A Conversation for Innovation

Innovation is the engine to advance organizations today and although conversation is key to spurring creative thinking and innovative action, it is naive to think that just having more conversations where information is shared and people collaborate is enough. These conversations, often spontaneous, can be unconsciously valuable but we should strive for dialog if we want to see growth. 

“[Dialog is] a conversation in which the intention is to generate something in the conversation itself that did not exist in any one of the participants before the conversation began.

– Michael McMaster, The Intelligence Advantage

Dialog is not debate or discussion and its not brainstorming. Dialog calls for strong discipline to refrain from judging, and reacting. It’s having the ability to hold fast to a position of listening and for raising more questions that add to the conversation rather than trying to end it with answers.

Dialog is the stream that carries knowledge. And like knowledge itself, it too is ever expansive and ever flowing. 

Knowledge doesn’t exist with in us but rather it exists between us in our [conscious] conversations [dialog].

The barrier to more dialog is innately a human condition; we are competitive. Our business hierarchies only serve to reinforce this by rewarding those with quick wit, quicker ideas, and for being the loudest voice in the room. Social Media however is a great equalizer, it can support dialog; a conversation for innovation. Social Media provides an important buffer to this human condition, one of time and space. This buffer allows for (but can’t guarantee) reflection; a pause.  In social tools I can write my response immediately but I don’t have to hit submit immediately. I can sit idle and wait for those societal reinforced and rewarded behaviors to pass and use my response to seek clarity rather than try to provide it.

As always, the technology can only support the practice of dialog. This behavior, like most, is best learned through experience, practice, and reflection. Yet it must also be modeled and supported by leadership; those that hold innovation so dear… and where better for them to do it than in the tools that make the practice most visible.

Cognitive Dissonance and the Denial of Social/Informal Learning

In a previous post I explored the idea that a form of learned helplessness is to blame for executives and L&D’s inability to accept and embrace social & informal learning in their organizations.  Simply put, my argument was that after years of “control” by formal learning (public education, higher education and training organizations) there may be a well entrenched  belief that the only path to learning is via push methods.

I believe that another related issue may be at play – Cognitive Dissonance. If you’re unfamiliar, this is the mental stress that results from having conflicting cognitions such as when a cigarette smoker reacts to dramatic data on lung cancer rates with a “eh, gotta die someday.” Or a person, having the belief that abortion is an abomination, can justify voting for the pro-death penalty candidates. Or the religious zealot who exclaims that when doomsday didn’t arrive as planned, it must have been due to their strong beliefs.

Simply put – the more one invests in an idea/ belief, the stronger one works to justify their position on that issue.

When you think about the amount of money, time and staffing that’s pumped into formal learning in the face of more and more research showing how ineffective it can be, it’s no wonder only the most progressive are able to break their shackles to traditional training and L&D approaches. Those with more conflicted cognitions engage in the simple act of dismissing the evidence. Do they eliminate or discount the other argument because they are justifying the investment?

If there is something to this then simply throwing more data at them isn’t the solution as it may only serve to solidify their entrenched position.

I stumbled upon this short research on AIDS prevention summary which was challenging the notion of education alone to curb dangerous sexual behavior. In the study the evidence showed that educational efforts that induced fear were not enough to change young people’s behavior. The youth agreed that AIDS was a problem, just not that it was their problem. The approach then was to make a departure from the fear campaign and instead to create a form of cognitive dissonance by exposing their own hypocrisy to get them to practice what they preach.  

The results indicated that those who were put in a position where they had to address their own contradictions were more likely to take corrective/positive action to rectify it. 

When it comes to a lack of support for social and informal learning, the fact is most leaders (corporate and L&D alike) do not engage in formal learning themselves yet they support its use as the default, and often only, means to improve worker performance – Hypocrisy?   

I agree that in many cases, when given the opportunity, small proof of concept informal/social learning pilots can produce good data and should not be abandoned as an approach. However, maybe the AIDS behavior modification approach holds an opportunity for changing organizational learning strategy and investment. If yes, then the question is: How do we help our leaders to do more self-reflection to expose their hypocrisy?


This is what I was listed as on the Open Sesame Blog out of 100 Ed Tech Must Follows back in December. The number or even being on a list is thoughtful and appreciated of course but insignificant really as we live in what Euan Semple refers to as an ephemeral meritocracy . All-in-all its nice company to be a part of and I recommend you check the list out.

