Fall 2000


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Cross is an advisor to the Silicon Valley eLearning Network. See the presentation, Executives and E-Learning: Oil and Water or Elixir for Prosperity in the New Economy? presented by Jay Cross and Kent Vickery from the May 2000 Silicon Valley elearning Network.

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Thursday, July 06, 2000

Among this morning’s tasks was outlining a brochure on a day in the life of an eLearner. Well, actually it’s a month or two in the life of an elearner since elearning is a process not an event. It morphed into a series of stories (since they communicate better than out-of-context descriptions). And the stories, vignettes really, must involve people of a variety of ages, backgrounds, and needs because one of elearning’s strengths comes from treating each learner as an individual.

Anyway, several hundred words from Jay’s head went down the toilet when the web application crashed. Too bad. It was great stuff and I know you’d have enjoyed reading it. In a few years, the web will be our hard disk. I enjoy being ahead of the crowd. Sometimes it’s stupid, but it’s certainly instructive.

I remember writing that I was about to take a break. I’d completed a thousand-word outline of the points I hoped to convey and the dozen little stories to make them. Time to refocus. Nibble a few Alpine strawberries from the front yard (I do my best creative work at my home office), have another cup of coffee (the freshly ground coffee is better at home, too), and pat the dog. Pleasing distractions take me out of the trees so I can appreciate the forest. Sometimes, like in Eames’s marvelous film Powers of Ten, I like to ride the hot-air balloon of consciousness higher still, to get the 10,000’ view. I find it useful to think of projects as a series of layers or hierarchies. Every now and then it’s useful to jump up or down a few layers.

I came back from my break in a few minutes and decided to peruse my writing tips web page. (Huh? What web page?) For a dozen years, I’ve been jotting down quotations, useful processes, and other stuff that struck me as important or interesting. Now I’ve put all this stuff on a personal web site so I can retrieve it when I want. Let me show you.

Email just arrived from the guys whose app destroyed my earlier words (the ones you would have liked):

>I just lost an hour's work.

We currently have an hour automatic timeout on a session. Work inside the update editor does not extend the hour. Only a Save or a something that causes a refresh in the Site Manager pane on the left does. We had thought that since our hour limit was twice the industry norm that this was a safe bet but it seems not. In retrospect, we should have related this better. So we plan to implement an auto refresh that, in effect, obviates any timeout if the page is displayed. Thanks for your patience and understanding.

Berries, coffee, microwaved tortilla chips [no oil]

I printed out the outline I’m working on and am going through it, fountain pen in hand, asking myself, “How can I make this better?” The intro could be a mock newspaper story; people are more likely to read that than a description. It will arouse their curiosity. Is this story real or is it Memorex?


I decided to mock up the story and went searching for an American Banker logo. Found one. Put it into PaintShop. Decided to change the color. <alarm! alarm! alarm!> Though fun, not a productive use of my time. I have Geoff Moore’s new book, Living on the Fault Line right in front of me. I’ve highlighted one message heavily, “Core activities add value; all else is overhead.” I take this personally as well as incorporating it into my view of good business practice. I tell myself, “Jay, outsource the doodling and get back to crafting this brochure.”


I just realized that I can replace the one-on-one queries with one general question, followed by each individual’s responses. I am going to pluck a few images from my picture files to plant this in my head. (Yes, you guessed it...When I see a photo of an interesting looking person on the web, I’ll download it to use in personal mockups like this. Several dozen people inhabit this rogue’s gallery.) Then I’m going to crawl into each of their heads to come up with dialogue that’s peppy and not too stilted.

One point I wanted to make is that good elearning isn’t workshops or school; it’s more an experience. The Experience Economy may have been a bestseller but I never read it, so I call up my personal search page (What? You haven’t made a personal links and search page? You like re-inventing the wheel?) and go to Business Week’s book reviews, and figure this bears more looking, so I do a Google search, and end up reading an excerpt of The Experience Economy that uses examples of grocery clerks and Barbra Streisand as proof that all customer experiences are theatre, and I write that elearning is like Disneyland; you buy your ticket at the entrance and can hop on any ride you feel like without paying more (but with elearning you don’t have to wait in line).

And now serious distraction sets in. I get an email alerting me to a report on Strategies for Building America’s 21st Century Workforce, and I can’t resist taking a moment to see if it contains anything new. Answer: not much.

<Break to replenish intellectual capital>

I emailed a few pages to a friend who’s working to help down-and-outers overcome the digital divide. Then I wrote a brief review for my web site to save other people the time I spent looking for the meat in this wordy report. (I believe in a digital karma that tells me if I share tips with others, I will be repaid in this life or another.)

