Ep 3: Alfred Remmits on performance support and the business impact of learning
Learn about how to design learning content that effectively supports employee performance with Alfred Remmits.
Learn about how to design learning content that effectively supports employee performance with Alfred Remmits.
In the third episode of Untold Stories in Learning & Development, Alfred shares the power of meeting employees in their moment of learning need, as well as the business impact it brings. He also shares how he came to work with Bob Mosher and Dr. Conrad Gottfredson, both of whom developed the 5 Moments of Need® framework. Tune in to hear Alfred’s story.
Read our free guide to learn how leveraging your employees knowledge can speed up and scale the creation of learning material.
00:40: Introducing Alfred Remmits
03:30: Alfred’s background and early career
06:30: Making the switch from learning to performance support
08:45: The Xprtise origin story
11:15: Diving into the 5 Moments of Learning Need
13:45: Lessons learned from Alfred’s career
16:45: The biggest milestones in learning and performance support
18:30: How to connect learning and business needs
20:30: The culture shift that is most needed in L&D
25:40: The current state of education and the L&D industry
28:10: Wrapping up
“Especially Learning & Development departments and people are very hesitant resistant to change. They believe what we have done for the past 30-40 years in our classrooms, with our beautiful e-learning was good. (…) But they were not – and are still not – interested in the business impact.”
“I think with COVID we saw we had to do things differently.”
“How do we ensure that our people have the right information at the moment that they need to perform a task?”
“Learning for the sake of learning doesn’t mean anything.”
While running his own IT training company in the 80s and 90s, Alfred Remmits observed the challenges of traditional training solutions. Learners would sit through training sessions but struggle to recall their newly acquired knowledge on the job. That’s when he discovered the solution: performance support.
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Kasper: Today my guest is Alfred Remmits. The podcast is about giving a voice to people that we don’t hear all that often. So, I think that the whole space of Learning & Development is sort of dominated by a few thought leaders who are all over the place writing, speaking, presenting. And what we want to do is talk to a lot of people will have different directions and different backgrounds in Learning & Development. So last week, we had Louise Puddifoot who is working in L&D for a long time first as a bit in corporate and then with her own company. Alfred is more on the other side of things, on the vendor side of things, so expect an interesting conversation. So, Alfred, can you give a short introduction of yourself maybe?
Alfred: Yeah, Kasper. Thanks for inviting me today. Look forward to the next 30 minutes of talking with you. My name is Alfred Remmits, living in the Netherlands, 61 years old, and started my career in Learning & Development exactly 35 years ago. On September 16, 1986 I started my own IT training company in the Netherlands, grew that to an organization with about 200 employees, and sold that in 2000 to an American based roll-up. So been active now 35 years in Learning & Development and I always say the last 10 years were the most interesting because things are coming together based on what I have done in the years before. And it’s now coming to a point where I’m doing the things that I really believe in. And so, I look forward to talk about that. I’m a father with 4 children, married for over 30 years, and working most of my part in the Netherlands, the UK, and the US. So I travel, or used to travel a lot before COVID; I was about one to two weeks a month abroad. And for the past 18-19 months, I’ve been in the Netherlands, doing everything that I used to do on travel through Zoom and through Microsoft Teams.
Kasper: And that’s working out for you as an alternative?
Alfred: Um, it’s a painful alternative. You know, I like I like to meet with people, I like to see people. And, you know, it’s working better in the Netherlands from a business perspective because it’s easier to communicate and see people here in the Netherlands. But it’s difficult with people in the UK and in the US. You know, I was used to go to conferences to meet people at the big trade shows. And that has not happened for a long time now. And you know, generating business in the Netherlands is easier that way, you know the people…
Kasper: And you already have the relationships.
Alfred: You already have the relationships. And that’s the big difference. But it seems that the US will open again in a couple of weeks. So look forward to travel again.
Kasper: Okay, yeah. So indeed, I have been staying at home as well for 18 months. But last week did a trip to Ukraine to our team there and just experienced again how it is to meet face-to-face and what it adds. So, next week, I will go to our office in Dubai and do the same. So ,traveling is starting up a bit again. But I think the online component has grown. So, you said a couple of interesting things that I want to explore a bit further. So, you said at the start of your career, you started up with an IT company. Can you give us a bit more about what was that about? And what did you want to achieve with that?
