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Friday, March 21, 2008

Life is an Open Book Test

I just typed "Life is an Open Book Test" when I was working on part of my ASTD 2008 presentation. I did a quick search on this phrase and found only 52 occurrences. There doesn't appear to be a well known initial quote source. Or am I missing it?

By the way, have I mentioned that I'm feeling really good about this presentation? I have 90 minutes and I think I'm going to blow some minds, change a few lives, its going to be fun. If I can figure out how to shorten it, I think I have a presentation that's going to be a great keynote.

Anyhow, back to Life is an Open Book Test ...

I start this part of the presentation by asking the question:

What's more valuable?

1. A Phone Number kept in your Long-term Memory?
2. A Phone Number kept in your Cell Phone, PDA, Laptop, Organizer?

I expect there will be a little debate among the audience. But the actual answer is that it depends on how available that number is when you need it. This really goes for any information.

When needed is it:
  • Easily / Quickly Available
  • Accessible in a usable form
In the phone number case, having it in my cell phone as opposed to in my memory makes it slightly slower to access, but much quicker to dial (i.e., it's more usable in the cell phone than in my memory). My Treo allows me to type some letters (on my chicklet keyboard) that represent the name and then I select and dial. Other cell phones you say the name and it dials. All of these are superior to having it in your brain's memory and having to remember and punch it in. This is why teenagers actually remember fewer phone numbers than people over 50.

I will extend the question to then ask whether trying to put all of the White Pages and Yellow Pages into your Cell Phone makes sense? Likely it doesn't as long as you have ways to get to that information. For example, Google-411 or Google Info.

I believe this extends to lots of information. My 10 year old recently went through the exercise of learning all the capitals of the 50 US States. He's quite adept at memorization and can easily beat me (since he was around 5 years old) at concentration games. While the knowledge of state capitals might be valuable for future trivia, I would ask whether knowing this information is better or would it be better for him to know how to quickly look that information up (along with all sorts of other information about the state).

The bottom line for all of this are two important phrases:

Anticipated Information Need


Life is an Open Book Test

There's more context here in the presentation, but the key ingredient is that we need to build skills in determining what our future information needs will be and whether we are trying to keep and organize individual pieces of information. Or do we keep meta-information (information about how to get to that information)? Or do we not really need to do anything?

After all - Life is an Open Book Test

I'd be curious if anyone has thoughts on this. In the past, I've received some pretty amazing feedback this way that significantly altered what I was going to present.


Paul said...

You are getting into aspects of information literacy, and judging whether it's best to know something, or better to know how to obtain it quickly. I believe Einstein was quoted as saying he didn't know everything, but knew where to find the answers? Something to that effect.

But really the question you are asking concerns the dynamic moment in which we have to decide which way to go: speaking the name into the phone, looking through the PDA directory and then dialing, or just typing it in because you know the number. In my case if I know a phone number, I usually just type it in because it's faster than looking through my admittedly very old phone's archaic directory system. For me, the difference lies in the frequency of use of the information. This determines which way I go. If it's a contact I use once in a while, I go to the directory. If it's mom I'm calling, number buttons get pressed. The character of the information needed determines where I go or how I get there.

And the how is the key. Even if it's something one doesn't know, the how is the piece of the puzzle that must be known, as the what will be obvious by the prompt for information.

V Yonkers said...

I am not sure what the goal of your presentation is. I agree with you on each of those points. However, how does this affect the audience? I am assuming you will then present either a way to support learners in understanding how to find information (curriculum) or you will advocate changing the way in which learners learn so it is more valuable for them (instructional design).

This will make a difference as your audience might be open to new instructional design, but curriculum change (especially in organizations) is a hard sell. As I see it, this has been what most of the resistance to using Web 2.0 has been (loosing control over WHAT they learn). Using new technologies and learning designs affects the curriculum and gives control to the learners.

