Todd Harple is an Experience Engineer and Strategist at Intel Corporation, and is currently on sabbatical at the International Training Centre of the ILO in Turin. The Delta Unit commissioned Todd to support the implementation of three projects focusing on mobile learning, knowledge management and crowd-sourced funding, motivated by a desire to benefit from external expertise in user-centred design and to broaden our perspectives on learning and communications. In this interview, Todd discusses his three-month experience at the Centre.
How does an experience engineer from Intel arrive at an International Training Centre for the UN?
At Intel, after seven years of service US and Canadian employees are eligible to take 8 (paid) weeks off. My friends and colleagues have chosen to rent RVs and drive around the US, lay on beach in Mexico, take small trips from home, take a course, learn a new skill or simply stay at home and relax! There’s also a special rule in place to extend the sabbatical if you are doing things related to personal, professional, or community development.
As my sabbatical approached, I discussed with some of my professional colleagues including a colleague at a design firm in Turin, that for sabbatical I wanted to find an opportunity that I might do something in the spirit of the extended sabbatical that would be a personal and professional development opportunity for me (and for my family). One of the most enthusiastic expressions of interest came from Tom Wambeke and Robin Poppe at the ITC-ILO. A few SKYPE discussions later and it was clear that an opportunity to work on innovation and mobile learning in a setting like the UN which touches lives around the globe sounded like a great fit. My only other criterion were that I needed a place for my family to stay and that every weekend was a long one so that my family and could travel around! These were relatively easy to accommodate!
Why is a design perspective useful for a Training Centre?
I think a design perspective is useful for a Training Centre for a number of reasons. First and foremost to challenge the staff to think about why things are done the way they are and how they might envision doing them differently in the future. I think the Training Centre here is probably like many other public and quasi-public (training) institutions that often get caught up in what could be considered a “wicked problem”— balancing short term demands with long term goals. I had had some experience in this sort of environment early in my career while working as a Program Assistant at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Too often, as entities with clear, tactical agenda, education and learning centres are subject to the routine of working from training to training, task to task. This could be seen as trapping very innovative and intelligent people into a sort of “tunnel vision” where life is measured by project completions and contracts rather than impact and outcomes for participants. Looking up to consider a bigger picture, perhaps a visionary framework or goal, is something that might happen less frequently than it ought to.
I think a design perspective provides a clean way to help consider the past while projecting into the future. In the case of the Centre, being an outsider on an extended stay helps me to become a trusted sounding board and catalyst to help people perhaps see a different perspective on their work and to think about broader impacts and directions as well as to set a vision of where they’d like to see the Centre in the future.
One example came early on when I engaged with an Activity Manager (Haley Horan) who had recently organized a workshop on the use of design thinking methods specifically aimed at larger organizations (known as Liberating Structures) both internally and externally as tools for knowledge sharing. One key thing that the workshop did was that it began to facilitate a series of conversations that highlighted these very concerns latent among participants from across the Centre. Applying a design lens to the qualitative results of the workshop to sharpen the ‘so what?’ of the results helped to secure on-going support to facilitate these conversations.
A design perspective definitely helps us to look more strategically on what we do, but what we have learned from your presence is to use design language in everyday concrete activities. We simplified a lot of our projects to focus on key needs. The first thing you said when you arrived was basically asking us three questions? Can you repeat these and illustrate to where they can lead?
In designing “experiences” for people, in the ITC-ILO’s case workshop and course participants, as well as for other types of services, there are three key questions:
1. Who is my audience?
2. What is the experience I wish to enable?
3. How will I enable it?
Perhaps a fourth question that should be tagged onto the end is how will I know if I have achieved my goals or how will I measure success?
For the first question, it may seem obvious for whom you are designing and I’m sure that you could easily provide a response off the top of your head that is an approximation. But by asking this question, I mean to really understand as best as possible from a holistic perspective who these people are, privileging THEIR perspective: who are they? where do they come from? What is their world experience? What does daily life look like from where they live? And perhaps most importantly, what do they need and/or value? These are critical components to designing experiences. If we take the perspective that we are aiming to design to meet the explicit needs and/or values of our target audience, we have a better chance at succeeding in developing solutions that will work in their world.
Next, you need to build a clear perspective or vision on the experience you are aiming to enable—what might it look or feel like? Can you make a low fidelity prototype? Can you act it out? This is absolutely critical to beginning to frame up the structure of services, technologies, and interactions that may be involved. Sometimes answering this question can prove quite challenging. If you cannot envision the end solution, your chances of success I believe are much lower.
