A simple stack of cards can have a greater impact on performance than a fancy multimedia production. Let’s look at ten examples.

1.  A program encouraged managers to be receptive to their subordinates. To reinforce the lesson, they received cards to give to their employees. The cards carried the message, “In the spirit of openness . . . I feel free to raise any issue or concern, and expect a considered response from you.” Any employee who felt slighted was encouraged to “play the card.” 
 
2.  Executives at a troubled company divided cards describing organizational situations into two piles — “That’s us” and “That’s not us.” Then they selected the “not us” cards that felt important to work on. Their choices highlighted how the executive team saw the company and what areas they deemed most important to work on. (Sample card: “We try to resolve differences through mutual discussion rather than escalating them to higher authority.”)
 
3.  High-flying design firm IDEO assembled a deck of 51 Method Cards to inspire its design teams to keep people at the center of the process. Among the 51 techniques: Rapid Ethnography, Paper Prototyping, Shadowing, Camera Journal. IDEO designers use the cards when planning projects and to reinforce the firm’s design processes. 
 
4. Star sales people master knowledge of their products to the point that recall is second nature. It’s not enough for a sales rep to know the answer. She must have it precisely when it’s needed. I asked a dozen sales people to learn one hundred product facts using flash cards. The reps practiced until they could complete the deck in 60 seconds. Sales and self-confidence both rose dramatically.
 
5.  People are happier and more productive when they know what they like to do. Self-discovery cards can help. People sort the cards into three stacks: Me, Sort of Me, and Not Me At All. The cards list general activities like Exploring the Way, Resolving Disputes, Making Deals, and Investigating Things. Eventually, participants narrow their choice to one. The card sort may not yield the depth of results one receives from a vocational testing suite, but then again, it takes less than 45 minutes to kick start the process of self-analysis.
 
6.  People with the same titles at a major oil firm had different ideas of their responsibilities, and management feared the inconsistencies were incurring losses in the tens of millions. The firm had grown rapidly through acquisition, and now it was time to unify the resulting organization. The communications gurus at Xplane devised a deck of cards listing job responsibilities. The staff in question identified each position’s responsibilities by swapping cards until everyone held a balanced hand.
 
7.  Cards can be inspirational. New World Library publishes a deck of cards containing quotations of Eckhart Tolle, the author of The Power of NOW. You pick a card at random and reflect on it throughout the day. Wouldn’t this be a great way to introduce a new team member to the values of the organization? 
 
8.  When I face a situation where participants drift in over the course of an hour, I distribute cards I’ve printed out on my personal printer. They often contain quotations from Informal Learning:
Serious play is not an oxymoron; it is the essence of innovation.
~Michael Schrage
 
Time is all we have.
~Barnaby Conrad
 
Further instructions are not required. People begin to discuss the quotations and their relevance without prompting.
 
9.  Soldiers and airmen used flash cards to develop nearly instantaneous recognition of aircraft during the World Wars. The cards contained silhouettes of planes and photographs of planes in the air. The learning was so successful and the outcome so great that they inspired the opening of the Friend or Foe? Museum in Santa Barbara, California.
 
10.  Merlin Mann describes his invention, the Hipster PDA, as “a fully extensible system for coordinating incoming and outgoing data for any aspect of your life and work. It scales brilliantly, degrades gracefully, supports optional categories and “beaming,” and is configurable to an unlimited number of options. Best of all, the Hipster PDA fits into your hip pocket and costs practically nothing to
purchase and maintain.”

Here are the steps for building a Hipster PDA:

  1. Get a bunch of 3″x5″ file cards
  2. Clip them together with a binder clip
  3. There is no step 3
 
Cards are inexpensive, portable learning tools that engage learners, facilitate decision-making, and improve recall. What’s not to like? 
Jay Cross helps people work and live smarter.

Jay is the Johnny Appleseed of informal learning. He wrote the book on it. He was the first person to use the term eLearning on the web. He has challenged conventional wisdom about how adults learn since designing the first business degree program offered by the University of Phoenix.

A champion of informal learning and systems thinking, Jay’s calling is to help people improve their satisfaction in life and performance on the job (they’re not unrelated). His philosophies on the power of informal learning and net-work have fundamentally changed the world of learning in organizations.

Jay co-authored the landmark book Implementing eLearning, founded Internet Time Group, served as CEO of eLearning Forum for its first five years, and writes a column on effectiveness for CLO magazine. He is the author of Informal Learning: Rediscovering the Natural Pathways that Inspire Innovation and Performance (Pfeiffer, October 2006) and the Working Smarter Fieldbook (2011). An internationally acclaimed speaker and designer of corporate learning and performance systems, Jay is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Business School.

Jay and his wife Uta live with a miniature longhaired dachshund in the hills of Berkeley, California. Jay was born in Hope, Arkansas, (same room as Bill Clinton) and grew up in Virginia, France, Texas, Rhode Island, and Germany.

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