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

18 May 2017

Disruptive Innovation

Clark @ 8:06 am

I recently came across a document (PDF) about disruptive innovation based upon Clayton Christensen’s models, which I’d heard about but hadn’t really penetrated. This one was presented around higher education innovation (a topic I’ve some familiarity with ;), so it provided a good basis for me to explore the story.  It had some interesting features that are worth portraying, and then some implications for my thoughts on innovation, so I thought I’d share.

The model’s premise is that disruption requires two major things: a technology enabler and a business model innovation.  That is, there has to be a way to deliver this new advance, and it has to be coupled with a way to capitalize on the benefits.  It can’t just be a new technology in an existing business model, as that’s merely the traditional competitive innovation. Similarly, a new business model around existing technology is still within  competitive advancement.

A related requirement is to have a new entity ready to capitalize. This quote captured me: “In those few instances in which the leader in one generation became the leader in the next disruptive one, the company did so by setting up a completely autonomous business unit…”  You can’t do disruption from inside the game.  Even if you’re a player, you have to liberate resources to start anew.

Which is quite different than most innovation. Typical innovation is ‘within the box’.  This comes from having an environment where people can experiment, share, be exposed to new ideas, and allowing it to incubate (ferment/percolate) over time.  And this is a good thing. Disruptive innovation makes new industries, new companies, etc.  And that’s also good (except, perhaps, for the disrupted).  The point being that both innovations are valuable, but different.

It’s not clear to me what happens when an internal innovation comes up with an idea that’s really disruptive. Clearly, if the idea clears the hurdles of complacency and inertia, you’d probably want to spin it off.  But most innovations just need a fair airing and trialing to get traction (though depending on scope, a bit of change management might be useful).

I encourage innovation, and creating the environment where it can happen. It’s valuable even in established businesses, and a fair bit is known about how to create an environment where it can flourish.  So, what can we innovate about innovation?

16 May 2017

A ‘Critical Friend’?

Clark @ 8:01 am

I’m participating in an engagement, and they were struggling to define my role. Someone mentioned that I’m serving as a ‘critical friend’, and the others cottoned on to it.  I hadn’t heard that term so I explored, and liked what I found. Thought I’d share it.

So, ‘critical friend‘ is a term that originated in the education sector. The prevailing definition is:

a trusted person who asks provocative questions, provides data to be examined through another lens, and offers critiques of a person’s work as a friend. A critical friend takes the time to fully understand the context of the work presented and the outcomes that the person or group is working toward. The friend is an advocate for the success of that work.

What’s key to me is that the role involves being committed to the success of the endeavor, but also being provocative. The latter is about asking the hard questions and bringing in outside input that wouldn’t likely be considered otherwise. And I believe, based upon what I’ve dug into for innovation, that this is a valuable role.

So what I’m doing is getting to know the situation, rapidly consuming lots of documents, interviewing people, and sitting in on other information gathering sessions, to get to know what’s up. Then I’m floating some ideas that I think they really need to consider. The ideas are contrary to the path they’re planning on but I’ve buttressed them with some strong arguments. They make not take on all of them, but at least they’ll have explicitly considered them.

I’ve played this role specifically in a number of different situations (in fact, in some sense you could consider most of my engagements to have at least a facet of this).  I like to think that my 30+ years of work across cognition, technology, learning, design, and organizational implementation, with corporations, education institutions, government agencies, and not-for-profits, as well as my stockpiling of models, means I’ll generate some lateral and valuable thoughts in almost any situation. That’s certainly been the case to date.  And I really do want to help people achieve their goals.

It’s a fun, though challenging role. You have to get up to speed quickly, and be willing to offer ideas. I pride myself on also being able to suggest ways to accomplish ideas that aren’t obviously implementable at the first go (all part of Quinnovation ;).

When you’re looking at some change, getting some critical friend support on principle is a good idea. People challenging you for your own best interest isn’t always easy, but the outcomes are pretty much always worth it.  So, who’s your critical friend?

3 May 2017

To LMS or not to LMS

Clark @ 8:11 am

A colleague recently asked (in general, not me specifically) whether there’s a role for LMS functions. Her query was about the value of having a place to see (recommended) courses, to track your development, etc. And that led me to ponder, and here’s my thinking:

My question is where to draw the line. Should you do social learning in the LMS version of that, or have a separate system? If using the LMS for social around courses (a good thing), how do you handle the handoff to the social tool used for teams and communities?  It would seem to make sense to use the regular tool in the courses as well, to make it part of the habit.

