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Summary of Original Snake Oil Comments


Wed Nov 30 2005

Summary of Original Snake Oil Comments-7a0cd702ff2f18c8814cda47f548b5d4feab0cbed1b2275324480a744ee747ec

Initially, the thought of summarizing the 60 comments that came in reaction to Sam Adkins' Snake Oil post was daunting. But the reality turned out to be a joy. As I worked my way through the 39 pages of comment for the 3rd time over the weekend, I felt some how privileged to be taking the time to listen to such passionate, well reasoned arguments. A comment by Peter Isackson seems, at least at first, to be delighted with the diverse dialogue:

Sherlock says you are what you sell. Godfrey says you are what you design. And Dave says you are what you get lost in. I think Godfrey would agree with the even more existential proposition that you are what you learn and that, as a training professional, it's also possible to sell what you learn (once you have learned it).


Peter also happened to hit upon four of the major themes ran throughout the comments.


First Sherlock (one of those masked bloggers who give the Blogosphere some of it's character) chimed in with a post in what I'm calling "What's wrong with snake oil" theme. He takes a pragmatic, but somewhat cynical position by saying, "I've long since stopped thinking in terms of learning - these days I see myself as a solution provider. I sell things that appeal to training managers, regardless of whether or not they ACTUALLY work!!!" I almost like his, 'hey I'm just a guy trying to get by" tone. Almost.

Frank Hughes too has a cynical read on the situation but takes it much more negative tone that was more inline with Sam's thinking. Frank said," Most trainers/teachers want to be a star, standing in front of a class, no matter how effective it is. Most managers want to "track" their employees learning, and the only way to do that is with formal classroom and elearning courses. Most employees like classroom classes not because they learn, but because they are social occasions that get them away from their desk." Ouch!

Then there were a few folks that fell in line with Beth Friedman who said that of course we're selling snake oil. It's early in the game for elearning. It's still new to us.


Graeme Dobson summed up yet another group who said:

My experience shows the old 80:20 rule applies - that is only 20% of performance problems are fixable or should be addressed by a training solution.So you see it doesn't really matter how good (or bad) a training method is - if you apply it to those 80% of performance problems where training is the wrong solution IT WON"T WORK!


Godfrey Parkin chimed in with, "My point is that "training" is not at fault, but the design and implementation of it is clearly (on aggregate) inadequate." Lisa Galarneau agrees, "Sure a lot of what professes to be training is terrible, but he end result is simply reflective of the approach."

Jack Pierce rallies to the defense of the designers by pointing out a program he's involved with that had trained almost 40,000 learners in two years with 95% reporting greater sales, better product understanding. "What's the secret?" he asks. I'd say an understanding of the user, combined with an understanding of the technology, and hard work."


Vicky Fisher (processes) and Jennifer Turner (salaries) blame cuts to design budgets as to blame.

Howard Davis says that he holds hope for eLearning and Blended Learning, but not the way they are being used. "The irony of course is that even with our latest tech tools we're still stuck in using ineffective teaching and training models." Marcuss Oslander agrees, "A delivery mechanism is only as good as the material it intends to deliver. We need to lighten up - to stretch the technology - to make learning fun!"

Although, I think my Blogmeister's Choice award for best metaphor goes to Keith with this one, "Would you use a Ferrari to go to the store?? Maybe, but would you use the Ferrari to take all the neigbourhood kids to soccer. I guess not. It remains a question of the right tool for the job."


Godfrey Parkin points out that first generation products seldom live up to the expectations set for them. He continues by saying, "The internetworked world gives us an opportunity to rewire the corporate mind, and to change from within the way an organization thinks and behaves. To me, that is the real promise of e-learning. And I think we will all survive the snake-oil phase of our evolution."

"Only when the corporate training world gets back to the basics and understands that each student has a unique learning style and that only a training approach that recognizes that fact will succeed, will we, the instructional designers and trainers, also succeed," was the challenge C. Michael Hecht set down for us.

Chris Brannigan says there're a cause waiting for a leader and tries to recruit Sam! "Thus we come back to us - what can we, the 'believers' (in some cases) or 'committed citizens' do to break the complacency? Do we want to? I think that a lot (enough) of practitioners would. Articles like yours may herald the start.


Right after the quote from Peter Isackson that I used to open this post he adds,

The irony of our business - and the terrible paradox Sam has highlighted -- is that efficiency rather than performance dictates its inexorable law: it's better to invest in designing and selling than in learning about what customers really need. Profitability dictates that we should spend our time and money on marketing what we've already designed (or decided to design) than to discover what we should be designing. So before we can "learn" anything that will go towards meeting the "need" for learning, we find ourselves in the position of "teaching" the buyers to believe in our goods, from which we've learned nothing (apart from how best to market them).

Vicky Fisher seemed to like that answer, "I wholeheartedly agree with Peter. There are learning products out there that suck, and there are (some) learning products out there that work."

And David Fisher piles on, "The economics and vested interests of classroom training make it difficult for training suppliers to reengineer their offering to really be blended. Adding in non-integrated e-content cannot compensate for this. In this form, it will inevitably fail."

The last nail in the coffin comes from Alan Stewart, "Why are we taking the heat for the failure of providers to give our organizations/clients the learning solutions they really need. If you're not sure what the need is then aim for a solution that delivers 'Just-in-Time', 'Just-Enough' and 'Just-for-Me' learning and you won't go far wrong. Like any market, training/e-learning etc. providers are demand-driven so perhaps its time we started to be more demanding.

Now don't you feel better? Those big bad vendors can't hurt us any more!

DEFINITIONS: Can We Agee about what We're Talking About

Finally, the last of the most common theme we've chosen to tease out of the original debate is an age old one in argumentation - definitions. Some commenter accuse Sam of having too narrow of a focus when talking about training or elearning. Other terms that were discussed as having been ill defined included: blended learning, training, what should be evaluated, e-content vs. e-learning, mentoring, etc.

These five categories composed a great portion of the discussion two years ago so we thought they'd be great topics to renew a discussion around. Tomorrow we will introduce the Learning Circuits Blog's Beyond the Blog Discussion Wiki in which Don Clark, David Grebow, Godfrey Parkin, Mark Oehlert, and myself will moderate discussion around each of these topics for however long you which to discuss them.

So check out the new wing of LCB tomorrow!

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