Transformation Doesn’t Happen in Silos

James Tyer and I often find ourselves chatting on Twitter about our shared observations and ideas.  One particular stream of though started to gel and we decided to formalize it some in a shared blog post (which was quite enjoyable) as an opportunity to extend the conversation. Let us know your thoughts.


There’s much talk of transforming HR, reimagining L&D, shaking up corp comms, disrupting marketing, “hacking” [insert your dept name here]. Transformation! Hacking! SEO buzzwords abound. LinkedIn feeds are full of it. Trade publications are recommending it. Armies of consultants are demanding it. Organizations are spending a fortune on it, yet once again nothing is fundamentally changing.

When “change” happens (and it can) it still happens within the department. This reveals our paradigm – the way our leaders see the structure of organizations – a last century, industrial era mindset. The result is a transformed department…that’s it. With the same problems, the same people – apart from the ones who were fired – the same leaders, the same titles. Really, nothing changes. It’s just the same old re-organization – not transformation.

A real transformation would see the end of these silos, an end to big departmental structures, decentralisation of power, a shift in authority, an end to the “business relationship manager”. For example, a real transformation of HR would likely result in no HR silo. Now that’s revolutionary!

Why do we do this over and over again? This time Amara’s law is particularly pertinent:

“We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” – Roy Amara

Short Run:

Leaders are sold on technology as a solution to big problems… big problems in their areas. But this isn’t transformation, it’s piecemeal modification. For example, in HR: people analytics, performance systems, another LMS, maybe even an ESN. IT are dumping every shiny tool they see onto employees in a bid to keep up with “being digital”. Comms (the marketing of four years ago) are obsessed with new “channels” to give employees more and more information. And it’s not a question of whether comms or HR or IT are well-intentioned; it’s whether they are willing to keep repeating the same mistakes.

All we’re doing is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Long Run:

Technology is changing product development and distribution, it’s changing political discourse, it’s changing the consumer landscape, and has the potential to continue transforming our physical landscape. Take for example this Greg Ferenstein article on Medium where he reveals a simulation that showed how vast amounts of urban land could be reclaimed and 90% of cars would disappear due to automated vehicles. Technology stands to reimage the globe, physically, socially, and politically like never before.

We are naive if we don’t think organizational structures can’t change. Or are we short sighted, comfortable in our paradigm so as to unconsciously impede the progress of digital transformation by holding tight to familiar structures. Our cautious human nature prevents us from embracing real change. If we could just get out of our own way and let go of our archaic reward structures, our traditional ideas about leadership, our inability to be truly open and transparent with our work. Could we harness technology to create the modern firm – one that actually benefits consumers, workers and shareholders alike? The answer is Yes – there are already companies doing just this!

What’s Next?

If you’re fed up with endless re-orgs, talk of “transformation”, talk of disruption with no compelling alternative vision to the current state of affairs, uninspired by leadership, and feel like you’re working Einstein’s world of insanity. What do we suggest for those of you who would like to get started?

Well, the kicker is, there’s nothing easy. And when you’re out there on your own talking about new ideas, it’s tough.

Frankly you can only transform yourself. You can only change your viewpoints, outlooks, beliefs, ideas, and work. The fortunes spent on changing organizations are wasted because those who spend the money don’t change – they just tell others to. Change is social. Change happens one conversation at a time as Euan Semple has said. Be bold and talk about new ideas. Build your networks of like-minded support across departments, not just your own. Here are some frameworks to help guide your first conversations. There are no formulas – no one-size fits all. You and your organization will need to be agile to adapt to circumstance. To create your own version of the networked organizations.

A few sites, books, articles, etc to get you started.

If You Love Something Let It Go

I’m going out on a limb here to challenge the notion that organizations need to invest heavily in employee engagement efforts.

Blasphemy! You say? Hear me out first.

I’m not saying that companies can simply maintain business as usual and drive people away with horrible leadership and poisoned cultures but I do think there are some assumptions being made about attrition’s relationship to employee unhappiness. I think too that the issue has become very big business for some because as we know, fear sells.

So here’s my basic assertion:

What may behind talent loss could be less about organizational inadequacies and more about the lure of new opportunity.

