The often ignored realities of talent management (#6): The office as a tool for workers, not a stick to hit them with

The future of work and the hybrid nature of future organisations continues to be of news. I would first caveat the rest of this post by saying it is really about office workers (not those in other workplaces):

My view on what workplaces now need to look like is that the nature of what the office is has to shift.

We have seen some of this already, for example the office as a recruitment and culture tool in being “cool” with pool tables and the like in the pre-Covid world to attract talent. This will continue to some extent, especially for young people who appreciate social experiences as well as the informal learning offices can provide.

Where we are now is in a position where an office can be seen as an enabler. Gone are the days, for those organisations who made the shift to more remote work, of enforced drudgery. Instead we can see the office as being something ‘to be used’ rather than using us.

The office can be an enabler for relationships, interaction, etc but we should now use it in more specific ways than in the past. Many of us will be used to this – for example visiting other offices to meet people, for specific meetings, etc. This now needs to be extended to everyone, including those who traditionally worked 100% at a set location. In the past I have worked in both quiet and noisy open plan offices, office layouts where small teams sit together as well as environments where most people have their own room. None of these are ideal. Indeed the backlash to open plan continues:

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/07/open-plan-office-noise-stress-mental-health-mood-work-employment-employees-welfare

Personally I have struggled with enforced home working more than I perhaps expected. However, I think this is due to the lack on in person interaction and social events. As we shift back to being able to choose where to work (fingers crossed for the Covid situation), a clever talent strategy will enable workers to choose where (not just office/home but anywhere) and when to work but with the benefits of collegiate experiences centred to that.

Indeed if I think about past experience much of this is long running, for example having meetings with suppliers at a coffee shop rather than the office as a break from screentime and the environment. The real challenge for orgs, is time tracking and productivity. Here talent management needs to be smarter in terms of goals and outcomes rather than screen time and time on task. Using the office for two hours of productivity in a meeting may well be more valuable than a 9:5 day of dealing with emails or other task.

Should learning pros shift from sector specific tools? #1 : Visual novels for branched activities and storytelling

This will likely not develop into a series but I am being brave and adding a #1 to this post.

Trying out some visual novels

I recently played a couple of ‘visual novel’ games and they immediately made me think about branching eLearning scenarios. From a little bit of research online, it is clear that there is an identified gap here between current visual novel markets and their potential use. A 2020 paper describing this thus “there are genres with untapped potential for teaching, such as narratively driven…visual novel games” (Oygardslia et al, 2020).

The games I played noticeably achieved a few things, including:

(1) Strong character development through storytelling.

(2) Narrative choices for the player that really impact on the story and resulting scenes (albeit that this is not always obvious until you play through multiple times, look online for the different options, etc.).

(3) Motivation for the player to continue due to cliff-hangers and other drama devices, managing to create a desire to find out “what is going to happen next”.

These attributes are of course not unique to visual novels (aka ‘narrative games’). For example, I am currently playing Assassins Creed Valhalla (as mentioned in a previous post) and this game has strong character development and a compelling story to keep you playing – it even specifically separates the game into “story arcs” (effectively chapters in traditional written storytelling). Where traditional games, and particularly rich 3D open worlds like Valhalla, struggle is how much narrative choices can impact the game. Valhalla, for example, gives you choices for the conversations of your character but few actually impact outcomes or the game’s story. It is not obvious to the player of Valhalla which conversations impact things either, hence a number of explainer articles online such as this one.

An example Assassins Creed Valhalla narrative choice from a EuroGamer article.

If a quick Google is anything to go by, there has been relatively limited interest in visual novels (specifically) within the wider interest of gamification and how games may, or may not, educate.

Gamification has, of course, been a bit of a buzz term but I would agree with quite a lot of this post regarding explaining that the real reason that gamification has become a focus is because of concerns around motivation. The other half of the puzzle here really is the storytelling element which has also had a lot of interest in L&D (see here for an example article). This is of course nothing new in so much as video based and drama based learning have long played on the benefits of storytelling and emotional response.

There are though a few articles discussing the attempts to use visual novels, for example this one on an example use case in education.

Scale of visual novels as a medium

As with most categorisations in gaming, what makes a ‘visual novel’ is debatable. However, games categorised as such amount to 4,588 items on the hugely popular Steam Store. Perhaps inevitably a large subsection of these are tagged as “dating” sims or even “adult”. There are also the usual visual gaming splits between anime style graphics, more western style cartoon, more realistic 3D models, etc. The quality of these graphics of course impact the experience but at the same time it was nice for me to play a few things with real character development – rather than the stock Microsoft, Articulate and other cut out “characters” we see in so many webinars, eLearning modules, etc.

