…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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Working Out Loud: Our Sponsored Mentoring Program (WIP)

We’ve been sitting on the idea of an organization-wide mentoring program for quite some time. This is mostly due to being a small team, just Nona Gormley and myself, with other short-term initiatives to address. As a key component of our overall learning vision of “A Connected and Continuously Learning” organization, mentoring is something we’d like to see become a part of the culture.  However since it is currently not, a more formal framework to kick start it may be warranted.

Until now we have shared the concept and conversation in our ESN in an effort to invite opinion and ideas.  Today though I felt compelled to expand our working out loud and invite the world to our approach.  Mentoring is nothing new and frankly one could argue that our Sponsored Mentoring is a misnomer really since I believe a true mentor is not selected for you, but by you.  Like I said above however, a mentoring culture is the long-term goal, and quite possibly a more formalized framework could support the effort until it is institutionalized and the scaffold could simply fall away.

Of course any program should be taken with a grain of salt when there is no context behind it.  So to help understand why this approach has been chosen, I’ve shared a bit about my organization here which can be found in detail along with our vision in Dr. Clark Quinn‘s new book “Revolutionize Learning and Development: Performance and Innovation Strategy for the Information Age.”

Systems Made Simple (SMS) is a privately owned Healthcare IT company with concentrated attention on government contractual work (primarily in health care clinical and delivery systems at the Department of Veteran Affairs, Military Health Systems, and the Department of Health and Human Services). Systems Made Simple specializes in four core areas of competency: Program and Project Management; Systems and Software Engineering; Infrastructure Management; and IT Services. Systems Made Simple uses an extended workforce model. With roughly 450 employees working on more than forty contracts, we work closely with partners and subcontractors to ensure the right talent mix is in place to meet the customer’s need. Systems Made Simple is geographically dispersed throughout the United States, with offices in Syracuse, New York, Vienna Virginia, Salt Lake City, Utah, Austin, Texas, and Clearwater, Florida. Our project teams include a mix of work from home, in government facilities or in an System Made Simple office. The workforce is not only extended by time and geography, but also by function and relationship to the organization. Many Systems Made Simple employees are accustomed to working closely with other project team members to function as a single, cohesive team as seen by the customer. While a large number of employees are hired for direct contractual work, the intention is to provide career growth opportunities for each employee. Our employees are more often experts and practitioners not novices; well versed in their craft, often coming to us often with a wealth of experience.

So with that, I invite you to look at what we’re thinking about – click here. Far from being a complete set of thoughts, I believe the materials will give you insight into the approach, give you a chance to offer an idea or two and maybe some take aways for your own efforts in building a mentoring culture.

…Of These, Isn’t The Greatest Modeling?

I found myself inspired by the #wolweek (work out loud) movement that took place across the Web a few weeks ago. The concept is relatively simple; share what you’re doing, make the tools of your work visible and open so others can see, comment, and contribute.  This means working in more public “spaces”.  So if you followed #wolweek on Twitter, many people blogged about their work, successes, struggles, thoughts, questions, etc.  Still others really opened the gates and let people see materials and prototypes. 

I shared the concept internally in our ESN. I said: 

…Organizations have the same opportunity to do this and reap the potential rewards within their own walls.  In a small way we do this already without thinking. We ask questions of others in and outside of our ESN such as Who has a certain certification? Where can I find a form? What’s the best way to…?  In each of these questions we really reveal a little about our efforts. Imagine then if the work that the answer to these questions fed was just as visible? Would we have to even ask as many questions anymore?

I didn’t get much of a response to the idea.

So….it’s been said that L&D is ideally positioned to lead organizations in Social Learning, Curation and Personal Knowledge Management (PKM); supporting people in learning how to learn independent of courses and classes.  Of course doing this means L&D must let go of formal approaches and instead serve as coaches, models and guides. Most important in my opinion is the modeling. It really is the least intrusive action where others can see, reflect on, and if done right, feel they can approach to have meaningful conversations. 

A little back story first.  L&D in my organization has been moving (slowly) on an initiative to help create a mentoring culture.  The idea is ultimately to 1st help new hires acclimate to life and work here by not only having material resources readily available but a real human resource to lean on.  We always knew this how how people really get up to speed in an organization and the idea of finding a “buddy” has always been haphazard… left to the individual to figure out.  What if this was just something we helped everyone with? What if each new person came aboard and in addition to their team and manager they had another they could just tap into. Having an expert available, get a question answered, and a few tips on “how it really works here” goes a long way.  Can’t this model scale we thought? And so through research inside and out, we began the slow process of developing a multi phase program to not only to help new hires but also look to weave a program like this into the career path as well. Imagine someone desiring to be a manager and having to show that they can first successfully mentor another? Isn’t that the main job of a manager, to develop his/her people? 

