Elearning superstars: Matt Borg of Acteon

This month we’re kicking off a new series of interviews called ‘E-learning superstars’.

‘E-learning superstars’ is a series of interviews with Directors of top e-learning agencies and thought leaders worldwide.

This month we had the pleasure of talking to Matt Borg, Managing Partner of the inspirational communication and learning agency Acteon.

Would you mind giving us an overview of; Where you are based, what you do, and the clients you work with?

We’re based in Cambridge, we’re an award winning training and communications agency, working with organisations of all shapes and sizes that are looking to improve communication or transform behaviour in some way. We work with many major pharmaceutical companies Abbott UK, AstraZeneca, GSK, top companies in private healthcare like HC-One and Priory Group, professional services companies like KPMG, property companies like Hamptons and Knight Frank, and in broadcasting we work with Channel 4. We’ve been successful in those partnerships. We’ve won E-learning Awards in a “best e-learning project” category six times in the last eight years. We have a track record that we’re very proud of and we’re glad we’ve been able to deliver real impact for the clients we work with.

Quite diverse projects then?

Yes, I think one of the key things that is unique about Acteon — and it’s what we look for when we’re looking for new consultants and new instructional designers — is that we can quickly get up to speed on a new subject area and almost become a subject expert while working on a project. Even though we have expertise in certain sectors, we’re not tied to one particular sector. We have people who can work across many different sectors and communicate quite complex and specific professional training for those sectors. For example, with KPMG we might be working to train auditors and accountants on changes to international accounting standards, and within pharmaceutical companies we’re training their representatives on a new drug that’s about to be launched. That flexibility is a real strength and is valuable to our clients.

What excites you most about what you do / your agency does / the effect your work has?

Well, personally, I really enjoy working in new subject areas and turning that into something that really teaches and instructs and changes behaviour. I think that’s what instructional design people love — that’s the buzz that we get, I suppose.

There are a few other things that make me really proud to work in e-learning. One is seeing people who are sceptical of using a computer for learning change their attitude and embrace it. There are many who don’t have computer skills or just don’t like the idea of doing training on a computer. Maybe they’ve done classroom training their whole life and they feel intimidated by the computer. They might not know how to use a computer, they’ve never used a mouse before and some of them have become converts! When that happens, we feel like we’re not only teaching this subject to them, but that we’re actually helping them overcome a fear of using computers that will help them in other areas of their life. Seeing them turn around, embrace it, champion it and become an ambassador for e-learning, I think that’s really exciting and testimony to the work that we do.

The second thing — something that really drives us at Acteon — is seeing the programmes that we’ve created make a real difference to the business. Seeing the difference we can make to the metrics that the top leaders in the organisation are watching. We’re focussed on making a difference for that organisation in a measurable way. That’s what we aim for at the start of every project: a positive impact where it really counts. We get great satisfaction when the leaders of the organisation point to one of our programmes as a key contributor to their success.

And finally, one of things we’ve really excelled at is helping to drive engagement with e-learning. We work hard to make sure that the e-learning we produce actually gets used and doesn’t wither somewhere on an LMS vine. We’ve had great success and won several awards for “securing widespread adoption” of e-learning — often in companies where e-learning was not a popular option for training.

When clients approach you, generally what are their highest priorities? In particular, how important is responsive design now?

It’s interesting, because one of the benefits of working with an agency like Acteon is that we can help our clients define their highest priorities. What should be important or what’s most important is not always what’s presented at that first meeting. Sometimes it’s about helping clients navigate around the problems that they don’t even know are lurking out there, and responsive is definitely one of those. A key question that we ask at the start of a project is, “Do you want your people to access this from their personal devices?” Sometimes it’s something that they haven’t thought about or that they’ve taken for granted; it’s an assumed deliverable as part of the project. So if the answer is yes, we need to look at responsive at a minimum and maybe even a full adaptive interface. I would say more and more, responsive is a critical part of the project.

I think blending is something that’s also more important to a lot of people. I’m glad that it is. I think the message is beginning to get out there that it’s not always enough to provide just a one hit “silver bullet” and hope it’s going to change behaviour. These things need to be part of a phased approach to help people learn and adopt a new behaviour. People are now looking for ways to blend the module with offline activities, reflective questions, face-to-face and social interactions. In critical areas like health and social care, clients are looking for new ways of checking competency. We’ve built that online/offline blend straight into our Knowledge Centre product. That mix was a key part of the work we did for Channel 4 – finalist for Best e-learning project this year — and the award-winning work we did with HC-One.

What is the most important change in e-learning that you’ve witnessed in the last couple of years?

I think the most important change is probably not a technology change, but is instead the way that agencies approach their project work. It’s really great to see agencies aiming for measurable behaviour change and real action. I think that’s a step forward for the maturity of learning technology — that it’s seen as something that can really make a difference in business and as something that the top leadership can count on. That’s a key change. That’s got to come before we really think about technical tools.

A second improvement is something I mentioned earlier which is seeing more learning technology projects move beyond just the online module, beyond the silver bullet, one-off approach, but part of a time-phased campaign. Something that includes lots of different mediums, maybe video, face-to-face, articles in the employee newsletter, all things contributing to a phased approach to make lasting change.

