Content curation: streams of learning

Stephen Walsh, co-founder of Anders Pink, joins Robin to talk about the biggest learning eco-system, which can benefit a company's learning resources and which is right at everyone's fingertips: the Internet. But as Stephen explains, careful content curation is key.

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Hi, it's Robin here, the host of the Learning While Working podcast and the founder of Sprout Labs. I'm taking a bit of a break from talking about xAPI and data for a little while. I will come back to the themes around learning and data - it's something that I've become really passionate and really interested about.

Today I'm talking with Stephen Walsh from Anders Pink, about content curation. Stephen is one of the thought leaders of content curation and learning. My interest in content curation and learning was triggered when we were doing a review of an online training program for GPs. What we discovered was that what they valued were the links and the resources. GPs are highly self-guided learners; they just wanted to be directed to the right resources and the right content. What they needed was a curated collection of content.

In fact, this led us to a series of features in Glasshouse around content curation. So in Glasshouse, you can build collections of resources that can be displayed by tags or topics, and displayed and searched in different ways.

We're at an interesting moment in L&D. We're moving away from compliance mindsets to a spot where we're starting to think about learning as the future of the organisation. What skills, what knowledge, what attitudes do people need to move things forward?

This quite often means bringing in new practices, new knowledge, new content - and this is where content curation really comes into its own.

Stephen has a really nice model of thinking about content curation in learning as curated streams.

Hi, Stephen. It's great to have you on the Learning While Working podcast.

It's great to be here. Thanks for having me, Robin.

So, Stephen. You were working with Anders Pink. Why did you build Anders Pink?

That's a good question. To answer that I'll give you thirty seconds of history. I've been in learning technologies, e-learning for about 20 years. Always on the vendor side, always trying to sell, and consult, and build, and design learning. And for the first part of my career, that was all about courses, as it generally is for most people in this industry. Courses and platforms. And those are great. I was very happy doing it. And we had a lot of success at Kineo doing that.

But I started to feel like it's just not enough. And I'm by no means the first person to say that. You know, Charles Jennings has talked about 70:20:10 for a long time. Lots of people have talked about social learning.

But I felt like I wanted to go beyond discussing it, and actually try and do something about it. Which obviously others have done as well. But to try to help organisations get beyond this mindset of the course, that learning should just be delivered in these hermetically sealed modules, be they two minutes or two hours, or whatever it might be. And that was the reason for starting Anders Pink. To help organisations find external content, so beyond what's in your LMS, or in your content libraries, or wherever you have this stuff. Look to the outside world, and bring in the most relevant content to help your audiences continuously learn, and stay smart.

So that's basically what we're trying to do. So it's an attempt, I suppose, to try to just change things in learning, and provide a mechanism for getting into that external world, and bringing the outside into the organisation.

Even if an organisation doesn't actually provide a learning ecosystem, and the sort of things about bringing things in, employees and workers do it anyway. They go out to things, to find - to solve their problems, because quite often within that formal course structure that you were talking about, it just doesn't quite often help get them get the tasks done.

Totally agree. I mean, there is kind of an ecosystem there. It's called the internet. And people know how to get to it. And if your listeners are anything like me, if I've got a broken pipe, or an electrical fault in my house, I don't log into an LMS and look for a 20 minute course that I can complete on it. I Google it, like everybody else does, and find the best resources out there. And there's loads of evidence to show that people just do this for themselves. I mean, we all know, because we do it anyway.

But even in a learning context, some of the Towards Maturity benchmark work from last year, they ran a survey. And some of the stats came back saying 60% of people say they learn more from external sources than the formal offer inside the organisation. So they're voting with their feet, or with their hands, to look at external resources. And 70% of them find web resources more useful - essential or useful, versus, like 47% I think it was for e-learning. So people are doing this anyway. They're doing it for themselves.

And you may say, "Well, that's fine. That's not my problem. And it's not my job to organise the internet for them." But I think if you take that view, you are missing an opportunity to do something for the learners in your organisation. So that's my take on it, is that there's a huge opportunity for L&D to rise to this challenge, and to help people to bring the outside world in, in an organised way. And to help people to help themselves.

