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problem-solvingTo succeed at work, employees must know how to solve problems. Are we so reactive that we quickly come up with an answer to satisfy a deadline? Or do we see what others are doing and simply apply their ideas? In training sessions, we often teach the process of problem solving but we don't always focus on how learners can apply the process in their daily lives. We need to emphasize a traditional method of problem solving, along with the components and skills necessary to perform the process.

Here's a process for problem solving:

  • Identify the issues with a simple SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats).
  • Identify any missing information or assumptions that will have to be made.
  • Determine the problem.
  • Identify alternatives to solving the problem.
  • Evaluate alternatives and make a recommendation.
  • Determine the implementation process of your recommendation.
  • Determine how the process will be evaluated and provide a contingency plan.

In training, we must cover this entire process. More importantly, however, we must cover how to apply this process back on the job. A possible training scenario could look like this:

Identify the issues with a simple SWOT analysis: Trainees should be given multiple case studies and questioned thoroughly to get them to determine the current situation. They must be shown differences between strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats as they apply to the internal and external impact on the company.

Identify any missing information or assumptions: Trainees must learn to recognize additional information they need to solve the problem at hand.

Determine the problem: Trainees must learn the pattern of continuing to question why there are concerns. This helps focus on real problems, rather than symptoms. Case studies are a great tool here.

Identify alternatives to solving the problem: Trainees must learn to examine the SWOT analysis for possible solutions but also learn to discover specific actions to take. Many try to identify tactics here, which should be saved for the implementation process. Another mistake people make is that they try to solve the problem here before using a criterion basis for evaluating alternatives

Evaluate alternatives and make a recommendation: Of the alternatives in step 4, one will be the answer to the problem learners have identified. Evaluation should be based on three criteria: Does the alternative fit with the mission of the organisation? Is the alternative viable in terms of resources and finances? Does the alternative make an improvement? Reinforce that a recommendation must be made.

Determine the implementation process: Trainees need to identify steps to put their recommendation in place. This must be taken from beginning to completion. An onsite critique is necessary at this step.

Determine evaluation and control process: Trainees must learn to identify when and at what stages their recommendation would be considered unsuccessful or successful. Also, they must be able to provide a backup solution in case their recommendation does not work.

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elearining prototypeWhen embarking on an elearning project, it can be intimidating to think about creating your own interface. There seems to be a never-ending stream of questions to consider: Where do I begin? How do I get buy-in from my stakeholders? Is the final product going to resonate with end users? Too often the questions become so daunting that designers fall back on molding content to fit a template.

The presentation of e-learning content is as critical as the content itself. You can have content of the highest quality, but if the presentation is poor, you will lose the end user. If the interface is confusing or the material is difficult to find, you are asking the end user to make an extra effort to learn.

The solution to designing an effective e-learning interface is to obtain feedback from both stakeholders and end users as early in the design process as possible, before writing code or putting pixels on the screen. The following steps will guide you through the process of creating a prototype for an e-learning interface.

Storyboarding
Storyboarding to be an effective way to gather and organize thoughts. The storyboard should lay out the desired outcome for the course. Storyboards prove especially beneficial during initial brainstorming meetings with stakeholders.

The important thing to remember is to keep your storyboards simple. They should not be overly detailed at this stage. They should be quick sketches that help you identify the needs and expectations of your stakeholders and end users.

Make sure to jot down notes for each sketch to explain what it represents. These notes will be helpful as you move forward in the design process.

Early physical prototypes
The purpose of the early physical prototype is to help stakeholders and end users visualize different ways that an interface could be built and function. These prototypes often are crude and can be built using common office supplies, such as paper, folders, markers, and sticky notes.

The sticky notes help stakeholders and users see how the interface will work. Elements of the interface, especially those that will remain static from screen to screen, also can be drawn directly on paper. These static elements can be drawn once and photocopied so that you can make multiple screens quickly. The sticky notes can be placed on top of the elements to represent different states.

