Towards a Reflective and Collaborative Learning Culture

Last week I wrote a small teaser on learning for the team that I work in (mostly consisting of IT professionals, rather than learning professionals). I realized that some of the things I wrote could be interesting for this blog’s readers too. So here goes…

Learning culture has high business impact
Bersin & Associates have recently written an interesting report on the business impact of having a good learning culture. They define a learning culture as

The collective set of organizational values, conventions, processes and practices that influence and encourage both individuals and the collective organization to continuously increase knowledge, competence and performance.

Using a solid research methodology they identified key best practices that affect business outcomes. The most influential practices all center around empowering employees and demonstrating the value of learning. According to Bersin, it is management who has the biggest role to play as they have the most influence on these cultural practices. Their research showed

[..] that learning culture (represented by the 40 High-Impact Learning Culture practices) directly accounts for 46 percent of overall improved business performance as measured by the business outcomes examined [..]

Learning agility and innovation are the two business outcomes that benefit the most from a strong learning culture.

Many organizations have productive employees, but 98 percent of organizations with strong learning cultures have highly productive workforces.

That should be enough of a business case to try and strengthen the learning culture in any business.

Fast pace of change: activities and methodology over content
It is a cliché, but we really are working in an environment where the pace of change is ever increasing. Working with learning content that has taken months to produce will only be relevant for skills that do not change much. That content will not help in keeping knowledge workers up to date and will have little or no business impact.

An alternative is to focus on methodology and activities rather than on content. How can we change the things we do, our behavior, to create a culture of learning and more reflective way of collaborating? How can we truly embed learning? Trying to answer that question will require a very conscious design effort.

Leveraging the teaching paradox
There is a terrible paradox in teaching: by the very nature of the process it is the teacher who learns the most. Learning is most effective when creating something for others to experience  (see the explanation of constructionism here or this great article about the death of the digital dropbox). That is the reason why I love to present and also why I write this blog. If we want our employees to learn we have to put them into the role of teachers too.

Turning consumers into producers
You can overcome the teaching paradox by making sure that instead of asking people to consume content (i.e. going to a course from the SkillSoft catalogue or listening to a webcast by a senior learner) you ask them to produce content. Unfortunately for you, I have learned way more by writing this blog post, than you will ever learn by reading it. In fact, if I was allowed to give a single piece of advice to people designing a learning intervention, I would tell them to turn their participants from consumers into producers. They should ask themselves the following question: What am I asking them to make?

So how do we do all this? Here are four ideas that align with the above and that could be done immediately in any global organization with virtual teams.

Microteaching

Microteaching

Planning and creating collaborative one-pagers and microteaching events
Each week of the year a team of two could be made responsible for creating a one-pager about a particular topic. These one-pagers could give very factual information about the work we are doing (e.g. How are our three main learning systems integrated? Which five learning innovations have gotten the most traction in the past year and why?) or they could be more meta: talking about how we do our work (e.g. What is the best way to do a virtual meeting? Which 10 things should we stop doing today?).

Maybe one-pager is not the best word for this. It could also be a diagram, a video or a virtual role play, as long as it can be presented and understood within five minutes. Each month you could schedule an hour with the team in which the four or five one-pagers of that month would be presented by its creators to the rest of the team. The content itself is not important (you can let people choose their own topic and provide a list of suitable topics on a wiki for the less creative), but the methodology is. I would propose the following “rules”:

  • Each one-pager has a question as the title and is made collaboratively by two people. It is not allowed to do any work on it by yourself.
  • The two people are matched semi-randomly with a skewed bias to virtual collaborations and pairs that haven’t worked together before.
  • The presentation of the one-pagers is done virtually using a microteaching methodology with an active start (3 min.), an exercise (6 min.), a discussion (4 min.) and a look at how to continue (2 min.).

Narrating your work
In virtual teams it is hard to know what all the people in the team are doing. It is therefore also harder to learn from each other and find synergies in the work we do. A well-known way of battling this problem is through a concept called narrating your work. Each person in the team writes down what they have been doing in a couple of sentences. They should be asked to do in a regular interval (i.e. daily, three times a week, weekly) this three times a week. Microblogging technology is the ideal candidate to support this kind of process.

This will not only help the team in doing their work better and more efficiently, it should also help in making it a better team through the ambient intimacy that it creates.

Increasing the effectiveness of webcasts
Most teams in global organizations have a webcast with senior leaders every couple of weeks. These are usually not very interactive affairs: they are more about knowledge dissemination than about knowledge creation. Although there is sometimes space for questions at the end, it is often the case that the usual suspects speak up and discussion on topics barely scratch the surface.

One way to change this would be to have mini-jams (see here for IBM’s way of doing jams) before each webcast. It could work like this: 48 hours before the webcast the topics of the webcast are made available, any documents or presentations are shared and a couple of key questions are posed to the team. The team then spends the time until the start of the webcast discussing the questions. Each topic will have a moderator who is there to guide the discussion and tease out participation. It will be expected of each and every team member to participate and give their view. Microblogging tools, once again, would be good to facilitate this.