I think you have to go further regardless of your focus and look to the next step after a person gets the information or learns how to access the information. We develop our own preferences and heuristics in finding information. Developing new heuristics is time consuming. My students, for example, text message. For me to do so, I have to 1)learn the language 2) learn how to send and receive, and 3) learn how to incorporate it into my life --such as having to constantly access my cell phone (most of the time I forget to turn it on!)during the day. I have to develop new habits and heuristics. Why do that when what I do is sufficient?

I have to admit that I don't change until I find a need to. I don't use new technology unless the amount of time it takes to learn the technology will pay off on the other end and save me much more time in completing my work or unless I am told I must. (It would be helpful to do a cost/benefit analysis-placing costs to time-to illustrate your point).

By the way. I think you are on to something. I am just trying to help you focus a bit.

Tony Karrer said...

Paul - that's a good point about frequency and it relates to Virginia's point about return.

Perceived Usefulness = Frequency * Perceived Differential Value

As I've discussed before in this blog,

Adoption Rate = Perceived Usefulness (PU) * Perceive Ease of Use (PEOU)

So, even if you know learning how to do something a different way will have benefit (i.e., getting a phone that has better lookup), you will only make the effort to adopt if you do it often enough to make it worth the effort.

On the other hand, I disagree with you Paul that the question concerns the moment you have to decide which way to look it up and more the moment we decide how we will generally handle phone numbers. What numbers do you memorize? What do you put in a phone book? What do you look up over and over? Do you get a phone that supports memory?

Sure there's an opportunity to evaluate how you are doing this each time you need a phone number, but most people are not going to really change their overall approach at that moment.

Note: one of my points in the talk is making conscious decisions about this.

Virginia - my presentation is first focused on individual skills, then work group, then organization.

You are absolutely right that changing behaviors to support more effective personal learning is a hard sell. It's hard at two levels - can I get someone to consciously think about these skills for themselves? Can I get them to think about this as part of their overall practice?

Virginia - totally agree with you about the personal aspect of this - as you said - "We develop our own preferences and heuristics in finding information. Developing new heuristics is time consuming."

I've got a variety of points around the need to assess and evaluate. Your comment - "I don't change until I find a need to" is exactly how most of us do things. To me that's a bit different than look rationally at value of the change, cost of making the change and deciding. I don't think that's what most people do.

Instead, most people feel a little bit of pain at the moment of need (I need to get that phone number) but never sit down to think about value. Also, I actually wouldn't claim this (phone number lookup) is a place where there's big need for most people. It's rather to illustrate various forms of "remember". However, in many knowledge work skills there are areas of opportunity - not sure it's pain and certainly right now there's not a "need to" situation.

I'm going to have to think about that a bit.

Thanks for helping me think about this.

V Yonkers said...

Here's another thing to think about. My students don't like open book tests because the expectations are higher from the teacher. If you have access to information, most of the time you will only use the book (during a test) when you forget something. Often open book tests won't have a simple answer that you can look up and time constraints mean that you waste time looking something up that isn't there.

The same is true with knowledge workers. They need to have time to think things through to come up with better answers. If they are "consciously" thinking of the skills they need, and retooling, the expectation is that their performance will be better. But what if they just don't have time to think things through, they can't find the answers, or all that thinking does not produce better results? Just like the open book test, this puts more pressure on the learner.

Tony Karrer said...

Virginia - that's a GREAT POINT! I used to give all open book tests. And, yes, by definition they are going to be "harder" in that they are going to test you on higher levels of thinking.

And that's what makes your comment great ... life is exactly that way. Except for very narrow slices trivia games/shows, people are not really rewarded for fact memorization. Instead, people are rewarded for higher level thinking. And life's continual test is harder.

Paul said...

I understand the point about the need to change driving actual change. I would however add the caveat perhaps this has loosened some with the advent of new technologies and the sort of pervasive influence of popular culture. With technology changing as it does these days and for the forseeable future, people are presented many times with new ways to do things, access information, store what they need. The iPod and the iPhone are pefect examples. Why keep CDs - an old storage method - when I can put my entire library on a little device? With visual voice mail they figured out how to make that process more efficent by allowing you to make decisions about one voice mail via another mode of simple analysis.

