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Learning Lessons from the Master

7th Nov 2012
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The Association of Accounting Technicians published the results of a survey into intended training spend last week. http://www.aat.org.uk/about-aat/press-releases/staff-training-budgets-remain-strong-despite-weak-economy One hundred and five finance directors were surveyed and 92% of them said they would be spending more on training in the forthcoming year. Now call me an old cynic – you won’t be the first – but I always find these surveys of spending intentions to be somewhat unreliable. It’s all very well saying that you have increased the budget for next year, but most of you will know that when revenues and costs don’t quite add up as anticipated, the pledged resources often disappear pretty quickly.

However, there were some interesting insights from this small survey into how the FDs see their organisation’s training budgets being spent. More in house, more remote and online provision and for almost half of those questioned (44%) more use of ‘downloadable resources’. This turns out to mean podcasts and the like.
Now I could question this apparent enthusiasm for downloadable resources. I could go on about how this is reducing training to an unmonitored information dump – just another example of the much unloved corporate comms. I could question whether the fondness for podcasts and pdfs is that they are relatively inexpensive to produce and to distribute. I may bemoan the failure of traditional e-learning to meet organisational needs to such an extent that this is considered an acceptable alternative to tracked, interactive, multi-media modules.
But I’m not going to.
 Instead I will bow to the inevitable and attempt to provide some sage words of guidance to those of you who will be saddled with the responsibility of producing these downloadable resources. At least I will be pointing you in the direction of the sage words. For in the very same day that I read that the AAT had published its research findings, a no less august institution informed me that it had published some writings and recording of yesteryear and that these were available as downloadable resources.
The BBC has been digitising and archiving the collected Letters from America by Alistair Cooke. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00f6hbp  The connection between these two contemporaneous events may not be immediately obvious. How can this long running series of 14 minute broadcasts by a man who died in 2004 have a bearing on the future spending intentions of our nation’s Finance Directors?
Because if you must do ‘downloadable resources’, this is how to do it. From his first broadcast in 1946 to his last, just five weeks before he died aged 95, Cooke was a master. His insights were dispassionate yet opinionated, full of rich content but not shorn of context and structured to both inform and enlighten. They were so much more that communication. Each missive was a history lesson, a politics lesson, a sociological observation and a travelogue rolled into one. If, having listened to some of these or read the transcripts available, you do not feel emotionally involved in the events and places he describes, the people he discusses and the stories he weaves – from current affairs to historical events and back again – then you have a heart of stone. 
Can you emulate the great Alistair Cooke? Probably not, but you can at least imitate some of his techniques.
1.       Structure. Cooke always wrote for the length of his broadcast – no more, no less. He knew how long he had (14 minutes) and how his delivery proscribed the number of words he could use. He knew that he needed a circular structure within his stories to illuminate and illustrate not just a description of events but the why, the how, the what and the so what for an audience 3,000 miles or more away.
2.       Insights and Messages. Although the message is never preachy nor necessarily spelled out, you are rarely left without an opinion after listening to Cooke’s epistles. You may share his viewpoint or reject it entirely, but with no need for a crass “Tell ‘em what you’re going to say, tell ‘em and tell’ em again”, you are never under any doubt about what Cooke thought about the events he described and the insights he was sharing. Alistair Cooke never told anyone what to think. He made his audience think for themselves, recognising that the majority were adults with an ability to make up their own mind and a right to do so, even when they were wrong.
3.       Delivery.  In the event that you are ever called upon to record a podcast, I have no doubt that you would struggle to match Alistair Cooke’s prose, peerless pitch or effortless pacing. However, the evenness of his delivery and the determinedly neutral way in which he allows his stories to unfold is a benchmark we could all benefit from attempting to copy. There is no jargon here, a refreshing absence of cliché - no ‘going forward’, no ‘pushing the envelope’ – ‘traction’ is rarely ‘gained’. The words matter and are left to do their own work. 
If all downloadable resources were even a tenth as accomplished in structure, insight and delivery as Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America, then I’d happily embrace the world envisaged by the Finance Directors. I would accept a view of training in which these digital nuggets replace alternative delivery mechanisms and, despite much evidence which suggests that they don’t quite live up to their billing, be called ‘learning resources’
However, I haven’t seen many that approach this threshold and until I do, I’ll keep on resisting.
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