Cynefin Supported Campaigns vs. Courses

Businesses seek markets. Without these opportunities no service or product matters no matter how effective or unique.  I feel that today employees ultimately control access to these markets and this is no more true than in working in government contracts.

In my space a major barrier to opportunity can be Organizational Conflict of Interest (OCI) and in government contracts it can happen like a bursting brain aneurysm; sudden, barely detectable and often deadly.

In simple terms, if an employee or contractor violates the rules and has access or exposure to non-public information; an unfair advantage regarding future work, their organization can be “OCI’d” out of  future related work.

For example:

“An employee of the contracting organization is in a client (government) meeting. The agenda is clear but as meeting sometimes go, a stakeholder expands the conversation into other areas i.e future development, pricing models, etc. The employee should not be privy to this information and frankly may not even know its significance.  Too late.  Later on, meeting minutes show the conversation and attendees, and the organization is not allowed to bid on a related project; in effect losing a multi-million dollar opportunity.”
There are just too many roles and too many situations where an organization is in jeopardy. Furthermore employees walk a fine line with clients in this space.  If one hesitates in assisting on a project for fear of OCI, they could be deemed difficult.  It’s a rare but precarious situation that no employee or organization wants to be in.

Complicated & Complex

Cynefin Sense-Making Framework

When seen through the lens of Dave Snowden‘s Cynefin the sense-making framework OCI straddles the complicated and complex. One can be “oriented” to the dangers and provided some (but not all) examples of when and where these risks can happen – making the issue complicated. However, one can often only see the right course of action in retrospect, thus making it more complex in nature.

Knowledge and proper action must then permeate the culture of an organization. It must be on the forefront of people’s minds but not consume them and it can’t simply be treated as a problem that training alone can solve. The solution lies in raising organizational awareness.  And although it is a performance issue, it is not something that should or can be solely owned by T&D. This needs to be a company-wide effort.

A multifaceted approach involving formal, informal, and of course social learning is key as it’s mostly about tacit knowledge sharing. Explicit, although having merit, is black and white and unfortunately OCI is many shades of gray.

Campaign vs. Course

Craig Taylor tuned me into the concept of a campaign as he explored it himself on a considerably grander scale.  An apparent influence for him was in the article Think “Campaign” not “Course” by Lars Hyland (Tip 16) From the eLearning Network:

“…Shorter, sharper, more varied learning experiences deliberately spread over a longer elapsed time period, demonstrably improve learning effectiveness. There are more opportunities for reinforcement of key knowledge, more prompts to practice skills in the field and the ability to adapt to the pace and personal needs of each individual. At long last our efforts can be focused on providing learning support interwoven into life and work, rather than artificially abstracted.”With this concept in mind the approach then is more to immerse people in OCI awareness. To begin, Cynefin not only serves to help identify the “habitat” of OCI but it can also serve as a performance support model for a communication procedure; Sense the potential situation, Analyze the severity, Respond according to organizational procedure.

The initial part of the campaign grounds people in a common understanding of OCI, and the response procedures identified in the job aid. For this a short scenario-based elearning module can serve to show the value of the communication procedure and practical application of the job aid in a scenario. Additionally, to improve access to a job aid (post completion), a QR code can be used within to allow the learner to place the support tool on their mobile device and be easily accessible in a potential OCI situation.

Next, leverage traditional communication channels such as an organization’s periodical. L&D can partner with them to maintain a long running series of compelling examples, statistics, factoids and industry news regarding OCI. A series of “insider” podcast bring a human face (voice) to the issue through interviews with internal experts and possible “victims” of OCI which will be made available for employees to pull; HR to promote at new hire orientation, and managers to leverage when needed. The use of a social media platform is fertile ground for sharing industry news, and war stories. And finally email, the default communication platform of the moment, can easily serve to launch short scenario-based “quizzes” to reinforce understanding and application of the procedure.

The approach is really one of an all hands on deck. People should not to be subjected to repeated formal (out of workflow) interventions but rather be surrounded by relevant information, expertise, conversation and resources to help them navigate a complex and potentially costly issue.

