Monday, April 27, 2015

Social Learning Cannot be a Bolt-On Strategy

“I’m arguing that something much bigger is happening than the application collaborative tools within the enterprise – it’s a profound transformation of the enterprise as we know it.”  Don Tapscott (italics mine)
I recently wrote about the challenges of integrating sociallearning in the workplace. Even as I was mulling over the topic and browsing through Dion Hinchcliffe's posts for insights on social business, I had a moment of epiphany. Social Learning and social business go hand in hand. To facilitate social learning, an organization has to become a social business first. When we talk about social learning, we are talking about the fundamental organizational structure of a business.  A truly social business encapsulates the necessary preconditions for social learning -- transparent, supportive and collaborative. An organization cannot bolt on social learning just as it cannot bolt on a few Facebook and Twitter-like tools and call itself a social business. A hierarchical, permission-driven organization will find it very difficult to get employees to collaborate or cooperate voluntarily. In such cultural settings, social learning naturally fails in spite of state of the art enterprise collaboration platforms and other technology. Most organizations are still missing the cultural aspect of it. The current failure of organizations to integrate social learning stems from their bolt-on strategy. Read Hinchcliffe's 2014 post Going Beyond"Bolt-On" Digital Transformation for a deeper understanding. 

The following excerpt from his blog summarizes it beautifully: 
A Social Business isn't a company that just has a Facebook page and a Twitter account. Social Business means that every department, from HR to marketing to product development to customer service to sales, uses social media the way it uses any other tool and channel to do its job. It's an organization that uses social networking tools fluently to communicate with people inside and outside the company. It's a strategic approach to shaping a business culture, highly dependent upon executive leadership and corporate strategy, including business process design, risk management, leadership development, financial controls and use of business analytics. Becoming a Social Business can help an organization deepen customer relationships, generate new ideas faster, identify expertise and enable a more effective workforce. 
This epiphany further led me to mull over the relation between social business, social learning and Peter Senge's Learning Organization. Senge's definition of a Learning Organization closely reflects a collaborative and social learning environment: 
…organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together. ...for a ‘learning organization it is not enough to survive. "Survival learning' or what is more often termed “adaptive learning” is important – indeed it is necessary. But for a learning organization, “adaptive learning” must be joined by “generative learning”, learning that enhances our capacity to create’ (Senge 1990:14). (
What Senge describes as "generative learning" is also the goal of social learning -- the ability to come together and create new insights, innovate and re-imagine. And it is perhaps one of the critical survival measures for any organization. Senge based his observation on the premise that on occasions of rapid change and flux, people will be able to adapt and excel. The cornerstone of Senge's Learning Organization is Systems Thinking -- the ability to see the whole as well as the interrelated parts of a complex system. What perhaps didn't exist when Senge wrote about Learning Organizations is the digital and uber connected world we live in today. Given the rapid proliferation of technology and their impact, a Systems Thinking approach to how work and learning happen becomes crucial. The physical borders have blurred and melted; we live in a border-less world and digital growth is the path-maker. A piecemeal approach to social learning will only serve to confound us further. 

As work becomes more complex, distributed, novel and challenging, organizations have no choice but to adopt a more connected, integrated approach to everything they do. What Hinchcliffe says above about social business being a strategic approach applies equally to organizations seeking to adopt social learning and become learning organizations. With organizations embarking on the path of social and collaborative learning, even if it's in name only, it is critical to understand the baseline requirements. 

1. Adopt a Systems Thinking approach: Integrating social learning requires a systemic change that includes culture, business and operational processes as well as organizational vision. It requires CEO/CLO intervention and strategic thinking to create an environment where the behaviours that construe social learning can thrive. It means altering how the management models operate; it means questioning the existing management practices and discarding those that do not align with the spirit of social business. This calls for fundamental shifts in the way organizations operate including their leadership styles, management focus and the underlying spoken and unspoken norms. To give an example, organizations where authority trumps expertise and capability are not yet ready for social learning where everyone gets an equal hearing. This shift in mindset will perhaps be one of the most challenging to overcome. Becoming a truly social business is an inside out change. 

2. Acquire the key digital skills: Today's globally distributed workplaces use digital tools and tech to stay connected and get their work done. Most of the digital usage happen as a matter of course driven by project requirements. Very few organizations are effectively using this amalgam of digital tech to consciously collaborate, work out loud or learn together. To effectively do the latter, everyone including managers and top level executives must pick up some of the fundamental digital skills. Dion Hinchcliffe describes the skills in detail in this post: What are the Required Skills for Today's Digital Workforce? The diagram below from the blog summarizes this beautifully: 

3. Encourage and facilitate network effects: As organizations become more dispersed and work becomes location agnostic spanning diverse skill sets and huge amount of data, workers will no longer be able to deliver results by working in silos. Even teamwork will not breed success unless the team is composed of individuals with cognitive diversity, possessing different skills and abilities and pull learning from their own PLNs. By encouraging employees to build their own Personal Learning Networks (PLN) and enabling them to use digital tools for more efficient Personal Knowledge Management (PKM), organizations will reap the benefits of this networked learning. 

4. Make contributions not credential matter: Whether an idea comes from an EVP or a front-line manager, every idea/piece of knowledge needs to be judged on its merit. As soon as authority and credential is given greater power, collaboration and sharing will stop. No one wants to feel that their ideas will be ignored just because they are a few rungs lower on the corporate ladder. And the converse is often true -- because those lower down the hierarchy are the ones in the forefront, they often have more cogent ideas for improvement and innovation. 

5. Instil the skills of networked leadership: Networked leadership is about replacing control with influence enabled by a work environment based on autonomy, empowerment, trust, sharing, and collaboration. Leaders must actively don the mantle of coaches and mentors to help employees develop organizational understanding, network skills and influencing capabilities. It means actively seeking projects that span LOBs, facilitates the interconnection of employees, increases employee visibility across the enterprise. A networked leader is not only adept at the skills mentioned above but actively encourages their employees to develop the skills, and coaches them into doing so. They have the ability to build strong networks -- both internal and external to the organization and believes in the power of collaborations and cooperation. They are learning agile, embraces change and are not afraid to put themselves out there. They understand that networks will trump individual capabilities in this age of complexity and change. 

