Interview with Ken
I had the opportunity to sit down with Ken Flesher, President and Founder of BaseCorp Learning Systems to ask him a number of questions. Full disclosure, these questions came from my students at Concordia University in Montreal, QC where I teach a graduate course on Human Performance Technology. Because their questions and Ken's answers were so enlightening, and because we are going through such unprecedented times with COVID-19 and having to work from home, I thought it would be interesting to share Ken's perspective. So, without further ado...
Ken, why don't you tell us a bit about yourself and why you founded BaseCorp.
I actually started off in aviation as a pilot, and in the early days, as you are trying to build hours, you often become an instructor, which is what I did. Teaching and instructing brought an enjoyment for helping people learn, and I decided to go back to school and complete a bachelor's degree in Education and a master's degree in Educational Psychology so that I could better instruct my students. While I was teaching, I continued to build up my ratings and continue to fly to where today I can fly a jet single pilot. In aviation, I had the privilege of seeing how exceptional training can be done using the most sophisticated and expensive tools like full flight simulators.
Within this industry, I started at a company called TTG Systems, originally called The Trainer Group, where I started to learn about the different tools and toolsets that organizations like that provide, including learning management systems and the consulting and learning resource development that is required when you are implementing large-scale learning and training programs into organizations.
I started BaseCorp Learning Systems in 2001 and we have continued to evolve the organization over time and today we are doing some really cool things.
How has the field changed over the course of the last 20 years?
First of all, there are some obvious changes around technology:
- Internet performance is workable now - when I started it was pretty intermittent and really wasn't used very much.
- Sound and video capabilities have improved for the learning resources that we build.
- The capabilities of current LMSs are years away from where they were 25 years ago, and clearly the price points are dropping, making the technology more available and accessible to more organizations.
- I have had the privilege of watching Microsoft evolve over 20/30 years from some pretty rudimentary tools where today we use Microsoft Office and the 365 Suite (Project, SharePoint, Visual Studio, etc.).
- Virtual reality - with recent announcements from Apple and others we'll see more of this.
- Artifical intelligence - especially is some of the more sophisticated simulation work that is coming down the pipe and, again, the pricing is coming down making it more accessible.
In addition to technological changes, we also have to consider the skill sets of individuals in this field and changes to the needs of our customer base. There was a time when you would go in and spend a lot of time doing education with your customers, whereas today they often have sophisticated training departments so the processes we bring forward are different, and, I'd argue, better.
There has certainly been change, but a lot has remained the same. Organizations still need to provide specific training and employees still need to demonstrate their ability to perform to set standards. Furthermore, the science of learning continues to hold true, integrity in business still keeps you in business, relationships still matter, and you need to deliver what has been specified on time and on budget.
What is the biggest misconception that most people have about what you do, and this field?
Organizations like ours are often called training companies. Most in the industry, and certainly in our firm, are not trainers - although many might have training or educational qualifications or experience.
I am often asked what I do for a living - the answer is multifaceted: I run a business, the business develops a software product, develops learning resources (all types, from paper-based through to high end online learning courses) and we provide consulting services for medium to large organizations for the implementation of competency-based learning programs.
Training is what happens from our customers' perspective - but we build all of the supports required to make learning work and to improve performance in an organization.
What are some challenges that you faced 20 years ago and still continue to face today, despite all the new technology that we have?
New technologies and our technical capabilities are much better. However, the pace of software development is much faster and keeping up is sometimes a challenge. For example, many of our customers require that their online learning be accessible to all types of learners and so we work with an authoring tool that enables individuals who have a vision impairment to navigate through the course with a screen reader. Well, a new version of the authoring tool that was just rolled out broke some of the accessibility fixes that we had programmed within the application. New versions of software can often improve functions, but sometimes it's difficult to go back and fix previously developed courses without rebuilding them.
Productivity is key then and now and is difficult to achieve in a profitable manner. Ensuring that our employees are highly credentialed and skilled in what they do is important for productivity, yet they still must be able to fully integrate their skill set within a team environment. We use business development specialists, instructional designers, application specialists (MS Project, Lectora, Storyline, Captivate, SharePoint, etc.), graphic artists (AI, Photoshop, Audio Editing), technical writers, script writers, audio voice talent, video producers, software programmers, project managers, development and change consultants, learning consultants, QA specialists and other support personnel like business analysts, accountants, etc. Often our people wear more than one hat. Based on experience, we have found that it requires a minimum of eight people on the team to get a solid learning resource out the door in a timely manner. At the same time, we still need to be competitive with the one-person shop working from home with little overhead.
In cases where your client has strong sentiments about a particular product, but you do not, how do you go about guiding them in the right direction?
This is a great question because early on in my career I would get pretty headstrong about certain definitions and processes and I learned over time to be more flexible.
First of all, there are often multiple ways to get to the end product. It is important to ask yourself why your way is better than their way. And then, if your way is a better approach, the best way is to show them through an actual demonstration.
