Saturday, June 13, 2015

Workplace Learning in a World "Beyond Automation"

I just finished reading an HBR article by Thomas Davenport and Julia Kirby called Beyond Automation, which is the trigger for this post. With automation, AI and robots looming over the job scene, there seems to be a constant fear of humans losing out to computers and technology. It's akin to one of our childhood sci-fi movies finally becoming a reality - the machines are taking over. The digital disruptors in the shape of Robots, Big Data and Sensors are here. However, this HBR article takes a different view of automation and digitization of work, going beyond the gloom and doom mindset. It posits:
What new feats might people achieve if they had better thinking machines to assist them? Instead of seeing work as a zero-sum game with machines taking an ever greater share, we might see growing possibilities for employment. We could reframe the threat of automation as an opportunity for augmentation.
In another related HBR article with an interesting title, We Should Want Robots to Take Some Jobs, the writer makes a valid point:
In the task-centered economy humans have no value beyond the tasks they perform. Consequently, they are indistinguishable from machines and will be replaced by them for reasons of cost-efficiency as soon as technically feasible. In the human-centered economy on the other hand machines liberate humans from predefined tasks with prestated outcomes. This allows them to exercise the value that emerges from collaborating with other humans on open-ended, creative endeavors. (Highlights mine)
Workplaces will have to become more human-centered and purpose driven if they wish to survive and thrive in the 21st Century. And another telling line from the post emphasizes this point : "In the 21st century, creating meaning and innovating will be democratized through technology."

The key is to remember that the tasks which cannot be automated - the ones that require contextual and human touch - are also the ones that cannot be codified and structured. Increasingly the human workforce will have to take on the unstructured work that requires skills like judgement, decision making, pattern sensing, emotional intelligence, social intelligence, and more. The reality is that any work that can be codified will be automated. The remaining tasks will require individuals who fundamentally think differently about work and learning. The key question we (as L&D/HR) need to think of is how are we going to support workplace learning to build such skills in the workforce? The table below captures the shifts as I see it:

I have been writing about social and collaborative learning, the importance of communities of practices and networked learning skills like building one's PLN and PKM for some time now. The overarching requirement is to develop workers who think for themselves, who can drive their own learning and are not restrained by the norms and processes of the past. Certain skills will become fundamental to thriving in future organizations. Given that the culture of an organization will also play a crucial role in whether employees are enabled and empowered to think and act autonomously, that is a complex topic related to reinventing organizations and their underlying structures. The transformation required are deep and often painful. 

The diagram below by Charles Jennings captures the shift succinctly. The last point in the image is particularly important -- in the past, workers were seen as part of the machine, replaceable cogs whose performance was measured by efficiency. In today's world, workers are co-creators with machines where the latter augment and help individuals to do what we are inherently good at while taking away the repetitive, "codifiable" tasks.  

Unfortunately organizations have been created with efficiency in mind. All the management framework and operational processes have been honed and polished to increase productivity and to bring about standardization. The digital era has suddenly turned everything upside down by bringing in automation and replacing the human cogs and requiring humans to become more "human like" - thinking, feeling, social and collaborative. This massive shift cannot be dealt with at an incremental level and requires a complete re-imagination and transformation of management models and operational processes. That is the topic for another post. 

This post tries to explore how L&D can partner with business to prepare organizations to meet this shift with greater equanimity and success. 

Build communities - Increasingly it is becoming evident that the era of "follow orders and processes" are gone. Unlike what Henry Ford had once said of his employees: “Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?”, it is imperative for today's workers to bring their heads to hearts to work as well. However, complexity and constant emergence, exceptions and novel challenges also mean that individual workers will not be able to solve problems. An individual worker can be efficient; but innovation calls for collaboration, conversation, and cognitive diversity. Inclusive and diverse communities of talented and passionate individuals can do what computers and robots cannot. Communities foster collaboration and cooperation, exchange of diverse perspectives and creation of entirely new knowledge. CoPs lead to an outcome that is greater than the sum of the parts. And L&D must be able to enable such community building within organizations. 

A successful organization today will be an amalgamation of different communities - some of these will be transient forming around projects consisting of multi-disciplinary and cross-functional members. Other communities will be more permanent in nature forming around domains and practices to strengthen thought-leadership and innovation in key areas. L&D's role will be to enable these communities to form, to function effectively and provide sustained value to the members and to the organization.  

