At Northwestern University I teach leadership influence using a micro-learning method. It breaks content into small actionable chunks called knowledge cards. Participants author, share and use cards to experiment with influence techniques. The process is enabled by social and mobile software. It reaches into the workplace and continues post course.
Although this story is rooted in a university, I outline how knowledge cards can be used in an organizational setting in the Challenges & Solutions section.
While this innovation spans multiple organizations I will focus on the most recent applications at Northwestern University.
The School of Continuing Studies at Northwestern University offers a number of outstanding under graduate courses, graduate degrees and professional programs. In the graduate program where I teach students can pursue a Master’s degrees in 10 different areas ranging from Medical Informatics and Predictive Analytics to Creative Writing, Sports Administration and Public Policy. The School believes that leadership skills are essential for all graduates and a course in the Foundation of Leadership is required in most programs. A given section of the leadership course includes students from multiple programs.
Early in my career I worked in the field of knowledge engineering and artificial intelligence. Using techniques from cognitive science I studied how minds work in a practical setting and used the results to build expert systems, improve work flows and otherwise address business issues. Exciting stuff.
Over time I noticed that employers had trouble showing a return on investment in soft skills training. They would spend money/time on training designed to improve employee communication, teamwork, creativity and other interaction and personal productivity skills but did not see the change in behavior and improved business outcomes they wanted. Employees understood the concepts in the training but were unable to translate them into action back in the workplace. Trainers know this as learning transfer problem.
Interestingly, some employees are very good at solving the problem. They take the training and have little trouble putting it to productive use. I used protocol analysis and other techniques from cognitive science to study how they did it. It turns out they were breaking down the abstract concepts and skills taught in the course into small actions or experiments they could try while working. They tested new behaviors daily and learned from the experiences.
More specifically, they converted general advice and complex how-to knowledge into small knowledge chunks that naturally supported the cognition of learning from experience. They did this without prompting or support.
Inspired by this positive deviance I began to experiment with various ways of converting the knowledge in training manuals, how-to books and other sources into right-sized chunks that could be used in very short time frames. I initially used 3x5 cards as “knowledge atoms” because they were common and their size helped to guaranteed small chunk that could be consumed in short time periods (micro-learning). Many different formats and designs for knowledge cards have been tested.
Over a period of several years I develop knowledge card formats, content conversion methods and supporting tools that can make a good dent in the learning transfer problem. Hundreds of client, students and colleagues have contributed.
It turns out that knowledge cards are an excellent tool for teaching influence and other leadership skills.
Let’s look at an example to make the rest of the discussion a bit more concrete. Below is an example knowledge card for practicing an influence technique.
Both these cards have the same content. The first is the formatted to draft and test the card. The second is formatted for use in a mobile app.
The card teaches one step in a classical influence technique. The title promises a benefit (learn to convince other people) and the quote builds energy or refers to authority (famous inventor). The THINK section describes one proven technique in plain language and gives an example. The DO section describes one vital behavior or small step for using the technique.
The best knowledge cards can be read in less than 30 seconds and include vital behaviors that can be tested with a 2-3 minutes of effort. This small-step design is critical as it keeps the cognitive load of learning from experience down to a manageable level even for very busy people.
The small content chunks and short time frames means that a single knowledge card stimulates micro-learning. Imagine having an entire deck of knowledge cards covering all the techniques, attitudes and vital behaviors needed to master the competencies and habits of positive influence. You could play the cards daily and quickly discover those techniques and behaviors that work best in your context. Overtime mastering the micro-lessons on the relevant cards accumulates into the broader macro-scale competencies of influence.
Initial applications of knowledge cards were in a corporate setting. The decks were designed top-down and cards were written by one or two experts. Employees were assigned specific cards to play and results were measured by making behavioral observations in a work setting. Initial results were spotty but encouraging.
Results improved with the following refinements:
- Participants would review the deck and select the cards they wanted to play
- Meetings were held periodically with a coach or in a group to discuss results and share advice
- Cards were emailed, embedded in day planners, put on tables in decorative holders or otherwise situated to provide a reminder or nudge for participants to use them
- Some participants were motivated to create and share their own kCards and created some community effects
- Card format was shorten and simplified to something that could be read in 30 seconds and played (used) in 10 minutes or less.
Self-selection, coaching, nudges, small steps and co-creation are all powerful effects for engagement, learning and behavior change. While these factors are obvious in retrospect learning them the hard way has made knowledge cards a much more robust micro-learning technology.
