the short term, fix publishing bottlenecks by improving existing systems (software) and performance support (people).
  3. In the longer view, adopt a total quality management (TQM) approach to build ‘scaffolding’ and ‘pipes’ that maximize production, capture, flow, and impact of high-quality, most-current knowledge production, with everything replicated in a centralized, unstructured repository.

Multiple lenses are needed as no single way of seeing can unravel the complexity of knowledge flows:

  • The lens of complexity: Systems thinking recognizes that we do not need a full understanding of the constituent objects in order to benchmark, analyze, or make decisions to improve processes, outcomes, and quality.
  • The lens of learning: Learning theory provides the framework to map knowledge flows beyond production to dissemination to impact. The co-construction of knowledge provides a ‘deeper’, less fleeting perspective than conventional social media approaches. More pragmatically, a number of tools from learning and development and education research can be used to benchmark.
  • The lens of talent: Staff lose precious time and experience frustration due to duplication of effort, repetitive tasks, and anxiety due to the risk of errors. They may feel overwhelmed by the complexity and intricacies of multiple systems, as well as by the requirement to learn and adapt to each one. Informal learning communities can bring together in the workflow to identify potential, develop competencies, and drive performance. Hiring, on boarding and handover can be used to identify gaps and improve fitness for purpose.
  • The lens of culture: Determinants of quality through print-centric publishing processes are grounded in a rich cultural legacy, for example. Other specialists (IT, comms, etc.) also have their own, overlapping universes. Correct analysis of these and how they interact is indispensable.
  • The lens of total quality management (TQM): This lens includes quality development, business process improvement (BPI), and risk management. It can help both in the initial diagnosis (process maps) and in designing systems and procedures for continual improvement.
  • The lens of IT: Information technology management includes both agile methods as well as traditional requirements-and-specifications. Although such approaches on their own are unlikely to achieve the desired outcomes, their familiarity may facilitate acceptance and usage of the other lenses.

The remaining pieces of the puzzle involve standards, mixed methods, and deliverables.

Unified Knowledge Universe

Unified Knowledge Universe

Photo: Lenses rainbow (csaveanu/flickr).

Baby at seven months

Seven months

Reda SadkiQuotes

Alan Todd, Founder and CEO, Corp U:

Today’s workplace culture is evolving at a break-neck pace as technological advances, shifting demographics, and new economic realities force corporations to reorganize, on average, every seven months. The challenge is real. Fortunately, so are the solutions.

Source: The Science of Learning: How to Develop Mindsets for Success in the Workplace

Photo: My baby at seven months, on a beach in Soulac, France. August 2012. Personal collection.

Learning dashboard

Elements of a learning dashboard

Reda SadkiLearning strategy, Theory

“What is clear is that a learning rich culture will emphasize informal learning and more open learning designs rather than relying only on formal training approaches. The learning infrastructure consists of all of the formal, informal, and incidental activities, systems, and policies that promote individual, team, and organizational learning and knowledge creation.”

Elements of a learning dashboard-Watkins

Source: Watkins, K., 2013. Building a Learning Dashboard. The HR Review 16–21.

Belle Nuit 1920x1080

Webcasts, then and now

Reda SadkiEvents, Video

(No, this is not a post about the Apple keynote meltdown.)

When I started organizing live webcast events for the first time in 2006, they required extensive technical preparation, specialized software and hardware, and – most important – a group of really smart people gifted with more than a little bit of luck to pull off each event. Even as recently as 2011, I remember a time in Budapest when my young cameraman (one of a team of four) announced to me that his fancy P2 broadcast-quality camera could not connect to his equally-fancy webcasting software. I ended up hacking our MacBook Pro’s webcam, piloted remotely from another laptop using VNC… It was exciting to transform what had been a local, 19th Century-style lecture series into a series of global participatory learning events, but so much energy had to be expended on the technical issues that many people missed the point about the amazing affordances of technology to fundamentally transform how we teach and learn.

Participants in today’s blended learning event (a “15-Minute Global Health Practicum”) still experienced the technology mediation as interference. However, the blurry video and mediocre sound came from the crappy hotel wifi of our presenter, and nothing else. We were nevertheless able to focus on the substance (games for health) and the learning process  (a 5-minute Ignite presentation). I spent little more time testing and checking the Google Hangouts than I did visiting the meeting room where we gathered for the event in Geneva. Hence my effort went into reimagining how to solve some of the learning problems, not the technical ones.

For future events, the lesson for me is that figuring out how much of a burden  technology is likely to be (as it remains across the Digital Divide, for example) should really be a first diagnostic step when planning such events. Then you can determine where to focus your efforts.

Having said that, note to self: Crappy hotel wifi may be a rich people problem, but it really sucks. Sorry, Ben.


Games for health: 14 trick questions for Ben Sawyer

Reda SadkiInterviews

Ben Sawyer is the co-founder of both the Serious Games Initiative (2002) and the Games for Health Project (2004). He is one of the leading experts on the use of game technologies, talent, and design techniques for purposes beyond entertainment. He answered 14 questions by e-mail ahead of his presentation to the IFRC Global Health Team.

1. What is your favorite game?

I used to reference an old RPG (role playing game) called Ultima IV. But, in reality, it’s Minecraft. Just such a great achievement and fun to play.

2. What is the worst “serious game” you have ever played?

Most of them.

