Monday, January 24, 2011

Does Hiring play a part in a Social Learning Culture?


One of the most popular posts on this blog is about my ideas of what constitutes a social learning culture. In that article, I wrote about the need to bring together the most passionate people you can find for your business. If that is true, then intelligent hiring has to be at the center of an organisation's social learning strategy. While technology is crucial to the success of a social learning initiative, at the center of it all are people. In today's blogpost I want to articulate my points about why hiring is crucial to success of a social business and ask if L&D has a place in developing a hiring approach for the organisation.

The 90-9-1 Rule
Wikipedia's most active 1,000 people — 0.003% of its users — contribute about two-thirds of the site's edits. - Nielsen, 2006

I've linked to this resource several times and to me it represents the constraint for most communities. Researcher Jacob Nielsen in his 2006 alertbox said that in most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action. This is what we often term as the Participation Inequality principle of online communities. Now if we were to extend this principle to a mid-sized company of let's say 2000 users, that gives you about 20 people contributing to all the action on your social platform. Traditional hiring eventually norms to an equilibrium similar to that of the outside world. 1% on the big, broad internet still amounts to thousands of users. 1% participaton the intranet, is something that an organisation serious about social learning can ill afford to live with.

I Think of Workplace Learners on a Spectrum
When interviewing people, I like to investigate their inclination and approach to learning. Now what I use, has no scientific basis though I want to introduce it to you all the same. I tend to think of people on a spectrum as you'll see above. On the left hand are the people who I call the laggards (for want of a better term). These are the people who cannot articulate their approach to learning clearly and don't present evidence of being self driven in how they learn, share and connect. The dormants on the other hand show evidence that they can learn when presented with a challenge, but don't quite demonstrate that they can drive their own learning. They do show promise and are perhaps only awaiting inspiration. The learners are the third kind of people on my spectrum. These individuals can show evidence of having proactively picked up several new skills over the past few years. They however aren't in a position to influence change in their peers, because of their current lack of sharing and connection. The resistors are a special kind of people on the spectrum and I'm not even sure if they're a different breed. These are learners who already share and connect in their own way. Despite their obvious ability to be social learners, they're resistant of newer approaches to learning and can often be wary of new tools, platforms and strategies. The really special people are the sharers, who can not just drive their own learning, but have no trouble adjusting to any kind of collaborative environment. The tools are only a means to an end -- they focus on making the most of the environment they get.

Now I'm not trying to pitch my approach to you - it obviously is very 'me'. What I'm trying to say here is that learning is also a skill and different people show different levels of proficiency with this skill. To build a true learning organisation, you need to avoid hiring the laggards and dormants until they demonstrate evidence of at least being able to drive their own learning proactively. While job interviews focus a lot on core competence, I wonder if it's crucial that we try to gauge learning ability when you're hiring?

Emergent and Novel Practice need Sharing
A lot of knowledge management thinking draws from Dave Snowden's work on the Cynefin model. Snowden describes situations, models and systems by way of four main domains - Simple, Complicated, Complex and Chaotic. For simple problems, the cause and effect relationship is absolutely clear. You could write a five step process to solve the problem and you'll get the same results each time. It is akin to turning the handle on a sausage machine - you know exactly what to expect. For problems in the complicated domain, there's again a clear cause and effect relationship, but you need to analyse the situation to establish this. Once you've understand cause and effect, you can easily apply an established practice.

It's here that things become interesting. When problems head into the complex domain, cause and effect are so mixed up that you can determine the relationship only in hindsight. Depending on how a few parameters change, things can look quite different. This is where story telling and experience sharing is crucial. Knowledge sharing helps establish patterns that can help identify cause and effect relationships. This leads to solutions in this space (emergent practice). What's even more interesting is the chaotic domain, where there's no visible relationship between the cause and effect. This is where problem solving becomes iterative and we do what seems like a good choice. Depending on the result, we retrospect and take the next step. In the chaotic domain, collaboration helps drive the right decisions eventually leading to a novel solution for a novel problem.

