Some intelligence behind the systems: The Myles Runham interview

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Caroline Walmsley recently caught up with Myles Runham, head of BBC Academy, to talk about tessello, the possibilities of intelligent learning tech, and the power of ‘show’ versus ‘tell’…

Caroline Walmsley
So, I’m here with Myles Runham, Head of Digital at the BBC Academy, thanks for joining me today!

Myles Runham
You’re welcome!

CW
Brilliant! Before we start, I wondered if you could just tell the people listening a little bit about the BBC Academy, what it does and what it’s aiming to achieve…

MR
BBC Academy is the central learning and development (L&D) function for the BBC. What’s interesting and different about that is that because it’s the BBC we have a responsibility to use the license fee for the benefit of BBC staff, but also to attempt to do that for the benefit of the broadcast industry, particularly in the UK. So we work a lot outside of the organisation as well, with suppliers, with industry groups etc.

A lot of what we do with our learning technologies is apply them to BBC staff, and also try to apply them externally, and wherever possible free at the point of use a, for the industry, which makes us decide things in a slightly different way I think, which might come up later as well…

CW
OK. I’m right in thinking aren’t I that both of us have something in common in that our backgrounds are not necessarily, until relatively recently, L&D – we both came from management and ops backgrounds.

MR
That’s right.

CW
So can you just tell me a little bit about how you ended up in learning at the BBC specifically?

MR
OK yeah. I don’t have a L&D or psychology background or a HR background, I was the managing director for ask.com in Europe (which used to be Ask Jeeves), and then about seven years ago now, at the end of a seven year stint doing that, I left, having competed with Google in search for seven years, which… I wouldn’t recommend, was probably a good time to do something quite new and quite different.

I was looking for something very, very different, and an opportunity came up to join the BBC as what was then called the Head of Interactive Learning. That was in the BBC Learning team, which is the education service for the BBC. That was managing television and radio, commissioning and production of interactive and online services for schools, for students, teachers and parents.

So it was something completely different. It was content related and creative, which was something I was very interested in doing. And I suppose, it was something that was more vocationally meaningful as well, trying to help people learn, help people develop and pass exams, that sort of thing. It felt like it was helpful and useful to try and do.

That’s how I got into the BBC. And then, doing that for two or three years, a role came up as what was Head of Online for the BBC Academy, bringing together a lot of the technology challenges for the L&D functions at the BBC, and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last four or five years.

CW
OK – and how have you seen L&D evolve in that time?

MR
I think now it’s an interesting time. I think a lot of the things that I think I would have observed on arriving in the L&D world, I would have said, ‘quite confused, disoriented, trying to make sense of HR and L&D functions, and a lot of process, and a lot of management tools etc.’

I think there’s now a shift to try and focus more on the learner, on the individual, and I think that’s a really, really important change: the notion of developing products to help people find things out and get things done -, is becoming a more important shift, and I think that’s interesting.

I think there is something that’s going on and required, that we’ve spoken about, is the skills that might be required in the L&D world, to try and help apply tools and technologies to peoples’ needs a little bit more thoroughly and effectively. That’s an opportunity as well.

CW
We have talked about that previously…

MR
We have!

CW
Let’s explore that a little bit… do you perceive that there is a skills gap in L&D at the moment?

MR
I think across the whole of L&D – I think that would probably be the case with any function or any profession.
I think around learning technologies something that we’ve been exploring, and I think is a really interesting idea, is the notion of product development, and some of the skills that are required to develop a good technology product – a good digital product -or a digital experience as part of a service.

So rather than perhaps bringing in people who might be instructional designers, or who have that traditional training background, that L&D background, we’re trying to find people who understand what is it to learn, but have a professional background in things like user experience (UX), information architecture, product management – to try and help us continually evolve a suite of products and features that help people learn, rather than the integration of a single or big system, and the painstaking management of content in those…

There’s a different way of doing things, which is starting to become important.

CW
That’s something we’re doing here too with our own product development, we’re specifically bringing in people from other industries to help inform the design and development process.

In terms of the technologies that are then created, does the skills gap then transfer to L&D developments, in terms of how they can apply those technologies within their organisations?

MR
I think there’s something about digital organisations that’s really interesting – they tend to operate very quickly, take a lot of decisions and move on quite quickly. It’s partly because of the way they’re organised – they tend to be flatter – so the movement of information around the organisation can be very swift. They’re quite open as well, so everyone has access to the same information at the same time.

