Monday, June 21, 2010

Social Learning isn't all about the Tools - 4 Factors to Consider

This is a really tiring, exciting and fulfilling time of my professional life. I'm in the thick of ThoughtWorks University. ThoughtWorks University (TWU) is our graduate induction program where we've traditionally flown our graduate hires from all across the world into Bangalore, India for an intense six weeks of collaborative learning. While I'm in my 11th TWU, this term is really special to me for the enhancements we're making to the experience - primarily in the area of social and collaborative learning. Most importantly we're helping graduates learn the ropes by participating in a true to life project, and in that we're using a workscape to drive home the skills they'll take into their jobs as consultants.

In my excitement, I'd almost forgotten about my blogpost for this week and then something about ThoughtWorks as a company got me curious. While we're not a perfect culture, there's something about this culture that makes programs like ThoughtWorks University a distinct reality. It concerns me however, that while a lot of the talk on the blogosphere seems to center around the tools, there's the layer of organisational culture and context that we often neglect. In today's blogpost, I want to try and demistify some cultural factors that work for us and that I think learning consultants need to consider before deploying or even suggesting social learning solutions. Here's what I think.

The Right Social Environment

A few years back Andrew McAfee wrote an excellent article about the enterprise bulls-eye. It's tough to distill down McAfee's wisdom into a few words, but in short, he talks about the power of weak and potential ties to help find solutions to problems. So while your team mates and inner circle form your strong ties and help you with daily collaboration and productivity, your weak ties help you innovate, discover useful information accidentally and to find novel solutions to complex issues.

While this model really makes sense for most modern organisations, it works on the premise that most individuals rely on their team mates and strong ties for day-to-day productivity and collaboration. As it turns out, there are still heaps of organisations that believe in the concept of 'individual contributors', who just need to arrive at work and perform based on a set of pre-established rules. Do these workplaces still exist? Absolutely - my first job as a trainer involved supporting operators who sat at computers all day, processing customer accounts. The only breaks they had from their computers were for a 30 minute lunch and two 15 minute coffee breaks. Not much time to learn anything, huh? People hardly got time to learn within their team, leave alone learning from others in the organisation.

The point that I'm trying to make is that the best tools will do nothing for learning if people don't need to collaborate with their colleagues on a daily basis. If work is only about getting to an office and finishing your quota then, there isn't much scope for social learning, is there? Charity begins at home and true collaboration begins in your teams.

The Problems that Matter

I'm a big fan of Dave Snowden's work on the Cynefin framework. It's a great map of domains that describes problems, situations and complex systems. The four domains of the Cynefin framework are an excellent way to categorise the problems we face at work each day. Here's a quick explanation of the four domains:
  • Simple: This is business as usual and we have clear cause and effect relationship. For problems in this domain, we Sense - Categorise - Respond and apply best practice.
  • Complicated: Often the relationship between cause and effect needs investigation. In these cases we Sense - Analyze - Respond and then apply good practice.
  • Complex: In such domains it's impossible to determine a cause effect relationship in advance so our approach is to Probe - Sense - Respond and we can sense emergent practice.
  • Chaotic: There are times in which there is no relationship between cause and effect at systems level. Here we Act - Sense - Respond and we can discover novel practice.
Now a lot of teams do work in the Simple and Complicated domains. With simple problems individuals have absolutely no need to work in groups - the solution is pretty evident. For complicated problems, you may need small teams to figure out the right solution, but even this doesn't necessarily need any cross-functional expertise. The problems that could really do with many eyeballs looking are the ones in the Complex and Chaotic domains. So, the question to ask yourself before even considering a social learning solution is if you have enough problems in these domains to truly exploit an infrastructure of this nature.

The Diversity that Helps

I recently watched Scott Page speak at XP 2010 and I was deeply impressed by his views on diversity. His book 'The Difference' , is a great read for how diverse groups allow us to find better solutions to complex problems. His mathematical modeling research of team work demonstrates that diversely smart teams consistently out-perform homogeneous teams on a variety of tasks. Diversity in organisations isn't an easy task though. Think about it - most training aims at indoctrination and homogeneity. We try our best to create an assembly line of similar thinking people. So while we may get diversity at the beginning of our pipes, we end up with similar thinking people at the end and as a consequence discussions end in groupthink as against constructive debate. We can reach relatively accurate solutions to complex problems provided we have a diverse enough group using different perspectives and heuristics. OTOH, a group of similar thinking people are likely to lead us to a solution that's not to better than our own. Watch the wonderful video above to hear Scott's views on the topic.

So the question for us as learning professionals -- is our organisational ecosystem diverse enough to help people find emergent solutions to their complex problems? Or are we succumbing to groupthink? If the answer is the latter, then it's perhaps best for you to spend some effort trying to address the balance of varying perspectives and heuristics in the firm.

The Facilitation that Binds

Last but not the least, nothing happens by itself or by pure magic, unless you're in Harry Potter land. Social learning is all about self-organisation, but that requires people to play facilitators who help the group define a common purpose, consolidate group learnings and encourage participation. Colocated or distributed, these facilitators form the backbone of any collaborative infrastructure. Way too many tools get deployed without enough stewardship and facilitation. Unfortunately tools are never enough to solve a problem by themselves. Add the right, passionate people behind your tool and you can ensure that you the true participatory potential of your infrastructure. Of course, you need to communicate well, but I guess that goes without saying. Josh Little wrote an excellent article on the Learning Solutions Magazine about this very topic.

So as learning consultants, let's ask ourselves if there are enough facilitators to lead any of our social learning efforts. If there aren't, we perhaps need to spend some time creating this pool of facilitators who can help nurture our collaborative learning communities.
While I'm a big 'shiny toy' freak and I love playing with the latest tools in the learning technology space, I'm also big on thinking about the underlying cultural factors for any sort of learning innovation in the enterprise. ThoughtWorks is an interesting place to try new stuff, given that a lot of the cultural factors fall into place almost magically. We're a strange company with our own little quirks - but when it comes to collaborating in small and large groups, we have just the culture that is conducive to such stuff. I recognise that it's perhaps easy for me to speak about these factors in hindsight, so I'd like to know what you think about them. How do you go about deploying social learning solutions? What factors do you consider? Where do tools appear in your implementation strategy? I'd love to hear your thoughts so please leave your comments on this post.

22 comments:

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This was really good! It was general-enough to cover many different at things. I personally feel that social learning deals with the importance of observing and modeling the behaviors, attitudes, and emotional reactions of others...

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