Maine ATD and Our Mission
At its core, the Maine Chapter of the Association for Talent Development promotes work-related learning. This is the third in a series of profiles featuring leaders who, acting out of their core values, make positive professional change happen.
- Bill Maxwell
Ben Duffy holds the position of Manager of Project Delivery - Technology Enabled Learning & Performance Support at Unum. He assists Unum's Learning Development group and internal business partners fill knowledge gaps through eLearning, webcasts, webinars, performance support, social collaboration, online help, intranet knowledge and good communication. His specialties: eLearning development, instructional design, project management, web and multimedia development, video and audio post production.
A Brief Conversation
We sat down at lunchtime in a Unum food court. Hundreds of others did the same, and the buzz/hum of the crowd rose and fell as we spoke loudly in order to hear. “What do the soft-spoken do here?” I thought out loud. Ben just smiled and nodded–something he does a great deal.
So let’s start with creativity: Ben Duffy is a learning sculptor, pure and simple. Not surprisingly, he spent two years immersed in sculpture at Fleischer Art Memorial in Philadelphia. That was pre-business career, obviously. Before Unum, Ben worked at Fairchild Semiconductor, but he has not always been in large corporations. He has developed websites and done image and animation work in documentary films in Camden, Maine. He has worked with PenBay Media doing online learning content and has experience wearing many hats working for a jeweler father-in-law. Somewhere along the way, he learned that “Learning stuff we can create with computers is really cool.” And also along the way he has learned a great deal about e-learning from a pedagogy perspective as well as in a technical perspective.
Blacksmiths (and Sculptors)
I’m not sure how we got to this, but we began with talk of rapid technological change. I commented on how smart phones were a part of so many exciting disruptions. His take?
“We don’t have many blacksmiths anymore. They’re doing other things now.” Ben said this with a casual optimism–with another smile and a gesture of open-handed “it is what it is.”
Blacksmithing is sculpture of a sort, of course. In these times, a person with a sculptor’s sensibility, a teacher’s instincts, and a passion for IT can make a big difference as a leader. I offer up Ben Duffy as Exhibit A.
I asked Ben about his leadership point of view– and specifically about his mission at Unum.
“I want to connect people to the knowledge they need and want. These are two things I want to blend, a better word might be unite: the world of reference material and the world of learning. These often exist independently with separate groups who have authoritative knowledge in learning or authoritative knowledge in reference. These two are created and deployed differently.”
I asked him for details of how this plays out in his situation.
“My perspective is that it’s all about how much you need to know and how new you are to learning it. I follow the principles of Conrad Gottfredson’s Five Moments of Need to a large extent.”
The Five Moments of Need, in case you are unfamiliar with them, are as follows.
- Learning for the first time
- Learning more
- Applying what you've learned
- When things go wrong
- When things change
It’s a holistic approach to the various learning stages. Gottfredson believes the goal of learning in the workplace is proficiency. In order to achieve this goal, your work must involve formal, informal, social and real-time learning strategies.
Ben Duffy uses this approach so that he “can unify this world of learning and reference.” Again, I asked for specifics.
“We make sure the right information exists at the right place and the right time for people.
“True for all projects you do?”
“We’re always looking at how we prep everything that satisfies the widest range of need. So we don’t create just for new hires. We think about the needs of the exact audience and apply these five moments of need. We know what parts can stand alone as reference material and can be linked as part of the online support system. We know which parts are going to have a short shelf life; we may need to re-film those parts of the software that we know are changing. Catalog the changes so we can redo. We know how to deploy that content and weave it into the curriculum. We know where to stage that so that those with infrequent learning needs can refer to just a nugget of that thing.”
Ben speaks in paragraphs that make sense – one of the reasons he had me convinced of his expertise from the get-go. His holistic understanding of how worlds unite is a new approach at Unum. In the past, reference and learning had been led by different people. Ben has a web background and a learning background which leads to a more seamless process. When Ben’s learning teams create the curricula, they aren’t doing so in isolation for new hire learning; instead, they are creating in an awareness of the Five Moments of Need. An example:
“I have a team of seven content developers. Much of our work involves major company initiatives through our strategic objectives of transforming the new hire learning experience. The transformation is the movement from instructor led to instructor facilitated to independent study. Eventually we’ll have it all the way to independent study.”
