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Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson did what on stage?!

7 Nov

When I saw that Neil deGrasse Tyson was to be the keynote speaker at DevLearn2014, I thought it was an odd choice. A pleasant surprise, certainly, but in my mind I struggled to imagine how his ideas on space and time would set the tone of our eLearning conference. As it turns out, he was a terrific choice.

I should have trusted that he would be smart enough (duh!) and savvy enough about public appearances to know how to hold an audience’s attention and bend the content to resonate well. Dr. Tyson absolutely delivered the goods.

In a far-ranging but fascinating 45 minutes, he discussed everything from his childhood primary and secondary school experiences to his perspectives on the ways in which culture informs the scientific community. Why is it that we have been lamenting STEM/STEAM education in the United States, and yet our nation continues to be among the leaders in scientific discover and Nobel Prizes awarded? He argued that it is our culture that allows us to question authority and that values frontiers – both physical and mental.

But what I was most excited to see from him was when he paused, mid-sentence, to tweet a thought that had just occurred to him. He was talking about how we are so interconnected with each other now via social media, and how one idea can ricochet around the globe at the speed of media feeds and typing thumbs. As he was contemplating what this means for the scientific community, he went on a slight tangent to discuss how just that week Pope Francis had remarked that science and the church are not at odds, and how he accepts evolutionary science and modern astronomical thinking. He paused….

We watched, in silent appreciation (I appreciated it anyway – I guess I can’t speak for all) as he took his phone out of his pocket and tweeted:

I have been making the case that social media in the workplace is only a distraction if you allow it to be. It is not only another way to capture important notes and thoughts, it is a channel to share those thoughts with tens, hundreds or (in his case) tens of thousands of followers instantly. I welcome people staring at their screens and moving their thumbs during my meetings and trainings. If the content is useful and engaging, then they are demonstrating engagement just as much as if they were taking notes on paper. If they are bored and disengaged, then they would be so with or without their little screens.

As Dr. Tyson says: “We want to feel connected, want to feel relevant, want to feel like a participant in the goings-on in activities and events going-on around you.” (1:53 – 2:08 in the video below.) Social media in the workplace-learning place is just another avenue for that engagement.

Learning Economy: Two disciplines beginning to align

2 Sep

If learning is ultimately about seeing patterns, connecting dots and creating a new synthesized idea, then I suppose this post is evidence of my learning in progress. I’m not sure this is completely baked, but as the saying goes: “If you are waiting for certainty before sharing an idea, you’re waiting too long.”

In addition to my interest in learning, professional development, instructional design, and football(!), I also read a lot of economics and political/social sciences. What I’ve been intrigued to note lately is the confluence of some good economic thinking with the latest trends in learning. Yes, really!

Three ideas that have crossed the divide between economics and learning:

1. Actions lead thoughts, behaviors lead learning. Traditional thinking states that you need to teach adults what they need to know for their jobs, which leads to better performance. That notion is being challenged on many fronts. In fact, both research and practice is showing that guiding actions, providing tools and freeing people to experiment leads to learning in more impactful ways than traditional training and instruction. Learning by doing, or Action Learning, is not a new idea, but it is one that is gaining renewed relevance.

  • Learning: See Jane Hart and Avi Singer, where they (as many others have) point out that learning is the work, and that the ability to extract meaning from tasks, learn from coworkers through collaboration and cooperation, and document what is learned is usually a more powerful learning experience than formal training and professional development courses.
  • Economics: See Ricardo Hausmann:

“Once upon a time, IBM asked a Chinese manufacturer to assemble its Thinkpad – using the components that it would supply and following a set of instructions – and send the final product back to IBM. A couple of years later, the Chinese company suggested that it take responsibility for procuring the parts. Later, it offered to handle international distribution of the final product. Then it offered to take on redesigning the computer itself. Soon enough, it was no longer clear what IBM was contributing to the arrangement. Learning to master new technologies and tasks lies at the heart of the growth process.”

2. Openness and collaboration trump safeguards and secrets. Allowing actions to lead learning requires an openness to allow the learning process to occur, even as the work unfolds. If management can overcome that mental hurdle, a treasure of potential may be realized.

“In the world of talent, learning and performance (“The Collaboration Age”) …[it’s] those who share and work together who are the winners. Those who hide behind organisational [sic] garden walls end up deep in weeds. If we’re to succeed …We need to do so with others, in some cases even with our competitors. The rather ungainly term ‘co-opetition’ is being increasingly used to define co-operative competition, where competitors work together to achieve increased value at the same time as they are competing with each other.”

“If, while learning, you face competition from those with experience, you will never live long enough to acquire the experience yourself. This has been the basic argument behind import-substitution strategies, which use trade barriers as their main policy instrument…. The problem with trade protection is that restricting foreign competition also means preventing access to inputs and knowhow.”

3. Deliberate, programmatic supports for learning are key. Far from being a call for laissez-faire policies, organizations and societies that can create the structures to nurture systemic learning will thrive in the 21st century. It may on the surface appear as if I’m recommending soft management to allow people to run down any hunch or notion as they wish. While the freedom to explore – and social-learning-for-work-1-638fail—is important, this calls for deliberate structures and new managerial approaches to work well. Building silos and setting rules is easier than guiding and mentoring adaptation, and begs for more innovative managerial skills.

