Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Who are you...who who who who!

I have a very small viewership on my blog but I still find blog statistics very fascinating. Every time I put up a new post, I watch the stats every once in a while for a few days. They never cease to surprise and delight me.

Some interesting insights. Looking at the All Time stats, my biggest set of visitors/readers are from India, followed by Singapore and the US. Pakistan also figures in the top 10 countries. This is not surprising because I have close connections with people from these countries. When I publicize my posts on Facebook or Linkedin, most of my connections in these networks are from these 3-4 countries. But what fascinates me is the presence of countries like Malaysia, UK, France, Canada, Australia and...wait for it...Russia in the list!

There are days I have visitors from countries like Ukraine, Columbia and the Philippines. Germany also features sometimes. I am sure this is the traffic from Linkedin groups, where I sometimes announce a work-related post. I know that this should not surprise me- the reach of the Internet and these networking sites is after all well known. But thinking of this reach in the context of my blog is always surprising and delightful.

When I announce a new post, I expect a surge in traffic. True enough it happens. Many factors decide the amount of traffic flow- the place where I announce (FB or Linkedin), the title of the post (never underestimate the power of the title), and of course the content. Sometimes people like the post and share it in their networks, which multiplies the traffic coming into the site. However, once the novelty of the announcement is over, the numbers trickle down and stop. But what amazes me is that on some days, the traffic just peaks by itself. I sometimes wake up to find 100s of site visits on old posts without any trigger from my side.

Finally, onto the source of traffic. The biggest source of traffic to my site is from my son's blog Heaven in the Backyard!  I am not sure what that means really, but I would assume that people visiting his blog click on the link to my blog (he has listed my blog as one of his favorite blogs). Who are these people who go from a teen's blog to his mother's? Fascinating, isn't it?

I have read that these stats are far from accurate and different blogs have different ways to define things like page views. Also, a hit doesn't necessarily mean a read. Still, these statistics give an insight into the visitors/readers like nothing else does. When I look at these stats, I think of the hundreds of people who are reading or have read my posts and wonder what they think. Are they people who know me personally? Are they strangers? When they come to the site for a work-related article, do they check out the others too? How many are interested in my Buddhism-related posts? Are many of them returning readers? How many are ex-colleagues checking out how I am doing? How many find my posts useful to them in one way or another?

Enough questions to keep me engaged for a long long time! 

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A year of great loss....and greater gains!

This last year has been a year of great loss for me.

First, I quit my job. It wasn't just another job. I had invested my blood and sweat in it for 10 years, going through some very hard times, but also doing some of the best work of my life. I was very proud of the company and my contribution to it, and unknowingly made it part of my identity. It was not just about the work, which I enjoyed immensely. I cared for many people who worked with me and leaving the job meant leaving those people, and in less than reliable hands. No wonder that leaving this job was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made. I lost a part of my identity as a result.

Around the same time I quit my job, I became aware of another loss. Some people I used to trust and believe in implicitly turned out to be...well....not worthy of it. Just using these words sounds vindictive but I had/have no anger against them. Initially I was shocked and very hurt. Later, I was able to look inwards and realized that my failure to see the truth was not a result of just their deception, but of my foolishness too. In a way, I was as manipulative as them. They didn't want to show and I didn't want to see. As a result of this episode, I don't think I will ever be able to trust anyone completely, including my own gut feel about people. I lost my innocence in a way.

The third loss was of a very good friend of many years. She and I were almost like family, meeting often and spending a lot of time together. I could count on her to make my weekends special. We saw many movies together and discovered and sampled many new eateries. My kids were very fond of her too. Sometime last year, I sensed her withdrawing from me, until one day I realized that she wasn't a part of my life anymore. I tried to reach out to her, but then decided to give her the space she needed and let her be. I haven't figured out this one, but it is a big loss of companionship.

But it has not been all bad. There have been some extraordinary gains too!

I rediscovered a long lost friend from my IIT days. I met her last year after 17 years and it was as if we had never parted. The truth is that both of us have changed a lot since our younger days and perhaps this was the best time to meet because we changed in similar ways. She and I speak on phone often, and it is like talking to a soul sister. We "get" each other- each other's pain, loneliness, courage and the quest for happiness. Friendships take years to nurture and grow, and here I am, given a gift of a great friend without doing anything for it!

