Saturday, 31 December 2011

Bad Science - and Learning

One of the best books I read in 2011 was Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, which should be read by everyone interested in evaluating learning and development (there’s also a useful website at I especially recommend the chapters on ‘Bad Stats’ - among other things, learn the differences between relative risk increase, absolute risk increase and natural frequency - and the hilariously-titled ‘Why Clever People Believe Stupid Things’.

The latter chapter spells out five reasons why we are poor at measuring findings:

1. We see patterns where there is only random noise.
2. We see causal relationships where there are none (just correlations).
3. We overvalue confirmatory information for any given hypothesis.
4. We seek out confirmatory information for any given hypothesis.
5. Our assessment of the quality of new evidence is biased by our previous beliefs (and the beliefs of others).

There’s more too: some of the things that make human beings good thinkers are the same reasons why we don’t naturally measure evidence well, and conversely, why computers are good at dealing with quantitative evidence but rubbish at intuitive thinking. A crucial lesson we need to learn is when to use our judgement and intuition, when instead to obtain and analyse detailed information, and how to distinguish these situations.

Another book I read in 2011 was Paul Kearns’ Evaluating the ROI From Learning, in which I was dismayed to discover the author completely dismissing management competences, corporate universities and e-learning – well, not quite “completely”, but that’s how he leads, and how he designs his three box model; (slight) qualifications come later. My dismay was because these have been three of my main interests, and career preoccupations, of the last two decades. But it wasn’t just self interest – I was also dismayed because I fundamentally believe learning is A Good Thing, and worthwhile for its own sake. We should all do more of it. By all means, we should evaluate it, and learn to focus more on the more valuable stuff – to my mind, at least, leadership and management development, e-learning and blended learning, corporate universities and academies, are some of the best vehicles to accomplish that.

I’d like to wish all my followers and readers a healthy, happy and prosperous New Year.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Being an Amazon Associate

I've just signed up to be an Amazon Associate - twice!

I have been meaning for some time to include Amazon links on this blog, and on my writing website, mainly to encourage sales of my books, and as a spin-off draw a small income as a percentage of those sales. Having just signed up the learnforever sites to do this (but I haven’t found time to create the links yet), I’ve realised that I’ve been looking at this all wrong – I’ve been thinking in terms of increasing sales of my books, rather than monetising my websites.

The second way I signed up was for my new business, Airthrey. My partner and I have spent the last few months conducted an extensive literature review of the field of learning/training evaluation, and our plan, now realised, has been to review the best-known and most useful books, as a resource for our clients. The Amazon Associate program allows us to take a small percentage of sales of all books (not just our own) that arise from us directing our clients/readers to Amazon, but the best part is, once they’ve clicked through from our site, we get a cut of everything they buy on Amazon for the next 24 hours!

So we’ve accidentally stumbled upon a new income stream – a good example of obliquity – and I’d like to encourage all my readers to click on Airthrey before doing their Amazon shopping this Xmas .

Sunday, 27 November 2011

In search of excellence

The latest issue of the CMI magazine, Professional Manager, carries this amazing quote: "no single thing in the last 15 years professionally has been more important to my life than blogging". That's from Tom Peters, internationally-renowned management guru, best-selling author, and (I imagine) multi-millionaire.

Peters, of course, was co-author of 1982's In Search of Excellence, arguably one of the most discredited success manuals, as many of the "excellent" companies cited in the book nose-dived shortly afterwards. But history has been kinder to Peters, as evidence shows his excellent companies outperforming the Dow Jones index.

Nevertheless, it's sobering to see how highly he rates blogging, and without having read his blog(s), I'm guessing he's had more success than I've had. I've been blogging here for nearly five years, and can't claim to have established much of a following. This was brought home to me when a colleague and I recently started a Twitter account, @AirthreyLtd, and within a couple of weeks have already attracted twice as many followers as this blog.

So what am I doing wrong? I've consulted all the usual online sources, such as the 101 tips here, and I either do these already, or have considered and rejected them for rational reasons. Is my niche really of so little interest? I'd welcome feedback (asking for feedback is one of top tips, naturally!) - what can I do to make this blog more attractive to followers?

...and congratulations to my erstwhile colleague, Colin Millar, who has won CMI's inaugural Ambassador blogging competition.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Kirkpatrick's evaluation model - animated!

This short video clip offers a simple exposition of Kirkpatrick's four level learning evaluation model.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Now on Twitter!