Similarly, should you host non-course resources in the LMS or out in a portal (which is employee-focused, not siloed)? Maybe the courses also make more sense in the portal, tracked with xAPI?  I think I’d like to track self-learning, via accessing videos and documents the same as I would formal learning with courses: I want to be able to correlate them with business to test the outputs of experiments in changes.

Again, how should I be handling signups for things?  I handle signups for all sorts of things via tools like Eventbrite.  Is asking to signup for a training, with a waiting list, different than other events such as a team party?

Now, for representing your learning, is that an LMS role, or an LRS dashboard, or…?  From a broader perspective, is it talent management or performance management or…?

I’m not saying an LMS doesn’t make sense, but it seems like it’s a minor tool at best, not the central organizing function.  I get that it’s not a learning management system, but a course management system, but is that the right metaphor?  Do we want a learning tracking system instead, and is that what an LMS if or could be for?

When we start making a continuum between formal and informal learning, what’s the right suite of tools? I want to find courses and other things through a federated search of *all* resources. And I want to track many things besides course completions, because those courses should have real world-related assignments, so they’re tracked as work, not learning. Or both. And I want to track things that we’re developing through coaching, or continuing development through coaching and stretch assignments. Is that an LMS, or…?

I have no agenda to put the LMS out of business, as long as it makes sense in modern workplace learning. However, we want to use the right tool for the right job, and create an ecosystem that supports us doing the right thing.  I don’t have an obvious answer, I’m just trying on a rethink (yes, thinking out loud ;), and wondering what your thoughts are.  So, what is the right way to think about this? Do you see a uniquely valuable aggregation of services that makes sense? (And I may have to dig in deeper and think about the essential components and map them out, then we can determine what the right suites of functions are to fulfill those needs.)

27 April 2017

Innovation Thoughts

Clark @ 8:10 am

So I presented on innovation to the local ATD chapter a few weeks ago, and they did an interesting and nice thing: they got the attendees to document their takeaways. And I promised to write a blog post about it, and I’ve finally received the list of thoughts, so here are my reflections.  As an aside, I’ve written separate articles on L&D innovation recently for both CLO magazine and the Litmos blog so you can check those out, too.

I started talking about why innovation was needed, and then what it was.  They recalled that I pointed out that by definition an innovation is not only a new idea, but one that is implemented and leads to better results.  I made the point that when you’re innovating, designing, researching, trouble-shooting, etc, you don’t know the answer when you start, so they’re learning situations, though informal, not formal.  And they heard me note that agility and adaptation are premised on informal learning of this sort, and that the opportunity is for L&D to take up the mantle to meed the increasing need.

There was interest but some lack of clarity around meta-learning. I emphasize that learning to learn may be your best investment, but given that you’re devolving responsibility you shouldn’t assume that individuals are automatically possessed of optimal learning skills. The focus then becomes developing learning to learn skills, which of needs is done across some other topic. And, of course, it requires the right culture.

There were some terms they heard that they weren’t necessarily clear on, so per the request, here are the terms (from them) and my definition:

  • Innovation by Design: here I mean deliberately creating an environment where innovation can flourish. You can’t plan for innovation, it’s ephemeral, but you can certainly create a felicitous environment.
  • Adjacent Possible: this is a term Steven Johnson used in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, and my take is that it means that lateral inspiration (e.g. ideas from nearby: related fields or technologies) is where innovation happens, but it takes exposure to those ideas.
  • Positive Deviance: the idea (which I heard of from Jane Bozarth) is that the best way to find good ideas is to find people who are excelling and figure out what they’re doing differently.
  • Hierarchy and Equality: I’m not quite sure what they were referring to hear (I think more along the lines of Husband’s Wirearchy versus hierarchy) but the point is to reduce the levels and start tapping into the contributions possible from all.
  • Assigned roles and vulnerability: I’m even less certain what’s being referred to here (I can’t be responsible for everything people take away ;), but I could interpret this to mean that it’s hard to be safe to contribute if you’re in a hierarchy and are commenting on someone above  you.  Which again is an issue of safety (which is why I advocate that leaders ‘work out loud’, and it’s a core element of Edmondson’s Teaming; see below).