I’m going to go for my daily walkit’s 6 pm here. When I’m not picking blackberries or whatever, I’ll think a little about dialog to put into the mouths of my brochure’s characters. <Walk in the forest for an hour.> On my walk, I try to channel my characters and record them on my slick little SONY voice recorder. (Did I mention that I’m really into gadgets?)

After dinner, I spend an hour transcribing my hike’s dictation and dolling it up a bit. This exercise of jotting down my thought processes has been fun. Often the best way to learn something is to watch someone else do it, then give it a whirl for yourself. But we really don’t know what sort of thing is going through other people’s heads. We only get the sweetened version, prettied up and recast for our benefit.

Saturday, July 08, 2000

It’s earlypre-coffee. I’m adding a few tweaks to www.internettime.com that came to me overnight. I do some of my best thinking while asleep. Ever see a Latin American worry doll? About 1” tall, made of toothpicks and colored yarn. When you turn in, you give over your troubles to the worry doll and you can sleep in peace. I’ve extended this: I’ll hand a worry doll something I’d like an answer to and in the morning, it magically gives me what I asked for.

Before turning in last night, I was reading an article about blogs. While the evil empire and other major companies are talking about the glorious day in the future when subject matter experts will create their own content; bloggers are already doing it for free, for fun, at the office. If I ran the zoo, I’d ask every employee to maintain a blog for sharing discoveries and ah-has. Information usually doesn’t stick in my head unless I mess with it, and I imagine that this is the case with most of us. The value of corporate blogging may be more in singling things out and recording them (messing with the information) than in the content shared. So, it becomes a play within a play (isn’t everything?). I’m sticking this thought in my head by recording it here and making an entry about blogs. This would simplify the cut-and-paste and FTP sequence I’ve been using to keep, for example, the site’s headlines current; a blog should let me do that directly.

Visiting my open source page got me to thinking about gnutella, the server-less alternative to napster that I see as a model for decentralized knowledge management. I surfed over to the gnutella site and found just the statement of philosophy I wanted. I was also looking for a few cool revolutionary graphics (e.g., Lenin and Gnutella “Power to the People”). Maybe corporate America hasn’t caught on because the decentralized approach is wrapped in anti-establishment images and rhetoric. One gnutella graphic pictures a kid giving the finger and this strikes me as juvenile. It brings back images of a favorite old bumper sticker here in Berkeley, “Defy Authority.” That one still raises the hair on the back of my neck. Better to “Visualize Whirled Peas” or “Defend Your Right to Arm Bears.”

Sunday, July 09, 2000.

Pre-coffee musings again.

About once a month, I click into arts & letters daily, the liberal arts outpost on the web. This headline caught my eye:

The three great philosophers of German history are Hegel, Schlegel, and Bagel. Alas, no one understands Hegel, no one reads Schlegel, and as for Bagel...

I thought about Hegel last week while hiking. (I am not making this up.). Not that I remember one iota of his philosophy. I was reflecting on his instructional process, for Hegel is my archetype of the nineteenth-century German university professor. The review in arts & letters daily reports that Hegel, or, more familiarly, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, was no worse than his peers (except for his impenetrable subject matter).

Picture this: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich walks into the lecture hall at the University of Heidelberg. He strides to the lectern, opens his notes, and reads them to the assembled students. The students scribble furiously, for no one understands this stuff on first exposure; they have to tease meaning out of their notes by reading and re-reading them. Herr professor is so unerring in his reading that he never has to write books: His students do that for him by comparing their notes.

<net check>

Did I remember when Georg was boring those students in Heidelberg? No, not within a century. So while looking back at what I’d written, I popped over to Google and searched “Hegel Heidelberg” and found he was born in 1770, the same year at Beethoven, and that his brother served in Napoleon’s armies. In fact, Hegel actually saw Napoleon and wrote, “I saw the Emperorthat World Soulriding out to reconnoiter the city; it is truly a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, concentrated here on a single point, astride a single horse, yet reaching across the world and ruling it.”

I found that I’d misconstrued the tenor of Hegel’s lecturesmust have been the professor next door I was thinking about; an academic headhunter, who found Hegel’s presentations filled with “false pathos, shouting, and roaring, little jokes, digressions... arrogant self-praise....” I also had that bit about Hegel’s students writing his books wrong. The University of Heidelberg, it seems, required professors to base lectures on published texts. Hegel published the outline of his lectures as Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Outline and his students filled in the blanks as he spoke.

An article reports that, “Hegel had become absent-minded near the end of his life.” Anecdotes abound, including one story of Hegel arriving for a lecture wearing only one shoe. Yet the real decline in his later years was marked by a hypocrisy: Hegel came to believe his theories were ‘truths,’ able to withstand time. This belief contradicted Hegel's own theory that all thoughts decay, replaced by new ideas. Clearly Hegel came to believe he was the most influential philosopher of his time.”