So that's what we try to do at Anders Pink, and that's what a lot of our writing and thinking is about.

And that's a really nice way of thinking about content curation - bringing it in, organising it, making it more palatable for employees. But it's also making sure it's aligned, is my other feeling, that essentially it's trying to help people access, and be guided toward the content that's right for the future of the organisation.

Totally, yes. I think if you just go about it in a kind of unstructured way. I was speaking to someone the other day who was just told they're in charge of content curation for their organisation, and she said to me, "So I think my job is now: read the internet, and copy and paste the good stuff, and put it somewhere." I know she was speaking tongue in cheek, but if you do it - if it's misaligned, as you say - the risk is you're bringing in junk. There's an awful lot of poorer quality content out on the web. We all see it all day, every day in our social feeds, or on various websites. So you do have to do it in some kind of structured way.

You do have to talk to your audience, as you would do if you're doing any kind of learning intervention to understand from them, what is it you need? If you're a sales team, and you need to stay up to date on trends in your industry, what does that mean? What trends, what topics are you interested in? What sites, what sources would you consider good quality, when it comes to this? How often do you need to see this stuff? Is it every hour, is it every day, once a week?

All those questions, I think, are the kind of scoping, and the needs analysis, to use those somewhat tired old terms, but they're still relevant I think, for content curation. I think you need to go about it in a structured way, and then think about, well, how are you going to organise this content? And you cannot do it manually. I think if you were trying to do it - if you were trying to face into an organisation that's got multiple teams, trying to cover multiple subjects, maybe trying to map this content to a series of competencies, or a series of existing courses, to complement them, and you're trying to do that every day, for every audience, you'll just run out of time.

So I think, be structured, and then use technology. There's lots of tools. Ours is one, there are plenty of them that will help you filter this content, so you're at least filtering out a lot of the noise, and you're seeing good quality content to start with. And then what you do with it from there is kind of up to you, and it's up to your learners about how you want to consume it. There's lots of different options around that.

But I think asking the right questions, and then using technology to filter it, are two really important steps when you start going down this road.

There's a lot in that last response, Stephen, that I'm going to drill into. There are two things there. There's the bit around organising that I want to drill into, and we'll come back to the technology.


Because how to organise content is really something that information architects, librarians, are used to doing. But it's a really new thing for L&D people. And even instructional designers are used to sequencing, organising, in quite a linear way. We're talking about a really different way of organising. What are your gems of wisdom to help people get started with thinking about how to organise a content library?

Yes, I think one thing to think about it is, don't try and think of it as a fixed library. By the nature of the fact that you're bringing in content from the outside world, it's going to be unstructured, it's going to be unpredictable, it's going to be dynamic. If you were trying to organise content around big data, you could write the best structured course in the world, and best information architecture in the world for that. In six months, I guarantee you it will be out of date, because things will change. The industry will change. New topics, new terms will emerge. You can't see those coming. All you can do is make sure that you're looking in the right places for them.

So I would say the first thing to do when you're trying to organise a library of content is get your sources right. And that's harder than it sounds. There are three million blog posts are published every day. 99.999% of them are going to be irrelevant to whatever topic you're trying to cover. But some of them are relevant.

So you need to find the sources that are authentic in those areas. You can look at things like Domain Authority. You can look at how well shared content is from various sources. You can look at who's active in the social networks that's already filtering this content well, and follow them. And you can try to combine those different strands to try to get a good baseline of curated content together.

When it comes to then organising it, I've seen people do it in a couple of different ways. One is to try to map it to existing hierarchies inside the organisations. That might be by topic area. So it might be for our marketing team. We know, because we've talked to them, that there are five or six topics that they really want to track. Let's make sure we're bringing in content on each of those topics, and we're updating it regularly for them.

I've found that audiences don't particularly mind if that content is not perfectly mapped to courses that they've done. That can sometimes be helpful, but I don't think you necessarily have to have a one-to-one mapping between your formal training and your external content. It's messier than that. I think it's about - it's almost more important than how you organise it, is where you put it. Is putting it in the place where it's easy for people to get to it.