In my last post, I discussed the challenges of integrating social learning in an organization because it is predominantly a cultural transformation that is the key. The question is what comes first? Digital transformation or Cultural Transformational? IMHO, it is a synchronous activity. One cannot bolt-on new technology while following old processes and expect change to happen. It's a synergistic interplay of cutlural transformation with digital adoption that needs to be led by the likes of CTOs / CEOs / CLOs in close collaboration. As Dion Hinchcliffe very succinctly and precisely puts it: 
Then there is the ‘digital transformation’ approach to digital. It’s a full-on, meaningful reconception of the business, often using a startup or incubator model, with the intent to re-imagine a digital native organization with all that it entails, from new business models, culture shifts, remodeling of the structure and processes of the business, and rethinking of the very foundations of the enterprise across the full spectrum of digital possibility.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Integrating Social Learning in the Workplace

I have been writing about social learning and its related concepts – communities of practices, working out loud and skills for the networked world for quite some time now. Social learning has become a buzzword in the workplace learning space, and every other organization is claiming to have “social learning” as a part of the mix. The catch is that “social learning” cannot just be implemented or enforced. One cannot inset social learning in the training calendar and feel happy about it. It has to be integrated into the culture and the organizational way of working and being. And therein lies the problem.

This post focuses on the challenges organizations face when attempting to integrate social learning and synthesizes some of the key concerns. Social learning is much more a cultural outcome than a process or a program to be followed. Organizations are fairly adept at implementing training programs, providing LMS access and checking for completion. However, social learning neither has a completion criteria nor can it be enforced. “Social learning” cannot be assigned as one would a course or a module. Nor can one be sent off to attend a class on social learning. So, social learning continues to loom like a specter over L&D’s head, who are usually given the dictate of implementing it.

On the face of it, social learning is or at least should be the easiest thing to implement in the workplace. Don’t we always turn to our colleagues when we are stuck? Don’t we WhatsApp or message our not co-located peers for the latest proposal, solution, client inputs? Then, why does social learning become the proverbial stumbling block on every L&D team’s radar?

It is primarily because of the way our organizations are structured and operate. The operational as well as the cultural norms of a majority of our organizations date back to the days of Taylor when standardization was a much sought after aspect to bring about efficiency, reduce errors and shorten turnaround time. Organizations thrived on predictability, best practices, efficiency and repeatability. 

Now, fast forward to the 21st Century bombarded by shifts in technology, changing nature of work and an evolving workplace. The history of outsourcing to off-shoring to automation is now well known. However, while technology advanced forcing us to work differently, the human mindset and the accompanying organizational management models did not. The evolution of the mind takes years, and we got stuck in a time warp. Organizations like Kodak, Borders and Blockbuster faded into irrelevance. Those who could embrace this technological onslaught thrived, and their names are household words today. Amazon, Apple, Google, Netflix, Pandora… .

How is this change related to social learning? In a profound and almost philosophical way. History tells us that social learning has been the “only” way people learned in the past. The only technology then available was the “fire” built outside caves and other such places where the nomadic hunters of yore gathered at the end of the day to share stories. Cave paintings are further proof of the visual skills and the social nature of learning. People wanted to share what they knew in various forms. Social learning is not a 21st century invention. Vygotsky and Bandura’s theories dating back to the 1970’s explain the social nature of learning in a great deal of detail. The fundamental pillars of social learning have always been trust and a willingness to share and cooperate.

What we have lost today are precisely the art of communicating with openness and trust. Cooperation and collaboration to use Harold Jarche’s words. And this takes us back to Taylor, command and control, hierarchy, and the other well-known and esteemed pillars of modern day management. In an effort to mechanize processes and capitalize on efficiency, the practices and principles that led to the rise of Industrial Age organizations successfully killed the natural instincts of human beings – to learn, to share, and to cooperate.

By propagating the treatment of individuals as replaceable cogs, by reducing their humanity to naught, organizations of that era thrived by de-humanizing the human. However, this “efficiency” came at a price. The side effects of hierarchy and top down management – obsolete principles, hunger for power and unnatural competitiveness – desensitized the organizations. This has led to mistrust, cheating, shirking. Which in turn led to a further tightening of the so-called processes, bureaucratic systems and managerial oversight. Knowledge hoarding became one of the means of accumulating power and staying in control. Skills were no longer freely shared. “Social” became a bad word within the walls of the serious, process-oriented, sanitized interiors of the corporate world.

Then came the 21st century with its dramatic shifts and trends. The world has shifted and we are in the midst of the Creative Economy, and organizations realize that they are ill-prepared to face this change. Predictability gave way to complexity and often, chaos. The five forces in the diagram below turned the old order upside down.

Suddenly, the old order is no longer functioning as well as they had done. Best practices no longer suffice. Exceptions and novel challenges are the norm. There is no time to get trained for the skills needed. Learning and working have become one and the same. New words and concepts have cropped up – crowdsourcing, collaboration, digital skills, personal learning network, social learning, social business. Organizations moved from being a building in a fixed location to a distributed network of employees and geographically dispersed offices. Collaboration and cooperation became vital to the survival of the organization and the individual.

Organizations thus felt the pressure to enable social learning and collaboration in some form. And jumped onto the easiest of the bandwagons – that of new, glossy technology. New platforms, new devices, uber connectivity. However, what most organizations forgot is the culture change required. Organizations fell prey to the vendors of social platforms believing that technology could solve the problem.