I've blogged before about being one of the last refuseniks re Twitter, so it may surprise some that I've belatedly joined the Twitterati. Sort of. In collaboration rather than as myself. My fellow director of Airthrey Ltd (learning evaluation solutions) and I have set up a corporate Twitter account. Find us under Airthrey directors, @AirthreyLtd, Stirling.

So why the change of heart? We're trying it out for a number of reasons.

1. We want to maximise our firm's exposure through as many channels as possible. This gives prospective clients and partners yet another way to find us, and helps boost our search engine ratings.

2. We want access to wider debates on learning evaluation, and Twitter helps us find other information signposted there, such as the Training Journal article we retweeted on 4 November.

3. We hope this may be another means of building a comunity of like-minded people with whom to exchange ideas and experiences.

But I'm still very much a Twitter tyro, and would appreciate any suggestions on how to make the most of this medium.

# Should we aim to follow everyone who follows us? In other words, does following work best as a reciprocal activity?
# How do we grow the network? Is it just a question of tweeting as much potentially interesting stuff as possible? This sounds a bit to me like "if we build it, they will come", the classic mistake of the dot com boom and bust era, but is Twitter different?
# I've been advised that retweeting as much as possible is a good idea. Is this right? How does it help contribute to our goals listed above?

Any other ideas? All help and advice appreciated.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

It's nice to be nice

A while ago I was in the office of a client, a learning and development manager, and he had a sign prominently displayed: “do the necessary – ignore the nice”. It was his rule of thumb for prioritising learning interventions.

I felt uncomfortable with that formula, but it’s taken me some time to work out why. I tried reversing the formula, and clearly it makes no sense to ignore the necessary, but I’m equally convinced you can’t just ignore the “nice”.

I suppose it depends why you feel it’s nice. If it’s nice because it’s the kind of work you want to do for personal/career reasons, but it doesn’t fit your organisation’s agenda, then that’s clearly not a corporate priority, and may justifiably be ignored. But it may be nice for all sorts of other reasons, not least because it’s important but never urgent, or because it yields qualitative benefits but doesn’t lend itself to quantitative measurement. In either of these scenarios, you ignore the nice at your peril.

I think we need better formulae for determining priorities. In many cases, a simple but effective guide could be the use of an urgency/importance grid (just a 2x2 matrix). And a well thought through Balanced Scorecard can help bring to the top of the agenda issues other than the most pressing operational priorities.

What do others think?

Friday, 7 October 2011

Making Learning Better

A key theme of my career has been making learning better.

In the 1990s, I concentrated on open, flexible and distance learning – or what I would now call resource-based learning. This aimed to offer more choice to learners, respond better to differing learning styles, widen access and make training more learner-centred.

In the 2000s, I concentrated on e-learning and blended learning, which empowers learners with digital technology to accomplish all that resource-based learning offered, and more.

Now I’m concentrating on learning evaluation, and firmly believe that it is pointless to undertake any sort of learning without setting clear targets and measuring improvement against them. I’m pleased to find I’m not alone.

I opened the article “making training better”, in the online edition of Management Today, fully expecting evaluation to be omitted, but I was pleasantly surprised. One of its six highlights is “track and measure success”.

Just throwing money at the problem isn’t the answer either. Companies need to be practical and precise in their execution of training programmes. This includes an on-going assessment that tracks and measures effectiveness of the courses, and whether staff are incorporating what they learnt into their daily roles. If no one is absorbing and using the information, then both time and money are being wasted.

I couldn’t agree more.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Introducing Airthrey Ltd

My new business is now up and running.

Airthrey Ltd, based at Stirling University Innovation Park, is an independent firm, specialising in learning and development evaluation.

My co-founder, Alasdair Rutherford (see previous blog post), and I believe that organisations need independent, expert help to objectively evaluate their investments in learning and development, and that's where we come in. We offer fresh insights into what organisations should be measuring from their learning and development, and how this relates to their business outcomes. We make recommendations on the most effective evaluation approaches in each situation, and can help implement these approaches.

For further information, see Comments welcome, and especially invitations to discuss work together.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

My new business partner

Dr Alasdair Rutherford is a research economist I first met two years ago, when we were both working for Volunteer Development Scotland; I was Learning & Development Manager, and Alasdair was Research & Development Manager. We collaborated on a number of learning evaluation projects, such as for the NHS in Scotland.

Alasdair has a string of impressive academic qualifications, including two first degrees (if that’s not an oxymoron), a study exchange in Germany, a Masters and a PhD, not to mention a sheaf of published papers. He is currently a Research Fellow at the University of Stirling.

