Learning to Learn: Can KM, OD and Education Find Synergies that Change What is Possible?

These days, the ability to achieve deep, meaningful learning seems more and more of a challenge.  Hamstrung as we are by an ever growing mountain of content, dwindling attention spans, fewer available hours of focused energy, and pressure to prove results, it’s a wonder anyone can truly learn anything anymore.

Some say we can’t, and that increasingly .. we aren’t.

Rather than piling more fuel on the pyre of discontent, I’ve begun to focus my energy on new ideas in the learning space.  For most of the last 4 years I have been reading, researching, and discussing the challenges.  Much of that has happened over at the #k12 #ecosys, where deep & insightful discussions continue.

The result?  It certainly remains a work in progress.  But I’ve begun to put increasing stock on how to drive a synthesis across professional practices that claim much of the high ground on what it means to learn:  KM, OD and Education in particular.  Here’s a discussion framework that has emerged out of these conversations.

What do I mean by these?  I’ll offer a working definition of each, in the context of “learning how to learn”:

  • KM – Knowledge management, a business practice from the 90’s that seeks to  define, capture, and reuse knowledge across an organization, helping its members to share and ultimately learn from past achievements
  • OD – Organizational development, a business discipline most commonly in HR (human resources) that seeks to increase the productive capacity of the people and teams within the organizations walls
  • Education – the immensely broad ecosystem of teaching professionals across K12, colleges and universities, deeply immersed in the art and science (mostly science) of helping our young people learn

Challenge me here. Is this a good foundation?

Assuming so, would cross-pollination of experts like this be unthinkable?  It seems daunting on the surface.  Getting experts working together is hard work, as I’ve explored throughout The DNA of Collaboration.  But to me, crossing these boundaries is precisely the challenge.  We must work together to redefine the problems in solvable ways.  It means changing the stakes so that all the generations around us .. Boomers,  X, Y, Z and beyond .. can embrace new ways to learn how to learn.

In the face of increasing pressures for results, seemingly ‘soft’ initiatives like these are often scaled back, reducing our capacity to learn and to innovate at precisely the wrong moment.

What are some of the requirements in gaining cross-disciplinary cooperation and teamwork?

  • Intention and focus – to define what it means to learn deeply, and to establish new benchmarks for what is possible and achievable
  • Cultures that evolve – fostering new levels of trust, risk-taking and collaboration, so they might earn a more venerable status: ‘cultures of learning’
  • Solution language – that help insights and ideas emerge and converge into fundamentally new possibilities
  • Releasing the flow of insight – surrendering structure to more organic and adaptive methods of exchange

Working across professional disciplines exposes visible fault lines.  Many are deeply entrenched in decades of research and practice, convinced that the only path to success is the one they learned in grad school.  For some, their deeply held convictions will need to be left by the door.

In terms of some key ideas, what might we be talking about?  Here’s just a starter list of topics, to spark the synapses ..

  • Social Capital – building skills, networks and resources to help ourselves to help others
  • Evolution of Teacher/Learner – teachers that learn; learners that teach
  • Learning Cultures – how do we foster them?
  • Weaving a Collaborative Learning Fabric – discussing 1Q13 at CDNA G+ Community
  • Self-Selection and Ownership – customization of the learning agenda
  • Motivation and Growth Mindset – removing fear of not-knowing
  • White space – exploring and exposing the creative urge
  • Social, Team & Project-based Learning – is all learning truly social?
  • Key Stakeholder Roles – including Community involvement, and the notion of Resilience
  • Open Knowledge Frameworks – via a 21st century read of Kant
  • Virtual Environments – the purposeful evolution of distance learning and e-Learning

Under the hashtag #cdna (for “collaboration DNA”) we have begun to explore what it means to learn deeply and learn together, across all the contexts described here.  To get at the issues more directly, we will use this space, related posts on the book site, and other spaces (join our CDNA G+ Community) to expand on what we mean by the practice of KM, OD and Education in the context of learning.

Change demands new thinking.  And as you likely know by now, that is the sort of discussion that  keeps me up at night.  I would love your input and ideas.