</net check>

Interesting. He came to believe his theories were truths. That sort of attitude shuts down one’s ability to learn since learning means being open to new perspectives. Georg went from an extreme of “everything’s up for grabs” to “I’ve got it all figured out.” Know-it-alls don’t learn.

We learn from our mistakes. (Finding mistakes is proof positive of the provisional nature of knowledge.) I’d managed to forget just about everything I knew about Hegel from college days. I only knew he taught at Heidelberg because I used to live there. I did have a murky, apparently distorted, image of the guy. Now that I’ve been corrected, reinforced by writing it down, and made it important to me by sharing it with you, I’ll carry an image of the know-it-all professor coming to class wearing one shoe ’til the end of time. Learning’s like that.

Now I’m updating my website again. It’s a hobby I learn from. I consider myself an artist with words as my brushes and ideas my medium. The screen becomes my canvas. When HTML came along, I knew I had to learn it. How cool that it “writes” graphics as well as text and then links things. I like to show stuff to other people via the net. So, I’ve become an HTML author. When I tackle a new subject, building a few web pages is a natural for keeping track of pertinent stuff. It’s like learning by teaching others except this is more like a dry run in an empty lecture hall.

Friday July 14, 2000

Bastille Day.

On the drive to Oakland this morning, I wondered why I've never diagrammed how I think. Making things explicit is a lot of what I do for a living yet I have no flowchart of my standard processes. This makes it difficult to provide insight to others into how I think. Without knowledge of my model, other people assume I'm using their model. How I think is the same as how I learn, at least if I remember the conclusions of my thinking. Too often I’m on autopilot, unaware of the passing scenery. Going through the motions. Not mindful. Not learning.

Try as I might, it’s awkward to describe how the wheels are turning in my head, knowing that others are observing. I suppose in time I could overcome this just as humans habituate to virtually anything that’s not in motion.

Most mornings I go through a sort of seven-step exercise of my senses to give them a little wake-up call, to make sure they’re all alert and helping me learn more about how the world works.

I start by looking at something really close, like the back of my hand from about a foot away; then I shift my vision to something distantthis morning I see the redwood trees waving their branches in the backyard.

Then I listen. There’s always noise although I tune it out. Today I hear a distant plane, a dog barks somewhere far away, the heater just when on, and the computer emits a low-level buzz.

I shift to smell, finding still a trace of skunk in the air. The taste buds are registering sort of a milky mouth feel. The air is pleasantly chilly against my skin (the morning’s here are cool and foggy, and my office window hasn’t shut tightly since my son draped Ethernet cable through the windows and across the back of the house).

For touch, you can’t beat a soft doggy, and Smokey just came up to me for a pat; longhaired dachshunds are insatiable. My body’s feeling very relaxed at the moment although it’s screaming, “Exercise me, exercise me, let’s go for a walk.” I sense the space I’m filling in the room.

Senses ready? Vision. “Check.” Hearing. “Check.” Smell. “Check.” Taste. “Check.” Touch. “Check.” Body. “Check.” All systems go. Mindful and ready to seize the day.

Learning is a pleasure. I love it. Like the artist who works as a janitor to pay for his oils, I work for the luxury of being able to learn. When I was in school, doing as little as I could to squeak onto the Honor Roll, I wouldn’t have imagined I’d grow into an insanely curious fulltime learner. CEOs brag when they award their employees with 40 hours of training a year! I try for a minimum of 40 hours of learning a week. (“I don’t know who I am but life is for learning.” Joni Mitchell, Woodstock.)

Today I spent most of the morning and afternoon listening to Jakob Nielsen tell a large audience about web design. I've read Jakob’s site and his recent book, the awkwardly titled Designing for Web Usability. So, am I wasting my time sitting here listening? No. I'm picking up Jakob's funny stories and examples. As he describes various principles, I'll frequently say to myself “I remember that” and reclaim lost knowledge, putting it back on the front burner. I’m gearing up to help a company redesign its elearning web pages and having Jakob’s principles and aphorisms at the ready will help me along. I’m not just recording what Jakob says. Rather, I'm continually asking myself, “Do I buy this?” and keyboarding what I might use later into the Sony laptop.

For kicks, I put all my notes in ThinkFree, a clone of Microsoft Office that lets me flip back and forth from Word format to HTML as I write. Saturday morning I’ll cut the useful sections of my notes and paste them into my web pages.

Well, enough of my ramblings. Hope you enjoyed this peak into my head. Consciousness is such a bunch of drunken monkeys. See you on the net. Or maybe not.

Jay Cross is a free spirit, energetic learner, and astounding marketing guy with 25 years in the education industry. Creative despite degrees from both Princeton and Harvard, he lives in the hills of Berkeley, California. Jay founded Internet Time Group to help organizations learn. Fast. Reach him at jaycross@internettime.com or on the web at http://www.internettime.com.




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