Don't be afraid to have them show you why they think their way is better - for their environment, what they are suggesting might work better. You may learn something - I am still learning from my customers.
We recently worked with an organization who had their own learning management system that didn't have the same capabilities as our product, however, it had already been licensed and integrated into their Enterprise Resource Planning software (Peoplesoft, SAP, Bonn, etc.) and integrated into the employee modules for grade and pay info. Our ability to make it work, using their software, provides a superior benefit to the customer.
How long do you need to continue to work with a company after the implementation of new technology? Do you offer a certain guarantee to your clients to ease their stress when investing in a new technology?
We typically, when implementing a full learning program, work with the customer to bring in the right skill sets during the implementation (LMS Administrator, Learning Resource Change and Development Specialist, Leadership, etc.). These individuals ultimately assume full control of the program at the completion of the final pilot and we work hard to make sure they are ready to deliver and manage the program when our consulting services come to an end.
Our work at the completion of an implementation is primarily for the ongoing development of additional learning resources. We continue working with customer SMEs to complete the master skill profile, developed early in the process, or the list of required courses. These learning resource engagements can last years if we do a good job and stay price and quality competitive.
We also guarantee our own products. While we are not in a position to guarantee all of the other technologies we use, we find the best possible guarantee is to set up an exemplar and offer project collateral early in the project of what it is we will be implementing. A fully working example, including all aspects of the complete package that can used for communication purposes throughout the implementation process, is very helpful and eases any customer fears. This exemplar package is critical for some of the change management aspects of the project as well.
As Generation Z begins to enter the workforce, what are some new challenges that you have encountered in L&D? What is an example and how did you overcome it?
Well, to be truthful, I may not be in the best position to answer this question. Only a small percentage of our customer base is just starting to see Generation Z enter the workplace. Our products and processes have not changed in a measurable way.
Millennials make up the majority of our customer workforce, and apart from some technology changes over their work life, little change in our processes has occurred.
We do offer an Early Childhood Education program that is supported in multiple jurisdictions across Canada - we are working with lots of young people getting their first jobs. The course itself is primarily online, with instructors offering support and the marking of learner assignments. This program was designed for that age group originally, so we have not had to alter the program other than to add new content enhancements.
What are some great learning and development programs that you'd recommend we familiarize ourselves with in today's educational technology market?
Remember that I do not work in the K-12 or post-secondary market. Our focus at BaseCorp is government, association and corporate customers. My answer will reflect that consideration.
For larger implementations, a solid grounding in project management technologies and processes will be helpful. Consider becoming proficient in MS Project Online.
Learning resource development tracking technologies like SharePoint can be important for all sizes of project.
Change management is one of the key attributes for success when implementing a large-scale learning program. Get to know the science or psychology of change management and be a good practitioner of change management.
Understand what a Learning Management System is and the various types, and work with one of the commercial grade learning resource development tools - Articulate Storyline, Lectora, Captivate, etc.
What are your main tips (or resources) that you would recommend to remain up to date with modern technology that would be relevant to educational technologists/instructional designers? How do you go about filtering out the best ones?
Part one: Simply work in the industry - consider a private learning resource development vendor as an employment option. By working with a private developer, not unlike ours, you will be asked to understand and use the latest technologies. Private vendors stay competitive by being on the cusp of the new stuff. And customers tell us what they like and do not like on a regular basis. And, of course, there is our old friend Google - look up the top ten sites and see what they are doing.
Part two: Sadly, the best filters are trial and error. We have made, and will make again, the wrong choice and have had to dig ourselves out of the mess. At the end of the day, if a technology provides the appropriate outcome, and meets the required price point, consider using it.
What advice would you give to recent graduates from an educational technology program who may be applying to companies similar to BaseCorp? In other words, what are desirable skills or experiences that you typically like to see in a potential applicant?
Don't be afraid to start as a technical writer or learning resources developer and work your way up to instructional designer, senior ID and then project manager.
Clearly, there has to be an academic credential commensurate with the role you are applying for - typically, the minimum would be a university degree, and a master's level degree may be required. With it, you have a certain level of credibility, both within the organization and with outside customers.
Secondly, you should have a real passion for learning what others do. You are going to see how organizations operate, the real nitty gritty. This is a real privilege, and one of the key attributes that has made my career very interesting. And you are going to see their problems on a daily basis - you had better like helping to solve those problems from a learning support perspective.
We talk about culture at our organization, we even have a poster and a course structure with an online test that is part of our onboarding process. The attributes are best summarized with words like honesty, integrity, a very strong skill set and work ethic, and a get it done attitude.
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Sarah is an Instructional Designer at BaseCorp Learning Systems and is currently completing a PhD in Educational Technology. Her research focuses on implementing competency-based learning systems in all types of organizations. When she doesn't have her nose in a book you can find her at the gym, on the ice, on the ski hill, drinking wine or in a coffee shop … with her nose in a book.