My fear is that increasing numbers will someday fail to learn how to learn.  It’s a slippery slope with serious implications.

We’ve got work to do.

KMWorld 2012 Workshop W5: Exploring the Flow of Insight, and the Future of the Learning Organization

By now you know I have lots of say about the future of KM.

I’m more excited than ever to be hosting a 3-hour workshop on TUES 10/16 at KMW12, in Washington.  It’s Pre-Conference Workshop W5, and seats are still available.  I’m on right before Dave Snowden, so perhaps you can come out to see us both.

In my last KM post, I shared my ideas on how KM might evolve.

That discussion, which became the outline of Chapter 19 in The DNA of Collaboration (now on Amazon), is also the foundation for my upcoming KMW12 Workshop.

What are the big ideas?

As I looked at how information moves in organizations, I found that it tends to get stranded more often than not.  The metaphor of a river loomed ever larger for me as I wrote. Senge cites David Bohm’s “leaves on the river” metaphor in The Fifth Discipline, and the more I reflected, the more it became a grounding concept for me.  John Hagel has contributed much re: moving from stocks to flows. And I was intrigued when Beth Noveck, former Deputy CIO at the White House, mentioned rivers in her recent TED Talk.

Potomac River, Leesburg VA

Ultimately the concept of flow is where we need to be, because it stands in stark opposition to the prevailing business paradigm, the hierarchical silo.

Flow opens the floodgates of possibility, so to speak.

We can move around barriers, choose new channels to follow, and adjust to the environment as needed. How can we make insight flow faster in organizations?  Here are some key themes:

  • Collaborative Cultures – that foster trusting behavior and learning, in all its dimensions
  • Room to Take Risk – as the path to learning (it’s ok to be wrong)
  • Framing and Messaging with Rigor – focusing on semantics and critical thinking to best define our problems and solutions  
  • Intention – as foundation for focusing our vision and the baseline for demonstrating integrity

We’ll touch on all of these themes in our workshop, and they flow (quite literally) throughout my book.  They are essential aspects of what it takes for KM to be successful. They are core enablers of learning, and central to effective collaboration.

We need to get better in all of these areas, if we hope to start solving tougher and tougher problems.

What’s most exciting of all?  When we apply our new metaphor … when we let our insights flow .. the feedback and new perspectives can be rapid and unexpected.  I’ve had this experience at #SMCHAT #ECOSYS and #CDNA.  As we begin to communicate and connect more easily, our ability to learn from our learning networks gets better. The pace of learning compounds at an accelerating rate.  It’s pretty exciting actually.

Here’s a quick look at some KMW12 W5 Highlight slides (PDF), pulled from my W5 master deck.

Again, I’d love to see you in DC at KMW12.  If you can’t make it, watch for takeaways at the event hashtag #kmw12 or at the workshop stream #w5insight.  As I say in my book, we’ve got lots to cover, and the current is strong. Let’s get started.

Chris

KM’s Evolution: the “Connected Organization” and the Emergence of Knowledge Networks

CHARLOTTE, NC. April 2012, by 

Knowledge Management can flourish in organizations where the interplay of ideas is valued, where insights are prized as critical raw materials. Unfortunately, that’s not in enough places.  KM, as a practice, remains mired in old thinking.

Let’s take a fresh start:

It’s time for KM practitioners to start sketching out a new collaborative paradigm for the enterprise ..

No small strokes here. So let’s put some stakes in the ground.

For a foundation, let’s return to Ikujiro Nonaka (2001) who gives us 3 major themes that have more relevance today than ever:

  • Flow of Insights, as Process.  The most fundamental change in the KM paradigm must be moving from structure to one of flow as the prevailing metaphor. Insights flow through organizations, they don’t live in hierarchical boxes. When they live in silos, they’re often trapped there. KM must foster flow across silos, and sometimes (with appropriate policy and security) across the firewall. I believe KM’s convergence with social networks helps us think about how insight truly flows, representing a key inflection point for what is possible ..
  • “Ba” as Time, Space .. and Opportunity.  A Japanese term, “ba” can be thought of  (in my words, attempting to apply Nonaka’s) as “favorable conditions in time and space for knowledge emergence to occur”. It could be a conference room, an office, or space by the water cooler, but regardless of place, the chance for emergence is heavily influenced by culture and values. KM practitioners need to facilitate the creation of ba, and I’ll argue that in the 21st century, such places can be either physical or virtual ..
  • Care.  Many (people, organizations) have lost sight of their core values, the deeply felt imperatives that motivate and inspire us to act; in cases where they’re stated, they often fail to enter into our day-to-day use. Ownership and compassion make a difference in KM. Unlocking the value of KM requires a return to priorities, motivators, and intention ..

For a leg up on business context and the value of KM to the enterprise, I like going to Thomas Stewart (2001) with his clear perspective on challenges of how ideas are viewed in the enterprise space:

Value of ideas isn’t taught in traditional economics; it’s treated as a mysterious, outside force .. (but) a company in the information age is really a beehive of ideas, impacting how they should be setup, and run, and how they should compete.

An evolved, future-state KM needs more grounding in business and the business process, as envisioned by Nonaka and contextualized by Stewart. Sharing knowledge (first as insights, then ideas) must become second nature.

The adoption of this thinking has, in many ways, remained painfully slow. Andrew McAfee (2009) helped to set a new baseline for what’s possible, but he’s quick to point out that tech adoption often takes much longer than we’d prefer.

But it doesn’t stop us from charting a course.

Framing KM as a new paradigm allows us all to rethink what happens when insight truly begins to flow more freely through organizations. Hold this mental model:  insights are the raw material of new ideas. New knowledge is the downstream outcome, the catalyst and source of innovation.

We need accessible semantic framing for KM to have a chance.

I like to think of a new, emergent KM as “Getting Smarter, Faster” .. a more conversational, real, and tangible frame for KM and the flow of insights. Many of the terms and concepts in traditional KM (include some used in this post) won’t resonate with C-Levels, including, unfortunately, “ba” and “social” ..

As we rethink the framework, let’s try this:

Enterprise 2.0 may ultimately transform KM .. so that what emerges will be the “Connected Organization” .. creating new chances and spaces for people to exchange ideas and redefine possibilities ..

Connections like these happen at many levels, often spontaneously and in the moment. Email is not effective for this. Encounters at the water cooler leave too much to chance.

Ultimately, we are social creatures. We have an innate desire to connect with each other, and at some level, to help each other. But such thinking doesn’t go far in our commercial spaces.  This is where we need to rethink and apply Nonaka’s “care” as a focus, a priority, a core “intention.” My take on the challenge:

Corporations, in general, have failed to recognize the tremendous generative power in fostering white space and open linkages ..

Let’s take a confident step in the direction of E2.0, taking McAfee’s lead (in my words):

Social technologies offer the potential to serve as a KM catalyst, helping people connect in intuitive ways, when the need becomes apparent .. and we need to find ways to leverage them ..

Collaboration DNA (2012) .. my first book .. is where I’ve assembled the scaffolding for these ideas over the past 3 years. It will be out on Kindle soon. I’ve acquired a deep appreciation of linkage between KM and the collaboration process, and the role that technology can play to transcend historic barriers.

Both KM and collaboration depend on the exchange of insight; both aspire to create synergy from the engagement of independent thinkers; both struggle to function across organizational silos.

Steven Johnson has had many powerful things to say about the flow of ideas of late, but I think it was Peter Senge who first pointed out that KM and collaboration are two sides of the same coin.

Let me tie all this together:

KM needs to traffic in the flow of insight, building formal and informal Knowledge Networks as foundations of the Connected Organization ..

Exchange of insights, in the end, is the catalyst that makes innovation happen. Yes, there must be a process, and KM can help us invent the new one. It needs to be embedded in operations. And ultimately, it must have time, space .. and intention .. to flourish.

We’ll be expanding on these ideas here, and elsewhere.

Many of you have helped shape and validate my thinking, each insight a catalyst for the next. Thank you for your many contributions. But we’re only just getting started ..