Alfred: Yeah, I don’t have a background in Learning & Development. I studied a Minor in Psychology and a Master’s in Social Science. So I graduated at the University of Amsterdam end of 1985. I started this job at the unemployment offices as a market researcher. And then in early 1986, I saw that a lot of companies were buying personal computers. And I think a lot of people won’t remember the double floppy IBM machines –
Kasper: The IBM IT – I had one indeed.
Alfred: Absolutely. And I saw companies buying it and struggling with: how do we use this new type of tools in our organization? So I thought it would be interesting to start a training center to train people on those computers. So started an IT training center in the south of the Netherlands, became one of the larger players in the Netherlands. At a certain moment, we had nine locations, 60 classrooms, over 200 people that were creating course materials and delivering training all over the Netherlands. Most of it was end-user training, but we also did a lot of reskilling of engineers, software developers, and so on. And I even started in that time building e-learning, Kasper. We had an e-learning company as part of our holding with about 30 people and started in 1988/89 building the laser disc e-learning programs, and then moved into interactive CDs – CDI – developing
Kasper: Called computer-based training at the time, of course.
Alfred: Yeah, absolutely. And then in the mid 90s, moved to the internet. So been in learning a long time, been in the traditional space of classroom training, and a bit of the old-fashioned e-learning models until 2000. And then moved into a technology company. I created one of the first performance support technology companies in the Netherlands. Grew that between 2001 and 2014, and sold that company, stepped out. And one of the reasons I stepped out was that I found that I was really doing technology for the technology. So, everything that I approached with this technology had to be a nail because my technology was the hammer. And I found that when you design and develop learning solutions, it’s not about one technology, it’s usually about a combination. And it’s about –
Kasper: Can we go one step back, by the way, Alfred? Because I’m really curious to find out… So, you were in like a more traditional learning environment. And you decided to go into a technology company. Not only that, but also to move from learning to performance support. What was the trigger for that? Why was that?
Alfred: When I did all the end-user training on the old Lotus and WordPerfect apps, and later on, on the Microsoft apps, I found that people really liked the classroom training. And after three days of training, we got real good evaluations. But they had to come back many, many times in refresher trainings. So, what we found was that people could learn something, but were not able to perform at the moment of need when they were behind the computer and tried to do a pivot table. They forgot, and they didn’t know how to do it. And then it was very difficult to find how to do it in the course materials, you know? You had to find the book, and you have to find the right page, it took always long. So they, in many cases, went back to the Help Desk and asked, “How do I do that?” So my first company was a performance support company, supporting people in using the Microsoft apps. So embedded in Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and all the other products – I had a tool that found the right answer in two clicks and 10 seconds, based on what you wanted to do within those applications. And that’s in fact, the start of performance support. Because most of the performance support in the late 90s, early 2000s was around supporting IT apps, you know? Was around supporting Microsoft, was around supporting SAP, was around supporting Oracle, and all those products where, you know, you needed a lot of support as an engineer.
Kasper: Okay, but that’s really interesting, because that actually means that you meant it to the…. basically from learning to, indeed, it was really about the retention of the information, but also making the information available while people were working so they could actually apply what they learned earlier.
Kasper: Okay, interesting. So, I think we will come back from that later on, because I know a bit of your story so I think we will come back to that a bit. But maybe then… then you move to, after 2014 you move into a new step. So, I think that’s where you are currently working on. What is that?
Alfred: Yeah, I when I looked at the market in 2014/2015, I saw that many of the large organizations (formerly clients of mine when I had that IT training company and that technology company) were looking in how do we extend learning into what we then saw as important 70/20/10, you know? 10% of learning is formal, 20% is mentoring and coaching, and 70% is learning at the moment that you’re on your own. And people were trying to build what they called blended learning solutions that covered everything in 70/20/10. And when I looked at what they were doing, I would call them more blended training solutions than blended learning solutions because it was more around the 10 and the 20. They cut up the classroom training from five days to two days, added some e-learning in the front, which is in my opinion also the 10, added some e-learning in the backend and some coaching and mentoring which is the 20 around it. But there was not a lot of: okay, how do we support people in the 70? And that’s what I thought would be very interesting if you have the right methodology and the right technologies to support people in that moment of need. And then later on, I read a lot of the work of Josh Bersin. Josh was starting to talk about learning in the flow of work. You know, at that time he was still with Deloitte. Now, he has his own Josh Bersin Academy. And he started to talk about: how do we support people while they are working? And what is the efficient way to design and develop those solutions? And that’s when I started this new company, helping organizations not only with designing and developing these solutions, but also with the strategy, with the implementation, and especially with the measurement of the impact of these types of solutions. Because I believe it’s all about impact and not about, you know, liking the course and giving high remarks on, you know, I love the course and I love the teacher. It’s about actually what –
Kasper: …what we’ll do in the business.
