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.

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