Are we on the verge of a learning system breakthrough?

I've been experimenting with a popular video-based training platform as I continue my journey as a lifelong learner. The platform is excellent and offers a variety of resources; in fact, there are so many options to choose from it's sometimes hard deciding where to go next.

And that's the problem. The platform doesn't really know me. It's designed as a one-to-many approach where the content is extremely broad and it's up to the user to figure out where to invest their time.

There's nothing wrong with that approach but it doesn't take advantage of today's technology capabilities.

If we could combine three distinct technologies I think we could take a huge leap forward in learning systems. I'm talking about (1) voice UI's (think Alexa), (2) modern text-to-speech services and, (3) artificial intelligence (AI) where the platform learns about me and therefore delivers a custom, one-to-one, solution.

Voice UI's are all around us but they're still in the new, experimental stages. Early TV is sometimes referred to as "radio in front of a camera" and before too long we'll describe today's voice UI's in a similar fashion.

One way voice UI's will move forward is by having access to enormous libraries of richly tagged content. I say "richly tagged" because the content will need to be granularized so that it can be searched and reconstituted in an infinite number of ways depending on each user's needs. Also, we shouldn't rely exclusively on Amazon and their capabilities, hence the need for one of the more modern text-to-speech solutions which are often indistinguishable from an actual person.

The third leg of the stool is the AI to power the conversation, learn about me personally, understand how to answer and where to take me next.

It all adds up to a user experience that feels like I'm receiving one-on-one training from an expert on the topic. Over time the system learns about me and my strengths and weaknesses, just like any good teacher. It also builds successful learning paths based on different user skill and learning preferences thereby making the system even more useful for future users.

I'm curious if something like this already exists, even if it's on a small scale or in the early stages. The pieces of the puzzle are already available so it's just a question of pulling them together, managing the IP rights/income streams and offering it at a compelling price.


Think Again, by Adam Grant

I typically determine the value of a business or self-help book by the number of times I stopped to highlight portions of it along the reading journey. After recently finishing Think Again, by Adam Grant, I can say it's easily the most highlighted and thought-provoking book I've read in quite some time.

In fact, there are too many highlights to squeeze into this article so I recommend you buy a copy of your own. In the meantime, here are just a few of the best excerpts I'm still thinking about...

The curse of knowledge is that it closes our mind to what we don't know.

The single most important driver of a forecasters' success was how often they updated their beliefs. The best forecasters went through more rethinking cycles.

As a general rule, it's those with greater power who need to do more of the rethinking, both because they're more likely to privilege their own perspectives and because their perspectives are more likely to go unquestioned.

When we try to convince people to think again, our first instinct is usually to start talking. Yet the most effective way to help others open their minds is often to listen.

Resisting the impulse to simplify is a step toward becoming more argument literate.

When someone knowledgeable admits uncertainty, it surprises people, and they end up paying more attention to the substance of the argument.

Rethinking is more likely to happen in a learning culture, where growth is the core value and rethinking cycles are routine.

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die.

In the face of any number of unknown and evolving threats, humility, doubt, and curiosity are vital to discovery. Bold, persistent experimentation might be our best tool for rethinking.


The unexpected benefits of simply asking "Why?"

Curiosity is an important attribute for any successful businessperson. It's something I always try to measure during an interview, for example. That's because I've found the more curious someone is, the more likely they are to embrace change and want to learn new things.

I'm frequently amazed at how rarely we ask each other "why?" over the course of a day. Some people worry the question will be interpreted as them challenging their colleague. Others feel they just need to do what's asked and not question the logic behind the request.

In reality, "why?" is where learning often starts.

I've often wondered how many times something I thought was a simple request turned into a major homework assignment for someone else. The higher you are on the org chart, the greater the likelihood your requests become the new top priority. Again, there have been countless times when what I regarded as a low-priority, 5-minute task suddenly caused a team to drop what they're doing and spend half the day answering. Ugh.

I try to be specific by saying things like, "this is low priority" or, my favorite, which is, "if this takes you more than 5 minutes it's not worth doing." Despite those guidelines I've still experienced plenty of situations where my request derailed other higher-priority activities.

One of the things I've started doing is regularly encouraging the team to ask me "why?". More importantly, I now say, regardless of my request, if it's going to take longer than 5 minutes to complete please be sure to ask me why I need it. This not only helps provide context for colleagues but it also leads to better open communication. Better yet, sometimes when answering the "why?" I'm forced to think further about my request and realize either (a) it's not what I really need or, better yet, (b) my colleague has a better way of helping me answer the problem I'm trying to solve, and that's priceless.

So do yourself a favor and encourage more of a "why?" culture throughout your organization. I promise you'll appreciate the results.


The failed promise of turning webpages into a podcast

How many times have you found an interesting article on the web but you have no time to read it? This happens to me every day and despite the variety of save-for-later reading tools out there they all tend to fade into the background and I forget to go back and read what I've saved for later.

When I saw this article on Springwise I immediately took a closer look at the solution it described. The article talks about how a "web browser extension transforms saved articles into podcasts." It turns out this extension is like many others; it simply does a text-to-speech conversion and creates an MP3 file. IOW, there's no connection to a podcast stream. So although the conversion produces impressive human-sounding results (click here to listen to my previous article), it falls short of the promise of transforming anything into a podcast stream.

This seems like a potentially enormous opportunity and gap for someone to fill. Imagine a one-click solution that truly gathers all your saved articles into a stream for your favorite podcast platform. What if that system eventually became so popular that audio ads could be injected dynamically, creating an income source? OK, yes, there would be a number of IP rights issues to potentially overcome but I could also see a model where that revenue stream is shared with the IP owner, alleviating that legal issue. Another interesting feature would be where I could follow others and listen to the articles they curated in their feed; as we've seen with other platforms, those with the biggest following also earn some sort of affiliate income. There are loads of possibilities here and it's all about transforming the written word into audio for broader consumption.

If something like this already exists please let me know. I'd use it every single day and I'm sure there are millions of others out there who would do the same. It's also one of those rare problems where I'd gladly pay a reasonable price to solve.


The future of collaborative digital content consumption

Amazon's recent Watch Party announcement sheds light on what the future holds for digital content consumption. It's primitive, yes, but a step in the right direction.

To summarize, Watch Party lets two people watch a movie together even though they're not in the same location. The first version limits interactions to texts and emojis but you can bet a future version will support video on both ends so you can make faces and feel closer together.

With Alexa (and Prime) Amazon has built an incredible platform for on-demand content which can be simultaneously enjoyed by multiple people regardless of location. Podcasts are a great example. There have been a number of times when I wanted to listen to one with my wife when I was probably driving home but she wasn't in the car with me. Today I'm forced to stop and wait till we're together.

In the future imagine using nothing but voice commands to tell the podcast to pause, see if my wife wants to join me, then play it for both of us to enjoy remotely. Now a channel is open for us to listen, pause, comment to each other, etc., as if we're both listening in my car.

Take it a step further and think about longer-form learning. What if two or three people want to take a course together, listening and/or watching, over an Alexa-powered Zoom-like communication platform where, again, pausing, commenting, etc., is all enabled via audio commands. Thanks to a powerful search on the back side of this you're always able to pause and ask for a deeper dive on any topic that comes up.

I realize a great deal of the learning process takes place in solitude. That means textbooks don't necessarily go away but voice UI and synchronized platforms like Watch Party will undoubtedly lead to new options for learning as well as entertainment.