Wednesday, 31 July 2013


This is the 3rd post in my summer series which tries to help people in organisations who have not yet addressed the internet and social media revolution and its impact on learning to understand what is happening.

That’s a question that is often asked and there is really no clear answer because it is a very mixed up world.  On the one hand, as I described in the first post in this series, there has been a massive shift in the way individuals and the social community at large interact, share and learn from one another. However, as always, organisations are much slower in adapting to the social changes around them – which puts those who cannot adapt and become agile at risk.

Before I begin to give some practical suggestions in my next post there is one important area that I need to explore to complete the scenario in which we are now working.

The shift from hierarchy through wirearchy to something very unpredictable is a challenge for organisations built around strategy, structure, process and procedure. It strikes at the very heart of the way they were created and have evolved to succeed over long periods of time. They evolved from military command and control thinking which held sway until after the 2nd World War.

The world has changed and enterprises in every sector of our society now need to re-examine their value proposition and the culture and organisation processes that enable them to continue to create value. Open information and the breakdown of societal belief in privacy means that there needs to be a re-think of what is Intellectual Property. Crudely, the answer is that there is much less than many would like to believe. Where then is the value in an organisation’s tacit knowledge? What is saleable from knowledge based companies (and academia and training organisations)? How do they seek to engage people in the culture of all this openness?

Before I attempt to address the exciting and fast moving world of the emergent new directions, platforms and tools in the learning arena, I need to step back once again and look at how sharing is now happening in the workplace and what that means for those whose work is in focussing that interaction to improve performance – managers and enterprise leaders.

The communications revolution challenges not just the formal but also the informal elements of organisations. Two in particular come under scrutiny – team working and leadership. For decades organisational hierarchies have been obsessed by trying to create coherence amongst employees in order to create alignment, focus, effectiveness and efficiency. The new order questions all of those dimensions as it works from a self-starting, self-regulating, self-motivating model that only aligns itself to anything corporate so long as it meets the individual’s perceived needs.

Human Resource thinking is still archaically chasing concepts like on-boarding, competency profiles and job descriptions as processes and procedures.  While they are doing that, the world around them is interested in individual relationships, feelings of belonging and access to information when it is needed. Jef Staes describes it as the creation of a generation of sheep. The connection between the organisation and its people is not working. Organisations are not adapting fast enough to the paradigms of the people on whom they depend. Closed minds in IT departments, rigid authority levels, outdated rules about working hours, rigidity in process and procedure are all part of the same equation.

Leadership is not about hierarchy, seniority, position, power and structure. In the modern world it is about enabling, supporting, opening doors, trust, freedom, listening and building on ideas.  So the old maxims of teams become outdated. People will find their own relationships, using the power of the connected world to help themselves move forward in their work and their lives. They no longer need to be told what to do and to be herded and regulated into doing it. The revolution means they will do it themselves – inside or outside of company firewalls! Restrictions hold up work and productivity.  Far-fetched? No-one knows yet, but what is certain is that the constraints and shackles of traditional organisation theory and practice are being swept away.

As a young Training Officer, I grew up in, and became a passionate promoter of team working. Inter-disciplinary collaboration, common direction, belief in one another, recognition and mutual harnessing of skills were the orders of the day.  Still relevant?  Some believe not – and I am coming to the conclusion that the concept of team as we knew it even 10 years ago is rapidly disappearing. We now talk about the positive deviant, the age of innovation, the focus on individual contribution. We have technology and tools that may be making that close bonding less relevant. The concept of Parallel Working is gaining ground – using emerging technology which expresses these ideas to enable people who in the extreme may may not initially even know of one another but who are aiming towards similar goals to share information, to organise it in ways that are useful to them and to share whatever seems important in order to help one another. 

It may not even be happening within the organisation – collaboration of this kind (crowdsourcing is a good example) is frequently amongst a diverse and global 24/7 community that rapidly assembles, does its work and disappears again. The concept of an organisation owning a community is problematic unless all its members agree it is closed and inaccessible to the outside world. What is clearly emerging is an ever increasing focus on contribution and value add.  So how does that happen in a modern organisation?

Without repeating myself, the characteristics are already laid out earlier in this series. Achieving them is a huge challenge – as we un-learn the ways we have learned in the past and enter into the realms of the virtual – classrooms, teams, communities, immersive worlds and beyond. New business models, transformed ways of co-ordinating work, providing access to information, breaking the restrictive taboos of IT, compliance etc will be a rocky road, but one on which those who think openly and with a “what if” mentality are more likely to succeed.

Next time I will highlight some of the possibilities that are already being widely exploited.