However, as organization after organization floundered in their attempt to enable enterprise collaboration and social learning, the phrase social learning took on a slightly desperate note. It was something organizations knew they had to do, but wasn't quite sure how to go about it. The general cry was one of cynicism and despair. One half said, “See the platform is a ghost town; no one writes even one line. I knew all these new-fangled ideas wouldn't work.” The other more believing and forward thinking half said, “Ok, so we have a platform, and no one participates. Where did we go wrong?”

The truth of the matter is that a platform is not the solution. Changing the organization culture is. Easier said than done of course. How does one change years of built in mindset and handed down wisdom? How does one convince managers and VPs to give up the very power they worked so hard to achieve? How does one convince individuals victimized by the Bell Curve, rewarded for being competitive, taught to hoard knowledge to suddenly give up all these for wishy-washy words like trust, values, collaboration and sharing?

IMHO, it is not only a question of organizational strategy but also of organizational philosophy.

Changing from a command and control, hierarchical set up to a networked and open wirearchy is neither easy nor quick. It requires concentrated change management strategy that includes above all, bringing the human back into the organization. It means demonstrating trust, practising open sharing, following transparent processes. It means being unafraid to fail without losing commitment to success. It means redefining success criteria. It means being in alignment with one’s goals and purpose. It means walking the talk – all the time. These statements are of course easier to write down and sound pretty good on paper. However, when one attempts to translate these into practices and manifested behaviours that will make sense in an organizational set-up, suddenly one is confounded by the existing processes and priorities that are most often in direct opposition to the spirit of the statements.

To transition from a hierarchical to a networked and transparent culture requires a conscious untangling of all the unspoken assumptions and biases that inform the present culture and values. Without an explicit understanding of the assumptions across the board, it is not possible to change any one them. While culture is perhaps one of those make or break things, there is really no defined framework or model for culture. It is as elusive as it is org specific. Hence, culture can only be perceived from the standpoint of manifested behaviours and actions taken by the top management and the employees.
For social learning to thrive (i.e., for individuals to share freely, work transparently, learn from each other, critique without malice and so on), the culture must be supportive. What does this mean? Here are a few changes organizations need to make if they truly believe that social collaborative learning is the way to go: 
  • Senior management must walk the talk; if they don’t have time to engage on the collaboration platform, the rest of the organization will not have the time either 
  • Transparent sharing of information must be the default mode; if employees cannot be trusted with organizational information, then the wrong people have been recruited 
  • Collaboration and cooperation must be rewarded; if the measurement system continues to reward competitive behaviour, then that is what will be perpetrated 
  • Individuals need to feel empowered; open and honest sharing cannot be driven by fear and a carrot and stick approach. Open and honest sharing comes from employees feeling respected and appreciated. 
  • Sharing of knowledge is a discretionary effort; unappreciated employees will hold back on their DE. Genuine appreciation, support and coaching need to define management attitude.

In summary, integrating social learning in the workplace requires:
  1. In-depth analysis of existing assumptions and biases
  2. Critical assessment of the management model and methods
  3. Honest look at what is holding people back from collaborating and sharing
  4. Evaluation of the modes of reward and feedback being practised
  5. Drawing up a desired future state vision (in collaboration with employees)
  6. Defining of a clear change management strategy with special emphasis on management responsibilities
  7. Implementation of the strategies with the leadership and top management "leading" the way 
  8. Redefining of processes and systems to support the change (adhering to the old rules while expecting new behaviour is not only counter-productive but also damaging)
  9. Celebrating small successes; rewarding genuine effort
  10. Tracking the impact and sharing it with the organization  

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Micro-Learning as a Workplace Learning Strategy

In today's time-crunched, attention-deficit and multitasking world, micro-learning seems to have cropped up as a possible solution to corporate learning and personal development. However, what exactly is micro-learning remains a bit of an elusive concept with different people defining it in different ways. Should it be something that takes less than 5 minutes to consume? Can a 10-minute learning byte be defined as micro-learning? Would a commoncraft-style video be considered micro-learning? Is an infographic summarizing and presenting data and text micro-learning? In my earlier posts, I have written about the possible roles it can play in formal, informal and incidental learning. I have briefly explored the possibilities of transition from courses to micro-learning in the context of workplace learning. Wikipedia has a good definition of the concept:
Micro-learning can also be understood as a process of subsequent, "short" learning activities, i.e. learning through interaction with micro-content objects in small timeframes.

I have tried to define some of the key characterized and put them together in the diagram below. However, these are in no way definitive or the only characteristics but a set of guidelines…
The way the term is being bandied about now would make one think that it is a new phenomenon designed to solve a myriad of workplace learning challenges. The term and the concept has suddenly captured the imagination of workplace learning professionals and course designers as well as clients due to a variety of reasons: 
  1. The rise of mobile devices and ubiquitous connectivity 
  2. The deluge of available information and decreasing attention span 
  3. The need for just-in-time and just-enough information to get the job done 
  4. The entry of enterprise collaboration platforms in organizations 
  5. The distributed and dispersed nature of workers leading to a need for online collaboration 

Most of these phenomena are interconnected and impact one another. It is critical not only understand the drivers behind this sudden surge but also how it can be implemented in workplace learning strategy.

The Drivers

An influx of mobile devices have changed how people interact with content. It is now more likely to be in short bursts or 2~5 minutes, several times a day rather than for long durations once or twice a day as was the case when we were primarily tied to our laptops or desktops. Our work is also becoming location agnostic. We are no longer tied to a desk and a building to get our jobs done. Neither are we always co-located with the teams we work with. This free-flowing nature of work requires rapid exchange of information and sharing of knowledge in byte-sized chunks that are easy to assimilate. 

Working out loud is one of the means to make collaboration and work effective in today’s context. Similarly, technicians in a remote location can quickly record a video of the issues they are facing and post it on their internal collaboration platform for a solution from the experts who may be located half way across the world. This instantaneous kind of information and knowledge exchange, peer support, and sharing of tacit knowledge happen in short bursts. Because these interactions are typically need driven and occur spontaneously, we don’t classify these as micro-learning instances. But IMHO these are very effective micro-learning occurrences that take place in our daily lives – professional and personal – and make it possible for us to function effectively.

