Thursday, January 29, 2015

Personal Learning Networks: Learning in a Connected World

I have recently joined the open section of #MSLOC 430 - a graduate course in the Master's Program in Learning and Organizational Change at Northwestern University. This is the first week and I am absolutely looking forward to exploring the topics, learning from the other participants and participating in exciting conversations. The four topics we are planning to deep dive into in the first two weeks are: a) Networked learning, b) Personal Learning Networks, c) MOOCs, and d) Communities of Inquiry.

These are all areas of interest for me, and my hope and plan is to find (make) sufficient time to explore each of these in depth. Given that I have been writing about PLNs and MOOCs for some time now, I thought I would delve a bit deeper into the importance of building PLNs in this post. I have written about the impact of various shifts and trends like globalization, work fragmentation, ubiquitous network and access to the mobile web, social media, and the economy of individuals on the way we work and learn in the following posts: Re-imagining Work and Learning in a Networked World, Working out Loud and Serendipity and The Changing Face of Work and Workplace Learning. Here's a list of related posts on learning in a networked world

The world of work, and life in general, is transforming due to profound shifts in various areas.
These shifts have far-reaching implications on all aspects of our life. The focus of this post is to highlight how they impact work and careers, and why is it more important than ever before to intentionally build a PLN. 

In today’s model of a global organization, teams are often scattered, employees work onsite or from home, road warriors are always “on the road”—in short, the concept of teams working shoulder to shoulder every day, literally and metaphorically standing by each other, talking over problems and challenges at their desks are slowly being replaced by virtual teams who interact via social tools and platforms, use Webex for meetings, get into teleconferences to talk over issues and update each other via enterprise social networks, emails and WhatsApp. Add to this, the rise of the individual worker (employees on contract, working from home, holding a second job, project-based workers, etc.) working from anywhere - home, cafeteria, library, where you will...and we can see the need for the individual to take ownership of their professional development. The rise of the economy of individuals and on-demand economy is here...

Work is becoming location agnostic. It is no longer necessary to come to office. Ubiquitous connectivity, mobile devices and social platforms ensure that work can happen from anywhere. Distributed and dispersed teams are coming together for projects, and disbanding once the task is accomplished. While the need for permanent employees and a dedicated workforce will still continue, the shift is evident. Some of the critical impact of the shift are highlighted below:

One of the outcomes of this impact is a need for employees to take charge of their own professional development. Those with cutting edge skills in their core areas of expertise will continue to see demand for their work while others waiting for orgs to re-skill them might just run the risk of becoming irrelevant. One of the ways to keep on top of our game, and remain on the cutting edge of relevant skills and knowledge is to be a part of communities of practices and to focus on building and maintaining our PLNs with a deliberate intention to learn, share and collaborate. The ubiquitously connected world and the phenomenal rise of mobile devices are going to impact and disrupt how we drive our professional development. The diagram illustrates some of the possible approaches to creating our PLN within an organization.

Why is building a PLN so critical, especially today?

Learning networks are based on the theory of Connectivism, or learning from diverse social webs. Connectivism, the theory underpinning how we learn and interact in the networked era, implies that learning relies on communicating ideas and having meaningful interactions. A PLN is an enabler of such learning. A PLN can be seen as one's gateway to continuous learning, exchange of thoughts and ideas, validation of one's thoughts and insights on challenges encountered, and an involvement in the process of continuous inquiry and exploration on topics that matter. In today's context of rapid change, unexpected challenges, and complex scenarios, it is not possible for an organization to provide training for every conceivable skill that may be required in the future. Moreover, since a large part of the skills and knowledge required to handle tasks and problems today are emergent, the possibility of training gets ruled out. Training is essentially past focused preparing workers for known skills and bridging known knowledge gaps to meet known and defined goals. What happens when the knowns become unknowns? What happens when speed and innovation are the keys to success? 

There are quite a few models and frameworks for how we can go about building our PLNs. I have referenced some of the ones I use here:

+Harold Jarche 's Seek - Sense - Share model

An elaboration of the above model by +Jane Hart showing the tools and platforms used during each stage of the process:

Here are some tips from Howard Rheingold on building PLNs:

And one more with examples of social platforms and tools from Joyce Seitzinger:

An analysis of the diagrams above reveal that there are primarily 5 steps in the entire PLN building process - Explore, Collect, Review, Re-create, Share. I would also like to emphasize that PLN is intricately linked to one's personal knowledge management (PKM) capabilities. The former wouldn't make sense without the latter. 

