Monday, January 18, 2016

Six Obstacles to Building Communities in Organizations

Rachel Happe begins her latest post, 10 Trends for the Future of Communities, with a comprehensive description of the various intersecting and intermingling streams and characteristics that inform communities, and I am quoting her below:
Communities sit at the intersection of a number of trends; social media, digital transformation, a generational shift to prioritize purposeful work, the future of work, change management, leadership and social learning.   
This is one of the most inclusive descriptions that captures the various threads and reasons for building communities in organizations. Yet, this is where organizations are struggling. In this post, I want to explore a few reasons for this struggle. I have written before about the fallibility of trying to have social learning as a bolt on strategy, on the role of social technology as an avenue for building communities in organizations, and the importance of building communities to facilitate emergent learning

The role of a Community Manager is becoming well-established with communities being perceived as platforms that have the potential to reduce the cost of communication, bridge organizational silos, facilitate cross-team conversations thus creating opportunities for innovation, knowledge transfer, expertise location, and more. However, despite of the various tangible and intangible benefits of communities, organizations are in reality discovering that establishing thriving communities and building a social business is challenging on various fronts, calling into question some of the very fundamental principles and frameworks on which organizations have been created. Here are some of the challenges:

1. Proliferating Platforms - Organizations, especially large, globally distributed organizations suffer from what I call the "unconscious silo syndrome". Most often, the inadvertent unawareness of what is happening in the rest of the organization give managers, decision-makers and other employees a feeling that "we are the new age torchbearers" and once it works in this team/project/business function, the initiative can be taken to the rest of the organization for an enterprise-wide implementation. Needless to say, it is human for all to want a bit of fame that comes with being the trendsetter and a possible organizational visionary. In reality, this leads to pockets of experimentation and duplication of effort without a holistic view of or alignment with the organizational strategy and business goals. The result is of course a less than desirable state of platform overdose, and an amplification of the offline silos onto a now online medium.

2. The "Bottom-Up" Approach - Many organizations tread on the conservative and cautious side and stay away from a big-bang launch for various reasons including skepticism at the leadership level, lack of skills in putting together a strategy for community building and management, fear of investing too much time and money without a clear idea of the intended results, and so on. The general approach usually adopted is to put in place a platform, do a bit of word-of-mouth marketing, and hope that people will start conversing and engaging on the platform. The initial few weeks, or even months, may see some traction, but it is usually scattered, disconnected and directionless. Very soon the enthusiasm of the initial few die down, the platform either becomes a ghost town or a land of thousand flowers and the expected outcome of communities and collaboration do not materialize. As Andrew McAfee, et al. highlight in their book Leading Digital...:
"...we saw no successful transformation happening bottom-up. Instead, executives in every Digital Master steered the transformation through strong top-down leadership: setting direction, building momentum, and ensuring that the company follows through." 
3. Policy-Driven Paralysis - When a decision is made to embark on a community and collaboration journey on the duly selected enterprise collaboration platform, organizations become suddenly fearful of all the possibilities of information leakage, open expression of sentiments by irate employees, sharing of sensitive and politically incorrect information, and so on. The reaction is to begin by creating guidelines and policies trying to encapsulate and articulate everything that employees cannot and should not do on the platform. The result is anything but inspiring or conducive to open collaboration. It is akin to tying people up in chains and then expecting them to do a tango. IMHO, it is time to let go and show more trust in the very employees that the organization has selected through well-defined recruitment and interviewing processes. 

4. Collaboration Conundrum - While we keep hearing the impending death knell of the bell curve, the truth is that a large percentage of organizations still abide by it for various reasons - lack of another system, familiarity syndrome, alignment of business and operational processes, management capability (or lack thereof in handling a new way of appraisal), HR and leadership lethargy, and more. The result is the creation of a tension between a competitive and a collaborative mindset. To be absolutely honest, it is very hard to be collaborative and share openly if an employee knows that s/he will be judged and measured against their peers when the appraisal time comes around. It is difficult for a manager to justify and facilitate open collaboration, and then do a rank and yank to fit a designated set of high-performers in the bell curve. And woe betide the manager who has too many high-performers and collaborators in his/her team. This false system of forced ranking eliminates collaboration, creates a sense of scarcity over abundance (be it for a specific rating or that prized project), and turns team members into opponents. Bye bye communities and collaboration!

