Changing Words. Changing Practices. Changing Culture. Part II

Several months ago I wrote the first post of this title. In it I shared how through continual conversation and examples I was able to help some key stakeholders stop calling everything training when it came to a performance solution. The idea being that change happens one conversation at a time and that maybe to shift a culture we need to begin by changing the words we use. Words are powerful in that they set expectation and have a connotation.  Take “Social” for example. Early on many saw “social” as a being the same as goofing around. Who wants THAT in their organization?  Today, and equally unfortunate, “social” equates to Social Media which diminishes its value around the verb it is – being human.
Another word that I suspect if we can change in organizations would begin the dominoes falling is the word “learners”.  This term is pretty exclusively an L&D word that lumps people together. And although learner isn’t earmarked as a formal learning only term, it has that connotation, for “learner” is not that far removed from “student” for most hearing it, it generates a context.  If one is a learner it puts them in a learning exclusive situation and a learner needs learning which is typically to be supplied by, you guessed it, L&D.
Most people in organizations see themselves at workers or employees, not learners. They were not hired to learn, they were hired to do.  What happens then if L&D joins everyone else in the organization? What if they drop the name “learner” from their vocabulary and uses words like worker and employee?  I suspect (hope?) the process of changing of words, changes the practices, changes the culture begins.
The L&D practice would become more about helping workers do their jobs. It becomes a bigger focus on the employees needs and their context not L&D’s traditional delivery approach and systems. Workflow solutions, performance support, informal learning opportunities and coaching and mentoring rise, while classrooms, training and courses fall.
What then?
Culture shift.  L&D decompartmentalizes; they become more free agent-like, moving into the workflow as a partner in performance. Work and learning truly begin to merge and employees, with change agents amongst them see a greater personal, professional and organizational value in sharing their work, sharing resources, and collaborating. The inside moves out and a more empowered, autonomous workforce becomes the face of the organization. Improving morale builds greater loyalty and loyalty leads to greater trust across levels. The organization builds a reputation as an employer of choice and the best and brightest gravitate towards it.
Idealistic? Simple? Maybe. But L&D has a lot of potential energy for change, it just needs to get out of its own way. Words are one place to start.

Social Tools: Organizational Learning’s Uber

I had my first Uber service recently in Austin, TX.  It was nothing short of remarkable.  A few glitches (mostly self caused) but a far better experience than I have ever had in a cab. It was during this ride, and conversation with my driver William, that I made a few connections between business, learning and needs. It’s got me to thinking that if content, context and connection is king, queen or some other type of royalty, then the Platform is God.

Uber, a platform, connects wants with resources. Nothing new.  But it is probably the most understandable idea of a platform for people who don’t understand or think about platforms all that much. A service that connects a driver and their car with a passenger and a need. Simple.  The success of Uber (and other share platforms) is all predicated on the idea that 1. resources are plentiful (cars and drivers) 2. demand is greater than the current model of supply can support and 3. convenience and simplicity reigns supreme. It is also a great example of a modern paradigm shift for people who don’t understand or think about paradigm shifts. For the better part of a century city dwellers couldn’t see it any other way. This monopoly, like all monopolies, had some stress, like:

  • If you needed a ride, you had to hail a cab
  • hoping the driver speaks your language,
  • hoping the vehicle doesn’t stink 
  • hoping you get to your destination safely,
  • hoping you get to your destination quickly,
  • hoping the cost was fair.
Sound familiar? Just swap out the word taxi for L&D or HR. 

These same criticisms have been levied against each for years but never so loudly as today. L&D and HR have long been the organizational learning taxi service, monopolizing organizational learning for far too long and supported by organizational leaders themselves like cities support taxi services; establishing a Learning Department has been default.  For the better part of a century employees couldn’t see it any other way. This monopoly, like all monopolies, had some stress, like:

  • If you needed to learn something, you had to hail L&D.
  • hoping they speak your (business) language,
  • hoping the (learning) vehicle doesn’t stink, 
  • hoping you get to your (learning) destination,
  • hoping you get to your learning destination quickly,
  • hoping the cost (your time and attention?) was fair.