Think of the Doer and doing, not the Learner and learning

I’m sure you’ve heard the cliche that is the self-described non-techie confessing that “My VCR still blinks 12:00.” (OK I know…VCR? What’s that? Humor me here).  I think this statement however speaks more to who we all are rather than just a segment of the not-so-tech-savvy among us. Furthermore I believe the statement transcends technology and to who we are as human-beings.

With that example as a point of reference about human nature lets look at why your VCR likely still blinks 12:00.

  • It blinks 12:00 because you didn’t bother to read the instructions. 
  • You didn’t bother to read the instructions because quite frankly your goal was to watch a movie not have yet another timepiece in the room. 
  • You didn’t bother to read the instructions because the user guide was enormous and thus appeared as another layer of work just adding to your time on task. 
  • You didn’t bother to read the instructions because the first thing you instinctively do IS “do.”

Maybe it’s an all to common human failing or maybe it’s just part of how we are wired to learn. I prefer the latter. I mean isn’t it our first instinct to just try? To play around and make a go of it? It’s not typical for anyone to immediately reach for assistance. We don’t want help until we want help. And when we want help we want just the right amount of help for our very specific need.

We are not stupid creatures in that we would ever take this approach if in a bomb detonation, surgery, or flying an aircraft situation. We turn towards “do” first when we believe there is a pretty good chance we will be successful (past experience?). It’s in this doing; the struggle and ultimate success, that we gain confidence and make long-term connections for future application. We are mostly practical creatures too. The VCR blinks 12:00 because we don’t let perfect be the enemy of good, i.e. an inaccurate clock doesn’t bring us to our knees. So when, and only when, we need/want to go a bit further along we’ll seek assistance.

What’s the lesson here for L&D?  I think it’s playing a bit more to human nature and not confounding it with more than is required to get the job done. L&D should work first to help improve the environment for better performance rather than create stuff to augment learning for better performance. Maybe that’s enabling more time and places for reflection, maybe its pushing for better system/tool interface design, maybe its making searching for information easier or access to expertise seamless. But it should not first be creating another layer of work.

Learning Happens in the Heat of the Moment

Learning in or as close to the actual context of the use of what has been learned has always been seen as ideal.  In my mind I always picture OTJ learning situations and historically I see apprenticeships like those of a blacksmith or cobbler. Studies exist that support what we’ve always believed about this. For example, in a summarizing article from The Laymen’s Guide to Psychology: The Psychology of Learning: Context Matters – Where you learn is how you learn, we are reminded that if the location of a learning opportunity and the application of the learning are identical, we have better results than if they are opposite. The shortcoming here is that the study of learning was limited to what appears to be a paper-based quiz only.  We can, however, take away the understanding that if the learning and performance contexts are the same or similar then more accurate application of the knowledge and or skill will take place.

Designers aim to reproduce these environments in simulations, scenarios and games. However theses are artificial constructs and what will always be lacking in any of these approaches is human emotion and most specifically – Stress; the stress found in challenging work situations. Nothing can replace the real world “heat of the moment” to cement the understanding, application, and value of new knowledge. Think of the powerful stress related to meeting or missing a deadline, completing a task accurately or inaccurately, or solving a difficult problem that has financial or other business implications.

Stress is like the 350 degree oven that the batter must enter to become a cake. Without the heat it just doesn’t happen.

Two personal examples happened just this week that reinforced for me the importance of context and stress needed for learning. Both had the added and important element of performance support.

1. My Son is in Jiu Jitsu. A martial art that focuses on grappling (closely related to wrestling). In one exercise my son, age 7, is asked to grapple with other students his age in 3 minute events where other students watch and coaches hover.  I have watched time and time again where in less intense situations his observational focus has wavered and his practice on a dummy or an adult coach has been lackadaisical. Lets say he picked up 30% at best of a new move from these events.  However the focus and attention is amazing when he is in a do-or-tap out situation where he is straining to break free or counter an aggressive move. His coaches stand over him communicating instructions and physically adjusting hands, arms and legs when locked in combat and encouraging positive outcomes. Because of these events he never seems to forget the technique the next time. The emotional and physical discomfort seems to awaken ancient survival instincts of learning.