As always, there’s still much work ahead, and as always, I’d love your insights.

***

Notes: see Suggested Reading side bar re: Goleman (1995, 2005), Kuhn (1962), Senge (1990), Wheatley (1996), Johnson (2010); links to books by Nonaka, Stewart and McAfee are in-line above. 

The Many Dimensions of Organization Culture

As I shared in the framing for this series, organization culture can be amorphous: hard to pin down, and difficult to define. That’s a problem. Because culture is often called out as a fundamental barrier to innovation and change.

In this post, we’ll start to see why.

To build a framework for discussion, I delved into the work of Edgar Schein, a pioneer in Organizational Development (“OD”). With several decades of practical case studies under his belt, he brings the voice of experience. While he targets corporations, his conclusions appear valid for large organizations more generally, at least enough to get us thinking.

So let’s jump in.

In The Corporate Culture Survival Guide (1999), Schein outlines 3 levels that I’ll describe as the perceptive dimension for understanding culture. These are categories of what can be learned:

  1. the visible and observable – what you can see (space allocations; the trappings assigned to members; rituals and events; public packaging, including artifacts like marketing press releases and monolithic headquarters buildings, the glossy and glassy facades that project a desired image)
  2. spoken, espoused views – what you’ll be told (stated values)
  3. hidden, tacit, underlying assumptions -what’s invisible to inside and outside observers (this one is considered the deepest and most powerful, being so basic for so long that they’re taken for granted).

We tend to track what we can measure, so often our attempts to describe culture start and stop with the first two items above. But there’s much more to the story.

Schein says culture is a property of a group, reflecting it’s shared beliefs and values. How big is such a group? It turns out all sample sizes are valid. I’ll tag these as the scale dimension to denote size. Schein makes mention of those shown in italics as cultures can flow across boundaries and thus be inherited. Think “Western work ethic” as a good example. But I’ve added some additional groups, to paint a fuller, 21st century picture:

  1. international community (federations of like-minded peoples)
  2. social community (common demographics and beliefs)
  3. national (bound by arbitrary political borders)
  4. local community (bound by common geography)
  5. digital community (bound loosely by connections and some stated common ground or affinity)
  6. corporate organization
  7. teams as stakeholder groups (internal to the organization, with the ability to posses their own sub-cultures)
  8. functional silos (a special case of teams within an organization that form sub-cultures that may resist other elements; while congruent, their cultures may be different, thus creating challenges)

Finally, Schein uses a breakdown that I’ll call the structural dimension of culture, which looks like this:

  1. contextual depth – providing core, foundational meaning of all beliefs and values in the perceptive dimensions.
  2. contextual breadth – exhaustive scope boundaries to this group, including all internal and external relationships
  3. stability – the result of the above factors, describing full social context and creating longevity over time.

According to Schein, then, culture provides an organization with a sense of boundaries, continuity, and predictability, a sense of place and belonging.

What to make of all this?

Culture is clearly complex, with many interacting variables. At any moment, all the dimensions seem to be in play. We know from studying and participating in organizations that the many stakeholders – because they’re human – possess a degree of unpredictable behavior. They are adaptive. Schein warns us not to over-simplify our assumptions or our conclusions. Now, it’s easier to see why.

Perhaps culture exists as a guide to people who are, by nature, apt to struggle with boundaries and conflicting motivations. Some might say it’s an “emergent” property of human systems, created to establish self-perception and normalizing behavior. In a group setting, we must learn what success looks like, learning how to behave to be a surviving member.

In the new world, however, with fast-paced changes and soft boundaries, the comforting mores of culture may be counterproductive.

At a minimum, we can see the basis for resistance to Web 2.0 technologies, which have at their core the ability to change context and group affiliation quickly. Culture is about stability and certainty. No wonder there’s resistance.

So what of the structure and shape of culture?

How will culture function in the hyper-connected 21st century?

[Next up: focus on categories and examples, per the work of Charles Handy. Stay tuned.]

On Semantics: When Ambiguity is the Enemy

Asking for directions at the Tower of Babel must have been quite an ordeal, with everyone speaking a different language.