Foster meta-learning skills - It is evident from the HBR article that individuals who wish to grow and add value to themselves and to their work need to develop a different set of skills from what worked in the past. The past was driven by fixed knowledge bases, set ways of doing certain things, and a focus on increasing efficiency through task repetition, process improvement, and time management. The future will be driven by learning agility, effectiveness, and process innovation. The big question for L&D/Organization is how can meta-learning skills be fostered? How can workers become self-driven learners? What are the fundamental support required to enable this? IMHO, here are a few things organizations can do to start with:
  • Encourage "working out loud" - Put in place an Enterprise Social Network (ESN), provide community management support, and make openness the default behavior of senior leaders.  
  • Help individuals to extract learning from work - We know that most of workplace learning is experiential, happening on the job while in the process of solving a novel challenge or when creating a new design or managing a particularly "difficult" client. There are two ways to approach the work. There will be employees who will do what needs to be done to complete the work and then move on to something else. Then, there are those who do what needs to be done and take some time to reflect/analyse the learning gleaned from this. The latter are extracting learning from their work and thus building stronger neural pathways to tackle similar challenges in the future. L&D needs to facilitate this for organizations to continually learn. Managers and mentors can give feedback, encourage introspection, and show how sharing in a common forum can help in extracting and codifying the learning. 
  • Provide cross-functional exposure - L&D can recommend and support business in defining learning paths that will enable individuals to work across different functions on stretch assignments. Not only will this ensure that an organization has employees with a holistic view of how the business operates but also provide the diversity much-needed to build pattern sensing and critical thinking skills. It is now well-known that often the best solutions to crowd-sourced problems come from individuals who are far removed from the specific domain of the challenge.  
  • Create space for social learning -  While we know that all learning is social and individuals learn from each other, from experiences, from the environment and the ecosystem, creating a space dedicated to collaborating and co-operating with one's peers can help to build greater confidence in those still tentative about social learning. This will also mean an L&D team well-versed in the various aspects of building one's personal learning networks (PLNs). They will need to actively help the workforce build the required skills well-articulated in the PKM framework developed by Harold Jarche. 
Prepare for future "unknown" skills - This is a tricky one that most organizations steer clear of. There isn't any direct pathway that tell us what will be the core skills needed for the organization to survive 5 years from now. However, a little bit of research tells us that many a promising and thriving org vanished into oblivion because they failed to see what the future held. With organizational lifespan rapidly shrinking (down to 15 years from an average of 75 earlier), preparing to meet the future before it gets us is perhaps the smartest move. But how? The onus is on the organization, on L&D and on each individual to stay on the cutting edge of their domain, follow the digital and technical transformations taking place and evaluate their collective impact. Look at how the newspaper industry has transformed or the film industry for that matter. Kodak failed to see what was coming and went down ignominiously. No one can sit on their laurels and bask in past glory any more. The future can be bright or brutal depending on how we prepare to meet it. L&D and the business have the responsibility to maintain an ongoing research in their domain of operation on the skills they need to develop to grow the domain, the community and to create ongoing value. 

Develop a "growth mindset" - Today more than ever before, organizations need individuals with a growth mindset and flexible expertise. Dr. Carol Dweck eloquently writes about what growth mindset can achieve in her book, Mindset - The New Psychology of Success. According to her, growth of individuals - be they corporate leaders or sports-persons - can be largely attributed to a growth mindset. She cites examples from diverse fields to show how those with a fixed mindset eventually brought about not only their own downfall but also that of the organization they were leading or the team they were a part of. In this age of automation, one of the make or break skills/abilities could be developing a growth mindset. Without an ability to constantly introspect and learn, we will gradually become irrelevant with outdated skills and ways of working. L&D and business need to be constantly vigilant. An organization's culture can impact mindset. A repressive leader can kill passion and a desire to learn. A closed, ego-driven culture can foster a fixed mindset. I highly recommend the book for a through understanding of how to develop a growth mindset in individuals, in oneself and in the organization one serves. 

