9 Questions for All Learning Professionals in 2011

This week I needed to create a small presentation which could help learning professionals do some forward thinking. I decided to repurpose an earlier keynote given to the Dommel Valley group (you can find that presentation here), strip out many of the slides and record a voice-over including cheesy sound effects.

Please find below 9 non-exhaustive things I see happening in corporate learning in the near future and 9 questions that every Learning Professional in 2011 should ask themselves based on these points. I realise that the presentation might feel rushed (it had to fit in 15 minutes) and that many of the points need more explanation to be sensible to the average reader of this blog. However, I do hope that these questions could prod at least a few learning professionals into action.

If the embed doesn’t work, find the slidecast on slideshare or download the PDF (2.6 MB).

Reflecting on the “Narrating Your Work” Experiment

A few months back I posted a design for an experiment on my blog. The goal of the experiment was to find out whether it would be possible to use a microblogging tool to narrate our work with the intention of making better performing virtual teams.

Over the last two months, the direct team that I work in (consisting of 18 people) basically participated in the experiment in the way that it was designed: They posted constant, daily or weekly updates on our Yammer network. Each update would describe things like what they had done, who they had spoken to or what issues they had encountered. Occasionally the updates were peppered with personal notes about things had happened or were going to happen after work.

Methodology of the experiment

There was no formal (or academic) research methodology for this working experiment. I decided to use a well-considered survey to get people’s thoughts at the end of it. Out of the 18 team members 17 decided to fill it in (in the rest of the post you can assume that n=17). The one person that didn’t, has taken up another role. This means there is zero bias in who answered and didn’t answer the survey.

I find it more interesting to zoom out and look at the methodology of this experiment as a whole. To me doing things like this is a very good approach to change in the workplace: a grassroots shared experiment with commitment from everybody working towards solutions for complex situations. This is something that I will definitely replicate in the future.

Didn’t this take a lot of time?

One concern that people had about the experiment was whether it would take a lot of time to write these updates and read what others have written. I’ve asked everybody how much time on average they spent writing status updates and reading the updates of others. This turned out to be a little bit less than 5 minutes a day for writing the posts and slightly over 5 minutes a day for reading them. The standard deviations where around 4.5 for both of these things, so there was quite a big spread. All in all it seems that narrating their work is something that most people can comfortably do in the margins of their day.

Barriers to narrating your work

Designing the experiment I imagined three barriers to narrating your work that people might stumble over and I tried to mitigate these barriers:

  • Lack of time and/or priority. I made sure people could choose their own frequency of updates. Even though it didn’t take people long to write the updates, just over 50% of the participants said that lack of time/priority was a limiting factor for how often they posted.
  • Not feeling comfortable about sharing in a (semi-)public space. I made sure that people could either post to the whole company, or just to a private group which only included the 18 participants. Out of the 18, there were two people who said that this was a limiting factor in narrating your work (and three people were neutral). This is less than I had expected, but it is still something to take into account going forward as 12 of the participants decided to mostly post in the private group.
  • Lack of understanding of the tool (in this case Yammer). I made sure to have an open session with the team in which they could ask any question they had about how to use the tool. In the end only three people said that this was a limiting factor for how often they posted.

The qualitative answers did not identify any other limiting factors.

Connectedness and ambient team awareness as the key values

Looking at all the answers in the questionnaire you can clearly see that the experiment has helped in giving people an understanding of what other people in their team are doing and has widened people’s perspectives:

The "Narrating your work" experiment has given me more insight into the work my peers are doing

The "Narrating your work" experiment has given me more insight into the work my peers are doing

The "Narrating your work" experiment has given me a better idea of the scope/breadth of the work that our team is doing and the stakeholders surrounding us

The "Narrating your work" experiment has given me a better idea of the scope/breadth of the work that our team is doing and the stakeholders surrounding us

A quote:

I enjoyed it! I learned so much more about what my colleagues are doing than I would have during a webcast or team meeting. It helped me understand the day-to-day challenges and accomplishments within our team.