Now, it's the younger set that will be more adept at identifying the new ways to find required information quickly, in today's world anyhow. "Legacy" models for accomplishing this involved or involve (many are still in use;) ) efficient reading strategies, scanning, skimming, Evelyn Wood, etc. There can be a bit of world clashing at play from individual to individual in your audience; there will be the younger attendees that have every new gadget, older ones with only a few gadgets, older ones embracing everything new, and the traditionalists. Your open book test could mean different things to different people from a practice standpoint, but the core idea is the same: information literacy.

V Yonkers said...

I can't disagree with you more Paul. My students, 18-22 year olds, are able to text message, IM, yet cannot figure out how to participate in a discussion board or wiki without step by step instructions and intense help. They go to the same sources for information (google, yahoo, wikipedia) and despite going over new ways to use technology, search for information and evaluate sources on the internet, they use these old heuristics over and over.

Recently, I had my students do an alternative activity using blackboard and collaborating on developing a policy to improve communication for a project we are working on. We had done a live chat, and rather than going to the instructions, students went right to what they were used to (the chat area) despite the fact that there was a large banner telling them where to start. I then had my 14 year old son go to the site, and he skipped the instructions and went to the place he thought he should go (despite the fact that there was an icon that said MARCH 20 CLASS).

This leads me to the conclusion that it is not generational. My students, who do not use wikis and blogs, don't know what they are nor do they want to unless forced to. Once they start using wikis, especially, they like using them. I know many older faculty that have used facebook and other online technologies for a while and older faculty on a nearby campus love recording their lectures and pod/vodcasting them. I know of many younger faculty that only use powerpoint in their classes.

Tony Karrer said...

Wow - this is a great conversation - rolling into all sorts of interesting topics.

I was just about to ask Paul whether he thought that people who are over 40 (my age) need help becoming more information literate? Do you think they will do this on their own? Or are they destined to lag?

But I actually tend to agree with Virginia that it's not just an age thing. It's the fact that much of our knowledge of these things come ad hoc. While it's personal how you address a lot of this, that doesn't excuse us from looking at it. That's a lot of what my presentation is about - time to stop and consider.

The other aspect is that the knowledge of these things are so scattered and not well structured into usable frameworks. Further, how do I decide if using IM is a good idea or not?

I would claim that we should give people ways to assess this for themselves and ask that they do so.

Paul said...

Perhaps I indavertently distracted from the original point I was trying to make. I wasn't wanting to make a point about whether I thought that younger people were more able and adept at using or figuring out new ways to gather/find information. What I wanted to stress was that I think the options available have increased, and that many of them are word-of-mouth driven, and this is where I think the youth demographic dynamic comes in. Sites like Digg, Facebook or MySpace are an example. I did not learn about any of these except through word-of-mouth, and they seem to be the tools of a younger demographic. In fact most of the tools I am aware of today were communicated to me - and likewise from me to others - by people in my age group or younger. I of course am not saying I learn nothing from people in older age groups than I am, only that in my personal and professional experience, the tools I use or am mindful of for locating and gathering information tend to be in younger demographics. The point about age I was trying to makle was the somewhat classic example of the child knowing more about the internet and how to use it than his/her parents. That's where I was trying to go and completely missed the mark.

But I think too, our outlook on this must become less field-centric. We are all used to finding, learning and using new tools, because every opportunity for training is different than the last. Our work comes with adaptability baked in. This is not always the case in other fields, and so I think that though it appears there is not a hard generational paradigm on the "Open Book" question from our education/training perspective, does this hold true across the greater real world? I see it as a bit of forest-for-the-trees. We must stop and consider - the nature of Tony's central point - the wider picture.

