Monthly Archives: August 2011

This new-fangled technology

I just had to share this presentation I came across the other day. Normally, I would just instantly share with Twitter but I still get frustrated with the 140 character limit (you’d think I’d be used to it by now).

The Slideshare presentation reminded me of a blog post I wrote some time ago about educating people in using these new tools and SatNav learning.

It also reminds me of regular conversations I have with people on my courses on banning collaborative tools in the workplace where I make a very similar analogy. Enjoy.

Dexter-fests, 24 and lost weekends

Why do we get so hooked?


Recently I curled up on the sofa with my other half, settled down with a mellow glass of red to enjoy an episode or two of Dexter. Now Dexter is one of my favourite US series. For those of you who don’t know anything about this series, you may think I need therapy for being so compelled to watch it. It’s about a serial killer who works for the police as a blood-spatter analyst. Yes… he’s the lead character and despite his unhealthy hobby, he’s the hero (or should it be anti-hero?). Those fans of the programme actually like him and hope he never gets caught. From watching the previous series and having to wait for a whole week to go by before catching up with the next episode, we decided to record them to watch in bulk. After some mishap with the recordings, I just had to buy the boxed set (Stay with me here…. )

The up-shot is that the two episode evening lasted all weekend. It’s a good job there was nothing more pressing to get done (the ironing could wait!).

We’ve recently started to watch 24. Well, you can imagine what happened although this time we had to be very strict with ourselves.

So what’s the point of all this? Well I started to wonder why we found it so compelling – to sit there and watch episode after episode until our eyes became square (or rather 42 inch wide-screen).

From an early age we love stories. I’ve spoken to many a parent who can almost recite Thomas the Tank Engine word for word from memory or that video of The Little Mermaid is almost unrecognisable after the trillionth time of watching. My brother and his wife are expecting their first child in November and I suspect they’ll be no different. Her Auntie Laura will likely also be caught up in the magical world of story-telling too.

It doesn’t stop though does it? The love of stories? We may grow out of the wide-eyed excitement of being read bed-time stories but the magic doesn’t stop when we grow up. It just grows with us. From Disney films to Dr. Who. From romantic comedies to dark gothic vampire tales. From the trashy, steamy novel to the complicated thrillers or classical period tales of yester-year. What keeps us so enthralled?

Telling stories began thousands of year in the past. We can see evidence of it from ancient drawings on cave walls. We can imagine travellers recounting tales of their journeys round campfires and then progress meant those words could then be recorded for generations.

I have my own theories by analysing my own love of a good story and would like to share what I like them here.

    immediate connection with the characters
    emotional – being able to feel sadness, happiness, fear the characters are feeling
    a compelling storyline
    suspense
    mystery that keeps you guessing what might happen next
    challenging where you put yourself in the character’s shoes to work out the next step
    sparking imagination through descriptive writing if reading the story
    visually stimulating through clever direction and cinematography

In short – I need to believe I could be there. I need to live it and be totally immersed even if it might be the most fantastic tale of hobgoblins and superheroes.

In order to satisfy my own curiosity, I set about doing a little (and I mean a little) research into why storytelling has such an impact on us. What I found was fascinating – and it’s only the tip of the storytelling iceberg.

In a New Scientist article by Richard Fisher, entitled ‘the evolving art of storytelling’ he explored the effect an immersive experience of a good book or movie has on our brains. He found that according to neuroscientists and psychologists, areas of our brains react to the emotions the characters are feeling as if we were ‘in their shoes’. Our brains behave in such a way as if we were experiencing the fiction as if it were our real-world experiences. The reason stories have such a powerful effect is the release of chemicals serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine such compelling stories trigger in our brains. Fisher goes on to review ‘The Art of Immersion’ (available on Kindle) by Frank Rose, which investigates storytelling and how it’s evolved with technology and something those of us who are looking to design experiences in our e-learning and engage our learners might find worth a look (note to self – order this book).

In another article ‘Mind Reading: the science of storytelling’ which referenced the same research reports further that our brains will react the same way regardless whether we are reading the story or watching an action video but the most potent of all is that of the ’emotionally charged story’.

What I found rassuring was because of the chemical triggers in the brain this “explains why we can be lured into watching back-to-back episodes of series” and that “we are empathetically engaged. We are treating this as if it is our real family. We can’t help but care for these people”. So, there you have it. Proof that I’m not really that sad. I may have an addictive personality but the only drugs I may be addicted to are serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine! Although I’m not sure whether I’d like to think a serial killer blood-spatter analyst as family.

The Power of the Architect – Part 2

Learning the lessons

In my last post I shared some insights on how architects can have a serious impact on our development and how we can make parallels in how we design our learning environments. Here I’m going to continue the comparison and discover how innovative and creative design can have a positive effect.

