Interviewed in the “We Are the Competent People” Series

Homo Competens The Book

Homo Competens The Book

Bert De Coutere has written a very good book on competences: Homo Competens (I wrote a small review on Goodreads).  As a follow up to the book he is interviewing learning professionals about their competences, how they acquired them and how they keep them. I had the honour of being interviewed too (and he kindly allowed me to publish the interview below). You can find the other interviews here.

This is the full interview:

Bert: At what competence domain(s) would you consider yourself “competent”?

Hans: This is a hard question. I have different levels of competence in all kinds of domains. So I am a competent teacher, a relatively competent speaker and a very competent learner. If I would equate (professional) competence with what it is that I do then I would say I am competent in Internet technology with a strong focus on learning and open source.

Bert: Describe moment(s) where you grew the most in a particular competence domain.

Hans: Whenever you start something new, the learning curve is probably steepest. For me these have been the moments I switched jobs or roles in my career. So when I first started teaching in a high school, when I became an external consultant and then when I joined a large multinational company. I love to kickstart that learning process by consuming as much information about the topic as I can, starting with books, subscribing to tens (if not hundreds) of RSS feeds and then connecting to people who are really in the know about a particular topic.

Bert: How did you become good at what you do? How do you stay good?

Hans: You become good in what you do by actually doing it. This should be combined with a natural sense of curiosity, participating in a community of experts and the occasional pause for reflection. The one thing that really helps is a positive attitude towards experimentation. You have to be willing to try something different to be able to make progress, that means you should be afraid of failure.

Bert: Do you care to share any tips for those who want to follow in your footsteps? What went well? What would have been even better if only…?

Hans: Here come the platitudes: What has worked well for me is getting authentic pleasure out of what I do for a living. So if you want to follow in my footsteps (please, why?), start there. The one thing that I wish I had done more in the past is stretch myself a bit more: I am a careful person and I only like doing things that I know I can actually do. I am now trying to embrace those challenges when I get them.

Bert: How do you recognize competent people?

Hans: They usually wear purple outfits. No, seriously…

Bert: Do you see yourself doing something completely different five or ten years from now?

Hans: Looking back at how I thought about myself 10 years ago it would be foolish for me to answer anything but “yes” to this question. In a world where the accelerated change of technology is itself accelerating I don’t think we can imagine what the world of work will look like in ten years from now. So it is very likely I would do something different by that time. I’d like to think my job would still involve me thinking about how I can affect social practice through technology.

Bert: What do you think of the responsibilities of the knowledge professional at one hand, and the employing company at the other hand in terms of competence development?

Hans: This might be a trendy thing to say, but I am really starting to believe that working and learning are turning into the same thing (at least for knowledge workers). So who is responsible for doing the work? The professional! The one thing that the company could (and should) still do is to facilitate this by creating the right environment.

Bert: How would you categorize your professional network? Is it large, or do you keep it small? Is it composed primarily of people you meet regularly face to face, or is it very virtual, or any degree in between?

Hans: My professional network is larger than most of my direct colleagues. I actively work at making it larger: if knowledge resides in networks it only makes sense to work at optimizing that network. I have met most people in my network face to face at some point. Seeing people once a year at a conference is often enough to keep the professional connection alive for the rest of the year and be in touch virtually only.

Bert: Describe your ideal environment to thrive in.

Hans: There are two things I need: autonomy and a decent Internet connection. I get very uncomfortable very quickly if I don’t have either of these things.

Bert: How long did it take you to become good?

Hans: Aptitude has something to do with it. It didn’t take me very long before I was a good teacher, but I have been practicing my juggling skills for years now, and even though I am better at it than 99% of the people that can juggle three balls, I would still not consider myself to be good at it. They say it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something, I would say it probably takes about 3,000 hours to become good at something.

Bert: Are you involved in any “sharing” activities? Do you think sharing helps you grow? Did you experience people taking advantage of the things you shared?

Hans: This is what I call the “teacher paradox”: the nature of the teacher-student relationship makes it that the teacher is always the one who learns the most. Thinking about how to share something with the rest of the world forces you to think about things just a little bit harder, gaining a better understanding. I write a blog under a Creative Commons license, have a Twitter account and share a lot external information in our internal Yammer network. “Taking advantage” has two meanings. I sure hope a lot of people have found the things I shared useful and have taken “advantage” of it in that way. I realize people are sometimes scared to share because they think people might “steal” their materials. I think this is a fallacy: I for one have gained way more from sharing than other people have gained from using my stuff.

Bert: How do you feel about the “self-reliant” professional? Do you find the evolution to “self”; self-steering, self-succeeding or self-failing, … a liberating evolution or one that rings alarm bells?

Hans: This is probably the most interesting question of the interview and it deserves much more thought than I will give it here. An increase in autonomy is a good thing and in that sense I like the increasing focus on the “self”. However, to live a fulfilling life you should have some dependence on others. It wouldn’t surprise me if this focus on the “self” is in some way a consequence of the fact that we can now organize ourselves without having organizations to facilitate that process. The focus on “self” can be there now, because our Western world finally enables us to be self-reliant.

Bert: How do you think your competence should be evaluated?

Hans: I should be the first judge of my own competence, other good alternatives would be my professional network, external or internal clients and my direct colleagues.

Bert: Thanks for the interview, Hans. Nice purple suit!
(Just kidding.)

Learning and Knowledge Analytics 2011: I Will Participate

Mining Social Networks (The Economist)

Mining Social Networks (The Economist/Andy J. Miller)

George Siemens has written about the upcoming Learning and Knowledge Analytics 2011 course (#lak11). After reading the very interesting draft syllabus I have decided to actively participate. This means you should be seeing reflections about the course in this very blog soon. The dedicated Moodle site for the course asks participants to introduce themselves and write about their course expectations. I have posted the following:

I am a 34 year old guy from Amsterdam in the Netherlands. I work as the “Innovation Manager for Global Learning Technologies” at Shell International (at the headquarters in The Hague). Before this job I was heavily involved with the Moodle project as an e-learning consultant working for the Dutch Moodle Partner (Stoas Learning). Before that I was a teacher at a high school in Amsterdam (I taught PE and project based education).

I love technology and am deeply interested in how it affects society. One of my business cards uses my favourite quote (from Yochai Benkler): “Technology creates feasibility spaces for social practice” (see here for more context). To me, this open course is an example too of a practice enabled by technological possibilities.

My blog can be found at and you should also find links to my other social networking presences there. I try to blog regularly and what I write on this course is here.

I intend to actively participate in this course. For me this means:

  • Spending time to read and annotate all the course materials during my commute (1.5 hours each way) on my iPad.
  • Writing reflections at least once a week on my blog
  • Doing all the suggested activities and participate actively in the Moodle forums.
  • Try to attend the weekly live Elluminate sessions (if the timezone agrees with my schedule) or at least watch the recordings.

If I manage to the above, then the course will be a success for me. The topic is inherently fascinating to me and I would love to be helped with how learning and knowledge analytics could help my professional practice.

Looking forward to meeting other participants and learning together!

It would be great if some of my readers would also be able to join!

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.



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!