With complexity, chaos and flux taking over and becoming the norm, we can expect codified knowledge stocks to have very short shelf-lives. A constant state of flux is giving rise to ambiguity, uncertainties and volatility — the characteristics of a VUCA world. We have moved from an age of best practices to emerging practices and no one can be intelligent on their own any more. In this kind of a scenario, learning and sense-making happen through reflection, dialogue and direct application to test hypothesis. 

Trying to make sense of a complex situation alone is the equivalent of six blind men trying to comprehend the characteristics of an elephant. This is where an individual's PLN becomes important, and the more diverse it is the better. Diverse here implies cognitive diversity -- arising from different world-views, cultural perspectives, varied educational background, and possessing different problem-solving frameworks and heuristics. A PLN of diverse individuals not only helps to hold up widely different viewpoints on the same challenge but also broadens and deepens one's learning. Diversity of thoughts and ideas are the best precursors to innovative and creative solutions. PLNs typically consist of strong and weak ties. Exchanging of deep and tacit knowledge, i.e., knowledge which is not codified and where learning happens through the process of dialogue and reciprocity typically work with strong ties. Weak ties bring in the much needed variety of thoughts and opinions. One's PLN should ideally consist of a mix of strong and weak ties to maintain a balance. 

Creating and maintaining a learning network has huge possibilities with mobile and social becoming a way of life in a highly networked and ubiquitously connected world. We no longer need to wait for that conference or that special workshop to meet like-minded folks. We can find them and connect with them on Twitter, LinkedIn, Quora, Pinterest... Each platform has its unique strengths and can be used accordingly. It requires some hands-on exploration to understand the platforms. We need a new set of skills

Building one's PLN in the online world requires skills like networking, participating in communities of practices, collaborating online, and curation and aggregation to process the information. While developing the skills do take some effort and persistence, the benefits are tremendous and provide the necessary motivation. The diagram below illustrates how one can go about building one's PLN on Twitter. However, the most important point to remember is that social learning and collaboration is a mindset, an attitude and not just a set of tools. The tools and platforms are facilitators and knowing how to use them is important. But it is out attitude that makes interacting with our PLNs fruitful and satisfying.
While it seems to be a series of steps, it does require engagement, reflection and effort. It is also a state of mind. IMHO, people with a growth mindset are likely to invest time and effort in building and maintaining a PLN because they believe that there is always an opportunity to learn more, to improve and explore. Thus, they will very likely reach out to their network with queries, go to reference links and read what people are sharing, and then apply the learning back to their work. 

Characteristics of a PLN

Everyone's network looks different. Everyone connects with those they can learn from, trust and respect. A PLN is a location and time agnostic community for exchange of thoughts and ideas in a safe environment. A PLN is accessible all the time. We can post a question on twitter or any other social networking tools, and be assured of a response. In this collaborative economy, sharing is a much valued trait and one of the pillars in building a PLN. One cannot hope to receive without giving first. Networks have a profound impact on how we learn. Establishing credibility with one's network is essential. Credibility arises out of constancy in sharing useful content, interacting respectfully, valuing and expressing gratitude for help received, reaching out and helping others pro-actively, and not being afraid to be vulnerable. It's absolutely OK to say, "I don't know! Can someone help me with this?" But remember to pass along the help. In a PLN, everyone is a contributor, learner as well as a teacher. By connecting with diverse individuals, we can build a broad and deep support system of colleagues, mentors and coaches. PLN is a two-way street, and collaboration and cooperation drive its spirit. As Maya Angelou said:
"I've learned that you shouldn't go through life with a catcher's mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back."

Monday, January 26, 2015

MOOCs in Workplace Learning - Part 2: Designing a MOOC

@ignatia (Inge de Waard) describes MOOCs thus in her Master’s Thesis, which I have referred to: 
“MOOC is above all referring to a pedagogical model with independent learners, access to information, opportunity to create emerging, spontaneous, yet not directed learning communities, etcetera. As such the term MOOC can be seen as a new educational term.” ~Analyzing the Impact of Mobile Access on Learner Interaction in a MOOC.
Corporate Learning will be transformed and will take on more importance wrote Josh Bersin in his HR predictions for 2015. Job fragmentation, task specialization, globalization, economy of individuals, and a global talent pool are all impacting the job economy. Jobs and roles are rapidly evolving with new ones emerging, and old ones getting automated or vanishing altogether. All of these are putting organizations and individuals in a tough spot. While the onus of continuous professional development is gradually shifting to the employees, there is an increasing dearth of skills required to successfully run today’s organizations – from skills like leadership for a networked age to understanding analytics and its impact on various organizational functions. There is an urgent need to re-imagine workplace learning for the networked world.