But technology, and specifically the same technology concept (sharing) that launched Uber and others is changing this paradigm of the learning taxi service. People in organizations, through technology, are not waiting for the next course to be developed, instead they are using social platforms to building networks upon and connect with people and content regularly, and just-in-time as both are plentiful. Employees are not standing by waiting for the next resource to appear hoping it will meet their needs, they are actively seeking them out – rating them and their content as easily they do an Uber ride experience (for the benefit of others). The learning vehicles, like Uber’s cars, vary in size and type. The drivers of the content, like Uber drivers, are not specialized but are knowledgeable and can offer quick value.

People are discovering the power of social tools to get just the information they need at the moment they need it. The power is in their hands to build strong networks and choose their own hassle free vehicle. In a recent Washington Post article about how Taxi services were uniting against Uber and other ride sharing services was this statement: “[Uber] threatens a taxi industry that critics say has been slow to modernize and keep up in a technology-driven era.” 


Sounds familiar? So when people question the power of social technology to change the paradigm of learning, just ask them to look at Uber and the paradigm of transportation. 

Conversation Brings Change, Naturally

I’ve been thinking about Media Naturalness theory for some time. Well, more often it just pops up because it’s not like I’ve invested all than much effort into it. In short, if you’re not familiar, Media Naturalness Theory is the idea that human beings were built for face-to-face communication over thousands of years of evolution. Our gestures, voice inflection, eye movement, body language all contribute to giving and receiving information. Therefore anything that shifts away from this “medium” impacts our ability to effectively communicate. There was a lot of study around this with the introduction of email. To learn more I found this Wikipedia article a pretty good place to start.

Being more into the media rich New Social Learning (i.e. learning through social technology), I haven’t put much stock into Media Naturalness theory but I had a bit of an epiphany at a recent meet-up here in Syracuse. I’m a member of a local Bloggers Facebook group. We comment and exchange posts as well as ask for advice, etc. I was wanting to meet some of these fine people in person and pick their brains about blogging and why they do it, how they do it, tools, approaches, etc. I think I’m somewhat of an outlier in this space as I don’t blog for money, I do it for myself (although if the occasional speaking gig arises I usually don’t say no), my topic is a bit fringe, and I’m a bit of a purist in that I focus exclusively on my writing/reflecting and do nothing in regard to researching tags, SEO and monetization.

Meeting virtual friends face to face is always pleasant and since we didn’t engage much in long discussions in our Facebook group the opportunity was there to sit, have a beer and just hear each others voices if nothing else. Upon my arrival I moseyed up to a trio and introduced myself. After exchanging pleasantries I was asked by one, Joe I believe, “So what is it you write about exactly?” Without missing a beat I rattled off something like “I write about organizational social. How increasing transparency and openness can improve performance. You know, how social tools can be used inside an organization for sharing and collaboration.”  As I sputtered out my final words I realized, but didn’t feel compelled to add it in, that I said nothing about learning. I hadn’t even whispered the term that has defined my career for over 20 years now. No ID. No elearning. No L&D. No training. Nothing.

Blogging has a unique pressure that really only strikes you when you hit “publish.” Even as comments to your posts come in, you can pause almost indefinitely and ponder a reply. But in the heat of a face-to-face conversation, with real human eyes cast upon you and ears finely tuned, your response is unrehearsed, visceral and probably the most honest you can give. I write so much on my interest, beliefs, observations, efforts, etc that I really haven’t even given conscious thought to the transformation I have been undertaking. In reflecting on this moment over the past week I started looking back at my conversations online, my blog posts over the past few months and years and the pattern was obvious; I have slowly shifted away from being L&D-centric and have been seeing the whole organization’s role in impacting individual performance. Learning is a part of the work not apart from it. And thus learning is mostly indistinguishable from the other activities that make up the work we do, it is an unconscious underpinning. No longer does learning, in the formal sense, dominate my thinking and practice any more than communication, human interaction, culture, leadership, and trust.

