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'Content is king' (and other meaningless phrases)
L&D is obsessed with terminology nobody else cares about.
As we mentioned in a previous newsletter, the Custom team at Mind Tools hosts an internal ‘book club’ every Tuesday afternoon. It’s one of the many ways we stay connected as a distributed team, and one of the few moments in the week where we can take a step back from project work.
Since we started the book club, we’ve covered Julie Dirksen’s Design for How People Learn, Patti Shank’s Write Better Multiple-Choice Questions to Assess Learning and Nick Shackleton-Jones’ ‘5Di’ development process.
We’re currently reading Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull, one of the co-founders of Pixar.
In last week’s book club, we discussed the fourth chapter of Creativity Inc.: ‘Establishing Pixar’s Identity’.
Following the success of Toy Story, Catmull and his co-founders wanted to formalize the two principles that they saw as critical to the film’s development. These principles were: ‘story is king’ and ‘trust the process’.
As Catmull writes:
‘They became mantras, of a sort, phrases we clung to and repeated endlessly in meetings. We believed that they had guided us through the crucible of Toy Story and the early stages of A Bug’s Life, and as a result we took enormous comfort in them.’
At the time, Catmull believed these principles were key differentiators for Pixar. But, as he got to know other people in the movie industry, he came to realize that every studio head had some version of the same mantras. Simply parroting these phrases wasn’t enough to create a great film, and they didn’t prevent Pixar from running into trouble in the early stages of Toy Story 2.
For Catmull, this was a reminder of something that seems obvious, but often isn’t:
‘Merely repeating ideas means nothing. You must act – and think – accordingly. […] Managers scour books and magazines looking for greater understanding but settle instead for adopting a new terminology, thinking that using fresh words will bring them closer to their goals. When someone comes up with a phrase that sticks, it becomes a meme, which migrates around even as it disconnects from its original meaning.’
I’ve been thinking about this chapter all week because the issue it describes is pervasive in L&D.
As an industry, we’re obsessed with terminology.
Spend five minutes scrolling through L&D LinkedIn, and you’ll find someone making an impassioned plea for all of us to stop using one word, and start using another.
We don’t design ‘e-learning’ — we design ‘learning experiences’.
We don’t care about ‘learning objectives’ – we care about ‘learning outcomes’.
We don’t serve ‘learners’ – we serve ‘customers’.
To be clear, I’m throwing stones in a glass house here. Not too long ago, I made a case for ditching the word ‘intervention’ from the L&D lexicon, arguing that it ran counter to the idea of learning as something that happens in the flow of work.
I’m also not saying that the language we use isn’t important. As a former English Literature student and ESL teacher, I’m firmly in the ‘words matter’ camp.
What I am saying is that simply updating our terminology won’t change much, unless that terminology is backed up by action. The lesson Catmull is trying to teach us in Creativity Inc. isn’t that ‘story is king’ is wrong, but that a mantra is only useful if it leads teams to ‘act — and think — accordingly’.
If you want to call your learners ‘customers’ or ‘colleagues’ or ‘oompa loompas’, I’m all for it. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that new terminology is going to fix old problems.
Need help designing your latest ‘intervention’? Then email firstname.lastname@example.org or reply to this newsletter if you’re reading it in your inbox.
🎧 On the podcast
Many organizations are accused of not doing enough to support marginalized groups. But even those who do try to make a difference often end up accused of hypocrisy.
Is it safer to stay quiet than to talk about equity, diversity and inclusion (ED&I) at work?
In this week’s episode of podcast, Ross G and Nahdia are joined by Heeral Gudka, founder of Convergent, to discuss:
the evolution of ED&I
the risks both of speaking up and staying quiet
the need for alignment between external messaging and internal reality.
Listen to the full episode here:
📖 Deep dive
Since the pandemic, the shift to distributed work and the subsequent ‘return to office’ push, I’ve been fascinated by the arguments for and against remote working.
As someone who is fortunate enough to have a dedicated home office, I think I’d find it extremely difficult to return to a busy open-plan environment full-time. Day to day, the peace and quiet of my home just feels more conducive to the kind of ‘deep work’ that’s required in my role.
On the other hand, I do occasionally wonder about the long-run consequences of being physically separated from my colleagues. My assumption is that the effects of this separation may be particularly acute for new team members, whose experience of our culture has been predominantly online.
New survey data from Gallup appears to suggest that one of the unintended consequences of remote work is a weakening connection to the organization’s purpose. While employee engagement is generally on the up (though still below pre-pandemic levels), remote workers’ sense of mission has continued to erode.
According to Gallup, this doesn’t mean that remote work can’t work, but it requires managers to play an active role in strengthening colleagues’ connection to what’s happening in the wider organization.
Harter, J. ‘Are Remote Workers and Their Organizations Drifting Apart?’, Gallup
👹 Missing links
One of the major hurdles to deploying LLMs like ChatGPT and Bard in organizations has been concerns over data privacy and security. In spite of this, OpenAI claims that teams and individuals in over 80% of Fortune 500 companies have adopted ChatGPT in some capacity, with or without their IT department’s permission. Now, OpenAI is offering a dedicated business version of ChatGPT, with enterprise-grade security. We wouldn’t normally reference a tech product launch in ‘missing links’, but I think this news is pretty exciting.
In this newsletter, Adam Grant defends his recent essay in the New York Times, where he argued for a new method of electing political leaders: random lottery. While some critics seem to have taken his suggestion literally, his point was rather to start a debate around viable alternatives to the current system, which he believes to be fundamentally broken.
Long-time listeners of the podcast might remember hearing Ross G talk about his wife’s poetry hobby. That hobby has led to the publication of Amy’s first collection, All the Words Ran Free. As someone who used to post her poems on Instagram, then take them down before anyone could read them, Amy will doubtless be mortified to be included in this week’s newsletter. The Dispatch team couldn’t be more proud.
👋 And finally…
This banger from the Man in Pink was brought to my attention by the Hard Fork podcast. It is a terrific (and slightly terrifying) example of the power of generative AI.
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