Organizations can no longer hope to recruit experienced people and expect they will have the necessary skills. The new age of work requires novel and emergent skills, people with learning agility, and organizations that will enable and empower their employees. Thus, along with coaching and mentoring, there is a growing requirement for organizations to build and facilitate an environment of continuous learning. The technological affordances of social and mobile add to the ability to provide an ecosystem of continuous and pervasive learning. In the context of this need for continuous learning, MOOCs can play a critical role. Organizations are beginning to realize this and are seeking to shift their learning strategy to more fluid and dynamic methodologies like MOOCs, social and informal learning. In this post, I have explored some of the ways that corporate MOOCs can enable and foster ongoing learning and the building of personal learning networks (PLNs) in organizations.

The MOOC format provides scope for bringing together diverse learning forms – formal, informal and social, and different modalities – elearning modules, videos, podcasts, book excerpts, articles, and links to blogs, communities, etc. Dialogue is an important aspect of learning and the MOOCs support conversation. Moreover, providing MOOCs on mobile devices further augments interaction and networking thus increasing the participation level. MOOCs can enable learners to learn whenever there is a need by facilitating seamless switching between formal and informal modes, and social or individual learning.  MOOCs may possibly herald a more agile and mobile working & learning methods, global collaboration and a changing relationship with knowledge. It’s a fundamental shift in the ways we interact with data, with knowledge, with people.

“Creating support for optimized individual learning (such as creating personal learning environments) is as important as collaborative learning and peer-to-peer learning in this networked world. A factor affecting personal learning, mentioned in MOOCs for example, is coping with the abundance of information. Coping with content and lots of information is a part of seamless learning because the capacity to do so affects effective learning.”
The characteristics of seamless learning described by Wong and Looi in the MSL (mobile assisted seamless learning) framework quoted in the same article appositely describe MOOCs. These are: 
  1. MSL 1): Encompassing formal and informal learning 
  2. (MSL 2): Encompassing personal and social learning 
  3. (MSL 3): Across time 
  4. (MSL 4): Across locations 
  5. (MSL 5): Ubiquitous access to learning resources 
  6. (MSL 6): Encompassing physical and digital worlds 
  7. (MSL 7): Combined use of multiple device types (tech) 
  8. (MSL 8): Seamless switching between multiple learning tasks 
  9. (MSL 9): Knowledge synthesis (prior knowledge, new knowledge, multidisciplinary learning) 
  10. (MSL 10): Encompassing multiple pedagogical or learning-activity models (facilitated by teachers) 
“According to Vygotsky (Nassaji & Swain, 2000), knowledge is social in nature and is constructed through a process of collaboration, interaction and communication among learners in social settings.”
I have written about what defines a corporate MOOC in Part 1 of this post. In this post, I will focus on some of the design considerations and organizational requirement in building and launching a MOOC. Just to set the context, corporate MOOCs can serve different purposes some of which are listed below: 
  1. On-board new employees 
  2. Self-directed development 
  3. Build talent pipeline 
  4. Workplace and on-the-job training 
  5. Brand marketing 
  6. Collaboration and innovation 
  7. Train channel partners and customers
While creating MOOCs for each of the goals above require different design decisions and approaches, there are some fundamental requirements that are common to all types of MOOCs. I will briefly touch upon each of those in the post here.
“…ubiquity and pervasiveness are essential requirements to support formal and informal learning and to allow all learning community members, from a variety of locations, to cooperate with each other by means of a large variety of technology-enhanced equipment.”
IMHO, the following design principles need to be kept in mind when designing a MOOC:

Micro-learning principles: I have written about this here: From Micro-Learning to Corporate MOOCs and Micro-Learning: Its role in formal, informal and incidental learning. No component of a MOOC should ideally exceed more than 10~15 mins to consume. Given that today, a MOOC participant is likely to access it from a mobile device, the design must consider learner behavior when using a mobile. Research says that while a user will check a mobile device upto 150 times a day, they will do so for short durations.