More tools are of course hardly ever worse than fewer, but I would propose that we teach information literacy, rather than tackling the problem by highlighting tools available in a given time and place. JIT tools will always appear and demand some level of training, but the nature of the information that needs to be obtained will be the locus of the issue, as that will determine how one goes about finding the info. But I also see a marketing aspect to this problem. Speaking to v yonkers' examples, I think there are other psychosocial factors other than individual intransigence to adopting new methods. People follow their local groups, and if their peer group is doing one thing, they are more likely to gravitate toward doing the thing that group's way. Further, the nature of how people from different backgrounds comes into play could feasibly play a role. Some individuals may have been less exposed to a range of technologies, and feel safe using the one way they were taught. To them, their way works most of the time, so why switch? Regarding the students heading straight to chat instead of reading instruction, realize that they may be very used to performing the chat activity from a recreational standpoint, which automatically precludes them thinking about looking for information prior to jumping into something they are already familiar with. Also, many times a chat/IM environment will feel immediately comfortable because that place is associated with something accepting, something known, something safe. These could be intengible explanations for the tangible reality why they may or may not accept something.

Anonymous said...

Tony, it struck me that "life is an open-book test" is a metaphor. As such, it has different meaning to different people. You, Virginia, and Paul have been examining some of the different angles, and I've enjoyed reading this.

My own thoughts, not necessarily connected to one another:

(A) Going back to the metaphor: what's the test for? That is, am I clearing some hurdle, the way I do a test in school (i.e., in order to qualify for a degree)? Or am I grappling with some real-life problem?

The difference is that I might cram successfully for a test, but I can't really cram for life.

(B) Virginia's comments about people who can text and IM but can't work with a wiki easily make great sense to me. I recognize in myself the tendency, in a new environment, to explore for a bit, and then stick to the known. Go to a new city a few times? Find certain locales, then return to them. Go to SL? Mosey around, then revisit favored landmarks.

I agree that this isn't likely generational. I wonder if it's "curve-related." I mean that by definiton, most of us aren't early adopters. (If most were, the "early" wouldn't make sense.) So the average person is more prone to get alone with what's known.

(C) Having just written those two things, I'm thinking that the biggest shift in "learning" as the average person understands the term is that learning is explicitly becoming something you do, not something that happens to you. I don't think that's anywhere near the understanding most people have -- I doubt it's at 20% of adults yet. But it's true, even on a neurological basis, and that calls into question the predominant model for education and for on-the-job learning as well.

V Yonkers said...

I decided to see if there was any research in this area (especially the generational differences in technology adaptation). I found two very interesting articles. In the first article, by D. Compeau, C. Higgins, and S. Huff (1999) in MIS quarterly found that self-efficacy in using technology was a major factor in adopting new technology. Perceptions of benefits does not influence those with low levels of self-efficacy, but does influence those with high levels. In other words, if you think you can use new technology then getting something out of it will be an added incentive to use it. However, those who don't think they can use the technology will not be influenced by incentives (time saving, raises, etc...).

The second article in Personnel Psychology found that age does matter in terms of the initial reason workers adopt technology. Younger workers look to performance enhancement (will this help me with my work) whereas older workers are influenced by social norms (everyone else-boss, co-worker, supervisor-is using it so I should also). However, in the long-term, the reasons are the same regardless of age (task performance).

The impression I got from the two of these articles is that workers need to be shown (and empowered) to use the technology. As Dave points out, many in the work place still look at instruction as something someone else "gives" them rather than a form of empowerment, motivation, and interaction with instructors, other experts, other learners, and the content. So self regulation, making workers confident in learning and using technology is important. In an open book test, most test takers don't need to have the book, but just knowing it is there makes them more confident. I think the same can be said for training and new technologies. Mentors and access to experts are the "open books". Some people will use them, many won't, however, knowing they are available to answer questions makes the learner more confident (self-efficacy).

Tony Karrer said...

