Putting on a good show

One of the defining moments in the career of any small-business owner must be the realisation that you cannot be good at everything. The typical business begins as a one-person enterprise, at which time the entrepreneur has to be simultaneously the R&D, marketing, personnel and production departments. If the original idea is successful and the chosen business model suits it, new people will be recruited, and most of them will be employed to carry out the business’ main purpose. In our case at NlightN, most of my colleagues are designers or programmers, as our original purpose was the development of training products on CD-ROM. I soon realised that I neither enjoyed administration, nor was sufficiently organised to be good at it, so I was happy to take on a book-keeper/admin assistant. Over the years, I have steadily delegated some of the other tasks that I’m not best suited for.

Putting on a good show

The biggest issue for me remains that although I’m the most experienced programmer in the company, I spend most of my time managing other people, at which I’m rubbish (just ask the people who work for me). I’m also rubbish at marketing – my attitude has always been that if I put together a logical and well-costed business case then the work will automatically come our way, but bitter experience has taught me the error of such ways and I now understand that relationship skills are at least as important as analytical skills in securing new work. It appears that being nice to people is critical. Fancy that.

Since I’m completely unable to be nice for extended periods, I decided to employ someone to do it for me. NlightN has been very successful over the past few years despite lack of niceness, but I wanted to expand our client-base and that’s my new marketing manager’s job. And so it came about that I found myself agreeing to exhibit at the Learning Technologies Show at Olympia in January. This was completely new territory for me, and the prospect of spending two days smiling and shaking hands persuaded me to pass the buck straight to our team extroverts Nat, Kristina and Angela (with Internet nerd Ibrar lurking in the background should the discussions get too technical). Karma being what it is, when I eventually did turn up at the show (after suffering an extremely uncomfortable bout of food poisoning) I got stuck in a lift for 20 minutes. Apologies to any readers who turned up on the stand looking for me, but frankly, after the lift incident, I wasn’t exactly coherent.

The exhibition itself offered an interesting snapshot of the multimedia e-learning industry in 2005. We would already attended the World Open Learning Conference & Exhibition (WOLCE) at the NEC in November and many of the same names cropped up at both. There is a laudable trend to try to put the development of some e-learning products into the hands of non-techies. At first sight, it might make sense to have the e-learning created by an expert in the subject to be taught, but this brings with it a number of problems. The first is that a subject matter expert may well not understand the principles of designing effective e-learning programs. Putting together a high-quality learning program is a specialist skill, and this aspect of development is at least as important as the mechanics of assembling the content. It is the difference between an architect and a builder: both are needed to make a safe house, and simply handing over an authoring tool to the SME is like asking a builder to work without any plans, with results that can be similarly disastrous.

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