For example, a drop-down menu could be drawn on paper, but by using sticky notes, you can better show the layers of functionality within the menu. The "open" state can be shown with a note after the user "clicks" the menu. As he touches the notes to change them, you can peel off one note and place another in its place, representing the "clicked" state.

Watching how users interact with the elements in front of them provides valuable feedback to you as the designer. Are they traveling too much across the screen to get to elements? Do the layout of the elements and their functions work in the context of what the training course is trying to
accomplish?

The great thing about doing this type of prototyping is that changes can be made quickly. It is easy to customize the design through multiple iterations in just a few minutes. Again, it is beneficial to involve stakeholders and end users at this early stage in the design process to get their feedback.

You can even give them materials to demonstrate their own prototype ideas. The more ideas that can be generated at this stage of the process, the better the end product will turn out. Also during this step you should be able to clearly explain the interface to the users, and what you are trying to accomplish with it. Once you have created a solid physical prototype (or two), you can move on to the next step.

Wireframe digital prototypes
Now that you have the physical prototypes, you can take those early designs and build them out to a more refined wireframe digital prototype. It allows you to distribute the prototype to a larger group of end users and gain additional feedback before spending too much time on the design.

These early wireframes can be built with a tool such as Balsamiq Mockup, among others. Balsamiq Mockup is meant for web mockups, but also works well for e-learning interface prototypes. These prototypes are low fidelity, drawing from a library of existing elements that can be placed on the interface. By using this library, you can save a lot of time creating the prototype and making changes to it.

Wireframe digital prototypes give you the opportunity to involve users and stakeholders who are geographically distanced from you. However, if you have the opportunity to observe as end users or stakeholders use the prototype, you will gain better insight into how they are reacting to the interface through their body language.

If you have remote end users, you could use Skype or Google Hangouts to observe their reactions. Facial expressions are a telling sign that someone is having an issue with the interface. This kind of genuine user feedback can be valuable research to take back to stakeholders, and will help you make final decisions on interface elements.

After this phase, the prototype can be refined again, during which final adjustments are made and presented again to key stakeholders.

After the functionality is finalized, you can begin to consider colors, styles, sizes, and other elements to polish up the interface.

Refined prototype
The refined prototype will give your stakeholders an idea of how the final product will look and function. It is important because it is the last step before building the final production output. This step also is a good time to put in pieces of the actual content.

One more round of user testing also can be done. In some cases, the refined prototype can be built in the production software. If you are using a rapid development tool, it can be effective to build pieces of the interface in the tool so that end users are testing the prototype on the platform to be used for the final product. Even though some of the elements still might be simplified versions, they can provide great placeholders for content in the final version of the interface.

Although this process can seem like many iterations, involving end users as much as possible and as early in the process as possible will ensure that the final product is customized to meet their needs and preferences. This process also helps you guard against stakeholders' disappointment in the final product.

Finally, multiple rounds of testing will help you prevent costly mistakes that must be fixed after the final product is launched.

Reference: T+D May 2014, article by Sean Putman, director of training and documentation for Altair Engineering and principal at Intellectus Learning

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knowing-is-not-enoughWill the effective skills your participants are learning about in the classroom translate to what they do in the workplace? As someone who cares deeply about this question, I'm going to make two bold statements, and then make a recommendation.

  • Without a basic understanding of how learning happens, which is outlined in the rest of this article, there is very little chance that program participants will actually implement what they learned.
  • No many training organisations are presenting to training participants with this perspective.

At Insources, we use not only reaction and learning objectives, but also application and impact objectives, when designing training. We discuss those application and impact objectives with participants during training and we provide some mechanisms for them to follow up the achievement of those objectives.

It's important to give your learners a clear understanding of the kind of follow-through they'll need to perform to ingrain new work habits. I strongly recommend that you reproduce the following information, give it to every learner, and have them read it (and, ideally, discuss it) at the beginning of every program.

