Keeping It Simple in Information Development

by Race Bannon on April 25, 2015

Information_sign_mo_01_svg_med_from_Clker_mediumThis post is going to run counter to a lot of conventional wisdom. When people write about information development they often extol the virtues of the latest content creation or delivery software and technologies. I myself have done that too. But I have been in this business for a long time and there are advantages to having decades of experience to reflect upon.

Over the years I have been an individual contributor, consultant and manager overseeing technical documentation, curriculum and training development and delivery, end user help development, script writing, audio and video creation, marketing collateral, social media engagement and website content development. I also owned a book publishing company for many years and have worked a lot as a freelance writer. I have plenty of experience in everything “information.”

Tools, technologies and approaches have changed a lot in that time period, but the essence of what we do has not. We deliver and reinforce information to customers and prospects. No matter what fancy software or buzzword approach is in favor at the time, ultimately the goal is always the same. Get people to absorb and retain as much information as possible. I think we sometimes lose sight of this prime directive.

I have long been a proponent of one overriding guideline – use the simplest and most ubiquitous tools and approaches possible while still delivering quality information. I stand by that guideline. And I’ve seen that guideline repeatedly violated by many businesses, corporations and nonprofits. Generally, the bigger the company the more likely they will veer from the guideline because they have deeper pockets and insular decision making divisions within the larger organization. But I’ve seen smaller enterprises make the same mistakes.

I know some people may disagree with me, but here are some ideas I keep in mind when it comes to information development.

  • Keep tools simple. When it comes to authoring, production or delivery software applications, the simpler the better as long as it gets the job done well. I’ve seen companies buy complicated and expensive applications only see only a fraction of their power actually used by the individual contributors or delivery teams. Complexity often reduces productivity. They’re more difficult to learn. They can slow people down as they hunt for functionality amid the plethora of choices. They also typically cost much more.
  • Embrace the most common tools. I’ve seen company after company adopt brand new, trendy applications, only to later regret that decision. Three things often happen. Implementing them becomes challenging and may even require one or more people dedicated entirely to the ongoing tool’s internal maintenance or functions. The learning curve for both existing staff and incoming new hires is much steeper and this can be costly, especially in high turnover industries or jobs. Finally, related to the previous point, it becomes difficult to find job candidates with robust experience with tools, which is problematic for new hires and especially for short-term contractors who have to come up to speed quickly.
  • When possible, avoid or minimize customizations. Human nature often wants to modify, enhance or otherwise tweak applications to bend them to adapt to a department’s or company’s business process flow or practices. Sometimes this makes sense, but too often it does not. Every customization requires ongoing oversight and maintenance which can slow a team down or introduce single points of failure with subject matter expertise residing in only one person’s head.
  • Most importantly, decide what you want to do first and then work backwards in your decision making. I constantly see people and companies embrace the latest buzzword or trendy tools or technologies without much forethought, only to later see the folly in that approach. It’s in the interest of authoring tool and delivery technology companies to create an ever increasing array of products and feature options. It sustains their bottom line. But it can increase an adopting organization’s change management headaches at the same time. If you really need a less common, more complex or more costly tool or technology, then absolutely go for it. Just don’t be swayed by marketing or trends when making such decisions. Keep the actual objective in mind throughout the process.

I believe that keeping these things in mind during all information development planning, authoring and delivery will increase an organization’s productivity, profit and team satisfaction while still keeping a focus on quality content.

Let me know your thoughts on this topic.


Excellent Sheep

by Race Bannon on October 11, 2014

blue-cap-orange-md_from_Clker_MediumIt tugs at my convictions to offer a great review for a book that I just finished reading, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, by William Deresiewicz. There is a tendency that all of us succumb to that prompts us to discount an entire work of writing if amid the words lies anything that runs counter to our opinions. Such is the case with this book and I am proud that I have resisted that tendency because the book is, frankly, marvelous.

The main contention of the book is that the higher education systems, in particular the elite systems represented by the likes of Harvard and Yale, have developed over time into systems that produce graduates focused on the wrong things and proliferating an out of touch elite class. I have no bones to pick with that premise. The arguments Deresiewicz lays out in the book are compelling and convincing and rings true alongside many anecdotal experiences I have had when confronted with people educated at such institutions.

And yes, there are certainly exceptions to every rule, including this one, since I do have friends educated at these universities who are anything but focused on the wrong things or out of touch. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to be the norm.