Kasper: Yeah. Okay. So, you have to be talking about the moments of learning needs a few times already you mentioned that. So, when you refer to the five moments of learning needs, that’s… probably more people know about. But I think that is like really key in what you do. Maybe you can give us a short overview what you think is like the essential there.
Alfred: Yeah. You know, I learned that it’s not about technology first. Although having an office in the US and having offices in the Netherlands, I see that in the US organizations tend to buy technology first. You know, they see the next shiny penny, and they pick it up, and they say, “Okay, I need this! This is so hot, I need to buy it.” And what I found is that it’s not so much about the technology, although it’s important. It’s much more about: how do I design and develop solutions that support the whole learning journey and performance journey of our employees? It’s not ending anymore, you know? We used to do a learning solution as a Learning & Development department, and we did the training, and we walked away, and it was done, it was finished. What we see now is that the learning journey for our employees is permanent. So, I run into a gentleman called Bob Mosher in 2004. I was a board member of Microsoft Learning, and Bob was a Director Learning Strategy and Evangelism at Microsoft. And we started to talk about, you know, the innovation of learning. And I told him a bit about my efforts in performance support. He talked about the methodology that he loved, which was designed and developed by Conrad Gottfredson, one of his dear friends. And we started to say, “Hey, we should do this together.” Because it’s about the combination of a methodology on how to design the solutions, and the right technologies on how to deliver them in the flow of work. And that’s when I run into the Five Moments of Need methodology and became friends with Bob Mosher and Conrad Gottfredson, two of my heroes, and we, you know, from there on started to develop.
Kasper: Well, we share them as heroes. So, I also had the opportunity to speak to them every now and then. But, yeah, they’re impressive people. So, I can imagine how it is to work with them. That’s really, really interesting. So, that means if you look back at your career, I pick up two lessons that you said: it’s not about technology; it’s more much more about the methodology and what you do. And it’s also not about learning, but about the impact of the learning on the business. Are these two main lessons that you had? Or are there more lessons to be learned from your career?
Alfred: Yeah, I think that I learned a lot of lessons – not always the easy way; also the hard way, Kasper. I think it’s, it’s about change too, you know, and culture. And COVID had a huge impact on our business, as we all know, you know? I found it very hard until early 2020 to convince clients that things needed to be done different, you know? Especially Learning & Development departments and people are very hesitant and resistant to change. They believe what we have done for the past 30-40 years in our classrooms with our beautiful e-learning was good. We got high marks, high ratings, everybody liked and it was good. But they are not, and they were not, and they are still not so much interested in business impact. And I think with COVID, we saw that we had to do things different because we couldn’t get people in the classroom anymore. And it was not only about bringing everything into Zoom, or into Microsoft Teams. They saw that things had to be done in a different way. The other thing that had a huge impact on our industry is that people started to realize that the change of information has gone up, you know? When I left my education in 1985, the amount of new information coming to us was about 3-4% per year. Today, the amount of information doubles every 12 to 18 months, and IBM predicts that it’s going to be every 12 hours within 25 years. So how do we cope with change? How do we cope with the amount of information coming to our employees? And how do we ensure that people have the right information at the moment that they need to perform a task? And I think that’s the big difference between what was happening in the past 35 years, and what has happened in the last 4-5 years, you know? People started to realize that change is a continuous factor. And I think COVID helped to provide the insight that we need to do things different. That’s for me, the big driver.
Kasper: I understand. Okay. So, if you look back in the world of learning, and maybe I should say, in your case, the world of learning and performance to make it a bit broader: what do you think would be the biggest milestone so far? What is the thing you would point at as a success or a critical point in history?