Monday, 29 July 2013


This is the second post in my summer 2013 series designed to help people in the business world who have little understanding of modern learning and how it has been influenced by the connectedness of the internet

Over 15 years Andy Murray, the 2013 Wimbledon Men's Tennis Champion, honed his skills through endless hours of practice, analysis, experimentation, conceptualisation and incredibly hard work. From being a little boy he has had a burning ambition to be the best and above all, to win Wimbledon. He is exceptionally talented, a magnificent athlete and fired by a burning and passionate desire for success. That he has everything needed for success would be the conventional wisdom.  However since his emergence in a generation of tennis players that includes some of the best the world has ever seen he has struggled to reach the pinnacle. Now he has achieved it, so what has changed?

Actually nothing - but everything of course!   Murray's story is one of single minded and at times ruthless pursuit of everything that could lead to his excellence. Over the years he selected, fired and replaced a team of people to support him, seeking all the time for people in whom he had trust and with whom he developed a chemistry that bound them all together towards a single goal. Family, coaches, and experts came and went as Andy built his own Personal Leaning Network. The final step (to this point in a still evolving story) was the appointment of the unlikely, ice cool, hard man of tennis in Ivan Lendl. No previous coaching experience, out of the sport for 20 years, but an example of the chaotic and unpredictable journey that is learning. Something in Andy said "this is the man, someone in whom I can place my trust". Lendl meets Murray infrequently. He sits stony faced at court side at some tournaments. Apparently he says little, but the bond between the two greats is there for all to see. And as they say "the rest is history!"

What does this have to do with learning and especially leaning in the workplace?  Andy Murray's early tennis life was traditional. Lessons and coaching at school and the local tennis club, accelerated development through regional structures once his talent had been noticed, but then a break with the normal. Andy left the system - a system in Britain that has failed to produce anything like a Wimbledon Champion over 75 years - helped by a supportive mother who, despite being a part of that very system, recognised that it was not going to do what was needed. Overseas living, coaching regimes and relationships of varying lengths and quality, relationship turbulence with those around him that inevitably led to change, all of it a true example of the rhizonomy analogy of what is happening in learning.

Andy is an individual, and that is the point. Through his phenomenal will to succeed, he has done everything that he has seen as necessary to get to where he now is. He did not go to a conventional coach - he went outside of every established structure to find what he needed. He took in, used, discarded and moved on. He is a living illustration of modern learning, acquiring what he needed at the time he needed from whatever source he could find.

Murray is a special talent but his story has relevance to all of us involved in supporting workplace learning.

First we need to recognise that every one of us is an individual and all of our learning needs are different. We also need to recognise that they change over time. Formal training is important for some things, rigorous (but relevant!) assessment for others, but the basic journey has to be in the charge of and aligned to the individual to obtain their complete commitment to it. It is much more about the context, culture and environment than it is about the content. One size does not fit all - so a rigid curriculum, timetable, methodology, learning group and everything else that goes with our institutional learning is unlikely to lead reliably to exceptional performance. With the new external culture, constraints on organisations on their resources of time and money, new ways of thinking are required that enable the "Lendl factor" to become a reality for each student.

Learning is now, more than ever, a partnership if it is to be successful. It is centred around the individual but has to include management, peers, and experts at the workplace, tutors, mentors and coaches in institutions and an open culture that allows the freedom and access to information from whatever source that facilitates absorption, reflection, conceptualisation, experimentation and the devoted pursuit of skill.

In the future a continuance of rigid institutional regimes whether school, tertiary provider, commercial training company or workplace training function, will see them at increasing dissonance with the culture, drivers and actions of the learner. In today' fast moving, instant and unpredictable world institutions will need to demonstrate an agility, flexibility and real desire and commitment to listen to what learners want. Towards Maturity's 2012 study reveals just how far our provision is from understanding the needs of learners. What is needed at every level is a learner centred thought through strategy and new operational and business models to provide information and support that is needed.

Where organisational and cultural taboos hinder the implementation of change, they need to be swept away. Some examples would include unnecessary firewall protection of information and access to the Internet and the media, adherence to traditional assessment methodologies that are at best outdated and in many cases meaningless, functioning through attendance based curricula, the promotion of the "course" as the means to learning, demanding payment for content that is in the public arena and freely available. All of these frequently observed blockages are at variance with the modern learning world. They need to be challenged, reformed and re-designed to meet the needs of the individual who is the customer. New revenue streams will need to be defined, skill sets of the learning community upgraded and supported, management of information bases re-designed.

(readers of this post might also find it interesting to read Dan Coyle’s discoveries about learning )


This is the first in a series of posts intended to help people in the business world who have little knowledge of the changes in learning brought about by the internet - and to help them realise the significance of them

"Over the last 20 years the world has experienced one of its most fundamental changes since man learned to talk." That is the view of Prof Pierre Levy . He is commenting on the arrival of the Internet that has completely changed our view of communication, privacy and our concept of who is in our "circle".

Just over a hundred years ago our only means of communicating directly with someone out of earshot was to write a letter. In that hundred years telegraph, telephone, telegram, fax and others have all contributed to a process that has now reached maturity. We are now, through the Internet, able to communicate with just as many people as we wish, at any time, from almost wherever we are because we have mobile devices and social media, the new world in which we all live.