Teaching at Northwestern
As adjunct faculty at Northwestern University I regularly monitor and review the literature on motivation, learning, behavior change, design, knowledge management and other areas related to my teaching and advising responsibilities. This has led to better understanding of a theoretical foundation for knowledge cards and many new ideas on how refine the method.
- Knowledge cards have been tuned to meet all the requirements for establishing and maintaining motivation in adult learners. Research shows that adults keep going on tough learning tasks when they feel in charge, that the activity is worthwhile, they have the skill to get started and those skills improve with time. Having learners select a deck and the cards to play (self-selection) insures that they feel in charge and that the activity is worthwhile. The titles and quotes on cards are designed to motivate and inspire. By limiting each card to a simple but meaningful step learners feel confident they can do it and will see their skills improve as they apply it in different contexts.
- Micro-learning theory recognizes that much of learning happens in very small time steps using tiny bits of content. That in part accounts for the popularity of blogs, apps, Twitter and YouTube. A major challenge in the field is how do you design a process so that all the micro-lesson coheres into macro-scale understanding and skills? To create a deck of knowledge cards you map an improvement goal into a competency model and then develop and test cards focused on the techniques/habits of people that are highly skilled in each competency. In this way, participants can focus on playing cards and the structure afforded by the competency model insures the micro-lessons are naturally linked into broader or macro-scale themes and skills.
- Just as the competency model provides a backbone for insuring that learning scales from the micro to the macro level it also provides the structure needed to take a crowdsourcing approach to the creation of a deck. The model naturally divides the overall task, allowing participants to work independently on knowledge cards for competencies that interest them while at the same time proving a table of contents to roll up the individual efforts into a functioning deck. This means the approach naturally supports both a social and constructivist approach to learning.
For more detail check out the Five Lessons of Behavior Change. It shows how knowledge cards have been optimized using behavioral science to support the major steps in the learning from experience process.
Leaders 481 Course
Over the past several years I have had to good fortune to teach the foundations of leadership to hundreds of graduate students (mostly working professionals) at Northwestern University.
In the on-campus course we focus on how to think strategically about value, achieve lasting behavior change and make culture. The basic framing is that leadership emerges. rather than being assigned, when someone is passionate about making things better, has an authentic insight into how to do it, and has the positive influence skills to bring it about. There is a strong emphasis on projects and soft-skill development especially in the area of influencing when you are not in charge.
Course participants author, test and refine three of their own cards. They systematically field test other participants’ cards and assemble a deck of six cards for use after the course. Knowledge cards are 25% of their grade.
To facilitate this work I set up a private Ning social networking site. The site provides a platform for creating and sharing knowledge cards as well as accessing training materials and templates. I developed an evidence-based competency model for leadership influence and built it into the site so participants can crowdsource a deck. There are 300+ members in the network and over 438 influence cards on the site. The competency model and card count are shown below.
More recently, I worked with a developer to create a mobile app called NewHabits to make it easier to play, manage and share knowledge cards. For an overview of NewHabit’s functionality and how it supports knowledge cards check out the screen walkthrough.
Taking a crowdsourcing approach using the Ning knowledge card site has worked well. Participants pour their own style, experiences, context and energy into the cards and that turns out to uniquely appeal to a subset of other participants. This is similar to the YouTube effect and would be impossible to duplicate having one or two expert authors create the deck. The key is to make it easy for participants to quickly scan a large number of cards to find those that match their psychographics.
Happily, participants are able to start with a simple description of a high-level competency and then quickly author a group of cards that upon review reveal important sub-competencies and deck structure. The slide below shows an example of this bubble effect.
With just a simple description of the influence competency – establish a likeable presence (in the box to the right) - participants developed 92 cards that revealed 9 distinct sub-competencies (listed to the left).
The social approach also promotes peer recognition and feedback as well as rapid card refinements.
Participants report strong satisfaction when they have the option to customize the cards look-and-feel. Adding color, graphic effects and images improves the engagement level of some authors as well as the cognitive impact that cards has on anyone that uses it. I created a design challenge for participants to develop a look-and-feel that captures the essence of leadership influence.
A collage of samples of this visual creativity effect is shown below.
My current activities include refining the methods and tools in my leadership class and exploring ways to scale by working with authors to publish decks on NewHabits and instructors to apply the method to their courses.
With 438+ cards in the influence deck we have created an excellent resource for using micro-learning to learn leadership influence skills. The key now is to make it easy for participants to scan, self-select and play/use the cards.
