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How Fast Can They Learn?

20 Jul

I’ve been part of a complex change initiative for the past 18 months or so, at a large legacy organization that is struggling to catch up to the realities of doing business in this century. By which I mean, in large part, to live and make use of the digital world we now inhabit. One of the primary things we are trying to do is to get people to think about their business data in different ways, and to unify standards of data across a far-flung enterprise.

speedometer-1063350_960_720People are asked to learn new tools and processes, the areas of traditional learning solutions. But also, to think about how their actions improve their teams, departments (lines of business) and client experiences, the ways in which they cooperate and collaborate, and the changing environment that is rolling out around them.

“So,” my client asks, “how quickly can we expect them to learn this?”

I completely understand how she believes this to be a straightforward question, driven by her “learning” budget. She struggled with my answer: “It will take as long as it takes. And it will take something like a lifetime.” I see how that is not a terribly satisfying or reassuring response.

So, I turn it back to her learning experiences. I asked her what kind of phone she had. An Apple iPhone 7, as it happens. “How long did it take you to learn how to use it?” She hesitates, and then answers that she learned how to use it in the first few minutes.

“OK, do you use it in the same way today as you did the first day you got it?”

“No, of course I discover new things and new apps and what I can do with it all the time.” She is starting to catch on to my line.

I get her to see that she has an internal motivation to continually learn its many features, discover new apps (mostly via word of mouth and observation – social learning!) and keep up with her peers, if not her children.

Right. I explain it is very much akin to the same thing.

We can train people on the new technology platforms up to an advanced-beginner level. However, unless they have the motivation to learn, internalize why they should do so, and start out on their own journey of discovery through social learning, peer support (or pressure not to appear behind, if you like) and organizational allowance that learning is as much about trial and failure as it is about success, they are unlikely to ever achieve a state where we can say, “Now they’re done learning.”

In fact, we need to reset hearts and minds to never say they’re done learning. We are teaching a set of technologies, it’s true. But to live and adapt to the modern workplace means learning that is much more like the iPhone than it is like traditional corporate training.

Learn the basics, observe what others are doing, share your own discoveries, and adapt and learn constantly. How will it take you to learn to use a computer? As long as it takes, and it takes forever. That’s the world we live in.

Exactly. That’s where Learning & Development needs to be. Training, sure, if it’s needed (none was needed for the iPhone because it was well designed). But training is the starting blocks. Our primary function is to teach people to be learners. Our organizations depend on it.

Trust or Control? It’s one or the other.

14 Oct

When I speak to people about the value of participating in professional learning networks (PLN), work out loud (WOL) practices, and the promise of sharing freely in order to reap the benefits of the Learning Age, I hear the same reservations time and again. The obstacles most often come down to trust.

Do I trust my organization and bosses to value my time and my contributions? Do I trust my peers, known and yet unknown, to accept my perspective and ideas without judgment to hostility? Do I trust my friends and family not to mock me for putting myself out there? (Early in my social sharing participation activities, I did get some “Who do you think you are, Mr. Fancy-pants?!” kind of responses. Then I realized that vulnerability is the part of the process of learning… a topic for another day.)

Most of all, at formal events and in conversations with individuals alike, I hear what amounts to lack of trust in one’s self. Do I trust myself to share the right things, and to be able to sort and make sense of what I find out there?

I attended an event at my local ATD Cascadia chapter last week in which Nan Russell presented on “The Titleless Leader.” What stuck with me most in a great presentation was when she asked the participants, “What’s the opposite of trust?” The answer? “Control.”

This is so important. We have to give up the idea that we can control our daily forays into learning, sharing, and growing. Nor should we want to hold onto control. In order to make the most of explorations, we should prepare to encounter the unknown. It is a matter of trust that good things will happen when we give up control, open to what comes.

Our Competition Is Our Co-Operator: The new coopetition

16 Sep

The term coopetition has actually been around for quite some time, as strange as it may seem. Going back to at least the 1930s, the word was coined to capture the idea that those who we compete against are in fact our partners in developing technologies and processes. We may fight fiercely to protect our trade secrets and to differentiate ourselves from our competitors, but we all gain from new developments. Think Microsoft and Apple—the mouse, windows, directory systems, tablets, product design—both benefit from “stealing” from the other.

However, the idea of coopetition is just now having—or about to have—its moment in the world of knowledge management, workplace learning, organizational dynamism and professional development. In our connected, networked, decentralized world, the very notion of X vs. Y, Us vs. Them, Me vs. You is falling away. Whether we think this is good or bad is irrelevant—it simply is. (I happen to think it’s wonderful.)

Manuel Lima has a really interesting take on how the interconnected, leaderless network is expressed in the shift in visualizations from the paradigm of trees and hierarchies to meshes of interconnectivity: from the “Tree of Life” to the “Network of Life.” If you have 12 minutes, check it out:

The point is that we are not insulated in our working groups, departments, organizations or the few professional colleagues who we happen to meet at annual conferences. We should seek out peers, experts and diverse members of our networks throughout our industry and across the globe. A widget manufacturer, a financial consultant or an electrician can and should learn as much from “competing” organizations as from the coworkers they see every day. We should constantly forage for innovations, learning and insights—the essence of modern work—across our networks. This is especially true of our supposed competitors.

We all improve together when we cooperate through open sharing and knowledge transfer. Coopetition requires a new mindset for our organizations. Individual workers are transitory, taking their expertise with them from workplace to workplace. Institutional memory becomes less important than mining the networks for functional knowledge that may or may not exist within the walls of a particular company.

The rising tide of shared knowledge and strengthening networks through coopetition really does raise all in our flotilla of ideas.

The lesson: Learn through the diversity of our competitors. In my next post I’ll share some ways to achieve that openness to learning that builds coopetition.

A Manifesto (with Poor Graphic Design)

26 Aug

If you have been following my blog over the last couple of years (thank you!), you may have noticed some changes to the banner and template recently. Other than the aesthetics, which I like better, I wanted to have a banner image in my own hand that represents what I’m working on in this space, and in my professional life.

That said, I know that the graphics are a bit opaque. Allow me to explain.

For fully realized learners* to function across an organization and find personal satisfaction through professional development, three foundational elements must stand firm:

3 pillarsAcculturation & Alignment: Individuals must feel that their efforts are adding value to the organization, and that those efforts are nurtured in turn by coworkers, organizational leaders and professional peers. Tasks have meaning, and individuals should feel a part of something larger within a set of cultural cues that enable growth and autonomy.

Competency & Assessment: Workers need a measure of their own competence and a way of assessing and measuring the growth of new competencies over time. As we move to an increasingly automated workplace and rote tasks are replaced by automation, workers’ sense of worth (competency) must grow, adapt and change over time, in internally and externally measurable ways. Stagnation is the enemy not only of the human spirit but of organizational livelihood.

Skills and Knowledge: This is the core. Learners’ sense of self and their value to others starts here. “I know what I know!” and “I know what I can do!” are the essence of professional identity. The practice that needs to develop is how learners can share what they know, and do so in a manner that cuts across the other realms of competency and acculturation. Continue reading

Working in the Age of (Digital) Exploration: Part II – Navigating the digital high seas

13 Aug
Set your course and head for the high seas. (

Set your course and head for the high seas.

There you are, navigator of your solo vessel, heading for discovery, terra incognita, riding a sea of digital waves. In my last post I argued that we all should head out in search of adventure, discovery and limitless exploration. While that may sound inviting, it is hard to know how to navigate through unknown territory, to keep going even when the next port is unknown. Indeed, it is unknowable!

In an earlier age, travelers learned to navigate by understanding the natural markers around them. At its most basic, the sun and moon provide cardinal direction. Gazing at the night sky compelled people across the globe to draw patterns, and from those patterns, to note how they could guide movement: The northern star, the southern cross, the big dipper, the tropics and the planetary ecliptic. Later, with the advent of the sexton and (eventually) accurate timekeeping, global circumnavigation became so commonplace that the age of exploration drew to a close. Arise the age of commerce, of global trade.

The Learning Age, a new kind of age of discovery, requires a similar sort of basic navigational tools in order to keep going and to judge the value of what you find: To sort out gold and spices from flotsam and jetsam. Instead of gazing skyward, we need to work from within outward, and back again, in order to make sense of our known world.

And that requires a system, a method by which to navigate and then to make sense of discoveries.

  1. Know your cardinal directions. While there is no limit to what you’ll discover, you need to always have a general sense of your course. Rather the compass direction, the cardinal orientation here is purpose. What assets or artifacts do you feel lacking? What areas could help you intentionally improve your profession or craft? What people or knowledge would be of most help to you (and you to them!)? For every next shiny object you come across, measure it against your purpose. That will tell you if you’re headed in the right direction.
  2. Be in practice; navigation is your profession. By practice, I mean be in process. Once you have a general sense of your cardinals — where you want to go, and why – the key is to know how to move in that direction with consistency and deliberate action. The process through which you encounter potential treasure, measure its worth, and then keep or discard it is the way to move through the digital world. The more you practice, the more intuitive and natural it becomes.
  3. Patronize the trading posts. Our networks and the Internet as whole are essentially a marketplace of ideas and connections. Share freely: blog, tweet, post, react, write, question, discuss. Sometimes others will pick up what you share, other times not. Have no expectations for reciprocation or immediate return. It’s a process, right? Also understand that there is no way to attend to everything that you encounter – there’s too much information and far too little time. The important thing is picking things up to see if you
    The market is open, 24/7. Make your own discoveries, measure their worth, assemble your inventory as you like.

    The market is open, 24/7. Make your own discoveries, measure their worth, assemble your inventory as you like.

    can use it, and not to sweat about the vast majority of wares you’ll never see. You build what you can out of what you find valuable; don’t fret about the rest.

  4. Attend to your cargo. Is what you carry in your SS Learning worth the effort of transport? Knowledge, adaptations, applications and members of your networks will come and go. Take the time for useful, purposeful pruning. In all likelihood you’ll carry a few ideas, partnerships, and methods to the ends of the digital seas and back. However, the majority of what you put into your hold will at some point become outdated, no longer useful or even dead weight holding you back from the learning velocity you need to maintain. Only you can determine value, but be prepared to reassess and let go on a regular basis.
  5. Move on. If you find a great port, a trove of useful knowledge and ideas, consider yourself lucky. Glean what you can, and return to it as you need to, but keep moving on. What’s precious today may not be tomorrow, depending on changing conditions in what you find useful. The Learning Age is about ongoing learning, adaptation, exposure and network maintenance. Don’t let a beautiful moment in port lead you to settling for a stale life of safe harbor! Gold today may be straw tomorrow.

Choose the life of exploration and set your course, always on the lookout for what is yet to be discovered as you push into the horizon.

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