Principles of Practice

I was recently asked privately a question that I hadn’t really answered myself.

Do you use any particular methodologies or models [in your personal practice]?

So I thought about it and responded that there are two “models” that rather unconsciously or habitually guided my work practices as I began to shift away from a training-centric mindset. Note that all of which I share here can be read in depth at the respected sites noted.

The first is Wirearchy. Since my focus can now be said to be more in digital learning (Which I see as learning through technology vs. learning with technology) helping surface these powerful undercurrents of knowledge exchange is key today and social technology certainly can aid in this effort. My known affinity for 702010 should be obvious too as it certainly aligns very well to this emergent organizing principle. Wirearchy though is not about learning per se, according to Jon Husband, who authored the principle, it’s a dynamic two-way flow of power. When realized and supported in organizations, I believe Wirearchy can change the actual design of the organization. Learning is ultimately about behavior change and if you truly desire long-term change in behaviors, I believe the systems in organizations need to be addressed (human systems related to authority, communication, rewards for example). Additionally, I look to Cynefin Framework (admittedly I’m still quite a student of it) but it does help in identifying current states (habitats). One of the four domains is labeled Complex. Much of the work being done today and even organizations themselves are complex. Navigating in complexity according to Cynefin demands a Probe-Sense-Respond approach as there is no one right answer and/or the many interconnected parts can be impacted by just changing one effort. Therefore, run small experiments, gather and asses the data and take action all apply to help shift behavior in dynamic situations.

Both Wirearchy and Cynefin are larger than strategy of course and far beyond just organizational learning. I prefer them though as each are flexible and today’s world of work is much more fluid. Additionally we cannot see learning apart from work any longer. Many of the “tried & true” used by consultants arose during the last century and are honestly not valid or just too rigid. Typically they are much too slow to enact and build through best practices rather than best principles. This seems unacceptable to me as each organization is as unique as a fingerprint, one must be flexible, understand and leverage the power of networks, and draw on best principles not practices to succeed.

Organization, Heal Thyself

I hurt my back pretty bad back in February. Shortly after the injury I reluctantly went to a Chiropractor. I say reluctantly as it’s not something I completely understood or believed in as I have always been conditioned to accept traditional medicine; surgery, medications, etc. What I learned from the experience is that Chiropractic medicine is about the body’s ability to heal itself. Generally speaking (and likely oversimplifying it) when the body is in alignment, effective communication happens through nerves and blood flow and the body maintains health. This got me wondering about how poorly organizations are designed today, they are misaligned resulting in:

  • cultures that need to be changed,
  • the creation of blanket HR policies to address small, singular problems
  • structures that support star chamber-like decision making in times of crisis,
  • procedures developed to secure consistency and conformity but stifled innovation and creativity
  • training being overused to address performance issues
  • a default to meritless, inflexible hierarchy

Everything is out of alignment (with the way the world works today).

So, similar to the chiropractic view of the body if an organization is aligned correctly, when the systems and the people can effectively and efficiently communicate, won’t it to function properly?

Gwynne Dyer wrote an exceptional article a few years ago about Democracy, nation building and the Middle East. From it I caught a quote that really resonated:

Tyranny was the solution to what was essentially a communication problem.

With a slight adjustment; replacing the word tyranny with hierarchy the remainder of the message holds true. Hierarchy was the answer to what was essentially a communication problem… in the industrial era. As organizations grew a top down systems of communication and power was need to keep every part of the organization informed.

Today we no longer have an excuse for communication problems or at least we shouldn’t. Psychology, sociology and technology are opening our eyes to new, better ways of organizing people. Hierarchy should be being transformed because of the emerging obviousness of Wirearchy, yet this isn’t really happening. And in learning, the principle of 70:20:10 is real but oft ignored as training continues to hold a tight grip.

What then if organizations just focused on improving communication, putting “social” first so to speak? Aligning all, making ideas, initiatives, information more obvious. Would unnecessary training, procedures, and policy diminish? And isn’t this what every small company has by default (albeit unconsciously)? With a small numbers of people, they are in tune, open, connected and transparent – then unfortunately lose it as they grow. This doesn’t have to happen today, as I said, we have the knowledge and technology to ensure this if we could just let go to our traditional beliefs as I did about medicine.

In the 21st century how the organization needs to communicate should determine it’s design and being and remaining aligned is the key to a responsive organization.

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.

70:20:10’s Identity Crisis

Since my last post, “What’s the Problem with 70:20:10?” I have been fortunate enough to engage on Twitter, in face-to-face conversations and responded to a slew of comments on my blog. Additionally #LrnChat featured the topic last night which further helped me see what people are thinking about 70:20:10. All have led me to believe how and to whom we present 70:20:10 can help or hurt it’s opportunity to impact organizations.

Last night’s chat asked the important question – is 70:20:10 a Model? Framework? Concept? Approach? Other?