Continued stream of great thoughts. Thanks for weighing in Dave. This has distracted me from writing new posts - heavens. :)

Some thoughts -

a. Dave, you are right that "test" seems like a wrong word since life doesn't issue the question in a well-formed, answerable question. It's much messier than that.

b. Virginia - I've seen those papers before but had forgot about the self-efficacy angle. If I remember, other research suggested that it turned out to be perception of their ability to adopt, of which, past experience (and self-efficacy) was a big factor. Still - that's a really good point to remember. People who don't feel good about it are going to have a much higher hurdle.

c. Really good point about knowing the book is there. I've been thinking about how often we learn from "over the shoulder" learning, especially these kinds of things. I learned about Google from someone telling me about it. Thus, mentors, peers and access to experts that Virginia calls out as the "open book" is a really good observation.

I've been thinking that going through assessment of skills, knowledge, etc. in cohort groups with on-going support and access to coaches was the way to go. Now I'm starting to see how and where this fits and it makes me realize that it's almost not a "nice to have".

I'm also starting to think that "mini-ROI analysis" are far less important than looking at less tangible factors such as peer recommendation or having other people using it and telling you about it. That seems different than where we started the conversation? Or maybe it is?

Virginia had said - "I don't change unless I need to" - which is pretty much most of us - but she (and I) jumped to "It would be helpful to do a cost/benefit analysis-placing costs to time-to illustrate your point" - is that actually what you do - or is it peer / coach + mini experience that causes the change?

V Yonkers said...

I do an exercise with my students (and myself at the beginning of a semester or new course) where I ask what is it that you would like to do better in your teaching. I then only concentrate on one thing (or have my students concentrate on that one thing). I look for tools that might make it easier or processes that other teachers have used. For example, this summer I will be teaching an intensive blended course (3 weeks). The feedback from the students and my own evaluation of the course was that students weren't challenged intellectually enough. In analyzing my course, I felt the way in which I presented material was too mechanical and I want to incorporate something that will allow the students to tie the theory to practice. The blogs I used did not work (especially the way they were set up). I don't think I will use blogs. However, I have three or four optional technologies to use including chatting, wikis, discussion boards, and perhaps a different technology which I have not come across that allows for demonstration and conversation.

The next step is to see what I know, figure out how much time each of these options might take to set up, identify flexibility (so if it doesn't work the way I want it to, can I change it or am I stuck--which requires more up front time if it is inflexible but more inclass time if it is flexible). I then have to look at the institutional limitations I might have, such as access to computers or computer time for myself and for my students (always a big IF).

On the other hand, I almost gave up using wikis until our Institute of Learning and Teaching had someone put together some 'best practices' which created a mentor relationship. Amazingly, I was considered an "expert" with the wikis as I had been using it in a pilot program for two semesters. In the course of putting together how each of the pilot instructors used the wiki, I found out some really good information on how to do things I had wanted to do, but had trouble figuring out. In addition, having access to someone that was familiar with using the technology AND how to integrate it into instruction, made the experience much more useful. I would identify the areas that I thought were not working, she would research it on campus and off, then come back with some options. How often in training are we given options? Usually there will be one model in which to "fit" our situation. This is why mentoring is so much more successful. We can get ideas from mentors, but then move beyond it to make it our own. So I would say that both cost/benefit analysis AND mentoring/peer help is useful. I think there needs to be a point where a learner is pushed to evaluate where they are and what they want to do better. At the same time, they need on-going support (both motivational and skills based) to sustain their learning.

Tony Karrer said...

Virginia - I'm a bit confused by your comment.

I absolutely love the question - "What would you like to do better?" That's a great vehicle to focus things.

But then you discussed evaluations that said things weren't intellectually stimulating - I don't get that. It would seem that if you can address an issue that is something that is directly relevant to their problems, then it would be quite compelling.

And then you talked about use of various technologies.

I'm just not following your comment.

Anonymous said...

Tony, don't let me divert the discussion, but in reading the comments, I'm thinking about the learning I'm trying to do right now.

I'm working my way through the terrific guidebook, Head First HTML and CSS. This is by choice. The book is lively, instructionally sound approach, and takes an effective, lots-of-practice path.

Yet I can feel the urge to skip some of the exercises and questions, even though I know:
(a) I don't know this stuff
(b) They do
(c) I learn better by doing than by reading
(d) This was my free choice, not homework or a client demand
(e) I can put this stuff to immediate practical use
(f) ...and I have.

