Out-of-the-box learning

In 1993 I wrote a book for Enterprise Planning Systems in Ottawa to show manufacturing companies how to use EPS’s software to improve business and industrial processes and optimize manufacturing performance. This seemed at first like a very dry topic, until a co-worker loaned me a novel called “The Goal”, by Elijah Goldratt.

The Goal was actually a textbook on systems management and business process engineering, written as paperback fiction. It told the story of a company executive suddenly faced with the imminent failure of his business … unless he could transform his manufacturing operation and achieve profitability. There were jobs at stake, a career on the line, and from what I remember even a failing marriage. The protagonist’s arc as he fought through problems, failed, experimented and finally succeeded actually served as the backbone for a stealthy course in systems engineering.

The use of the fiction genre to deliver training was both bizarre and effective. I read the 300 odd pages in a weekend, and at the end of it I didn’t just know more about systems science than I ever wanted to, I actually, intuitively understood it.

Unfortunately my own book was less inspiring. My brief was to produce a manual. A how-to guide that let people figure out very quickly how to do specific tasks using EPS’s software. It wasn’t flowery, it wasn’t complicated. It became, however, one of the pieces I’m most proud of in my own portfolio. It was simple without being simplistic,  balanced yet comprehensive, and profoundly effective. I think part of what allowed me to get such a good result was that intuitive understanding of the domain I gained from Goldratt’s work.

The lesson for me was that effective knowledge transfer doesn’t always come in conventionally packaged forms. Anything that gets the learner to engage with the knowledge-set is worth trying, especially if that engagement happens through a range of types of cognition (including emotional ones).

A more recent example of out-of-the-box learning is the stage play Charlie Romeo Victor (wiki here). CVR dramatizes a series of aviation accidents by re-enacting the cockpit conversations the pilots had during those accidents. (The scripts are taken directly from transcripts of the accident cockpit voice recorder — CVR — tapes.) The play is emotionally compelling, but it’s also an incredibly effective training tool that provides a crash course in human performance and crew resource management. (CVR has been used, in fact, by the US military for pilot training.)

Learners need to be captured and inspired — if not by the content itself, then by the medium used to deliver it.

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