How is this linked to human work being augmented by machines?
It is closely related. Without the ability to self-direct one's learning and keep pace with change, we will run the risk of remaining tied to past skills and doing well those tasks that can be done more efficiently by machines. A growth mindset and learning agility ensure that we are able to course-correct and keep developing skills that can be augmented by a machine but not completely automated. The same HBR article referenced above talks of 5 ways that an individual can build and develop deeper skills in their domain. For a detailed understanding, do read the article. For a quick reference, I have inserted the diagram below. 

Some fields undergoing rapid development are healthcare, retail, telecom, manufacturing, and BFSI. The digital revolution will eventually embrace all aspects of business irrespective of domain. The dichotomy is that while we are scared of losing our current jobs to computers, we are not equipped to fulfill the potentials and promises that a digital era heralds across industries. Organizations have to be prepared
 to let go of what made them successful in the Industrial era to build the framework for success in the future. There is a serious dearth of skilled workers in all domains. How do we tackle this dilemma? And training is not the answer. The solution has to be holistic enough to let the employee learn in the natural course of his/her work and strengthen that learning through ongoing collaboration and social participation. 

There is much to do and much to think about...this is but a start. 

Monday, June 1, 2015

L&D's Role in a Purpose Driven Workplace

This post is inspired by last week's #ihrchat on Twitter hosted by Dr. Tanvi Gautam and supported by Team #ihrchat. The chat was full of insights and learning, as always. Flood of tweets poured in with inputs and suggestions on this thought-provoking topic - Reinventing HR for a Purpose Driven Workplace (PDW). And the trigger for this post was the question: How will learning & development shift in a PDW ?

I have been writing about the shifts required by L&D to meet the connected and collaborative knowledge economy for some time now. Here are links to some of the earlier posts:

One of the running themes across these posts have been about organizational change and how L&D will deal with the trends and shifts impacting us today. The diagram below illustrates the key trends:

The new generation of the workforce, today's employees, want much more from work than just a pay check. And we have to acknowledge and respect that. They are focused on the three qualities of work defined by Daniel Pink in Drive: AutonomyMastery and Purpose. They want to work for organizations with a Purpose. They want to know the Why  and not only the What or the HowSimon Sinek expresses this brilliantly in his popular TED talk: How Great Leaders Inspire Action:
But very, very few people or organizations know why they do what they do. And by "why" I don't mean "to make a profit." That's a result. It's always a result. By "why," I mean: What's your purpose? What's your cause? What's your belief? Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care?
Employees today want to be part of a community where the work and the workplace will be an extension of themselves, their passion and vision. One of the criteria today's workforce look for is a vision large enough to inspire participation. I am reminded of Abhijit Bhaduri's post on Talent Communities in relation to this post. Talent usually congregates around a purpose and talent also acts like a magnet for other talented, passionate individuals. An organization with a defined purpose and vision is thus likely to become a community growing around a domain. Take the Linux community for example. Take organizations like Google, Apple or Zappos. They have a defined vision that drives everything they do and every decision they take giving employees something bigger than themselves to strive toward as well as a sense of pride in belonging. Aaron Hurst in his latest book, The Purpose Economy, says:
Like the information economy, which has driven innovation and economic growth until now, Hurst argues that our new economic era is driven by connecting people to their purpose, “It’s an economy where value lies in establishing purpose for employees and customers—through serving needs greater than their own, enabling personal growth and building community.” (Italics mine -
Assuming we have such Purpose Driven Workplaces (PDW) what would be L&D role here? What would be the defining characteristics of such an L&D? What would they do differently?

Re-thinking L&D in a Purpose Driven Workplace?

So far, the role of L&D has been to define programs and training based on past data - identified skills gaps, best practices and established processes, explicit knowledge residing in experts or documented processes. Individuals are selected or nominated to attend "requisite" training and get back to work and be efficient. The training hours per individual seemed like a good enough matrix. We know how obsolete and redundant that matrix is in today's context. And it is definitely obsolete in the context of a PDW. 

Words like creativityimaginationvisionpersistence, etc., come up when we mention purposeIt is evident that a purpose driven workplace with passionate and engaged employees will require an entirely different breed of L&D. To start with, L&D needs to be integrated with business. Passionate, purpose-driven individuals do not need hand-holding and a checklist of training thrust at them to develop skills they require. They do not need stringent monitoring and managing. They take ownership of their learning and work because they don't perceive these as distinct from each other or from themselves. They are working because they believe in what they do and are proud to be a part of something bigger then themselves. For them, work becomes learning. Such a workplace will require L&D who not only understands business imperatives but will also be community builders and facilitators, connectors and enablers. 