Self-efficacy may be more than a little like self-control: one of those things other people oughta have more of.

Anonymous said...

Tony, sorry. I should have given you more context. The course I will be teaching is Computer Supported Writing Across the Curriculum. In this, I am trying to take traditional writing instruction and demonstrate what happens when it is done on the computer. I try to give them opportunities to develop both the theoretical and the practical usage of computers depending on the field of study they work in (thus the "writing across the curriculum"). However, last year it seemed as if there was a disconnect between learning how to use the writing technology (blogs, wikis, collaborative writing programs such as writewith, and hypertext) with WHY they would use these technologies, the skills their students would need and could develop (discipline specific-such as spatial thinking skills, communication and team building skills, etc...), and learning theories that explain the use various usages and instructional designs in using these technologies.

I think the problem is the way in which I was using the technologies in the class did not make the connection. Therefore, I wanted to re-evaluate which technologies I was using (do they really demonstrate what I want them to demonstrate or was I just using them because they were available), how I was using the technologies (is there a better way to use them, e.g. the blogs may need to be connected so they become a networking tool as well as a tool for students to reflect on. This means learning how to use the networking attributes of blogs), and applying appropriate theories to the affordances of the technologies that are available. In addition, I need to work more at determining what attitudes and skills students come into the class with and be able to develop a course that uses those. The problem I always have is that this can be very diverse class. I guess this is the problem that all instructional designers have.

Bill said...

It really depends on the context that determines what you should memorize and what you can look up.

In my class on web development, I have open book / open notes test because the purpose of the test is to measure how well the students have developed the skills needed for building web pages. Memorizing the tags would be counterproductive because of the everchanging technology of web development.

But, in Boy Scouts, I use to teach wilderness survival which required a lot of memorization. You couldn't count on having the Boy Scout Manual with you during a survival situation so I had the students memorize what plants were edible, different ways to purify water, and first aid techniques.

So, life can be an open book test or a closed book test depending on the situation.

Tony Karrer said...

Virginia - thanks for the clarification and it makes sense. I'm going to have to think a bit about the implications.

Bill - great point!

So, if "Life is an open book test" isn't quite right - how do we explain the shift in much of knowledge work towards being able to lookup most of what you need when you need it. Certainly, most testing in schools is closed book - quite different than what you encounter in real life.

Now - I'm in search of a new phrase - or maybe I'll still use it with a footnote that says - maybe not for survival skills. Dang.

Anonymous said...

How about "life is hands-on?"

Unknown said...

This post makes me think back to my reference class in library school. Every week we would receive between 20 and 30 questions and had to use a particular type of source to find the answers to these questions (one week journals, one week dictionaries, one week encyclopedias, etc). The real test wasn’t actually finding the information but the in process we used to locate the answers (which had to be meticulous documented and turned in for evaluation).

Although I learned that being a reference librarian might be the most difficult job on earth given the amount of information out there and the difficulty of how most of it is organized there were many lessons to be learned outside of how to find the answers. I think one of these lessons is what you are trying to gear this concept behind. The answers to every question are available, if you know how to find them.

As I read through all of the comments on this and you have decided that your initial title might not be perfect and have asked for suggestions. How about, “It’s not the answer that matters, it’s the path.”

I believe this fits what you are looking for and even covers the pieces that we need to memorize. How do you find the information that you need when you need it? We all store information differently depending on how quickly and often we need to access it. If we need it right here and right now (like my wife’s phone number), well I hit 2 on my cell phone and the click “send”. If I need my second cousin’s phone number then I call my dad (speed dial 3) for his parent’s phone number and then make a call to obtain that number.

There is way to much information out there for any group of people to know everything, so the key is understanding how to find the information when you need it and to have those quick often asked for information available and on hand. So, it’s not the answers to questions that we need to store in our minds but the path to obtain those answers.

The path might end where it starts (in my memory), it might require a phone call to my parents or it could be an in-depth search through a library collection or a text book. In the end, it is important that we know where to look and what resources will lead us to the final answer that is important.