Change happens one conversation at a time or in this case, change is made obvious through conversation. And why not – we’ve been learning about others and ourselves this way for thousands of years.

L&Ds Business Is Not In Driving Social Business

I’m becoming more convinced that organizational efforts to help people build social networks and personal knowledge management skills should not involve L&D any more than the Accounting department. And it appears it not just me. Sam Burrough and Martin Couzins recently co-led a MOOC on Social Learning and asked the question in a final Tweetchat: “What role should L&D play in Social Learning?” which for me is a small one. Additionally, in a recent Tweet, JD Dillon made the point that in organizations, many are really doing similar things:

However, I think James Tyer put it best in his blog post titled “Who Owns Organizational Learning? You.” and I encourage you to read it.

My take? As social tools become more commonplace many people today are already (unconsciously) building networks and have developed processes (undocumented) to manage fluid knowledge without much assistance. These people may not be as effective as they could be, or will be, but the way to learn this is not through training which arguably L&D still looks to as the first choice. What people need is to be more conscious of their behavior and then they need encouragement to make their tacit knowledge (processes) explicit for others. This should not really be exclusively L&Ds charge, which organizational leaders tend to default to because when the word “learning” is uttered all eyes tend to turn to L&D. 

Social learning is structureless, the opposite of formal learning. Social transcends the traditional organizational boundaries of departments and divisions. It knows no hierarchy or roles. To help social tools and behaviors to be more a part of worker’s activity, it must simply become more a part of the worker’s work. Learning the work is done by doing the work and this happens best within the work itself not outside of it where L&D typically sits. 

My thoughts on this were further cemented by Dion Hinchcliffe‘s recent article in ZD Net “The Growing Evidence for Social Business Maturity“. This article highlighted the move of organizations from social adoption to adaptation (of open, collaborative work). It spoke of the importance of organizational culture, the significance of executive commitment, business partnerships with operations and IT, goals and KPIs as keys to progression. It was all about the business, the business leaders, the use cases, ambassadors, CoPs, and community management. There was no direct mention of L&D… but for an implied mention when speaking of training – but it was more specifically termed “viral training”; Helping people use the platform’s features and functions peer-to-peer. This would be a significantly minor role for L&D, especially if the tools are intuitive as the should be and even then, motivated folks figure the complex out.
Today there is much focus on trying to convert learning professionals to new understandings and practices using social tools and encouraging social behaviors. This is a mistake in my opinion. Many learning professionals don’t engage or understand the practices any more than any other organizational roles – why assume they will be best suited? Connecting, communicating, curating, etc are not exclusive to a single department. The learning of effective social practices and tools is best done socially; through observation, experimenting, feedback and conversation. This will take time and mistakes will be made of course but I think less control is the best path to longterm success. It’s a higher up decision that patience and trust are to replace command and control. So render unto L&D that which is formal and render unto the entire organization the social efforts that truly surround business execution. 

It’s All Training Until It Isn’t

The course is a seductive solution. I’ve written and spoken about this before as I believe it’s due in part to years of formal learning dominating our lives, better known as learning learned helplessness. And because employees can’t always wait for L&D to develop a solution they will take matters into their own hands. Sometimes this is good as they find the resource (human or material) to solve their own problem or it can be troublesome in that sometimes they create a PowerPoint presentation for others. It’s enough to raise the hair on a learning professional’s neck… but I say don’t fight it. Appreciate their moxie and shift your focus to consultant and help people rethink the decision.

 It’s about  an opportunity not ownership.