What struck me initially though was my description compared to that of the other 99 on this list.  Mine is a bit nebulous, no?  Well I guess you can check me out on LinkedIn or about.me, or better yet follow me on Twitter etc and dig a bit deeper but I’ll save you some trouble and share a few things. I am not an author, I’m not really on the speaking tour (couple events here and there), I am not a consultant, I’m not specifically an ISD or elearning (courseware?) designer (although I’ve worn those hats since at least the mid 90’s), and finally I don’t work for a big name organization having thousands of employees. In comparison to my illustrious peers on this list I appear pretty vanilla really.

I think the reason I am on this list and a few others like it is in the first sentence – “master connector.” And this really resonates for me. Heck, I’m down right proud. This “connectability” has helped transform my thinking and enabled me to bring real change to the organizations that employ me as well as helped me connect others to the many who influence my thinking and actions.

Connecting is a necessary skill today. I often share with others my belief that knowledge is not static, it is dynamic – its fluid. It doesn’t exist within us, but between us in our conversations. I connect with authors, speakers, thinkers, designers, and disruptors not because we are peers in those areas but because we share a common belief in learning and in the humanity within organizations being the most critical part of the organization. It’s here, at this simple level, far below the tools, technology and processes that seem to dominate the conversations that our connection is made.

In the end, a master connector is really just a good “node” and a node is where everyone should strive to be first and foremost. What you know and do today is only important if you continue to stretch. And the only way I know to do that is to help keep the conversations and information flowing between us.

Fire Me

OK that request seems a bit extreme and could just as easily be titled “Just Shoot Me” as you will see as you read on… but what the heck I’ll go for the provocative. I believe – today, tomorrow or a few years from now you will fire your training department. So lets proceed as if this is an open letter from Training to the Executives.

You (execs) will inevitably hit a financial down turn and have to make the painful decision about who in which departments to cut. I’m as obvious a choice as a plump turkey on thanksgiving to be selected for the axe. It’s easy really. I gave you what you wanted, not what you needed. Shame on me.  You asked for training. You asked for education and helping our workers meet compliance needs. I obliged as that’s what hierarchies do; don’t think, just do. 

So I did. 

eEverything is the rage so you jumped in feet first. I answered the bell and built really cool courses and we bought an LMS. web-based live course became the next venture and we needed skilled folks to lead these webinars. The growth in elearning courses pushed us to get 2 ISDs. Damn if we didn’t swell the department. A department filled with non-businessy words and acronyms like classroom, courseware, ILT, LMS, LCMS, JIT, and REL. Come to think of it we didn’t just build a different department, we built a different company within the company! 
(Photo on right? Yep, “The Kiss of Death“)

The bottom line is… well, the bottom line.  And frankly all this effort resulted in little to no real impact and what gains we saw are hard to tie just to me and my efforts alone.  So in the end all I did really was add a huge cost. The courses were taken, the box in the LMS was checked and yet here we are… In the red. Sure the economy got ugly. Sure sales slumped as new competitors entered the market. Sure we had some turnover…some bad hires but frankly none worse than me.  

What the organization needed was innovative thinking, we needed creative problem solving and we had the answer to ride it out or even thrive during this time right under our roof and we missed it.

I missed it…

It’s time to call me in and break me the bad news. But with my one final drag on the proverbial cigarette as I await the Governor to call in a pardon… I have one last request… 

Hire me back. I’m reformed!

Hire me back tomorrow… no wait, hire me back in two weeks I’ve got some stuff to do around the house first.  But when you bring me back let’s call me something other than T&D Manager or whatever. Lets speak in outputs not inputs – I’ll be your Performance Strategist. Come to think of this, lets go at this as if training was not an option! Lets hire back those people (or a few who get that the world has changed) from the T&D department and embed them in the work flow. No more trainers & designers we need more coaches and mentors, advocates and ambassadors. We need to go full throttle into connecting our people and further getting them connected globally. Let these folks who have learned how to connect, and learned how to continuously learn show others how to do it in their contexts. 

Actually hiring me back and some of those talented folks is really not enough though. Here’s a few things you need to help me with.

1. Support me with your actions (not your words and money). Be a part of this, be vocal, be available. It’s a hell of a lot cheaper and in addition to walking the talk you might just prove to be inspiring and create a raging fan base of employees who serve as beacons for even more talented folks to join us.  No more department even if appropriately renamed something to do with performance. We need to be intertwined in the business that is our business.

2. Change the expectation Lets build a connected workforce of “Learnkers” or “Workners” (Learner-workers) or better yet maybe “Performists” (workers-artists)? Corny? Maybe but since the real learning is happening in the real work we can’t refer to our people as learners or participants or attendees. We must encourage our employees transformation to ones who believe in and readily show their continuous learning.  Maybe if we start by changing the language, we start empowering our people to be more than what the hierarchy sets for them (Peter Principle?). Let’s enable a force of dedicated, collaborating people – A force that seeks and shares the most innovative ideas and the best tips and tricks to get the work done. 