A deluge of content coupled with an ever decreasing shelf-life of knowledge is forcing people to access a huge mass of information just to keep on top of things. This telling article from HBR – When Learning at Work Becomes Overwhelming -  talks about the unrealistic levels of learning requirements from workers today. This constant need to add new skills and knowledge is leading to a reluctance to spend too much time on something that may prove to be irrelevant in a couple of months’ time. The focus is on the bare minimum needed to get one’s work done effectively. Is that a good thing or bad is the topic for another post. The reality is that individuals and organizations are looking for options to keep on top of things in the easiest possible manner.

Add to these an ever decreasing attention span, technology disruption, complex and distributed workflows – and one can see why micro-learning seems to be looming up all too frequently. It seems somehow to be irrevocably tied to all the items mentioned above. Organizations, in a bid to make learning accessible and digestible, are trying to include micro-learning as a part of their workplace learning design strategy.

However, by welding micro-learning to technology, we could be missing the core principles. The questions to ask are: How novel is micro-learning? Is it a new phenomenon or a new and catchy phrase gaining popularity in the L&D and business world because of its linkage to mobile learning?

Any learning or insight that can occur in a few minutes or so is a form of micro-learning. By wedding it to technology, we are perhaps giving it a new form but the concept is not new. 
  • A mentor giving feedback on a task done can be micro-learning unless it is an extended feedback session. 
  • An email with a few lines of instruction is micro-learning. 
  • An app with a 2-minute recipe is micro-learning. 
  • A comment from a peer on one’s work. 
  • Tweet chats, telephone conversations, IMs, coffee time discussions – any and all of these can be micro-learning 

Micro-learning can be formally designed and built into learning programs in various forms or it can occur as informal exchanges of knowledge and information either online or face-to-face. L&D today needs to include micro-learning as a strategy and incorporate formally designed micro-learning into programs as well as facilitate informal interactions that lead to individual learning and organizational problem solving.

Implementing Micro-Learning in the Workplace

Working out loud on the enterprise collaboration platform is not only narration of work but also entails the use of principles of micro-learning (sharing byte-sized processes to help others learn from their experiences). In short, our days are filled with moments of learning – whether by design or by happenstance. I saw the movie Cinderella over the weekend which has this line: Just because it is done doesn’t mean it should be done. The line stuck in my head because of its broad applicability and the profundity underlying the simplicity. To me, this is micro-learning.

L&D and business are trying to define and give a coherent shape to micro-learning because we want to “productize” it. We want to design capsules and bytes of information in various forms like videos, podcasts, text, infographic, etc. “Productization” shouldn’t necessarily imply technology enabled micro-learning bytes. Can managers and mentors be taught to think in terms of micro-learning? Can they give just enough feedback or on the job guidance in one go to adhere to the principles of micro-learning? It is possible to design a weekly feedback session for team members that will not exceed 10 mins. The manager could wear a mentor’s hat and the conversation could revolve around 3~4 key questions with a time limit of 10~15 mins.  
  1. What are the two things you learned this week/fortnight? 
  2. What obstacles are you facing? 
  3. How can I help you?
These kinds of conversations will not only enable the employee to keep on track but also provide them with a tool to reflect upon and extract their learning. This can be hugely enlightening and invigorating. Appraisals and feedback need not be a painful and somewhat useless discussion occurring twice a year far removed from the time of the incidences. Feedback discussions can be a part of an organization’s micro-learning strategy.

This was just an example to show that micro-learning, with some careful consideration and design thinking, can be a critical part of workplace learning in various forms – informal and formal and also social and collaborative. By defining and socializing the principles behind micro-learning, L&D can enable organizations apply these in various contexts by helping business leaders, managers and mentors understand these. It can happen anytime, anywhere, in any form – synchronously, asynchronously, and semi-synchronously. It can occur in self-driven learning, in peer-to-peer learning, in a manager-worker discussion, in a social learning setting, and be incorporated into a formally designed course.

The diagram below captures some forms of micro-learning:

Friday, March 6, 2015

Skills for the Networked World

"...learning is ubiquitous in ongoing activity, though often unrecognised as such - Jean Lave (1993)"
Recently, I read a series of posts and articles related to digital literacy, 21st Century Skills and the behaviours and practices required for working and learning in a connected world. Last week I wrote about MOOCs in Workplace Learning-Part 5: Skill Learners Need Today. I should have actually called it "mindsets for a digital and connected world". Anyhow, getting back to the point, here are some of the interesting and insightful posts and resources on the topic of digital literacy that kept me thinking this week:
As I read through and attempted to distil and synthesize what various experts were saying, the following higher order skills and abilities emerged as critical:


Metacognition is defined as "cognition about cognition", or "knowing about knowing". …it includes knowledge about when and how to use particular strategies for learning or for problem solving. ~Wikipedia (
The skills and behaviours like working out loud, building one's PLN and PKM, digital sense-making, and such require the sort of meta-cognition skills described above. To be able to effectively "work out loud", an individual needs to be able to parse his or her workflow in a manner that is shareable and captures teachable moments as well. This is driven by a fair degree of self-awareness and self-analysis. One needs to reflect on what s/he does to accomplish a task, plan a project, or manage a team and then share the thoughts and moments. The advantage is that such reflection and deliberate narration of one's work and experience lead to deeper insight, robust understanding and a comprehension of what can be improved. It is akin to shining a light on the processes and thoughts behind them, making them visible not only for the world but also for the self for further improvement and honing. Building one's meta-cognitive skills require deliberate practice and reflection. 

