Principles of Practice

I was recently asked privately a question that I hadn’t really answered myself.

Do you use any particular methodologies or models [in your personal practice]?

So I thought about it and responded that there are two “models” that rather unconsciously or habitually guided my work practices as I began to shift away from a training-centric mindset. Note that all of which I share here can be read in depth at the respected sites noted.

The first is Wirearchy. Since my focus can now be said to be more in digital learning (Which I see as learning through technology vs. learning with technology) helping surface these powerful undercurrents of knowledge exchange is key today and social technology certainly can aid in this effort. My known affinity for 702010 should be obvious too as it certainly aligns very well to this emergent organizing principle. Wirearchy though is not about learning per se, according to Jon Husband, who authored the principle, it’s a dynamic two-way flow of power. When realized and supported in organizations, I believe Wirearchy can change the actual design of the organization. Learning is ultimately about behavior change and if you truly desire long-term change in behaviors, I believe the systems in organizations need to be addressed (human systems related to authority, communication, rewards for example). Additionally, I look to Cynefin Framework (admittedly I’m still quite a student of it) but it does help in identifying current states (habitats). One of the four domains is labeled Complex. Much of the work being done today and even organizations themselves are complex. Navigating in complexity according to Cynefin demands a Probe-Sense-Respond approach as there is no one right answer and/or the many interconnected parts can be impacted by just changing one effort. Therefore, run small experiments, gather and asses the data and take action all apply to help shift behavior in dynamic situations.

Both Wirearchy and Cynefin are larger than strategy of course and far beyond just organizational learning. I prefer them though as each are flexible and today’s world of work is much more fluid. Additionally we cannot see learning apart from work any longer. Many of the “tried & true” used by consultants arose during the last century and are honestly not valid or just too rigid. Typically they are much too slow to enact and build through best practices rather than best principles. This seems unacceptable to me as each organization is as unique as a fingerprint, one must be flexible, understand and leverage the power of networks, and draw on best principles not practices to succeed.

How Do We Navigate Complexity within Complexity?

Technology has created disruption outside and inside organizations today. Ignoring it as a passing phase leads an organization to the risk of being made obsolete and trying to reverse the trends, to fight the momentum is futile, the walls have been breached. But this complexity that’s transforming business isn’t the only one and frankly isn’t the most disruptive. The very platform all organizations and organisms are on is being disrupted; Climate change – a passing phase? Reverse the trends? Is it too late?

I recently sat in a presentation on global sustainability where this graphic and the details of a scientific study were shared.

Source: Oxfam. The 11 dimensions of the social foundation are illustrative and are based on governments’ priorities for Rio+20. Based on the planetary boundaries set out by Rockström et al (2009b)

The graphic, a 2D rendering of a 3D model reveals that already 3 of the ecological boundaries that we should not breach… have been breached; climate change, loss of biodiversity, and the altering of the natural nitrogen cycle. Some scientists like James Lovelock have stated that we’re past the tipping point. There is no hope. Game over. No going back. If true, there is no time to waste in hoping and praying. Even activities like recycling and lowering greenhouse gas emissions, although beneficial, won’t stop what has begun; climate change is now a self reinforcing loop.

According to Lovelock we must now prepare for, rather than try to prevent, a world of continual and unpredictable change. This is not merely a complex problem it’s a state of perpetual complexity, our new habitat?

Dave Snowden developed the Cynefin framework to help in understanding 4 habitats (Obvious, Complicated, Complex, and Chaotic). In complexity, “the agents and the system constrain one another, especially over time. This means that we cannot forecast or predict what will happen.” Sounds about as right for climate change as it does for disruption in business.

Dave Snowden further points out, that in complexity we only really know what right looks like in hindsight. Therefore to navigate complexity he says we must take a probe-sense-respond approach. Many interpret this as the new business mentality but if our world becomes increasingly unstable it’s a mentality we must all have; Business, Government, workers, and citizen. We must all play collective roles beyond decision-making around ecological choices now and take similar action in observing and reporting thought various channels and networks the change we see happening in order to respond accordingly.

Maybe then all this disruptive technology and the principles it is awakening are coincidentally appearing at the same time we reach the most disruptive time in human history?

  • Social technology fueling focused global information sharing (see the work done where Twitter is used to sense earthquakes before seismologists can)
  • Trusted networks aid in the open analysis of data and sense-making
  • Personal Knowledge Management and Curation become the key skills to be learned
  • The 70:20:10 principle guides better decisions in organizational learning in order to remain agile
  • Big Data keeps the pulse on more than the business climate

Much of this is happening of course but probably not at the scale it needs to or needs to be shared to become the default skills and approaches. If the stage is set and the new normal is global complexity, then it will now require us to step back, patiently allow the patterns to unfold, and with greater connectivity of people and data I’m optimistic solutions will emerge.