I asked about planning issues.
“One question is how to gauge the resources you have in this moment of time against the time frame that the business is asking you to deliver the learning opportunity. When we plan, we factor in the compromises we have to make. We ask what do we have to do, what we’d like to do, and what we have to leave on the table.
“What advice do you have for leaders in these complex learning environments in how to deal with conflicts?”
“Some of those challenges are when people come to you and tell you what to do and ask for that for its delivery. And that’s all the room they have to hear. Our department has been effective in having the right kind of conversations.”
“And the conversations are…?”
“We aren’t willing to work unless we can utilize our expertise–because our expertise will yield the performance results the business is looking for. And we need to be trusted and given latitude to work. We’ll work our asses off to do that. We know how to frame the message and we know how to ask the right questions when things get adversarial.”
“What are the benchmarks of success for you in this project?” Then we can look at the components. When you’re talking in an abstract way, you can’t get anywhere. So let’s get specific and real. What are the components of success? Then we can talk about what we can do to help people succeed. Most obstacles are through a lack of awareness–we can address that through conversations. Our situation is that we are all knowledge workers, and we understand that we all get better if we collectively know. There’s a lot of cultural awareness about that here.”
Ben’s team uses Adobe Connect – and they leverage webcams and make the learning experiences as immersive as they possibly can.
“We brought back VR from a conference so we’re going to do a little virtual reality pilot work with that to help drive more empathy and understanding... We’ll film an immersive reality series.”
His team is fully Agile.
“It’s a challenge in an Agile environment knowing how to fully inform our workplace of the changes. We work everything on my team on a Kanban board. We have a map of all the people in my department that can perform certain development tasks. We do the scrums so we share in two minute allotments. We also use a coaching model in one on ones where we focus on what went well, what didn’t go well, and what needs to be done next. I might ask ‘What did you learn from doing that module?’ They might say it was great except for the review process.” “Tell me more…”
One of the methods Ben uses involves “choose your own adventure” tools where people experience the complexities of handling different situations in different ways.
Ben becomes even more animated when talking about his colleagues.
“People who gravitate toward this work are not those who want to do less, don’t want to know less, and don’t want to shape the world around them. The people who gravitate toward this work are people with ideas and vision; they’re creative – they want to be challenged by the work that they do. They don’t want to just stamp out widgets every day. And the people in my department mostly come from other places–subject matter experts who also are great training consultants.”
“Action mapping is a wonderful resource to think of in regard to material management. A historic approach with all kinds of experts is ‘OK, I need to teach something. How long do I have?’ Then they go through this whittling down exercise. I’ll boil this sea down to an hour and hope that it’s digestible.”
“A fixed mindset,” I say and Ben nods amiably.
“I love how action mapping turns that on its head. It asks you to think of what your goal is, what the behaviors are that will drive things forward, and then what activities are we going to create. And so when we kickoff projects–project inception with business or with ourselves, we take care of what we are we doing and why. In the design phase we are developing the activities and figuring the minimal amount of information people need to complete those activities. It’s a beautiful thing when it comes to distilling content.”
Cathy Moore gets a great deal of credit for her work with in developing Action Mapping. See some of her excellent work here: http://blog.cathy-moore.com/2008/05/be-an-elearning-action-hero/
Mentors are important in what we do. Perspectives and advice. I was an individual contributor for a long time. Here I have had the chance to build our team, and I have learned things that I can weave into my daily interactions from mentors.”
As we were winding down and our smartphones reminding us of other meetings, the room had become quiet. As Ben graciously walked me out of the building, I began to think of descriptors of Ben’s take. Audience centered, practical, business driven. All that, of course, but eventually the one word, sculpture, comes to mind: The art of carving, modeling, welding, or otherwise producing works of art in three dimensions.
Ben’s three dimensions: thoughtful learning, relevant information, ongoing synergy.