You don't want this additional library of curated content to be just another place where I have to go to get stuff. Because I'm likely to want to consume this on the fly. We're talking about bringing in good quality articles from the web, that maybe you wrap a little bit of context around. But you don't have to do a whole information architecture on it - is my view. I think what you can do to help people is just put a little context around them, to say, "This article is relevant because this is something our competitors did." And we should be asking ourselves, "Should we be doing this as well?"

And that's it. You don't have to write a synopsis of the article. You're not trying to write an abstract of it. Just point people as to why you thought this was relevant for them. And if they tell you, "Actually not relevant," - good. That's good feedback. They're engaged. You know not to share that kind of stuff in the future. But just a couple of questions, a couple of sentences to just provide a little context around people. It's almost like reading the comments before you read an article, which - and I'm guilty of sometimes on social is - you get a sense of how important something is by kind of looking below the fold. Well, you can just do that with a couple of comments. Invite people to add their comments as well, if you want to.

But I think the information architecture around this curated content should be fairly light, fairly dynamic. The main thing is just bringing in good stuff, and putting it in the right place. So, to me, sometimes use that model from Harold Jarche: Seek, Sense, Share. It's been around for a while. And he thought of it in a slightly different context, a question of knowledge mastery, but I think it's really relevant for content curation.

So seek: go out and find good content. Use filters to make sure good stuff is coming in. Use technology to narrow it down. Sense: work out loud. Add some commentary. That only needs to take 30 seconds per article that you bring through. And then sharing it, I think is about putting it in the right place for people, so that they can get to it. That might be inside your learning platform. It might be inside a formal course, if that's right for your organisation. It might a curated internal email, or blog post, that you write once a week, or once a month. All those things are up for grabs, but you need to actively consider how you're going to do each of those Seek, Sense, Share steps, to make it right for your organisation.

Cool. That is a really nice framework to think about it. So almost, with the information architecture, it's about organising the streams that are coming in. We've done a little bit of work trying start to think through a bit of a framework for content curation, and the best metaphor I've come across with our commentary is literally sports commentary. And the different types of sports commentary, to wrap around, to give context. So your description was great.

There's lots of software for content curation that have been designed for marketing, but Anders Pink is one of the few that's designed for learning. Can you just talk a little bit more about what it does, and how it works?

Yes, sure. So we obviously - myself and colleagues came out of a learning background, so we very much had our learning head when we were designing the tool. I suppose I could talk about it in that Seek, Sense, Share framework as well.

So the seeking part, we try to make it easy for you to filter content. I think you can talk all day about curation. If you're trying to do it manually by going natively to multiple blog posts, or Twitter feeds, or you're linked to nFeed, or whatever it is, that's just hard work. It's just hard work, just because it's a volume game, there's just so much content coming through on all those platforms. And that's ignoring RSS feeds, and everywhere else where content might exist.

Clay Shirky used this phrase that really stuck with us when we were creating this tool; he said, "It's not information overload that we suffer from. It's filter failure." It's just too much of the wrong stuff coming at us from every angle. It's a massive distraction.

So the first thing we try to do in building the tool is to allow you to automate your filters. So you can use the tool to say, "I want to see content on next generation learning." Or content marketing, or IBM, or big data, whatever. An industry, a company, a topic, a competitor, whatever it might be. You can then filter it further, by saying, "I only want to see articles that also mention a specific region." Or only if they mention trends, or only if they mention case studies.

So what we're trying to do is just narrow down content. Our view is just, less is better, when it comes to this stuff. As long as you're getting it from good quality sources, then you can further filter it by, say, "I only want to see this content from McKinsey, Harvard, London Business School, Financial Times." Whatever sites you want to list there. So you can combine topics, keywords, sites, people on Twitter that you follow, and RSS feeds.

So that's kind of the seek part of it, is you put all that in, which takes a minute or so to set up. Then it will update for you every four hours. So it's a constantly updating stream of content on whatever topic you're interested in.

