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

24 December 2009

The big blindspot

Clark @ 7:14 AM

I was talking with a colleague over lunch the other day about her company, platform, and organizational learning issues.  And something occurred to me: we’re trying to merge onto a freeway right at a blindspot.

In orgs, there’s a real tendency to bucket any discussion of learning into ‘training’, and dismiss it.  You’ve heard me go off again and again about how I think learning includes innovation, creativity, problem-solving, etc, and that’s because I’m trying to make learning the umbrella term for all the good stuff & secret sauce, not automatically shunted off into the realms of cost-center and irrelevance.  And don’t get me wrong, I don’t think training has to be irrelevant (though in practice much of it is). The problem is that those same executives who identify a problem and demand a training solution for it aren’t open to a more discerning analysis of the problem, more enlightened learning practice, or more.  Regardless, it’s easy to get ignored as soon as they hear ‘learning’.

So then you can look at another channel to come in, and the obvious alternative is knowledge management (KM).  Except that, too, has a real easy knee-jerk rejection.  The initial wave of KM had so much hype it could only under-deliver on unrealistic expectations (as has happened before with AI and expert systems, as well as every new management phase).  So, KM also is a difficult sell.

The problem, then, is where do you come in?  What is the fog-penetrating terminology that will help get the C-suite to really ‘get’ that you’re talking about stuff that’s mission-critical?  That’s a big blindspot.  Collective intelligence? I just read that ‘innovation’ as a term is dead.  ‘Social  media’ can bring up bad images as well.  And anything called 2.0 is liable to be seen as hype, whether it’s Web or Enterprise.

The sad thing is, there’s some real ‘there’ there, but it’s an uphill sell.  Any bright ideas about how to market a real-game changer to people who need it, but can’t see it?


  1. While I think what we call things is important, it’s quite a bit more important to make sure that what you’re doing is tied to a business result.

    This is difficult in a 2.0 sense, because the point of going 2.0 is letting go — but the C-suite among many others throughout every level of most orgs have a hard time letting go of one paradigm without any clear sense of what else they should hold on to. The letting go is how you hold on. It relies on the soft stuff — trust, integrity, candor, relationships; hard to fit into the existing paradigm of metrics, ROI — the former “measures” of “trust.”

    So that said, the key to success I’ve found in getting support for transformational engagements comes from a couple of fronts:

    1. Know exactly what your role, or the mission of your particular function, is in the organization. Knowing that my learning function is charged with managing the know-how of my organization gives me the leverage needed to make suggestions and even decisions within that context; no other part of the organization owns that as much as my function.

    2. Stay within the bounds of your function: Whatever I’m going to suggest must come from what it does for our particular mission; I can’t presume to tell other areas of the company how to do their business. That said, as we’re talking about the big things (enterprise video sharing, for example), it doesn’t hurt to give the line of sight to other parts of the business that might take advantage of such services — but my focus and sell to the leadership MUST be on what it’s going to do accelerate, enhance, improve the know-how of the organization.

    3. Do your homework on what’s going on in the business. There are strategic goals your company has. Align with them. There are parts of the business where accelerating or improving their know-how can transform the business, generate more revenue. It can’t just be about cutting costs — you need to challenge yourself to find ways of improving the know-how to reduce cycle times and generate more revenue, improve customer service, etc. The tighter you can align initiatives to revenue, the easier it is to forecast what kind of budget you’ll have –because the goal for a learning organization is to be able to pay it back in a certain amount of time;

    I know this isn’t sexy or appealing to our greater sensabilities, but pragmatism really rules out in selling to leadership far more than how things are named; obviously because corporate names for stuff are generally horrible. Basically if the cost of doing it is cheaper than the cost of NOT doing it — and you can forecast that, you can get the buy-in pretty easily. With all the fog that comes with the new paradigm, finding a way to translate things in terms that business people understand (money) makes it clear and gets cultural buy-in. They may not know what they’re getting, but they get that changing behaviors to reduce costs and increase revenues is worth their engagement and investment.

    Comment by Aaron — 24 December 2009 @ 8:15 AM

  2. Aaron, great thoughts from practical experience. I don’t want to be flashy, I really want to make progress, and you’re showing how. In fact, it’s similar to what I’m recommending in a client engagement: take a broad interpretation of learning, empower collaboration, and align to real business goals. You need metrics like more problems solved, more new services, processes, products, etc. Thanks for articulating the ideas so well.

    Comment by Clark — 24 December 2009 @ 10:10 AM

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