The experiment was very valuable as it has proven that [narrating your work] contributes to a better understanding of how we work and what we are doing as a team.

People definitely feel more connected to the rest of their team:

The "Narrating your work" experiment has made me feel more connected to the rest of my team

The "Narrating your work" experiment has made me feel more connected to the rest of my team

There was practical and social value in the posts:

The value of "Narrating your work" is practical: the content is helpful and it is easy to ask questions/get replies

The value of "Narrating your work" is practical: the content is helpful and it is easy to ask questions/get replies

The value of "Narrating your work is intangible and social: it creates an ambient awareness of each other

The value of "Narrating your work is intangible and social: it creates an ambient awareness of each other

A lot of people would recommend “Narrating your work” as a methodology to other virtual teams:

I would recommend "Narrating your work" as a methodology for other virtual teams

I would recommend "Narrating your work" as a methodology for other virtual teams

What kind of status updates work best?

I asked what “Narrating your work” type of update was their favourite to read (thinking about content, length and timeliness). There was a clear preference for short messages (i.e. one paragraph). People also prefered messages to be as close as possible to when it happened (i.e. no message on Friday afternoon about what you did on the Monday). One final thing that was much appreciated was wittiness and a bit fun. We shouldn’t be afraid to put things in our messages that reveal a bit of our personality. Sharing excitement or disappointment humanizes us and that can be important in virtual teams (especially in large corporations).

Personally I liked this well-thought out response to the question:

The best posts were more than simply summing up what one did or accomplished; good narrations also showed some of the lines of thinking of the narrator, or issues that he/she encountered. This often drew helpful responses from others on Yammer, and this is where some some additional value (besides connectedness) lies.

It made me realize that another value of the narrations is that they can lead to good discussions or to unexpected connections to other people in the company. This brings us to the next question:

Public or private posts?

The posts in the private group were only visible to the 18 participants in the experiment. Sometimes these posts could be very valuable to people outside of the team. One of the key things that makes microblogging interesting is the asymmetry (I can follow you, but you don’t have to follow me). This means that posts can be read by people you don’t know, who get value out of it beyond what you could have imagined when posting. What to you might sound like a boring depiction of your morning, might give some stakeholders good insight in what you are doing.

So on the one hand it would be very beneficial to widen the audience of the posts, however it might inhibit people from writing slightly more sociable posts. We need to find a way to resolve this seeming paradox.

A way forward

Based on the experiments results I would like to recommend the following way forward (for my team, but likely for any team):

  • Don’t formalize narrating your work and don’t make it mandatory. Many people commented that this is one aspect that they didn’t like about the experiment.
  • Focus on helping each other to turn narrating your work into a habit. I think it is important to set behavioural expectations about the amount of narrating that somebody does. I imagine a future in which it is considered out of the norm if you don’t share what you are up to. The formal documentation and stream of private emails that is the current output of most knowledge workers in virtual teams is not going to cut it going forward. We need to think about how we can move towards that culture.
  • We should have both a private group for the intimate team (in which we can be ourselves as much as possible) as well as have a set of open topic based groups that we can share our work in. So if I want to post about an interesting meeting I had with some learning technology provider with a new product I should post that in a group about “Learning Innovation”. If have worked on a further rationalization of our learning portfolio I should post this in a group about the “Learning Application Portfolio” and so on.

I liked what one of the participants wrote:

I would like our team to continue as we have, but the important steps to take now are 1) ensuring that we stay in the habit of narrating regularly, 2) showing the value of what we achieved to other teams and team leads, and 3) ensure that there is enough support (best practises etc) for teams that decide to implement [narrating your work].

I have now taken this as far as I have the energy and the interest to take it to. I would really love for somebody to come along and make this into a replicable method for improving virtual teams. Any interns or students interested?