It also means that participants will need another leadership development area to focus on when learning to write knowledge cards. In the last few weeks, I set up an evidence-based model for emotional intelligence (EI) to meet this need. Research suggests that it is our emotional intelligence (EI) more than IQ that is responsible for success and happiness in life. Some reseeach also support the claim that EI accounts for the majority of the difference between excellent and averagage leadership.
In the broadest sense EI includes our ability to manage ourselves and relationships with other people. At the core, being smart emotionally means you can spot, surface, understand, stimulate and manage positive and negative feelings in yourself and others to achieve specific results.
The competency model and an example cards are shown below.
Clicking on each competency reveals a brief description and sample card. For example,
Clicking on, 4. Identify and Understand Emotional States in Others, reveals
Recognize and empathize with the emotional states of others. Understand how emotions drive their words, behaviors and results. Differentiate emotional reaction from passion and value-based commitments.
Most participants (90%+) indicate a preference for playing and using knowledge cards from a mobile device versus a printed format. They have devised various ways of getting this done. For example, one participant shared this tip:
"I converted the kCard into a jpeg-formatted image and saved it in three different places on my iPhone for a two-week period: 1) the lock screen, which is the first view I see when my phone rings or when I activate it; 2) the home screen, on which the kCard is a backdrop that I see at all times when browsing my applications; and 3) my saved photo/image file, which provides an additional reminder as I search through recent images. The use of my mobile device not only provided handy access to the kCard’s information and instructions, it consistently reminded me to stay on task."
While this works well for a few cards it can be a time intensive way to manage large decks. The NewHabits app (mentioned earlier) can help solve this problem. The app launched at the end of March this year so I am still experimenting with the best ways of using it the course.
I am also exploring ways to scale up and diffuse the knowledge cards mico-learning method.
For example, the NewHabits app is designed to be a marketplace for decks of knowledge cards. This means participants in the leadership course or other interested authors can publish decks they create through the app. I am actively seeking new authors and am working on projects to publish decks of knowledge cards focused on mindfulness, teamwork, emotional intelligence, brain health, personal money management and weight management.
There are many fine books that seek to change our behaviors or help us master new soft-skills. Knowledge card decks in NewHabits offers a new way to summarize or supplement them as a mobile app. Knowledge card may even be a new type of e-book optimized for mobile use and behavior change.
Finally, I am working to apply the knowledge cards method to different types of courses. This involves collaborating with other trainers and educators to see if they can adapt the tools and methods for use in their courses.
Knowledge cards can be used by individuals or teams in any organization to micro-learn new leadership skills. To get going pick the leadership ability you want to develop and then decide how to create and use the cards and measure results.
A few factors to consider:
- The leadership ability you pick can be a broad capability (e.g. influence, emotional intelligence or innovation) or something very focused (e.g. speaking up and constructively challenging the status quo). If you pick a broad capability you need to develop a competency model for it. Earlier in the story I shared competency models for influence and emotional intelligence. Evidenced-based competency models for a wide range of abilities can be found in the literature.
- Options for authoring cards include use existing decks, have experts author new cards, engage micro-learners in writing their own cards or use a hybrid approach. It is best to start with an existing deck. Participants can focus on using the cards to produce results. Once the knowledge card idea is clear, learning to work together to write cards is a natural next step. If you are creating a deck from scratch, have a content expert author example cards and then engage the group in completing it.
- Using a deck of knowledge cards to develop leadership skills can be included in the daily activities of any employee. They can be embedded in existing training, coaching or organizational improvement efforts. For example, you could include a deck of knowledge cards as a post-training aid in a leadership development class or provide them to mentors and coaches to use with employees on a one-on-one basis. A manager could decide to share a deck with her team and use part of the time in a weekly staff meeting to discuss the cards. Knowledge cards are natural fit for Kaizen or continuous improvement training and events as driving change is a core skill in such efforts. Individuals interested in developing their leadership skills could script the use of decks into their employee development plan. A project manager could use a small deck to accelerate or deepen the formation of a team.
- Options for measuring the impact of micro-learning are the same for other interventions and include satisfaction, test for knowledge, behavior change and direct outcomes. One unique thing about knowledge cards is that the conceptual knowledge (THINK section) and new behaviors (DO section) are encoded on each card making it relative easy to test for and observe changes in knowledge and behavior.
Knowledge cards work best when:
- Participants receive a brief orientation to the knowledge cards concept and understand why the organization is using them.
- The micro- learning and habit formation occurs as participants work and interact with others at home and in the community so no off-line training time is required. But an expectation to play a card each working day and record results should be set.
- Participants are free to select the cards they play and are encouraged to write their own cards and share them with others.