Most organisations are looking to outsource problems in the simple domain. Organisations are likely to retain the problems in the complicated domain, but the problems that we have little idea about are in the complex and chaotic domains. We need sharers to solve these problems. Hiring helps us seed our organisations with smart people that are willing to share, collaborate and connect to solve tomorrow's problems.
After that rather long setup, the question I want to ask is if L&D needs to play a larger role in the way organisations hire. If we really care as much about collaboration and knowledge sharing in the enterprise, then is there a case for us to invest ourselves strongly in our employers' people strategy? How can we help HR identify the meta-cognitive candidates that can be the sharers our businesses need? If we say we don't need to bother with this , then are we saying we can afford participation inequality? What do you think?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Challenges and Failure are Great Tools for Learning

For the last few months I've been a self confessed fan and avid user of iPhone OS. Yesterday, as an impulse buy, I picked up a Droid. Months of conditioning to Apple's interface left me confused when I first saw the HTC Sense skinned Android interface. That was at noon yesterday. A little over a day and I'm happily doing all of my mobile computing tasks using my Android. It doesn't surprise you that I didn't need any training, does it? But here are some questions for you.

Did the inventor of the wheel have training? Did Alexander Selkirk who was castaway on an island and survived for four years before rescue have any training? If you embark on a project out of your comfort zone, will you really need up-front training on the domain? The answer to all of these questions is perhaps a "No". For the last few years, I've been thinking that not just the elearning that we create, but also the way we choose to educate in classrooms and corporate boardrooms is ineffective and outdated, given the information explosion we have today. What's the purpose of any education? To prepare us for real life, don't you think? If that's something we agree with, then education should no longer be about disseminating information. Education should be about simulating real life challenges - the information should be incidental to solving the problem. Work, on the other hand needs to build in the safety for failure. In today's blogpost, I want to share a few thoughts about the place for challenges in today's education and work environments.

Information is already out there
As I struggled with my new phone, I decided some information could be handy. Not surprisingly, all the information I needed was available when I needed it. A quick tour of the HTC Sense interface came with the setup application on the phone. Information about really useful Android apps came to me through a Google search. Even when I was planning to buy the phone, I got all the information I needed by searching through reviews on the internet. Now this may all seem simple because I'm just talking of a phone switch. I do think however, that you'll agree with me when I say that information of most kinds is already available to us - regardless of the subject. We no longer face an information famine - it's all there at the click of a mouse. Why then, do our models of education and training retain the legacy of the 80's when information was scarce and available with only a few experts? Now that most of the information is already out there, I believe we need our experts and 'trainers' to be more than just information bearers.

Failure is a great teacher


"The main point is that, if we continue to look at education as if it's about coming to school to get the information and not about experiential learning, empowering student voice and embracing failure, we're missing the mark... Because learning has to include an amount of failure, because failure is instructional in the process." - Diana Laufenberg

You should definitely watch this talk by Diana Laufenberg where she talks about her experience of teaching children in different schools and how she has found mistakes to be an integral part of learning. At ThoughtWorks we believe in a culture of 'failing fast and learning from our mistakes'. That's because learning is an iterative process and not an dimension free event. I remember that I've learned most of the skills I practice today through years of applying them and having failed several times. Failure has taught me the ways that don't work and as a consequence I've learned the ways that work for me. Learning is effective when it's painful, but most learning experiences tend to try and lay a red carpet for the learner. We do our best to tell them 'the right way to do things' and coach them through the 'one right answer'. What happened to good, old fashioned exploration? Now I know that an 'instructionally sound' approach of leading the learner down 'the right path' seems very elegant, but this is what I call 'false elegance'. It seems like very intelligent design in comparision to the trial and error approach of learning, but we all know at the bottom of our hearts that the messy, failure ridden road is the one that builds true skill. Why then, do educational programs not encourage failure? Why don't companies build in the safety to fail, so people can keep learning from their mistakes? After all if people keep learning, the organisation tends to keep growing.

Information creates Knowledge, but Challenges create experience

The downside to pushing your content to the learners is that it assumes that all of the information is equally relevant to the learners and meets their learning needs. - Tom Kuhlmann

I'm a big believer in the power of pull to create learning. As human beings, we're an extremely adaptive race. Given a challenge, we'll usually gather the know-how to solve the problem. Challenges need to be at the center of modern learning experiences. Be it training, or elearning, when there are challenges that are as close to the real world as possible, we help learners build the confidence and experience to respond to similar challenges at the workplace. For example at ThoughtWorks University, graduates have the challenge of building a real world application for a real world client. The challenge has everything you'll see in real life, delivery pressures, technical complexity, teamwork, consulting, etc. By the end of the experience, we're not just helping the grads to learn the skills they'll need at their job - we're helping them to learn how to learn.