I think those two features of a digital organisation are quite different, and it tends to mean that you can try things out, move through things, iterate, and have that sense of experimenting. Trying to work something out, and working it out, and then releasing it. Everything is live all the time, and your users are the ones who are telling you whether it’s working or not, rather than having some kind of internal review, then releasing, then reviewing, and changing again.

I think there’s something about being able to work at that pace and understand how things are going almost in real time that could be really useful for L&D departments.

CW
I think that requires a sort of cultural change as well – one of the questions I wanted to ask you was, the way in which products and services are delivered has changed hugely over the last thirty, hundred years or whatever, but actually the way in which we teach organisations to deliver learning hasn’t necessarily evolved at the same pace, and some people might say that’s a technical issue, some people might say it’s a cultural issue – what do you think the reason for that might be, and how do you think we solve it?

MR
I do think it’s technical, and I think it’s cultural as well, but I think there’s a – I’ll borrow a quote from someone who’s smarter than me, who’s published, because hopefully…

CW
Reflected glory…

MR
Reflected glory! Exactly. Or at least some reflected intellect: Clay Shirky, who’s very good with quotes – he said that ‘Institutions tend to perpetuate the problem to which they are the solution.’

I think that’s one of the challenges for L&D and training organisations: we tend to look at everything as a training problem, because that’s what we do. We’re set up to deliver training, we’re set up to design training programs as part of change programs etc. We’re set up to monitor and measure the effectiveness and the ROI of training, so we tend to want to see everything as being a training problem. I think that’s part of the challenge.

Technology now means you don’t need to do that any more. You can still use technology to do that, or to support that, and I think a lot of culture around organisations tends to focus on training as the solution, and then approach the L&D department asking for a training program as the solution to a different type of problem.

I think there’s a cultural point in being able to diagnose more consultatively: What does the business or business unit really need to get done? Is that a learning problem at all? And if it is a learning problem, is it a training problem, or is it some other kind of learning that will be required? And then not being wed to seeing everything as a training problem.

CW
We were talking earlier before about pilots, and how important do you think it is for environment where technology is evolving, cultures are evolving and need to evolve – do you think that it is important for L&D to have access to pilots for ideas and technologies, and have a safe space to fail within the organisation?

MR
I think actually that safe space to fail is a really interesting role – I think it’s one of the interesting roles for the BBC Academy I think, that we can and do at our best play a safe rehearsal space.

I think being able to try things out and work out whether they work or not, and why they work, whether you can do them I think is an interesting point. It’s not always whether the tool is appropriate, it’s have we got the capability and the right mind set to use the tool well?

There was something we used to say – my old boss at ask.com used to say ‘Show don’t tell’. This was mainly around marketing the product to users, but it’s much more powerful to be able to show someone using something, or allow people to have a go themselves, than it is to offer some kind of roadshow, PowerPoint experience that says ‘It’s gonna be like this…’

No. You say ‘This is kind of it… This is it working 70% of the way’ and people get that much more quickly. It’s much more solid communication, people understand it, you can use it. If it’s not going to work then it will get to that point of understanding much more rapidly.

CW
Do you think that’s one of the ways in which L&D can better align itself with the ‘top table’ in its organisation? One of things that’s been suggested to me previously is L&D can find it difficult to find its voice, and say ‘to get people working to the best of their capabilities in this organisation we need X, Y and Z. Do you think that having pilots and that safe space to fail, to show what can be done, is a means of fixing that problem? How do you think L&D find their voice?

MR
I think being able to show and demonstrate is much more helpful – being able to put things in the hands of senior executives in a personal way is much more useful.

I think one of the challenges that L&D has as an industry is almost to think about learners as other people – we don’t tend to think of ourselves in that role, and then I think we tend to approach describing a program to other senior management or executive level in the same way. So everybody’s talking about these ‘other people’, who are going to go through program, rather than talking about ‘ourselves’, or ‘people that we know’, in a much more personal and relevant way.

I think the ability to demonstrate how these things work and what the outcomes are – telling those personal stories – is just as powerful.

CW
That’s interesting because there’re two things there isn’t there – the first one is stopping learning being an abstract concept, something that’s done to other people; but also there’s this idea about personalised and individual learning – what are your thoughts on the importance of that?

MR
I don’t know… I think that is possibly a dangerously attractive hobbyhorse for me! I’ll try and restrain myself.
I think that’s one of the most interesting things that’s starting to change about the way people approach learning.

Full stop. Particularly learning for work, or learning at work or about work. There’s an anticipation that you can choose now, as an individual, what you learn, how, when, and probably where up to a point as well. That’s starting to change the expectation of the kinds of experiences people have when they learn at work.