Human-beings are mobile creatures. Since the moment we stood on two legs on the plains of Africa we took off and conquered the globe. We went to the moon, not because it was easy, as President Kennedy said but because it was hard. We like the challenge, we need the challenge. Movement leads to new experiences which help us grow. It’s in our DNA. In the Industrial Era people stayed put because they had to; geographic-based work, home, family, and community were all in walking and eventually driving distance. But today work is everywhere, one’s peers are a click away, and your community is a blend of physical and virtual. Technology has given us new legs and we’re using them.

In the face of this ever growing fluidity of talent it seems futile for organizations to try to plug the damn. We can’t manage talent just like we can’t manage knowledge. People and their knowledge need to move to have value. So rather than strive solely for containing, we must also invest in better ways to harness the power in the flow.

What happens if organizations focus on the realities of attrition rather than just on fighting it? What if more time, money and energy were put behind better internal systems (human and technical), Systems that capture employee work products and processes, and aid new workers in quickly picking up where work was left off? Some of these things are already percolating today such Personal Knowledge Management skills, social technology adoption, the practice of Working Out Loud, and the recognition and support of 70:20:10 frameworks vs. training-centric models. I ultimately believe these approaches will need to be the rule rather than the exception as organizations will have to be more porous to survive.

Mobile is not about a device, it’s the new reality as what was old is new again. And technology continues to do what technology has always done – extend and expand our human ability and desire.

The Ghosts in Our Machines


The singularity, or the union of humans and machine/AI, for me always conjures images of embedded machines within our skin helping us think faster, move easier, monitoring minute vitals and ensuring our system performs optimally. But before all this I think we’ll see our union with machines through an emotional connection, and one that is more than the affections we see people have for their devices today. It’s actually already happening with Bots, the software programs that appear in our social tools like SlackBot does in the Slack platform. It’s easy to see how they will only continue to grow in acceptance and presents us with some interesting scenarios.

For starters, social referral is surpassing web search as we are turning to others more online to not only share but to find. We are retreating into smaller, trusted communities, sets versus our scenes as Stowe Boyd once wrote, to gain better insights in the face of increasing amounts of information and often dubious information. Bots, like SlackBot are useful in these “sets” as today they can be summoned to assist in our activities and point us to timely, targeted resources. And as machine learning and natural language processing advance, it will make it increasingly difficult to distinguish Bots from our virtual human connections – even when we know we are interacting with a one, our trust in them will only grow through the value they continually bring.  A Bot has the advantage of appearing as any other disembodied community member, without a face, just an avatar with only its written word and deeds seen. It won’t suffer the Uncanny Valley fate as robots in more human form do, and in this state it would pass theTuring Test with flying colors.

As Bots become deeply embedded in our network interactions and people continue to move to more fragmented conversational apps, it’s obvious that data seeking organization’s (Google, Facebook, etc) will need to get closer to the action… and Bots are their in. No more promoted ads, instead Bots will present just the right solution or product suggestion in the most natural rhythm of our emotion laden conversations. And as covert as this is, they will be an undeniable performance support agent. I can foresee where they will seek answers from us in more qualitative forms so as to better understand our emotional state, our relationships and our needs beyond the professional. Maybe Bots will serve as coaches to hone our personal knowledge management skills. And will complex community work, work of community managers, ultimately be outsourced to the automated?

Of course all this demands a bit more in the way of Artificial Intelligence, but are we really that far off from Bots becoming an indistinguishable and trusted member of our communities – learning along with us as they learn about us?


Social Inception

Have you seen the movie Inception? It’s a fantastic sci-fi film where people infiltrate other people’s subconscious while they sleep and remove information or, in the case of the title, plant an idea. When the person awakens, they think the idea is their own.