Social learning principles: One of the key components of a MOOC is the ability to discuss and collaborate with fellow participants. MOOCs also provide opportunities for peer-feedback and group projects. These social learning components are not only good to have but also essential in today’s world of increasing complexity, need for speed and agile learning. It’s become imperative for organizations to enable collaborative learning if they wish to survive in the face of rapid change.

“Pull” learning: Participation in a MOOC cannot be mandated; it needs to be facilitated. Employees will come if they find the content relevant, the discussions meaningful, and the communities engaging. These require adept facilitation, good design and effective content creation and curation. Moreover, participants need to have the freedom to drive their own learning – by using both formal learning pathways as well as the informal components.

Constructivist Learning Theory: In constructivist learning, learners “create” their own meaning through interaction in context (situated learning). MOOCs, by supporting collaborative and cooperative learning, use constructivist theory as the underlying design. Participants learn as much from one another as from the content.  
“…there is a shift toward constructive learning, in which learners are given the opportunity to construct their own meaning from the information presented during the online sessions.” Ally (2008)
Connectivist Theory: According to Siemens (2004), Connectivist Theory is for the digital age, where individuals learn and work in a networked environment. This is the defining theory behind how a MOOC is designed. The original MOOC (in 2008) was designed to illustrate this theory in practice—how learning happens in a connected and networked world with ubiquitous access to the learning device (mobile devices), the content and the communities (via social platforms). Thus, a MOOC takes advantage of the affordances of the social, mobile and networked nature of today’s participants.
I have replicated the diagram from Foundations of Educational Theory for Online Learning to show the different learner interactions points in a MOOC. MOOCs by their nature make learning broader and deeper: broader by extending the learning experience beyond fixed content and deeper by providing opportunities for further research, dialogue and user contribution.

A MOOC has the following core components: 


  • Custom built – The base content of a MOOC can consist of custom-designed content as required by the org and the purpose of the program. To reiterate, whether it’s a video or an e-learning module, the design should ideally follow micro-learning principles. Today’s employees will mostly access the MOOC components from their mobile devices while on the go or during a lull at work or when they feel the need to refer to something. They will want the information to be easily accessible and presented in a manner that lends itself to quick assimilation. 
  • Curated – In this era of information abundance, not all content needs to be created from scratch. It is perfectly possible to curate content from the web with the help of a subject matter expert (SME). It is important to check for IPR and creative commons license, and in some cases, permission from the original content creator may need to be sought. In most cases, content on the open web are free to use for reference. 
  • User-generated – The beauty of a MOOC lies in its fluidity and open endedness. A MOOC is launched with some pre-defined content but evolves with every addition of user-generated content. This shared content creation is a powerful learning tool and is what adds value to a MOOC. 

Discussion Space & Facilitators 

  • This is the heart and spirit of a MOOC. The discussions, if energizing and inspiring, will spill over outside the limit of the MOOC platform into coffee hours, lunch conversations, twitter, and other offline and online spaces. To build a thriving discussion around a topic, it is important to have experienced community facilitators, clear guidelines, and thoughtful conversation triggers – questions, observations, excerpts from the course, personal experience related to the topic – anything that will stimulate discussions. 

Synchronous Learning through Video Lectures 

  • Imagine the potential impact of such lectures should holographic technology enter the scene. Refer to this article on Potential and Applications of Holograms to Engage Learners. Otherwise also, learners can join lectures / video sessions at the pre-determined time and get a chance to hear an SME (subject matter expert) explain a concept, process or idea.  Such synchronous learning moments energize those learners who want and need some direct guidance even as they make the shift from directed to self-directed learning. 

Participants and Communities 

  • A MOOC is only as good as the participants. Without collaborative participation, a MOOC is just another course. Hence, it is critical for an organization to foster an open culture that promote collaboration, sharing and learning from one another. The MOOC itself – if well designed – can push the learner to engage in self-driven and authentic learning activities. It must encompass personal and social learning along with its formal components. 

Program Outline and Objectives 

  • MOOCs typically provide an overview of the program along with an outline, a recommended learning path, and objectives. While it is not mandatory for participants to follow one single path, it helps to anchor those who are new to the MOOC way of learning. 

User Guide 

  • There is likely to be a significant number of individuals who have not taken a MOOC earlier and may struggle to figure out how it works. A user participation guide along with what to expect as the course evolves, how to go about building one’s PLN, and some fundamentals of social learning will make it easy for those new to this learning format. 