Finally, the third step builds off of the second. Once you’ve clearly outlined how that experience might look in the best case scenario, you need to break down that experience into individual components to understand the business, technology, and user needs at fundamental levels. In particular, the global nature of the UN’s work makes it necessary to carefully consider not just the technical requirements, but also the social, political, and economic impacts of, for instance, selecting one Telcom over another as a simple example or selecting one or another technology hardware provider. How will it be seen by your participants? How will it be seen by the rest of the world?
What’s your advice to the Centre in order to remain innovative and at the front of what is happening in the world of learning and training?
I think the biggest piece of advice would be to find ways to carve out time to really work together to develop a strong shared vision of the future and to continue to have the bravery to think “radically”. For instance, what would it mean if the physical presence or the actual services of the Centre were no longer needed? Answering these questions might provide a challenge to really consider the function of learning and training while at the same time helping you to better understand the characteristics of those who benefit from your work. A clear response to this sort of question might underlie (or become) the Centre’s vision of the future.
A second piece of advice is to closely consider the “operationalization” of that vision. To understand if you are headed in the right direction, you need clear metrics. That begins with a clear understanding and identification of those for whom you are designing learning and training as we mentioned earlier. The next step is to clearly understand what success looks like. How will you recognize and measure it? Are the things that you measure today providing you with an accurate picture of success? Are you measuring things that align your daily activities to both your short term goals and your long term vision?
And finally, you will also need to take into account the changing nature of knowledge sharing, learning, and communications. In this era where some of the world’s premier universities are effectively making their courses available to global audiences for the cost of an internet connection, where does that place the Centre? One area that this highlights is the chasm between those who have high-bandwidth internet connections and those who do not. I think this is the area where educational and learning challenges may be the most acute—what does training and education look like for those populations whose primary orientation towards computing is a mobile phone?
Something of the order of 5 billion people now have mobile phones, 80% of which are feature phones—those phones with basic internet connectivity rather than the more full experience of a smartphone. While the smartphone market will most definitely expand over the next few years, the supporting infrastructure for most of these populations in general remains wireless rather than fixed broadband. What’s more, the amount of smartphone shipments is now larger than that of PCs and I think that within the next five years we’ll also see tablets outpacing PC sales as well. The world is increasingly influenced by mobility and the problems and opportunities that these changes imply combined with the sheer scale of connected devices.
Other challenges you will have to consider range from technical, to economic and social. They may include intermittent connectivity, and the implications of freely available information on ownership and access. How will you deliver ‘high bandwidth training’ in a ‘low bandwidth’ environment?
I think that some of the work we’ve done together in developing a mobile vision for learning here at the ITC-ILO based on the values and needs of your participants will respond to some of these challenges. I’m eager to see how the vision will ultimately be fulfilled.
What was the most memorable learning moment during your sabbatical here in Turin?
From a professional perspective, it seems that my learning was actually inward reflection on how fortunate and privileged I have been to work in a fast-paced, design-influenced environment. A few examples come to mind.
First, working closely with Haley on the Knowledge Sharing initiative – I was using the skills that I use every day in the business world to make my research results actionable. I was also being very visual—rolling a whiteboard into her office so that we could ‘visualize’ as we thought out loud. In this way, we were able to quickly frame the key components of the results and consider the narrative or story of how we would express them. So for me, as an anthropologist moving towards design, I came to a new realization about how powerful the combination of analytical social science and design clarity are.
Another example was one you mentioned earlier. With regards to the mobile education strategy when I was left to guide the initiative while you were traveling I pushed to start from concrete examples but abstract to the fundamental needs that they were meeting. That way the strategy is founded upon needs and perhaps values of your participants rather than on specific technologies or subject matter. The technological details will fall into place and may change over time and so will the subject matter. Needs and values on the other hand are perhaps more persistent. Until this project, I hadn’t realized how shrewd I’d become in focusing on value- or need- based solutions. I probably had lost sight of that—in the same way that I observed in your organization, I perhaps had failed to take a step back to appreciate the skills and perspective I had developed over the course of my career.
From a personal perspective, the memorable aspects of my sabbatical here in Turin are broader than a single moment and perhaps come from providing a context for me to reflect on my own understandings and opinions.
An opportunity to participate in another culture to me as an anthropologist is something I always view as a gift. In the context of my experience here for instance, came a renewal in the understanding that all organizations have their own values and behaviours that influence and drive discussions, directions, and decisions. What strikes me is that in most areas of human organization (whether business, education, design, the arts and beyond), there is almost always a strong undercurrent of discussion happening about what should happen or the way things ought to be. That undercurrent is often dangerous (organizationally) for individuals to bring to the surface or out into the open. However, those who take a risk to surface these perspectives are often rewarded as leaders of major innovations. The trick is to figure out how to calculate the risk and timing for best impact.