Reimage Work


As you likely know, Reimaging is the process of removing all the software from your computer and reinstalling it. This process is necessary if your operating system becomes damaged or corrupt. This is actually an excellent metaphor for what needs to happen to many organization’s operating systems.

There is much criticism of the world of work today. Many see stagnant approaches and dated power structures hindering real potential in this digital age. A reimage is not however about wiping out the disengaged, or cleaning out the c-suite (common approaches). Nor is it moving to an open office floor plan or eradicating email. No, this is about the actual work we do, or more specifically the structures that govern this work in organizations. It is about the policies, procedures, power systems, roles, and unwritten rules that impact the people which ultimately effects the work. This, the organizational software, the operating system – is often damaged and corrupt.

Recognizing this is only the first part, taking action is the other. Unfortunately just like with our sluggish laptop, where we manage to continue working when it’s performance isn’t optimal, most leaders find work-arounds that allow things to get done although not as efficiently or effectively as they could. These work-arounds typical comes in the form of new tools, “reorgs”, downsizing, engagement activities, and revamped strategic plans – business as usual and bandaids. So as expected, a reimage won’t even be considered as it takes a significant mindset shift.

For what it’s worth, here’s 5 actions I think an organizational reimage should include.

1. Changing the Defaults – The world of business is changing frequently and with that it should be expected that something that works today won’t work tomorrow. The world of work, markets, and labor are complex. Through the lens of Cynefin, the knowledge management/sense-making framework, we learn that in complexity we only know what right is after the fact. Organizations then must learn to continually probe their environments, make sense of of the information gathered and respond accordingly… rinse and repeat.

2. Strategic Reflection -Internally organizations need to pause and sharpen the saw. It must be a strategic focus to periodically assess each element that impacts the work, the policies that send the message to employees that “we don’t trust you”, the procedures that maintain efficiency yet serve to prevent innovation, and the power structure that are maintained by fear vs. ones maintained by merit. Morale is a huge part of the effectiveness equation.

3. Role Play – managers, supervisors, directors are titles of the bygone era of manufacturing, of routine work. These titles have connotations of us vs. them, command and control, authority without legitimacy, “the man”. Today we need mentors and coaches, supporters and connectors to serve workers as living forms of performance support. Imagine arriving to work on day one and being greeted by the Chief Barrier Remover? Odd? Sure but equally refreshing.

4. Redo Rewards – when the process is working, the product is right. Reward the process, the product will take care of itself. Those who help, who share, and those who encourage are your heroes. Reward their cooperation and collaboration not competition. A rising tide lifts all boats.

5. ESN over LMS – learning is a part of the work, not apart from it. If the vast majority of our new learning takes place in our doing of the work then we need tools to help us reflect and share easily this new knowledge. An ESN (vs. an LMS) is an open system. Here knowledge can freely flow in the conversations we have (this is where real knowledge exists, not within us but between us). This openness also means all the cooperation and collaboration you need to reward (pt.4) is made obvious.

Each organization is as unique as a finger print and a reimage, if warranted, may take different forms yet each is a true move towards social business. A move that is far more about people than about technology.


The Simple Shift


Over the past few years, blessed by rich experiences and conversation, my beliefs and practices started to change. I no longer saw organizational learning as something unique, I was seeing it as a part of a whole, working in synchronicity with all other elements of an organization. I have come to see learning as a part of the work we do and not apart from it. When we look at the majority of learning in and through the work we do it is authentic and impactful. When the work is meaningful and challenging like this, we are motivated, even excited and when we are truly passionate we want to include others. Social technology serves to do just that, invite people in to see, comment, contribute and improve. It seems so simple, yet for over 5 years I have been reading much of the same thing about the future of work. Much is written on what it will be, where and who we will need to be to thrive, yet the how is the challenge. I believe it really comes down to being human and all the elements that make up that humanity; kindness, empathy, trust, conversation, etc. We have unfortunately placed decades of hierarchy, departmentalization, machinery, and political layers over this humanity, burying what makes work actually work.

The world has grown more complex and we can’t navigate complexity with even more complexity, the same tools that can free us often enslave us. We need to muster the strength and courage to seek simplicity and cut through the noise and distraction. Organizations, like individuals, are unique. As Dave Snowden noted in his Cynefin framework – in complexity we only know what right looks like after the fact.  Our route to success then hinges on our ability to make sense of it all as quickly as we can, we have it within us, we just need to get outside of us.