Critical Thinking 

The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking defines critical thinking as the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. -Wikipedia (
That's a bit of a mouthful but aptly captures the skills we need to make sense of the information bombarding us today, to take decisions in the face of flux and ambiguity, to embrace change with equanimity. Gone are the days of limited information vetted and handed down by designated experts. Now it is up to each of us to be able to vet, filter and curate what is necessary. The Seek>Sense>Share PKM model described by Harold Jarche and similar model by others rest on our critical thinking and cognitive abilities. The Wikipedia description adds some pertinent points around critical thinking worth noting: 
  • Recognize problems, to find workable means for meeting those problems
  • Understand the importance of prioritization and order of precedence in problem solving
  • Gather and marshal pertinent (relevant) information
  • Recognize unstated assumptions and values
  • Comprehend and use language with accuracy, clarity, and discernment
  • Interpret data, to appraise evidence and evaluate arguments
  • Recognize the existence (or non-existence) of logical relationships between propositions
  • Draw warranted conclusions and generalizations
  • Put to test the conclusions and generalizations at which one arrives
  • Reconstruct one's patterns of beliefs on the basis of wider experience
  • Render accurate judgments about specific things and qualities in everyday life
Given the shifts affecting us today, critical thinking is a necessary skill we need to develop and hone through deliberate and conscious practice. 

Diversity and Inclusion

There is ample talk of diversity and inclusion in the context of today's workplace which is necessary. However, we tend to conflate identity diversity with cognitive diversity when in reality the two are different. Cognitive diversity tends to get overlooked partly because it is difficult to spot but even more because of our biases. Given that we are comfortable with those similar to us (externally and also in thoughts and worldviews), we rarely seek out divergent opinions and most often fall prey to our confirmation biases. However, in the context of complex and emergent challenges, having a cognitively diverse set of individuals working on it trumps narrow expertise. Scott Page in his wonderful book, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies proves with rigour and clarity how diversity trumps ability in complex problems. 

In this context, it is critical to focus on building PLNs and communities of cognitively diverse individuals. This implies being comfortable with and accepting of different worldviews, heuristics, perspectives and frameworks. Coming back to the point, it is thus important to develop skills that enable us to seek out and learn from diverse people. Diversity, according to Scott Page, adds super-additivity where the sum of the whole exceeds that of the individual parts. Another pertinent article to read in this context is 

Relationship Building

We have reached an era where we may not even meet all our co-workers. Virtual, dispersed teams are the reality today. It is also the age of freelancers. This fabulous HBR article, The Third Wave of Virtual Work by Lynda Gratton and Tammy Johns, traces the rise of virtual work across three waves -- virtual freelancers, virtual corporate colleagues, and virtual co-workers. The point I am trying to make is that this uber connected global world calls for online relationship building and collaboration skills that may not come naturally to us. There are evolving etiquettes (netiquettes) and protocols we will have to inculcate to be effective in our professional and personal lives. While face-to-face interactions are still fundamental to building trust, we will no longer be able to guarantee that luxury going ahead. Building trusted relations through online collaboration and interaction call for a whole new range of manifested behaviours like willingness to share, acknowledging and appreciating others work, participating in meaningful online dialogues and debates, accepting diverse opinions, being generous with our praise, and so on. The most critical is perhaps cooperation. And Harold Jarche distinguishes this from collaboration very nicely by describing it thus: Collaboration is working together on a common problem, while cooperation is freely sharing without any objective. The ability to build virtual relations and work with a myriad range of individuals from different cultures and countries will be increasingly critical in the coming years. It may be fundamental to our success as workers of the 21st Century.

Community Participation

If we are to go with what the article mentioned in the earlier para The Third Wave of Virtual Work says, it is evident that being able to participate in communities is another skill to hone. How is this exactly different from other virtual collaboration? I have referenced Harold Jarche's diagram to explain this:

The sharing, creating, and debating of knowledge around a domain by practitioners of the said domain is the hallmark of CoPs. As is evident from the diagram, when we move to CoPs, we have a mix of strong and weak social ties focused around a specific domain. I consider CoPs to be a subset of my PLN. Most individuals--knowingly or unknowingly--belong to a number of communities. The participatory skill required for this is important today--both within organizations as well as by individual freelancers to remain on the cutting edge, gain greater depth of knowledge and skills in their specific areas, and expand their expertise into related fields. As virtual, independent workers faced with complex challenges, the ability to draw support from CoPs are going to be of paramount importance. Learning does not belong to individual persons, but to the various conversations of which we are a part. And we have to become comfortable holding such conversations in the online world. 

Courage Zone

This perhaps tops it all. A willingness to keep stretching and moving beyond our comfort zones determine success in this network era. It is characterized by agility and adaptability in learning, in the ways we work, and avoiding the "this is the way it is done here" syndrome. It is signified by one's ability to question tacit assumptions and biases that keep us rooted to the past and make the past seem more attractive than the unknown future. It is marked by our ability to analyse and identify our own confirmation biases and tendencies of group think. It takes quite a bit of conscious effort and courage to give up the known, the stable, the comfortable for the unknown, the risky, the new. However, it is better to move ahead and face change than have it thrust on us as it will be by the disruptions and shifts facing us. The diagram below describes it as stepping into our courage zone.

Friday, February 27, 2015

MOOCs in Workplace Learning - Part 5: Skills Learners Need Today

While the title of the post specifies MOOCs, the skills and mindsets I have explored in the post are, IMHO, required by all to survive and thrive in the digital and connected world. And participating in MOOCs could well be one of the ways to inculcate and hone the skills. I have been writing about MOOCs in the context of workplace learning from different perspectives for some time now. The earlier posts...
  1. MOOCs in Workplace Learning - Part 1: Some Points to Consider 
  2. MOOCs in Workplace Learning - Part 2: Designing a MOOC
  3. MOOCs in Workplace Learning - Part 3: Launching a MOOC
  4. MOOCs in Workplace Learning - Part 4: Their Role in Corporate Universities 
In this post, the fifth in the series, I want to focus on some of the learner characteristics that make for successful MOOC participants. MOOCs, unlike typical on-line courses hosted on corporate LMS's operate on very different principles. I have written about these in my earlier posts and won't delve into the principles here. I will just call out a few to set the context. 