Those expectations aren’t being set now by corporate technologies, systems, and enterprise systems. They’re being set by everyday digital tools that we use as we move about – buy things – work out the answer to something – ask people.

I think that sense of an individual being in control of how they learn is starting to set an expectation that isn’t well met, often, in an enterprise scenario where there’s a process and there are systems that run in a certain way and the rules around those systems aren’t necessarily set by the individual, so I think there’s a tension emerging there.

CW
I think you’re completely right, because of the way we conduct our everyday lives, our demands for how we consume content, and our expectations of how frictionless or seamless the technology we use to access that content – on demand, wherever we are, when we need it – has changed.

I wonder if for workplace learners, if they’re becoming more consumers, and customers of L&D. Is that something you’re seeing at the BBC?

MR
Yeah I think people are. They have an anticipation that the experience they’re given will match something like that. I suppose that even if they don’t have that expectation consciously, I reckon unconsciously the bar for a good experience is set by those consumer technologies. I think people are starting to behave much more like private consumers in their corporate use of technologies and particularly in their corporate use of learning – and learning content as much as learning technology – that’s become really interesting.

CW
I think that’s interesting as well – and how far learning content can be personalised, or made relevant to individual learners – is that something you’re starting to see an increasing requirement for?

MR
Yeah I think we are – we’re starting to see an anticipation that, whether you would see it as a formal personalisation: login, set your preferences etc, which is probably a little bit of an old-fashioned way of doing it, it’s more I think that people have an anticipation that the learning works best when it’s at its most relevant. And that would mean that it’s most relevant to your context at that time.

I think we need some intelligence behind the systems and behind the content that places that learning in the right moment at the right time, to be as relevant as possible.

Whether that feels personalised or not, so it’s ‘Hi Miles – Here’s your learning nugget…’ at the moment of need, I don’t know, because I think that’s probably not what people are really after. What they’re really after is: problem solved! In a sensible manner, at the right moment, in the right context.

CW
You mentioned intelligence and intelligent learning. There’s emerging noises in the industry about automation robots, human skills are going to be replaced etc. What do you think this represents for L&D?

MR
I don’t know – it’s a terrifying quote which again I don’t know who said it but ‘everything that can be automated will be automated’ – I think that’s scarily true, and I think we’re starting to see that’s the case actually, the intelligence of systems and machines is starting to really, really bear fruit there.

I guess then that competency based-learning, skills learning etc. will become less relevant – over what time frame I have no idea. I don’t think anybody really knows, but we’re starting to see that happening in some areas.

What we need to focus on are things that are much harder to automate, like behaviour and values and those kind of requirements around human relationships.

There’s a lot that L&D does know, and I don’t think, as an industry, we’re probably as effective as showing this expertise as we should be: the decades of experience of running training programmes, in classrooms or in real-world scenarios, face-to-face. There’s a lot of really inherent understanding of how people get on, how people learn together, how do they communicate that learning, what kind of styles of communication work – that stuff is still going to be very, very valuable. It’s much harder for automation to have an impact on that kind of skill.

CW
Absolutely – is that where you see perhaps an evolution of L&D towards? This idea of driving forward behavioural change or enhancing cultural or organisational values to an individual employee.

MR
I think there’s something really interesting in there – I think that L&D can become much more a part of what we might call a change project or change programmes.

I think that’s something we might be able to start to do: to help people make sense of what they’ve learned, as well. I think there’s something interesting in applying some of that understanding of when you know you’ve learnt something, into something that feels like a learning record that you can take with you, that is an imprint of how you’ve learned and developed.

Not necessarily in a formal way, just a list of qualifications as a training record, but something that helps you make sense of what you now feel more confident about, what you know you can do, how you know you can behave. That could be quite interesting.

CW
So are the Academy’s learners empowered to get what they want at the point of need, or is that the vision for the Academy for the future, something you want to move towards?

MR
That’s very much something that we try to achieve. I think that’s probably always been the vision, and it’s a really hard thing to achieve – but it’s a sensible beacon to steer to.

I think the BBC is slightly different to a lot of organisations, I suspect, in that we have a very open policy to the use of technology at work, and to the use of internet and web at work. Because obviously so much of what the BBC does is actually on the web, you need a workforce that’s very comfortable and confident to use that all the time. It’s part of the way people produce content, it’s how research is done, it’s how we publish, in a lot of ways. So people are very familiar with having social tools and information resources at their fingertips as part of the way we work.