Open – What Happens When Barriers to Innovation Become Drastically Lower?

The final themed session at Lift 11 France is about OPEN – What happens when barriers to innovation become drastically lower?. From the introduction:

The Internet has radically open innovation systems in digital products, content and services. Today, the same is happening to manufacturing, finance, urban services, even health care and life sciences. What will this new innovation landscape look like?

First up is Juliana Rotich from GlobalVoices. Her talk is about Ushahidi which builds democratizing technology and is powered by open source.

The true size of Africa

The true size of Africa

She starts her talk by showing how large Africa truly is. Ushahidi shares a heritage of openness with the Internet. Africa is getting connected fast and the costs of the connection keeps on dropping. Eventually this will change the rural landscape. Initially a lot of web 2.0 services where local copies of silicon valley services, but now we are starting to see services being developed for true local (check out iHub).

Mobile technology plays an important part. The coverage is getting better. In 2015 they expect to have 7.2 billion non smartphones and 1.3 billion smartphones in Africa. Mobile money is an innovation that is a third world first. More than 20% of Kenia’s GDP flows trough the mobile money system. It is transforming many (government) services: for example prepaying for electricity.

By making the tools open source, people can take the tools, use their own data and make it their own: it really lowers the barriers for people to use the technology. Ushahidi as a platform is now used for all kinds of use-cases that were never imagined. Crowdmap has pushed the number of Ushahidi implementations to over 15.000.

Of course there are challenges: the last mile stays difficult. Nothing is as big a showstopper as power black outs. She then goes on to critique Facebook as a walled garden for its lack of generativity. When there are closed walls around technology it becomes much harder to innovate (hear, hear!). So her advice is to bet on generativity and open source.

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino has a talk titled Homesense project: agile and open innovation against all odds.

Homesense started with a blog post. She got a bit sick of the idea of the “smart” home. Every home is different. She thought it would be a good idea to give this new simple open technology to “normal” people without any specific interest in technology and let them use it in a creative commons way. She then went looking for people who were willing to get people to volunteer their home for experimentation. In the end they found 6 households in 4 countries.

The Homesense Kit

The Homesense Kit

So what happened? People were given a “homesense kit” based around the Arduino. The households worked with technological experts to create things that were useful to them, like a robot that would tell you when you left the toilet seat up, or a little map that would show you were the shared bike-hubs around your house had bikes available, or something that would turn off the light when there was enough light around the house.

Then suddenly the project received a cease and desist letter from a large manufacturer who has a trademark on the word “Homesense”. Luckily, after some legal advice, they could go on. Now they’ve been invited by the MoMa to exhibit their project in the Talk to me exhibition.

Open innovation is hard to do when you are an organization. It is very hard to do when you are a big business. Smaller outfits can do this much cheaper and get the results shared much more quickly.

The last speaker in this session about openness is Gabriel Borges talking about two initiatives based on open innovation. He will show how peer production can be the main factor of innovation.

Brazil is now the 5th largest Internet audience with only 38% penetration. A new digital middle class is coming up in Brazil and they are the most intense social media users in the world. Portuguese is the second most spoken language in Twitter and Brazil is the 2nd largest Youtube audience in the world. Why is this the case? Brazilians are social by nature. A global average social media user in the world has 120 network friends, in Latin America this is 176 and Brazil this is 230 friends.

What happens when you mix all these ingredients? You can get things like Queremos with five guys organizing concert by disintermediating all the people that are normally between a band and the attendee. It works like this:


Another example is how they used WordPress to invite consumers to really help in designing a concept car. The Fiat Mio concept car had 17.000 consumers bringing in their 11.000 ideas in about 15 months. It is fundamentally changing the way that Fiat Brazil wants to work going forward.

What are the 3 key learnings from this?

  1. A collaborative environment should never be based on anarchy. Leadership, stimulation, organization and ground rules are very necessary.
  2. It doesn’t mean that everyone interested in your cause will feel thrilled to collaborate effectively. Make room for all interested people.
  3. Even for the most collaborative cause, at the end, the motivation for any and every participant will be extremely individualist.