As a result it should be possible to make the webcasts shorter and spend the time in them addressing the issues that showed to be contentious or in need of clarification during the jam.

The power of video in interaction
The most powerful of our senses is vision. Technology has finally caught up with our innate ability and can now help us in using this sense in virtual teams. To facilitate working together as a virtual team, you should have the ambition to try and use video in all our your virtual meetings. This would mean the following:

  • Everybody in the virtual organisation needs to have a laptop with a built-in webcam. If they don’t have one now, we make sure that this gets changed as soon as possible.
  • The software to create video calls should be ubiquitous in the organization, it should be easy to use and be supported.

These are just examples…
There is a lot more that we can do: I would really like to have your input on how to really re-design the way we work and learn!

The Future State of Capability Building in Organizations: Inspirations

CC-licenced photo by Flickr user kevindooley

CC-licenced photo by Flickr user kevindooley

I have been involved in organizing a workshop on capability building in organizations hosted on my employer‘s premises (to be held on October 20th). We have tried to get together an interesting group of professionals who will think about the future state of capability building and how to get there. All participants have done a little bit of pre-work by using a single page to answer the following question:

What/who inspires you in your vision/ideas for the future state of capability building in organizations?

Unfortunately I cannot publish the one-pagers (I haven’t asked their permission yet), but I have disaggregated all their input into a list of Delicious links, a YouTube playlist and a GoodReads list (for which your votes are welcome). My input was as follows:

Humanistic design
We don’t understand ourselves well enough. If we did, the world would not be populated with bad design (and everything might look like Disney World). The principles that we use for designing our learning interventions are not derived from a deep understanding of the humand mind and its behavioural tendencies, instead it is often based on simplistic and unscientific methodologies. How can we change this? First, everybody should read Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language. Next, we can look at Hans Monderman (accessible through the book Traffic) to understand the influence of our surroundings on our behaviour. Then we have to try and understand ourselves better by reading Medina’s Brain Rules (or check out the excellent site) and books on evolutionary psychology (maybe start with Pinker’s How the Mind Works). Finally we must never underestimate what we are capable of. Mitra’s Hole in the Wall experiment is a great reminder of this fact.

Learning theory
The mental model that 99% of the people in this world have for how people learn is still informed by an implied behaviourist learning theory. I like contrasting this with George Siemens’ connectivism and Papert’s constructionism (I love this definition). These theories are actually put into practice (the proof of the pudding is in the eating): Siemens and Stephen Downes (prime sense-maker and a must-read in the educational technology world) have been running multiple massive online distributed courses with fascinating results, whereas Papert’s thinking has inspired the work on Sugarlabs (a spinoff of the One Laptop per Child project).

Open and transparent
Through my work for Moodle I have come to deeply appreciate the free software philosophy. Richard Stallman‘s four freedoms are still relevant in this world of tethered appliances. Closely aligned to this thinking is the hacker mentality currently defended by organizations like the Free Software Foundation, the EFF, Xs4all and Bits of Freedom. Some of the open source work is truly inspirational. My favourite example is the Linux based operating system Ubuntu, which was started by Mark Shuttleworth and built on top of the giant Debian project. “Open” thinking is now spilling over into other domains (e.g. open content and open access). One of the core values in this thinking is transparency. I actually see huge potential for this concept as a business strategy.

Working smarter
Jay Cross knows how to adapt his personal business models on the basis of what technology can deliver. I love his concept of the unbook and think the way that the Internet Time Alliance is set up should enable him to have a sustainable portfolio lifestyle (see The Age of Unreason by the visionary Charles Handy). The people in the Internet Time Alliance keep amplifying each other and keep on tightening their thinking on Informal Learning, now mainly through their work on The Working Smarter Fieldbook.

Games for learning
We are starting to use games to change our lives. “Game mechanics” are showing up in Silicon Valley startups and will enter mainstream soon too. World Without Oil made me understand that playing a game can truly be a transformational experience and Metal Gear Solid showed me that you can be more engaged with a game than with any other medium. If you are interested to know more I would start by reading Jesse Schell’s wonderful The Art of Game Design, I would keep following Nintendo to be amazed by their creative take on the world and I would follow the work that Jane McConigal is doing.

The web as a driver of change
Yes, I am believer. I see that the web is fundamentally changing the way that people work and live together. Clay Shirky‘s Here Comes Everybody is the best introduction to this new world that I have found so far. Benkler says that “technology creates feasibility spaces for social practice“. Projects like Wikipedia and Kiva would not be feasible without the current technology. Wired magazine is a great way to keep up with these developments and Kevin Kelly (incidentally one of Wired’s cofounders) is my go-to technology philosopher: Out of Control was an amazingly prescient book and I can’t wait for What Technology Wants to appear in my mailbox.

I would of course be interested in the things that I (we?) have missed. Your thoughts?