But to be fair to those elite universities and their graduates, I have seen much the same misguided focus amid graduates from much less esteemed universities as well. While Deresiewicz focuses primarily on elite universities, he does also point out that the faults in the system have trickled down into university and college institutions at virtually every level.

So where do I diverge from the arguments in the book as I alluded to at the beginning of this review? I disagree with the author when he poses his argument, mostly implied throughout the book, that everyone should attend college. As anyone who has read my book, The Art of Self-Education: How to Get a Quality Education for Personal and Professional Success Without Formal Schooling, or any of my other writings on the topic knows, I believe that while college is absolutely an appropriate path for some people, it is not necessarily the appropriate path for others. I stand by my belief that we must value education attained in many ways.

And maybe the author doesn’t entirely disagree with my stance. I can’t be sure. Perhaps he does realize that a good educational option for many is a post-high school education attained in many ways, either with higher education schooling a part of it or not part of it at all. I’m going on what I perceived as I read the book and maybe if the author and I sat down over coffee we’d realize we’re more in agreement than disagreement on that. Regardless, the entirety of the book is so wonderful that I must set aside that nit pick and strongly and vehemently suggest you read the book.

The writing is among the best nonfiction writing I’ve read in a long time. Deresiewicz crafts his language so eloquently that it often approaches poetic. I found myself highlighting passage after passage because I was so taken with how the thought was adroitly expressed. I’m likely to quote Deresiewicz often in the future. Deresiewicz is a skilled writer with a mastery of language many working writers aspire to. So reading the book is a joy.

But the most important thing I feel the book does for the reader is foster a sense of why education is so important and, even more importantly, what kind of education is vital to considering oneself well educated. The author hammers home the idea that we should be encouraging liberal arts educations more than we do, a sentiment with which I agree wholeheartedly.

Anyway, do yourself a favor. Buy this book. Read it. Revel in its well-crafted language. And most importantly, let his passion for a liberal arts education seep into your pores and infect you with the same passionate embrace of self-improvement through education. You’ll be glad you took my advice.


Deliverables Are What Matter

by Race Bannon on July 30, 2014

parcel-md_from_Clker_MediumWhen it comes to self-improvement or personal accomplishment, it always seems great to explore in our imaginations, make some plans, read about other people’s strategies, or otherwise prepare for what we believe we’re going to do. The only problem is that many people never get past that phase. They end up with all preparation and no delivery.

In the business world there is a concept known as a deliverable. One dictionary defines a deliverable as “something that can be achieved or delivered as the result of a plan or process.” That’s a decent definition. A deliverable is something you actually create or produce. It is something tangible you can point to and say “I did that.” A deliverable might be a business report, dinner party or work of art.

I think when it comes to achieving things in life we should focus more on deliverables and less on the considerations that surround that deliverable.

Many of us talk about wanting to do something. We’re pretty good at planning to do something. We might spend a lot of time on the thinking, learning and preparation activities needed to do that something, but when the time comes to actually do it, our momentum grinds to a halt. We simply never do it. I think every single one of us has numerous stories of how this has played out in our lives.

Unfortunately, we often place such an emphasis on all of this advance preparation that we short circuit our attempt to accomplish what we intended in the first place. We neglect to just do it and this leads to a lot of false starts and disappointments in our lives.

Focusing on a deliverable acts as the target we are attempting to hit and this propels us forward. A goal or objective is sometimes a different animal than a deliverable. A goal or objective can often be vague or imprecise. A deliverable needs to be specific. For example, having the goal of wanting to learn about something is quite different than saying you’re going to write an article about that something. The writing of the article will focus your learning, stimulate your thinking about the topic, and force you to tussle with the material in ways passive learning will not. The learning will be deeper and more sustained if you create a deliverable. You also end up with “proof” that you understand the material. Most importantly, you actually do the learning you set out to do in the first place because you’ve been guided and encouraged by the deliverable you set out to produce.

Another advantage to focusing on a deliverable is that it reduces the tendency to be thrown off track by setbacks or detours. The realities of life, and indeed the realities of accomplishing anything, are that we will often move two steps forward and one step back. We will have unforeseen obstacles appear out of nowhere. Our life situation may suddenly change and challenge the completion of what we had set out to accomplish. Deliverables keep us focused and on track better than more generalized goals and objectives will. We’ve got something specific we’re trying to do and we’ll actually know when we’ve done it.

