Love the Problems Not the Solutions

I’ve always loved history. I studied it in school and the prospect of a career in history led me to be a Social Studies teacher for 8 years. In my first 3 years I was a miserable failure. I lectured way too much, drew up regurgitate the facts assignments, used a textbook exclusively, and watched the kids lights go out. They didn’t share my joy, I made it joyless and met their expectation that history was a bore, something to suffer through. Simply, I had put my love of history before their problem; a lack of respect and control.

In my 4th year I discovered the writings of Sam Wineburg and the theory of Constructivism (no, this wasn’t taught at university). I shifted my curriculum to one where the students became the historians, I lectured little, they explored more. My love of the past turned to a love of guidance as my students passing history tests wasn’t the goal, them doing history was. I had shifted from loving my knowledge to loving their need and success followed.

The bigger lesson here is for many professionals and businesses alike. You’re a training expert? An ReL tool guru? A video genius? So what? Don’t lose sight of who you work for, don’t choose your dream over their reality. Your knowledge and skills are of little interest to your clients, learners or supervisor. Your real value is in helping people see their problems more clearly, understanding their wants and needs and exploring paths of least resistance to gain the solution. What they want, what they need, is THEIR problem solved. Your work is to help them keep working.

If You Love Something Let It Go

I’m going out on a limb here to challenge the notion that organizations need to invest heavily in employee engagement efforts.

Blasphemy! You say? Hear me out first.

I’m not saying that companies can simply maintain business as usual and drive people away with horrible leadership and poisoned cultures but I do think there are some assumptions being made about attrition’s relationship to employee unhappiness. I think too that the issue has become very big business for some because as we know, fear sells.

So here’s my basic assertion:

What may behind talent loss could be less about organizational inadequacies and more about the lure of new opportunity.

Human-beings are mobile creatures. Since the moment we stood on two legs on the plains of Africa we took off and conquered the globe. We went to the moon, not because it was easy, as President Kennedy said but because it was hard. We like the challenge, we need the challenge. Movement leads to new experiences which help us grow. It’s in our DNA. In the Industrial Era people stayed put because they had to; geographic-based work, home, family, and community were all in walking and eventually driving distance. But today work is everywhere, one’s peers are a click away, and your community is a blend of physical and virtual. Technology has given us new legs and we’re using them.

In the face of this ever growing fluidity of talent it seems futile for organizations to try to plug the damn. We can’t manage talent just like we can’t manage knowledge. People and their knowledge need to move to have value. So rather than strive solely for containing, we must also invest in better ways to harness the power in the flow.

What happens if organizations focus on the realities of attrition rather than just on fighting it? What if more time, money and energy were put behind better internal systems (human and technical), Systems that capture employee work products and processes, and aid new workers in quickly picking up where work was left off? Some of these things are already percolating today such Personal Knowledge Management skills, social technology adoption, the practice of Working Out Loud, and the recognition and support of 70:20:10 frameworks vs. training-centric models. I ultimately believe these approaches will need to be the rule rather than the exception as organizations will have to be more porous to survive.

Mobile is not about a device, it’s the new reality as what was old is new again. And technology continues to do what technology has always done – extend and expand our human ability and desire.

The Space Between Us

In a recent webinar by Luis Suarez (@elsua) he asked the question of the attendees of what the biggest problem was in organizations today.  He stated that it was employee disengagement.  I do agree that it’s a problem but I believe this disengagement is more a symptom of a greater problem. That problem being space; the space between us.

Space is created naturally or deliberately. It’s also physical and psychological. We have space when organizations expand; space exists in time, geography, and culture. We have space when a workforce is geographically dispersed, no longer can we see the many we work and interact with. Space exists when hierarchy places people in rank and file as an artificial pecking order is created and this space between us defines who we are and how we interact.  Finally, our departmentalized functions create silos of work where space exists between them. And those functions of course are controlled by people who decide on how much space. 

When space exists we can choose to fill it constructively or like a vacuum, it just gets filled like silt settling after a heavy rain. Regardless, it never stays empty for long. Hierarchies fill the space with the written and unwritten. Policies serve to reinforce space between people by having somewhere to point to rather than someone to have conversation with. Unwritten protocol is that which maintains space by authority and creates a false respect based on fear.

Disengagement then doesn’t create space, space creates disengagement.

What can be done? The opposite of disengage is to engage and to engage is an action of people and their work being drawn together. If we want to eliminate disengagement, we must first create the opportunities to engage, to fill the space.

Social media is that opportunity in organizations that bridges the geographic divides, opens up silos of work and can level hierarchy so meritocracy can flourish. There is no question it can do the job – but it can also be an empty vessel if not strengthened by the substance of meaningful conversation, dialog and debate. If social channels swell only with courtesies to avoid conflict, content that reinforces positions, or sharing to show off, then the space not only remains but becomes more permanent.

There are far more pressing questions to be answer in organizations than “how do we measure this?” Or “how do we get people to use this?” when considering social media in an organization.  We need to first be able to answer “Who are we?” And “who do we want to become?”