Unknown said...

I'm running through the same questions in regards to a certification desk of help desk technicians in my office. What is more valuable to the company - a technician that knows the answers, or a technician that knows how to look up the anwers. I'm coming to the point where I am leaning in both directions, and it's kind of making me angry internally for not being able to come to a conclusion.

One one hand - a person who knows the answer immediately sounds more professional (gives a sense of knowledge when speaking to the customer), and resolves problems more quickly.

On the other - a person who knows how to look something up is generally more capable of finding the correct answer, at the expense of a) time spent looking up the correct answer and b) looking like they do not know anything because they constantly need to go for help.

I have a similar issue when it comes down to people who 'understand' the material vs people who look up the answers. I can train almost anyone to fetch an answer from a database, but what is more valuable - a person who truly understands the material and understands why doing action A leads to result B, or person who looks up action A, gets result B, and then has to go back to the answer book to find next step C?

My superiors think that people who can answer scripted questions are more valuable to my industry, yet they consistently rely on people who understand the theory of problem resolution to actually fix anything important. I think that having 2 people who are able to think with logic and resolve issues correctly beats 5 people who can only read from a script.

How do I figure out what is the best situation and how do I convey this to managemnt.

Tony Karrer said...

Alan - I must commend you on a truly great comment!

I completely recognize what you are saying. Certainly, we've all seen cases where it seems like someone doesn't "know" the answer because they have to go look it up. It's not satisfying.

I also share concern about someone who can look it up vs. those who understand it at another level. And, certainly my time as a professor was spent teaching at that deeper level.

This is so much more complex than I was first thinking!

And, I can't say that I have any real answer here. I suspect you already have reached that conclusion yourself. Certainly, there's a really interesting question here that will have many complexities to the answer.

We can't possibly know everything at that deeper level, how do we decide how deep to be? How do we feel comfortable with our depth? Should others feel comfortable?

Wow, great stuff.

Looking up a phone number just barely scratches the surface.

Thank you for opening that line of thinking.

Anonymous said...

Alan highlights a dilemma you find in every field: what's the tradeoff between cost (of solving a problem) and benefit (of having it solved)?

This is what Tom Gilbert called worth -- not all problems are worth solving; the cost/benefit ratio is wrong. When my Plymouth Colt developed a small but chronic oil leak, a fresh quart every other week or so was far less expensive than even getting an estimate for the repair.

The answer-right-away technician (assuming she's correct in her answer) has two main pools of knowledge: the explicit, declarative type ("The computer isn't seeing the external drive") and the tacit, experiential type ("Let's make sure the flange divot driver is up to date").

From the outside, we tend to confuse the two types -- explaining why so many people think Jeopardy champions are "smart."

(Alan, have you read Ruth Colvin Clark's Building Expertise? She examines how experts solve problems -- and even see problems -- differently from novices, and discusses ways to help people become more expert.

Tony, I'm glad this is continuing... where are you in your presentation?

And how'd you like to join the next Working/Learning blog carnival?

Unknown said...

I have not read any material on the subject. I stumbled across this in a search to help me understand what direction we should take as a business. As a call center, our performance is based on answering as many phone calls as possible, while preserving good customer service. Should our goals be to answer the problem quickly to get off the phone and onto another problem, or to look up the right answer even if it takes more time and leaves people on hold longer until a technician is available?

And with that, what kind of knowledge should we expect in return for the salary provided? I come from the side of knowing the material and not having to look up answers, however a number of our new hires don't have that ability, and may never have that ability. But should we expect them to based on the fact that we are giving them an IT salary instead of a call center salary?

Tony Karrer said...

Dave - happy to discuss joining the next blog carnival.

Alan - for call centers this is pretty well understood ground. Metrics are pretty well known. And some of them are pretty good indicators beyond the basic time per call. I've seen some really good indicators via number of calls to resolve and/or total time to resolve. Basically, does the customer have to call again? Escalation counts can be interesting. And, of course, customer satisfaction surveys including intent to repurchase are probably the best.

