Nature finds a way

The 1993 movie Jurassic Park was an amazing film. However it was not the CGI that captured my imagination or even the exciting story line. It was always the man vs. nature / man’s efforts to control nature plot line.

The most impactful scene for me was when the main character, Dr. Ian Malcolm, discovers an improbable dinosaur egg.

You see, in the film (if I recall correctly) the greatest scientific minds filled in missing ancient DNA with present day amphibian DNA and ultimately failed at meeting their goal …no dinosaur breeding. In the face of the egg discovery Dr. Malcolm exclaims: “…that life, uh …finds a way.”

I’m reminded of this quote each time I encounter social learning in an organization. Peers sharing a tip over the cube wall, a brief discussion in the cafeteria, a quick mid-meeting text message, participant chit-chat during a live class and chat window discussions during a webinar…it’s all become quite cliche.

It has also been well documented about organizations that look to snuff this activity out by imposing technical restrictions or creating cultures of fear built on archaic hierarchies of order and control.

Sometimes though, the organization is simply unaware of the potential of social media for learning and they unintentionally prevent these opportunities rather than purposefully crush them. I encountered a group of employees recently, isolated in their geographically dispersed roles, with only a regional level hierarchy for support, no org email access, and limited permissions on a SharePoint intranet at their disposal.

In a low tech effort to improve performance by formal means, a site of curated resources was developed on a SharePoint webpage for this group and it’s management to leverage. Just before release I encouraged the addition of a blog to allow participants to share their opinions and uses of the materials. As harmless as it seemed on the surface I had basically slipped in a bit of foreign DNA so to speak.

An email was sent across the org to this group’s supervisors announcing the page and asking them to review and share with their reports… and then it began…

Almost as improbable as the Jurassic Park dinosaur egg, posts and comments began to appear within hours. Mind you, there was no introduction, no on boarding, and no training. Almost immediately two employees in two different regions of the country began to collaborate on an idea to improve a critical task related to their role. Later, others joined in and a post titled “Wish List” was created; they started to add comments about system change ideas, needs, wants, and solutions to everyday problems. At last count there are over 15 posts, 90+ comments, and 8 members and growing.

A simple truth revealed – people will connect, people will share, people will collaborate. It’s in our DNA to be social, it’s our nature and … that life, uh …finds a way.

So Easy A Caveman Could Do It

Recently Patti Shank wrote a great response post on the heals of a post by Cathy Moore – Are Instructional Designers Doormats? …on an area that I have been pondering for some time.

Julie Dirksen‘s comment in Patti’s post really resonated with me. Specifically when she stated “There’s something about instructional design that people think is self-apparent, or easy.”

I think, like I believe she does, that most outside of the “learning field” (and some within it) have a superficial understanding of what an ID can do in the creation of formal learning solutions. Several people I have encountered in the past asked if the title was made up!

Generally I find there are parallels to our US education system where educated professionals responsible for formal instruction and deep content knowledge are often looked upon by the public as “baby sitters” with summers off. I strongly believe this perception is being transferred to organizational learning professionals. Additionally a certain truth exists; a SME can, on occasion, with no background in ID or adult learning theory produce an effective formal intervention. For that audience, for that content, and in that context they were effective (by what ever definition they choose (usually a level 1 survey). As a result a myth is born and is perpetuated that “this stuff is not that hard…anyone can do it.

This myth does not exist in law, orthodontics, or plumming for that matter. So I ask – how can we squash the myth and grow the profession?

Willingness vs. Ability to Change

Dave Kelly @LnDDave wrote an interesting post comparing Blockbuster’s demise to the changes facing Learning Professionals due to technology advancements. I think he’s right, there are learning professionals resistant to change …but the lack of change is not always due to internal denial as it can be a result of …girth. So, in the case of Blockbuster Video I’m think girth more than denial was the cause and don’t completely agree that they failed to accept that the market was changing. (Although, in all honestly, I don’t have any data to support my beliefs, so humor me). Can we consider then that their downfall was less about a conscious choice of denial and maybe a bit more about an inability to be agile?

It seems to me that Blockbuster was like a big, lumbering Brontosaurus that thrived in an era with few predators (competition), an abundant food supply (limitless market), and a warm earth (strong economy). The need for speed and flexibility was not even a consideration. In the end it’s not that poor old Brontosaurus (Blockbusterosaurus?) didn’t hear the asteroid hit…it’s not that she didn’t feel the weather getting colder …being so big and entrenched in their model and in their world she just couldn’t evolve fast enough. She was built for an era that was suddenly & quickly ending.

Likewise I think that this happens in many L&D departments too; entrenched in formal, top-down models being THE solution – approaches that may have worked well in “warm earth days.” This belief is built upon years of indoctrination by the “Training-Industrial Complex”, snake oil solutions, Industrial Age mindsets, and archaic internal processes, hierarchies and politics abound.

I think that another kind of asteroid has struck the L&D world …it’s called a global financial crisis. The weather is getting colder but the good news is that we are not Brontosaurus. We are not our Organizations …we are not our Departments, we are individuals within who are built to anticipate change, accept change, and be agile of mind. We can work within our systems to change them.

Evolve or die.

What’s in a name?

Recently I received a promotion and my title of ISD has been changed to Manager of Learning Solutions.

Prior to approval, one senior person stated – “that sounds pretty progressive.” And although the tone of the response was initially that of reluctance based on confusion over its meaning – the name was affirmed and is now official.

Yes, I am excited to officially take on the responsibility and pleased with the advancement but more so I am encouraged by what’s in the name; a shift from exclusive emphasis on the external (formal) to improve performance to an increased effort on enabling and encouraging the internal as well (informal, social).

The title change is recognition of my successful initiatives thus far but more than this, I see it as a big step for my organization and our employees going forward.

The decision to enact the title change is also quite symbolic in that the initial confusion and reluctance surrounding social and informal learning is likewise slowly giving way to affirmation… THAT sounds pretty progressive.

The Microwave as a Metaphor for Organizational Learning

The oven is the cornerstone of the kitchen, been around forever. Sure it’s changed its look and fuel over the centuries but the bottom line is the oven is big; it’s designed to cook large amounts, and over a longer period time. Think holiday dinners. It’s really an event kind of appliance.

Me, I’m a free standing microwave guy.

Microwaves aren’t ideal for me to cook say a pot roast but for smaller meals and tid-bits that give you just what you need, when you need it – the microwave is perfect!

Microwave ovens heat food quickly, leaving me more time to do what I need to do – like the honey-do list the “boss” gives me.

I have a free standing microwave- When we were remodeling our kitchen last year we had to keep ours in the living room. Place it anywhere in the house and it does the job – why limit yourself to the kitchen for cooking; it’s mobile!

A microwave is not a threat to replace the oven. We still need the oven for the big stuff like a Thanksgiving dinner. You must have an oven for that event…Turkey, pies, rolls, etc. But the microwave (often used during these events but typically given little credit) is used to defrost food in preparation for the event and also used to cook the gravy, green bean casserole, and the pumpkin soup – critical for a successful meal. Then it is called upon after to reheat many of these items in short order while you watch the Detroit Lions attempt to play football.

I like metaphors and the “microwave” is a useful one for me to use when explaining my beliefs about organizational learning.

Organizational learning must:
• be small (nibbles not full courses)
• be delivered quickly so workers can have more time to do what they are paid to do (minutes not hours)
• happen more where and when needed, not limited to the kitchen ….err I mean training room (on the move not at the table)
• take place before and after an event (defrost and reheat)

I think there is something Social and Informal here too…