IMHO, a PDW is: 
"A community of engaged and passionate individuals working and collaborating towards a common cause, stretching themselves to achieve what often may seem impossible, viewing failures as learning and using the possibilities of a networked organization to the fullest."

A PDW cannot operate in a wholly hierarchical, command and control manner. The more I think, I feel that a PDW has to have the characteristics of a social business. A social business that operates on the principles of trust, self-organization, autonomy to solve problems and collaboration forms an ideal basis for a purpose driven organization. In such an organization, L&D needs to become community managers and connectors. The need is not to train people but to facilitate connection between the right individuals, and enabling the network that exist in all organizations. The presence of an Enterprise Social Network (ESN) can be a benefit in a PDW. L&D's task would be to:
  1. Help the organization to use the platform to listen to different inputs - from business, from front-line employees and from customers
  2. Help people build communities around projects, domains and areas of interest
  3. Foster 21st Century skills that will help them to optimally participate in the network
  4. Surface diverse thoughts and ideas being shared; curate relevant content
  5. Build community management skills in others 
In summary, L&D role will shift from:

  • Designing training programs to facilitating communities 
  • Developing skills based on past analysis to fostering 21st Century skills 
  • Measuring number of training hours per employee to evaluating community engagement

P.S.: The diagram below captures the skills people in a purpose driven workforce will need:

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

7 Strategies to Facilitate "Working Out Loud"

I spent the greater part of the weekend mulling over the practice of working out loud, what makes some folks adopt the habit with ease while others struggle, and what could be some of the possible enabling factors that support working out loud. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that it is one of the fundamental blocks of building a community of practice. A community grows around a domain where practitioners share their insights, knowledge and doubts, the work processes. A community grows through conversation, collaboration, and showcasing of work in progress. Community members learn together, share feedback, take onus of building the domain. Explicit and tacit knowledge gets shared. Take Linux or the GitHub community for example. Talented coders and developers come together to learn, share and co-create. The more evolved and engaged a community is, the more it acts like a "talent magnet". Even as I was mulling over and revisiting my old posts on the importance of communities, serendipity struck. I came across this post by +Abhijit Bhaduri - Talent Communities Must Go Beyond Hiring. Organizations like Google and Apple have become such talent communities attracting the best of the best in their areas of expertise. 

Today, most organizations are caught between the crossroads of traditional training (top down sessions, expert created content, L&D owned programs) and the modern workplace learning practices reflective of networked learning, collaboration and cooperation, user-generated content, ongoing conversation and debate, open feedback and transparent sharing. If we critically examine the characteristics of networked learning, it becomes evident that these are also qualities that foster and enable communities to thrive which in turn pull creative, passionate individuals to the workforce. As Bhaduri points out in his post, communities have always attracted talent. The spirit that drew writers and thinkers to the smoke filled iconic Coffee House of Kolkata is the same spirit that draws people together in communities. 

The fundamental characteristics of individuals who formed these communities were their willingness to share their thoughts, view their ideas, express half-baked opinions and begin conversations - in short, working out loud or "showing their work". This begs the question - how does one inculcate the habit of working out loud and inspire the passion so that people will want to continue doing so. I blogged about Getting Started with Working Out Loud. In this post, I want to focus on the support and environment needed to get people started. I am going to continue using the Coffee House analogy here and there.

What Makes Working Out Loud Easy

1. Safe environment - How comfortable do people feel sharing their doubts and half-baked ideas? Is there fear of ridicule? Given that the organization culture encourages sharing and transparency, it still takes some effort to create a community space that is safe. This is where a community manager can be indispensable. S/he can be a coach and mentor helping people to get started with working out loud, keep the community space free of trolls, and connect individuals to each other and to relevant content/discussions/groups. When individuals see others (especially those in positions of authority and leadership) revealing their vulnerabilities and fears, a safe place is automatically created. It encourages deep conversations, honest feedback and authentic support.