I used the Learning Organization Dimensions diagram (Garvin, Edmondson & Gino)  to illustrate the components of successful innovation environment, and these were reflected in their comments. A number mentioned  psychological safety in particular as well as  the other elements of the learning environment. They also picked up on the importance of leadership.

Some other notes that they picked up on included:

  • best principles instead of best practices
  • change is facilitated when the affected individual choose to change
  • brainstorming needs individual work before collective work
  • that trust is required to devolve responsibility
  • the importance of coping with ambiguity

One that was provided that I know I didn’t say because I don’t believe it, but is interesting as a comment:

“Belonging trumps diversity, and security trumps grit”

This is an interesting belief, and I think that’s likely the case if it’s not safe to experiment and make mistakes.

They recalled some of the books I mentioned, so here’s the list:

  • The Invisible Computer by Don Norman
  • The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman
  • My Revolutionize Learning and Development (of course ;)
  • XLR8 by John Kotter (with the ‘dual operating system‘ hypothesis)
  • Teaming to Innovate by Amy Edmondson (I reviewed it)
  • Working Out Loud by John Stepper
  • Scaling Up Excellence by Robert I. Sutton and Huggy Rao (blogged)
  • Organize for Complexity by Niels Pflaeging (though they heard this as a concept, not a title)

It was a great evening, and really rewarding to see that many of the messages stuck. So, what are your thought around innovation?

 

11 April 2017

Classical and Rigorous

Clark @ 8:09 am

A recent twitter spat led me to some reflections, and I thought I’d share.  In short, an individual I do not know attacked one of my colleague Harold’s diagrams, and said that they stood against “everything classical and rigorous”.  My somewhat flip comment was that “the classical and rigorous is also outdated and increasingly irrelevant. Time for some new thinking”.  Which then led to me being accused of spreading BS. And I don’t take kindly to someone questioning my integrity. (I’m an ex-academic after all! ;) I thought I should point out why I said what I said.

Theories change.  We used to believe that the sun circled the earth, and that the world was flat. More relevantly, we used to have management theories that optimized using people as machines.  And typical business thinking is still visible in ways that are hierarchical and mechanical.  We continue to see practices like yearly reviews, micromanagement, incentives for limited performance metrics, and curtailed communication. They worked in an industrial age, but we’re in a new environment, and we’re finding that we need new methods.

And, let me add, these old practices are not aligned with what we know about how our brains work.  We’ve found that the best outcomes come from people working in environments where it’s safe to share. Also, we get better results when we’re collaborating, not working independently. And better outcomes occur when we’re given purpose and autonomy to pursue, not micromanagement.  In short, many of the classical approaches, ones that are rigorously defined and practiced, aren’t optimal.

And it’s not just me saying this. Respected voices are pointing in new directions based upon empirical research.  In XLR8, Kotter’s talking about leveraging more fluid networks for innovation to complement the hierarchy. In Teaming, Edmondson is pointing to more collective ways to work. And in Scaling Up Excellence, Sutton & Rao point to more viral approaches to change rather than the old monolithic methods. The list goes on.

Rigor is good. Classical, in the sense of tested and proven methods, is good. But times change, and our understanding expands. Just yesterday I listened to Charles Reigeluth (a respected learning design theorist) talk about how theories change. He described how most approaches have an initial period where they’re being explored and results may not be optimal, but you continue to refine them and ultimately the results can supersede previous approaches.  Not all approaches will yield this, but it appears to me that we’re getting convergent evidence on theoretical and empirical grounds that the newer approaches to business, as embodied in stuff like Harold’s diagrams and other representations (e.g. the Revolution book), are more effective.

I don’t knowingly push stuff I don’t believe is right. And I try to take a rigorous approach to make sure I’m avoiding confirmation bias and other errors. It’s got to align with sound theory, and pass scrutiny in the methodology. I try to be the one cutting through the BS!  I stand behind my claim that new ways of working are an improvement over the old ways. Am I missing something?

 

5 April 2017

Exploration Requirements

Clark @ 8:03 am

In yesterday’s post, I talked about how new tools need to be coupled with practices to facilitate exploration. And I wanted to explore more (heh) about what’s required.  The metaphor is old style exploration, and the requirements to succeed. Without any value judgment on the motivations that drove this exploitation, er, exploration ;). I’m breaking it up into tools, communication, and support.

