…But Some Managers Are More Equal Than Others

You may remember the famous line in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others“. The idea is that some roles in organizations are more important than others in operating the business (a farm in this case). Today, many organizational leaders often carry the same titles across the business, i.e Manager, Managing Director, Sr. Vice President of…, etc. (as that’s convenient) but truly they are not seen or treated as equals. A manager in an operations role, one close to the work being done, one where revenue is made or lost is considered far superior in the eyes of the C-Suite than a L&D manager. And they all know it too.

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Putting Social at the Center (of a Webinar)

Last evening I hosted a webinar for the 70:20:10 forum. This organization works to help people and organizations shift to an organizational framework which supports and enables informal and social learning opportunities along with formal learning for the betterment of the workers themselves and the bottom line of the organization.

The topic of my webinar was Demystifying 70:20:10 – Using the Framework to Transform Your Learning Strategy. An important topic as many  1. See the effort as being more about adding informal and social opportunities to formal learning and/or 2. Are tripping over the numbers, taking them literally and trying again to create informal and social in the organizations.

Content aside, I strove to put my beliefs into practice for this event, but make no mistake it was a traditional webinar format with me as presenter, slides, objectives and attendees. My belief? Putting “social at the center” – I see that when we put energy there in our organizations, the openness and transparency it affords can improve formal learning by providing a critical feedback loop with ongoing formative evaluation. Additionally more open social activity can inform experiential (informal) learning through working and thinking out loud about our own practice and efforts. When people engage with others and share their work, peers can learn from their failures, successes and the half-backed ideas to inform their own work.702010 Informs Improves

Although my slides for this webinar, mostly just evocative images, were developed first, the greater energy was in developing the questions to ask in the chat box. I presented a question every 2 or 3 slides and acknowledged and commented on many of the answers given. These were not simple yes/no, I asked about their own experiences, observations and opinions. Not an uncommon or revolutionary practice but maybe the frequency was and several times the attendee’s responses redirected my presentation. When the Webinar officially ended, the conversation really heated up. For about another 20 minutes the flow of interchange was deep and rich. Success of course can only be measured in outcomes and that remains to be seen but many left saying they were energized, armed and inspired.

Putting social at the center of this webinar put the people and their interaction first as the social activity swirled around the the content (object) and not the other way around. The event was informal and relaxed as I didn’t desire to be seen as a content expert but maybe more as a conversational one; guiding and modeling interaction in a virtual environment. The comments and conversation really worked to enhance the presentation as it went along and ideally the experience will inform the attendees future efforts.

I know it has informed mine.

Recreating The Corporate University

When I joined my current organization there was much talk of the need for a corporate university to support the growing workforce. As I grew to understand our workforce I believed the model typically envisioned was not a good fit but rather than fight city hall and banter about with semantics I worked to massage the concept. In a previous life I did the same and took the approach of working within the system to change it. This idea surfaced again in an enlightening Skype recently with +Sam Burrough. Sam shared a similar sentiment regarding the “course” and how, although many call it such, he is using Curatr to change the innards if you will and make the traditional course design/delivery one that is more social and responsive to rapidly changing information.

In an open letter to my organization (sparing you org specific features as that would mean little) I shared the following about the direction I’m taking with organizational learning and the idea of a corporate university.

Most corporate universities have been built to mirror an academic university structure, one that emphasizes a “learn then apply” model. Academic institutions typically consist of these three elements, in order of importance, to support this model:

The university you likely attended was built on the idea that you entered knowing little and exited knowing more. Your success was measured in grades and degrees. This is not the ideal model for an agile organization? Employees are practitioners and experts, not novice students.

In a recent webinar attended by over 50 employees, I asked the following question (one Charles Jennings has asked many times):

When you think about one great learning experience you’ve had, can you remember where it occurred – In a classroom, workshop or while completing a task?

Over 80 percent of respondents said that the greater learning occurred while completing a task.

It’s fair to say that the majority of our real learning happens in the activities we undertake; through trial and error and in our interactions with peers and experts. Likewise, significantly less learning happens in formal settings such as classes, workshops and elearning. Yet corporations spend much of their money and employee’s time on structured learning approaches.

In organizations, the primary focus is working not formal learning. And rather than grades, employees strive to achieve business results. To support this we need to transform the traditional model from a structure designed for students and learning to one that supports employees and performing. In this shift the elements remain but the emphasis is reversed.

1. The Commons – Innovation happens when people connect and collaborate.In the flow of work, employees turn to each other for answers, advice, tips and resources to get the job done. Therefore social networks and the ability to connect within them, in communities of practice and communities of interest, are necessities for today’s workforce. Soon we will be opening up our collaborative network powered by Jive and supporting your efforts to work in an open environment. 

2. The Library – Organizational resources cannot be static like those found in university libraries. The ability to capture and incorporate new ideas and practices into explicit resources ensures agility in a rapidly changing world of information. User-generated content can move quickly through a repeating cycle of improvement to remain current and easily accessed. Our internal Knowledge Management system and SharePoint libraries will house more explicit resources and information you can pull from to aid you in the work you do. We will continue to partner with our people to constantly refine and improve materials and their delivery.