3. Free the tools. Don’t buy unique tools for an exclusive group. Lets find free tools that help everybody in all groups. And by help I mean tools that allow them to better connect and create. Connect them to each other, connect them to content their peers are creating. Learning is not a course, not a destination, its a verb. Its ongoing and going on everywhere. The “e” in eLearning now is for “extended” – Extended over time and space. Lets encourage our people to not only dip into the stream but feed it too, leaving breadcrumbs everywhere. 

4. Blow up the hierarchy. Keep your title and all that but let new voices in to the conversation regardless of where they sit in the pecking order. Technology today really lets everyone have a seat at the table anytime. It’s an ephemeral meritocracy (HT @euan). Your job now is to keep the seat open. People will come and go. Let others from all ranks sit in it for a bit, make their contribution and step aside. You and I and hell everyone here wants the same thing – success.

So lets not wait – fire me and let’s really get the company moving forward.

In Pursuit of Athens Inc.

On the recent anniversary of the Gettysburg address by Abraham Lincoln I serendipitously was re-introduced to an ancient text by the Greek leader Pericles which has uncanny similarity to Lincoln’s famous speech in a similar context. Both wrote of their current struggles and the glory that was the nations they fought to preserve.

“We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens.”

Funeral Oration of Pericles

These are the some of the words of Pericles (Leader of Athens 444BC to 430BC.) where he gave historians a vivid picture of Athens and all it’s practices that helped lead it to be a model for much of Western civilization.

Being a former History teacher, I have always been fascinated by eras of great advancements in humanity and the human condition which often are a result of cultural diffusion and removal of barriers. I see parallels to current events and the past and feel too that with the advancements in collaborative technology we are diffusing on a massive scale and entering a new and probably the most significant of Golden Age‘s …and organizations can also be transformed.  

For example during the Golden Age of Athens, fearless and without hindrance, Athenians placed greater attention on creative and innovative pursuits. Furthermore Athens, being a seafaring power, ventured out to the edges of known civilization uninhibited. Through trade, Athenians brought more than merchant goods to all of Athens but idea from other worlds that would fuel its innovation and lead to advances in Arts, Literature, Architecture, Governance, etc permeate all of Western civilization today.

What lessons can organizations today, which can be compared to nation-states, take away from the Golden Age of Athens? 

Geographically Athens was surrounded by a rugged landscape. Fertile farmland was scarce and thus an agrarian society was not a choice. Athenians had to turn to the sea. Likewise organizations today cannot survive isolated; resting solely on its internal workforce and leadership will not result in a sustainable enterprise. The successful organization must reach out from its borders not to seek and acquire talent but to enable its people to connect with talent everywhere and through these connections grow, innovate and create. 

Athenian merchants, driven by self-interest, served themselves but unconsciously served to grow Athenian influence and power. Athenians were proud and loyal because theirs was a nation that placed the individual above the state. Together they rose. Today organizations who aim to contain and control their people in their pursuits limit themselves and ultimately create distrust and disenchantment; not the loyalty they so greatly expect and desire.

As Pericles eludes to in the excerpt above, Athens subscribed to both transparency and openness. They revealed their innovations to the world and invited others in knowing full well their strength was not in their systems and products but in their people. Their enemies might profit occasionally but the long-term gains of openness far outweighed the short-term losses. 

Organizations too, who choose to invest in their people and their happiness, drop their fruitless efforts at security and reap the rewards of individual freedom of the people. People, free to connect and create with passion and zeal, benefit their organization. And although organizations will encounter periodical challenges from competitors. This trust can only lead to greater gains.

Arguably the greatest reason for Athens success was [Direct] Democracy. The belief that the people, collectively, determined and directed policy. Debate was encouraged and contribution to Athenian politics was not a request but a duty. Hierarchy existed to execute the laws but not create them. Each, regardless of position, had a voice and was encouraged to use it.

Today, through collaborative tools, Democracy can be reborn in our modern [organizational] nation-states. We have an technology enabled ability in our organizations to hear all voices, to debate, to encourage contribution, and to influence hierarchy. These same tools can extend us beyond our borders, seek fertile environments and bring back to the enterprise innovative ideas and solutions. This is about trust; trust in our organizations, trust in the systems, trust in each other. 

Leaders today have an opportunity then to embrace the principles of openness, transparency, and democracy as Athens subscribed, resulting in great work and prosperity or continue down the path of exclusion, deception, control.