Now I do believe that the same idea can spring up independently from different people in different locations at the same time. Historically speaking, you can see that Pyramids of various sizes and constructs appeared all over the globe by different civilizations in or around the same time where the people had no contact with each other.  However time and space are no barriers anymore. As more and people find their voice online, begin sharing their stories, experiences, and ideas, an unintentional form of “Social Inception” can occur. When we engage in social networks we accumulate many ideas from many sources. Some can be fleeting, like those seen briefly in a Tweet. Others are deeper like those in articles, blog posts or videos and of course conversations. For me, I recently wrote about change happening one conversation at a time. The gist of my post was that we can just cut through all the fat about social media technology barriers, it’s really as simple as helping people ask their internal questions out loud to those who are “connected” – Things like “where do you find the time?” “how did you start?” “How has it helped you?”, etc. Good idea? Maybe. Was this my idea? I’m not so sure now. 
When I wrote it I was like, this is an interesting thought, I wonder what others would think? Flash forward to today. I’m scanning some favored Tweets looking for something in particular and I see:
It got me to thinking so I re-read the article. I was left with two thoughts. 1. This is brilliant and 2. Did I steal this concept?! 
Well, no, not consciously, not completely, and not with any intention to do so. I have always been very careful to sing the praises of the trailblazers (not sure that’s a good term but I’m not a fan of the word Thought Leader). I vigorously read and promote the works of Jane Hart, Harold Jarche, Charles Jennings and many others in the learning/social learning space… including Euan Semple.  But here, over 115 days ago, he wrote an article of a very similar title to mine. Did I read this 115 days ago, process it internally, experience a triggering event and spew out my own interpretation as something really original? Did Euan plant more than a seed in my mind? Is this more common than I think?

Today information comes at us so fast, influencing our thoughts and practices in positive ways. We consume so quickly that even when we have trusted networks through which we have information curated the lines can blur between what is ours and what is others. Our thought, other’s thoughts, our practices, experiences and reflections all blending together and in the end attribution is practically impossible as you walk away thinking… “This is an interesting thought, I wonder what others would think?”  

Well, then this is all I can offer – my mea culpa moment. For starters go read Euan’s article here, as mine pales in comparison. If you can only read one, go to his.  Going forward, in addition to continuing to recognize the ideas of others in my posts and presentations, I’ll revisit my Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) strategy and tools, and I’ll continue to add to my blog roll as it serves as a great list of those who’s work I find inspiring. These people continue to influence my thoughts and practices and I guess, as long as I keep them upfront and getting the attention they deserve, maybe my unintentional imitation is a sincere form of flattery. 
What ideas do you have to create a buffer against unintentional Social Inception?

Surf’s Up!: An Analogy for PKM

For a recent presentation designed to help people better understand Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) I anticipated that beyond the word Personal things would get sticky, lofty, and filled with preconception. “Knowledge Management” is loaded to say the least. As such it can serve as a barrier to understanding the information.  I decided to bookend the presentation with an analogy that ultimately seemed to help the attendees and spark some good discussion. I thought I’d share it here.

The Personal Knowledge Management approach I take reminds me of my early teen years body surfing on the shores of Lake Erie. When one body surfs, different than surfing with a board, you are immersing yourself in the waves (no board). You must stand or tread water waiting for the right wave to take you on a great ride. These waves are constant and consistent. Each is unique but connected to an immense body of water, more than you can imagine. You can’t possibly surf every wave, so you must discriminate; selecting carefully to ensure the ride has value.  Of course if you try taking on too many waves you risk fatigue and if that happens you will likely leave the water altogether – and that’s no fun. Body surfing wasn’t done with alone. You did this with trusted people, your friends, which not only made it more enjoyable but served as models to identify best practices (and bad ones to avoid). You learned which emerging waves to track, and tips/techniques to position yourself within to get the most out of each. You spoke to each other. You watched and learned and likewise consciously shared your stories and more unconsciously your approaches as you were equally being watched. Unfortunately you can’t capture a wave… much like you can’t capture knowledge as its equally fluid.
Do you see the parallels to PKM? Each wave is symbolic for digital content. Much more than one could ever consume. We “tame” the voluminous information by discriminating; making decisions about what to seek, or risk being overwhelmed. When we ride a wave we influence it even slightly. Similarly too, the content is changed when we share it with others as we tell our story and our interpretation adding context and inviting others in. Most importantly in PKM is people. The network we craft is one of trusted advisers to help us in finding the right information and making sense of it all. They point, guide, share and support us.

Using an analogy like this helped connect a difficult and foreign practice to a more understandable one, maybe even one many have done before. However, I think you can risk over simplification using analogies but to counter that don’t see them as the end all be all; Invite questions and reaction when using them.  My analogy was also done in a story format, my story, where people could visualize the scene and the emotions (critical to learning) tied to fear, fatigue, and fun as those are harder to feel in what is essentially a virtual activity with PKM.

Do you use analogies?  Which ones and for what? Last night #lrnchat engaged in a discussion about using analogies. I encourage you to see the transcript (which may or may not be up yet) as some really good thoughts swirled around there!