I also rediscovered another friend, someone I had known for many years, but then not really. Suddenly she is a big part of my life and my day is not complete until I chat with her on IM or FB. I realize that she and I are very different, like chalk and cheese- she is as practical as I am dreamy and as WYSIWYG as I am convoluted.  But we are good for each other. Having her on the other side of the computer is like having a solid wall supporting me all the time- I feel safe and loved. I, in turn, have great affection and respect for her. Our newly found friendship has given me lots of reasons to laugh, travel and have a great time together. How lucky am I!

Last but not the least, this year I discovered my voice. After years of wanting to write, but not ever being sure about what, I suddenly have a voice that knows what to say. This voice is not compartmentalized. It has many dimensions. It can talk about many things, from Instructional Design to motherhood to Buddhism, and in any tone, from honest from the heart one, to self deprecatingly and casual. I have always known that a good voice is a combination of good thoughts and good expression. One without the other is incomplete. I am not sure what others think but to me, at this stage in my life, my voice feels complete and boy does it want to talk! I love writing like nothing else and cherish this gift every minute.

If I had to lose all that to gain all this, it was well worth it! 

Monday, August 29, 2011


Yesterday I asked Aloka what she wanted to breakfast. She thought a bit and then asked for a scrambled egg. Lost in my thoughts, I made a fried egg instead. Sunny side up, her usual favorite. When I offered her the plate, she looked at it and shaking her head said "I asked for a scrambled egg". I apologized and said "Come on, I made a mistake, eat it up, I know you like it". But the little lady firmly repeated "But I asked for a scrambled egg" and looked at me calmly.

Looking at her, I didn't see a nearly four-years old being difficult. I saw myself at a restaurant being served something I didn't ask for. What would be my reaction? The same, the very same. Was her reaction fair and reasonable? Absolutely. Was she a spoiled brat? Was I?

So I scrambled back to the kitchen and made a scrambled egg for the most special customer of mommy's kitchen!  

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Make copies of this post and forward to 100 friends....or else!

I haven't ever understood the concept of chain mails and why they are propagated. My earliest memories of chain mails date back to my childhood - we used to get letters in the mailbox containing some prayers and instructions on how to copy the letter and mail to x number of people. They would typically have a nasty warning at the end about what would happen if the chain mail was discontinued (bad luck, money loss, loss of dear ones etc). I remember being uncomfortable, almost scared, with these threats but don't recall following the instructions out of fear.

The next thing you know these chain mails are on email. These mails typically contain either hoaxes (remember the killer spider in toilets!) or chicken soup for the soul type of text, and right at the end, the same old threats, just more polished and cloaked. "You owe it to your country to forward this to 10 of your friends." or "Send it to 8 people and wait for a surprise gift within 2 days" or  "Send this to 7 wonderful women in your life....and don't forget to include the sender of this mail!" What the f***! Not only do you want me to send to 10 people, but I must route it back to you too!

At first, I would open these forwards and check them out, deleting them only when I came across those cheesy instructions to forward. Soon, I would just delete any forwards that anyone sent. My poor mom learned her lesson the hard way. Now she forwards only the very interesting/funny/useful ones and writes a brief in the subject line so I will at least read it. 

The latest is Facebook. People have these status updates that are supposed to tug at your heart strings...about disabled kids, about cancer, about soldiers, about all kinds of illnesses. They always end with "Put this on your status (for 1 hour or 1 day) if you care". Listen, I care for most of these issues, but do not think putting these status updates will do anything positive. People who are affected by these issues live with them every minute and don't need reminders, and those who are not yet affected will not suddenly become kinder or more generous or sensitive because they have added some text in their FB status. 

I will copy a friend's status if I like it (and do it often) and I will certainly forward a useful/important mail to my close friends and family, but do I really need someone to tell me to do it? Surely I can think for myself and decide what I need to do with my resources. Or am I a moron who doesn't know what to put on her status or what to send to 10 wonderful whatevers unless you tell me to?

The real question is who gains anything from such chain mails or status updates? Whose agenda is this? Or is there no agenda but a human need? What human needs do such tactics meet that even though the medium of communication has changed so drastically, these tactics have remained almost unchanged? If you figure this out, please tell me.

