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:

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...