There are two models that I regularly use when explaining how organizations need to integrate learning and working in the network era. Individuals need to master the ability to negotiate social networks, communities of practice, and teams doing complex or creative work. Personal knowledge mastery is the individual skill, while working out loud helps groups stay in close contact with the work flow. Everyone needs to be adept at cooperating in the openness of social networks in order to be open to possible innovative ideas. At the same time these workers have to be focused on co-creating value at work. They also need to find a trusted middle ground to test new ideas. Communities of practice become a business necessity and a professional development imperative. This is the network learning model.
“Network thinking lets us scientifically understand the world around us as one of connections that shape observed phenomena, rather than as one where the intrinsic properties of people, genes, or particles determine outcomes. Like previous scientific revolutions, the network revolution also has the promise of reshaping our basic commonsense expectations of the world around us, and may allow us to recognize that we are not a basically individualistic, asocial, and quarrelsome creature that comes in bounded linguistic, ethnic, racial, or religious types, but a social species linked to one another by far-reaching network ties.” – How Networks Are Revolutionizing Scientific (and Maybe Human) Thought – Scientific American
I have spent the past 20 years figuring out what changes the internet era might bring. During the last 12 years I’ve run a web-powered business. What have I learned as a freelancer on the Net? First of all I am lucky that blogging gave me an international reputation, and that I started early enough. But all the benefits from blogging have been indirect. It is impossible to proactively increase sales through this model. Word of mouth travels at its own speed and in unknown directions. All things come in time: usually a long time.
I have found that business value keeps shifting. I used to get paid well to help companies select new learning technologies. I have not done that type of work for over five years. I have also seen organizations move away from using external consultants. I think the entire consulting model is ripe for disruptive change. When LinkedIn advertises ex-McKinsey consultants available for $60 per hour, you know that it’s an obsolete business model.
This week I am reviewing my posts from 2015 and putting some of the core ideas together. Here are some thoughts on personal and social learning in the network era.
Training, and education, are often solutions looking for a problem. But good training and education can have a huge impact on behaviour and performance. Remember that great teacher who inspired you? Did you ever have a coach who got you to a higher level of performance? But throwing content at someone and hoping for learning to happen is not a good strategy. This is how far too many courses are designed and delivered.
I have learned a lot from Verna Allee over the years, and frequently referred to her work on this blog. Now that Verna has retired her websites, I have collected some of her insights together in one place. It was her work on value network analysis [PDF] that particularly influenced my thinking.
“Only through the power of value networks can we address our complex issues – together – and create a more hopeful future.” —Verna Allee
Sharing complex knowledge requires trusted professional relationships. You cannot just throw people together and hope they will work effectively on difficult problems.
“strong interpersonal relationships that allowed discussion, questions, and feedback were an essential aspect of the transfer of complex knowledge” —Hinds & Pfeffer (2003)
Workplace training and education too often resemble modern playgrounds:
“safe, repeatable, easily constructed from component parts, requiring that the child bring little of their own to the experience” – Johnnie Moore
When adults design for children they have a tendency to dumb things down. Perhaps the notion that there is no such thing as writing for children should be extended to workplace training and education design. In the workplace, thinking of co-workers as “learners” actually may be a barrier to learning.
The real value of the MOOC (massively open online course/content) could be its potential to remove the barrier between learners, designers, and instructors. Its workplace learning potential may be greater than its academic value. But if one thinks of the MOOC as a course, designed by one party for another party, then it really is nothing new.
“Indeed, I was struck by a recent comment from someone with 15 years of experience in designing face-to-face, blended and online credit programs: I am trying to understand what MOOCs can offer that my understanding of educational design, learning design and online and distance education does not include. I’m afraid that the answer continues to be: ‘Nothing’, at least for the moment.” – Tony Bates
But the MOOC can foster emergent learning, which makes it an optimal form for understanding complex issues. This is something that a curriculum-based, graded, course is not well suited to support. With the MOOC, especially one focused on being massive and open, there is a greater possibility for serendipitous connections, such as what happened with participants becoming instructors in the early MOOC we conducted in 2008.
If we think of the MOOC as a vehicle for shared understanding, and not content delivery, it becomes the collective equivalent to personal knowledge mastery. It is group learning, with some structured content, and good facilitation; but most importantly, space for sense-making. In the complex domain, combining PKM with more structure for social learning, using the MOOC format, can be an important addition to how workplace learning is supported.
Update: several possibilities for corporate MOOC’s from Donald Clark.