A MOOC is an intrinsically participative, collaborative mode of learning. While typically designed around a core set of content modules / topics, it has a lose boundary. A MOOC has a core topic and a set of created or curated content modules covering the topic to a desired depth and level. However, it is the discussions, collaborative project works, and user-generated content and context that often spill over outside the course boundary which differentiates a MOOC from any regular online course. In that sense, a MOOC is a dynamic and evolving pedagogical form that allows diverse set of learners to come together and form cohorts, to co-create and build the context as they go through the course. The emergent nature of MOOCs can have interesting outcomes:

They can enable the formation of Communities of Interests (CoIs), which can evolve into Communities of Practices (CoPs) if participants are keen on building the domain knowledge and practices. Having said that, MOOCs require certain skills from participants, which I like to describe as "learning how to learn in the networked world."  

Most learners are used to "solo" learning, both in the academic and the corporate world. The notion of collaborating and sharing to learn more deeply and enduringly isn't yet pervasive. Yet, the new age of complexity calls for collaboration and cooperation. No one can hope to make sense of the emerging complexities either on their own or through standardized and formal courses. It is only through dialogue and discourse that patterns evolve. But needless to say, this whole notion of engaging with any course requires learners to develop certain skills as well as mindset. 

The MOOC format is primarily learner-driven and learner-directed. MOOCs are facilitated but typically not Instructor Led. Hence, these require learners to "pull" their own learning. For organizations, this has a direct implication and reflects the motivation employees feel, the autonomy they enjoy and the purpose they find in their work. If the three aspects are in place, most individuals will feel the impetus to learn what they need to in order to accomplish their tasks. And inculcating this culture is perhaps of paramount importance today—when the most meaningful and creative work fall in the Complex domain for which training will never be the answer. I have touched upon some of the skills and mindsets required to succeed today:

  • Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset - Individuals with a growth mindset are more likely to put in extra effort to learn new things, take charge of their own learning, and possess a resilience that helps them to overcome challenges with equanimity. Those with a fixed mindset are likely to see talent and skills as fixed entities that cannot be further developed. They are more likely to spend time doing work that keeps them in their comfort zone and where they are confident of succeeding. MOOCs, by virtue of being collaborative in nature, requires people to "put themselves and their ideas out there". This can be perceived as threatening to those with a fixed mindset. 

  • Mistakes as Learning Opportunities - Dan Pink popularized the notion of "bunkos" in The Adventures of Johnny Bunko, where "bunkos" are mistakes whose learning value outweighs the seriousness of the error. They are good mistakes. This notion is closely linked to #1; individuals with a growth mindset are willing to make mistakes since they perceive each mistake as a step toward deeper learning. In a collaborative and participatory environment as in MOOCs, discussions often lead to debate, thrashing out of ideas, and exchange of perspectives. In fact, true and deep learning takes place because of these conversations. Those not confident enough to make mistakes and learn from others will not be able to openly collaborate in a MOOC environment. 
  • Autonomous Learning Conditions - MOOCs are essentially an ecosystem that allows learners to pull the learning they want. Even if corporate MOOCs are designed along the lines of xMOOCs (structured, sequenced, with a defined start and end), the discussion forum will require participation. Because of its blended nature - formal course content with informal and social learning woven around it - MOOCs cannot be a top down endeavour. Learners need to take onus of their own experience and engage and be involved. 
  • Power of Diversity - Even within an organization, especially a globally distributed one with a global and connected workforce, an open course has the potential to draw diverse groups of people together. Often, this proves to be a great opportunity to build one's PLN within an organization and to form weak ties. However, this is dependent on each individual's willingness to perceive diverse world-views and frameworks as learning tools. Networks have to be consciously created, cultivated and nurtured. The desire to reach out with the intent to learn is a mindset. 
  • Collaboration and Cooperation - The success of a MOOC lies in the facilitator's ability to create a safe environment for participants. This requires online community management skills on the part of the MOOC facilitator. On the part of the learners, it requires virtual collaboration skills that are becoming increasingly important today. I stumbled across this diagram created by +Dion Hinchcliffe in his insightful post What are the Required Skills for Today's Digital Workforce? 

The skills highlighted in the diagram are precisely what learners (workers) need to successfully participate in a MOOC and thrive in this complex, shifting, digital world. Working out loud and knowing how to learn in a connected world are important to remain learning agile which includes learning from one's networks, sharing and co-creating. 

Finally, the words learners and workers will conflate. Everyone who wishes to escape obsolescence and irrelevance will remain learners. The ability to learn and adapt as close as possible to the speed of change will not only be the hallmark of organizations that thrive but also of individuals who thrive. 

Disruption is what happens when something new comes along that changes the underlying rules of the game. If we are doing the disrupting, it can actually be very good for us. When it’s imposed on us, then the results usually tend to be unfortunate. So we must be doing the disrupting to ourselves, and that begins and ends with shifting our mindset and perspective, especially in deeply understanding the nature of the truly pervasive digital operating environment we now find ourselves in.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Emergent Workplaces: Learning in the Networked World

This is my area of passion. A recent, very brief conversation with @krishashok triggered a few thoughts related to emergent workplaces and what learning in the networked world will look like. And after mulling over some of these, I thought they were worth putting down on virtual paper.

Setting the Context

Here are two definitions from Wikipedia that captures the essence of Networked Learning:
Networked learning is a process of developing and maintaining connections with people and information, and communicating in such a way so as to support one another's learning. The central term in this definition is connections. It takes a relational stance in which learning takes place both in relation to others and in relation to learning resources.  
Network learners of the future will have access to formal and informal education of their choice, wherever they are located, whenever they are able to participate … The network learner will be an active participant … learning with and from experts and peers wherever they are located.

