Shiny Syndrome: The Scourge of Learning Technologies

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June 14, 2014 by jonmillymiles

Shiny Syndrome: A weakness that causes the afflicted person to crave something new or “shiny” just because it is new or “shiny”.

I was on LinkedIn the other week and I spotted a post by one of my contacts linking to an article on the three phases of technology in HR and comparing it to the Learning and Development community. A quick précis for you:

Phase 1: Automation of old processes

Phase 2: Hope brings in “experts” who then lead on to bafflement and bewilderment – an overdose of the future. Cool sets in.

Phase 3: The organisation makes it work for them. They learn about the system and adopt that which is appropriate.

As someone who sits very much across all three phases I explained my frustration with management chains buying into fads, I called it the “fad phase” but on rereading the article it is clearly part of Phase 2.

Now what annoys me with this phase is that this is when the Shiny Syndrome sets in.

The Scenario – Shout if it rings true for you!!!

People see this glorious new tech and the bounds of possibilities fill them with a wealth of hope and a torrent of ideas and suddenly the new Banana Pad 9Q™ ends up being the must have item. This new version of the Banana Pad™ has a lovelier yellowish hue, a slightly larger curve to the screen and not two but sixteen 56 mega-pixel cameras and four cup holders and the apps… my goodness don’t get me going on those!!!

So they get one, and show it to their boss extolling its virtues and ergonomic design, which is both convex and concave in equal measures. More are bought, apps are bought and a trial is completed to a resounding fanfare of success. Thus it is proven that the Banana Pad 9Q™ is the best learning technology known to man.

With the successful completion of the trial the person leaves, the only person who really knew how to use it has gone to pastures new and the staff left behind are left bewildered and lost in a vacuum of hope and ambition. They were never fully included in the trial, they received no training, no ongoing support and no direction as to where to go next. Resentment begins to build within the staff  towards this fantastically bright paperweight on their desk which now symbolises a failed project and their broken dreams for learning technologies.

So how do I think about introducing new technologies?

Tony Robbins said, “For changes to be of any true value, they’ve got to be lasting and consistent.” This is the problem with the  first scenario – there was no consistency, it was not carried out across the whole organisation. Likewise there was no mechanism to ensure that it lasted, it was just a flash in the pan. What this person failed to understand is that implementing a project of this nature is about more than just a device. It is about an organisation, a culture, lots of students, lots of teachers and a huge system of processes, policy and politics. The last thing that this was about really was the device and this is the reason why I hate Shiny Syndrome.

As you’ll know if you read around my blog, I’m into game design: it’s pretty hard to miss really. In his book The Art of Game Design, Jesse Schell speaks of the three areas for consideration when designing a game (in brief):

Design: How the game is built, looks, sounds and plays. The mechanics, the flow, the challenge and the narrative.

Psychology: How the player will react to situations and stimuli. How to control the player indirectly and how to provoke an emotional response (positive or negative).

Anthropology: How the player relates to their world, their culture and their peers. How they interact with others, their morals, their behaviours and even their faith.

For me, I look at the introduction of a technology in the same three ways.

Design (System): How the system is built, how the system can be modified to suit the requirement and how it can be used to add real value.

Psychology (User): How the user will react to the introduction of it, how they will perceive any benefit and how will they feel the benefit – the two are not the same.

Anthropology (Organisation): How the system will fit into the organisation and aid its aims, how the system can be integrated into the culture of the organisation so that it lasts and how can the system meet the future ambition of the organisation.

This means that I consider all angles of integration so breaking these down a bit more and giving you a bit more of a scenario…

Scenario: Updating a manual internal validation system using the Feedback activity in Moodle.

This initially seems like a Phase 1 implementation: changing from a manual process to an automated one. However, it spans all three.

Firstly the reading and collation of the feedback sheets was already done by a computer and scanner. Therefore this is a further step in Phase 1 as we remove the manual scanning element and move into Phase 2 – the art of the possible. Now I bring in design, not just of the system but of a way to tackle the whole scenario. I have demonstrated the feedback function and evangelised it to the staff within the team responsible. They are forward leaning and relish the opportunity to get their hands on some new skills alongside adding benefit to the organisation by having targeted feedback rather than the more generic sort. Similarly they are glad to be able to removing some clunky old equipment from their office. Their boss is sceptical – he has been burned in the past by technology and is a self-confessed technophobe. He is also of the feeling that if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.

Therefore we have two conditions: keen proactive staff and a reluctant manager.

This is where the psychology and anthropology get into the mix. We have a real conflict between workforce aspiration and managerial caution. Ultimately the resolution revolves around a mixture of education and risk management for the manager to allow him to move forwards in safety and direction, training and ownership for the staff. This way they will feel valued, independent and recognised for their actions.

Remember as George Bernard Shaw once said, “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” 

The only way that these human solutions are resolved is by asking the right questions to key members of staff and most importantly listening to their replies. Generally I do this quite informally in the refreshment area or their office so that they feel more comfortable and less barriers to dialogue are present. You will need to steel yourself however, as negative comments are bound to occur and you will be required to deal with them professionally and politely. We need to find out exactly what their concerns are, because unless these are tackled and overcome you will never win over the person.

I created a pilot of my own that gathered information on the performance of our network, it could do more than their existing system and produced both a graphical output and collated all of the figures. I showed it to the manager and suddenly… there was a spark of hope, quickly followed by a self reassuring comment about how technology can fail. I can take this comment: he has seen potential. His staff however, were further galvanised by this display and are pressing ahead with their own trial to prove to that this system can be effective. But, what has surprised me, in a very nice way, is that they have taken it a step or two further, by using it to gather feedback from students on distance learning and distributed courses.

Now, this is not just a random example – this is actually happening now. The team, by doing this, have begun to take this technology to Stage 3 – making it work for them. I will let them run with this, checking up regularly, while cheering them on and promoting their work to others. Once the utility of the function is clearly proven by someone else, that is “not the learning tech guy”, other members of staff will begin to take it up. What is more, the manager will see his department receiving praise and attention and the dynamics of our discussions will change and hopefully I will be able to explain how good his management style has been – by allowing his staff to take measured risks.

So what is important?

Put simply we need to ensure three things:

  • Buy in – the generation of a will to see the system work and the expansion of this to all key stakeholders
  • Transition support – an expert to help demonstrate the “Art of the Possible”, embed the system and empower the staff.
  • Training – to enable the staff to continue the system without the expert and embed the technology throughout their areas

Without these three areas the use of technology in most areas is doomed to fail, particularly in large institutions with stoic cultures.




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