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. 

From The Business of Learning to The Learning Business

As you may have heard, about 3 weeks ago I joined the eLearning Guild and will be working closely with the learning community and onsite events. It’s a small step in my employment journey but a large leap in my career. So, how’s it going so far? Really good. I am getting immersed in the processes and people that make up this organization and contributing immediately where I can. I’m also being very patient with myself so I can better ensure that I have a good understanding of all the connected parts.

When I was first approached by the Guild I was of course intrigued and flattered. The eLearning Guild is a leader in this space, the “learning” space. I’ve been a member for years and spoken at several of their events. Of course when I speak, I speak about how I’ve used social technology in the organizations I’ve worked for. Therefore joining the Guild could be seen as a bit of a departure for me as it is the “eLearning” Guild after all. A colleague even remarked, “You’re like the social guy, I wonder how this will be received?” But I and others saw it differently; not as a departure but more like a merger.


eLearning today does not mean what it once did and the Guild gets this. In the early 2000’s the eLearning Guild answered a growing call for more information, ideas, technology and approaches in the then budding eLearning space. eLearning is continually transforming and today, driven by the interest and practices of the community, it can no longer be seen as just courses and classes delivered online. Due to expanding consumer technologies, mobile devices and the advent of Web2.0, elearning has become ubiquitous. The community conversations around eLearning have shifting rightfully to be more about Learning than just the vehicles that deliver or augment it. 

Web 2.0 in particular ushered in a populous movement across the Internet and has given rise to a New Social Learning. Growing learner autonomy and global interdependence has hastened the decline of a dependence on traditional learning approaches. The new Social Learning however will not be the nail in the coffin for traditional elearning or training, nor should it be, as formal learning is still very much needed. What the reinvigorated (or new) Social Learning has done is bring balance to the beliefs and practices around learning and put formal in its rightful, more limited place. Social learning is forcing a community conversation about how formal learning must improve its quality and impact to remain relevant.  

The Guild was designed as a platform to encourage this and other conversations where members can openly share their thoughts and ideas and then the Guild can communicate this back through research, resources, and events for the community. Community and conversation are at the core of the eLearning Guild and because of this they (ah hem…) we are positioned to help hasten the changes needed and help organizational learning to keep up with the speed of business.  

I’m excited to be more a part of this conversation and to be able to bring my own practices and beliefs about learning to the Guild. I look forward to taking part in the larger community, working with you all, and helping to better see and be the future of organizational learning.

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.

Overcoming the Learning Professional’s Lizard Brain


Executive: We need a course on blah, blah, blah.
Learning Professional: …Right. OK, who is the audience? What is the objective?

Really? Back up. What the heck just happened? 

There’s a good chance their Lizard Brain kicked in, that’s what happened.  If you’re not familiar with the Lizard Brain, also known as Reptilian Brains, Primitive Brain, Old Brain and a slew of others, you can read up on the details here. However if I just remind you of these little words – “fight or flight“,  you probably know I’m talking about the Amygdala and this scenario makes some sense.

Simply put this inner area of our brain activates In stressful situations, when our survival instinct kicks in and we take on the stress or retreat to fight another day.


For millions of years we had fight or flight encoded in our brains. Our gut reaction to survive today is not that different than it was 150,000 years ago on the Savanna. However today, rather than flee a tiger to survive, we can take retreat from our knowledge about how most problems don’t require training to resolve. In the face of an authority’s demand, the corporate tiger, our encoded lizard brain can take over to better ensure we can pay the mortgage. 

Couple this with our years of schooling and systematic indoctrination and we have a deeply encoded brain telling us learning really happens in formal settings. I wrote similarly about this in the post: Cognitive Dissonance and the Denial of Social and Informal Learning and again as I compared our conflicts to the theory of Learned Helplessness. Both of these however focus on the issue from the point of view of leaders, executives and stakeholders; those outside of L&D. But the Lizard Brain is something we need to contend with as learning professionals. Just like the growth of the logical mind countered instinct and help advance humanity, this action must happen for learning professionals to truly help their organizations.

How can we detach then from the reptilian response system and succeed in using logic when faced with the requests?  Here are a few of my approaches.
Before the request arrives(as you know it inevitably will)
Most of the work happens here!

1. Support – The shift away from Lizard brain responses takes some augmentation. We can’t remember everything especially in the heat of the moment! Quick reference materials and prompts help you better articulate your message. I have tapped the grid in Is it a Training Problem? from Jane Bozarth’s and the Expertise by Learning Mode graphic by Clark Quinn of The Internet Time Alliance more times than I can count. These simple tools are great to reference or re-purpose on a napkin to help people really see the issue. They also aid in helping you be clear and not get caught up in jargon. 

I also find Evernote indispensable. When in the conversation I have my own tips and notes handy to reference and level set with. Plus, demonstrating your own ability to quickly find information at that very moment is a powerful statement in demonstrating management of your own knowledge and the power of performance support.

2. Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) – Now is the reason why you have been doing all this work! Your ability to tap into that of which you have collected, created and curated is a key ally to fend off the training first, training always request. Learn more about it through Harold Jarche and his work and writing on the topic

3. Networks – turn towards the others you (hopefully) have nurtured as your community. This is often called a Personal Learning Network (PLN). This trusted community is there to help you surface information or validate your thinking.
When the request arrives:

Pause – Most important, make a commitment not to immediately commit. A pause to invite reflection is your greatest opportunity to let the logical brain kick in and get warmed up. This is the time to engage your network, PKM, and tools

The Lizard is not your friend. What are you doing to keep it at bay?
Check out this solid read on the impact of the Lizard Brain from Seth Godin- Seth’s Blog: Quieting the Lizard Brain 

Fire Me

OK that request seems a bit extreme and could just as easily be titled “Just Shoot Me” as you will see as you read on… but what the heck I’ll go for the provocative. I believe – today, tomorrow or a few years from now you will fire your training department. So lets proceed as if this is an open letter from Training to the Executives.

You (execs) will inevitably hit a financial down turn and have to make the painful decision about who in which departments to cut. I’m as obvious a choice as a plump turkey on thanksgiving to be selected for the axe. It’s easy really. I gave you what you wanted, not what you needed. Shame on me.  You asked for training. You asked for education and helping our workers meet compliance needs. I obliged as that’s what hierarchies do; don’t think, just do. 


So I did. 


eEverything is the rage so you jumped in feet first. I answered the bell and built really cool courses and we bought an LMS. web-based live course became the next venture and we needed skilled folks to lead these webinars. The growth in elearning courses pushed us to get 2 ISDs. Damn if we didn’t swell the department. A department filled with non-businessy words and acronyms like classroom, courseware, ILT, LMS, LCMS, JIT, and REL. Come to think of it we didn’t just build a different department, we built a different company within the company! 
(Photo on right? Yep, “The Kiss of Death“)


The bottom line is… well, the bottom line.  And frankly all this effort resulted in little to no real impact and what gains we saw are hard to tie just to me and my efforts alone.  So in the end all I did really was add a huge cost. The courses were taken, the box in the LMS was checked and yet here we are… In the red. Sure the economy got ugly. Sure sales slumped as new competitors entered the market. Sure we had some turnover…some bad hires but frankly none worse than me.  

What the organization needed was innovative thinking, we needed creative problem solving and we had the answer to ride it out or even thrive during this time right under our roof and we missed it.

I missed it…

It’s time to call me in and break me the bad news. But with my one final drag on the proverbial cigarette as I await the Governor to call in a pardon… I have one last request… 


Hire me back. I’m reformed!

Hire me back tomorrow… no wait, hire me back in two weeks I’ve got some stuff to do around the house first.  But when you bring me back let’s call me something other than T&D Manager or whatever. Lets speak in outputs not inputs – I’ll be your Performance Strategist. Come to think of this, lets go at this as if training was not an option! Lets hire back those people (or a few who get that the world has changed) from the T&D department and embed them in the work flow. No more trainers & designers we need more coaches and mentors, advocates and ambassadors. We need to go full throttle into connecting our people and further getting them connected globally. Let these folks who have learned how to connect, and learned how to continuously learn show others how to do it in their contexts. 

Actually hiring me back and some of those talented folks is really not enough though. Here’s a few things you need to help me with.

1. Support me with your actions (not your words and money). Be a part of this, be vocal, be available. It’s a hell of a lot cheaper and in addition to walking the talk you might just prove to be inspiring and create a raging fan base of employees who serve as beacons for even more talented folks to join us.  No more department even if appropriately renamed something to do with performance. We need to be intertwined in the business that is our business.

2. Change the expectation Lets build a connected workforce of “Learnkers” or “Workners” (Learner-workers) or better yet maybe “Performists” (workers-artists)? Corny? Maybe but since the real learning is happening in the real work we can’t refer to our people as learners or participants or attendees. We must encourage our employees transformation to ones who believe in and readily show their continuous learning.  Maybe if we start by changing the language, we start empowering our people to be more than what the hierarchy sets for them (Peter Principle?). Let’s enable a force of dedicated, collaborating people – A force that seeks and shares the most innovative ideas and the best tips and tricks to get the work done. 

3. Free the tools. Don’t buy unique tools for an exclusive group. Lets find free tools that help everybody in all groups. And by help I mean tools that allow them to better connect and create. Connect them to each other, connect them to content their peers are creating. Learning is not a course, not a destination, its a verb. Its ongoing and going on everywhere. The “e” in eLearning now is for “extended” – Extended over time and space. Lets encourage our people to not only dip into the stream but feed it too, leaving breadcrumbs everywhere. 

4. Blow up the hierarchy. Keep your title and all that but let new voices in to the conversation regardless of where they sit in the pecking order. Technology today really lets everyone have a seat at the table anytime. It’s an ephemeral meritocracy (HT @euan). Your job now is to keep the seat open. People will come and go. Let others from all ranks sit in it for a bit, make their contribution and step aside. You and I and hell everyone here wants the same thing – success.


So lets not wait – fire me and let’s really get the company moving forward.