Seeing Organizational Patterns

In today’s organizations the top down, hierarchy approach is seen as the antithesis of the modern, hyper-connected world. However, efforts to shift to emphasize greater transparency and openness have often floundered (holocracy and flat management). We’re learning that the ideal form won’t always result in ideal function.

Noting my recent efforts of going upstream, Jon Husband suggested I read Seeing Organization Patterns: A New Theory and Language of Organizational Design by Robert Keidel. In it Keidel frames organizations as having three distinct variables or elements: autonomy, cooperation and control (sound familiar?). He shares that this triad appears in organizational strategy, structures and it’s systems and when not in the right ratio for the work being done, dysfunction results. Keidel doesn’t imply however that perfect balance is desirable or even possible.

Effective three-variable thinking does not mean maximizing all three variables. Rather, it means emphasizing one or two variables, without neglecting any. 

– Seeing Organizational Patterns, 24

With that said, Keidel notes that organizations will struggle in any of three general ways by:

– overdoing the top priority (autonomy, cooperation or control)
– underdoing the bottom priority
– operating without priority (no strategy at all)

This cooperation/control/autonomy triad is a fascinating lens to look at our organization’s design. Keidel provides many 20th century (yes, 20th. The book was written in the mid 1990’s!) examples throughout that reveal the problems of organizations when they’ve over and under emphasized.

Underdoing and Overdoing
A good example today could be the shifting US Military.  Before 2000 the US military was designed to combat a known enemy with known objectives, a known location and known leadership. In many ways the military was built to repel the likes of Nazi Germany and the USSR. “Loose Lips Sink Ships” and hierarchy and discipline took rigid forms. After conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan however the enemy was now an idea with networked leadership and without a nation-state (al Qaeda, ISIS). The military struggled in its current system, structure and strategies. The top down leadership through experience wasn’t cutting it, and the push now is to create a more responsive organization (teams of teams?) to meet the demands of defeating a dynamic, shifting enemy.

An example (which is the opposite of the military) of an organization I’ve been working with is one that has a very inclusive leadership belief. Partially the industry and partially the culture, this inclusiveness has led to a very loyal, long-term, committed workforce that places a huge emphasis on cooperation and maintaining harmony at all costs. This may sound wonderful but in reality ensuring everyone is on board and happy coupled with a lack of new blood has led to:

  • Delays in action and limited thinking as the organization struggles to surface new ideas let alone implement them.
  • New approaches met with resistances as a “that’s not the way we do it here” response is prevalent.
  • An overemphasis on saving face and meeting emotional needs prolongs the inevitable departure of under-performing employees.

What can be done? Changes to leadership, management and communication (approval process) would help decrease the highly unnecessary levels of inclusiveness and would likely result in lessening the tension that exists between cooperation and responsiveness.

Parallels to Org Learning
Throughout the book Keidel takes aim at common organizational systems such as communication, meetings, leadership, management, teaming, R&D, HR, and security. He doesn’t however address organizational learning which in my opinion underpins them all. It pretty apparent that the 70:20:10 principle fits neatly into the three elements.

Many organizations place emphasis on training (control) and not enough on social and informal learning (cooperation & autonomy). Looking at this through the Keidel’s triadic lens you would see limited innovation and likely slow responsiveness to change. Similarly, if you have an over emphasis on social and informal learning, the lens would reveal employees at risk of having too little foundational knowledge that training typically provides. New employees or employees new to critical tasks could struggle, leading to disengagement and poor performance.


Like any good org design resource, the timeless ideas in Seeing Organizational Patterns respect the uniqueness of each organization and doesn’t prescribe a single, right solution. Rather it serves to reveal where one is successful in their organization’s design so as to enhance and where one is failing, so it can be addressed.

The Future of Learning Is About Less

The future is taking shape and it’s about using what we have first instead of making more. For example, Airbnb and Uber are in the aggregation business. Each recognized the underused assets of property and time and created a platform to organize and commoditize them. And progressive organizations shifted their marketing from create first to curate long ago. This movement of looking, combining, and reusing is gaining momentum everywhere.

A 70:20:10 framework is the organizational learning strategy equivalent of this global movement. The 70 and 20 already happen and much like renewable solar and wind, we only look to harness their energy. The 10 is more content and more time to create and recreate. This isn’t inherently wrong, it’s just not always necessary and can waste time and resources. The beauty of focusing on social and informal learning first is that when each are supported and encouraged there is actually less dependency on training to answer the bell and better still, only the training that is truly excellent and really needed will be produced.

Let’s stop creating more and harness the mental energy being expelled in the work already being done and the interactions taking place to fuel performance.

The 702010 Interplay

One barrier that often presents itself when moving an organization towards a 702010 framework is that the natural interplay between all is overlooked, weakening the whole proposition. Informal, Social and Formal are wrongly dissected and discussed independently. The reality though is that all three 1. exist. 2. exist at varying levels and 3. work together constantly…  especially when we are conscious of it. All we can really do then is make it work together more easily and that’s done through a framework consisting of mindset changes, individual behaviors, organizational structures and technology augmentation.

