Learning’s Battle Against Tradition

What if you presented a tool or process to the c-suite, something that would (not could) increase revenue, improve morale and increase efficiency? No doubt they would leap at the opportunity right?
Not quite…

I recently heard a story (Axe Bat Wins Converts, But Has To Overcome Baseball Traditionaliststhat immediately made me see parallels to innovations in organizational learning and performance. The story was about a modern innovation applied to the baseball bat, which has remained in its basic form for around 150 years.

 Felling Axe by タクナワン 
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0


Drawing upon the even older design of axe handles, the Axe Bat is more oval than the current cylinder style, similar if not identical to axes use in chopping wood, an efficient design used since neolithic times. The reporter explained that technology now allows us to easily craft a bat handle in any shape where in the past, using a lathe, round was the only option.  The proponents of the Axe Bat claim, like its wood chopping forefather, that it’s more efficient, effective, and reduces injuries caused by the unnatural ergonomics of traditional bat handles. 

In essence the Axe Bat would help players and help the game.

Yet in face of this information and a readily available alternative, there are few takers. 

Sound vaguely familiar?  Read on…


Age old technique (social learning) made more apparent with advent of new technology (Web 2.0) can transform accepted practice (organizational learning) and challenge long held conventions (learning via formal only). 

In essence social media for learning would help employees and help the organization.

Ironically though, the same resistance the hinders an innovation for baseball exists for organizational learning. This resistance is of course ‘Tradition’. The age old subconscious cry of “but this is how we’ve always done it.” People want to stick with what is comfortable even in the face of new or better. With the Axe Bat, teams would try it in practice situations but come game time they returned to the traditional bat.  With social media, people readily use and support it in their personal lives but are resistant to it’s use or promote it for learning in their professional ones.

Further reading of the story reveals the Axe Bat manufacturers are approaching increased adoption by doing the following:

1.  Focusing on the newest to the game. 
“just let them pick one, they’ll pick [the Axe Bat] because it feels the best. It feels natural to you.”
2.  Doing a lot of demos.
3.  Getting high profile endorsers.
“…get more high-profile endorsers as some of those college players turn pro.”
4.  Believing. 
“we know we’re going to overcome this (tradition).”

Sound vaguely familiar?  

If its social learning or innovative baseball bats, it’s a slow road to change when faced with well entrenched tradition. 

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.

The Mind of a Performance Specialist

I’ve written before that in this new era of learning that believing is seeing.  The more we connect, read, reflect and engage in practices that challenge our paradigms how, where and when learning takes place the more we see things from a different perspective… even everyday things.

Take for example my attendance at a recent running race.  A group of onlookers noticed that some runners were getting tripped up as they crested a small incline in the final turn in the race. The culprit was a small berm near the end of the 5K route. It was inconspicuous but damaging to many as the elevated road was just high enough to catch an exhausted runner’s foot and cause them to stumble. This stumble could simply be a small glitch that throws the runner off for a few seconds or could have led to severe foot or knee damage that could have ended their race or even careers a mere 100 yards from the finish. Either way performance was being negatively impacted for many.

One onlooker (we’ll equate him to a Training Professional) took immediate action to weave his way through the runners and stand on the curb near the berm. Once there he pointing the hazard out to each passing runner, shouting instructions [sage on the stage] to the bewildered, inattentive, and tired athletes to go around the relatively unnoticeable spot in the pavement [knowledge dump]. Many ignored this intrusion due to their focused state and the fact that having someone shouting anything other than cheers was just plain incomprehensible in the heat of the moment [contextually abnormal]. Although well intentioned, the effort to improve performance was an intervention that was labor intensive for the onlooker, caused more of a distraction at a critical point in performance, and in effect had very little impact as still many runners clipped the berm resulting in stumbles. The runners who did safely avoided the hazard really only did so by watching their peers fail and quickly make an adjustment [social learning].

After several minutes, and the passing of numerous runners, another onlooker  (We’ll equate him to a Performance Specialist) grabbed a nearby traffic cone, being used to mark the race route, and placed it upon the berm [performance aid].  The runners approaching saw the cone well in advance, made slight adjustments in their paths and finished the race without a damaging spill.

Our Performance Specialist  was pragmatic, respected the workflow, the context, and the “workers” themselves. He drew upon familiar resources and used significant less energy than the Training Professional to have a greater impact on performance. 

The shift to Performance Specialist  is less about acquiring a new set of skills then about embracing a new mindset.  

Real Learning is in the Real Work

Many discussions about learning lead to the very accurate point that we have been learning socially (and informally) for thousands of years. Images of early people gathering around fires, writing on walls or in the sand with a stick have been used to help people better understand social learning and that like then it is happening today in our lives, classrooms and in our organizations.

However, sitting around the fire, early people shared, discussed, and processed but around the fire wasn’t the only place that this would have happened or for that matter was it arguably the most impactful “place” of learning.

I believe learning is most powerful when done in the doing; the 70 of 70-20-10.  In this doing, in the past, they also communicated; on hunts, while tanning animal skins, preparing meat, and forging for berries … they likely used different mediums too; song and rhythm, other audible sounds (clicks, grunts?), they watched each other, they mimicked each other; the 20 of the 70-20-10. Simply put, they learned socially in the work flow where mind and body were engaged and the context was dripping with emotion.  I imagine the hunts were exciting, dangerous and exhausting. Tanning and forging were equally emotion rich as socialization was omnipresent when new techniques were employed, observed, analyzed, and tweaked by the group creating “ah-ha” moments as well as “ha-ha” moments where peers bonded and ideas were promoted in a very communal, casual, comfortable, yet equally important for survival environment.