A third one is a topical change, and that’s the “Bring your own device” (BYOD) phenomenon and the demise of Flash. There was a time when Flash allowed e-learning developers to reach across many devices in the knowledge that it was going to behave well. But with the iPad not supporting Flash, and the shift back to HTML, we’re now open to incompatibilities across different browsers. Meeting that BYOD expectation is just a bit more challenging.

How do you manage your clients to make sure projects stay on time and on budget – whilst remaining exciting and innovative?

I think the most important thing is to agree objectives at the start of the project. Begin by asking “What are we trying to do with this piece?” and “What does this add to the campaign?” and “What metrics should we see move if we get this right?” Those sorts of fundamental foundational questions need to be agreed at the start of the project. Once that’s agreed, then we have one fixed point, we’ve all agreed what we want to happen, and now we’re free to innovate. What we have to avoid is starting with creativity in the absence of any objective. That’s where I think you can waste a lot of time, creating and innovating only to have to refocus your efforts because you were aiming at the wrong objective. You buy yourself a lot of project time to be creative if you nail down some strong objectives at the start of the project.

So you make sure have you have a foundation of practicality before you begin innovating?

Yes, absolutely, otherwise you are innovating without a goal. You’re in danger of developing a product without a market!

What are the biggest project challenges / roadblocks your team regularly encounter?

I think we’re not alone in this, and it’s an understandable roadblock, but one of the biggest challenges is that subject matter experts and reviewers have competing priorities. SMEs and reviewers are busy people with full time jobs, and often content reviews have to fit in around the edges. What we try to do is make the process as easy as possible for those reviewers because we know they’re short on time.

How do you approach that?

Well, one of the main things is to use online review to comment on the live system. There were days when once one had a Flash module ready for review, the client would end up with a Word document with screen shots, feeding back by referencing ‘Page 4’ or ‘that picture’ in a separate document. What we look now are tools that can allow us to put a fully functioning module online for the client and write a comment directly onto the elements in question. In terms of tools, online review is a huge step forward!

What are your top tips for co-ordinating your team and increasing efficiency?

I think the biggest efficiency gain has been from online review. Elucidat and Seminar Author have online review and we find that essential. Minimising the load on the reviewer is very important to us. We have to remember that these people are not doing this work as part of their normal job. This might be the only module they ever feed back on, so we give them the right tools to do their work easily.

Internally we have knowledge sharing lunches twice a month where we have lunch together and someone presents a project and the challenges they encountered and how they worked around them. So we’re constantly learning from different projects and I think that increases the efficiency across the team.

What could help speed up your production process even more? What would the ideal e-learning authoring environment look like for your team?

This is difficult! It goes back to one of the big challenges, and big opportunities that we have now with browser standards and BYOD. We have the challenges of different devices rendering content in different ways. The ideal would be if browsers all adopted common standards, but that’s not in our power. So the key is to use authoring tools that have done the hard work to ensure cross browser compatibility. That’s a must for us in choosing our environment.

How do you think e-learning is going to change over the next few years?

I hope that e-learning will continue to escape the confines of the LMS and that we’ll increasingly see learning throughout the corporate network and across the internet. I hope we’ll see more of the trend that we were part of starting in the UK which is to see e-learning as part of a larger campaign that also includes other internal communication tools.

How do you keep up with changing trends?

To keep up with e-learning escaping the LMS; I think Tincan is going to be a huge part of that. We’ve adopted Tincan in the tools that we’re using, just to be ready for it. We’re helping our clients implement it where it’s appropriate.

As far as e-learning as part of a larger campaign, the tools we use for blended learning are excellent in bringing together a variety of performance support tools but also offline experiences. We’ve built the blended campaign approach right into the heart of our Knowledge Centre LMS.

Who are your e-learning agency superstars? Who do you look to for inspiration?

I work with 30 superstars! Everyone from the graphic designers to instructional designers to the guys that make it all work and help our clients complete millions of e-learning modules. To me, those are the superstars. I feel really privileged to work with them.

There are some great agencies in the UK. As Towards Maturity Ambassadors and sponsors of the Learning & Skills Group we get to share ideas with a lot of those amazing agencies.

I think if I could draw out one example — and I think a lot of people will agree with me — the contribution e-learning that Unit 9 and the Resuscitation Council made last year was amazing. It helped us all see what ‘great’ looks like. It was just a fantastic example of e-learning, that was a real inspiration to me and a lot of people in the industry. Not every programme can be or needs to be like that one in order to meet its objectives, but the Resuscitation Council delivered a fantastic example of what’s possible.

For us, we also look outside the e-learning industry for fresh ideas. I think we all want to see it grow and mature and I think that means learning from outside too. We should look at advertising and marketing agencies and look at how they run a campaign that drives behaviour change, for example. What can we adopt and bring into e-learning? Look at the online news media. Look at how the BBC and the New York Times produce online content that instructs and informs. There are some beautiful responsive designs and one page infographics that really inform, and we try and learn from them.

To answer your question, there are lots of great things happening in the industry, but we also want to look at other industries and pull in the best that they are doing too.

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