2. Out for a run Saturday morning, my pace a bit more hastened than normal… I was in my 3rd mile when I happened along and began chatting with another runner going at a similar pace.  Being a relative novice, we began a general “runner get-to-know me” where I learned of his extensive history of running. He spoke of injuries and how he over came them. He spoke of significant events and his approach to training for them. I began more to notice his posture as we climbed a hill and how he ran more hands lower, feet shuffling (think cross country skiing) rather than my galloping approach.  I began to emulate it immediately and I felt the difference as I more easily crested the hill with him. I immediately applied an achilles tendon stretch he suggested at the end which made a huge difference in my recovery.  We were in the heat of the running moment, my receptors of his expert advice more acutely attuned and my recall exceptional the following day as I reapplied the ideas.

Both examples were social; observational, conversational and physical. Additionally they involved expertise;  one by design, one by happenstance. They were as real as real learning can be. Each was rich with experience, practice, conversation, and reflection and both were frankly stressful with mind and muscle engaged.

Nick Shackleton-Jones wrote for ASTD recently about “Challenges” in his post How We Learn. My take away from his piece reinforced the fact that Learning Professionals must focus more on helping workers overcome challenges while in their work, not creating challenges outside of it. No game, simulation, scenario-based elearning or classroom role play can compete with the social, stressful, real-world environments of our work. Beyond initial formal learning our greatest opportunity to be most effective is not in courses or classes but at our computers, at our desks, in the field, and on the floor.

Today most employees have Managers, Directors or Supervisors. Each of these titles are reminiscent of a bygone age and pertain to oversight, responsibility and control not of support and assistance. Furthermore the most successful producers are often tapped to ascend to these roles not necessarily those best at helping others overcome challenges. This must change. Workers today face rapidly evolving environments and must perform with often geographically dispersed and fluid teams. Social Media enabled networks are a critical piece to the performance puzzle but merely connecting with others is not enough. Learning professionals can serve organizations better by guiding, modeling, and promote the best principles of effective coaching and mentoring in these networks, helping skilled people support their employees success in the heat of the moment where real learning is happening, where the real work is getting done.

Better for Having Begun

An amazing transformation can happen in the process of writing a blog post. It happens in those initial frustrating moments when you feel your ideas are beginning to be internally challenged, altered and even slipping away.  Each tap of the keyboard is followed by a micro pause of self-doubt on beliefs you once held firm. It’s here, writing in public, that your mind can betray you; you are writer, readers, reviewer, critic. You can’t complete the post, not because others will criticize it but because you have and you no longer align yourself to the original premise. 


Your fingers lift from the keys and you exhale an audible sigh as energy now shifts back to your thoughts, to your network, to your experiences, to your research to clarify and reflect. Defeated? Yes, if your goal was completion. Or no, if your goal is continuous growth – because you really are better for having begun this process.

How I Work

David Kelly, inspired by a Lifehacker series, is promoting “How I Work”.  Keep an eye on David’s Blog as he links to others in this series. For now here’s how I roll …errr I mean work.
Location: Syracuse, NY
Current Gig: Manager, Corporate Training
Current mobile device: iPhone 4s
Current computer: Dell Latitude (sigh)
One word that best describes how you work: Creatively
What apps/software/tools can’t you live without? 
Evernote, Tweetbot, Zite, Google Docs, Mailbox, MapMyRun, Kindle
What’s your workspace like? Home: Dining Room Table overlooking back yard Office: Desk with too many sticky notes
Home Office
What’s your best time-saving trick?  One step back to take two steps forward. Walk away from the work for a bit. Its amazing how even a 30 minute break accelerates my progress. 
What’s your favorite to-do list manager? My wife and orange sticky notes
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without? iPad Mini

What everyday thing are you better at than anyone else? Mowing the lawn. I’m meticulous. Nothing more therapeutic too in my opinion. 
What do you listen to while you work? Beatles and Podcasts: Shift, NPR, 60 Second Mind, On Being, Radio Lab, TED, Tayloring It, 
Are you more of an introvert or extrovert? Yes. Hate labels. Depends on situation, environment. More outward going I guess
What’s your sleep routine like? Down by 10pm, up by 4:45am
Fill in the blank. I’d love to see ______ answer these same questions. Me in 10 years
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? Love yourself.  Not in a narcissistic way but a patient, forgiving one. Thanks Mom.

So… How do you work?