Setting challenges is just a better use of people as well. We don't need to hire expert trainers in hordes if only we can build in safety to fail at the workplace. Intelligent workscape design can help in a big way. In instructional situations, designers can work with SMEs to create authentic challenges. SMEs on the other hand can serve as coaches (or virtual coaches) to guide people through the struggle. In face to face situations, this is a way to foster leadership - after all a lot of leadership skills are the same as the ones we need to become good coaches.
As we head into the next generation of learning technology, I wonder if our focus needs to be around designing experiences over designing information dumps. I'm a big believer in the fact that learning is a process, and not an event - how can we put our learners on a diet of information and let real world challenges determine if they even need all that information in the first place? What do you think? Is pull overrated, or can we do significantly better as instructional designers? I welcome your comments!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

If you want to do good, do it today

Over the last couple of months, my wife and I have been caring for and feeding a few stray pups in our neighbourhood. For those of you for whom this is an alien concept, in India, every neighbourhood has packs of strays. Often they're made out to be a menace, and they can be with their pack behaviour, especially when protecting their territories and often when they're rabid or just plain hungry. Most times though, they're just good dogs, and just like other dogs, they are lovable, friendly and loyal.

Coming back to the original topic, my wife and I had been caring for this new litter and every now and then we thought of putting the pups in a shelter so they could have a good life and maybe find a permanent family. And then every weekend, something would come up and we'd think that we were doing our bit by feeding the pups, so we kept putting off the idea.

When I came back from my latest vacation, I noticed that some of the pups were missing, particularly a male pup I called Tawny. Tawny was always weak and lower in the pack order - so he always got scraps for his meal. Perhaps he died of starvation. Wimpy and Brownie, two of my other favourites had grown. I had another thought about taking them to the shelter, but I then thought that they seemed to be doing well, so I put the idea off again.

A few nights back an intruding pack of dogs attacked Brownie and Wimpy. Brownie was walking around with a twisted neck two nights back and I had to rush her to the veterinary hospital and shelter. Wimpy on the other hand, breathed her last this morning. I could have stopped this from happening.

I think there's a moral in this for me and for others. If you have a thought about doing good for someone - just do it. Don't postpone it for another day - sometimes life has a way of making you regret it.

Monday, January 10, 2011

5 Simple Ideas to Avoid Presentation Nervousness


A few weeks back I was in a conversation with one of my smartest and most confident colleagues. What he told me might leave you a bit surprised. If your were to meet this gentleman in person, you'd have no idea that someone like him would ever be nervous. As it turns out, he was talking about his problem of getting nervous when he stands up and speaks in front of a large audience. Now, I must say I wasn't one bit surprised to hear what he had to say, because frankly I know very few people who aren't nervous of public speaking and presenting. In today's blogpost I want to share the advice I shared with my friend - five tips to deal with presentation fright.

The Show Begins Before the Presentation
It's very tempting to spend the last few minutes before your presentation rehearsing your slides, thinking of your punchlines and deciding how you'll wow your audience. Frankly, it's a really bad idea to do so because it means you'll spend time away from the audience that's gathering at the venue. Why is it easier to speak to people you already know, than to present to an audience that you don't know at all? Familiarity brings a level of comfort and safety. Too often, the time you spend staying aloof from your audience, gold plating your presentation, is the time you can use to build familiarity and comfort. So how about the next time you present, you try to mingle with your audience, get to know a few people by name and see how you can use the friendly faces in the audience to give you confidence?

Don't Blow Your own Trumpet
The other day I saw this really funny Dilbert strip and it reminded me of a session at the recent DevLearn conference. The speaker (his name isn't important) started off his session with a few minutes about who he was and pointed out that the most important thing for us to know was that he had about 30 years of experience in L&D. I found that amusing at the time, because he was speaking of social media in the workplace - a youth driven phenomenon that has come up just in the last few years. How did the 30 years of experience matter? In my mind he had set his billing quite high at that point and the only direction he could go was south. cIn fact, he didn't do his 30 years of experience any good when he said that there's there's a version of Facebook and MySpace that you can install behind your firewall. As it turned out, the talk was a huge disappointment for me personally and was the only session I didn't report.