But neither the flat organization nor empowered employees have been fully realized. The reason is that most of us have been working over the years to solve problems by creating new and improved companies, rather than by equipping individuals with their own empowering tools. What we still need are tools that make individuals both independent of companies and better able to engage with companies (or with organizations of any kind). Social tools alone won’t do it — especially ones that are still corporate silos. (And, forgive me, even Quora is an example of that.) – Doc Searls: Answering “Why has the empowered employee predicted in the Cluetrain Manifesto not emerged?” in Quora
You cannot read the rest of Doc’s answer unless you log into Quora, which is a pretty good example that most social media companies are just as control-oriented as any industrial organization was. If you have not read The Cluetrain, you should at least peruse some of its 95 theses. The initial thesis of The Cluetrain Manifesto is that markets are conversations, but I think that theses 10 through 12 describe the big potential change in relationships brought on by the Internet.
#10. As a result, markets are getting smarter, more informed, more organized. Participation in a networked market changes people fundamentally.
#11. People in networked markets have figured out that they get far better information and support from one another than from vendors. So much for corporate rhetoric about adding value to commoditized products.
#12. There are no secrets. The networked market knows more than companies do about their own products. And whether the news is good or bad, they tell everyone.
As Doc mentions, the big challenge is equipping individuals with their own empowering tools. These tools are hardware, software, and most importantly, skills and attitudes. Taking control of our learning is a challenge for individuals used to working inside hierarchies that demand conformity and compliance. Note that without compliance training there would be almost no e-learning industry. The deck is still stacked against networked individuals.
So if you read the Cluetrain back in 1999, or have since quoted it, then it’s time to think about how to implement it. I have written about hierarchies and connected organizations for the past few weeks here. I have no doubt that major systemic change is necessary to deal with the wicked problems that face society today. Critical components that need to change are how we work and how we learn in organizations. That change has to start with people. Individuals need to build their own interdependent learning networks.
This is not a leadership or a management responsibility. This is a people issue. Each one of us should start seeking knowledge, building upon it, and sharing it, all in public. In this way we can develop an aggressively intelligent and engaged citizenry.
For the first time in history we have the means to learn together without any institutional or organizational intermediaries. We don’t need schools, or even corporate MOOC’s. It is not easy, but it is possible to create a global group of co-learners around almost any problem or subject. What’s holding us back? I think we are holding ourselves back.
If participation in a networked market changes people fundamentally, then it’s time to make some fundamental changes. Here is an example of re-thinking market relationships. Doc Searls is working with the Vendor Relationship Management project, which is “based on the belief that free customers are more valuable than captive ones — to themselves, to vendors, and to the larger economy. To be free —”
- Customers must enter relationships with vendors as independent actors.
- Customers must be the points of integration for their own data.
- Customers must have control of data they generate and gather. This means they must be able to share data selectively and voluntarily.
- Customers must be able to assert their own terms of engagement.
- Customers must be free to express their demands and intentions outside of any one company’s control.
Similar changes can be made in education and employment.
- Free learners are more valuable than captive ones.
- Free employees are more valuable than captive ones.
Thanks to Jon Husband for inspiring this little manifesto.
Stowe Boyd and I had an email conversation a few weeks ago, which is now posted on his Socialogy site:
[Stowe] The thesis of Socialogy is that scientific findings about sociality, social networks, and human cognition are only slowly becoming part of management thinking, and as a result, much of what goes on as established practice in business is actually folklore dressed up as policy. Where do you see the greatest point of leverage in the application of scientific understanding of social connection in business?
[Harold] Cognitive science, anthropology, bioeconomics and other sciences may be the long lever, but visualization [with tools like social network analysis] is the fulcrum to widespread understanding of social connection in business.
As any marketing professional knows, ideas don’t spread themselves, they need to be in a form that first gets the recipient’s attention. Dan Pink talks about this with his six types of sales pitches, giving the same message in different ways. I have found that the visualization that social network analysis provides can be very powerful, and network thinking can fundamentally change our view of social connection in business. Seeing is believing. Visualizing network relationships can give the initial leverage of getting complex new ideas accepted into general management thinking.
For example, I once used value network analysis to help a steering group see their internal community of practice in a new light. For the first time, they saw it mapped as a value network, not a hierarchy. They immediately realized that they were pushing solutions instead of listening to their community. This was obvious when all arrows pointed toward the user community, but no tangible or intangible value arrows pointed out. As a result, they decided to change their Charter and develop more network-centric practices. Thinking in terms of networks enabled them to see with new eyes.
Map of my LinkedIn connections, by LinkedIn Labs