We are in an era of ubiquitous connectivity. Agreed that the future is unevenly distributed but it is catching up way faster than envisaged. Those unwilling to or unable to accept the pace of change are in the state Red Queen describes in Alice in Wonderland
“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.”

The moot point is that we have no choice but to change how we do things. To quote Charles Darwin: 

It is becoming evident that be it organizations or individuals, those who are adaptive, agile, and open to learning are the ones who will survive. Coming to the topic of this post, IMHO, we will soon cease to speak of technology enabled learning because it will be seamless, integrated and the way everyone not only learns but also works and lives. It will become the norm. Whether that will lead to a dystopian future of fragmented lives and robots for company remain to be seen. But the fact is that technology is here to stay. It is becoming all pervasive. And will impact all spheres of our lives.

The Future Workplace 

It is not as much in the future as we would like to think. The nature of work has changed. We no longer need to go to a physical building to do our work. At least a lot of us don't need to. There have been quite a few paradigm shifts that we need to wrap our heads around. I have listed a few in the diagram below. 

These shifts have a profound impact on our day-to-day lives of which work and learning are an integral part. While on the surface they are unnerving, they can also deeply and positively influence how we take charge of our own lives. No longer is knowledge and information tied to workplace hierarchy. No longer are we expected to leave our passion at home and drag ourselves to the drudgery called work. Passion and creativity and not productivity per hour will increasingly become the measure of success. In an insightful article from HBR called From the Knowledge Economy to the Human Economy, there is this telling para that reflects the organizations and workers of the future: 
In the human economy, the most valuable workers will be hired hearts. The know-how and analytic skills that made them indispensable in the knowledge economy no longer give them an advantage over increasingly intelligent machines. But they will still bring to their work essential traits that can’t be and won’t be programmed into software, like creativity, passion, character, and collaborative spirit—their humanity, in other words. The ability to leverage these strengths will be the source of one organization’s superiority over another.
A human economy is intrinsically based on collaboration, communication, creativity and flexibility. I have written earlier about Re-imagining Work and Learning in a Networked World. I will elaborate some of the key themes here. Dr. Lynda Gratton in her book, The Shift: The Future of Work is Already Here encapsulates the possibilities and promises of a connected world in this para.
A crucial question for understanding the future of work is predicting what people will actually do with this unprecedented level of connectivity, content and productive possibilities. Over the next two decades we can expect the knowledge of the world to be digitalised, with an exponential rise in user-generated content, "wise-crowd" application and open innovation applications. 

However, the truth is that most organizations find themselves eminently unprepared to meet this changing state of being. They are tied to the dual masts of hierarchy and command and control while the ground beneath their feet is roiling and shifting under the pressures of various disruptions. They are caught between Efficiency and Innovation -- the former they understand and are set up for; the latter is a whole new animal that they are unprepared to meet. The table below lists some of the contrasting characteristics:

To survive, organizations have to shift from the left to the right, if not completely then at least enough to reach a median balance. And to do so they need to not only take stock of the organizational culture but also how people learn, interact and connect. This requires enabling people to learn how to learn in the networked world, providing them with the infrastructure and then getting out of their way. Organizations need to become facilitators, communities and platforms for people to explore and express their passion. Today, people are seeking solutions to their challenges--both on the professional and personal front--in various ways: 
  • Asking their networks 
  • Collaborating and participating in online communities 
  • Googling  
  • Taking a MOOC 
  • Sharing 
  • Working out loud 
  • On the job
The concept and practice of employees waiting to be trained before being put on the job is fast disappearing. Even onboarding new employees is becoming a social and experiential learning journey. Employees want to feel a sense of belonging and purpose when they join an organization. Connecting them to relevant communities and groups foster that sense of belonging and lessens isolation and disconnect, especially important for those working remotely, from client locations, from home or elsewhere. Thus, distributed organizations can stay connected via communities and build an identity as well as generate a sense of purpose. To make this change stick, organizations have to enable the process, and this involves adoption of some new skills. 

Networked Learning Characteristics

The onus is not only on organizations but also on individuals. However, for generations brought up on top-down schooling followed by hierarchical organizations with top-down training, networked learning skills don't come naturally. They have to be inculcated and deliberately practised for both organizations and individuals to benefit. The skills can be fostered in various ways, and I have tried to capture a few in the diagram below:

Needless to say, putting any or all of these in place require considerable effort and deep understanding of community building, online facilitation and collaboration skills supported by an organizational culture of openness and trust. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

MOOCs in Workplace Learning - Part 4: Their Role in Corporate Universities

The world has gotten complicated. Organizations are struggling to keep up with the shifts:

  • in technology that are vastly impacting how people work, 
  • in the demography of their workforce which has become culturally diverse, multi-generational, and globally dispersed, 
  • in the nature of work that has moved from complicated to complex and emergent, 
  • and with the general fragmentation and breakdown of all aspects of the known ways of doing things. 
We live in an age of dramatic oxymoron - unemployment is high yet there is a talent shortage. It is no surprise that skills required to meet this changing trends are in woefully short supply. The formal education system still functions as it always did churning out graduates ill-equipped to meet the demands of the current day organizations. The skills shortage looming ahead is alarming to say the least. It's roughly estimated that only "20% of the workers will have the skills needed for 60% of the jobs (mostly because the job haven’t been invented yet) by the end of the decade". 

This infographic of a Deloitte Survey spanning 90 countries look at the talent issues that can threaten organizational effectiveness. "Critical new skills are scarce - and their uneven distribution around the world is forcing companies to develop innovative new ways to find people, develop capabilities, and share expertise" (Ref: And this interactive dashboard lets you explore the trends using different filters and parameters. Leadership, retention, HR skills, and talent acquisition occupy the #1 slot as per the Top Ten Findings of the Global Human Capital Trends 2014 Survey. In the same survey, HR and talent executives graded themselves a C-minus for overall performance, citing a large capability shortfall, with 77% of respondents ranking the need to re-skill HR function among the top quartile of their priorities (Ref: Today, we live in an era where 85% of the value creation stems from brand, intellectual property, and people - all intangible assets. 

