Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Everyone knows something.

It wasn't one of the most crowded sessions at Learning 2009, but it was well attended, and it impressed everyone who was there. I overheard several people talking it up later, even the next day, and in fact I did some of that myself. Not that it was an enormous breakthrough in terms of technology; it wasn't. But it had everyone's head spinning up questions like, "Why couldn't that work for all sorts of learning?" And with that thought, the light of a fundamental, far-reaching shift in the creation of learning experiences seemed to dawn.

You may not know of Cash America, but it's an enormous national chain of pawn shops. Don't snicker, they have a billion dollars in annual revenue and are publicly traded on the NYSE. So what have they done with learning? Their tiny corporate training department created a very simple system that allows store employees to create short, YouTube style videos and post them to train others. The content can be anything, but it started with tips and training on product. As you might imagine when the inventory walks in the front door all day, Cash America has something like 10 times the number of different items to sell that a Best Buy or a Wal-Mart has. Anyone can pawn anything, and employees need to know how to assess an item's value on the way in, and discuss its features on the way out.

Theirs was a simple concept. Those employees who know something about a product, whether it's Fender guitars or video game consoles or designer purses can make a video, using Flip cameras supplied by the home office, if needed (not always needed--they tend to have a lot of cameras in inventory!), and post it to the site created by corporate. And then everyone else can watch it, comment, provide other details. We were shown a video in which an associate ran through a list of differences between a particular designer purse and a well-made knock-off. The company saves over $200 every time an employee can spot the fake on the way in. It was YouTube quality video, but it was highly effective, even with a few errors.

Yes, there were errors. But like its big brother YouTube, Cash America's version is self-correcting. Within days, other employees posted comments that pointed out a couple of minor errors and omissions. And so far, there has been no need to actually reshoot the video. Associates who watch the video also read the comments.

Now, think about this in the context of the statement, "No one knows everything, but everyone knows something." Imagine if this was the primary mode of creating training in corporate America, not some off-the-wall idea way out at the fringes. What if sales training was created this way? What would that do to the level of authenticity, of reality, in the training? Take it to an extreme, what if college faculty didn't create courses based on the fullest extent of their own limited knowledge, but built these course assets up year after year by managing content created by themselves, by other faculty, by invited experts, graduates, even current students? What kind of rich environment would that be for a student, who could now gain knowledge from a wide range of perspectives, with the faculty as content mediator (yes, it still has to be managed) so that the doors and windows of knowledge stay wide open?

They call it harnessing "the wisdom of the crowd," or when used to create a product, "crowdsourcing." And for online learning, I think there's a lot of future packed in there.


  1. Bryan - thanks for this.
    I recently came across a business that adopts certain elements of the intelligent "crowd"- This venture is associated with Innosight, the organizational umbrella for Clayton Christensen's "Disruptive Innovation" - which also produced the 2008 book, "Disrupting Class".

  2. Bryan - Outstanding article! I could not agree more. In fact, from my perspective I would say that we ARE going there. The "want to be" intellectual elite haven't figured it out yet. While they still agonize over digital rights management, copyright, content control... the world moves on. Whether they want to accept it or not, it it no longer the Big that Eat The Small.. it is The Fast That Eat The Slow.

    In my own area, Public Safety Training and Education, there are over 75,000 Google searches per day for online training and/or certification. While bricks and mortar institutions scramble the F-18's to roll out TEXTBOOKS! - the FAST put together online courses with industry certification. By the time they are ready.. the material is ancient.

    The other hindrance the traditional model faces is its reliance on things not related to education like dogma, ideology, political correctness, administration, funding, the institution as a social tool, and more...

    In the end, learning will be delivered as you suggest. The variable is how long it takes to drag these guys kicking and screaming into reality.

    Along with this evolution,there will necessarily be new methods of evaluating knowledge. The PhD is already proving to be an obstacle in some fields. It means you are too tightly focused and your material is at least 10 year out of date. It does not prove you are "battle worthy" ... nor does it demonstrate your ability to navigate the new paradigm. Competency based exercises will become the norm. And competency testing will be widely outsourced since organizations are often not equipped to measure the very position they offer. Ie.. If you knew what to ask and evaluate in order to hire the best person for the job, then you would have to already be able to understand and execute those functions within your organization. The person with that kind of knowledge, then, would be wasted in an HR role.

    I think that times have never been this exciting. I can't wait to go down this road. I've waited all of my life for performance to win out over dogma. It seems we are finally there.