Mobile Accessibility 

  • Research shows that learner interactions are enhanced by enabling mobile access to MOOCs. Since dialogues and networking are integral to MOOCs, mobile access strengthen these by increasing the opportunities to effortlessly engage in such interactions without the constraints of time and location. Making a MOOC mobile compatible helps frequent dialogues with colleagues and peers, retrieval of information at the point of need, quick addition of content by the users, documentation of personal experiences through various means – videos, photographs, podcasts, micro-blogs, etc. – and sharing of the same with the learner community. These varied communication and collaboration methods enhance learning in context. Thus mobile access enables continuity between the contexts of formal and informal learning. Mobile is changing how we perceive learning – the shift from learning as discrete events to be attended as a separate activity is being replaced by instantaneous access, informal communications and an integral part of our day-to-day activities.
In conclusion, Malcolm Knowles in his Theory of Andragogy (adult learning) has said: 
“…it is no longer functional to define education as a process of transmitting what is known; it must now be defined as a lifelong process of continuing inquiry.”

Monday, January 19, 2015

MOOCs in Workplace Learning – Part 1: Some Points to Consider

MOOCs – you can love them or hate them but you can definitely not ignore them. Despite countless stats on MOOC dropout rates, MOOCs are appearing everywhere. And IMHO, we will continue to see this phenomenon rise. 

Having taken the world of higher education by storm (though not everyone will agree), MOOCs are all set to disrupt/re-invent workplace learning. Just as the advent of e-learning created a shift in training paradigms a couple of decades back, MOOCs are set to create another shift today. With the rise of MOOCs, we are also likely to see social, collaborative learning take root in organizations. And learning design will move from fixed course formats to a blended modality of curated content, custom-built content and user-generated content including ongoing conversations. Needless to say, none of this will be easily achieved. Workplace learning designers, consultants, organizational leaders and change agents, and employees will have to work in collaboration to bring about this shift. I have been writing about MOOCs in the space of corporate learning for some time now. Here are the links to some of the older posts:
In this post, I want to focus on the questions that the corporate world is likely to ask when thinking of going the MOOC way. 

Q: How do we define a corporate MOOC? How is it different from the xMOOCs we are familiar with?

While definitions of MOOCs abound, none of them are fixed and final given that the form itself is still evolving, I have highlighted a few characteristics of a corporate MOOC rather than pin it down with a definition:

They will be “open” to everyone inside the organization: 

So far, corporate courses have been designed with a fixed set of target audience in mind and with the intent of imparting new knowledge and skills or bridging existing skill gaps. Course design have been based on an analysis of past performance data or a prediction of skills the organization might need in the future. MOOCs, on the other hand, although designed with a primary target audience in mind will be open to anyone and everyone in the organization. This will provide the employees with an opportunity to acquire skills and knowledge in their areas of interest beyond the purview of their current roles thus equipping them with new skills, a critical aspect of professional development. Moreover, by opening up cross-functional knowledge to the organization, corporate MOOCs can be very effective in bridging silos, if effectively launched and facilitated.

They can be “semi-synchronous”: 

MOOCs can have a blend of modalities from videos and podcasts to reference links to blogs and articles, excerpts from books, whitepapers and so on. Apart from the content, MOOCs are characterized by the discussions that take place around the content – in the forums, on Google hangout, over twitter... Some of these discussions are asynchronous as in the case of forums giving workers the opportunity to respond at their own pace, and some may be synchronous giving distributed employees an opportunity to interact with their peers and colleagues around a topic over a google hangout session. This semi-synchronous aspect make MOOCs appealing and effective for a wide range of topics and audience base. 

They can serve different purposes: 

Some of the uses of MOOCs are listed here:
  • Build talent pipelines -  
  • Onboard new employees – McAfee and Intel 
  • Provide self-directed development – Pitney Bowes 
  • Workplace training – Yahoo! 
  • Brand Marketing – Bank of America 
  • Collaboration and Innovation – Google’s g2g 
  • Train channel partners and customers – 
(Ref: ASTD_TechKnowledge Presentation)

They will reflect the organizational values thus strengthening the brand: 

Corporate MOOCs—even when created from open source content curated from the web—will be put together and customized in ways that represent an organization’s unique vision and values even though the knowledge being shared is generic. Thus, MOOCs provide a good platform for organizations to create a strong brand presence in the minds of employees – both existing and prospective. MOOCs also provide organizations with opportunities to introduce their experts to the larger community thus motivating the individuals concerned while strengthening organizational value and brand. 