Martin Fowler once told me that if you have to tell your audience how good you are before you start your presentation, it's an indirect indication that your talk is not good enough to establish your credibility. Why would you want to brag and then set yourself up for failure? Presentation guru Olivia Mitchell shares some very practical tips on how you can establish your credibility without bragging at the start of your talk. Frankly she's got some great tips to relieve the pressure that a chest thumping self introduction can create for you.

Fight the Murphy Monkey

"As you get to speak, it's as if a (Murphy) monkey has suddenly jumped onto your shoulders. He claws your neck and weighs you down - making your knees feel weak and shaky." - John Townsend, The Trainer's Pocketbook

Regardless of how experienced a speaker is, the feeling of nerves is always there. Everyone feels a little nervous when addressing an audience, especially an unfamiliar one. Experienced speakers however, will deal with this quite well. As Townsend says, they know about the Murphy monkey. You'll notice that a lot of great speakers will start their talks with a question, or a show of hands, or a quick activity or icebreaker. They might initiate a discussion, tell a story or ask for a volunteer. This is a way to not just engage your audience from the start but also a way to share the spotlight with them somewhat. For sometime, during the tense initial minutes, you've thrown the monkey off your back and thrown it to your audience. I've found this to be a good way to take the pressure off myself and get the rest of the presentation into a relaxed, conversational mode.

Practice Exclusion while you work on Inclusion

“Creativity means creative choices of inclusion and exclusion.” - Robert McKee

As experts on the topics we speak on, it's natural to have heaps to say. Of course, everything is important and we want people to get a 'complete picture'. Unfortunately people can retain only so much at the end of a standard 60 minute talk. To top it, the more points we need to cover and the more complicated the talk, the more we need to remember. As a consequence there's more pressure on us as speakers. On the other hand, if we were to keep the main presentation simple without being simplistic, the details are likely to emerge from conversation. Conversation helps ease the pressure in presentation situations. It's important to know how your audience is likely to pull the details, and drive out depth that way instead of putting all the pressure on yourself to push out all the information. Olivia Mitchell's excellent guide helps you stop information overload in your presentations.

Manage your Environment
Last but not the least, I want to mention a problem I face often. At ThoughtWorks University, often the hotel room gets really cold when we switch on the air conditioning. Conversely when we switch of the air conditioning, it gets warm and comfortable, but at the same time it becomes hot and sweaty if you're a really active speaker. The feeling of being hot in a large room doesn't help any presenter's mental state. To add to this, a warm, comfortable room after a heavy lunch in the afternoon is an invitation for a snoozefest, regardless of how engaging the speaker is.

I've also walked into rooms with several chairs arranged neatly in rows when I've got just about 15-20 people in the room. People have a tendency to sit in a scattered fashion if the room allows them to. I like to get people into one distinct cluster, as close to myself as possible. That way, it's easier to interact with the audience and keep things conversational. If I have group exercises, they're easier to run this way as well. More importantly, the feeling of having one group close up as against several splinters all across the room feels significantly less intimidating. The less intimidated I am, the more likely I am to be myself.
If you present often, I'm sure you feel nervous every now and then. How do you deal with the stage fright? I'd love to hear your tips and I'm sure others who read this article will find those useful too. Please drop your ideas in the comments section. Thanks for reading - see you here next week!

Saturday, January 01, 2011

In 2011, I hope L&D partners with Focussed HR

It's been a great year - before I write another word, I'd like to thank you for reading this blog. For the few people that subscribe to this blog, thanks for your support. I also want to apologise for missing last week's blogpost while on holiday, but I must say the break has done me a world of good and I'll be hitting the digital space with a vengeance in this new year. Speaking of the new year, I have a wish. I wish that we can revive the age-old partnership between L&D and HR. I've always believed that to create a true learning workscape, L&D, HR and IT form a facilitation conglomerate. It takes great organisational and individual will to make this relationship thrive, with HR sitting bang in the center of it all. This is my resolution for the year as well, and in today's blogpost I want to explain why I feel that a strategic HR focus can help L&D in a big way.

HR still focusses on all the unimportant things
Don't get me wrong, it isn't that HR is incapable of focussing on what really matters. It's just that policy management, performance appraisals and transactional HR operations are the traditional sweet spot for the trade. With an absolute lack of leadership interest (and understanding), HR departments in a lot of organisations seem to revert to the steady state of doing the easiest transactions than driving a fluffy, unsupported strategy. That said, with what companies like Atlassian are doing with things such as performance reviews, it's only a matter of time before we see how little the value is in managing these heavy processes.

