Maria often works from her local coffee shop. She always engages in a bit of people watching while she’s there. For the last two months, she’s been observing Jack, another frequent patron of the coffee shop. Jack meets clients for a coffee at least once a month. Maria is impressed by how effectively Jack builds relationships with his clients, and she wanted to learn more about his strategy. Although they’ve never spoken before, Maria decided to approach him after his latest client left.
“Hi, Jack. That was a great closing you did with Priya. I’ve seen you here a bunch of times, and I’m always impressed with your work.”
“I’m so inspired by you! Will you be my mentor?”
“Will you be my mentor? You know, meet with me for an hour or two a week, answer my questions, coach me so I can improve my skills? What do you say?”
Jack packed up his laptop and bag. “I’m sorry, I don’t know you. That’s a big time commitment for someone I just met. Besides, I need to go now. But here’s my card. Why don’t you email me so we can set up some consulting? I’ll send you my standard rates.”
Maria left the coffee shop feeling a bit deflated and surprised that Jack didn’t agree to be her mentor. She wasn’t quite sure what went wrong.
Requests for Mentors
If you saw this behavior in a coffee shop, how would you feel? It would be a bit bizarre, wouldn’t it? We don’t go up to strangers and ask them to donate hours of their time.
Online, however, these sorts of requests are commonplace. Here’s a sampling of messages I’ve received in the last few months:
- “I’ve been on the lookout for experienced professionals such as you who can offer professional advice/opinions and if possible act as a mentor to our team.”
- “I was basically looking for some kind of mentor as this field is very new to me. “
- “Would you be interested in mentoring me on this project?”
- “Will you mentor me in instructional design and e-learning?”
- “Given the experience and skills you have, I am sure you are the right person to guide / mentor me.”
I receive so many requests to mentor people that if I mentored everyone who asked, I’d never have time to do any actual instructional design work. It’s just not feasible to spend that kind of time one-on-one with everyone who is looking for a mentor. When people ask me to mentor them, I wonder if they really understand what they’re asking. Do they really expect months of free consulting? Their requests are the online equivalent of Maria badgering Jack in the coffee shop. I try to answer a few questions for free, but a long-term relationship would mean taking time away from paying clients. It’s flattering. I just can’t do that kind of mentoring.
Personal Learning Networks
What do you do if you’re new to the field and need some help though? Rather than looking for a single mentor who will spend hours working with you (a pretty big commitment to request of a stranger), work on building your personal learning network or PLN. A PLN is basically a group of people you’re loosely connected to, usually online, who support you in small ways. You can help your PLN by sharing helpful resources or answering questions yourself as you’re able. Instead of asking a single person for a significant amount of time in a one-way mentor relationship, you find a large group of people who can all help you a little bit.
Kathy Schrock’s guide to creating a PLN is one place to start learning about PLNs. This concept has taken hold more in K-12 education than in the workplace, but I think the ideas and strategies can work for people in any field. Harold Jarche’s PKM (Personal Knowledge Mastery) model is a related but more comprehensive structure for workplace learning. In Jarche’s Seek – Sense -Share model, you Seek knowledge from your network and Share what you learn back to the network. That network could be called a PLN.
Whether you call it a PLN or something else, most of us in today’s workforce aren’t going to have a single one-on-one mentor who guides and shapes our careers. That’s the old way of learning in a hierarchical organization. In a networked world, our lifelong learning should take advantage of the availability of the network. In fact, you can probably learn more from a network than from a single person, even if you only learn a small amount from each individual in your network.
Where do you find your network? How do you connect with people? How do you share what you’re learning so the relationship is reciprocal?
Do instructional designers or learning experience designers need to know how to use development tools, or should they focus just on analysis and design? What about people who only do development but no design; are they instructional designers? How much project management falls under the role of instructional designer? What about LMSs—do instructional designers need to know about those too? Psychology, cognitive science, graphic design, usability, and other fields also overlap with instructional design. The Many Hats of an Instructional Designer game describes us as counselors, performers, users, artists, and problem solvers.
Many of us in the instructional design field struggle to explain to others what we do for a living. I usually say, “I’m an instructional designer; I develop online learning.” I think part of our struggle is that we haven’t agreed even among ourselves what exactly an instructional designer does. The range of roles and responsibilities is pretty wide. Lots of us do a little bit of everything. Nearly 16% of respondents in the eLearning Guild’s 2015 salary report identified their job as “do a lot/little of everything.” Clearly many people do work that doesn’t fit neatly into a single job category.
The core skill for instructional designers is creating learning experiences. I would argue that anyone who isn’t creating learning experiences isn’t an instructional designer; they’re working in a related role. That doesn’t necessarily mean only designing formal learning and courses. Creating job aids or supporting informal learning could be a core task for instructional designers too. However, if your role is taking a storyboard created by someone else and building it in a rapid development tool, you’re not really doing instructional design. I would classify that as elearning development or media development instead.
We need broad skills and understanding (the top of the T), with potentially one area of deep expertise (the vertical bar of the T). The horizontal bar enables you to communicate and collaborate with experts across a wide range of disciplines, making you a versatile generalist with a well-rounded point of view. The deep vertical bar makes you a specialist.
I love this idea. It’s a great visual for thinking about how people have different strengths in a field where we all wear a lot of hats. Knowing where you’re strong helps you focus your career. You can work on your weaknesses or gaps in your skills, but you can also emphasize and focus on your strengths. As a freelance ID, I can focus on design and writing, especially writing scenario-based learning. That’s my strength, and it’s where I can differentiate myself from others in the field.
What about you? Does this metaphor resonate for you, or does it not quite fit your role? What do you consider to be the vertical bar in your T?