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NogginLabs was founded on the notion that custom e-learning design and development is the ultimate horizontal industry. Time and again, each new project, client, and industry proves it. The biggest advantage of the e-learning horizontal is cross-pollinating ideas from two wildly different domains. A restaurant service simulation for iPad may influence a high-fashion online retail challenge. E-learning for financial advisors in a bank could inspire a mobile outreach program for cancer survivors. This variety also keeps the creative folks at NogginLabs fresh. Fresh learning ideas and designs come from a set of constantly changing constraints.

What an iowan wheat farmer taught me about building better e-learning


What an iowan wheat farmer taught me about building better e-learning

Jonathan Baude

Now, listen. I know what you're thinking: This clickbait headline is just trying to lure me in with the promise of an in-depth discussion of wheat farming. Or maybe you think I'm trying to game the system and get in on that crown jewel of SEO, the red-hot "wheat farming" keyword search. But I'm dead serious. Well, -ish. See, I've been thinking a lot recently about this biologist named Norman Borlaug. Maybe you've heard of him—for good reason. A few decades ago, through ingenuity and perseverence, Borlaug changed the world.

Borlaug developed a hybrid form of wheat that's both resilient and versatile. By cross-breeding a number of wheat lines with different genetic make-ups, Borlaug was able to create a new line that was incredibly disease-resistant. He also faced down one of the biggest problems with wheat farming: the taller the stalk (and the more it can yield), the more likely the stalk is to fall under its own weight and fail to grow. But by using a process called dwarfing, Borlaug was able to breed a line of semi-dwarf corn with thick, strong stalks that could grow significantly taller than existing wheatstalks could. These new strong, disease-resistant, high-yield wheat crops offered an exponential increase in the amount of wheat farmers could grow. This made huge strides to boost world production and reduce hunger in Mexico, India, and many other parts of the world. For his game-changing innovation, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

And here's the thing: Borlaug didn't have to do any of this. Wheat has been around for a long time. People had been growing wheat for something like ten millennia the old way, and it seemed to be working okay. But when faced with the natural limitations posed by modern wheat farming, Borlaug tackled the problem head on, found creative workarounds, and made an innovative product that changed the face of the world.


It's really, really hard to solve a problem when you won't admit it exists. It's human nature. We want to deny that anything is wrong and find a magical solution to our problems. But it just doesn't work. When you're trying to come up with an innovative solution, you've got to be honest with yourself and ask: What's the problem? What are my roadblocks? How do I get around them? At NogginLabs, we love to ask these questions. Especially when they seem stupid. Because it's right there, exactly at the point of complication, that you'll find the most beautiful solutions.

Of all of NogginLabs' philosophies, this one's my favorite: "Constraints force innovation." Seriously, I love it. I even put it on my business cards. I love how undeniable it is. If you approach your training like business as usual, trying old tricks on new problems, the best you can possibly hope to create is a vague, tepid, ineffective product. But when you have a frank discussion about what's holding you back and start thinking about creative solutions, you can build this fantastic cocktail of complexity, honesty, and all-around awesomeness. And that's when you really get results.

Do you have a tech-savvy, seen-it-all learning audience? Maybe you need to rethink your training with gamification.  Are you trying to reach an audience with hectic, irregular schedules? Think about an a la carte training platform that lets people learn at their own pace. Do you have a retail audience struggling with how to take key concepts onto the salesfloor? You might be in need of performance-based training. There's no way of knowing exactly what you need until you face the problem head-on. The potential complications are limitless—and so are the solutions.

So whether you're a humble agricultural scientist or a custom e-learning company, don't shy away from your problems. Not even close. No, embrace them. Learn from the complications. Challenge your assumptions. Break the mold. You'll end up with an infinitely stronger product. And, I gotta be honest, it's a heck of a lot more fun that way, too.