So what does Consultative L&D look like? Here are 5 short examples of actual engagement with some of our stakeholders that has not only worked to pragmatically solve a business issue, but helped enlighten those we worked with to stop thinking training only. Again, each of these began with something along the lines of “we need a course on…

1. People Don’t Argue with There Own Data 
A senior divisional leader requested training.  Donning Performance Consultant we stepped in to see if there was a skill gap and if it warranted training as a solution.  This is how the conversation went: 
Me:  “How are new employees learning the methodology and approaches today?”
Him: “Our programs that employ it learn on the job. Seasoned developers already know the general methodologies and our rendition is not that much different than industry best practices. The new individuals who are less aware will have a mentor who will sit with them to bring them up to speed.
Me: “What are the biggest gaps in execution today?”
Him: “Nothing that stands out. Each team/project does it slightly different to accommodate their project, environment, customer, etc.”
Me: “Since our methodology is very much based on industry methodology how/where is it different?”
Him: “It’s different in just a few ways: it accommodates customer processes, documents, and tools.”
Me: The objectives speak to having employees “Understand.” How will we know they understand? i.e. how will success be determined regardless of solution chosen? Are their project executables/deliverables that can be identified that would show knowledge/skill advancement?”
Him: “We are talking about very tightly knitted teams, they “self-organize” and are accountable for what they sign-up for. It’ll become immediately apparent if someone is not keeping up or they just don’t get it.” 
As we dialoged it became apparent to him that a training course was inappropriate, too heavy and unnecessary. Today we are working on small modules loosely connected, some may be podcasts, SME video demonstrations, job aids and checklists that people can pull on as needed to supplement time with knowledgeable team members.
2. When a job aid will do, do a job aid.
After a SME crafted a highly visual step-by-step on generating financial reports in a PowerPoint presentation meant for a live session, I aimed to understand the need and overall objectives after the fact. Not one to throw the baby out with the bath water, we determined that simply following each screen could produce the desired results, no direct instruction needed. The next step was to fine tune through some actual user testing, then reproduce as performance support for use when generating the reports.
3. Need a presentation? Flip it.
Sometimes content is so new or the workforce is so new to the process that a more formal solution is warranted. It’s important to strive to “do no harm” to the work flow and keep learning opportunities as pull vs. push for our employees. Recently I was approach again to help develop a live presentation. Ultimately it was determined, after a bit of dialog about attention and attendance, to release the session as prerecord and then tag it in our ESN. We’d give the audience a week to view and review as needed and then ask them to post in the ESN their additional questions for the SME to address along with peers.
4. Don’t Reinvent the Wheel
In a desire to reaffirm the commitment we have to our client and ensure consistency of execution, the idea of creating a course for a segment of our workforce to complete on a client methodology and tools was promoted. In our analysis we though this would be redundant as much of the material was readily available. Our solution was to curate vs. create. Tapping into the already available formal materials we proposed an internal certification program which modeled similar certifications recognized by our folks. This two level certification not only recognizes employee completion of identified materials but will also acknowledges their successful application in using the materials in the authentic situations. Additionally, they are credited for sharing their knowledge and contributing to the growth of their more novice peers.
5. Pull not Push
Choosing a performance support solution over a course is not always the correct option. People need formal especially when they are new to the content or safety or security is on the line. However when people are more experienced they need less formal and more informal or social opportunities. This was the case with one of my first efforts. Initially a Project Manager’s boot camp was proposed but this made little sense for our experience Project Managers just needing to understand the nuances of our organization’s project management approach; which for the most part was very similar to what most Project Managers knew from their certification through the Project Management Institute. So instead we leveraged numerous SMEs to co-create job aids, templates and short recorded sessions to orient and reinforce our unique ways of executing project tasks. Each of these could be pulled on in the time of need.

Each of these efforts in and of themselves is small. They grew out of small conversations via email or phone call. In each one we have reinforced the approach I think L&D needs to take; small, embedded, impactful, and integrated with the workforce solutions focused not on just on learning but performing. For L&D to reinvent itself it must not only meet the business need but reframe the thinking throughout the organization one problem, one person, one conversation at a time.