I think that sets an expectation, but we need to be careful that we don’t duplicate that with the Academy’s resources and the Academy’s tools as well, so we need to find the right way of mixing what we do with what we know people are already using. We know that people are already using YouTube, we know people are using Wikipedia, we know people are using Twitter and Facebook for work and as part of their work, so we need to find a way of us adding value to that without trying to simulate it or replicate it as well, which is an interesting balance.

CW
That is as interesting balance, so how do you strike it, or try to strike it?

MR
In part – and I think this is where the fact of the Academy has resources that are freely and openly available – we’re trying to find a role for the Academy amongst those resources because a lot of what we publish on our website now, is available to the world.

So we try to make that as useful as possible, knowing that people might find it on social media as much as they’re going to find it because we’ve recommended it to a member of staff.

We’re trying to make things very easy to use, simple to navigate, to share, easier to distribute – those are the kinds of product features that we’re trying to ensure we generate.

CW
And how important is curation in that respect then, the idea that you might guide learners to particular resources that are relevant to them or their needs?

MR
It’s really important. There are some policy issues around how we guide people to things from the BBC – that we don’t look like we’re promoting, we don’t actually promote third party resources. We tend to try and present things – and this isn’t just part of the way the Academy works, this is part of the way the BBC works.

We say ‘There are a number of resources available’ and all of that makes for a better experience rather than just saying ‘Here is the right one’.

Also, the confidence to say ‘Here is the best answer’ to everything? That’s tough, I think. So you need to be very sure that you’re only applying our resources to areas where we can be very, very confident and comfortable that we are a source of genuine expertise on those topics.

CW
It’s quite an interesting discussion because here at Brightwave we’re working with lots of organisations that have platforms that allow their learners to bring in both their own resources and user-generated content as well as the organisation’s content, and I think striking a balance and working out what can work for both individual’s and the organisation isn’t always an easy thing to do…

MR
No – I suppose if we were only offering services to users in the sense of what we were talking about as a ‘consumer learning service’ – I would imagine what we would do is say ‘we are always guided by the user’s decision as to what’s most useful and relevant’. That’s how Google are the success they are: because they know the judge of relevance is what the users choose to use, not what they [Google] design to be the smartest idea.

So I think it’s easier in that sense. If you’re only offering to consumers with a free choice, then – they’re always right. There’s balance to strike in saying, ‘Well they’re always right, but they might not know that there is content and resource that is really relevant that they wouldn’t understand that that is there to choose….’

It’s an interesting balance to strike.

CW
We’ve talked a lot about emerging technologies and evolving cultures. From your point of view, either in the industry generally or the BBC specifically, what do you think is the key issue, the key challenge facing L&D in the next 12-18 months?

MR
I think – this is from my search engine days – I think relevance is the most important thing. I think relevance to an individual at any given moment – that’s what we always need to strive to achieve.

That might mean the relevance of presenting a piece of learning in front of someone at the right time, it might be the relevance of the content, it might be relevance of the objective, but I think it’s always that sense of relevance to an individual – that’s what we need to try and guard, and safeguard, and design for.

CW
If relevance is the most important issue from your point of view for L&D, how do you think organisations such as Brightwave – what do you think the most important thing is for us to do in order to support that relevance?

MR
I suppose it would be – this could be tricky because you don’t always get to meet the learners in that way, you’re having to work through third parties and through your client contacts, but I suppose it’s to try and understand some of that data on what describes relevance from the learner’s point of view.

It’s how you build analytic systems behind your tools and that sort of thing, how you demonstrate what a relevant experience looks like – I think that would be really helpful. I think that would be helpful to you guys, but I think that would be very helpful to your customers as well.

CW
Technology’s often described as an enabler, but the sort of concept it sounds like you’re describing there is L&D as a facilitator – between organisations such as ours which are crafting the solutions and technology and actually the learners, the people who are using and experiencing those solutions and technologies. That’s an interesting conversation to have.

MR
Yes – I think there’s something about use of data that’s really interesting – it’s not all about tracking, and it’s not all about monitoring and measuring effectiveness and ROI – it’s about describing what happened, and why that’s interesting and useful, and I think there’s something really interesting about that capability to analyse.

CW
And what can be learned from it.

MR
Yes – it’s not just to say ‘Oh look at that, that was interesting,’ it’s also, ‘What does that tell you about how to take your next decision?’ – that’s an interesting skill set.

CW
It’s been brilliant to chat to you today, thanks ever so much for coming in, and look forward to talking to you again soon.

MR
Thanks very much.

CW
Thanks Miles!

Follow Myles on Twitter, and check out his blog.
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