They can become platforms for capturing tacit knowledge: 

By virtue of having discussion forums and user-generated content capability built into MOOCs, they help organizations to capture the much needed context and tacit knowledge. In this age of complexity and rapid change, MOOCs can – if well facilitated – become triggers for innovation and creative problem-solving in the context of each organization’s specific needs. 

Corporate MOOCs will differ from the MOOCs we are familiar with from Coursera and Edx in some of the following ways: 

  1. The audience size will be limited to employees, prospective candidates, partners and maybe customers, depending on the purpose of the MOOC; thus, “massive” will be re-defined by each organization. ** 
  2. They will be “open” but only within the organization unless the organization chooses to make it public for specific reasons. 
  3. MOOCs, while primarily “online”, can spill over into the real world, especially if colleagues are co-located. Discussions can take place in the online forum or offline over lunch and coffee. MOOC topics can extend into brownbag sessions.
  4. While we still think in terms of “courses”, IMHO corporate MOOCs will consist of shorter programs designed following micro-learning principles and good instructional design basics. A set of videos accompanied by some reference links to blogs and articles, recommended books, podcasts, etc., can be put together to design a “program”. However, this will require good content curation and facilitation skills. Corporate MOOCs can also include custom-built content if the topic requires it.
**This also implies that an organization consisting of 50 employees may not need customized MOOCs. They can probably learn via more informal and social means—both synchronous and asynchronous.

Q. What is the value proposition of a MOOC in workplace learning? Why should an organization go the MOOC way?

Distributed organizations with dispersed employees working across different time zones face unique training challenges. Traditional e-learning took off because organizations were seeking more efficient and cost-effective ways to reach requisite training to their employees without the administrative overheads of running ILTs. The premise of traditional e-learning was fixed courses disseminated via an LMS. There was no scope to add context or additional information without up-hauling the entire course. Traditional courses were pushed to the employees by the organization. The employees had little say in what they received. 

MOOCs, on the contrary, while designed and facilitated by designated individuals, take on a life of their own once launched. Discussion forums, continuous addition of user-generated content, reference resources, and peer-to-peer knowledge and experience sharing make MOOCs a more democratic and fluid experience. Organizations seeking to engage the new generation of employees must look toward more fluid and participative learning methodologies of which MOOCs could well be one. MOOCs by virtue of being open can be accessed by the employees as and when they want to. Thus, MOOCs have the potential to take an organization to the next level in the journey of learning evolution. 

Note: Making a MOOC mandatory can be counter-productive. While courses can be made mandatory, a MOOC requires willing learner participation and collaboration. And these cannot be mandated. If certain programs has to be mandatory for compliance or regulatory reasons, it is best to leave them as courses. I will discuss this in greater detail in a later post. 

Q. How can an organization prepare itself to launch a MOOC? What is the ground work required to be done?

Just as putting in place an enterprise collaboration platform doesn't make an organization social, launching a few courses with discussion forums attached to them and calling them MOOCs won’t turn them into one.

There is some ground work that an organization must do before launching MOOCs. MOOCs succeed because of the communities that form around the topics and the richness of the discussions fostered by these communities. However, communities don’t form by themselves. MOOCs require efficient content curators, SMEs for technical topics, and experienced community facilitators to be successful. While fairly simple in structure, putting a MOOC together requires design thinking that puts the learner at the center. It is important that organizations recognize the need for skills like content curation and community facilitation when setting up MOOCs without which it will just be another course with a forum attached to it that no one uses.

In Part 2, I will explore the design aspects of creating a MOOC in detail. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Importance of Being Agile in a VUCA World

We are well aware that to survive and thrive in the VUCA world, we need to be agile in all respects – in learning, towards change, regarding work as well as life. We talk about learning agility, organizational agility, individual agility, agile as a philosophy and much more. Yet, we are still unclear as to what makes an organization agile. When the agile manifesto was crafted along with its 12 principles at a ski resort in Utah, the group of people may have had software development in mind. However, during my tenure at ThoughtWorks, I learned and realized that “being agile” is a philosophy, a way of working and living, that is going to determine whether we survive and thrive or fade into oblivion in this VUCA world. A recent post by Abhijit Bhaduri called Talent Predictions for 2015 begins with the following lines: “2015 will be the year of agile innovation, agile learning and agile careers.” I wholeheartedly agree with him. It is time organizations and individuals took note. We can no longer afford to rest on our laurels, give the excuse of “this is how we do things here,” or ignore the multiple forces of change bombarding us from all sides.