- Participants working on the same deck can interact with each other (in-person and on-line) to share experiences and build community.
- A part-time facilitator is available to answer questions, teach others how to write knowledge cards and expedite group interaction.
- There are specific outcomes or behaviors that can be observed that signal progress toward the new skills and behavior changes the cards were designed to create. Formal outcome measures as well as anecdotes and impressions from participates can be used to demonstrate progress or spot problems.
Try a Rapid Experiments
You can use existing tools and knowledge cards to start fast and cheap. Form a small group of volunteers that:
- Are open to a micro-learning approach
- have an Apple mobile device (iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch)
- are interested in developing as leaders by improving their ability to foster innovation in the organization.
Have the team:
- Download NewHabits – a free iOS app for publishing, sharing and using knowledge cards
- Review the five decks of knowledge cards on innovation
- Select a deck the group is interested in working on
- Play the cards using the guidelines provided in the App.
Be sure to encourage the group to interact regularly to share experiences. Keep things simple and measure satisfaction and collect stories at the end of the experiment. You should run this experiment for at least 30 days.
I developed the innovation card for individuals looking to improve their own abilities or for leaders, educators, consultants and others that seek to improve team innovation or establish a culture of creativity.
Innovation cards support micro-learning a number of competencies including:
- Find or energize an innovation calling
- Reframe thinking to find new ways of creating value
- Learn rapidly and deeply from experience
- Influence others to adopt new practices.
In short, the best innovators have a cause, think flexibly, experiment and can influence others to take action. Innovation cards include five decks for a total of 125 cards, all backed by research. Leadership and innovation have much in common so developing innovation skills is an excellent way to build leadership capacity.
If you don’t want to use the App I have attached an example deck of innovation cards focused on building observation skills in the Document Section of this story. You can use them in paper or electronic form to conduct your experiment.
A more ambitious experiment involves creating your own deck of knowledge cards. While it takes a bit more effort, there are numerous advantages to having the learning group author their own deck. I have included material in the Document Section of this story that should be useful for getting started. You will find an overview on how to write the cards and can download a template for authoring cards.
Feel free to contact me to discuss experiments and application ideas.
Knowledge cards are relatively cheap and easy to implement so they don’t encounter many of the implementation challenges of other interventions. However, using them to develop leadership competencies does present interesting challenges.
CHALLENGE: Participants believe that leadership is primarily a matter of organizational position and that without title they are powerless to effect significant change. SOLUTION: Write knowledge cards that have them practice using personal or network power to influence organizational decisions. For example, the current deck includes 35+ cards on how you use technical expertise and specialized knowledge to demonstrate authority and influence organizational decisions. It is a vivid experience for participants to see how their expertise and knowledge can have organizational impact when they learn how to simplify technical messages, read decision-making styles and make other small adjustments to their approach.
CHALLENGE: There can be skepticism about the effectiveness of a small-steps approach. How can you become a leader with a deck of 3x5 cards? SOLUTION: Provide a forum (on-line and/or in person) for participants to share their stories in using the cards. This quickly demonstrates that small behavioral adjustments can produce significant and immediate impacts. For example, knowledge cards that involve the simple acts of smiling or counting the number of lies you hear in day generated a lot of buzz. In addition, a presentation or whitepaper can be shared detailing the evidence-based model being used and explaining how the facilitated use of decks of knowledge cards supports the cognition of learning from experience. This reveals the complexity hidden beneath the cards which is essential for initial buy in from some participants.
CHALLENGE: Although many participants start by playing existing knowledge cards, for maximum impact you want to encourage them to author and share their own cards and even decks. Knowledge cards required the ability to write concisely while conveying positive emotion. This can appear difficult to many participants especially if English is not their first language. SOLUTION: Provide on-line and in-person training with templates and examples. Start by learning how to write each component of the cards (title, quote, Think and Do). Participants can submit drafts privately and get specific suggestions for improvements. Make sharing optional and reward those that do. Approximately 90% of participants can write good knowledge cards after feedback on 2-3 practice cards.
CHALLENGE: Some participants feel that practicing new soft-skills in the workplace is risky. For example, they may appear inept or clumsy. SOLUTION: The do section on each card focuses on a simple vital behavior to practice and is designed to minimize the perception of risk. For example, asking specific types of questions or striking a behavioral pose. In addition, knowledge cards are used in a lifewide way and participants can first practice at home, while traveling or in other less risk sensitive contexts. Emergent leadership is a lifewide experience.