2. Inspirational role models - There are always a few early adopters and trend setters. These individuals are not scared to take a leap and start something new, no matter how silly it may seem to others. They are not afraid to seem weird. However, typically this forms a small percentage of any employee base. The majority prefer to wait and watch before jumping onto the bandwagon. They wait for approvals. The latter need strong role models whose behaviour they can emulate, whose successes and failures are out there for all to see. Each organization will need to find a handful of such people who will demonstrate the habit of working out loud fearlessly for others to follow, who will be the champions. If these happen to be from the senior management, so much the better. 

3. Meaningful conversations - Most often, organizational learning gets locked up as a conversation between 2 or 3 people in their inboxes. When these individuals leave their organizations, they walk away with their tacit knowledge. Their inbox is deleted. The exchanges are lost. The same conversation practised in the open not only invite wider participation, diverse thinking and contribution but is also of immense benefit to others. The organizational hive mind gets captured, context is built and conversation takes place. We all know that true learning takes place through dialogues. 

4. Easy entry and participation - In Coffee House, participation amounts to pulling up a chair at the table of choice, ordering chai and perhaps the ubiquitous cutlet to accompany the discussion. Some folks at the table would know you and some wouldn't. Introductions get casually made. What matters is the participation and the contribution. In the online world, this ease can be created by a community space or platform that is easy to access, like Twitter or Yammer. Some help from a community manager in the case of an enterprise community is helpful. Organizations looking to inculcate the practice of working out loud in their employees will need to provide the support, perhaps with L&D acting as facilitators

5. Beyond information sharing - "Working out loud" is not about sharing information. That can be better achieved via reports, datasheets, and meetings. It is about providing the context to the information, the exceptions to the processes, the failed attempts and successes. It's about sharing "how" one arrived at the outcome, not only the "what". When the moving parts, the complexities and the exceptions are openly discussed, conversation automatically happens. People get an opportunity to chime in with their opinions, experiences and solutions thus leading to innovation, co-creation of new knowledge and a better informed community. This kind of sharing is generative leading to improved organizational know-how. 

6. Thinking cooperation - One of the objectives of working out loud is to share our work in progress, show the "how" we do it rather than only the what, and expose the processes behind the outcome. However, we expect and seek responses to what we share. The reality is this may not always happen, and at least not instantaneously. Jeff Merrell makes a very valid point in his post Working Out Loud Lesson: Ignore the Network:
"We write with the full expectation that the network will respond. That’s supposed to be the value of the network, right? It gives us something when we give it something.But I’ve just found that the network is fickle. And I am ok with that.By definition, serendipity happens by chance. If it were predictable it would be no fun."
That is the crux. It is easy to lose motivation when no one responds. However, we never know when serendipity will take place. It is about being consistent, about showing up and sharing. Apart from anything, working out loud is a valuable self-reflection and learning tool. And cooperation is the key. 

7. WOL is a Mindset, an Attitude - Working out loud is not dependent on an individual's savviness with various social sharing platforms. It's a mindset. We can all remember classmates who willingly shared how they had worked out a math problem and those who wouldn't. WOl comes from the same attitude of sharing with the intent of helping others learn from what I know and the mistakes I've made. As Nigel Young aptly writes in his post, When Working Out Loud isn't Really WOL:
WOL…is a practice and I do this in the office, on my whiteboard, in the collaborative tools I use and even when I speak (I've been known to form new ideas, change them and take new directions whilst actively involved in conversation).  This comes partly back to my previous point that WOL is an attitude and partly down to the fact that the media for sharing and collaboratively working is less important than the action.  
Finally, here is a check-list from Austin Kleon from Show Your Work:

Friday, May 22, 2015

Working Out Loud 101 | Some Thoughts

My posts are usually pretty detailed, researched, and long. I am trying to move to a mode where I'll write shorter posts more regularly on specific topics, questions posed to me, or an aspect of modern workplace learning that interests me. I will keep my longer posts for topics I am researching on and deep diving into. These will probably be one per fortnight or so... 

Today's post is triggered by a question a colleague asked me yesterday. I happened to mention "working out loud" as a practice that is fundamental to social and collaborative learning, and drew a completely blank stare. While "social learning" as a phrase, concept and strategy is fairly well-known by now, the concept of "working out loud" hasn't yet garnered that level of popularity. It is still restricted to a community of folks interested in Personal Learning Networks and Personal Knowledge Management, followers of blogs by Harold Jarche, Jane Hart, John Stepper and such.