Hence, I thought it’d be a fitting time to revisit my learnings regarding the philosophy and principles of Agile from my tenure at ThoughtWorks and subsequent reading, reflection, and “bunkos”.

Coming from a very traditional, waterfall-driven background replete with all the drawbacks (what I perceive as drawbacks in comparison especially in the context of a rapidly changing world), it took me quite a while to assimilate the philosophy—even the basics of Agile. A dictum like “Just deliver; don’t document unless the document is going to add value” would throw me into a tizzy. Don’t we need to document so that in case a point comes when the blame-game starts (I assumed it would), we have our backs covered? Apparently not because there is no blame game! There is no one to blame. Everyone is in this together—the team, the client, and all other remaining stakeholders.  As I mulled over these rather shocking, almost blasphemous, aspects of Agile, I thought it would be a good idea to pen down my thoughts for further inspection and feedback.

The VUCA world calls for constant communication, transparent exchanges, and action over procrastination. Communities and teams of diverse people have to work together to solve complex and emerging challenges through innovative and creative means. This is where I keep harping on my theme of workplaces as communities, and enterprise social networks as platforms for communication and learning. The VUCA ecosystem no longer lends itself to standard operating procedures, best practices based on past experiences and a handful of executive taking strategic decisions while the employees comply and carry out orders. Dealing with ambiguity is the name of the game. Dealing with ambiguity requires collaborative efforts by diverse sets of people who will bring to bear dissimilar heuristics and frameworks such that the challenges can be perceived from all angles leading to the best possible solution. All of this requires us to be agile – in principle and in practice.

In this post, I have focused on a few key aspects from a workplace learning perspective. I have perhaps taken a deliberately idealistic stand in the post, but I firmly believe that unless we adopt the fundamental philosophies of agile, we are going to go the way dinosaurs did. The original Agile Manifesto, which is my source of inspiration, can be found here

My interpretation of the Agile philosophy
I am trying to acquire better ways of learning and building personal knowledge networks and helping others do it. Through this endeavor, I have come to value: 
1.    Adaptive over predictive 
2.    Collaboration over documentation 
3.    Continuous feedback over periodic reviews 
4.    Specialization over generalization

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, I value the items on the left more and have found them to be in synch with what is required today to build a learning organization, an organization of motivated, passionate individuals.

Unpacking each claim 

1.   Adaptive over predictive
Ruth Clark describes adaptive in relation to expertise in her book Building Expertise: Cognitive Methods for Training and Performance Improvement, and I think it reflects my understanding of Agile philosophy very well. Being adaptive means to be flexible, open to change, reacting to situations just as the situation demands. Adaptive expertise brings open-ended inquiry to the problem and not a pre-defined solution. Being adaptive is to be always ready. In this context, I am reminded of the phrase “a mind like water” by David Allen. Paraphrasing from Getting Things Done below: 
“Water neither flinches nor ignores the impact when a huge boulder hits its surface. It welcomes a boulder just like it would a pebble. The ripples it generates are in direct proportion to the size and impact—neither more nor less. Water neither underreacts nor overreacts. And very soon, water goes back to its natural state—open and clear—ready for the next impact.”
This is the state of being truly adaptive and agile. With the unknown and the complex becoming the norm in knowledge work, adaptability is the key to dealing with challenges, to be comfortable with ambiguity, and to move to a state where we are constantly learning.

As Eric Hoffer very aptly says (the highlights are mine):
We can never really be prepared for that which is wholly new. We have to adjust ourselves, and every radical adjustment is a crisis in self-esteem: we undergo a test, we have to prove ourselves. It needs subordinate self-confidence to face drastic change without inner trembling. 

2.   Collaboration over documentation
Going back to my roots in traditional organizations where documentations supersede communication, conversations and listening, I can appreciate the value of collaboration. Please note that I am not advocating doing away with documentation, but documenting only what adds value and when it adds value—to the project, to the team, to the stakeholders or to oneself. I am using the Minutes of Meetings (MOMs) as an example to make my case. 