5. Leadership Detachment - Many a times, something as critical as the building of a collaborative culture and thriving communities are left to the HR and L&D departments to drive. It is posited as "let's see if collaboration & social business works because everyone is talking about it". Senior leaders and C-suite members feel they are too time constrained to dabble in activities like communities when issues of graver import like shareholder profit, top line and bottom line figures, M&A's are awaiting their attention. However, the reality today is that without a connected, collaborative and resilient organization, all other strategy is likely to fail. Times of intense change and ambiguity as we are living in today demands collaboration and a strong leadership who will walk the talk. 

6. Dearth of Digital Skills - It is not that people do not know how to tweet or post pictures on Facebook or create a Pinterest board. IMHO, digital skills go beyond the common activities that almost everyone with a smart phone can indulge in today. Digital skills are closely related to a digital mindset, which I define as "the ability to understand the power of technology to democratize, scale and speed up every form of interaction and action." Very often, organizations -- this includes employees, leaders, managers, and everyone comprising the ecosystem -- lack this inherent capability of using technology to facilitate the building of PLNs (Personal Learning Networks) and communities. Digital skills include capabilities like working out loud, pattern sensing, sharing and connecting openly to develop a rich and diverse PLN, collaborating with a defined purpose, using technology with an awareness of its potential to promote self-driven learning, democratization of information, and so on. This mindset requires a degree of comfort with ambiguity, willingness to make mistakes, adopting a beginner's perspective, welcoming of diversity, and a willingness to learn from all possible sources. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Uberizing Organizational Learning – Thinking Beyond Courses

Designing courses is passé! In a world where the shelf-life of knowledge and skills are rapidly shrinking, where best practices of yore yield increasingly little or no return on investment, where exceptions are the norm, and constant change and flux the new normal, designing set courses using SME-defined content is like trying to build a dam to rein in the surging waves of a tumultuous ocean. We have to think agile, instant, accessible, contextual, micro-sized, real time… We need to uberize organizational learning.

Uberization” has taken off as the new term that according to me has come to stand for – disruption, innovation, lean operating model, harnessing of the affordances of the sharing economy, and a hyper-connected world driven by imagination and creativity where everything is a mobile-click away – including learning. I agree that’s a string of nouns and adjectives and sounds like I have thrown together a set of buzz words. But it’s not. If we do a bit of Googling, we’ll see the term cropping up in every conceivable context with posts talking about Let’s Uberize the Entire Economy to The Uberization of Money.

I am taking uberization more as a concept that encapsulates the characteristics listed above and, IMHO, L&D has a lot to learn from this. The concept of uberization is shaped “by combining smart-phone connectivity with voluminous real-time data on supply and demand”. Let’s pause a bit and think what this would mean to the L&D world in any organization. I’m not getting into the economics of how Uber operates; however, it is worthwhile to remember in the L&D context that Uber owns no “assets”. Agility and pull lie at the heart of uberization. Users – with a single tap on the app – can get a ride. Uber taps into existing resources providing people – both the suppliers and the buyers – with a platform to connect. The economy of “surge pricing” defines the cost. Whether that is good or bad is beyond the purview of this post. So, what do I mean when I talk about uberizing workplace learning? And what role does L&D play in the process?

Before I delve into some of the characteristics of uberization that we can extrapolate to workplace learning, here’s a few guidelines to keep in mind wrt expectations from L&D. I increasingly see a trend where we’ll have to: 
  1. Do more with less – less time, less resources, less funding 
  2. Deliver customized, just-in-time, easily accessible learning interventions and support on a continuous basis 
  3. Talk business outcomes and business performance, not learning 
  4. Assess and prepare the organization for skills needed in a VUCA world influenced by the forces of social, mobile, analytics, and cloud 
  5. Take a consultant’s approach as opposed to that of an order taker 
  6. Be the torchbearers for the new skills in the workplace (digital skills for the networked era
  7. Partner with leadership to build an agile and continuously learning organization 
  8. Tap into available resources and enable network to do the work 
  9. Build and manage communities to harness the organizational hive mind 
  10. Develop a learner’s mind – curious, exploratory, informed by a growth mindset

None of these will happen if we continue to sit in our isolated ivory towers designing courses, managing training calendars and count the number of days of training we have delivered to each employee. Business can and will ask, “So what?” We have to get out there, get our hands dirty, talk to business, read the company’s Annual Report, and figure out what is happening on the business front. I wonder how many L&D folks go through Annual Reports and Balance Sheets; however, this is where the crux of business can be understood. And whatever impacts business should and must impact how we function. Against this backdrop, technology is providing us with an opportunity to re-imagine and redefine workplace learning and our role as business partners, thought leaders, and change agents.  

