Content as firestarter

smart systems

You’ll be glad to hear that this is a short post. It’s about the value of  content in learning design conversations – I’ve been chewing this over in my mind for a while but I had a forehead-slapping moment of realisation watching @CelineScill. Which I’ll get to in a moment.

The ‘dreadful content bucket’

I’m a big fan of Nick-Shackleton Jones’s focus on the affective context of learning  – unsurprisingly since experiential, project-based learning is my thing. Nick says:

“Where we already care deeply about something, our aim is merely to satisfy the hunger of learners who ‘pull’ the information. But where learners are not (yet) concerned about something, we have to supply both the information and the affective context (the hunger).”

So the affective context is the the desire, hunger, reason for learning – my interpretation. Nick also wrote in a recent blog post about the ‘dreadful content bucket’ and learning design conversations:

“And it is here that the meaning of content becomes clear: when we talk about learning content the hidden assumption is that this is information that people will need to store ‘in their heads’, and we immediately begin thinking of different ‘channels’ for the delivery of this content.”

I don’t think he’s saying that content doesn’t matter but that the focus of learning design conversations ought to be first and foremost on “the changes the business would like to see, and how we can involve and support people in getting there.” I couldn’t agree more.

Content as kindling

But I also think that content is not as incidental to this process as Nick’s blog might imply – or at least that’s my reading of it.

The reason I’ve been chewing over Nick’s blog post is because – in truth – I was beginning to think that I’d spent far too long reviewing content – by which I mean old research, books and articles. Why did I do that? Because I think that there are first principle and patterns in creating high-performance work systems that we were in danger of overlooking in Enterprise 2.0, Social Business and Future of Work conversations.

That’s less the case now that conversations feel like they are shifting from a dominant focus on social and collaboration technologies to what people need from organisations and from each other. There’s a heap of old, useful insight that is now getting a fair hearing.

I’ve always used content as conversation starters  – contributions to initial conversations about what the business needs, what’s to be done, how and who with. Of course one of the skills this is meant to develop is critical evaluation. Is what I am suggesting relevant? Why? Why not? What alternatives can those learning offer as an alternative? Content continues to be used in a just-in-time way, shared way as a practical learning project unfolds.

I see myself a bit like Mary Poppins. I’ve got a huge – and very elegant – carpet bag of goodies (tools, methods, bits of research, articles and so) that I carry around with me. But I never, ever suggest that I’m right. Whatever content I suggest is meant as kindling for conversation.

Content as firestarter

And so we come to Celine Schillinger. I wrote in my last blog post about how inspired I was listening to her at the recent Enterprise 2.0 Summit in Paris. Here she is on YouTube speaking about how she wrote to her Chief Executive, referencing ‘several recent studies’ on the detrimental effects on business performance of gender imbalance in governing bodies. She concluded her email by referencing a McKinsey report on Women in Work and specific practical measures that might be put in place.

I highly recommend watching if you want to see see what happened next. It’s an example of what @FlipChartRick said after watching the Olympics opening ceremony in London in 2012. He said:

“The innovation of the future will be created not by super-heroes lighting huge cauldrons but by lots of people lighting little fires which then come together to create one big one. The secret will be to find those torch bearers and bring them together to light their fires.”

Thinking about it, you could argue that the content was incidental in what happened in Celine’s story. But the research studies gave her ammunition to do what she did. So content can start fires by inspiring people in the first place – “where learners are not (yet) concerned about something, we have to supply both the information and the affective context”. Shared content can then spin off conversations, small fires that spread.

I’ve got The Prodigy’s Firestarter going around in my head now. Here you go:

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