Transforming the Way We Work, Innovate and Learn

The WORK/LEARN track at Lift 11 is subtitled: Transforming the way we work, innovate and learn. From the introduction:

What will the XXIst-century organization look like: A network, a nebula, or a process-based system where everything is standardized and measured? How can these two cultures, these two ways of producing and of innovating, work together? And, since education seems to have changed far less than most of society, how can we prepare for a world where we all learn continuously and ubiquitously?

Geoff Mulgan is Chief Executive at Nesta, a funding body for science, and talks about Openness and collective intelligence, its prospects and its challenges.

According to him people have different perspectives on networks. People predicted networks would lead to big brother states and corporations and fascistic organizations, whereas other said it would flatten hierarchies. The truth is, networks do both. We need to learn how to navigate the balance of openness and closure.

He thinks we will need to develop three different strategies to do the following:

  • Stop the abuses of networked technology
  • Infect and embrace the hierarchies
  • Grow the new

Who shows the example of Who Owns My Neighbourhood and Sutton Bookshare. He is interested in depth rather than breadth in relationships. Another project he is involved with is the Action for Happiness website, giving people science based advice on how to be happy:

Next he focuses on some methodological solutions to make progress in solving the problems mentioned above. One is social innovation camps, another is I do ideas where you people can get a grant not by filling in a grant request form, but by posting a video.

He uses some Hegelian thinking to frame the problem. If “Hierarchy” is the “Thesis” and “Open Networks” are the “Antithesis”, then what is the “Synthesis”? There are testing out the model by means of a Global Innovation Academy with pilots in many countries.

He leaves us with his advice on what we need. We need fast and slow, we need always on, but also often off and we need open as well as closed. He doesn’t have the answer on how to do these things and realizes we are in a time of heavy experimentation.

Edial Dekker is the CEO of Gidsy a marketplace for authentic experiences. He is of Hack de Overheid (Hack the government) fame. His talk is titled Trusted networks and the rise of the micro-entrepreneur.

According to Edial we are in trouble: we are in the slowest economic recovery since the 30s, we will run out of natural resources and we are at peak globalization. He sees all kinds of initiatives that are trying to tackle these problems from the bottom up and are getting a lot of traction. Examples are The School of Life or How to Homestead, a community that tries to help you become self-sufficient, or the Betahaus a very successful makers-lab in Berlin. He could give endless examples of empowering technologies allowing people to share resources in a different way.

He aligns his argument with Robin Chase, where these new collaborative platform are very scalable and capable of making use of the excess capacity. He quotes Kevin Kelly who says that “Access is better than ownership”:

Currently he is raising money for his start up. The question that always comes up from investors is: “How big is your market?”. He didn’t really know how to answer that question. So he asked his advisers at Etsy who told him that when they started there was no market for handmade items. They created a market that wasn’t there before. Jyri Engeström invented the concept of “Social objects” to describe this.

He finished by giving some tips:

  • Make your product as human as possible (Rob Kalin of Etsy)
  • It start with chips and end with trust (Kevin Kelly)
  • Unmute the web (Alex & Eric from Soundcloud)
  • Don’t solve problems, pursue opportunities

The final speaker in this track is the Finnish Ville Keränen, a “geek and learning designer” at Monkey Business (check out their site, the tag line is “More action. More chaos. More mistakes. More learning.”). He must be the best branded speaker of the event, taking his sun-glassed banana everywhere and wearing yellow pants. His talk has the title: From Team Academy to the future: Building organizations for humans.

He first asks us to get up and give each other a “tender and dynamic greeting”.