To add to this, we will have a workforce largely made up of millennials (those born after 1980) by 2020. Millennials will  soon rule the world: But how will they lead is an incisive article by @Josh_Bersin on the way Gen Y views the world of work, leadership, career progression and learning. They are going to change the nature of organizations and the way work is perceived. And it is time to start equipping them to fulfil their potential. They will expect and demand to learn differently -- social, mobile and cloud will play a big role. Forward looking and thinking organizations will need to / have already stepped in much ahead in the process - way before sourcing and recruitment can happen - to build the requisite skills in the emerging workforce and to keep the existing workforce employable and their skills current. 

While we recognize that the onus has gradually shifted to the employees to keep themselves marketable / employable with updated skills and deep specializations (free agent nation), we also have to be sensitive to the fact that not everyone will know how to go about it. Organizations, in their own interest, will have to step in and create an ecosystem (often perhaps in partnership with academia) to build the workforce for the future. There are many organizations like Infosys which is stepping in at the K-12 and pre K-12 levels to enable youngsters to prepare for the new age skills

None of this information is new. This was just to set the context, a prelude to what this post discusses. This post, as the title says, is about Corporate Universities (CU) and the role of MOOCs therein. My intention was to set the context for why I feel CUs are set to make a comeback. CUs are not new and the most famous is perhaps GE's Crotonville established in 1956. A well-designed Corporate University (I will discuss the design aspect in a sequel to this post) is aptly positioned to tackle both business issues and talent issues. It is time to accept that talent management is a critical business need and a business process; it is not an HR/L&D process. The latter are enablers and ensure the implementation of the process. A CU is in a unique position to understand the immediate as well as the strategic, long-term requirements of an organization. It can help an organization with its capability building at an individual level and provide opportunities for shared vision, systems thinking and team building at a strategic level thus providing the entire gamut from tactical learning to integrated and strategic learning. 

Josh Bersin in the presentation 21st Century Talent Management points out some of the following as imperatives for a holistic talent system (slide #9): 

  • Creating Magnetic Employment Brand 
  • Changing Corporate Culture
  • Rebuilding Management Skills and PM
  • Improving Time to Competency
  • Creating Talent Mobility

Take a look at the presentation for a deeper insight. 

It doesn't take too much of reflection or analysis to see that these were precisely the goals and vision that CUs were set up to meet. CUs were created to meet the unique needs of each organization including their culture, strategy and vision. I am not saying that all orgs need a CU but then maybe some do... A CU will ideally target all aspects of an organization's business development needs including talent acquisition, succession planning, career development, and team building. I will not go into the details of how a CU needs to be formed. There is enough material out there on this. 

I will highlight a few shifts and trends that will likely have an impact on the role of a CU in today's world: 

  1. Capability development and continuous learning will be critical to business success 
  2. Gen Y's will expect to grow rapidly in their career and lead at an early age 
  3. Employer brand and employee engagement have become interchangeable 
  4. HR will have to adopt Analytics in a big way  
  5. Social, mobile, and collaboration will be everything (almost)

As Josh Bersin has said, "Our candidates today are not looking for a career; they are looking for an experience." 

In the past, CUs were seen as an overhead and an administrative burden. However, in today's uber connected, mobile, cloud-based and networked world, a CU can very well reside - at least partially - in the cloud. The physical overheads will still exist, but to a lesser degree and for more focused reasons. In an age of all-time low employee engagement, CUs help organizations to not only create a strong brand presence but also to communicate the org's inherent and deep interest in facilitating continuous learning and growth for the workforce -- strong "pull" factors for today's generation. CUs also help to build strong customer relationships by bringing customer feedback into the programs, and enabling critical skill building like leadership, which is #1 priority for all orgs across all sectors as mentioned above. 

One of the methodologies that IMHO CUs can adopt is MOOCs. I have written about MOOCs in workplace learning here (launching a MOOC), here (designing a MOOC), and here (some points to consider). It is perfectly possible and feasible to tie up with established MOOC providers to design courses specific to the needs of the organization as Tenaris did when it partnered with edX to provide training to its 27,000 employees. "Bank of America partnered with Khan Academy to create, a cobranded MOOC to educate consumers on personal finance. SAP developed the openSAP MOOC platform to educate its ecosystem of developers and partners on SAP technologies" (Ref: 

Not all MOOCs need to be custom-built either. Training and programs related to strategic and operational competencies unique to the organization can be designed in-house while more generic industry and academic specific competencies can be acquired via open MOOCs. Employees can be directed to "open" MOOCs to acquire the relevant certifications. MOOC-providers like Coursera have also started Specialization tracks where a targeted sequence of courses lead to certifications. LinkedIn has tied up with Coursera to facilitate direct publication of these certificates to one's profile. Thus, CUs can benefit by integrating MOOCs into their larger organizational learning strategy. By taking a blended approach with MOOCs as one of the methods, CUs can become more effective in disseminating the necessary programs. Here's an article on the 12 success factors of a CU published in the CLO magazine 10 years back but still relevant. 

MOOCs have the advantage of scalability and the ability to target a large and distributed audience base. The design of MOOCs also foster the building of communities and cohorts. MOOCs can have the following advantages for CUs: 
  • Provide opportunities for subject matter experts to become learning facilitators
  • Reinforce learning through critical social learning conversations and collaboration
  • Expose the entire workforce to a variety of courses thus bridging silos and enabling people to find their interests
  • Enable peer-to-peer collaboration and learning 
  • Personalize learning by connecting it to people’s daily work 
  • Grow a more skilled workforce

Sites like facilitate the creation of MOOCs by various target groups from educational institutions to businesses and non-profits. 

Reference links: 

  1. Spending on Corporate Training Soars: Employee Capabilities Now A Priority
  2. slide #5



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