In addition to telling me, you must let at least 10 most wonderful jackasses in your friends' circle. Of course, remember to keep yourself in the loop too. Only 3% of people will do it. Are you one of them? Do it - you owe it to your sacred country. Otherwise, everyone will know that you don't really...whatever. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Lessons from a Webinar

I recently had the chance to present a topic of my choice via webex to a group of people more or less unknown to me. I had never met any one of them before and had spoken on phone to only one of them. I had a vague idea of their backgrounds and guessed that a topic on content structures would interest them. I would have liked to know more about the participants but the situation didn't allow it.

To prepare for the presentation, I worked hard on my PowerPoint deck, looked for examples and fine tuned the content, went through a few webinars and youtube videos on how to make webinars interactive, pottered around with webex (even trying a test webex session with Atreya and Akhila), timed myself, wrote down my talking notes, added interactions every 2-3 slides, and practiced my presentation. Following the best practices I had read, I added my picture on the first slide and also created a loop to keep the participants hooked while we waited for the rest to join in.

My biggest worries were about technical hassles during the presentation. Would the annotations work? Would I hear the people talk clearly if they asked a question? My trial version of webex gave me trouble with "raising hands" so I fretted over that too.

But the problem I faced was of a totally different nature. Never having met my audience, and not even being sure of their background, it was like I was giving my presentation with a blindfold on. Having been a classroom trainer, I am equipped to detect audience mood and level of perception, but I do that with my eyes. With a blindfold on, and with the audience as if sitting in pitch dark, my skill was useless. Webex interactivity gave me some idea of how the audience was perceiving the content, but it could not change the fact that I didn't know the people I was talking to. At the end, I didn't come out feeling I had accomplished what I had set to achieve as a trainer.

The lesson I learned was most basic. No rocket science here. Whatever the situation, whatever the purpose, I have to know my audience better when facilitating a webinar. The virtual environment will naturally create this wall between the presenter and the audience, but that wall need not and should not be totally opaque.

In retrospect, what could I have done to make it a better experience for myself and for them? I could have known more about them before the session started, such as what they do in their jobs, what they understand about the content I am presenting, and what interests them. I would have insisted on seeing their profiles (job role, location, picture if possible) before the session even if it was difficult to convince them to give this information to me. I could have simplified the presentation a bit (had I known that the audience wasn't that familiar with the content and jargon) and could have planned for more time for quizzes (essentially reducing the content). It's one thing to time yourself in a practice session and another to time yourself in the real presentation. I could have helped myself by adding timers on slides reminding me how fast/slow I need to go. Finally, I could have been less in love with the content myself and gotten less carried away with the intricacies and nuances of what I was talking about. 

Saturday, August 20, 2011


Here is a very nice article. My thoughts exactly when I decided to leave my last company. Reinventing the company in a hurry just to sell it and make quick bucks just doesn't appeal to me. Great companies are built on loftier goals and ideals. Maybe I am old fashioned but so be it.

A quote from the article: We too often ignore the men and women who have built companies that provide livelihoods for their employees while we fawn over self-help gurus offering four-hour short cuts.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Deconstructing Content Structures


Over years of designing learning content, one of the things I have become good at is structuring content quickly. I had a lot of practice doing this because in addition to creating outlines for courses we were commissioned to develop, I also created draft structures or outlines when writing proposals. It was a self-prescribed must do for all proposals I wrote because it enabled me to make sense of the limited information (manuals, or PPT decks) that we were provided by the client at that stage. Under the circumstances defined by time pressure, limited resources, and no access to SMEs, I had to develop my own methods to quickly understand and structure whatever information I had. These methods were intuitive and I never really had a chance to deconstruct them.

Recently, I had the occasion to revisit the concept of content structures. I came across a great article about different types of content structures (the eLearning Coach) and it got me thinking of the types of structures I have used most frequently. Of the 10 types listed in the article, five caught my attention. In this piece, I share my thoughts about these. 

  • Order of Importance
  • Inherent Structures
  • Sequential
  • Simple to Complex
  • Subordinate to Higher

    Order of Importance

    When the content is essentially flat and there is no hierarchical relationship between concepts, then you can use the structure to highlight the relative importance of the different content pieces. Beginning with the most important piece of content at the start is smart because learner attention is at its maximum at the start, and at its least towards the end (learner fatigue, also somewhat linked to Design Fatigue!). By presenting the content in a certain order, you also send a subliminal message of what the organization considers most and least important.  For example, in a fraud awareness course we developed for a bank, the first type of fraud discussed was Identity Fraud, followed by Documentation Fraud and ending with Internet Fraud. Why did the SME and designer agree to start with Identity fraud? Was it because it was considered the most serious of all types of fraud? Or was it posing a current threat? Whatever the reason, there is no doubt that by placing Identity Fraud at the start, the bank sent a message about the topic's importance. 