3. What is a game, anyway?

A game by definition is a system, defined by rules, where people engage in defined competition to achieve a quantifiable outcome either against an opponent or the system itself. There are many dictionary-style definitions. In reality, a game is a mediated experience. Whether something is a game is based on the perception of the user and their reaction to interacting with the game. Increasingly such perceptions are defined by people’s experience and expectations of the games they play or have played in life. Thus it’s possible to have many things that are, by definition, a game, but by perception of players are not worthy of that phrase.

4. What is the difference between games and gamification?

The former is about creating a fully cognitive experience with a more encompassing model of engagement and interaction, and the other is about trying to short circuit the experience and use just a few things in hopes that creating a “game” or an experience that instills some of the core ideas of what a game is by definition will generate a bump in engagement. They’re not the same thing. Often, gamification devolves to just creating competitive experiences based on some sort of point-scoring model that is at-best glorified industrial psychology and not necessarily a great, giant outcome of innovation or game design.

5. Why use games for serious health work?

There are a variety of reasons, but the biggest is that games hold strong promise to instantiate behavior change through a variety of media, simulation, and cognitive effects.

6. If you don’t play games, can you still design one?

Everyone can design games, some people do it pretty well, but ideally it’s professionals working with vision holders and experts that generate great games.

7. Can games motivate learners to change behavior?

Yes, and we have proof of that in research. That said, it’s a lot of work, and there are different approaches, and ideally they need to be part of more comprehensive programs.

8. Can you prove that serious games can affect health outcomes? What does the evidence say?

The evidence so far says that games which are carefully constructed by good teams, using clear theory, and building a clear model of what drives behavior change have a chance to do it. That means most things don’t, because they don’t follow the careful approaches needed to ensure the best chance for success.

9. What do you need to understand to successfully launch a game that improves health?

First, you need to understand what’s possible to do, and what might be worth risking to do. In terms of launching, the biggest issue is understanding how you’re going to reach and support your users such that they see the utility of what they’ll do such that it is an equal attractor alongside their enjoyment of the game itself.

10. What are the most common myths and misconceptions about “serious games”?

That games have to be “fun” to be effective, that games have to be more fun than the best entertainment only games, and that just because something is a game by definition it inherently provides the best outcomes we associate with our favorite games. And that this is only and predominantly about engagement and motivation versus any other factors.

11. Who funds health games and why?

So far, it has been government and foundation funds looking to find new breakthroughs in health and healthcare, so mostly research into the art of the possible. Beyond that, it has been private groups seeking to create new products, or new engagement models, something that generates new paths to new services.

12. HTML5 or app? iOS or Android? Should health folks care about the choice of technology?

They should care about having a strategy that makes them able to run on all the leading platforms for the least amount of work possible. That can mean many different approaches, but in general it should not be a process that locks you in. There are at least three great ways to achieve cross platform responsive design – and they each have pros and cons.

13. What is the best game studio for serious games?

The best studio is situational. The best approach is to have game designers and producers who are agnostic as to what to make, how, and for how much, help you define your game without any conflict of interest in who or how it’s precisely built. And then, based on the qualified idea of what you want and should make, to find the best available and affordable developer that fits your culture, needs, and especially the specifics of what you should make. Hire an architect before you hire the person to build your house – games are no different.

14. What’s the best way to demonstrate the power of a game for health?

Build one, test it, push it to the field, rinse and repeat.

Contradiction – Kyoto Train Station (Stéfan/flickr)


Reda SadkiThinking aloud

4:35 p.m.

“My working hypothesis is that the learning that matters is mostly incidental and informal.”

“Maybe,” he smiled. “Yet, my conviction that we need to explore this is grounded in my formal training in knowledge management.”

5:17 p.m.

 “When we are under-funded and overwhelmed,” he sighed, “is just not the right time to go off on a tangential project!”

“I won’t argue with you. Let us go through with it to determine how useless it is to trade short-term survival tactics for long-term strategic thinking.”


Photo: Contradiction, Tokyo train station (Stéfan/flickr).


On target


Reda SadkiLearning design, Learning strategy

Individually, team members continually learn in their respective area of work, by both formal and informal means. Most learning today happens by accretion, as a continual, networked (‘know-where’), and embedded process. However, occasions to share and reflect on best practice are rare, and may be felt to be interruptions or distractions from the ‘real work’ in one’s silo. Furthermore, online learning events (“webinars”) tend to be long (one hour is typical), require professionals to take “time out” from their work in order to learn, and do not provide the necessary linkage between knowledge acquired and its application to work (the “applicability problem”).

To further continual learning, the practicum offers a 15-minute online presentation from a global thought leader on a topic directly relevant to the business. Participants are invited to watch the presentation together, and to stay together for face-to-face discussion (beyond 15 minutes) to determine practical ways in which the concepts and ideas may be applied (collaborative, collective, and creative) through facilitated discussion. This provides the opportunity to learn with respect to real challenges rather than from generic content and cases, reducing the tensions and tradeoffs felt when having to choose between attending a learning program and getting the work done. The recording of each presentation will be made available one week after the live event (captured and codified), adding incentive to participate in the live event.

Presenters will share a short list of key resources and links so that participants may independently investigate the topic and its application to their context, encouraging needs-based learning (“acquisition”) and learning as cognition and reflection (“emergence”).