You can then - you can either use the platform natively to make sense of it. So obviously you can read those articles as they come in, and you can add a comment to them. You can build a team in there, so you can invite your L&D colleagues, you can invite your whole sales team. And you can consume that content together. You can flag stuff, you can upvote it, you can save it, you can share it back out to social, if you want to do that as well. You can do all of that sensing and sharing within there as well.

The piece that a lot of our learning partners are using it for is to then share it into another platform. So we built an API, which allows you to take the stream of content from Anders Pink, and put it somewhere else. So that might be your learning portal. It might be your LMS. It might be straight to your WordPress site. It might be as a stream inside your CRM, so your sales audience can consume it. It might be on your SharePoint. We're kind of agnostic about where you put it, where the point is put is somewhere where people can get to it.

So that's kind of the whole Seek, Sense, Share model. So create briefings, stay on top of content, share it in the right place. That's basically what the tool does.

That's a really nice model, as well. Putting it where people need it, which is maybe in their tool, like their Customer Relationship Management system, CRM.

Now, Stephen, you're doing a lot of work with sales, and support as well. How does that come about, and what is that looking like?

Yes, I suppose I'm a bit - I don't know, bilingual, or schizophrenic, or whatever the right word is. But I've been in learning, and I've been in sales, or whatever. And on the sales and marketing team for a long time as well. So I have empathy with how hard it is for sales audiences to get traction.

One of the big trends in sales at the moment is social selling, which really just means sharing useful content with your social networks, as a way of engaging people. So it's when you share something on LinkedIn, or Twitter, or wherever your audience hangs out, and you do those things that we just talked about. So find good content for them. Add a little commentary or context, explain why you're sharing it with them, and then put it in the right place for them. That, in a nutshell, is what social selling is.

Again, much like content curation, easy to rattle it off and say it. Sales people find it just as hard to find good content as learning people do. So we're doing a lot of work with sales audiences to say, "Look, you need to keep on top of what's happening in your industry." You want your audience, your buyers, your prospects, to see you as a trusted expert, who doesn't just share your own stuff.

Because a natural inclination for a sales audience, and you can understand why, is: company writes a blog post, I'll share the blog post. Great. But if that's all you're doing, you're just promoting your own stuff. That gets kind of old for people, if that's what they come to see you as on social, is just someone who's promoting their own content.

So you have to share other people's content. You can do it in an intelligent way, by adding your take on it, by personalising it. You'll get a lot of the credit for sharing other people's content if you've personalised it for people. But you still need that feed of content coming in.

So content curation, as you rightly said at the start, Robin, the whole phrase really was born out of the content marketing world, where it's very common practise to curate content from multiple sources, and to share it, or to write roundup posts, like: "Here are the top 10 articles on artificial intelligence this month." Those are relatively easy posts to write, so it's well trodden ground in content marketing. In the sales community, it gives people just another way of engaging with a wider audience.

I think sales and marketing, and learning, they're more aligned than might meet the eye at first. And I know you've got this passion as well as I do. I think learning can take a lot from how sales and marketing go about doing things. One of the things they're good at doing is curating content from multiple sources, and sharing it in the right place at the right time. So it's interesting that this phrase 'content curation' has kind of morphed out of content marketing, and into the learning community now. But I think there's a lot of common ground between what both audiences are trying to do.

Yes. Both audiences are essentially about change and influencing, so it's sort of multiple layers of things. And also that sense that it just takes time to learn things, and quite often it takes time to buy things.

Yes, yes. It's a long play. I do say to people, "Don't expect to share a piece of content, and have the sales rolling in." You've got to see it as almost like - and I think it's the same in learning - it's almost like compound interest. You're going to share a few things, not much is going to happen for a while. But if you keep at it, if you keep doing it, you build the routines and habits around it, gradually it will accrue for you over time. I think that's true in learning as well.

That's a really nice line to finish on. A really rich conversation we've had today, Stephen. Lots of great information for people. We'll include some links to Anders Pink as well, and some other links to some of your other resources and e-books as well, and the blog posts. Thank you very much for joining me today.

Thank you very much, Robin. Great to talk to you.