We calculate that our respective knowledge and skill sets, one in learning and development, the other in research and development, complement each other perfectly for a business specialising in the evaluation of learning and development.

Alasdair’s interests and skills include econometrics, statistics, formative and summative evaluation, economic and social research, quantitative and qualitative research, data analysis, and database design and administration. I commend Alasdair to you, and I look forward to working with him in applying his extensive range of skills and methods to the learning activities of our corporate clients.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Three theses on learning evaluation

Not enough is happening. Not enough learning and development (L&D) is being evaluated, and when it is being done, it is not being done robustly, systematically, or effectively. As a rule of thumb, organisations should spend 10-15% of their L&D budget on evaluation, but how many do that? Evaluation is insufficiently understood and applied.

There is too much dogma. There are a great many models and tools for L&D evaluation, and just as many petty disagreements about what works and what doesn’t. ROI doesn’t negate Kirkpatrick, any more than ROE negates ROI, and yet many L&D professionals take a partisan view supporting a particular tool, when the truth is that every model and tool has its place – the trick is to be able to select the right one for the right situation.

It’s not just about costs, but value. Many organisations are cost aware, but hardly any are value aware. To appreciate the full impact of L&D, we need to recognise all the different kinds of value it adds, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Organisations need to become more conscious of value, and strive for total value add.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Learning evaluation solutions

Keen readers of this blog may have noticed a shift of emphasis in recent posts. I've apparently become much more interested in the evaluation of learning and development. In fact, this has been a career-long interest, and has always formed a part of my professional work. However, I have let the cat out of the bag with my latest LinkedIn update - "planning a new venture!"

I've written about learning evaluation for CIPD's HR Inform website, and a quarter of my new book, 101 Learning & Development Tools, is about evaluation. Now I'm setting up a new firm, with a partner, in the business incubator at the University of Stirling. We'll be offering learning evaluation solutions to corporate clients from next month, October 2011.

More to follow, and in the meantime, I'd be interested in any questions, comments, or especially invitations to discuss how we may be able to help your business.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Fee, Kenneth: 101 Learning & Development Tools

My new book, 101 Learning and Development Tools, will be published on 3 September by Kogan Page.

It's available for pre-order on Amazon now, and if you're visiting that site, why not check out my other books, at the Amazon author page for Kenneth Fee? Comments, reviews and 'like!' markers always welcome.

Judging by the release of my last book, if you order now, you'll probably get the book right away. I'm about to go on holiday, so I expect to see it on my return. And if I return to comments about the book on this blog, that would be even more welcome!

I hope you enjoy the book, and find it useful.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Lack of evaluation

I’m underwhelmed by the response to my last blog post.

I know many followers/readers of this blog are interested in e-learning, and I thought there might have been a lot of examples of attempts to evaluate e-learning, not least to show where it is more efficient than face-to-face learning – although I believe the focus is increasingly, and correctly, shifting from efficiency to effectiveness.

I’m planning a new venture in evaluation of learning and development, and I was hoping for more informal feedback via this route, aside from the more formal market research and business development I’m undertaking. I would still welcome any examples or anecdotes anyone is willing to share.

However, I wonder whether the lack of comments (or any other responses) is indicative of a lack of examples? This is part of my thesis about L&D evaluation: I believe there is too little of it being undertaken at the moment; I believe there is too little understanding of evaluation and its importance; I don’t know of any consultancies or service providers specialising in it; and I know there has been no new book of any significance published on the subject in nearly a decade. I’d be interested to hear any contradiction of this thesis (or any more supporting evidence).

As always, comments would be very welcome!

Monday, 25 July 2011

evaluation examples

I'm looking for examples of learning evaluation in practice - both good and bad. I'd welcome anything from a bank of case studies to any small anecdote anyone is willing to share. And I'm interested in any context of learning and development implementation.

Can anyone help? Please use the comments option, below, to post links, or email me via the learnforever website.


Thursday, 14 July 2011

Reasoned evaluation

A client asked me today about approaches to evaluation, and this got me thinking about how advocates of different approaches get very dogmatic about what works and what doesn’t work.

Kaliym Islam, in Developing and Measuring Training the Six Sigma Way, says “none of the four levels in the Kirkpatrick model capture business feedback or business reaction to the training product”.

Jack Phillips, the Return on Investment guru, argues Kirkpatrick’s four levels are at best inadequate and need ROI as a fifth level.