I am left thinking that 70:20:10 is not suitable as a model, a model can be defined as a “simplified version of something“. So yes, one could accurately say 70:20:10 is a model of organizational learning but the connotation that we can’t control creeps in and too many, “model” implies something we build, something we scale, a representation to emulate. This is where things go wrong as 70:20:10 becomes something applied or an approach. It’s also my opinion it’s not inherently a framework (although that’s the best way to support it).

At my last employer I was asked to create a Corporate University. I chose to work within the concept of how learning happens at institutions as opposed to creating the traditional “training center.” I presented 70:20:10 to the organization as a fact and supported this through an internal survey that confirmed the raw percentages. I put forth the assertion that learning at University happens in classes, the commons, and the library (as well through ones creative work). I then worked to reframe my role to be more a performance consultant, working with managers and changing mindsets around training first beliefs. And then put social at the center of our organizational learning. You can read about it more here and in Clark Quinn‘s book Revolutionize Learning & Development: Performance and Innovation Strategy for the Information Age.

For me then I think 70:20:10 is best presented as a principle. More specifically as an organizing principle like that of Wirearchy, it’s foundational relation which 70:20:10 compliments. A principle is a basic truth, and Jon Husband, the man behind Wirearchy, describes an organizing principle as:

“…something that holds true across a system, and is defined to address the essence of the system; not a solution or method or best practice.”

Why is this important?

Wirearchy, as an organizing principle “informs the ways that purposeful human activities and the structures in which they are contained is evolving from top-down direction and supervision (hierarchy’s command-and-control) to champion-and-channel.” Similarly 70:20:10 informs the ways we can and should support today’s work-learning structures. With the vast majority of our learning in organizations directly tied to our work (70) and the interactions we have with others around and about our work (20) a shift to champions and channels is needed.

If 70:20:10 is presented as a model to L&D, then you are at best going to get blended learning and at worst an argument. However, when presented to the right audience as a principle it is positioned as a natural law, something that can’t be dismissed as much as it must be dealt with. Organizational leaders and managers (the right audience)  can approach the 70:20:10 principle like an archaeologist and not an engineer; 70:20:10 needs to be unearthed not created.



Disclaimer, I am not a 70:20:10 expert, just a curious practitioner having engaged in organizational design efforts emphasizing 70:20:10. It’s my assertion that a new business, those on the long tail, cannot lose sight of this principle and if looking to transform a traditional organization around work-learning then a Re-Image should be considered. For 70:20:10 expertise I strongly suggest you look at the seminal work of Charles Jennings who consults with organizational leaders on 70:20:10 strategies and also see The 70:20:10 Forum, an organization that provides detailed pathways and resources to help individuals advance organizational change.

The Long Tailers of Social Business

Social business talk hasn’t progressed much beyond what it is or how it’s done. Jon Husband noted this in a brilliant and succinct post back in 2013 where he said that “most of the conversation circulating and re-cycling regarding [social business] … what ‘social business’ is and/or is not, how to do it right, or in 7 easy steps, or with pizzazz and ROI and why it’s changing everything (or nothing at all)

What has changed however in the past 2 years is that the idea of Social Business, like Social Media, has been further positioned by large firm Marketing and Advertising departments as their charge. Markets are conversations so says the ClueTrain Manifesto and so shortsighted marketing and sales have moved to “Social Business” strategies which mostly just employing social technology with the same push information tactics.

Social LongtailHowever where social sincerely exists are those businesses on the long tail . Organizations here, the smaller more niche players, are more often inherently, unconsciously and positively social inside and out. Their business survival is predicated on a meritocracy over hierarchy, openness, trust, feedback and transparency – it’s here where the soil is most fertile.

Social Business, (what we do) can’t survive long without firm roots in a Social Organization (who we are).

For the larger, market dominating organizations, they turn to social technology (like any other technology) to fix problems vs. prevent them. Inside these organizations social tools are applied in a futile effort to open communication for knowledge sharing, a cure for their social atrophy. However the best opportunity for social technology inside has passed, the arteries are now clogged by competition, policy, procedures and rigid hierarchy.

Social technology may be best as preventative medicine vs. the miracle cure.

It’s the Long Tailers that need to understand this and move quickly to stay who they are. But to stay small as they grow larger, technology alone won’t be enough – social requires people and a holistic approach. They should also employ a Change Prevention strategy (vs. Change Management), maybe a new internal role of an Unchanging Officer to help leaders see their culture today and the big picture potential of social tools beyond communication and knowledge sharing. A well crafted change prevention strategy can anchor their progressive culture and help maintain the healthy status quo.

It’s far too easy for long tail business leaders to fall into established, yet floundering, 20th century practices as they grow. There are still many visible, seductive monuments of this past success and misguided social business approaches.

Long Tailers must act now for there is much to lose if they don’t change.