Unlike any of the methodologies that fall under the umbrella of Agile, in traditional orgs most meetings are conducted as rote and many of the crucial stakeholders are missing. Hence, a stringent documentation is required to capture what transpired and to keep everyone in the loop (so to speak). Needless to say, many of the subtleties of discussions are lost, and the minutes become more of a “save our backs in the future” documents with little of value coming out of them. If critical points from meetings must be thrashed out and discussed, let those discussions happen on the internal social platform. This way, those who may not have been a part of the meeting but has relevant knowledge and inputs, can pitch in and provide valuable insights.  

Let me clarify what I mean by collaboration in this context. When I claim that under the aegis of Agile philosophy, collaboration is more valued, this is what I imply. First of all, collaboration for me implies disciplined collaboration—a term popularized by Morten T. Hansen in his book Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results. Disciplined collaboration is to collaborate for results. And this is precisely what the philosophy of Agile supports. Some of the quotes from the book that supports my understanding of effective collaboration are:
“The idea of disciplined collaboration can be summed up in one phrase: the leadership practice of properly assessing when to collaborate (and when not to) and instilling in people both the willingness and the ability to collaborate when required.”
“Disciplined collaboration requires that organizations be decentralized and yet coordinated. To build this model, leaders need to detect the barriers to collaboration and overcome them without reducing the benefits of a decentralized structure.”
“Collaborative companies run on networks, those informal working relationships among people that cut across formal lines of reporting. If the formal org chart shows how work is divided into pieces, networks reveal the informal organization-how people actually work together.”
Finally, a collaborative company can do away with unnecessary documentation, remain lightweight and agile because the concerned people are all in it together. Everyone is in the loop, always! 

3.   Continuous feedback over periodic reviews
This is my biggest learning from Agile. The very environment and processes—pair programming, TDD, retrospectives, continuous integration, whatever else you will—support continuous feedback, one of the keys to learning. In this environment, a mistake becomes a stepping stone to excellence. A philosophy that centers on feedback also encourages mistakes by default. I think of these as bunkos where a “bunko” means - “to make a mistake from which the benefits of what you learned exceed the costs of the screw-up” as described in The Adventures of Johnny Bunko. Because one knows that feedback will be immediate, one is not scared to experiment, think big and explore. Imagine the reverse of this—where feedback comes in the form of yearly appraisals that tell you how many times you have screwed up far removed from the time and the context of the screw up itself. It leaves one mentally screaming, “Why didn’t you tell me earlier? How does it help now?” Making sense of the VUCA world will involve more screw ups before we arrive at a solution.

Here’s one of my sources of understanding and clarity on the purpose of feedback and the way to deliver as well as receive it: Tightening the Feedback Loop by Patrick Kua

4.   Specialization over generalization
As @AbhijitBhaduri points out in his post, I agree that with increasing work fragmentation, the rise of new skills, rapidly changing technology, workplaces will need specialized skills. Standard job descriptions will give way to role descriptions – the tasks and outcome someone holding the role will have to perform. Ross Dawson points out the key drivers of change in his The Future of Work infographic highlighting factors like work modularization, value polarization and economy of individuals – all of which call for deep specialization and domain expertise. The onus will lie with the individual to continuously explore, learn and connect with others to remain on the cutting edge of their skills and domains. Organizations have to support individual learning in every possible way – from facilitating connections within and without to coaching, mentoring, and encouraging exploration and mistakes.  

However, in a world and world economy where situations throw us into unpredictable circumstances and poses unknown problems, we should not confuse specialization with crystallized intelligence. Ruth Clark in the aforementioned book talks about this at length. I have described it briefly here. Quoting from the book:
Routine experts are very effective at solving problems that are representative of problems in their domains. They are adept at “seeing” and solving the problem based on their domain-specific mental models.In contrast, adaptive experts evolve their core competencies by venturing into areas that require them to function as “intelligent” novices.
Fluid intelligence
is the basis for reasoning on novel tasks or within unfamiliar contexts; in other words, it gives rise to adaptive expertise. In contrast, crystallized intelligence is predicated on learned skills…and is the basis for routine expertise.”
To remain adaptive and responsive to changing situations, it is important to develop a fluid intelligence, one that enables us to take on the role of inquiring novices when required, which in turn helps to view a problem from different perspectives. 

Thus, the new age worker must remain an eternal learner. Idealistic notion? Perhaps! But critically important IMHO.

Reference reading:

Organizations as Communities — Part 2

Yesterday, in a Twitter conversation with Rachel Happe regarding the need for organizations to function as communities, I wrote the follow...