Alfred: I’m not sure if we are there yet. I think the critical point is when Learning & Development starts to realize that we are not there for learning. We are there to support the performance of our organizations and of the people in our organizations. Learning for the sake of learning doesn’t mean anything, you know? So, measuring the amount of learning consumed during a course doesn’t say anything. For me, it’s the realization that learning needs to have business impact. There is also now a big debate around having a seat at the table. Having a seat at the table means we want to be at the table of senior management of the C-suite to discuss with them what is needed to support the growth and the development of our organizations in an ever-changing world and what can we do as Learning & Development to support the performance of our organizations? That is the big change, that is starting to happen. It’s not there. There are a lot of organizations that keep on talking about, you know, “We did 80,000 hours of classroom training last year”, “We did 75,000 hours of e-learning consumed” and it doesn’t say anything about –
Kasper: more input information. But that is something that’s going on for a long time. So for example, somebody like Kathy Moore is also referring to that with her whole approach here. So, learning objectives tied to business goals, and stuff like that with action mapping. So, she’s also doing that for like, 20 years. So, do you think that that milestone will ever be reached? Is that or is it like…?
Alfred: I think there is the there is change happening. And I see in some of my projects that once we start with the definition of the KPIs that we will address in our project… What needs to be the business impact – that’s our starting point of discussion. And when you do that, the client will ask you after that, “Hey, I like that discussion about the KPIs. I like that we move the needle on our operational efficiency within our factories.” You know, we do a huge project for Colgate and Colgate measures business impact in: what is the improvement in operational efficiency? What is the improvement in asset utilization? What is the improvement and change over time of our equipment? And if you can prove that, if you can measure that, you are the hero because that’s what the plant managers want to see and they don’t want to hear about, you know, “We got great numbers in our eval sheets.” They don’t care about any of that.
Kasper: So then it’s really all about return on investment, but then a return on investment which has a business impact and not like a learning measure in grades or anything?
Kasper: That is clear. Okay, so interesting that at 61, you’re still looking to reach the first-grade milestone there. So, I like that ambition.
Alfred: You know, I always say, I lost all my hair over that, over the past.
Kasper: Yeah well, same here, I’m afraid. Okay. And so would that also be the biggest challenge for corporate learning then to actually make the step from learning to more performance driven organization, is that a challenge that we have at hand?
Alfred: Yeah, and I don’t think it’s that difficult to be honest. It’s a cultural shift. It’s not an execution shift. The execution is doable, you know, we have one of the top things, if you look at the LPI research over the past couple of weeks, the things that people want to see is data. Data-driven, data analytics… And we now have the technologies and tools to measure what the impact is of learning. So, it’s not so much about execution, it’s about cultural change. And what I find when I deal with big organizations, the resistance is not in the business. The resistance is in the Learning & Development department, you know? They are so used to do things in the old way. They are so proud of their classroom solutions, and about their e-learnings, and what they have done over the past 25 years, that it’s very difficult to get them going on to something different. There is fear, you know? “We have always done it this way, why should we change?” There is lack of knowledge. In many organizations, so people are not looking outside, they keep on looking inwards. “What have we done? What are we doing? What is been successful? What are our managers, asking us?” You know, in many cases, the learning department becomes a logistic department, you know? So we even accept that the manager from the finance department can come to our organizations and ask for 5 hours of e-learning and 4 days of classroom training, not discussing with you what the problem is, why 4 days, why 5 hours? No, they know what they want, they know what learning means, and they don’t need you to help them figure it out. They need you to deliver it. And that’s not what we want to be as Learning & Development professionals in this world. You know, we want to be the thinkers, we want to be the partners of the business, we want to work with you together in partnership to design and develop the solutions. And that’s what is really lacking in our world. And it’s a struggle to get there. It’s a cultural struggle, in my opinion.
Kasper: So, it’s a lot about the mindset, then, of the people in your mind in the Learning & Development departments. So, they’re sort of more traditionally focused and sort of having a chance to make the next step. Is that true?
Alfred: Yeah. Except for some of the bigger thinkers and thought leaders. You know, I worked with Rob Lauber at McDonald’s; he’s one of the most business-oriented CLOs I’ve ever met. I’m working with Brad Watt, who is the CLO at Colgate. He has a marketing background. He really understands what he wants to achieve with implementing learning and performance solutions. That it’s not about the beauty of learning, it’s about the impact of learning. And that’s what I like. So, there are thought leaders that see what is needed and are talking business first and learning second.