I scrabbled together the image here in an effort to make this interplay more apparent. It’s important that I note that Informal Learning to me is less about learning in our work than learning through work. Meaning that yes, we can inject resources, “micro-learning” and search capabilities into the work context but it’s more about reflection and experiential learning; extracting learning as Charles Jennings has noted.  

  1. Social improves Formal Learning – social interaction works as a feedback loop for training efforts and should be encouraged. Outside of actual performance data – open, honest conversation about new knowledge and skills obtained in training situations is critical for improving formal learning efforts.
  2. Social informs Informal Learning – this relationship is very blurry as there is much overlap between social and informal learning. Conversation between people, and observations of one another’s behaviors leads to new application, ideas and reflection in the workflow.
  3. Informal inspires Social Learning – doing our actually work leads to new ideas about the work. Sometimes through eureka moments, sometimes through frustration. Work undoubtedly drives the most workplace conversation.
  4. Formal influences Informal Learning– training has a direct impact on doing (or ideally it does). Work-learning (informal) is greatly influenced by becoming faster or more efficient because of formal efforts. It’s also in the work itself that we can best reflect on new ideas and skills.
  5. Informal (through social) informs Formal Learning – here again, the blur between social and informal learning. Training can be positively modified due to both effective and ineffective work practices shared through social interaction.
  6. Formal inspires Social Learning – A great part of organizational Social Learning is in overtly sharing what works and what doesn’t with others. When training presents us with new ideas or skills we put them into practice and through conversation and modeling we can create greater contextual understanding for others.

As far as the components of a Framework I mentioned earlier, it starts with Mindsets where we help others realize the existence of 702010 and more see training as an expensive last resort, not the first option. Next it requires Individual Behaviors, If L&D, then serving as performance consultants not order takers and sniffing out then amplifying and enhancing where and when collaborative work is working. Additionally, we must examine Organizational Structures or systems. Many systems actually work against the efforts to enhance social and informal learning. In particular rewards, communication flow and management concepts need to be addressed. Finally,  Technology. Tech really only serves to augments this natural occurring system, it’s not a requirement. All social technology is primarily the same, working to support community, collaboration and sharing. Social is at the center of 702010 and social technology is the catalyst that really gets it moving.

Wherever you are in the 702010 discussion, it’s important to remember that 702010 is a principle and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

70:20:10 As a Reveal Not a Roll-out

Jane McConnell conducted a survey not too long ago to try and figure out what the greatest challenges were in the workplace. The top two that she discovered were related to:

  1. finding information to do the work and
  2. changing the mindset towards more collaboration and cooperation.

See her results and interpretation here.

She is very much focused on the “How To” from these findings and stated “I feel our industry is communicating too much theory and not enough operational and workable ideas today.

I couldn’t agree more.

Unfortunately most companies will turn to some new tech as their operational idea. However, the rate of change far exceeds the ability of a single tool or approach to keep up. The solution lies in strategy and more specifically a people-centric strategy not a tech focused one.

The two areas Jane surfaced are not exclusive of each other really as both are learning related but I’ll say up front, what I propose is not a quick fix – sorry, but it is workable. The answer lies in supporting greater informal and social learning made operational through a 70:20:10 framework. But unlike an initiative, you do not roll out 70:20:10, rather you must reveal it. Remember people already learn from doing their work, and they learn through and with each other. A 70:20:10 Framework not only makes this more apparent, it amplifies these activities, encourages them. Small, powerful changes at different entry points build and transform the system over time. In other words 70:20:10 IS a Catalytic Mechanism:

organizational mechanisms that are extraordinarily powerful at aligning a business behind a chosen strategy.

70:20:10 lifts the divide between learning and working by creating new behaviors around cooperation, openness and sharing. 70:20:10 shifts power into the hands of employees because, as noted in Jane’s findings, strong central power is not the answer in complex work environments.

Revisiting Jane’s two findings with a 70:20:10 lens:

  1. Finding (relevant) information is best done in trusted networks that add valuable context
  2. Collaboration is an outcome of greater cooperation (through connection)

Here’s a workable idea (a small powerful change), that I’ve promoted before that will increase social activity among employees:

Promote a development plan make-over that reduces training time allocated or training dollars significantly. Goals remain the same, but formal learning opportunities are constrained, can’t be first option. Then open up dialog on “how can we do this?” Create the space for better connection (tech aside). Make mentoring and coaching more a part of the planning. Encourage people to share their sources of new information. Model open question/answer opportunities. Frankly these things have been happening all along, in small sets. Now we work to expand them.

However, beware, 70:20:10 is more than a strategy, it can be an organizational change agent which disrupts the status quo.  70:20:10 won’t just help people better meet the demands of today’s work it can change the very nature of work.

Keeping Your Hands Dirty

One thing that I greatly appreciate about working for the Guild is their strong desire to stay close to organizational learning and the learning industry. Many of us engage in side opportunities in design, elearning development, consulting and speaking in an effort to stay close to our roots. This is pretty progressive considering that often those who rise to management levels lose touch with the work they once did and as such can lose the faith and trust of those under them.

Staying in the game is important.

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