Sunday, July 22, 2012

Here's why consistency is terribly overrated in corporate education

One of the things that we talk quite a bit in corporate education is consistency. I've spoken about it quite a bit earlier as well. It seems this is something that every training manager out there is thinking about. After all, if you want to train hundreds of people, then you need a consistent process and a consistent output. There's a small problem though, people aren't consistent. And the last I checked, if you place an inconsistent set of inputs into an extremely consistent process, you still get very inconsistent results. One size fits all, fits no one. In today's blogpost, I want to outline the problems with consistency and the alternatives that corporate education and education at large needs.

Is the obsession with scale and consitency a monoculture of the mind?

A few days back, my colleagues Rohit and Sriram spoke about monocultures of the mind. In particular they attacked the monocultured notion that "If it can't scale it's no good." For my benefit and for my argument I want to repeat what I understood of Rohit's argument. First - what is scale?
Scale is any undertaking where more than a few people come together and organise themselves for a purpose determined by a small set of people at the top.
The benefits of scale are things we've talked about several times, but there's one big problem with scale. While a majority complies and bears the brunt of scaling, only a minority reaps its benefit. And of course, as you increase scale and there are more people involved, you create so many levels of abstraction in your process, that you also increase the level of dysfunction.

The problems with scale

Rohit and Sriram talked about the further problems with scale. Let me list them out:

  1. When you separate planning and execution to scale, you effectively lose local solutions that individuals earlier had, albeit over a period of time. Take the example of the green revolution in India. It introduced fertilisers and pesticides to increase agricultural yield, but 40 years hence, we've lost the local solutions that farmers then had, so they could deal with the problem.
  2. The separation of planning and execution create way too many levels of abstraction. This leads to hidden incompetence and learned helplessness because people working at the service end of the process have lost connection with the reason why they do things in a certain way. You lose autonomy and ownership at the individual level, because at the end, everyone is just 'doing a job'.
  3. Scale leads to standardisation. For example, everyone in corporate India speaks English. In fact that's what I've spoken as a first language for all my life. This means though, that we're losing our diversity - I can't speak Bengali or Hindi or Marathi fluently though these are family languages!
  4. The most disturbing effect however is the apathy that the division of responsibilities causes. When I went to Bharatpur, I shared a lunch with my guide Mr Bhim Singh Rana. Rana farms for a living, but he doesn't eat the grains he farms. Instead he has a smaller plot of land where he grows his own food, devoid of pesticides and fertilisers. He's aware that this reduces his yield, but he'd rather have the non-toxic food. Isn't this a problem? The buyers of his grain are separated by so many layers of anonymity that he doesn't really care about poisoning them. His concern for me and the quality of food I had with him was a stark contrast to this apathy.
Try to relate these same problems to top down, large scale, consistent educational programs and you'll know why I have little faith in our education system.

People are different, so why does learning have to be consistent?

"It's I believe we have a system of education which is modelled on the interest of industrialism...Schools are still pretty much organised on factory lines...We still educate (children) by batches...If you are interested in the model of learning you don't start from this production line mentality...It's about standardisation...I believe we've got go in the exact opposite direction...That's what I mean about changing the paradigm." - Ken Robinson
If Sir Ken Robinson says something like this you've got to sit up and take notice. Learning is a very personal exercise. People learn differently. They prefer a different combination of modalities given the context, they have different talents, motivations. You cannot make curriculum the confinement of human experience.

So what does education need instead?

"We deal right now in the educational landscape with an infatuation with the culture of one right answer that can be properly bubbled on the average multiple choice test. I am here to share with you, it is not learning." - Diana Laufenberg
In my view what educators (corporate or not) need is a way to empower themselves. The old model of education where we needed scale, was based on an assumption. An assumption that knowledge is scarce. And since that assumption was true, you could make sense of the 'sage-on-a-stage', 'butts-in-seats', 'everyone-does-the-same-thing' model. As it turns out, knowledge is not scarce today, so educators need to let go of that part of their roles give way to democratised means of gathering knowledge. Share the context, and set them free. We have examples of great knowledge sources all around us. Starting from Wikipedia, all the way to Khan Academy, going right upto iTunesU. Corporates have a unique opportunity to use modern web media to create similar, yet contextualised knowledge sources for their organisations. I believe that we need to drive these knowledge sources using social, collaborative technology with new media at the center. Democracy is at the centre of content creation on the consumer web. Why can't it be in the enterprise?