In the previous post we discovered how workspaces in the UK have been designed to amaze, delight and wow from the outside but there has been little thought about the people and what effect poor design has on their development and productivity.

The host of the programme, Tom Dyckhoff highlighted “we in this country don’t understand how broken our work culture is… it’s only by going into other cultures, other countries, other places where there’s much more emphasis on the individual work ther and what they want…we’ve got to see other examples and by doing that we open up all our eyes to what is possible”.

This is very true.

So let’s return to the programme ‘The Secret Life of Buildings – how we work’. We reflected on three particular buildings in the UK and how although they were iconic designs from the outside, they had little going for the people on the inside. Bearing in mind it’s possible to learn from how others do things, the programme looked to Europe and in particularly BMW in Leipzig, Germany where the design of the building brought production line workers and managers together. The unusual conveyor belt design which allowed the car bodies travel above office workers’ heads and throughout the rest of the building reminded and reassured employees of their vital roles in the production process.

But it was the Dutch insurance company Interpolis in Holland that was the most enlightening example of not only efficient but effective design. It bred a feeling of purpose, value. Interpolis is a flexible workspace where the building was designed for the people by the people. That is, they were involved in the design process and actively participated in discussions around the use of flexible workspaces. The people were made responsible for what they were doing and there was a high level of trust within the organisation.

The building was designed so that there were various unique work spaces. Each was different and designed for different purposes. There was a club house which contained ten uniquely different areas. Meeting spaces blurred into social spaces. There were no institutionalised rows of desks in souless offices. The idea was based on the fact that only one third of their work time is done at a private desk so they looked to find out what was being done the during the remaining two-thirds of the time.

When asked how do people know where to go when they got to work, Erik Vedhoen, the architect, of the Interpolis building said “your day starts with asking yourself ‘what am I going to do today?’. Then you re-think ‘what’s the best place I can do that? Alone or with colleagues?’ and then you choose one of these places”.

Because there are different zones to promote different activities: relfection, discussion, focus, inspiration or stimulation. There was a definite feeling of ‘people-power’. But there was also efficiency and high levels of productivity. It then begged the question that if everything was so flexible, how did the boss keep control. Veldhoen replied “control is not an issue any more. When you do this, you manage on trust. You make a good system so they have enough accountability so they can show what they did and more than 95% of the people will do the things in the right way. In the old system you think you can control everything but that’s impossible.”

The workspace is very different from our usual ideas of working places and it looked very expensive. However, because of the clever use of space and the informal working areas, this reduced the overall size of the building by half and there was actually a 40% saving in construction costs. Veldhoen pointed out “the people are connected with each other in a natural way which made for a lot of productivity which you don’t get when you put people bound in one place.” Productivity rose by 20%. When asked if the UK would ever be able to learn from this he answered in a long slow ye-e-e-e-e-s but added “it will take a long time”.

Because learning and working are so tightly entwined, this shouldn’t be any surprise to us. We can learn from this on all sorts of levels. Not only from a L&D perspective but also how management can help increase employee engagement. Increased enagement, feeling valued, treated fairly, trusted and given more ownership of their learning and working. Enabling interaction and collaboration more easily together with providing easy access to the right tools for the job and the most appropriate environments in which to use them will reap huge rewards.

To summarise:

    trust more, control less
    encourage social interaction
    encourage flexibility
    use the most appropriate environnent or tool for the type of activity
    provide a strong technical infrastructure
    enable easy and quick access to performance support tools
    encourage ownership by displaying confidence in others’ abilities
    remove restrictions which cause stress and discomfort
    provide informal working spaces which encourage conversations to happen naturally
    support and cultivate
    encouraging a sharing and collaborative culture

If we continue to work in silos we’re in danger of becoming blind to possibilities. This may have a serious negative impact on our creativity especially when it comes to designing appropriate and effective learning solutions. We become swallowed up by the ‘it’s the way it’s always been’ culture and politics. Sometimes it’s easier if we leave things be. It takes time and effort to change the way we do things. But if we are expecting our learners to change the way they behave perhaps we should lead by example by affording time and effort into creating environments fit for the purpose. Environments that encourage, challenge and inspire. When we take the blinkers off we can help ourselves to discover new and innovative ways to engage and inspire. We can learn from others who’ve already been down that road and learn from their experiences. Above all, remember that people are the heartbeat of our organisations. Without them there is nothing.

If you’re interested in finding out more how Interpolis got there, here’s a report produced in association with The British Council of Offices ‘ICT and Offices: Practised Realities and their Business Benefits‘.