Parkin Space: Playing it Safe?

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Godfrey ParkinEager to push boundaries or cautious to find out what works elsewhere first? Godfrey Parkin asks: if training is about preparing people for the future, why is the industry slow to explore new possibilities?

The current buzz about IPTV (Internet Protocol Television) makes me realise how rapidly some industries are evolving, and how relatively slowly the training profession is responding.

In 1998 I engineered an invitation to the Royal Television Society conference, the biennial Cambridge gathering of 200 of television’s elite. Much of the conference was spent in presentations, planning, and self-congratulation on the recent coverage of Princess Diana’s funeral. The only two presentations that still stick with me were a history professor’s singularly unpopular assertion that TV was creating news rather than simply reporting it (much hissing from the audience), and a demonstration of WebTV by the now CEO of Microsoft, Steve Ballmer.

At the time a mere VP, Steve Ballmer was actually heckled. From the audience I heard all the superior snickers of disbelief and the whispered dismissals of the very notion that television might become interactive. The leading decision-makers in the industry were so conditioned by their past experiences of television that they could not conceive that any significant change might be possible, let alone desirable.

I had seen WebTV unveiled a couple of years earlier in New York, before Microsoft acquired it, and had been captivated by the notion that you no longer needed a computer to surf the web. In those days I was all about convergence, and would assail anyone who would listen with my predictions that TV, the web, and mobile telephony would collide and facilitate revolutions in entertainment, communication, and education. Of course this was not original thinking – lots of people were working toward achieving that convergence, and it was an uphill battle.

One of the people at the conference who I tried in vain to convert was a producer of Channel 4’s The Big Breakfast, whose resolute position was something like: “The internet is rubbish. I’d rather have my children watching TV than wasting their time online. You can’t get more educational than a television documentary.” The Big Breakfast was at least innocent, entertaining, predictable, and vaguely informative. But, to my mind, it seemed more worthy of the “rubbish” label than much of what was available online.

The singular lack of vision, with an edge of defensiveness, demonstrated among the television cognoscenti at the time was frustrating, but not unexpected. Even highly intelligent and wonderfully creative people have their limiting horizons and their comfort zones.

What is remarkable to me is not so much that attitudes and behaviours have changed, but how rapidly they changed. The technologies have advanced significantly in the past decade, but so too has our willingness to use them. Our notion of what a computer is has dissolved – it is no longer a grey box under a desk connected to the world with cables, but a palm-sized clam-shell on our hip. It has become almost second nature to take and send images and video using a mobile phone. E-commerce is rapidly going mobile – in Japan you can rent a car, or even get a Coke from a vending machine, by pushing a few buttons on your phone. Bloggers proliferate, entertainment and commerce exploit new media, and news coverage and commentary have decentralized and gone real-time. Now, with the imminent arrival of the millions of channels made available by IPTV, convergence is almost total.

But what of corporate training? Where are the revolutions in thinking, the exploitation of new possibilities, the creativity and experimentation? I still work with companies, some with seemingly limitless resources, who are slowly “putting their courses online” and trying to catch up with a paradigm that now belongs in the last century. It baffles me why we in training are so slow to evolve. Our role in training is to prepare people for the future, yet we cling tenaciously to the past.

Is it because trainers define themselves too narrowly, and think of themselves in “course” terms instead of in “performance improvement” terms? Or is it because companies don’t consider the value that training can bring to the organisation is sufficient to justify the potential cost of innovation? Or is it, perhaps, that the current generation of management is still conditioned by its own past educational experiences, and is not capable of seeing that learning does not have to be that way? I know that we have only recently accepted the benefits of online courses and learning management systems, but perhaps we should continue to peer over the horizon instead of settling into a new zone of comfort?

If you did not have a PC, an intranet, an LMS, or the capacity to run classroom courses, but you and all your company’s employees had web-enabled mobile camera-phones, how would you exploit the technology more efficiently and effectively help them to improve their performance?

* Read more of Godfrey Parkin's columns here.

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