Tools

Old mapSo, one of the first requirements was to have the necessary tools to explore. In the old days that could include means to navigate (chronograph, compass), ways to represent learnings/discoveries (map, journal), and resources (food, shelter, transport). It was necessary to get to the edge of the map, move forward, document the outcomes, and successfully return. This hasn’t changed in concept.

So today, the tools are different, but the requirements are similar. You need to figure out what you don’t know (the edge of the map), figure out how to conduct an experiment (move forward), measure the results (document outcomes), and then use that to move on. (Fortunately, the ‘return’ part isn’t a problem so much!)  The digital business platform is one, but also social media are necessary.

Communication

What happened after these expeditions was equally important. The learnings were brought back, published, and presented and shared. Presented at meetings, debates proceeded about what was learned: was this a new animal or merely a variation? Does this mean we need to change our explanations of animals, plants, geography, or culture?  The writings exchanged in letters, magazines, and books explored these in more depth.

These days, we similarly need to communicate our understandings. We debate via posts and comments, and microblogs. More thought out ideas become presentations at conferences, or perhaps white papers and articles. Ultimately, we may write books to share our thinking.  Of course, some of it is within the organization, whether it’s the continual dialog around a collaborative venture, or ‘show  your work’ (aka work out loud).

Support

Such expeditions in the old days were logistically complex, and required considerable resources. Whether funded by governments, vested interests, or philanthropy, there was an awareness of risk and rewards. The rewards of knowledge as well as potential financial gain were sufficient to drive expeditions that ultimately spanned and opened the globe.

Similarly, there are risks and rewards in continual exploration on the part of organizations, but fortunately the risks are far less.  There is still a requirement for resourcing, and this includes official support and a budget for experiments that might fail. It has to be safe to take these risks, however.

These elements need to be aligned, which is non-trivial. It requires crossing silos, in most cases, to get the elements in place including IT, HR, and operations.  That’s where strategy, culture, and infrastructure can come together to create an agile, adaptive organization that can thrive in uncertainty. And isn’t that where you need to be?

4 April 2017

Continual Exploration

Clark @ 8:09 am

CompassI was reading about Digital Business Platforms, which is a move away from  siloed IT systems to create a unified environment. Which, naturally, seems like a sensible thing to do. The benefits are about continual innovation, but I wonder if a more apt phrase is instead continual exploration.

The premise is that it’s now possible to migrate from separate business systems and databases, and converge that data into a unified platform. The immediate benefits are that you can easily link information that was previously siloed, and track real time changes. The upside is the ability to try out new business models easily.  And while that’s a good thing, I think it’s not going to get fully utilized out of the box.

The concomitant component, it seems to me, is the classic ‘culture’ of learning. As I pointed out in last week’s post, I think that there are significant benefits to leveraging the power of social media to unleash organizational outcomes. Here, the opportunity is to facilitate easier experimentation. But that takes more than sophisticated tools.

These tools, by integrating the data, allow new combinations of data and formulas to be tried and tested easily. This sort of experimentation is critical to innovation, where small trials can be conducted, evaluated, and reviewed to refine or shift direction.   This sort of willingness to make trials, however, isn’t necessarily going to be successful in all situations.  If it’s not safe to experiment, learn from it, and share those learnings, it’s unlikely to happen.

Thus, the willingness to continually experiment is valuable. But I wonder if a better mindset is exploration. You don’t want to just experiment, you want to map out the space of possibilities, and track the outcomes that result from different ‘geographies’.  To innovate, you need to try new things. To do that, you need to know what the things are you could try, e.g .the places you haven’t been and perhaps look promising.

It has to be safe to be trying out different things. There is trust and communication required as well as resources and permission. So here’s to systematic experimentation to yield continual exploration!

29 March 2017

Leveraging Technology

Clark @ 8:06 am

I was listening to a tale recounting a time when an organization was going through a change, and had solicited help.  And the story surprised me.  The short story is that the initial approach being taken weren’t leveraging technology effectively.  And it led me to wonder how many organizations are still doing things the old way.