Paul Kearns, author of Evaluating the ROI from Learning, goes further and describes Kirkpatrick as just “wrong”, but then he draws the same conclusion about ROI as the fifth level – “wrong again”. (See

And in The Value of Learning, Valerie Anderson advocates moving away from ROI to ROE, Return on Expectations.

It seems no sooner is a new approach in use than someone is rubbishing it in print. I don’t wish to join this chorus, and I believe each of the commentators attributed above has something important to offer. But do we have to dismiss the Kirkpatrick levels to embrace ROI? Or abandon ROI for ROE? Is it possible Six Sigma has its place in certain contexts but Kirkpatrick still has lessons to offer?

I think we need to recognise that there’s a lot of useful thinking about learning evaluation, and a variety of approaches, even if some of them are contradictory or even mutually exclusive. Organisations need specialist help to consider their options and identify the best way forward for them.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Adventures in Moodle

Picking up from some of my previous blog posts, it’s now over a year since my organisation established an online learning environment, based on a Moodle platform. It’s been an interesting journey.

Initially I expected to get three things:
1. A learner management system, enabling us to store information about learners and generate reports.
2. A learning content management system, to author, edit and launch courses and other forms of online content.
3. A virtual classroom tool, to enable meetings of learners in multiple locations.

We don’t have the first thing – Moodle seems pretty limited in this capability, and I wonder whether others have found solutions to this? We’ve learned to experiment with plug-ins, trying the Book Module, before settling on Xerte as our default course authoring tool; we’ve plugged in the OU blog, following my amazed discovery that the native Moodle blog tool didn’t allow comments (although Moodle 2.0 apparently allows comments on all features, so we probably just needed to upgrade the whole platform); and we’ve opted for a plug-in for the virtual classroom functionality (hang on a minute – getting ahead of myself). But I’m not convinced any plug-in is going to help us with reporting – unless anyone can tell me different?

We’ve got the second thing, although we didn’t understand at the beginning that Moodle is designed essentially to support tutor-led cohorts of learners following a blended learning model, and any other capability is really just stuck on as an option.

And we don’t have the third thing. We plugged in Dimdim, but since their acquisition, they no longer offer an open source solution (our deal runs out at the end of August) and we need to identify an alternative. WiZiQ looked attractive, but we seem to get more features from Megameeting, with which we’ve already experimented. I’d be interested to hear from others who have plugged in different solutions.

What sort of adventures have you had with Moodle?

Monday, 13 June 2011

Whither CMI?

Recently I questioned the relevance of the CIPD to learning and development professionals who are not part of a corporate HR department. My conclusion was that, while we have been relatively neglected, the organisation is still well worth membership.

To be consistent, I should comment on the other body of which I am a Fellow, the Chartered Management Institute (CMI).

On the face of it, the critique I offered of the CIPD (robustly defended by a CIPD representative in the comments to that blog post) applies even more so to CMI. And yet it’s all about expectations – I don’t expect the same close attention to my own professional specialism from a body as broad-based as CMI.

Bizarrely, given that it is open to all managers, CMI has a smaller membership than CIPD – about 80,000 members compared to over 120,000. There may be many reasons for this, but perhaps close attention to professional specialisms is part of the explanation.

Under Ruth Spellman’s leadership, CMI has been modernising and improving. There seem to be greater efforts to develop branches, and I can see improvements to publications. Management Today has always been a top class magazine – much more readable and professionally produced than any other business magazine in the UK. Now the other main CMI publication, Professional Manager, has stopped looking so antiquated and is actually worth reading.

But there has to be more to CMI than magazines, and I see little branch or networking activity that’s of benefit to me. I wonder if others have similar experiences? (Sits back and awaits response from CMI staff scanning the web for criticism to combat…)

Friday, 20 May 2011

Commercial break

There will now be a short commercial break...

I have been impressed by a free booklet from Reed Learning, The Little Book of the Future: a guide to collaborative learning. Use this link to request your own copy.

It’s not really free, of course, as you exchange your contact details and allow Reed to pursue you with other offers, but so far I reckon it’s been worth it. The booklet includes short articles on leading-edge digital tools for learning, along with a bit of future-gazing. Among the latter commentaries, I particularly enjoyed Debbie Carter’s vision of phones printed on wrists and video screens in contact lenses – it chimed with some of my own predictions in the final chapter of my last book, Delivering E-Learning.

I’ve been getting agitated to mention Springest, which describes itself as an independent comparison website for learning and development programmes. Originating in Holland, it offers listings for all sorts of courses, organised in subject categories, along with reviews, links to other social media, and features for learners to store their own favourites. Worth a look, I'd suggest.