3. The Classes – Although necessary at times, especially for novice employees, formal learning needs to be done in a way that is most advantageous for employees and the organization; by not adding friction to one’s productivity. Formal courses should be parsed into small pieces for easy access and application in workflow, where new knowledge and skills can be more immediately applied. Lynda.com is a perfect example of a rich catalog of courses, accessible from any device, for just-in-time, just enough, structured learning.

Times have changed and so has organizational learning. Corporate universities today can best be structured as a framework for continuous learning. As such they need to serve the agile needs of an organization looking to innovate and thrive. The core structure of a corporate university today should be one that will continue to respect current levels of knowledge, support accessibility of quality information, and use collaborative platforms as pathways to connect people to their peers and the information needed to perform and succeed.

Short on details I know but we are well underway using several current tools and a few new ones to meet the needs of our extended workforce. I look to share more examples and progress here as we press on. Stay tuned, 2014 looks very exciting.

It’s the little things

Hey! What are you doing?!”

That was my reaction after seeing my kids and their cousins poking at a spider web.
The children, all under age 8, were intrigued by a very large and fierce looking spider on a web among flower garden daisies. The gut reaction by one of the kids on this oddly humid fall evening was of course to squash it. All the kids, creeped out or in awe, were in silent agreement until I said let’s look it up.
In a matter of seconds I pulled out my smartphone, snapped pic, studied it (as the spider itself was getting a bit antsy by the continual poking). As the desire to smash it grew, I quickly “Googled” it’s general description and VIOLA!

If there is one thing these kids hated more than ugly bugs it was stinging and biting ones.  This Common Garden spider was quickly determined to be our friend. A steady diet of wasps, mosquitoes and bees made him an ugly ally in the war on those who ruin outdoor fun.  The spider had a stay of execution! Furthermore the “eeews” turned to “ahhs” when it was noted that each night the spider eats its web and builds a new one! How efficient.

I couldn’t help but think of all the big campaigns, films, and curriculum aimed today at educating our youth on helping slow the destruction of ecosystems. Frankly I’m not sure how successful it all has been but I do know a lot of time, money and resources has been spent on all of these efforts. 
But this is the real power of our technology today. In a matter of seconds a small group learned something valuable about their world while in their world. A myth dispelled, an answer know, maybe a broader lesson learned for future application of this new knowledge. A smartphone, a camera, a browser (and a level head). All combined, these increasingly common tools just might make a difference for a world at risk.
In my last post I touched on how social tools have the ability to make the big smaller. It’s hard to really to measure the impact of these small spontaneous events, rife with emotion. But if little actions like these (Trojan mice) are released frequently, everywhere maybe a real difference will be seen in our ecosystems.

“Unleash Trojan Mice. Don’t do big things or spend loads of money. Set small, nimble things running and see where they head.” – Euan Semple (see full post here)


If this spider lives and reproduces > thousands of offspring are born > the mosquito population in check > pesticide spraying is reduced, etc, etc. Hard to trace back to 5 kids in a Syracuse, New York flower garden but who knows.

In our organizations we have the same social and informal learning opportunities on an equally small scale.  In the littler moments, not in the classroom or through a curriculum, we can reach for performance support within our peers and in our tools. We no longer have the excuse “I didn’t know” for most information. At our fingertips we have what can help us make better decisions and our reactive nature can put in check. 
And yet even with all the tools available to connect us and our knowledge, someone still needs to ask…

 “Hey what are you doing!?”

Think of the Doer and doing, not the Learner and learning

I’m sure you’ve heard the cliche that is the self-described non-techie confessing that “My VCR still blinks 12:00.” (OK I know…VCR? What’s that? Humor me here).  I think this statement however speaks more to who we all are rather than just a segment of the not-so-tech-savvy among us. Furthermore I believe the statement transcends technology and to who we are as human-beings.

With that example as a point of reference about human nature lets look at why your VCR likely still blinks 12:00.

  • It blinks 12:00 because you didn’t bother to read the instructions. 
  • You didn’t bother to read the instructions because quite frankly your goal was to watch a movie not have yet another timepiece in the room. 
  • You didn’t bother to read the instructions because the user guide was enormous and thus appeared as another layer of work just adding to your time on task. 
  • You didn’t bother to read the instructions because the first thing you instinctively do IS “do.”

Maybe it’s an all to common human failing or maybe it’s just part of how we are wired to learn. I prefer the latter. I mean isn’t it our first instinct to just try? To play around and make a go of it? It’s not typical for anyone to immediately reach for assistance. We don’t want help until we want help. And when we want help we want just the right amount of help for our very specific need.

We are not stupid creatures in that we would ever take this approach if in a bomb detonation, surgery, or flying an aircraft situation. We turn towards “do” first when we believe there is a pretty good chance we will be successful (past experience?). It’s in this doing; the struggle and ultimate success, that we gain confidence and make long-term connections for future application. We are mostly practical creatures too. The VCR blinks 12:00 because we don’t let perfect be the enemy of good, i.e. an inaccurate clock doesn’t bring us to our knees. So when, and only when, we need/want to go a bit further along we’ll seek assistance.

What’s the lesson here for L&D?  I think it’s playing a bit more to human nature and not confounding it with more than is required to get the job done. L&D should work first to help improve the environment for better performance rather than create stuff to augment learning for better performance. Maybe that’s enabling more time and places for reflection, maybe its pushing for better system/tool interface design, maybe its making searching for information easier or access to expertise seamless. But it should not first be creating another layer of work.