Here are a few things we can start doing immediately using Uber as inspiration, if we are not on the path already.

  1. Take a mobile-first approach – Just as a ride is a tap away on the Uber mobile app, make learning just as accessible and instant. Users are increasingly expecting all interactions to happen via their mobile devices. Learning is no exception. Just as the Uber app allows a user to track the route, a learning app should allow the users/learners to see their learning roadmap personalized to their role and growth path. L&D’s focus needs to shift from designing one-size fits all courses to consulting with individual learners, their managers and HR, and carving out learning roadmaps for them. By making what matters to employees available on mobile devices of their choice, we can remove multiple barriers and enable them to pull what they need to traverse their learning journey. We can take a leaf our of platforms like Udemy or Coursera that offers a gamut of courses – all accessible via an app. Today’s workers expect a similar integrated experience – the freedom to pick and choose what they want to learn, where and when.
  2. Build communities – We are in the midst of the sharing economy which is all about open data, user-generated content, crowd-sourcing, shared value co-creation, collaboration, and more. It is no longer possible or feasible – in the face of unforeseen change – for L&D to formally design and develop all that will be needed to keep an organization at the cutting edge. It’s time to acknowledge that the learners are active participants in the system, and not just consumers of courses. L&D must move to becoming facilitators and enablers in a sharing economy and provide the right technology, tools and support necessary to allow users to collaboratively co-create value. This will not only enable organizations to tap into the collective wisdom of the crowd but will also move the organization towards becoming a truly learning org. People are at the heart of a sharing economy, and people are at the heart of a community. Organizations can no longer hope to thrive in a VUCA world without enabling the coming together of their people. I have written extensively about building communities in organizations in earlier posts here and here and here, and will continue to explore this theme further this year. The more I reflect, the more I strongly feel that the sustainability of an organization depends on giving up control and letting the network do the work. This fundamental principle lies at the heart of the success of Uber as well. L&D and the organization’s role will be to provide a highly-efficient sharing system and encourage participation. This calls for a radically different kind of thinking where the managers, leaders, L&D and HR – the gatekeepers of organizational resources including knowledge – collectively move over to the role of facilitators who inspire and empower open sharing, conversations, co-creation, and cooperation.
  3. Curate from existing sources – Tap into MOOCs, and other existing OERs. L&D needs to don the curator’s hat – a critical 21st Century skill – that requires an ability to seek, sense and share (Harold Jarche’s PKM model) relevant content for a defined target audience. Note that content creation – so far the forte of most L&D folks – is not a part of this. However, curation requires an even greater effort at creativity and an ability to connect the dots, make sense of disparate information, and pull these together to form a cohesive whole. It is not an easy skill to build and requires constant honing, deep diving into the designated area of focus, talking to and following experts in the field, using appropriate filtering mechanism to remove the chaff from the wheat, and then presenting the curated content in a format that will appeal to the end user. Moving from content creation to content curation requires Uber-like thinking – create no asset, tap into networks, connect the dots. I also liken it to developing a service-mindset over a product-mindset.
  4. Build a culture of feedback – Uber relies heavily on the ratings provided by users as well as the drivers. This mutual rating system ensures that the standard is maintained more effectively than any policing or management could do. L&D can definitely apply this to how learners/employees rate their experiences of the learning, of the engagement on the community, and encourage feedback. A culture of feedback encourages transparency, highlights inefficiencies, and make improvements an ongoing process. However, organizations with the help of L&D will have to define what constitutes feedback as opposed to baseless criticism, rants, and complaints. Genuine feedback comes with the intent to help improve, provide insight, and either reaffirms a practice or encourages change. The overarching intention is to make better. The ability to give and receive feedback is another critical skill we need to develop to thrive in a world in flux.
  5. Make it an ongoing effort – Uberization takes away the comfort of creating a one-time product (a course), launching it, and moving on to repeat the process. Uberization comes with a service-mindset. It is an ongoing effort that should eventually become the new way of doing things. It requires a constant scanning of the ecosystem – within as well as without, and gauging how external changes can impact the organization ranging from the need to re-skill existing workforce to recruiting scarce talent.

In summary, the world of L&D has dramatically changed. Just as the rules of business and leadership have changed in the networked era, so has the rules for how to enable employees to deliver with efficacy. The L&D department can no longer sit in an isolated bubble designing courses for skills that are fast becoming redundant. It is time to build an entirely new set of skills in oneself as well as in the workforce.    

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...