So what is the educator's role then, if it isn't to disseminate theory? I believe the educator's role in today's world focusses on skills instead of knowledge. Face to face interaction is a wonderful thing - this is an opportunity to solve complex challenges in a collaborative setting. Educators have a wonderful chance today, to participate as coaches, as facilitators of this collaborative experience. In that, you have a repeatable process, but one that is daringly inconsistent and individualised. Those learning have the choice to pick their own learning path to the challenge. Once in the challenge, they have the opportunity to decide how much they wish to stretch themselves. As they stretch their own selves, they challenge educators to support them through this journey. We now have the opportunity to create educational contexts where mistakes are the norm, we view failure as a stepping stone to learning and eventual success and there's no one-right-answer.

The obsession with consistency and scale isn't new. It's something I've seen since the last decade and perhaps even earlier. In a way, the recession was a good thing for the industry. Several companies took some time to focus on learning without having to bother about massive scale given their reduced hiring targets. I'd be concerned though, if the attitude changes when the market does. I'd hope that Ken Robinson, Salman Khan, Diana Laufenberg, Sugata Roy and others have taught us enough about autonomy and individualisation for us to bury the notion of consistency once and for all.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The world's big cats need saving - learn, help, spread the word

I recently spoke at ThoughtWorks XConf - an internal conference that we run in several parts of the world now. I stayed clear of topics related to work and spoke about my six week big cat trail instead and the conservation challenges that these wonderful animals face. Here's a video of the talk.

On a personal note, if Tequila was alive today, she'd be 3 years and 6 months old. You may think I'd be over that tragedy, but I've never been. I miss her every day of my life and for some reason, I miss her a lot today. People who have dogs will empathise with the pain and the regret I have behind that loss. I might go to her resting place tomorrow and say hi. Enough of the personal bit, thanks for reading.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Next big innovation for Enterprise Social Software - Simplicity

One of the things I remember reading about, early on in my enterprise 2.0/ social business journey was Andrew Mcafee's definition of what makes social software tick. He spoke of three characteristics - emergent, freeform and frictionless. Those definitions still ring true in my head. As I look at how enterprise social software matures it seems to be moving away from those characteristics quite a bit. To the extent, that enterprise social software loses the edge it promised to provide.

Do one thing and keep it simple

One of the features of consumer social software which in turn encourages enterprise use cases is the fact that most of these tools do one thing and they do it well. Take for example Twitter - 140 character status updates. Or Pinterest - create a digital pinboard. Or for that matter delicious - create a list of online, shareable bookmarks. Let's look at Path - share updates with your close friends. Each of these platforms keep things quite simple. One metaphor, really simple usage - so much so, that despite the fact that Twitter keeps its help hidden under an obscure menu, you don't miss the lack of instruction.

Enterprise social bloatware?

Compare this to a lot of the enterprise social software you see. Let's take for example - I have nothing against the platform; it's great. I just need a scapegoat. is a wiki, a blogging platform, a file repository, a discussion forum, a social bookmarking platform - all at the same time. And more! So, do I create a document or a discussion or a blogpost? If Sheena Iyengar taught me anything - more choice is not always a good thing. People like to stick with the status quo and not choose anything. Is that really what we want as a consequence of enterprise social software?

Let's be real

For a lot of us social media enthusiasts, life's a nice happy bubble. We hang out with other social media geeks, we network with them online, they sing its praises as we do and it seems the world has changed. Yes the world has changed, but only so much. For a large number of people and granted they may not be a majority, social media still isn't their bread and butter for communication. Complex social platforms that combine several features and numerous bells and whistles only scare them away. Think about it - if you're not social media savvy and you have to make a choice between a wiki, a status update, a blogpost and a discussion - what would you do? And what if you had to break through the most complex security system to access this platform when you can easily get to email on your Blackberry? (note I say Blackberry, not iPhone) Let's appreciate that there's a non-trivial audience size that fits this description and the only way social software wins is by being undisputedly easier and better.

Back to the basics

We need to rethink our strategy with social business platforms. We need simplicity - one metaphor, simple usage patterns. The more sophisticated we make the platforms, the more difficult the change, the more resistance the poorer the uptake. This is when people question change - if something isn't 10x better than the status quo, we naturally choose the status quo. Cisco seems to have thought this through with Cisco Webex Social by taking away superficial choices from content creation. Yammer's always been very good at this - they're a Twitter clone for the enterprise. I say that with great respect. Socialcast seems to be doing this right too. I can't say this however for the majority of the social business landscape. Let's remember the frictionless bit of McAfee's definition. I believe the future is bright, but not blingy. I fear that the focus for some social software giants is turning out to be bling, though. Please, for the sake of all we stand for - get back to the basics!
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