For Ville it is all about people, courage and fun and well-being. He feels we are sometimes a bit too serious in the way we work. He quotes Tom Peters who said “I would have done some real cool stuff, but my boss didn’t allow me”. He then shows a quite incredible youtube video in which a Finnish ice hockey player show exactly the right behaviors you need:

Some key concepts from the team academy: you enter the academy and start a company with a team of people on day one (even without a business idea). There are no simulations, only real projects. There are no lectures, but there is lots of dialog. There are no teachers, but team coaches instead. There are no exams, only team companies. There are no grades, but real clients. One of the goals is to make a trip around the world with the money you have made (if you made enough money).

There are few learning principles behind the team academy. Learners learn what they want to learn (constructivism). Learning is always situational and contextual. Learning is social and happens in a community. I believe that in my company we are relatively good at the second principle, but have a lot to learn about the first and third principles.

Team Academy is now expanding rapidly. Their challenges are currently how to lead a global network, how to think big and how to expand to domains outside of business? One thing that they are doing well is capturing the excess capacity of their students.

Innovating within innovations challenges…

Joëlle Liberman (Égérie Research) and François Jégou (Strategic Design Scenarios) are hosting a session titled Innovaton Futures, Innovating within innovation challenges. This workshop is based on an European project titled Innovation Futureswhich is a foresight exercise on emerging patterns of innovation. From their introduction:

How is innovation changing and which challenges innovation will have to face in the coming future? INFU (www.innovation-futures.org) is an on-going European research project focusing futures of innovation, scanning weak signals of change in the current innovation landscape, extrapolating new patterns, discussing emerging visions, scenarios and implications for policy and practices.

At the start of the workshop we were put into pairs and given a “weak signal” that they have identified. Mine was: CoWorking Houses as Creative Hubs: “More and more of the nomadic knowledge workers from the creative class join CoWorking spaces. CoWorking houses offer an easy, flexible and budget workspace combining workspace with a creativty hub. One question to ask about these weak signals is what would happen if they would turn into mainstream which of course begged the question whether maybe in the future mainstream is that there is no mainstream anymore. Next up we were asked to imagine being at a board meeting of the Innovation Agency in 2036 (25 years from now). The agency is facing a couple of challenges and has to find a solution to these. Our table had to think about the following:

Thinking about the challenge

Thinking about the waste challenge

“Waste based innovation has taken off in the 00’s and a complete new range of new products definitions and production processes based on reuse of existing components instead of rough materials. The world waste stock exchange market is working very well, even too well inducing a perverse increasing demand for waste materials. The Innovation Agency is asked to propose solutions to avoid this bias.” ‘

Our initial thoughts were around whether this would be a problem that the market can solve itself or whether this would require some governmental intervention to solve. Could there be a tertiary market around waste credits to counter this? Should we require companies to deal with their waste locally, avoiding worldwide trade in waste materials?

I proposed that the cause of the problem seems to be that the consumer has been educated to appreciate recycled products. This signal for whether something is “good” is not working anymore and we should have an alternative. The obvious thing to do is to take more effects of a product into account when you decide to buy something: look at the total cost of ownership over the use-life of the product. Philippe Méda suggested that one way of doing this would be to focus on making sure that products have longer lifecycles. How do we know whether it is better to drive a very old but wasteful car, versus buying a new one with its environmental costs of production? Somebody suggested that maybe the idea of ownership is the problem and wasteful in itself. Instead of ownership you will start licensing/renting products. Proposing an alternative model to ownership based on sharing. Hopefully the current transaction costs for sharing will be made small enough in 25 years for this to be easier than it is today!

Each group had to present their ideas. Unfortunately this drained the energy out of the room. It seemed like each table had had a good discussion, but these discussions didn’t translate well to a presentation to the whole group. No deep discussions after each presentation. I do hope the output of each group will be digitised in some way and made available (the presenters promised it a link will be published here).

The one question I have after this workshop is about the methodology itself. I think there is a lot of potential in imagining yourself in a board meeting somewhere in the future, but not all the potential came out at this workshop. How could this be improved?