Lord Robert Winston (Emeritus Professor, Imperial College, London), agrees with Levy and concurs with him that the very nature of our brains is changing as our physiology and psychology adapts to open, constant, public communication. This is evolution on steroids as the changes are visible within a decade or less.

Just as SoMe have changed our lives, so has the explosion of technology. Whether it is the countless apps available on our Smart phones or the software that enables immensely complex simulations, games, models and the like, or the huge data gathering, storage, curation and analytical power of computers, we live in a world undreamed about a generation ago.

That very computer power has fuelled research that has catapulted forward what we now know about how, as humans, we learn. Educational theorists, psychologists, teachers and learning practitioners have been enabled to come together, share experience and data and to understand much more fully what motivates us and empowers us to learn.

One of the most fundamental new insights - which was subsumed in history during the Renaissance and the Age of Reason - is that we do not learn effectively through sermon, lecture, or textbook. While it is undisputed that the printing press made an earlier fundamental change to our world, it has also been suggested that the availability of written language to all held back our learning for centuries. Why could that be true? Certainly printed material, increasingly universal literacy, authorship and the growth of literature allowed the development of cognitive skills as never before.

However, that very growth created two important and related trends. It is necessary to step back at this point and recall how people learned before the printed word and even written language. It all happened through oral tradition and by life experience. Being in and amongst a family, community and later a larger tribe or society meant that throughout our lives we watched, listened, questioned, practised and in the end told others about how to survive and succeed, how to perform a craft, run a relationship, raise a family, influence those around us - and to be innovative to make our lives better.

So what did the printed and distributed word actually do? It caused us to become more inwardly focused. We reduced our questioning and observation of others as we sought knowledge from learned books. We talked to one another less. Secondly the printed word gave a huge lift to the academic world. Increasing literacy and books provided a brilliant platform for what became known as teaching and school. The one with the knowledge talked to those without who read, took notes, conducted exercises and tests and emerged with allegedly improved minds and skills.  All of that is true but while the printed word enabled it, the lack of accompanying suitable technologies to support and accelerate our ability to practice skill, combined with the puritanical rigours of the schoolroom which were designed to eliminate interaction, all combined to push into the background our inbred learning methodology of watching, asking and of offering experience to others.

To return to 2013 - all of those downsides are potentially swept away, but our whole education and training system is still stuck in a paradigm of classes, timetables, lecturers and teachers, books, exams, chalkboards, payment for knowledge and the like. We cling to methods that were established over 200 years ago - innovative at the time but now obsolete and out of touch with the world they are supposed to support

Our understanding of learning has recognised again that 90% of it happens outside of those old paradigms. We now have the platforms and technologies to enable us to re-engage with our humanity and its way of learning with power and reach beyond anything previously conceived.

Acknowledgement: Charles Jennings

The first step is to recognise the 90% reality and to respond to it with open minds and with imagination. People born since the emergence of the Internet and particularly since the arrival of Social Media and the Smart phone live in a world that has different constructs from their parents and grandparents. Knowledge comes from searching and asking - but not in books, rather from Google, Wikipedia, Twitter, WhatsApp, and all the tools that enable communities and communication.  Teachers, lecturers, Subject Matter Experts, formal classes and training courses are just some of the choices available and in the Internet age we go to the place where we find most help.

The requirement is for instant access to relevant information, expertise and help. Restrictions of rules, timetables, teacher and lecturer access, books, cost of information, unnecessary firewalls and the like are ruthlessly rejected. In this modern world there are plenty of ways of finding out what you need to know - and the digital literate is very skilled at using them.

What does it all mean? It means that we have to entirely re-think the whole of or education and workplace learning philosophies, structures and practices. Concepts like the paid-for degree, journal subscriptions, for profit training organisations, campuses need to be re-thought. Embracing the new will result in something radically different. Failure to do so will consign our existing learning structures to irrelevance and extinction

For the workplace the opportunities are huge in making learning relevant, exciting and a powerful lever for business success, while at the same time making it more cost-effective, and with a vastly extended reach.

Just one example. Much time on our current, expensive formal courses is spent passing factual content. Technology and platforms now allow for all of that to be done so that it is assumed (and may even be tested) before a community of learners ever meets with the "expert" - who is then able to add value by discussing implications, application and to help solve real problems.  And of course, webinars, virtual classrooms and the like question whether meeting together is actually necessary at all! Current opinion is that face to face contact in learning does have a place - there is something else in our humanity at play here, the human bond which fuels the development of understanding and trust between people which in turn oils the wheels of communication and learning.

We have to approach the future of workplace learning with openness, innovation, and an embracing mindset. It will be different,unpredictable and disruptive because the needs will be expressed by the individual in relation to their own requirements. Agility and responsiveness are the orders of the day.