It’s hard sometimes to gauge whether we’ve achieved something if the goal or objective has been defined in a general or inexact way. A deliverable solves that problem.


Google Doesn’t Require College Degrees For Hiring

by Race Bannon on June 23, 2014

human-resources-logo-md_from_Clker_MediumI’ve started to publish a few of my posts on LinkedIn as well as here on my blog.

Today I posted an article titled Google Leads The Way regarding Google’s recent announcement that they will no longer use college degrees as a screening requirement for their job candidates.

Check it out and let me know your thoughts, either here or on LinkedIn.


Wealthy Is Relative

by Race Bannon on February 16, 2014

Money_bag_svg_med_from_Clker_MediumI live in San Francisco where there is currently a culture war in full swing between those who have been labeled economically “wealthy” and “privileged” and those who have been labeled economically challenged. This has come about due to quickly escalating housing prices, neighborhood demographic changes, and other factors.

My more left or progressive friends, many of whom relate to the economically challenged category, decry the changes to our city and often assign the blame directly on those they have labeled wealthy and privileged. On some level this rings true, but today I had an experience that made me rethink all of that.

Today I was chatting with a friend who works with incredibly poor people including those in third-world countries where poverty is beyond what most in the U.S. can even fathom. Against the backdrop of that conversation, I saw things in a new light.

I walked around in my neighborhood today and bumped into many friends who place themselves squarely in the economically challenged category, many of whom are rather vocal in their opposition to the local tech industry’s influence and other people they see as wealthy and changing the city they love. Then I noticed a few things.

These friends were all carrying iPhones or the latest Android phones. Many were carrying laptops. Most were dressed rather well. A few had in their hands lattes and other costlier coffee drinks. One mentioned buying tickets to a show and spending $90 for each on them. One had just come from his $25 haircut. Another had just booked a cruise with a friend. None of this appeared to represent anything approaching poverty or anything remotely close to economically challenged.

In many (most?) parts of the world, these people would be considered incredibly wealthy and privileged. And relatively, they are. People in impoverished countries would be shocked that my friends are calling others wealthy when they themselves appear to be quite wealthy too when looked at through the lens of deep and entrenched poverty.

I say this to give the local conversation some perspective. Yes, I know the issues are complex. Yes, I know each side has an argument to be made. Yes, I know that those of us in countries with robust economies and opportunities will always be seen as wealthy as compared to many others. But still, I think it’s worth noting that in the grand view of the world’s population, most of my friends in San Francisco would be seen as wealthy, even the most left and progressive of friends.. Maybe this observation will cause all of us, myself included, to look at the disparities in wealth and how that changes neighborhoods and cities from a broader perspective, accepting that such shifts are far more complex than simply pointing fingers at who we perceive as wealthy.


The Age of Outrospection

by Race Bannon on January 9, 2014


I have been a vehement proponent of introspection for most of my adult life. As Socrates first espoused, I’ve always considered introspection, looking inward, the path to a good and wise life. The “know thyself” adage is something to which I’ve always aspired. And I still do.

In the RSA Animate video, The Power of Outrospection, Roman Krznaric flips the introspection directive on its head and encourages a shift to a new age of outrospection for the 21st century to replace, or at least supplement, the age of introspection that has been so popular during the 20th century. Outrospection encourages looking outward to other people’s lives, cultures and world views to better understand ourselves.

Krznaric considers the ultimate art form for the age of outrospection to be empathy. Along the road to understanding ourselves through outrospection we hopefully develop a deeper sense of empathy. Empathy has been a popular concept in recent years and the need for empathy has been touted by many social thought leaders such as President Barack Obama as well as others such as marketers and research scientists.

For Krznaric, empathy isn’t just something that expands your moral universe, but it can indeed be the foundation for a philosophy of life. Empathy has the power to make you a more creative thinker, improve your relationships, and generally create the human bonds that make life worth living. Empathy can also bring about radical social change and bring about a revolution of human relationships.

Watch the video for a beautifully concise explanation of why Krznaric believes so strongly in the need for the age of outrospection and the development of deeper and broader empathic perspectives to make us better and the world a better place.


Spoken Word Skewers The Education System

by Race Bannon on January 4, 2014


Every so often I run across a spoken word piece that speaks to me. In this brilliant spoken word piece by Suli Breaks he tells it like it is regarding formal schooling’s squelching of intelligence, talent and dreams. I won’t tell you more. Just watch the video. It says it far better than I could here.