The pivot graphic, like a dance step, was the perfect image for my space on the Web ; The Simple Shift. Dancing is natural, all humans are moved by music. The steps can happen easily with the rhythm of the music if we don’t over think it. For those who can do it, it appears effortless with the biggest skill, not being in knowing where to place ones feet, but just in having the courage to get out there and be one’s self.

I’ve put my love of learning into perspective. My thoughts, writing, and practice have really turned inward as I started to see that it’s the simple shift that needs to be made, One that starts with a better understanding of who we are and how critical that is to make it all work in our work.

Cynefin Supported Campaigns vs. Courses

Businesses seek markets. Without these opportunities no service or product matters no matter how effective or unique.  I feel that today employees ultimately control access to these markets and this is no more true than in working in government contracts.

In my space a major barrier to opportunity can be Organizational Conflict of Interest (OCI) and in government contracts it can happen like a bursting brain aneurysm; sudden, barely detectable and often deadly.

In simple terms, if an employee or contractor violates the rules and has access or exposure to non-public information; an unfair advantage regarding future work, their organization can be “OCI’d” out of  future related work.

For example:

“An employee of the contracting organization is in a client (government) meeting. The agenda is clear but as meeting sometimes go, a stakeholder expands the conversation into other areas i.e future development, pricing models, etc. The employee should not be privy to this information and frankly may not even know its significance.  Too late.  Later on, meeting minutes show the conversation and attendees, and the organization is not allowed to bid on a related project; in effect losing a multi-million dollar opportunity.”
There are just too many roles and too many situations where an organization is in jeopardy. Furthermore employees walk a fine line with clients in this space.  If one hesitates in assisting on a project for fear of OCI, they could be deemed difficult.  It’s a rare but precarious situation that no employee or organization wants to be in.

Complicated & Complex

Cynefin Sense-Making Framework

When seen through the lens of Dave Snowden‘s Cynefin the sense-making framework OCI straddles the complicated and complex. One can be “oriented” to the dangers and provided some (but not all) examples of when and where these risks can happen – making the issue complicated. However, one can often only see the right course of action in retrospect, thus making it more complex in nature.

Knowledge and proper action must then permeate the culture of an organization. It must be on the forefront of people’s minds but not consume them and it can’t simply be treated as a problem that training alone can solve. The solution lies in raising organizational awareness.  And although it is a performance issue, it is not something that should or can be solely owned by T&D. This needs to be a company-wide effort.

A multifaceted approach involving formal, informal, and of course social learning is key as it’s mostly about tacit knowledge sharing. Explicit, although having merit, is black and white and unfortunately OCI is many shades of gray.

Campaign vs. Course

Craig Taylor tuned me into the concept of a campaign as he explored it himself on a considerably grander scale.  An apparent influence for him was in the article Think “Campaign” not “Course” by Lars Hyland (Tip 16) From the eLearning Network:

“…Shorter, sharper, more varied learning experiences deliberately spread over a longer elapsed time period, demonstrably improve learning effectiveness. There are more opportunities for reinforcement of key knowledge, more prompts to practice skills in the field and the ability to adapt to the pace and personal needs of each individual. At long last our efforts can be focused on providing learning support interwoven into life and work, rather than artificially abstracted.”With this concept in mind the approach then is more to immerse people in OCI awareness. To begin, Cynefin not only serves to help identify the “habitat” of OCI but it can also serve as a performance support model for a communication procedure; Sense the potential situation, Analyze the severity, Respond according to organizational procedure.

The initial part of the campaign grounds people in a common understanding of OCI, and the response procedures identified in the job aid. For this a short scenario-based elearning module can serve to show the value of the communication procedure and practical application of the job aid in a scenario. Additionally, to improve access to a job aid (post completion), a QR code can be used within to allow the learner to place the support tool on their mobile device and be easily accessible in a potential OCI situation.

Next, leverage traditional communication channels such as an organization’s periodical. L&D can partner with them to maintain a long running series of compelling examples, statistics, factoids and industry news regarding OCI. A series of “insider” podcast bring a human face (voice) to the issue through interviews with internal experts and possible “victims” of OCI which will be made available for employees to pull; HR to promote at new hire orientation, and managers to leverage when needed. The use of a social media platform is fertile ground for sharing industry news, and war stories. And finally email, the default communication platform of the moment, can easily serve to launch short scenario-based “quizzes” to reinforce understanding and application of the procedure.

The approach is really one of an all hands on deck. People should not to be subjected to repeated formal (out of workflow) interventions but rather be surrounded by relevant information, expertise, conversation and resources to help them navigate a complex and potentially costly issue.