It also irks me to see smart, forward thinking HR professionals get stuck into defining policies and managing their untiring use in the company. Frankly, most policies are a matter of common sense and when we follow protocol while disregarding common sense, Dilbert happens! For example Netflix doesn't have a leave policy and their rationale is that when they don't measure the number of hours people spend at work, then why measure how many leaves people take? By employing and retaining the best people they possibly can, Netflix promotes a culture of freedom, responsibility, innovation and self-discipline as against a culture of process adherence. Is there a way we can run our companies with the minimum amount of process possible, so HR can focus on what really matters?

“There is also no clothing policy at Netflix, but no one has come to work naked lately.”  – Patty McCord, Netflix

Three Areas I'd really like to see HR focus in 2011
As my little picture above may indicate, I hope HR can redefine their focus to being Human Resource Development than being just Human Resource Management. Smart people can manage themselves and self-organise when the need comes by. On the other hand, an organisation needs to do it's best to grow its best people, help facilitate the right culture in the workplace and do what it takes to attract new, smart people into the fold. This is crucial for L&D as this is the context that we operate in. The more we can do to assist our HR colleagues in this space, the better results we're likely to see in our own work.

Strategic Sourcing

"Great workplace is stunning colleagues. Great workplace is not day-care, espresso, health benefits, sushi lunches, nice offices, or big compensation, and we only do those that are efficient at attracting stunning colleagues."
- Netflix

It would seem that free food, parties, and little bubblegummy activities in office will attract and retain the best people. As it turns out, the best people are the best people because they're passionate about their jobs. They do their job because they're love them to the extent that it doesn't feel like a job. It's what Dan Pink calls a state of 'flow', in his awesome graphic novel - The Adventures of Johnny Bunko. As the world moves to newer, more efficient ways of learning we need to ask ourselves if we're hiring people who know how to learn. 'Social' is the new skill for this decade. Knowledge workers need more than technical skills - can L&D help HR seek out the best knowledge workers who've mastered meta learning?

Workplace Culture
I can't say enough about the importance of a great learning culture. In fact, I don't say it's important - Bersin says so. OK, I wrote about this a couple of weeks back as well! I strongly believe that a strong learning culture doesn't emerge out of nowhere. It requires facilitation, nurturing and strong leadership. Over the years, I can say ThoughtWorks has been fortunate to have Roy Singham as the chairman and founder challenge us each day to learn, question, debate and be a part of shaping a progressive company. It's taken 18 years to build this culture at my organisation and at the heart of it was a conscious social experiment. Given that L&D is such a strong stakeholder in this and given that HR can be a strong partner in this endeavour, how can we help build a culture of curiousity, questioning, collaboration and learning?

Talent Management

"Companies that reach maturity, need to focus more on coaching and development"
- Josh Bersin

A few months back, I attended a webinar on development driven performance management with Josh Bersin. While the focus of the talk was about harnessing the performance management process to drive organisational development, some of benefits Josh outlined were pretty clear. Coaching and development based models help in:
  • retaining top performers
  • hiring the best people
  • developing employees
  • developing leadership pipelines
  • and developing great leaders
Add to this an enviable opportunity to influence the markets your company can compete in, the new customers they can target, the new products/ services they can innovate - you're talking about some real, tangible benefits here. Coaching and development happen to be L&D competencies, but to drive them we need HR support. As another side of the coin, we have the opportunity to think ahead of the curve with HR here. What are the development challenges our companies are likely to face in the next 24 months? What skills and competencies will we need then? What do we need to do today, so that when those challenges arrive, our people can get ready fast? How can we build a workscape that helps people grow and learn every day of their job? How can we address the development challenge HR faces each time they try to be 'strategic'?
I believe we're stepping into an era of convergence. The lines between departments and different functional competencies will need to blur if an organisation has to function and thrive. L&D was traditionally a part of HR and there's good reason for people to place us there. Somewhere, with the advent of technology and the social web, we might be positioning ourselves a little too far from a place where we can make significant impact. Can 2011 bring us closer to our mates in HR? Can we create the facilitation conglomerate that'll lend teeth to our work? I guess only 2011 can tell. Best wishes and a very happy new year!
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