    Unfortunately, most designers and other stakeholders in the design process do not appreciate the power of this type of structure. For example, in many induction programs that I helped design, the HR team insisted on starting with History, Accolades and Organization Structure because these were considered important by them. No amount of persuasion would change this. The reality is that new recruits need to be reeled into the long induction programs by information that is most relevant and important to them and their initial high attention needs to be used to impart messages that require most alertness. Starting with boring historical information is a sure way to lose the advantage of high attention at the start of the program. Starting with Code of Conduct would be far better, but I have never managed to convince any HR manager to do this. 

    Inherent and Sequential Structures

    Sometimes, things have an inherent structure that you can't ignore. For example, human skin is made of the outermost epidermis, the mid layer of dermis and the inside layer of hypodermis. This is the skin's inherent order of "being". When teaching a student about parts of skin, it makes sense for the learning material to follow the naturally occurring structure of the skin, starting with the familiar outermost. Changing this order will only detract from the learning process.

    I came across such a content structure when creating an online training for bank staff about the five fair-dealing guidelines issued by MAS in 2009. These five guidelines are organized by MAS as Outcome 1 to Outcome 5. Regardless of which outcome is the most important for an organization, or the hardest to implement, or the easiest, or any other criteria, the naturally occurring inherent order of the guidelines (decided by MAS in this case) will lead the design of the learning material created to train employees on following them.

    The sequential structure is similar, except that it contains an inherent order of "doing". When teaching someone about a process or procedure, for example of how to manage risks, it's most effective to teach the process in the order in which it gets done. In this example, it would be identifying the risk, then measuring its severity, putting risk mitigation actions in place, and finally tracking progress. This is regardless of the fact that measuring the severity of the risk is the most complicated of all the topics listed and would benefit from the high learner attention present at the start. In short, we set aside all other criteria and use the naturally occurring order of "doing" for the most effective learning to occur. 

    As designers, if we detect an inherent or a sequential structure, our job of structuring is done to a large extent. These inherent structures of "being" and "doing" are good friends. 

    Simple to Complex

    This is an interesting type based on the theory of constructivism, which states that the learner is the architect of her own knowledge and uses existing schemas to build new ones. Applying this principle to content structures, one starts with the simplest (and sometimes the most familiar) concept and progresses to the more complex ones.

    I have used it in a particular project for a company where a new business objects application was replacing 11 existing applications for creating business analytics and reports.
    Keeping in mind the unavoidable resistance to change, I suggested using the first module to create a very simple report, highlighting how similar the new application was to the existing ones. As a result, only a fraction of the features available in the new application were used in the first module. The later modules progressively highlighted the more complex features of the new application. This structure was quite counter-intuitive to the architects of the new product, who needed a lot of convincing from my side to accept it.

    Point to note here is that the first module was not a pre-requisite to the later modules. Each module was complete in itself and didn’t depend on previous modules. We chose to structure the content in that particular way to reduce resistance to change, and to help learners learn faster by fitting the new application into their existing mental schemas.

    Subordinate to Higher

    In this type of structure, there is a hierarchical nature to the content. Some concepts must be learned before others can be grasped. For example, in a course on money laundering, learners can’t grasp the methods of preventing money laundering unless they are aware of the methods used by money launderers. Likewise, in a course on conducting training, learners must first know the characteristics of adult learners before they can comprehend specific presentation techniques used for training adults. Unlike the Simple to Complex structure, there are pre-requisites involved. This is not about using existing schema, but about imparting pre-requisite knowledge before the higher order knowledge can be understood and assimilated. 

    In Conclusion

    Having never before deconstructed my thought processes while designing content structures, this exercise of introspecting and reflecting on my choices for the structure chosen in a particular situation has been very satisfying. It has validated many of my decisions and also explained why I would sometimes come out of the structuring process feeling uncomfortable. Hope this will stir some thoughts in other designers and generate more food for thought.