1 - KNOWING what to do isn't the same as DOING it. You can learn what to do through classroom instruction, books, videos, and articles. But this aspect of learning is only the beginning. Acquiring knowledge doesn't guarantee that you'll apply it when you need to. As Morpheus told Neo in the sci-fi movie, Matrix, "There's a difference between knowing the path and walking the path." Behavior is what counts.

And most behavior in a busy workplace is a result of habit, not conscious decisions.

2 - Skills, habits, and routines are hard-wired in the brain. You need to appreciate what's really going on when you master a new skill. When you repeat a behavior, the brain cells involved in the behavior are stimulated to connect with each other. With enough repetition, physical circuits form that enable you to repeat the behavior easily and quickly. This is true whether it's your golf swing or the way you deal with other people.

This means that the way you do things now is already hard-wired in your brain. It also means that to improve a skill or work habit, you need to rewire your brain.

3 - The brain will wire itself for both good and bad habits if you repeat the behavior often enough. Your brain doesn't distinguish between effective and ineffective patterns. It will never say, "Wait a minute, I can't program that for you because it will cause you problems." No, it will simply start connecting the brain cells for the behavior each time you repeat it.

This is why you could end up interrupting people when they're talking. Or yelling at them when you get upset. Or procrastinating when faced with a difficult decision.

4 - Most adults have wired a lot of bad habits over the years. During your life so far, you've developed "your way" of doing lots of things. And your way of interacting with others probably includes a few behavior patterns that cause problems. This is because practically nobody was taught the best practices when they were young. You picked up ways of dealing with family, friends, co-workers and others "on the street," so to speak. And some of these patterns may not work well when dealing with managers, team members, and customers. 

So, when you attend a training course to learn better ways of dealing with people, you don't walk in with a blank slate. You have your own familiar, comfortable ways of handling things. Your challenge will be to do the work after instruction in order to rewire your brain.

5 - Take responsibility for your own learning. A trainer can show you how to improve. Your boss can encourage you to change, but only you can make this happen. Only you can do the work to rewire your brain for a new skill or work habit.

6 - Rewiring for a new skill will take a lot of repetitions. What happens in the classroom is a great start, but it's just the beginning. Most of the effort of learning has to happen after instruction. Back on the job, you'll need to use what you learned. Like mastering a sport skill, it will take practice, practice and more practice before the brain cells involved will physically interconnect into a circuit that makes the skill feel natural. So you must do the reps, or you'll eventually go back to your old way of doing things.

7 - Accept that at first you'll have failures and setbacks, and don't give up. Even if you value what you learned and fully intend to implement it, at first you may forget to do so. Or if you make a conscious effort, the skill may feel awkward and ineffective. Almost everyone experiences this kind of frustration initially. The habits you already have get in the way of the new habits you're trying to adopt. You'll be tempted to give up trying. You may think, "This doesn't feel right. I don't think this is going to work for me."

The key is to persist past this "crunch point." If you keep trying, you'll forget less often. Your efforts will start to achieve results. Keep trying and your "failure rate" will eventually approach zero. The new habit will become dominant. You'll find yourself performing the new, improved skill without consciously deciding to do it.

8 - Focus on one skill or work habit at a time. If you're an ambitious individual, you may want to correct several behavior patterns all at once. This would be a mistake. In a busy workplace, you'll find that it's hard enough to apply one new skill repeatedly. Trying to work on several skills simultaneously will water down your efforts. You won't get enough reps to improve any of them.

So focus on one area until it starts to feel natural and you're having success. Doing so will be an outstanding personal achievement. Then you can focus on improving something else.

9. Learn from your mistakes. Your early efforts may be discouraging, but you can use these experiences to improve. Ask yourself: What happened? What did it happen that way? What should I consider doing differently to get better results? There are lessons to be learned from every experience, if you take time to reflect on it.

10. Get help. Ask people who care about your development—your boss, co-workers, other training participants—to help you stay focused, encourage you and hold you accountable. This kind of support coaching can accelerate your learning. Ask for their input, ideas and feedback.

Ask them whether they've noticed improvement, and get their suggestions for how you can perform better.

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