…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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The Best Example of “Micro-learning”: Us

The definition of this new, not new, over-hyped, trending idea is pretty vague. Plus I’m not a fan of yet another formal intervention commandeering the term “learning”. I get it, it’s easy. Yes, these things can lead to learning but in itself, it’s not. Learning is a verb, a process, not a tool or technology. Donald Taylor did well to pull together a definition in his latest post and referenced some of the others who had opinion such as Nick Shackleton-Jones and Donald Clark. I also recommend seeing what Gary Wise had to say.

Micro learning’ is learning from content accessed in short bursts, content which is relevant to the individual, and repeated over time to ensure retention.” – Donald Taylor

Content, short burst, relevant. I think he’s right, but these terms still leaves lots of wiggle room. And given I have the space to work with as do all the vendors, I contend that 10,000 years of evolution has really been defined by micro-learning and most specifically micro-learning in the form of conversation. Small “nuggets” in the form of quick quizzes, video vignettes, audio clips and demonstrations have value but rarely contain the trust, specific context, emotion and right size of information (knowledge and even wisdom) that are found in our interactions.

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Is Poor Organizational Culture a Symptom of Flawed Systems?

We can say organizations will change as Boomers leave and new technology and new generations enter but what really happens is the “next” marches in and picks up where the “last” left off. The technologies of change, like social tools, become manipulated by the current system to support the system not change it. Additionally, I chuckle about all the Millennial articles/posts on how they want things different, purpose over profit, tech savvy, blah, blah, blah. I’ve worked with plenty of folks in their 20’s and 30’s and like any generation, they enter the organization looking not to disrupt it but to serve it and collect a paycheck – quickly conforming to the system that is. Period.

I’m thinking all this talk of culture change (and I’ve done my share!) is really pointless until there is system change. The systems in play are the problem and shape the behaviors that drive the culture. Systems from recognition and rewards to HR being as a compliance machine, to L&D pumping out course after course. Each are all well entrenched and will remain there because they are the predominant systems of work.

These systems aren’t in play in small companies… yet. Start-ups begin with a passionate all hands on deck collective mentality. The founder eats lunch with her co-workers and loves to share stories of her upbringing until… until something clicks and the unconscious focus on humanity gives way to rigid systems of hierarchy, restrictive policy and a culture of conformity. This is inherited learned-helplessness of leadership. It’s the belief that they need these systems and their unconscious employment is unquestioned. It’s almost as if it’s in the business DNA like a time bomb, preset to detonate as the organization scales. HR is established primarily to protect the firm over finding the right talent. L&D is born because leaders, due to their own years of formal education, see all learning as formal; classrooms, courses, etc. even though people learned in and from their work and relationships. Marketing carves out and begins to chase what works vs. what’s right and customer conversations give way to click counts. It all better fits the system, it’s unquestioned.

We know that social activity forms around an object; a party, a hobby, an idea. Organizational culture is inherently social and similarly forms around an object; a system like hierarchy, processes and structures. Organizational culture is learned maybe much like we humans first learn to speak – through observation and reinforced/rewarded mimicry. However if the mouth isn’t structured correctly or the brain wired right for speech then speech will not happen or will be imperfect. So then if the systems in an organization are flawed, flawed behaviors develop and a flawed culture emerges?

To change our culture then systems must be changed not just behaviors within, as the system will always correct behaviors that deviate and bring them back to the norm (dominant culture). The one big thing that separates human beings from all other animals has been our ability to transcend our instincts, our internal systems. To better ourselves and our culture we regularly question ourselves, we challenge our suppositions, our processes, our internal structures and frankly organizations need to do this more if they are really desiring culture change.

Change the Default (Mind)Settings

I wondered aloud on Twitter last week about the supposed 80% fail rate of ESNs that many publications have reported in recent years. This thought was further spurred on by this CMS Wire article The Smoke and Mirrors of Enterprise Social Networking Metrics. Of course the word “fail” has a connotation that 1. NOBODY is using the platform and/or 2. an expectation (usually of the purse string holding executive) wasn’t met. I tend to think it’s the latter as the tech and maybe even your culture is just fine… your measurement may be wrong.

All enterprise social platforms come with a dashboard of metrics of their own definition. Engagement is typically the golden calf as adoption, measured in things like “likes”, “shares”, “posts”, etc all add up to success of the tool. But is it tool success that drove the desire to have a tool in the first place?? Add in whiz-bang features like badges (eh-hem, stickers) and maybe “sentiment” metrics (which something tells me can’t identify sarcasm) and VIOLA! you have even more to measure. They make it simple. But as we know simple isn’t easy and in this case it isn’t right either. Used in isolation and these metrics are the equivalent of what traditional training measures – butts in seats or “if you attended you must have learned.” A fallacy of course as all it means is one was present and the default metrics for ESN platform are similarly a false prophet.

Frankly, the only measure you can gain from the tool is about the tool. The measures that matter can’t be seen in an ESN dashboard and there are way too many other variables contributing to the outcomes that really matter in the workplace. Social interaction is a key piece however and if a platform is used by some to make them feel a part of something bigger, if it helps a handful of people find innovative solutions, and if it actually helps a team to get work done faster, easier and in the open – well that’s far from a failure.

A few thoughts to help you shift away from the lure of the default settings:

First, an ESN platform certainly helps extend and expand social interaction, but it should never be the measure of “social success”! Second, social is bigger than your business, and it carves it’s own path. If you attempt to channel conversations in the direction of business only, you are in essence sucking the soul out because all conversations in business are the conversations of business. Accept that social is important but it’s not going to be all shop talk and if it were forced to be, the relationships (so critical to organizational health) would disappear… looking much like an ESN failure.

The real failure we hear of is certainly not the technology, it’s also not that your culture isn’t collaborative either. Rather, it’s a failure in expectation and in effectively communicating what social is really about. It’s a failure in not having (or not having the ability to have) the necessary, deeper conversation with leaders that (sorry) aren’t as black and white, and easy as all those default dashboard metrics tout.

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.