Behind the scenes, in our own silo, we talked, researched, developed, reviewed and shared all of this. And I thought it time we eat our own dog food (for lack of a better expression) regarding openness and transparency and WOL.  We needed to practice what we preach and take what has been a young internal L&D initiative and make it very public – wild hairs, half-baked prototypes and conversations included.  It was a perfect way to model open collaboration in the workplace and build proof of concept, help others see how it can scale, and ultimately open the door to conversations on how to get it going in their own areas. Our once hidden work and process is now available for all to see and comment on… and some have. In the end people outside our area can add much value by sharing their own experiences in mentoring with us, maybe post a few good documents and ideas we should consider in making this a reality.  Maybe they will do nothing at all but “lurk” but at least now they are in the know and invited to the conversation.

We’re Going Social! (It’s not what you think)

That title would imply adoption of a social technology but really that is only part of our strategy. We’re “going social” as in placing people and connectedness at the heart of our performance ecosystem. It means we are focused on supporting and fostering relationships in a way that will better connect people for learning and working with and without the support of technology.  Simply put, our goal is: to create a connected and continuous learning organization. Here is where we are focusing today:

1. Mentoring
We are dubbing it “Sponsored Mentoring” because it is formally supported and designed as opposed to only encouraging it. The vision is ultimately to create a mentoring culture and if successful the formal scaffolding can be taken down.  Initially we are focusing on new hires in more of a buddy system. Eventually, as career pathing matures, mentoring will be a key activity in the journey. Along with this we hope to reinvent the IDP to have a more autonomous, transparent, and less pejorative leaning.  The 702010 forum has been invaluable in inspiring our approach. We have been careful to monitor current beliefs and approaches that exist in the organization. Melding these with our growing understanding should help the mentoring system gain a stronger foothold, or so we hope.

2. On Boarding

As noted above with Sponsored Mentoring, we are starting with new hires and working as closely as we can with current systems, approaches and understandings. Our managers tend to excel in project management but can struggle with people, motivation, and development. Time is not a luxury for them but we discovered in our research that managers and new hires were not on the same page in the first few weeks. Many discrepancies existed which contributed to inconsistent on boarding to systems, tools and team mates. Taking a page from The Checklist Manifesto, we crafted our own tool with great input from managers. Easy to use and respectful of unique department needs, it lays out a day-by-day, week- by-week schedule of suggested tasks and activities for managers to use in on boarding. The idea was to build consistency, reduce frustration, increase productivity, and welcome a new hire in a way that didn’t create more work for the hiring manager. It’s a simple device really and that is all we really wanted here. If following the sequence, the hiring manager is guaranteed to have more contact with their employee who can often be remote and that is a step in the right direction.

3. Resources
Resources over courses is the motto.  The majority of our workforce comes to us skilled up. And although its hard to break stakeholders of the “We Need Training” mindset, needs do arise. We are approaching it situationally through performance consulting with a training is the last option approach. Many of the processes and tools reside in the work and minds of our most senior people. Working with them as advisers, L&D guides them in the development of performance support tools to aid people in the work they do as opposed to taking them out of it.  Many of the resources come in the form of job aids, PowerPoint decks and other traditional tools. These “pull” user-generated resources form the backbone of the “University Library” but we are aware that most don’t automatically turn to a library of resources for assistance, they turn to people first. Which leads me to number 4.

4. Sharing
Yes, our ESN plays a significant role but it is a solution among many that aligns to the vision of “Social at the Heart.” Our workforce is geographically dispersed so the need is there to connect to the remote corners. We know the journey will be long to have the Network supplant other methods of communication such as email and conference calling. And in its infancy we see the network is highly cooperative but not very collaborative. The platform is robust but we were able to customize and remove features and functionality to focus on really one activity – sharing. We are modeling, guiding, reinforcing the act of sharing what one knows, what one needs, and what one is doing. Some groups have been using the tool for more project work and as they grow in expertise and see the value we continue to promote them.

I like to think we are making progress…

What’s next?

  • Curation
  • Personal Knowledge Management
Helping our work force to develop into content curators and hone their broader but related personal knowledge management skill is key but will ultimately be the most challenging and longer-term. I think a more open and connected workforce at the organization, group and individual level will make some of this activity more apparent to each over time.

