Saturday, December 11, 2010

What constitutes a Social Learning Culture?

I've often thought of social learning as a very culture dependent phenomenon. A few weeks back I read an interesting article by Thierry de Baillon, his conclusion being - we don't need more social platforms, we need more human companies. A lot of social software marketing seems to suggest that the tools will change the world. Unfortunately, as we've seen on several occasions, usable tools have nothing to do with adoption. On the other hand, I also see quite an amazing culture at ThoughtWorks. We don't have the richest infrastructure, yet we seem to juice out our humble tools. Adoption doesn't seem to take forever - it seems like you can take just about any tool, paste it on this company, and things will just work! Well, maybe things are not that easy -- but facilitating social learning in ThoughtWorks does seem far easier than other places. In today's blogpost, I want to explore why social learning at our company seems to succeed. On the way, I want to uncover a few factors that are likely to make a social learning culture tick.

A Culture of Questioning

At ThoughtWorks, no question is taboo. A company that started from our founder, Roy Singham's basement, people seem to feel comfortable questioning just about anything in the company. When I joined the company I was quite surprised to see what I thought was the apparent lack of regard for authority in this organisation. People seemed to have no fear questioning the chairman, the CEO or anyone else in the company. It seemed that no 'best practice' escaped the "Why?" question. What I thought of as a sign of disrespect in those days, is really a culture of healthy disruption. A big smell in organisational cultures, is when people follow an individual or a practice blindly. A culture of questioning is a great way to drive conversation and helps establish the relevance of a view or a practice in a specific context. In person, or online, these discussions seem to build up like magic. I must say this starts right from the leadership, who encourage questioning. I've rarely seen anyone who feels offended because someone questioned their wisdom.

Questions for you to ponder over:
  •  Does your company leadership actively encourage questioning?
  •  Do people question best practice when applying it to different contexts?
The Need for Complex Problem Solving
When I joined the company a few years back, I used to get a really common answer for every question I asked. "It depends..." most people would say. The reason for this is that we're a consulting firm and our problems at each client are quite different. The way we apply our skills and practices really depends on the context of the project. It makes a lot of sense to reach out to other ThoughtWorkers to find solutions to our problems because they're relatively complex consulting situations. That seems to be one of the reasons that our communities have a significant amount of activity. Social learning in my opinion isn't a recipe for all seasons. People collaborate only when there's a need to - the problems need to be complex enough to demand more than one head. If you're looking to consult in a relatively simple environment, maybe it requires simpler solutions. Consider elearning or training in such environments, because maybe the environment doesn't need social software.

Questions for you to ponder over:
  • Do people in your environment have a natural need to collaborate? Are two heads better than one? Or do too many cooks spoil the broth?
  • How do people collaborate on a daily basis? How will social software support this collaboration?
Inviting Diversity and Feedback
My colleague Pat Kua writes quite eloquently about feedback. You'll notice from his recent presentation at Oredev, that feedback is something a lot of us feel very strongly about. In fact, I feel feedback is a way for all of us to grow, almost on a daily basis. Feedback is also a way for all of us to refine our ideas. Scott Page, in his book The Difference mentions how the power of diversity helps complex problem solving. By inviting feedback for our thoughts and ideas, we're inviting diverse perspectives and heuristics to solve the problems we face. By involving a diverse enough group, we're likely to reach a better solution - if you're to believe Scott Page. A social learning culture thrives when people don't fear feedback. This is when people ask other people to be part of their ideas.

Questions for you to ponder over:
  • How often do people share feedback in your organisation? What are the safety levels like?
  • How comfortable do people feel when inviting new opinions for their ideas?
  • Do people innovate in isolation? Or do you see groups organically coming together to put new ideas into action?
Passionate People
"Most writers, including myself, talk about this stuff and stress the ability of the people is really important. While that's true it misses out the fact that it's not just about ability - it's also about collaborativeness." - Martin Fowler

If there's one thing that really makes me proud to be a part of this company, it's the fact that I work with some of the smartest people on the planet. We're better known as Martin Fowler's and (more recently) Jim Highsmith's company. That said, Martin and Jim are only the torchbearers for an organisation where "You can never be the smartest peson in the room.", as my colleague Sudhir Tiwari says. While Roy's social experiment was about being a home for the best knowledge workers - a collective of smart people brings some interesting side effects. Smart people, who are genuinely passionate about doing the best they can at their jobs, naturally collaborate. Being genuinely smart, they don't feel a sense of insecurity involving other smart people. Working in a group that has a high density of smart people means that you have the best chance of finding solutions from your colleagues. Most importantly, smart people know how to learn - if being social is a way to do that effectively, they'll jump on it at the first opportunity. Our success as a learning organisation comes from the fact that we're built on more a social model, than a business model.