OK, Martijn?

While I'm mentioning other people's products I may as well mention my own.

My new book, 101 Learning and Development Tools, is not due for publication for another three months, but it’s available to pre-order on Amazon now.

Comments, as always, welcome.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011


As we have just held elections in Scotland and the UK, it seems apposite to restate what this blog is about. I want to assert some clearer themes, and encourage readers to subscribe to follow, and followers to invite others to follow.

The key themes are my favourite issues in learning and development, including:

e-learning and blended learning
work-based learning (and volunteering-based learning)
talent management and development
corporate universities or academies
resource-based learning and learning centres
leadership and management development
knowledge management whatever else may be topical in the world of occupational learning.

Please let me know if there are other, related, themes you would like to see addressed.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Are you my friend?

Driving to work the other day, I heard an item on Radio Scotland about how many online “friends” we can realistically maintain. I’m not sure how this became a topical item for commuter news, as I have investigated further and discovered Robin Dunbar identified the number – it’s 150 – way back in 2008. (See this New Scientist link.)

The point is that those who have hundreds of “friends” on Facebook, or other social networking sites, are kidding themselves, as they simply can’t maintain sufficient contact with so many people to justify describing them as friends.

As one of the dwindling refuseniks who still haven’t joined Facebook or Twitter, I gleaned some foolish comfort from this stat, but of course I have more than 150 people in my LinkedIn network, including many of the followers of this blog, so am I one of the deluded?

I don’t think so. One of the things I like about LinkedIn is that it makes no pretence that your network of contacts are friends. Its clear purpose is networking for work-related reasons, and it holds onto that objectivity.

I’ve just invited all my LinkedIn contacts to follow this blog, as a contribution to my previously posted intention to expand this community and generate more debate. But I won’t be offended by those who don’t sign up to follow, and simply continue to read when it suits them – that’s their choice.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Follow this blog

In February, I posted about authenticity, and my posts in March have been attempts to introduce more of this. I’ve also updated my photo. Now for more personal detail.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve been involved in learning and development for rather a long time – to be precise, since 1985, when I started my first job in the profession, as Training Officer of the Glasgow Council for Voluntary Service. It was there that I first designed and delivered training, first subscribed to training magazines (including ‘Training Officer’, still going strong today as Training Journal), first undertook trainer training, obtained my first professional qualification, a City & Guilds Certificate in Direct Training, and joined the Institute of Training and Development.

My ideas and opinions have evolved over a career that has seen me work as a trainer, facilitator, coach, advocate, salesperson, marketer (or should that be marketeer?), consultant, writer, manager and director. I’ve worked on the supply and demand sides of learning and development, in the public, private and voluntary sectors, in organisations varying in size from SME to PLC. My employment and consulting experience covers the industries of publishing, IT, engineering, and economic development, plus central and local government, the NHS, social enterprises and the charitable sector.

I like to think that has given me the capacity to recognise others’ points of view more readily, and to respond better to the needs of different organisational cultures. That doesn’t mean I get it right all the time, although I hope it shows a good range of reference. My main point in contributing this bit of personal history is to reveal some more of myself; they say that helps make a good blog. I’ve also found, more generally, that opening up about yourself encourages others to reciprocate, and that’s something I’m looking for more of in this blog.

I want to move away from this blog being predominantly a monologue, and try to create more of a community, where others come to contribute their ideas and opinions, and to hold debates. I’d welcome comments and responses, and I’d encourage readers to sign up as followers – if nothing else, it helps me confirm I have an audience!

To follow this blog, click on the follow button to the right >>>

Saturday, 12 March 2011


My Chief Executive, who is a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts (RSA), recently introduced me to an impressive series of animated talks on YouTube (thanks, George!). The presentation below, by Matthew Taylor of the RSA, is a good example, and YouTube hosts many more 'RSA Animate' clips. (See also Matthew Taylor's blog.) This seems to me a particularly apposite way of promoting a 21st century enlightenment.

As a Scot, I feel duty bound to help encourage new enlightenments, given the leading role my forebears played in the previous one. For anyone who hasn't read it, I heartily recommend Arthur Herman's The Scottish Enlightenment, with its glorious subtitle (in the American edition) "how the Scots invented the modern world and everything in it". But there's no time to rest on our laurels - we have to get on with what's new. And it seems to me reinventing how we organise learning will be a key part of that - see another of the RSA Animate series, Sir Ken Robinson's talk on changing education paradigms.

As always, comments welcome.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Whither CIPD?