  • Learning: As Harold Jarche rightly points out, the managerial skill needed for modern work is the ability manage complexities, not hierarchies.

“Sharing complex knowledge requires strong interpersonal relationships, with shared values, concepts, and mutual trust. But discovering innovative ideas usually comes via loose personal ties and diverse networks. Knowledge intensive organizations need to be structured for both. Effective knowledge-sharing drives business value in a complex economy.”

stiglitz“Successful industrial policies identify sources of positive externalities – sectors where learning might generate benefits elsewhere in the economy… Virtually every government policy, intentionally or not, for better or for worse, has direct and indirect effects on learning. Developing countries where policymakers are cognizant of these effects are more likely to close the knowledge gap that separates them from the more developed countries. Developed countries, meanwhile, have an opportunity to narrow the gap between average and best practices.”

So what’s the insight here? The ways in which our world is increasingly based around dispersed networks rather than hierarchies is changing the way we work–which is to say, learn. On the macro-economic level, for the organizations in which we work, and in our increasing responsibility for our own learning and professional development, we’re relying on network-based relationships where nexuses of knowledge and various levels of association are as shifting as our conditions and motivations of the moment.

If you’re reading this, you are part of exactly what I’m describing. I’m glad to have your open association and welcome your thoughts.

Transmission Job: Receiving the right opinions

14 Jul

A colleague challenged me the other day on my premise that the rise of digital social networks had fundamentally changed a person’s approach to gathering data and weighing options to make informed decisions. (Full disclosure: The colleague, Steve Fleischman, is the CEO of Education Northwest, where I work, and someone whom I have a great deal of intellectual respect for. Which is to say, I’ve been mulling on his question for a few days now.)

He offered the example of his decision to have an auto repair done, as his mechanic suggested, or to forgo the work. Does the social-centric, connectivistly-constructed world inform our decision-making process? He argued that it essentially does not. He called a knowledgeable friend, weighed the (hopefully) trusted mechanic’s opinion, and decided to have the work done.

I argued that, certainly within organizations, things have shifted (or are shifting) to alternative ways of decision-making. When we need to make an informed work-place or project-based decision, simply relying on the handful of experts available to us hamstrings both our efforts, and our organization’s agility and long-term viability.

Let’s be clear: I’m NOT suggesting eliciting advice from all quarters, consensus-building or democratic workplace processes. All these more often than not lead to organizational paralysis and an unacceptable lack or agility.

What I am suggesting is that individual knowledge (experience + expertise) be systematically captured, cataloged and shared; at the same time, organizational decision-making be documented and then inform the next divergent event.

My rather poorly-rendered depiction of knowledge-learning-decision loop. The blue could is the systematic practice.

My rather poorly-rendered depiction of  the knowledge-learning-decision loop. The blue cloud is the systematic practice.

This is not an essentially digital learning process: this is what Peter Senge, et. al., have been saying for 20+ years. However, digital-social technology has made this easier, more transparent and in fact far more necessary than ever. Success will shine on those organizations that have the culture and practices to nurture individual knowledge management and growth. Reciprocally, professional development is there for individuals to manage for themselves by the virtuous feedback loop of person-to-organization. Knowledge is personal, learning is social, and they both require deliberate, coordinated management.

So, I can call my Uncle Harold (well, were he still alive) to ask him about my transmission work. But, far better would be to have been following him for the last several years, to follow those folks whom he finds valuable, and for me to share that socially curated content with others, including my mechanic. Then, I’d weigh my mechanic’s recommendation against–or in coordination with–those data points. The final act in this small loop would be for me to share my decision, and the data that informed it, with all who care to find it. It’s the Show Your Work movement, writ small.

Thanks for the challenge, Steve, and happy driving.

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 Is Our Job… it’s not just me (or us).

11 Jun

I received a tweet from a friend who happened to be attending DrupalCon in Austin last week. He referred to a remark by a keynote speaker:

jones tweet

You can see my response to the original message above (with poor syntax– but is it grammatically incorrect?).

I was truly heartened to see that the constantly-learning ethos is becoming a mantra beyond the domain of PD/L&D/ID/ELP/SPOTDA* folks. As I’ve argued before in several places, our jobs are to keep learning. Very few of us have a job or career that spans more than a few years at a time. Even if we stay with the same organization, whatever our job is today will very likely not be what our job is two years from now, at least the tools, methods and systems we operate under. (And if it is, ask yourself, “Why!?”)

No, our careers are now tied to learning. And learning is not a solitary endeavor. We learn only in so far as we can seek, catalog, retrieve and share new facts, ideas and methods. That’s where I see us PD/L&D/ID/ELP/SPOTDA* folks gaining in relevance. Most of us are at a loss on how to take that learning management, or Personal Knowledge Management (PKM, in the parlance of our day) from a chaotic hit-or-miss activity to a systematic practice. Nobody taught us how to learn in the digital age, but it is an – the – essential challenge of our careers.


PD – Professional Development

L&D – Learning and Development

ID – Instructional Design

ELP – E-learning Practitioners

SPOTDA – Smart People of the Digital Age

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