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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.

Things I learned on my trip to India

4 Dec

I recently returned from an amazing 20 days in India (Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan). It was overwhelming (in a good way), and I’ll be processing my experiences for quite some time. Just last night I dreamt about being in the beautiful desert city of Jodhpur.

Inspired by Kate Pinner’s frequent reflections on her life and how it relates to our chosen profession, I thought I would share my half-baked reflections even as they are still being sorted.

  1. Chaos is normal, and fuels productive activity
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(Old) Delhi, on the eve of Diwali, November 9, 2015.

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I’m not sure I’d been so happy to see the other side of the street.

I heard it constantly during our journey: “India is ‘organized chaos, but somehow it all works.’” It’s a pretty apt description. I have seen traffic in Boston, Bangkok and on the Bay Bridge, but nothing was like Delhi on the eve of Diwali. The key to getting through the cacophony of cars, trucks, ox carts, tuk-tuks and pedestrians is to be both single-minded and good humored about the moving maze. One large man walked by our rickshaw as it inched forward, and said with a wide smile, “Welcome to India!” Indeed. Chaos, cross-traffic and distractors are the reality for most of us, and best option is determined acceptance rather than short-tempered resistance.

  1. There’s power in diversity

I knew of course that India was a very diverse country, but as compared to North America it is remarkable how people intermingle. Whatever the divides of religion, region, caste, income, education, etc., people are in constant contact with each other (literally). Where in the US, folks can live in a gated suburb or specific ethnic enclave without much rubbing shoulders with others, in India the mix and flow seems constant. I think that is truly to the benefit of all, no matter what tensions may exist.

  1. Specialization works when part of the tight tapestry (network)
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Each vendor sells one thing, and one thing only…

India still appears to be a land of specialization. I saw very few supermarkets or “box” stores. Primarily, if something needed to be purchased or a service provided, you went to the specialist. The knife vendor didn’t also sell saws, the barber didn’t also sell high-end shampoos, and the vegetable vendor sold vegetables, not fruits, canned goods or condiments. But, since each specialist is in close proximity of hundreds (thousands?) of others, one can frequent the expert, the favorite vendor, on the way to and from all the others. All things being equal, I’d rather by my cookware from a cookware vendor than from a department store (or Amazon). You?

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…And there are thousands of vendors. Find whatever you need on the narrow streets of (Old) Delhi. Here, Diwali decorations.

  1. Say “Yes!”

This is true for travel – and life in general: Let your first and last answer to opportunities be yes. But even more so in India, where every single day, all day, there was something new, fascinating, thought-provoking and unexpected. When we spent a day at a tiger nature reserve, I was not feeling well at all. Through the morning drive, where we didn’t spot a tiger or much else, my head cold was terrible. I almost decided to skip the afternoon drive, as the bouncing and dust was hard on my head, and the chance of seeing a tiger was not good. But at the last minute I said yes, and was rewarded for it beyond my dreams….

India Nov 2015 1444

India Nov 2015 1480

Thank you, India (apologies, A. Morissette)

Gold from Straw: Creating Your Own Meaning

27 Oct

Personal learning is a form of assembly, where we find, evaluate, use or discard things we encounter on our way. More often than not, though. we won’t know the meaning of what we discover until long after the fact. Over time, with experience, we’re able to create meaning of (from?) objects, assembling them into applicable learned compounds.

Ah, but what to pick up? We are awash with information, opinions and competing ideas. Through traditional media, social media, conversations, meetings, directives…. we live in an age of overabundance. In prior times information was scarce, and we looked to authority to provide us what was valuable:

I read it in the Times.” “Our CEO thinks that we should redirect our efforts.” “My trusted financial adviser recommended I put my money into tech.” “My mentor said this book was important.” “I ask my assistant to provide me with daily clippings.” Information was scarce, and we looked to those with expertise, time, and the resources to research and bring us information we could use.

Those days are done. We create our own meaning now. We divine it out of the countless dots – the nodes in our network of people, ideas and information – that fill our universe.

Like ancient explorers, we connect dots and create patterns in order to navigate through our world.

Like ancient explorers, we connect dots and create patterns in order to navigate through our world. Photo by Greg Rakozy via unsplash.com.

The solution becomes not one of knowing what is useful, but of deciding what to pay attention to, and weighing whatever we find for its potential value.  There is no way to pre-sort what is worthy; there is simply too much out there and exponentially more being created all the time. Like the scroll at the bottom of a 24-hour news station, we barely notice it’s there. When something catches our attention, we have that “Wait! What was that?!” moment. It’s much the same to navigate through our connected, networked world. Something catches our attention, and we make an immediate judgement: This is something I should pay attention to, something I might be able to use at some point. Or not… let it pass.

The decision is the key. Yes, I like this idea. This is new to me and sparks my interest. This is from a known source that I already trust, so I’m willing to give it a little more attention than I might otherwise. Once a decision is made, apply your process.

  1. Clip, copy, save, share it, while tagging in some way that you’ll be able to find it later (that takes practice, but you’ll get better at it with time).

  2. Note why you thought it was worthy of carrying with you on your journey: That is a critical part of it, and will inform and refine your knowledge management practice over time.

  3. Weigh it for its value over time. Does the idea make sense? Does it add, extend, amplify or purposefully redirect what I do and what I know?

  4. Cull frequently, letting go of what it no longer useful.

By following this process, you’ll create your own meaning, and build your own unique area of expertise that is yours alone. That is an exciting proposition. When each of us is self-directed to build our own knowledge, to create our own Personal Knowledge Mastery (PKM), we bring a unique perspective and ability to any organization’s collaborative or cooperative effort. That is a valuable place to be.

Yogi’s Fork: Take it

8 Oct

Yogi Berra, the great baseball player, admired public figure and philosopher of the common man, recently passed away. Famous for his many aphorisms, there is one in particular that applies well to how individuals and organizations operate in the digital age (what I call The Learning Age): “When you get to the fork in the road, take it.”

While this could be interpreted a number of ways I suppose, I’ve always taken it to mean that action is better than inaction. Making a decision can be as important as making the right decision, at least in most circumstances. That is, if we do the work of reflection, documentation, and in so doing allow it to inform what we do at similar forks in the future, that is the most important action.

I wrote about this some time ago, but it is worth revisiting.

While it’s of course ideal to make evidence-based, informed decisions when possible, we live in a world of novelty and experimentation. We are constantly faced with decision points that are unlike those we have encountered previously. The worst thing we can do is to be paralyzed by indecision. Make a choice, note how and why you made that choice so that you can create your own evidence for next time. Then, do your best to make the decision work as best as possible. That way, once we are past the fork, we have a trail of actions and outcomes that we can reflect on the next time we face a similar divergence on our path (and there will be many!).

Peter Senge, in The Fifth Discipline and elsewhere, talks about a double loop of learning, and if we want to dress up our Yogi’ism we can overlay Senge’s principle to it. Take the fork, make the choice, but use the data you collected from previous choices to consider the assumptions and underlying reasoning that steer things left or right, and build your next decision on the knowledge (living in the people, the outcomes and the technology at hand) to create a constant updated loop of what you know and you apply it.

Individuals and organizations need to thrive in a constantly-changing set of circumstances. If we wait for the perfect choice to reveal itself before acting, we are doomed to the dustbin. Act based on the information at hand, and learn from the outcome(s) for the next fork.

There are no “wrong” choices. Mistakes are fine, just remember what Yogi said: Losing only happens because “We made too many wrong mistakes.”

Rest in peace, Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra.

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.

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