Questions for you to ponder over:
  • "A players hire A players; B players hire C players" - Guy Kawasaki. Are you hiring the best people you possibly can?
  • "Yet, if we don’t have passion in our work, we will have a very hard time enduring the growing pressures that we encounter. An interesting thing happens when we pursue our passions: We actually seek out more challenges. Rather than viewing them as sources of stress, we view them as opportunities to get better faster. " - John Seely Brown. How passionate are your people about their work? Are they seeking out new challenges? 
  • How good are you at maintaining a high talent density in your company? How do you weed out mediocrity?
  • How do your best people connect? How can you model those connections using social software?

I started out thinking this was going to be a really short article. Turns out that this is one of the longer posts I've written in the recent past. I try my best to ensure that this blog is not about my employers or my current job, but in some situations I just can't help bringing in my immediate experience. I hope the ThoughtWorks story can help you find ways to cultivate a social learning culture in your organisation. I want to point out another article by Lars Hyland, that should be helpful in building the right kind of culture to support social software. And by the way, I'd love your feedback -- let me know how you feel about the thoughts I've presented in this blogpost. Did you like them? Did you hate them? Just let me know!


Paula Thornton said...

Phenomenal depth. Still reading...

Most critical is the cultural maturity you spoke of. In most cultures I've lived in a questioning being such as myself is looked at with derision and accused of not being a 'team player' (such language is a tell-tale sign of 'smell' -- love your analogy).

Paula Thornton said...

One item upon which I might disagree is the potential to avoid social software in lieu of elearning or training (the latter of which I consider mostly useless -- but then again, that's just been my experience).

In company after company, the first gap I always find is people's inability to find each other based on what they do and their interests. Most companies, barely provide name directories (many of which you have to know the exact spelling of someone's last name in order to even begin to search for them -- to whit, you have to know them to find them).

Not to suggest that social software addresses this issue directly, but the ability to serendipitously find people who can help you is far more likely (I'm pretty sure elearning and training aren't going to address this issue).

Sumeet Moghe said...

Great point Paula. I have a huge thing for serendipity and I absolutely love the way John Seely Brown touches upon the phenomenon in his book. I've written about it briefly here.

Martin Couzins said...

Great post, Sumeet. We use Yammer in our organisation and it has been very useful for 'finding each other', so I agree with your point, Paula. More than that, Yammer gives visibility to experts in different parts of the business, which can be very powerful.

Kelly said...

People build productive, collaborative teams when they have opportunities to get to know each other within the workplace, and thus feel comfortable enough with their colleagues to express opinions honestly and ask questions without fear of criticism. These relationships develop organically, but as Paula points out, social media can accelerate that kind of natural collaboration.

First, if people don't know who their colleagues are, how can they be expected to understand what they can contribute to a team? And second, if there is a constant stream of honest discussion and questions occurring over Yammer or similar, the interaction is de-formalized and thus less intimidating for new participants.

Sumeet, your company sounds like an amazing place to work, with a really creative and positive culture.

Harry said...

Sumeet - I would like to add one more to the four main ingredients of social learning culture you stated: a sense of sharing. Some have questions and some have answers and they collaborate to get better. But, some don't have a clue what's happening on the other side of their world and they are in the illusion that they are doing rocking awesome. There is no 'need' for them to question as they think they are enough good at what they do. Here, people who learn how to do certain task in a better way should make sure that they share this learning with their larger group. And they should be intrinsically motivated to do so, not by any organizational perks for them to post a blog or start a discussion forum. A sense of sharing enriched with a sense of ownership of the organizational learning is the fifth ingredient I have been blabbering about above.
Thanks for the post; it's great.


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Shal S said...

Great Article Sumeet. I have been following your blog for a while... It's inspiring and informative to say the least. Keep writing!

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