When my comment drew that blank stare, I thought it would be a worthwhile topic for a short blog post. It's part of spreading the word about the benefits of "working out loud". I realized we take a number of pre-codified behaviours and mindset for granted when practising "working out loud". I have tried to demystify them and put these into simple steps. 

I think John Stepper's description of "working out loud" is still the best:
“Working Out Loud starts with making your work visible in such a way that it might help others. When you do that – when you work in a more open, connected way – you can build a purposeful network that makes you more effective and provides access to more opportunities.”
Here's a nice comic strip style graphic illustrating the 5 key elements of "working out loud". I am not sure who has created it and hence couldn't give the right credits:

The elements of "working out loud" need to be broken down into implementable steps to help someone get started with actually putting it into practise. I am typically confronted with the following questions when I tell someone that they should start "working out loud"...I have inserted my responses below each question. I have tried to keep them concise.

  • What do I share?

Share a snippet from the day's work that captures a learning, a mistake made, or insight gleaned. Sharing of roadblocks are also very useful as these help others avoid mistakes we've made. Process sharing provides deeper insight into how a task is done. Keep it brief and simple. The diagram below is a good summary of why one should practise working out loud and what are the likely benefits of this habit. 

  • How do I share? 

Sharing  can be done in multiple ways. You can tweet or blog, record a podcast or a video depending on what you are sharing, draw a visual sketchnote, put up an image, and whatever other creative means occur to you. Each platform has its own efficacy and caters to certain content types. Blogs work for more reflective pieces where the learning is complex. Tweets are better when sharing specific learning bytes or insights. Images, graphics, charts can be uploaded on Pinterest to show a process or a sequence of steps. Videos are good for interviews, thought bytes, and such. 

The graphic by Jane Hart illustrates some of the different tools/platforms to use to "work out loud":

  • When would I do this? 

If you can't share while in the flow of work, taking 10~15 mins at the end of the day to quickly share a snippet will enforce a habit of reflection, synthesis and evaluation -- all very handy personal learning skills. It is important to initially set aside some time each day to evaluate and articulate one's learning till it becomes a habit. 

  • Where do I share? 

If you work for an organization that has an enterprise collaboration platform in place, you could use this platform to share your learning with your colleagues and peers. Otherwise, you can use any platform like Twitter your blog, Pinterest, YouTube, etc. The medium you use will also drive the choice of platform. Once you are comfortable sharing, you can use multiple platforms.

  • Who will read what I share? 

Initially, may be very few people. However, as one shares consistently and purposefully, you can see a gradual rise in readership and interaction. As more and more people find what is being shared useful, they will pitch in with their thoughts and comments. This heralds the beginning of a Personal Learning Network (PLN). 

  • What if no one reads? How is it still useful?

Yes, sharing snippets of one's learning and insights on a daily basis or as regularly as possible is very useful even if no one reads it. It hones critical skills like reflection, pattern sensing and synthesis, provides insights into our own working process and helps us to improve it. It is a very powerful learning tool. Dion Hinchcliffe said in a Tweet:
Working Out Loud is a reflective practice. Is a practice to help ‘learn how to learn’. @simongterry HT @observadorDG

  • What will people think if I share my mistakes?

We are most often held back by our fears of what others will think, fear of being vulnerable. In reality, it is our sharing of doubts and mistakes, asking of questions and admission of not knowing everything that connects people. It not only opens up pathways to collaborative learning but also creates a safe space for others to come forward with their own doubts. People admire those who can be open about their weaknesses. 

Here's a very lucid and concise post by John Stepper on The 5 Elements of Working Out Loud. "Working out loud" has been listed as one of the most important digital workforce skills by Dion Hinchcliffe as shown in the diagram below: 

This is how he describes it in the post:
Working out loud allows one to let the network do the work (see below) and breaks down the silos that have rebuilt up with virtual workplaces and today’s far-flung multinational teams. Perhaps most importantly however is that is the key to unleashing agility using digital networks as it automatically collects institutional knowledge and critical methods, makes on-boarding new employees much easier, and frees up your knowledge to work for the organization continuously while still ensuring your contribution is recognized.
 I hope we can fearlessly work out loud to learn, share and build our PLNs. 

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:



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