Reading this, you might presume these games, often free-to-play or low cost, are terrible. However, reviews on Steam are an interesting read for learning professionals – for example people fearing “click-fest type” games are instead “genuinely surprised” thanks, again, to the storytelling. How often have ‘click next’ eLearning courses ever really surprised you?

One authoring tool, Ren.Py, has a seperate directory of free games you can try. Interestingly, this directory does give you the word count of the game (something I have previously suggested would be possible for the wider gaming industry).

But branching is hard

Such games are, of course, complex – at least with regards to the branching and storytelling. In the past I have worked for organisations that have outsourced such storytelling into bespoke eLearning. However, today, the basics of branching is relatively straightforward in many eLearning tools.

However, if you play a few visual novels it soon becomes clear how shallow some eLearning branching is. And I include some of what I have worked on in the past in that statement.

If we want to avoid branching due to the complexity then what we are working towards is a different categorisation: “A kinetic novel is a linear type of visual novel where there is a linear storyline with no player choice or gameplay.”.

Authoring tools

There are numerous options in this space, here are a few I have looked at…

A few years back I had a bit of a play with Twine. Twine is primarily text based so might not be appropriate for all situations.

There are some tools marketed for education including ones which shift to a 3D model, like this from CoSpaces, rather than the more scene style of other visual novel tools.

PCGamer considers some of the options in this article. In addition, there are some useful threads on Reddit, both in instructional design and gaming channels [warning not all are safe for work if you go looking]. For example it was here that I realised that many tools are combining RenPy with 3D model assets from DAZ. RenPy’s tutorial, built within the tool, is actually very good and shows how well it can work:

Screenshot from RenPy tutorial.

Challenges

A big problem for those working in corporate environments has always been the restrictions in place with regards to technology. This is why the more recent publishing tools tend to be helpful in being browser based, gone are the days where companies have needed to keep supporting old tech (including Flash) or insisting on everything being in a SCORM package.

Renpy.org requires local .exe files so is likely a non-starter for many corporate environments. Indeed the open source authoring tool but is sponsored by companies that will help you get published elsewhere, such as on games stores. Other options such as TyranoBuilder offer export to browser functionality (although Tyrano is an example with an upfront software cost so I haven’t tried it) which might be more suitable for corporates.

Therefore getting the tool installed and the games out to users to install will be a blocker for some organisations. The mobile app publication option might be a solution for some though.

Nothing new?

In many ways the learning that could be designed in RenPy and other tools is similar to narrative based eLearning in other tools and just as reliant on the quality of writing and story based learning.

This is of course nothing new, indeed conferences for eLearning and games based learning are long running:

What should we use?

With time to learn them, these authoring tools become very powerful. However, the challenges of installation and publication would likely block many corporates/organisations from using them.

Personally, I am going to try and go deeper into Ren.Py in part as it is basically teaching you some Python language through a simple interface which I suspect might be of help in the future. In addition the option to publish to Android and iOS might offer some solutions to the desktop publication problems.

For now, the ease at which Articulate and other tools have made branching become something anyone can do (rather than expensive bespoke eLearning like it used to be) is probably the way that makes sense. However, the cost of developing on a free tool like Ren.Py is likely much lower than a fully blown interactive video experience. Therefore, there are no doubt use cases out there.

To time or not to time

Expected duration. Time on task. Lock stepped vs open. Start and end dates. Peer pressure motivation. Collaborative vs independent.

All of the above are all too well known for online learning developers. Does your design measure progress? Is it via time on task, do you lock access based on progress, do you enforce weekly or other spacing, use pre and post testing to adapt the experience or some other method? These issues are often tied to if you are allowing people to access content versus undertaking more collaborative activities.

This week I have had chance to pick up a few “courses” (well resources really in some cases) and this has got me thinking again about the temporal aspect of online learning. For example, is there value in Coursera basically unenrolling you from their courses to fit in their schedule, with the option to reenrol on the next session. This is partly as there are discussion activities but, in reality, the timing adds nothing to the learning experience for those wanting to pass through the course at their own pace.

Google, for example, advertise that they have opportunities via Coursera yet the company known for “organiz[ing] the world’s information and mak[ing] it universally accessible and useful” lock these “job-training solutions” to their/Coursera’s timelines rather than those of the interested party.