Another ‘learning moment’ is something that my family and I experience on a daily basis here in Turin as we buy our groceries, ride busses, trains and metros. As an anthropologist, I’m quite used to immersing myself in a ‘strange’ culture, but the situation is dramatically different when you are traveling with a family.
While Italy’s major tourist destinations like Venice, Rome, Florence, and Milan derive much of their economy by entertaining and suiting outsiders (including my family), Turin as a city remains a place that by comparison feels to us distinctly Italian. Modern Italy was born here and Turin is amazingly wealthy from a historical and cultural perspective. At the same time, its a great location from which to experience other parts of Italy and indeed Europe. An equally great asset of this town is her people who have taken the time to understand and help our family of outsiders, to teach us about local treasures (culinary, historical, cultural, and otherwise) and to ensure that we feel as safe and comfortable as possible, even though our language and culture provide challenges to communication. Aside from the experience of seeing some of the world’s artistic masterpieces around Italy and enjoying side trips to Provence and smaller towns in Italy, the most valuable lessons that my family and I will take home with us are the clear examples set by the Torinese of how to treat other people, in particular those ‘outsiders’ for whom small gestures of understanding have the power to infinitely improve their sense of confidence and security. This of course ensures a pleasant experience. In that sense, it is difficult to think of a better setting than Turin for UN to base it’s training campus to welcome, engage, and empower visitors from around the globe each day.
Some recommended reading from Todd:
3 books to read for your audience:
-Basic Design: Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things – A very good, basic primer about how we experience and interact with our physical surroundings and how design can make or break an interaction. As an anthropologist, I wasn’t exposed to this until much later on in my career and it left a strong impression on me in regards to making my social and cognitive insights more tangible and useful. Norman had a later book called Emotional Design, but I still think The Design of Everyday Things is a solid, must-read foundation.
-Dev Patnaik’s Wired to Care – It provides an easy-to-read introduction about how empathy is central to who we are as human beings and can be leveraged in the service of good design. He uses examples of “empathic design” to illustrate success stories. I think some of these lessons are particularly relevant to those involved in learning, training, and other knowledge sharing/knowledge exchange environments.
-Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture – This is an incredibly moving book (and indeed you can watch a video of the actual lecture on YouTube) by professor of Human-Computer Interaction and Design at Carnegie Mellon University. But this book is not so much about his work in Computer Science, but about the importance of overcoming obstacles, enabling dreams, and living life to its fullest. Its very inspirational and from time to time I return to it to re-frame what I am doing and prioritising in both work and life.
3 must-read articles
-one of my favorite recent articles is ‘The Hidden Biases in Big Data’ by an acquaintance at Microsoft Research, Kate Crawford. She points out how data as a derivative of human constructs and algorithms is indeed not scientific fact but subject to interpretation (http://bit.ly/17Nxg0l )
-another article that I think your readers will find useful and interesting is ‘From Knowledgeable to Knowledge-able: Learning in New Media Environments by my friend and colleague Mike Wesch, an Anthropology professor at Kansas State University (http://www.academiccommons.org/commons/essay/knowledgable-knowledge-able). In this article Mike astutely assesses the challenges that educators of all sorts face in a new era of knowledge exchange and management.
-there was a great collection of articles in the Summer 2009 edition of MIT’s Sloan Management Review (Volume 50 No. 4) dedicated to Design Thinking. While the design world may well be presently preoccupied with emotional design and big data, the articles in this review are an excellent introduction to ways to infuse design and design thinking into your everyday work practice from management to representing data. (http://sloanreview.mit.edu/issue/summer-2009/). In particular I recommend the articles by Norman, Tufte, and the interview with Nancy Duarte and Gary Reynolds.
-http://scholar.google.com -This places much of the known world of literature at your fingertips. I start most every endeavour here–don’t reinvent the wheel, build upon the knowledge of others!
-http://www.youtube.com/user/crashcourse – This is a novel and engaging approach to learning featuring one of my favorite vlog (video bloggers) John Green. Learn about topics like history and chemistry in 10-15 minute chunks formatted in an engaging manner!
-http://www.mentalfloss.com/ –Quirky and funny and full of facts you may never have known that you wanted to know! Another example of how knowledge exchange and learning can be fun and engaging!
Todd and his wife Gretchen enjoy a weekend outing in Lago di Orta.
Todd and his children (l-r Griffin, Sean, and Hailey) during a weekend excursion to St. Remy in Provence, France.