Unfortunately, a lot depends on what the organization values. Do they really care about customer satisfaction - or is really just cost? If it's just cost, you optimize on total call time. If it's satisfaction, there's so much more to it.

And I think Virginia already said this - there's a lot more to customer satisfaction than providing the answer.

Certainly knowing answers - rather than continually looking things up - improves call time and customer satisfaction. But, it's not nearly that direct or linear is it?

Anonymous said...

Tony, I'm glad you recognized that "anonymous" was me, a few comments earlier.

I don't have any expertise in call centers, but I imagine it'd be easy to conceive of one in which "as many calls as possible" is a very high number, but customer satisfaction is quite low.

I believe strongly that there aren't that many born [whatevers] -- skilled troubleshooters, salespeople, programmers. It's great when you find them, but it's even better to discern what exemplars do and harness that for mere mortals.

Context is also important. When I worked for a large corporation, we rebid our tech support each year (and we were a computer-services company). The employees hated the first months of a new contract; it was clear that the drive toward "lowest cost" often saddled us with vendors whose main focus was bidding low.

Alan, I'd recommend as a quick (say, 90 minute) read Robert F. Mager's What Every Manager Should Know about Training. He smuggles in the performance-improvement point of view (e.g., not every performance problem can be solved by training).

Ruth Clark's Building Expertise also looks at how to effectively grow more experts -- because, unless your call center salaries hit six figures, you're unlikely to find enough people who've already got it nailed.

There's also the possibility that the less-skilled workers can learn how to interact effectively with customers, including knowing when and why to escalate. I wonder how the superiors who prefer scripted answers respond when they call somewhere and hear an obvious script?

Tony Karrer said...

Dave - one quick thought - while people are not born as skilled troubleshooters, etc. - it's often easier to hire based on certain capabilities than it is to develop them. One of the best examples of that is orientation towards service. There are many companies that explicitly hire for this above domain knowledge.

Anonymous said...

Tony, I don't disagree that you can hire skilled Whatevers. My point about born Whatevers was related to Gilbert's "great cult of behavior," and particularly to the notion that there are many born Whatevers, which lives next door to the notion that you should hire only these predestined geniuses and that they want to work for you.

Professor Segal said...

I used a blog with one class and then switched to a wiki the next semester. Our IT people wrote out wonderful instructions that students could access, including visuals of what would be seen. There was some initial resistance, but by the end of the semester all but one student commented on how much better the wiki was than the Discussion Board. I encouraged them to take advantage of the RSS feed so that they would receive email updates when new things were posted.

The vast majority of these students (on-line degree completion program) range in age from early 30s to 50+. There are a few younger students as well.
I require my students to use a digital library resource to support their comments. I also inform them that Wikipedia cannot be one of the two required resources for the discussion.
We also need to help them learn how to evaluate what they find on line and if it is apparently one-sided to locate something with the opposite view.

LauraAnn said...

I know I am late in joining this discussion: as a public-school educator, I would have loved to weigh in on the whole open book test discussion...but alas, it seems that this thread is fading.

Even still, I just have to say "Amen!" to Alan's comments about the difference between knowing the answer and understanding the problem.

If all we want of our workforce, or in my case my students, is to be able to call out an answer, then fine - lets apply the lowest common denominator, what I lovingly refer to as "intellectual welfare" and encourage the use of manuals, google, Cliff's notes, etc. However, the caveat to this is that one can't expect much beyond the lowest levels of thinking, response, service and/or satisfaction.

It seems to me that we have to encourage higher levels of critical thought in all areas of education, no matter what the area of expertise.

Why limit your classification of employees to "information workers"?
If we ask our employees to be problem solvers instead, if we encourage them to understand the entirety of a situation rather than just resolving one "job" on their screen, then the rewards multiply exponentially for workers, managers and customers alike.

By the way, you all might enjoy Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind. He establishes a compelling argument on the attributes learners/workers will need in the 21st century.