This expectation of working through at someone else’s pace is poor instructional practice when, in reality, many such courses are combinations of async activities such as videos, reflections, quizzes, etc. The defence for the model is probably facilitator support (i.e. being able to have someone online to help with questions). However, this seems contradictory to the idea of flat rate charging ($39 a month* as in the below image) without the traditional Coursera “audit” (i.e. FREE) access option. If the intention is to increase completion rates through forcing a time-based fear/scarcity mode of motivation this similarly is poor given there is not the personal support you would have in, say, a traditional university course to give you a hand and nudge you along to the final deadline.

Ultimately it feels that if this is the model then these courses need to be designed to allow any time joining with, say, monthly cohorts for discussion boards. Indeed we were designing similarly to this for rolling start degrees back in c.2010.

Ultimately it feels like MOOCs continue to fail at their stated objectives time and time again.

* also Google obviously have enough money to support skills development without charging for such items as CSR activity.

The often ignored realities of talent management (#7): It is the little things that count (in the office)

Having returned to an office environment for the first time in a while I have realised that a number of things I used to be quite dismissive of actually matter quite a lot, this might be my “reality” rather than a wider set of rules but here goes:

  1. Fresh air – it makes a huge difference if you can get it, i.e. if your windows actually open rather than being in a glass box.
  2. Open plan vs smaller offices – I have often been critical of open plan in the past but starting in a new environment of (nearly) one-to-one offices (many people having their own and others sharing in small groups) has made me think again. It is very tricky to know how best to interact in a small office environment if you are used to open plan. What is too much noise? Is it okay just to interrupt people to say hi? These are “organisational culture” type issues I have been generally dismissive of in the past but my experience has made it clear – you need to be clear to new joiners what the expectations are. I would say my best past experiences are of small office (approx. 6-8) layouts where an immediate team can be based together, discuss as appropriate, avoid bothering others too much and be a clear “unit” for those coming from elsewhere.
  3. Screen glare is really bad – sun onto screens does not work. I used to involuntary cry when leaving the office at one of my old jobs and I am now wondering if it was artificial light glare on the screens.
  4. Intranets, Office 365 profiles and social tools – okay so I am an advocate for these anyway but if your organisation has them then you should HAVE to use them, to be transparent and help with working out loud yes but simply so newbies know who people are.

There are other things I have noticed too from shifting from a work from home routine:

  • Shoes hurt.
  • I talk to myself. A LOT.
  • Daily faff of commute, desk setup, etc. really is a waste of time and money.
  • Face-to-face meetings are useful but Zoom is fine. Face-to-face social activities are far more useful.
  • I am very very unfit and really need to do something about it! 🙂

10 years on: the end of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) in England (and “Creative” approaches to the job market)

This post is a little early, as applications were no longer available from Jan 2011 but we are now basically at the 10 year point for the EMA closing in England.

It is still available elsewhere in the UK.

First the bad, I worked in Further Education (16 year olds +) when the EMA existed and it created problems. The college I worked at had a very “them and us” divide within the student body between students who wanted to be there to learn and students who were (at least seen by their peers) only there to claim the (small) allowance. The insinuation was that some of these “just turning up” people had other sources of income (for example drugs) or simply were attending for something to do, a small amount of cash and/or to keep their parents happy (to the point where there were accusations that tutors were intimidated to report attendance even when learners were late or absent).

@TheIFS report from 2010 reviewed the impact of the EMA and if closure was a good move: https://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/5370

Even with my concerns over the previous experiment (see above) where might an EMA style system fit in the future? I would argue that an EMA would be more effective in the 18+ age range as a form of Universal Basic Income. As a guaranteed income, it could allow adults of all ages to continue their personal development and formal accreditation whilst potentially not having to take as huge a pay cut to try a new career route via apprenticeships, etc. In such a scenario we would ideally “top up” salaries to some previous level, meaning mortgages remain affordable whilst people take time to “reset” their income generation, or at least can sell a house with slightly less pressure that what redundancy or other enforced change of career normally brings. This “top up” would be similar to how some unemployment schemes work worldwide, i.e. you do not just baseline everyone to a minimal level of income, and encourage more mid-career reskilling and moves to sectors needing people.

Yes, this would be hugely expensive but given that state finances have gone out of the window in 2020 (even more than in 2008-2019) perhaps not in a bad way. This is of course timely given the current state of the job market and the need to think of “creative” solutions for the future: