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Note to Self: How ’bout a note to all?

29 Dec

We gather for our meeting. Some pull out laptop computers, others prefer pen and paper. We talk over our projects, progress, next steps, risk factors. It’s a scene that plays out every day, to the point where we barely think through the opportunity that each meeting might represent.

We head back to our desks or on to our next meeting. The most organized, resourceful, and determined among us will file notes into whatever organizing system we have devised. Perhaps they’ll reappear in the minutes before the moment of need, either as we work on that project or gather again. Rinse and repeat.

But what if we changed the cycle? What if those meeting notes were out in the open, cataloged for team members and colleagues—and managers and mentees—to find, save, share, and make sense of for their own personal knowledge management (PKM)? I’m proposing that we don’t just save our notes, but use them, share them, integrate them with others, and build both individual and organizational learning.

That kind of transparency has so many benefits:

  • Notes become living documents to add to and glean from.
  • Meetings are more focused, productive, and (maybe) less frequent when show your work/working out loud (#WOL) practices are systemically applied.
  • Managers, stakeholders, and cross-functional coworkers can benefit from knowledge of and insights from the ongoing notes.
  • Potential misunderstandings, cross-purposes, and redundancies can be avoided by sharing freely with teammates.
  • New insights can be found in the notes “feed” from all our of organization’s ongoing work.
  • It helps each of us make better sense of our daily activities.
Open note-taking hits several keys of Working/Learning Out Loud. Click image to read H. Jarche's excellent post  and source for this graphic.

Open note-taking hits several keys of Working/Learning Out Loud. Click image to read H. Jarche’s excellent post and source for this graphic.

I hear misgivings and concerns about this practice all the time, and here’s are the three most common:

  1. We already have too much information coming at us, and I can’t take any more inbox filler. There are many ways to manage information, and I recommend that you skip email notifications of any kind. Instead, use wikis, social feeds, SharePoint, ESNs, Google Docs, some project management and CRM tools, etc. It is not hard, and need not clutter; in fact, sharing this way will make long, substantive email chains unnecessary. Ultimately, this is a de-cluttering exercise.
  2. I don’t have time, and we already have too many reporting requirements. There’s the famous story of the delivery driver who claims he is too busy to change his flat tire as he clunk-a-clunks down the street. This is a new way of working, yes, but it doesn’t really require any new skills—you can simply take notes on a public platform instead of a private one. This may not satisfy your reporting requirements, but it will surely save you time when you have to create those reports, and may even make some reports superfluous.
  3. Isn’t that what a CRM system is supposed to do for us? A social CRM would indeed do this, at least in part. Few of us, however, have access to and use a CRM tool in this way. I certainly don’t. I invite those kind readers who do to let me know about it, for the benefit of all of us.

Heads of state (or their staff) take detailed notes and keep diaries to be made public after their terms of service, so that we might make sense of and learn from their decisions and insights. Few of us, however, deal in statecraft, classified files, or even sensitive information. We can benefit from these insights and knowledge today. As Jane Bozarth rightly says, “Share is the new save.” If you note it, there is a good chance others can benefit from it, too. Please, share the wealth.

In a future post, already in draft, I’ll discuss some tools and processes, and invite others to share how they’ve shared notes. But if you want to share your tips, no need to waitI’ll include them in my post and give you credit (if you’d like it).

Learning and Schrodinger’s Cat: Bringing content back from obsolescence

10 Oct

My father is a mathematician, and my brother studied physics and engineering. My nephew is in doctoral work in plasma physics, and my father-in-law is an active MIT alum. There are many, many things I do not have in common with these family members: My MA is in SE Asian studies and political science, and I stay firmly on the social side of sciences. (And to be fair, social science – even economics – is not science in any real sense.)

However, I was exposed to topology (oh! those bubbles and spheres!), imaginary numbers and game-playing machines much earlier than most. As much as I shied away from the sciences most of my life, I am grateful for the exposure. I learned early about Euclid and Napier (who was, in fact, not a shepherd), and plowed my way through Gödel, Escher and Bach at much too early an age.

What was I saying…?

Oh, yes, a cat. Schrodinger’s cat! I heard about this sad little cat an early age. The image of the poor creature exposed to lethal radioactivity never left me. But in fact, I later learned, it was

Failure Confetti Comics

Failure Confetti Comics

only a theoretical exercise, not an actual live-animal experiment (I think!), as a way to illustrate the Uncertainty Principle and the related Observer Effect. Both of these arise from quantum physics, and point out the disambiguation that something can exist in two simultaneous states, and/or change states as a result of the act of being observed.

“Learning is the Work”

I’ve read this quote so often in the last 18 months that I am unsure of correct attribution (heck, maybe it was me!), but I read it most recently on Harold Jarche’s blog. I certainly agree. In the modern workplace, resting as it does on a dynamic digital platform and shape-shifting networks, we can no longer rely on our knowledge or expertise. Access to content (information) is the lifeblood of our work, be it in a colleague’s mind or data in the cloud. (Or, as Charles Jennings points out, even residing with our competitors.)

Given the fluidity of our Learning Age, when instructional designers and trainers secure content, chunk it to be easily understood and applied, and deliver it back via e-learning or synchronous training, I would argue that very act changes the state of the content, and certainly the context in which it resides.

Yes, cleaving content from application and setting it up as received knowledge certainly changes the way we see it. And, the way we apply it. The cat may die under our manipulation. The content is either useful or not, applicable or not, advantageous or not. But once we pick it up, process it, and deliver it, it may not be the same as when we found it.

The very act of training removes content from its “natural habitat,” unnaturally elevates certain things over others that in actual application may be just as useful, and creates an altered perception of the very same content – a kind of Observer Effect.

Stay close to the machine

This is not to suggest that there is no place for training, e-learning programs and learner engagement initiatives. In fact, I rather like my job! It is a call to be thoughtful, conscientious and limited in the approaches we use. Keep learning as close to the machine as possible, to borrow a concept from computer programmers. Remove learning activities as little as possible from the tasks that people perform. Needless elaboration and unnecessary barriers placed in a way that separates learning from the work, rather than making learning a part of the work, should be used sparingly and purposefully. Mathematicians speak of an elegant proof, with as little elaboration as possible. In similar fashion, we necessarily curate content for our learners, but we need to be aware as to the effect that has and limit distortions.

As I’ve discussed before, learning practitioners should embed learning activities into the work (aka, performance support), and reciprocally direct work activities and social connections into training activities and eLearning courses. If not, we run the danger of creating altered perceptions in our learners’ minds: “Oh yeah, that’s the training way, but in the real world…” Yes, as soon as we observe it as something other than what it is (our work!), we evaluate and apply the content differently, too.

Poor kitty.

P.S. Yes, I love Calvin and Hobbes, and am aware of the alive-dead dynamic.

P.P.S. I hope to see you at #DevLearn2014! I’ll be talking about this topic and related ideas in Concurrent Session 609.

Forget the Content: It’s the people you need to align

31 Jul

“All organizations are perfectly designed to get the results they are now getting.” –Tom Northrup

Implementing a learning program is a serious challenge, and as often as not (more often than not?) the program fails to deliver the anticipated results even with sufficient budget and organizational support. There are, of course, many reasons why learning programs fail. In most cases, the first place evaluators look is at the content. If only the content were better, more relevant, or more useful, people would learn and apply it. In my experience, content is rarely the culprit. If there’s one thing good instructional designers and eLearning practitioners have down, it’s SME engagement and creating good learning objectives. Even if the content were not as robust as it could or should be, that’s rarely the barrier.

The second place that we turn to is the learning design. Was the instruction not designed with the learner in mind? Was it not well “chunked” or paced? Was it not interactive and with appropriate scenarios and learner challenges? These are all good questions, and can often lead to useful ameliorations. If the topic is not perceived to be relevant or immediately applicable to the learner, transferable learning is unlikely to happen. Again, good learning designers will have avoided these problems in the first place, or be very good at seeing those flaws at an early implementation stage.

This post boils down to what the Serious eLearning Manifesto addresses.

This posts boils down to what the Serious eLearning Manifesto addresses.

The last place we focus the blame is on the learner. Or, perhaps better stated, the last place we publicly lay the blame is on the learner, though we are all well aware of some deep-seated variety of, “These folks will never get it, but we can say we’ve tried.” Leaving aside the misplaced emphasis on “getting it” rather than “doing it,” we are left that the learner is actually where the breakdown occurs.

If we think that’s the case, it remains the instructional designer’s problem to fix. The problem is NOT that people won’t or can’t learn, and transfer that learning. The problem is that we haven’t asked them to do so in a meaningful way.

Work with people, not the content.

Information (content) is there for all. Learning is individually motivated, but also takes place in a social framework. If you give a music lover a new music player whose features are not so obviously designed as to be transparent (now there’s an interesting topic!), she will learn how to use it in a matter of minutes and be expert in a handful of hours. There’s no need for an instructional course. Why? The conditions are right for learning:

  • There is intrinsic motivation to figure it out.
  • The usefulness of taking the time to learn it is obvious (if it’s not, forget it).
  • The learner feels empowered to take the time to learn it; no people or forces are aligned that implicitly or explicitly say you’re wasting your time or that you don’t need to know it (or if there are, contrarian rebellion can be a useful force!).
  • There is an immediately (if perhaps only implied) social aspect to learning it; she’ll be one of the “cool kids” or will want to share the player—and her knowledge of it—with others.

The answer is not in our courseware, but in our design of the learning space. Empower learners to learn, provide the supports and freedom that encourage personal and social learning, and leave the tools and topics you want them to explore on the table.

Learning happens, every day. We just need to understand how to direct that in ways that benefit our learners and organizations. If our efforts are not yielding the desired results, examine the organization that is delivering those results.

Book Club Readings: Learning and Development in our Connected, Online and Social Workplace

18 Jun

I was asked to provide readings for Education Northwest’s book club this month, and to moderate a discussion. The whole process was fun, interesting and revealing. I thought I’d share our reading list here, along with my notes of talking points on each.

Joseph Stiglitz: Creating a Learning Society

Clark Quinn: Revolutionize Learning & Development: Performance and Innovation Strategy for the Information Age, chapters 5 (“Our Organizations”) and 6 (“Our Technology”).

Harold Jarche: Organizational Learning in the Network Era (blog post, 29 May 2014)

Jane Hart: 4 Models of Social Workplace Learning (blog post, 12 June 2014)

Jane Bozarth: Show Your Work: The Payoffs of Working Out Loud, chapter 4 (What is Knowledge? And Why Do People Share it?)

Talking Points for Book Club:

  • Heady times to be in organizational learning and online knowledge
  • Confluence of organizational theory and tech tools
  • A line from global-economic to very personal: Learning is the issue of our time (society, organization, personal)
  • Learning is NOT separate from working: learning is process, practice
  • It’s hard to share (articulate) what you know
  • Structural barriers we may not even be aware of block learning
  • All knowledge is personal; all learning is social


If incremental changes impact societal development, learning drives the increments. How do we promote learning in our society? NOT scholastic learning, or formal learning, but culturally adaptive and learning.

Intellectual property can block societal learning because it prevents the free flow of information. Innovation is reduced. Owning vs. Sharing economy.

Impeding learning can lead to lower standards of living.


Premise: Organizations need to be constantly adaptive – never in state but constantly changing, growing.

Clark Quinn's great new book.

Clark Quinn’s great new book.

People need the power to pursue their hunches, expand their roles, self-improve: Remove structural barriers.

Social networks to collaborate, cooperate and both –> coherent organization.

PKM and KM : It’s a practice! (Personal Knowledge Mastery and Knowledge Management)

Traditional organizations have hierarchical information & HR structures which are barriers to being a learning organization.

Three keys to a learning Organization (fig. 5.2)

  1. Supportive Learning Environment
  2. Concrete Learning Processes and Practices
  3. Leadership that Reinforces Learning

Technology is evolving through use, not through technological innovation itself.

Having separate platforms for formal learning and social learning is a false divide. (top of page 60)


Structural impediments to learning must be removed.

Interesting tension: Global, connected, mobile vs. local, personal, contractual.

The only knowledge we can truly manage is my own. How do I feed my knowledge to the organization? And how does the organization nourish me?


We are terrible at telling people what we know: Hard to articulate, quantify.

Some hoard knowledge because it is the only thing they own: Afraid for their jobs, other’s judgments, lack of professional freedom.

Share is the new save! Work out loud.


Social learning needs facilitation, and framework. There are different types of social learning and each needs a slightly different type of hands-on experience.

Learning Experience: There is no end.

29 May

I came across this funny bumper sticker the other day. And while I’m quite certain neither the creator nor the car owner had adult learning practice in mind, it is apt. Learning happens, every day, all day, with or without us.

learning exp

When our jobs were mostly process- and product-based—manufacturing, service, design—ongoing professional and personal learning may not have been as important. There was a time when you could practice your job, advance your career and even feel satisfied without contemplating the ways in which learning impacted your development. That time rests in the dustbin of history, at least for those of us who are “information,” “knowledge,” or “learning” workers.

We are constantly learning now, so the questions for us in the adult learning game are

  • How are people learning?
  • How do we guide people to learn what we want/avoid what we don’t want them to learn?
  • How do we facilitate ongoing learning?
  • How do we know if and how learning is applied to jobs and innovation?
  • Where does traditional, formal learning (live training, e-learning, blended, etc.) fit in?

The only thing we can say with any certainty is that for most of us, whatever our job is today won’t be our job five years from now. Our career is learning, learning is our career: The better we adapt to that reality the better we’ll be. I say, bring on the learning experiences!

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