This emotion is a key component to deeper learning. Classrooms, course ware and virtual worlds today try to simulate emotional responses but they rarely match the personal connections to content and context that is at the heart of deeper learning because they are just that… “simulated.” The human brain knows that the formally designed “learning” activities, be it simple drag-n-drop flash animations or simulated environments with character interactions are not really do or die events. These products do the best they can to “reward” the user with kudos, scores and a check mark but its only when we are truly immersed in a real situation with real needs, real business impact, real problems, real opportunity, real rewards, and of course real people that we become more emotionally charged. Similar was early man’s real need to find food, water and shelter. These needs must have made them more receptive to observe, mimic, listen to and connect with peers…in their work flows.

Therefore our ability to learn is not and cannot be confined to a place, an approved platform, device  or application, elearning module, or a face-to-face course; the 10 of 70-20-10. Look and learn from our past; I suppose early man didn’t carry fire, paints, sand and a stick with them on the hunts any more than we should expect to wait to login to a “social intranet” or LMS to solve problems with peers, learn the best principles, or collaborate. Deeper learning happens in our emotion rich contexts with interactions with real people, facing real problems.

So it was then, is today, and ever shall be.

Launching SoMe for Learning? – Think L before M

Are you struggling to get Social Media for learning started in your organization?  You might just be going about it all in the wrong order. In the effort to establish a social media empowered workforce, just remember as in the alphabet “L before M” as in “Learning” before “Media”. As my friend and colleague Jane Bozarth has said numerous times – we’ve been learning well before social media for ooooh about 5,000 years! So how come when presented with technology we seem to have forgotten this?

I know it’s hard. Technology changes almost hourly, information comes at us at light speed, knowledge can no longer be seen as within people but between them. The world is being transformed at the speed of the Internet. However, don’t despair this simple order- L before M is undeniable. Like Gravity or Murphy’s Law, the order of the alphabet is pretty much a given (However if you recall, efforts have been made as recent as the ‘70s to change this to the decibet).

I’ve written before about Working within the System to Change It where I propose that rather than a full on attack of training only solutions for performance improvement (where you will typically find resistance from both a well entrenched Training Department and quite possible from key executives who may be suffering from a form of Learned Helplessness) you focus on the fundamental elements of networked learning sans the technology first to build your case. Remembering to put Learning before Media may be your best approach to getting the tools you ultimately want to maximum performance in your organization.

It’s working for me thus far as my initial efforts have reaped some big rewards: 1. I was able to launch an official small-scale Yammer pilot 2. I now head up an internal social media subcommittee and 3. I have been asked to build and present the business case for social media use in our organization.

So what elements am I referring to? The basic elements within all social media: collaboration, sharing and community. That’s really it.  Note that these are also the fundamentals of learning socially too, no technology required. Just visualize what Jane said about how long we have been learning socially –picture the scene about 5000 years ago of a cave painting in progress; a small group of hominids huddled around a fire, painting, contributing, problem solving and leaving a record for others to review, apply, and/or edit then or in the future… collaboration …sharing…community.
So stop pushing the Media for now. Put Learning first and look closely at your organization’s current efforts to improve performance. Find those opportunities to rework them into a platform for social learning or create new ones. In the past I leveraged a Thiagi frame game to be a large scale collaborative problem solving effort with meaningful, impactful results. Yes it was mostly formal in its structure but definitely not training, because training was not the answer.

Today I am once again promoting a social learning initiative by transforming an upcoming training event.  In the past, one full day of our quarterly management meeting has been tagged as a training event. Within the currently defined parameters (space and time) a non-tech social learning platform for learning is in the works. So rather than a blanket training approach, a self-selecting learning conference will be hosted.

Our 60+ member management team will register for and attend several 45 minute concurrent sessions over a period of 5 hours. Each is to be focused on identified business needs with 15 minutes of reflection time between. The sessions will be hosted by field experts (their peers who happen to be regularly exceeding in key metric areas) sharing their keys to success and innovative approaches. Outstanding performance is typically recognized with a certificate, monetary reward and a round of applause but that leaves the attendees wondering “what did they ACTUALLY do to get that recognition?”

What’s the role of L&D then if we are not going to train? We will serve as consultants and organizers not designers and deliverers. Our IDs will help the presenters establish goals, outline their speaking agenda and help craft exercises. And our trainers will serve as coaches offering tips and demonstrating effective techniques in delivery, flow, and transitions.

This approach reinforces the principles of social learning; sharing knowledge and improving performance. It also serves to truly engage our employees; giving exceptional employees an opportunity to share and be recognized by their peers and leaders.

Finally the approach helps lay the foundation for change:

  • making it easier to introduce social media for learning as a means to expand and extend the social learning that was witnessed first-hand.
  • employees seen not as only appliers of knowledge and skill but providers of it;
  • L&D professionals are not just trainers and designers but performance specialist;
  • Organizational learning not as a result of top down, formal training but learning as a result of community, collaboration and sharing.