Kasper: And would you say that it’s necessary for Learning & Development to actually make that shift that you’re describing to stay current or to become current? How bad is the situation in your mind?
Alfred: I think it’s to become current. I think it’s… they are old, they are behind, they are doing things that are not really efficient. If you read the research, the amount of waste created by traditional and current learning solutions is over 60%. So if we divide the site and design solutions, of which only 40% is effective, then at the moment that there is a next reorg coming up, then we are the first ones that’s going to be cut again, which has been the case for the last 3-4 decades. If there was an issue In the economy, and we had to cut costs, learning was one of the first areas where the cuts went first. And we need to avoid that. We need to be so important to the business that we are the last to be cut because we are the ones that keep the organization up to par, in front of the competition, continuously current. That’s what we need to be. And I think that’s what we should be, and we can be. And I think that’s the change that is currently happening in organizations.
Kasper: Okay, and so, do you have any idea what the reason is that so… in your mind, it’s not like, very up to par the mindset? And learning is a bit outdated, if I can sort of quote you on that? So do you think there’s a specific reason? Is that, like you, but many other people do not really have education, they are not trained to be a Learning & Development person, they come from all over the place, with a very different direction is that some…
Alfred: Yeah, absolutely. People come out of other areas. And then, in some cases, Learning & Development is the last job they do. They have not been trained in the basic points for Learning & Development of which business understanding is a key one, data analytics and understanding the impact of your solutions is a key one. And even if you look at the traditional education at university in Learning & Development: they are still behind, they are using the old books, they are all using the old theorists. They are not on par with the innovation in Learning & Development.
Kasper: I think that’s way worse. So, my fear is just as indeed, some corporations are behind that. I think that the way they are now picking up new technologies, new directions, new solutions, it’s increasing. And if I look at schools and universities, nothing really changed there in the last 10 years at all. So, there is no connection to actual work, or… Yeah, it’s really, really different. I think that that is maybe that’s a bigger challenge even then bring it the corporate world up to speed.
Alfred: Yeah, you know, it started a little bit the… you know, if you look at the course “Learning & Development in Organizations” deployed by the RM School, the HAN, that is a starting point. That course is going into the direction of being a more innovative approach to creating learning leaders that understand what’s happening in the world of Learning & Development today. That is a starting point. It’s slow.
Kasper: Interesting that that one course that is different is not talking about manager, but a leader. So that’s also already a different mindset.
Alfred: Absolutely. Yeah.
Kasper: Okay, cool. So yeah, just to wrap up a bit, I have a couple of questions, sort of to see where you are. So you already mentioned that bottom corner, two of your heroes, but who would be your ultimate earning hero?
Alfred: Yeah, my ultimate learning hero is Donald Clark. And Donald Clark is… I think his background is Philosophy. And he is a guy that really understands what is the theory, or are the theories behind Learning & Development. He’s doing a podcast series around 100 leading thinkers in the world of… leading theorists in the world of Learning & Development, and he states that many of the learning practitioners (people that call themselves Learning & Development professionals) don’t know anything about the theory and the theorists behind Learning & Development. And Donald is somebody that really understands what has been going on in the world of Learning & Development theory: what has worked, what hasn’t worked, why hasn’t it worked, why are things now working that didn’t work in the past? And understanding the theory, and the background, and the principles of Learning & Development and reading about it is so important in our world. And there are other writers that like Paul Kushner, Miriam Naila, people that look at evidence-based learning, that are the people that really start to think about, you know, how do we do things with Learning & Development that really do something on performance, that have business impact, and that you can create evidence around the fact that it’s working, you know? There is no causal-effect between classroom retraining and impact on the job. It’s so hard to measure. It’s good for your culture, people like it, and it creates an atmosphere of “people are investing in me.” But there is not a lot of proof that the classroom training is really causing impact in the performance of our employees. And what Donald Clark is doing and what he’s writing about… And he focuses, for example, on AI and learning, which I really think is an important topic for the coming 5 years, then that’s worth reading. He’s… from the thought leadership is one of my ultimate, ultimate heroes.
