Four surprising reasons why you need to personalise absolutely everything (and see my session at the ELN conference)!

On 11 November at the exciting and brand new eLearning Network Conference I’m going to be giving a session entitled: “The tyranny of Taylorism and the digital citizen: a manifesto for a brave new kind of learning and performance environment” as part of Stream 1. “Strategy and Tactics for Digital Learning”. It is going to be a belter.

Not just because of my aggressive presentation style, but also because it’s the second session of the morning – just when the audience’s first strong cup of coffee usually kicks in.

My manifesto is directed primarily at a man – F. W. Taylor – who died exactly 100 years ago. His famous theories on manufacturing efficiency are, of course, obsolete, long since replaced by better ones like Kaizen.

But Taylor’s ghost lives on the Human Resources practices that his pseudo-scientific management theory gave birth to. They stopped building cars like Taylor thought we should decades ago. But we still build the kind of learning programmes and learning software he would appreciate.

It’s all summed up in his phrase: “the one best way”: everyone has a separate goal, and there’s one best way to achieve it.

So he wouldn’t like personalisation. Because personalisation requires the opposite: everyone shares the same goal, but there’s no best way to achieve it.

I can’t possibly hope to explain myself without a list of four surprising reasons which miraculously came to me whilst I was putting my slides together.

So here we go with my preview: four reasons why you need to personalise absolutely everything (“everything!?” I hear you cry). Yep, you heard me: everything.

1. Everything is already personalised

Hmmm. A strange one to start with but think about it, it’s true. Personalisation is not somehow a new thing but is in fact integral to living in a society: it’s identity. We personalise our homes, our clothes, our hair, our friends, our desktops, our phones. We do it “innately”.

Now consumer software is catching up.

So the fact that our learning, our business software and our performance management is not personalised is not a “traditional approach” at all: it’s an alien approach which belongs at least fifty years ago, if not more. The approach of Taylorism, of “one best way”.

Notice how I said that personalisation is integral to living in society, to being social? We often think of personalisation as somehow atomising people but that’s untrue. Personalisation only exists in the context of cooperation, dialogue, shared workplaces. Those “cubes” that slowly suck the life out of some American office workers…? Those are all on Taylor.

2. Implementing personalisation is not impossibly expensive

Most people think that for personalisation you need algorithms. And algorithms have a reputation for being expensive. But they aren’t, really – some are very simple. It is useful data that is expensive, or at least gathering and storing it. Someone recently pointed out to me that treating secret algorithms like magical secret sauces is (like quests to uncover the ingredients of those sauces) entirely missing the point. Facebook’s EdgeRank algorithm would be useless without Facebook to test it on.  What you need to make a rules-based system work to personalise something is a complete data set for a particular scenario, system or context.

And thanks for enterprise learning and talent systems, most of us are sitting on that data and wondering what big initiative to use it for. But personalisation isn’t about big initiatives, it’s about small incremental changes in a particular context. Changes that are not expensive, although they do require some data.

So next time you get the figures crunched, ask the person doing the crunching to segment the data by job role, time of day, time in role, anything you feel you have enough grounds to base a personalising change on.

Then tweak something, change something. You just started personalising. It’s that easy.

And if even that sounds too expensive, my seminar will show you how you can make anything personalised by making it non-linear, with no real technology beyond what you already use (register here…)

3. Personalisation is the best way of centralising your approach to learning and performance

Centralisation and personalisation sound like opposing ends of the spectrum. We can’t let everyone do what suits them at the same time as taking control of what everyone is doing. For example, we can’t cut down on the classroom training people like and replace it with the generic elearning they don’t like and call it personalisation. Well, no.

But the personalisation agenda is in fact central to the centralisation agenda.

Our ability to rein in spending depends on our ability to do something useful with the remainder, something more effective. Personalised services thrive on being more effective at doing what they set out to do because they improve themselves instead of standing still. (And a lot of elearning stands still.)

If you are investing X amount per year in building or buying generic elearning to replace classroom training then for cripes’ sake spend a chunk of that on personalising the place that it sits in and, by generating engagement, creating the data to improve it some more.

But you need to know what your purpose is.

Personalised and peer-to-peer consumer tech has one common attribute: there can only be one. (I guess Taylor had a point there.) One taxi service (Uber); one language learning tool (DuoLingo); one place to find somewhere to stay (AirBnB). One thing that is the best for a specific purpose.

But too many organisational L&D teams are trying to be everything to everybody: continuously improving everything in no particular direction and bending this way and that depending on whoever seems to be in charge this month. That has to stop. You can’t be the organisational equivalent of Google or Amazon. Both those things already exist.

But you can personalise absolutely everything in relation to one specific and highly exclusionary aim: helping people to do their jobs better at your organisation. And there is no “one best way” to do it.

4. No one can ask you for SCORM completion figures on personalised learning experiences

Well, they can ask you.

But then you can, ever so smugly, explain the following:

“SCORM completions simply don’t work for personalised training, as a personalised programme isn’t like a linear bus route from A to B, it’s a car that you drive to get you where you want to go, from A to anywhere Better. What we can track instead is better participation and a better impact of the training on performance.”

“But this is a damned compliance course!” your interrogator exclaims testily.

“I know,” you say. “But did the regulator ask you for a big list of COMPLETE statuses, or is that what you give to them instead of what they really want to see – better business performance?”

[Stunned and shameful silence …]

Deep. For more of this, come to the eLearning Network Conference and come to my session!

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About the author

Toby Harris - Creative lead and LMS product manager

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