I think the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) is a great organisation, and I’m proud to be a member of long standing. I often describe myself as having held continuous membership of CIPD and its predecessors for over 25 years – by which I mean I was a member of IPD before it won its Royal Charter, and before that the Institute of Training and Development (ITD) until it merged with the Institute of Personnel Management (IPM).

I voted for that merger. I know learning and development professionals who did not, and they argued that trainers’ interests would be lost in a body that primarily served the interests of human resources (HR) generalists. It’s a long time since that merger, but I often find myself wondering if they were right.

The latest issue of the CIPD magazine, People Management (a title that is little to do with learning) carries a diagram showing “forty years of evolution” (pp 28-29 of the print edition) where the ITD is virtually airbrushed out of history. There’s an image of the IPM journal, but none of any ITD publication.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised: the magazine’s overall strapline is “HR news, comment and jobs…” The institute is often described in shorthand as the body for HR professionals. And the recent revamp of its professional map reduced “learning and talent development” to just one-eighth of the institute’s scope.

Well, I’m not an HR professional; I’m a learning and development professional. And the latter is not simply a subset of the former. The merger was supposed to be a marriage of equals; indeed, numerically there were far more of us in ITD, and I wonder whether that remains the case. I often feel like a second class citizen in CIPD, and I’m a Chartered Fellow, who has spoken at the Scottish and UK conferences, and has written extensively for CIPD publications. If I feel a bit like that, how much more excluded must others feel?

I’ve no intention of giving up my membership. I’m also a Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute, and I have no concerns that there I’m part of a much broader community. But I wonder whether CIPD genuinely serves the interests of learning and development professionals, or whether we’d be better served elsewhere?

Saturday, 26 February 2011


This subject reminds me of the Provencal peasants in Jean de Florette, mocking the eponymous hero’s plans to concentrate his farming on “the authentic”, which they caricature as a crop grown only in books. Yet authenticity is important.

A few days ago I co-facilitated some management training, where my co-facilitator listed various different leadership styles and then offered situational leadership as a model for selecting an appropriate style. I countered with the model of authentic leadership, which until then I hadn’t seen as the antithesis of situational leadership. I think it’s possible to be too adaptable, and leave those we work with wondering what we really believe, and what really matters to us.

Much of what is written about authentic leadership is too touchy-feely for me, with its emphasis on inner spirituality, but I think the essential concept is sound. Nigel Nicholson, in the current issue of Management Today, has his tongue firmly in cheek when he says authenticity is “great if you can fake it”, but he reaches the same conclusion I do: “the essence of leadership is adding value that can only come from the identity of the leader”.

We could all bring a little more of our real selves to our work, and do a little less role playing. A bit belatedly, my New Year resolution is to try to do this.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Learning from mistakes

I subscribe to trainingzone and find some of their articles useful, amid a sea of thinly-disguised sales promotions. A recent example of the useful stuff is the ‘the top 10 bad people managers’ by blogger Simon Kenny, who lists some great examples of mistaken behaviour by managers. (You need to register for trainingzone to view his blog.)

This sort of material reads well: it’s funny, so it sticks in the mind, and it can be a memorable way of highlighting good and bad practice. In a similar vein, one of my favourite management books is (was? it was published in 1992 and is now out of print) My Biggest Mistake, edited by Roger Trapp, a compilation of columns that originally appeared in the Independent On Sunday, contributed by many well-known business leaders of the time, including Richard Branson, John Harvey-Jones and Anita Roddick.

But we only learn from our mistakes if we realise that they are mistakes, and work out alternatives for next time around. It can be dangerous to highlight bad practice in case the bad way is the lesson that stays with the learners. This is the long-standing criticism of training videos by Video Arts and their imitators: people remember the bumbling incompetence shown by the likes of John Cleese and Rowan Atkinson, as these were the scenarios the videos often led with, but not the ‘right way’ solutions hastily tacked on to the end. Simon Kenny’s piece gets round this problem neatly by specifying the lesson learned after each of his ten howlers.

The most powerful variant of this, for me – and I’m drawing on my personal experience – is when I make the mistakes myself. I think we often realise we have made a mistake, but don’t quite know what to do about it, and how to avoid repeating the mistake. We need help. Coaches and mentors can be invaluable here, but another option is the anonymous internet discussion forum; unfortunately, even under the cloak of anonymity, I don’t find many people willing to open up about their mistakes. I’d be interested in suggestions for how to provoke this sort of contribution – a much tougher proposition than how to respond to them.

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