Kasper: Okay, clear. Also, by the way, for people listening, we’ll share the names and other links for you with the podcast so you can follow on that if you want. So and close to this question is the next one: so, what is the most important book on learning and performance on your mind that people should read today?
Alfred: Yeah for me that is the book that Bob Mosher and Conrad Gottfredson have written. It’s “Innovative Performance Support Solutions” which in fact is an extension of the first book written on performance support technology in 1991 by Gloria Gery. And Bob have written this now about 10 years ago and it’s about connecting the Five Moments of Need methodology with performance support solutions and technologies. I think, in my world, that is really one of the most impactful books that has been written. And it took, by the way, about 10 years to get it more popular because at the moment they published it, it was not even that popular. And when Gloria Gery published her book about electronic performance support systems in 1991, it wasn’t that popular. It’s coming up now! Because people now see that it’s doable, it’s affordable, it’s not costing a fortune anymore to build a powerful workflow learning and performance support solution.
Alfred: So, that’s what’s happening.
Kasper: Okay, so we’ll share that book as well. So, and by the way, that all sort of circles back to what you said earlier. So that it’s no longer the technology holding us back. So basically you can do anything and everything. It’s much more the mindset and actually doing it which is needed next. I agree with that. Okay, and as a final question I have: do you have anyone I should talk to next in this series? So, any advice on a person that I should approach for an interview?
Alfred: Yeah, I think the known people are… I would always want to interview Donald Clark. And that guy is always willing to do an interview. He’s doing a session for Next Learning this week, he’s presenting in my conference end of November… That guy is always interesting. But I think in the Netherlands, if you’re looking at people who really see what’s changing in the world of learning then I like Mark Visser a lot. Mark is a guy that has been working on interactive video, and the place of interactive video in learning. He’s not one of the well-known speakers and theorists in the world. But I really…
Kasper: He’s not. He’s actually a former colleague of mine, so I know him well.
Alfred: Oh good. Well, I like him a lot.
Kasper: He was the CEO of InBrain which is a sister company of Easygenerator in.
Alfred: Oh, okay, well I didn’t even know that. Yeah, Mark is one of the guys that I really like in this world. And another one is, Marco [inaudible] who’s a specialist in adaptive learning. Another Dutch guy that really understands what’s happening in the world of adaptivity. And adaptivity is one of the leading technologies for me in the future, you know: it’s adapting learning to the person that is consuming the learning. Elliot Macy spoke six years ago about the future of learning was personalization. For me, that is a big, big thing. And adaptive technologies will be very important in that.
Kasper: Okay, cool. So, you advise on both Marco and Mark. Yeah. Okay. Well, thank you for that. So that would be interesting. So I definitely will follow up from that. Any last thoughts on your side that you want to share before we wrap up?
Alfred: I think it’s about being open to what is happening around us. People don’t read enough, people don’t go to conferences, even virtual conferences, enough. We need to look what is the neighbor doing, what are similar companies as we doing? We need to learn more from what is successful, and what is not successful. Let’s share stories about success. But also let’s share stories about failure. I think, going out again, and talk with peers in our world, being a member of an organization that is there to support you. Well, in the Netherlands, we have Develop as the leading organization for Learning & Development professionals. That’s where you need to be. That’s where we as Learning & Development professionals need to meet other Learning & Development professionals to understand what’s happening in the world. We are too much inbound focused, you know? We’re looking in our own domain, in our own world. We’re not looking enough outside. So my advice is start going out again, to meet other people and talk with other people about what is happening, what is working, what is not working, what makes you happy, what makes your organizations happy, and what is successful.
Kasper: Okay, well, that’s interesting, because that’s quite an old school advice just to talk to people and tap into their experience. But I think it’s a valuable one.
Alfred: No, it’s not old school. It’s only old school if you only do it in a classroom. Now speaking, and being a member of platforms and organizations, and do a lot of chat and exchange is, in my opinion, very modern, you know? I am also a believer in social learning, but it needs to be connected to topics that you really are interested in and not to, you know, always the general trends.
Kasper: Oh, I agree with you. So I think one of the reasons I do this podcast, of course, we want to talk to people and see what it’s about. But for me, it’s also really interesting to indeed talk to people and learn from them. So it’s also really a personal takeaway for me there. Well, thanks Alfred for lessons learned and spending time to talk to me. And I’ll follow up on your suggestions and thank you for that.