Mentoring, on boarding, resources and networking are the start. All serve to make the organization smaller. Our contention is that if we bring people closer in all ways then technology truly serves to support not lead people in their learning and work.

Learning Happens in the Heat of the Moment

Learning in or as close to the actual context of the use of what has been learned has always been seen as ideal.  In my mind I always picture OTJ learning situations and historically I see apprenticeships like those of a blacksmith or cobbler. Studies exist that support what we’ve always believed about this. For example, in a summarizing article from The Laymen’s Guide to Psychology: The Psychology of Learning: Context Matters – Where you learn is how you learn, we are reminded that if the location of a learning opportunity and the application of the learning are identical, we have better results than if they are opposite. The shortcoming here is that the study of learning was limited to what appears to be a paper-based quiz only.  We can, however, take away the understanding that if the learning and performance contexts are the same or similar then more accurate application of the knowledge and or skill will take place.

Designers aim to reproduce these environments in simulations, scenarios and games. However theses are artificial constructs and what will always be lacking in any of these approaches is human emotion and most specifically – Stress; the stress found in challenging work situations. Nothing can replace the real world “heat of the moment” to cement the understanding, application, and value of new knowledge. Think of the powerful stress related to meeting or missing a deadline, completing a task accurately or inaccurately, or solving a difficult problem that has financial or other business implications.

Stress is like the 350 degree oven that the batter must enter to become a cake. Without the heat it just doesn’t happen.

Two personal examples happened just this week that reinforced for me the importance of context and stress needed for learning. Both had the added and important element of performance support.

1. My Son is in Jiu Jitsu. A martial art that focuses on grappling (closely related to wrestling). In one exercise my son, age 7, is asked to grapple with other students his age in 3 minute events where other students watch and coaches hover.  I have watched time and time again where in less intense situations his observational focus has wavered and his practice on a dummy or an adult coach has been lackadaisical. Lets say he picked up 30% at best of a new move from these events.  However the focus and attention is amazing when he is in a do-or-tap out situation where he is straining to break free or counter an aggressive move. His coaches stand over him communicating instructions and physically adjusting hands, arms and legs when locked in combat and encouraging positive outcomes. Because of these events he never seems to forget the technique the next time. The emotional and physical discomfort seems to awaken ancient survival instincts of learning.

2. Out for a run Saturday morning, my pace a bit more hastened than normal… I was in my 3rd mile when I happened along and began chatting with another runner going at a similar pace.  Being a relative novice, we began a general “runner get-to-know me” where I learned of his extensive history of running. He spoke of injuries and how he over came them. He spoke of significant events and his approach to training for them. I began more to notice his posture as we climbed a hill and how he ran more hands lower, feet shuffling (think cross country skiing) rather than my galloping approach.  I began to emulate it immediately and I felt the difference as I more easily crested the hill with him. I immediately applied an achilles tendon stretch he suggested at the end which made a huge difference in my recovery.  We were in the heat of the running moment, my receptors of his expert advice more acutely attuned and my recall exceptional the following day as I reapplied the ideas.

Both examples were social; observational, conversational and physical. Additionally they involved expertise;  one by design, one by happenstance. They were as real as real learning can be. Each was rich with experience, practice, conversation, and reflection and both were frankly stressful with mind and muscle engaged.

Nick Shackleton-Jones wrote for ASTD recently about “Challenges” in his post How We Learn. My take away from his piece reinforced the fact that Learning Professionals must focus more on helping workers overcome challenges while in their work, not creating challenges outside of it. No game, simulation, scenario-based elearning or classroom role play can compete with the social, stressful, real-world environments of our work. Beyond initial formal learning our greatest opportunity to be most effective is not in courses or classes but at our computers, at our desks, in the field, and on the floor.

Today most employees have Managers, Directors or Supervisors. Each of these titles are reminiscent of a bygone age and pertain to oversight, responsibility and control not of support and assistance. Furthermore the most successful producers are often tapped to ascend to these roles not necessarily those best at helping others overcome challenges. This must change. Workers today face rapidly evolving environments and must perform with often geographically dispersed and fluid teams. Social Media enabled networks are a critical piece to the performance puzzle but merely connecting with others is not enough. Learning professionals can serve organizations better by guiding, modeling, and promote the best principles of effective coaching and mentoring in these networks, helping skilled people support their employees success in the heat of the moment where real learning is happening, where the real work is getting done.