CHALLENGE: Participants are extremely busy and may forget or not have time to use, share or write a card. SOLUTION: Use technology to simplify knowledge card activities and build them into the daily routine. The Ning social networking site makes it easy to find, write and post knowledge cards. The NewHabits app makes it easy to manage a collection of cards, set reminders to play them, share them electronically with others (email, IM, Twitter, Facebook) and access new decks. Ning sites are inexpensive ($20 month) and the NewHabits app is free and decks are free or low cost ($1-2 range).
Taking a micro-learning approach brings the concept of leadership out of the clouds, demonstrates that personal and network power can be used to influence organizational outcomes and provides a small-steps talent development method that can be integrated into a busy lifestyle.
It equips and energizes participants to lead with positive influence skills even when they lack formal authority.
Progress Towards Moonshots
Knowledge cards demonstrate the importance of enabling a micro-learning approach to developing leadership competencies. This enlarges the frame of management education that has traditionally focused on macro-scale interventions such as courses, projects and developmental assignments.
Knowledge cards work by having participants meaningfully experiment daily with new behaviors in a lower cost low risk way. This demonstrates the value of experimenting more often and more cheaply in both personal and business terms..
The concept of little experiments is made explicit to participants during their orientation to the knowledge cards method. A simplified version of the process for learning from experience is presented (see below).
The knowledge cards “sets the stage” for a small but systematic experiment with a specific behavior or technique. Once participants learn this experimental method with knowledge cards, it should be natural for them to embrace using a plan-do-check-adjust cycle on a larger scale improvement project or the use of rapid prototyping in a design thinking approach.
Knowledge cards work best when groups collaborate to develop large diverse decks. Developing decks on a social networking platform to address organizational improvement goals and employee skill development needs will create an internal market for ideas, talent and resources.
Two thirds of participants (working professionals from multiple industries) that completed my graduate course in leadership at Northwestern University reported that knowledge cards had a high or very high impact on their development of influence skills. This is based on a sample of 110 participants from 9 different sections of the course over a two year period. In the same sample, half the participants indicated that the likelihood of continuing to use knowledge cards after the course was high or very high.
Pay Close attention to What People are Doing with Your Innovation. Many of the refinements made to knowledge cards came from close observations of what participants where actually doing with them. For example, writing field notes on the backs of cards, getting enjoyment out of customizing color and graphics (and therefore sharing more often) and setting an image of a knowledge card to the lock screen on a mobile phone so you are constantly and naturally nudged to play it, all emerged from knowledge card users.
Blend in Rather than Stand Out to Get Going Fast. In the early phases of knowledge cards I stressed their novelty and ability to replace existing training and development methods. That generated resistance. Presenting them with no fanfare as a post-training aid met with rapid uptake.
Don’t Automate Too Soon. Much of the early work in knowledge cards was done with paper decks (literally decks of 3x5 cards). This kept cost down and made experimentation very cheap. We did not have to retool or recode to explore try different formats (e.g. double-sided). It also insured that we really understood use cases and functional needs before using software. I still prototype and test with paper decks.
Cognitive Factors are Important and Sometimes the Entire Show. The micro-learning model works because it is sensitive to cognitive factors and reduces mental load by thin-slicing learning content. Cognitive factors are also important for the design of the cards, especially in paper mode. The card thickness, use of rounded edges, lamination, color and meaningful graphics and other look-and-feel elements all have a strong impact on how readily participants would share cards. A lot of teaching, learning, behavior change and development can take place when one participant shares a knowledge card with another.
Make it Easy to Co-create, Group-create and Crowdsource. The more people that are involved in the creation of a deck of knowledge cards the more behavior change and outcomes that are produced. Creating cards (versus just using them) deepens the learning. Working in a group triggers incidental and informal learning and sometimes community effects. The key is to lower the barriers to participation and offer an easy on-ramp and rewards.
Hundreds of colleagues, clients and graduate students at Northwestern University have authored, applied, tested and refined various knowledge cards and deserve credit for advancing the concept and practice.
The NewHabits App was developed by a technical team led by Jason Becker, COO of DyKnow / RICS Software and co-founder of remember.com.
To get a hands on feeling for how this work download the NewHabits iOS App. It comes with two free decks of knowledge cards so you can get going right way. If you don't have an Apple mobile device, you can see how it works in this screen walkthrough.
For quick reads on additional examples check out these blog posts. Below in the documents section you will find:
- An introduction on how to write knowledge cards
- An example deck of innovation cards
- And a working paper on the five lesson of behavior change that explain the theory behind the approach.
For additional information please leave a comment on this entry.