So the story was of a critical organizational change.  The hired guns (the typical consulting agency) came into to do their usual schtick, interviewing some people and making recommendations. The problem was, there was no way to interview an appropriately representative sample, and consequently the outcome was going to be less than optimal.  The resulting plan was large. dd

In this situation, a colleague stepped in and managed to arrange to use a social platform to do a better job of sharing the intentions and soliciting feedback.  You might not be surprised to hear that the subsequent process also yielded greater buy-in.  The process resulted in a fine-grained analysis of the plan, with some elements continuing to be executed by the initial partner, others taken on internally, and others discarded.  The ultimate cost was reduced far more than the cost to implement this extra step.

The missed opportunity, it turns out, was that the process used didn’t get scaled and implemented for further changes. Some outside factors removed the instigator responsible for the change and it had been done as a ‘stealth’ operation, so awareness wasn’t spread. The hired guns, already entrenched, went back to business as usual.

The eye-opener for me was the fact that the approach initially taken wasn’t leveraging technology.  In this day and age, that strikes me as completely unjustifiable! They were better able to support transparency and communication, and as typically happens that yielded both better outcomes and better engagement.  Of course, that’s the point of the revolution, getting smarter about aligning technology with how our brains think, work, and learn. It’s just that I forget how far we still need to go.

Just thinking through changes, at every stage of initiatives there’s a benefit:

  • collecting data and determining the issue, via surveys and discussion
  • developing ideas and approaches in collaboration (transparently, showing your work)
  • sharing visions about the resulting approach
  • providing support for expected problems
  • collaborating to address the unexpected problems
  • maintaining focus through the change
  • celebrating successes

All these can be facilitated through technology in powerful ways that can’t be done across geographies and timezones without tech.

So here’s my question to you. Is your organization leveraging technology appropriately?  And this is both at the level of L&D, and then also organization wide.  Is your L&D group working transparently, leveraging social media to both support effective performance and continue to develop? And then are you using that experience to spread the possibilities throughout the organization?  That’s the opportunity on tap, and I would really like to see L&D leading the way. Heck, we’re supposed to be the ones who understand how people learn, and when it comes to change, that’s learning too. Let’s own this!

28 March 2017

Adaptive or just good design?

Clark @ 8:09 am

A few posts ago, I wrote about how we might be rushing too fast into cognitive computing. Not that there’s anything wrong with augmenting us, but I was wondering if we’d be better off focusing on developing our non-cognitive systems first. And, of course, it occurred to me after a conversation that there might be another example of this ‘tech fix before smart fix’ problem: adaptive learning over good design. Is this a tech solution to the wrong problem?

So, I’m a fan of adaptive learning. Heck, I led a team that developed an adaptive learning system back circa 2000 (ahead of the times, as always ;). And I know that there are good things we can do with adaptive learning.  Some are still relatively impractical (e.g. intelligent tutoring systems), some make sense (e.g. adapting on learner performance), and, of course, some are pretty silly (e.g. learning styles).  Still, done well, adaptive learning could and should be a benefit.  (And serious games are adaptive!)

But I would posit that before you charge off for adaptive learning, you make sure you’re doing good learning design first.  Adaptation on top of good learning design is likely to add some extra benefits, but adaptation on old learning design just doesn’t make sense.  And, I’ll suggest, good learning design is cheaper, and likely to have a bigger impact.

So, for instance, adapting a large knowledge-based course will still leave it as a problematic solution in search of a problem.  Creating a better course focusing on critical skills with meaningful practice is going to have a bigger impact on the bottom line than adapting the course for learner progress. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s a secondary concern, I reckon.

Games are a special case of adapting on the basis of learner performance. When well done, they’re the next best thing to live practice.  Yet, at core, they too need good design.

There are a lot of adaptive solutions emerging, with a strong push to optimize your outcomes.  Some of them have a pretty good basis, too. But your goal is to achieve business impact, and what will hit that first, and best, is starting with good design.  Adaptive isn’t a panacea, it’s a fillip to design, not a replacement.    Master the rules of good design, then come back and add in those extra elements, whether adaptivity and/or game mechanics.   Please?

23 March 2017

Karen Hough #ATDCore4 Keynote Mindmap

Clark @ 11:21 am

Karen Hough kicked off ATD’s Core 4 event with a lively keynote talking about how improvisation reflects many core factors involved in successful organizational agility.  Going through her trademarked elements, she had the audience up and participating and reflecting on interpersonal interactions. She covered important components of a learning organization like openness to new ideas, diversity, and safety and demonstrated ways to help break down the barriers.

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