Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

3 August 2009

Guff: a conversation in 3 parts. Part 1

Clark @ 8:00 AM

A: Looking up from reading.  “Guff!”

B: Curious.  “What’s guff?”

A: “All this social learning stuff.”

B: “Really, you think so?”

A: “Yeah, I mean, learning’s learning, and who needs to make a ‘social’ out of it?  We’ve got courses, if they want to be social in the classroom, fine, but all this hype about social learning is just a way for consultants to try to sell old soda in new bottles.”

B: “So you think learning is about courses?”

A: “Sure.  What else?”

B: “Well, let me defer that answer, and ask you another question.”

A: “Oh, so you’re one of those, eh?  Answer a question with a question?  Ha.  Go ahead, shoot.”

B: “If learning’s not important, what is?”

A: “That’s easy, nimbleness.  We’ve got to adapt, innovate, create, we need to be faster than the rest.  Heck, they can clone a product in months, or less. You’ve got to be agile!”

B: “So just executing isn’t enough?”

A: “Heck no!  You’ve got to have the ‘total customer experience’ locked down, and that means optimal execution is just the cost of entry.  Thriving is going to require continually introducing improvements: new products, new services.”

B: “OK, let’s get back to your question, what else learning might be.”

A: “About time.”

B: “So, think about that innovating, problem-solving, creativity, etc.  That’s not learning?”

A: “No.”

B: “Do they know the answer when they start?”

A: “No, or they’d just do it.”

B: “Right. The answer is unknown, they have to find it. When they find it, have they learned something?”

A: “Alright, I see your game. Yes, they’re learning, but it’s not like courses, it’s not education!”

B: “Right, courses are formal learning.  That’s the point I want to make, using the term ‘learning’ to just talk about courses isn’t fair to what’s really going on.  There are informal forms of learning that are just the aspects you need to get on top of.”

A: “Oh, okay, if you want to play semantic games.”

B: “It’s important, because this ‘social learning’ you call guff is the key to addressing the things you’re worrying about!  Formal learning serves a role, but there’s so much more that an organization should be concerned about.”

A: “So here comes the pitch.”

B: “And it’s straightforward: do you want to leave that innovation and creativity to chance, or do your best to make sure it’s working well?  Because the evidence is that in most organizations it’s nowhere near what it could be, and there are systematic steps to improve it.”

A: “C’mon.  Can you tell me someone who’s doing it well?”

B: “Sure.  Just a few small firms you might’ve heard of.  Intel’s used a wiki to help people share knowledge.  Sun’s capturing top performance on video and sharing it.  SAP’s getting customers to self-help and contribute to new product ideas.”

A: “Sure, the tech companies, but how about anyone else?”

B: “Caterpillar’s got communities of practice generating ROI, Best Buy’s getting a lot of advantage through internal idea generation, the list goes on, and those are only the ones we’ve found.”

A: “Ok. I suppose it makes sense, but still, that label…”

B: “I hear you.”


  1. I hear what you’re saying here Clark.

    The tech enablers and culture / perspective shifts ‘social’ channel are breaking down the learning silos in some (many?) cases. I guess my apprehension with jumping on the social train with all my bags is — social isn’t everything. It’s got a lot of potential but it still takes the right implementation, it still takes the right facilitation, and sustainment isn’t a zero sum game. There are also strategic advantages to formalized structuring of instructional content, artifacts, etc..

    I’d make these points:

    1. The future isn’t exclusively social. And the social perspectives we have today are pretty nascent. Some of the talk sounds reminiscent of the industry’s eLearning silver bullets and snake oil speak. Separating the good from the bad, identifying honest use cases, and relying on good technology and talented folks (vice technology for dummies and the dummies that buy into ‘anyone can do it’) will ensure we don’t fall into the same traps that the eLearning industry has fallen prey to.

    2. If we keep trucking we might hit reliable saturation beyond the niche areas that social currently supports well (I think it’d be a challenge to prove that social can work in any context.) Social is successful in part because the concept resonates either with the organizational category or the culture of the organizations that are using it with success. I’d also wager that without the visionaries that drive, facilitate, and maintain the leadership energy within these organizations forging a path with social technologies — the organizations simply wouldn’t be. And to say ‘anyone can do what these folks do’ really doesn’t align realistically in this plane of existence. Finding folks that have those talents and organizations that are willing to employ them in this way is a magical combination. Rare. Magical.

    3. If quality batting average of formal learning packages was closer to 1000 than it was to 5, then I’d also argue that the quality of social sourced learning support couldn’t compare in many / most cases. One might contend that part of socials appeal is that anything looks good compared to the state of affairs we’ve brought ourselves to in the non-traditional performance interventions space. Regardless, there will be some things that social will always do better. The same will hold true for f2f, eSolutions, etc.. As we mature, the lines between these should begin to blur and the labels can come off.

    There is a lot of potential, but if we don’t go in with our eyes open and unglazed we’ll end up exactly where we’ve landed with other e-silverbullets of the week. Nobody wants that mess.

    Comment by sflowers — 3 August 2009 @ 6:03 PM

  2. Steve, hope you found my subsequent two related posts addressed some of your concerns. I agree that social learning isn’t a panacea, but done well, it both can augment regular learning solutions, and provide a new channel for informal learning. But, yes, it’s about the best learning, whatever the blend may be. And, yes, no hype please, let’s focus on real advantages. Thanks for the feedback!

    Comment by Clark — 7 August 2009 @ 4:43 PM

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