Non-Linear Learning Is OK

by Race Bannon on December 1, 2013


“I’m a very organised and rational and linear thinker, and you have to stop all that to write a novel.” Hilary Mantel

Most of us were programmed early on starting with our very first day in school to think of learning as a linear process. In other words, the predetermined curriculum says first you learn this, then you learn this, then you learn this, and so on. Sometimes that is a fine way to learn things, but it is not the only way.

We are all innately curious and exploratory human beings. It’s built into our DNA that we quite naturally explore our world and learn as we explore. If you think about our more primitive ancestors and how they learned, it was not in a linear, planned fashion. Instead, they learned amid often tumultuous and challenging environments in which they had to react and adjust to the information they gathered along the way. In other words, they continually experienced something, decided if that was a good or bad thing, self-corrected if necessary, and tried something again until they got it right.

This is also why real-world experiences often teach us better than classroom-based instruction or other more formal methods of teaching. Real life situations engage that total immersion, self-correcting style of learning that’s an incredibly effective learning method. That is why things like apprenticeships are such great ways to learn something.

A modern variation of this learning approach is often termed reflective learning. Reflective learning is a kissing cousin of experiential learning. Reflective learning is the process by which you internally examine and explore an experience and the information inherent in that experience and that develops deeper meaning and context for the information learned. Through this approach to thinking deeply during your learning you are able to break information and experience down into its significant aspects, create meaningful links between theory and practice, improve your performance by using the results of your reflection to inform your future practice, and more deeply incorporate the learning by realizing the personal value of that learning. In short, reflective learning deepens and improves the learning experience.

So feel free to learn things in any order and manner that works best for you.


Is Average Over?

by Race Bannon on November 19, 2013


I just finished reading Tyler Cowen’s interesting book, Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation. It is a deep look at how machine intelligence (to use his term – also known as computer technology) is changing the landscape of our economy and the job market forever in profound ways and how we must adapt to this reality to flourish in our work lives going forward.

The constant references to the game of chess are a bit too frequent (used as his metaphor throughout the book), but that’s nit picky compared to the brilliance of the content.

In addition to some of the obvious changes regarding the contemporary workforce, the underlying economy that supports the workforce is changing also. Some economists and trend pundits believe that the United States, and indeed the entire world, will see an adjustment to the very foundation of our economy in terms of wealth distribution and fewer jobs being created.

Cowen details why the widening gap between rich and poor means that from now on if you are not at the top, you’re at the bottom. What does he mean by that?

Based on his research and economics experience Cowen contends that the global labor market is quickly changing due to growth at both the high and low ends of the spectrum. Low wage job creation has been robust while jobs at the higher end are leveling off or retreating. Amid all this the number of American millionaires and billionaires continues to skyrocket.

Due to flourishing machine intelligence high earners are taking advantage of data analysis and achieving ever-better results. At the same time, low-wage earners who have not jumped on board the continuing learning bandwagon to make the most of these new technologies have poor employment prospects that will only get worse over time.

Cowen says that what was formerly considered a steady and secure life somewhere in the middle (the middle class as it’s often called), in other words “average,” is over. You will either be part of the workforce that continually learns and adapts to embrace and leverage new technologies and the new realities and do well economically, or you will be part of the workforce that does not embrace learning and rapid adaptation and will not do so well.

What does this mean for the skilled self-educator? In a world where there is going to be an ever increasing need to keep up with the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in the job and career market, along with a shrinking number of jobs available, the self-educator has a huge advantage over anyone who relies primarily on traditional formal (classroom-based) learning to learn new things to compete and stay ahead.

Self-education will be the difference in having a fulfilling, meaningful and profitable work life as opposed to a mundane and low-paying employment future. I propose that using only formal schooling to keep up with such rapidly changing technologies, knowledge domains and skills will be cumbersome and ineffective for many workers who must learn and work in sync with the modern realities of our lives.


Play Games And Live Longer

by Race Bannon on October 22, 2013


Every so often I watch a TED Talk and it just knocks my socks off with how well done it is and how much it impacts me. This is one of those talks and I encourage you to watch it.

Jane McGonigal’s talk is remarkable and worth every second you might spend watching it. Want to live 10 years longer and be happier as you do? Her incredible way of showing us all how to do this is done with such mastery that I’m sure you will watch the video to its end. Enjoy.

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