I guess they had organizational silos way back then.

Fast forward a couple thousand years, and we still can’t get through a day without debating simple words and phrases. The latest roadblock: unpacking the overused and often misleading term “social media”. In general, the confusion often comes down to context, ie., how or where the words are being used. And as I’ve posted previously, in a virtual world, context can change quickly.

The fundamental question is this: Do you care if people understand you? I’ll go out on a limb here:

Our messages get misunderstood, if not ignored, when we’re not careful in choosing our words. It’s worse if we fail to consider what filters our audience may use to interpret them. Collaborators today have no choice but to recognize: ambiguity is the enemy.

The answer lies in renewed focus on semantics, the study of what words and phrases mean. Language is an inexact science. Fundamentally, it requires interpretation. And as message volumes increase and the rate of exchange accelerates, we need to get better at mastering it. Fast. Let me throw out some areas for focus:

    HURDLE #1: MOTIVATION

    1. Try to be clear. Ok, it’s a stretch: it’s more fun to be trendy and cryptic. Twitter’s 140c limit is a great excuse for short cuts, substituting all sorts of phonetic (“sounds like”) spellings due to lack of space. But if it means you can’t be understood, re-group. Simplify your message.

    RESOURCES

    1. Dictionary. Don’t be shy. Save time debating. Look it up.
    2. Thesaurus. Are you stuck? Look to thoughtful lists of related words, aka synonyms. Stuck on a word that is causing endless debates? Find a better one.
    3. Learn the etymology. If you’re (still) stuck, check the dictionary or other sources to learn the origins of a word, what it’s fragments mean, and the history of how it’s been used. When getting it right really matters, this level of digging can really help.
    4. Authoritative SME’s. Use your favorite search engine, Wikipedia or Twitter to find experts. Try searching relevant hashtags. Reinventing wheels is a great exercise in creativity, but reinventing words and their meanings slows down collaboration. Find a source everyone can agree to.

    CRITICAL THINKING

    1. Domain. Everything that’s related to the topic you’re talking about.
    2. Understand Domain Boundaries. So you’ve got a domain. Where are it’s edges? What’s “in scope” vs. “out of scope” to your discussion? For important, longer-term collaboration, getting this right up front is important.  If it needs to change midstream, spend a little time letting everyone know and agree to the boundary change.
    3. Set Context, and try to hold it. In simple terms, this means staying focused on the topic at hand, keeping within the domain boundaries specified. This may be the single biggest “critical thinking” skill that virtual collaboration forces on us. It’s a challenge, because different contexts often imply alternate cultures, goals, and semantics. Pay attention to that. Starting a dialog? State the context. “Today we’re focused on  X in the context of Y.”

    ADVANCED APPLICATIONS: FOCUS AREAS

    1. Knowledge Management (KM). Since the mid-1990’s, a business practice focused on the identification and capture of the critical insights in an organization. By most accounts, this is evolving with the help of social media. Follow: #km #kmers
    2. Controlled, Shared Vocabulary. This is important where organizations or ecosystems need to agree on enough key words that its worth publishing the definitions to “lock them in”. Very helpful for structured collaboration in a specific, closed domain. (Note: We may need to find a more open-ended alternative for virtual collaboration, that allow working semantics to evolve in open domains, with vocabulary that is “guided” vs. “controlled”.)
    3. Solution Language. Often, a group can get traction through starting to frame the end state. In the process, common ground is established, and key terms emerge. What will a solution look like? How can we describe it? Who will be the major players, and what will be the outcomes?
    4. Taxonomy & Folksonomy. A taxonomy shows how words or topics relate in a “top down” hierarchy. Important in biology. Once important in classifying knowledge. Current importance debated, mostly by folks in KM. Not to be confused with folksonomy which is how words or topics are now getting tagged, forming an unstructured, crowd-sourced, “bottom up” view of topic relationships. A great current example of this is the use of hashtags on Twitter. These are created in a random fashion, but gradually gain acceptance (or not) among folks that see value in them. SME: @StephLemieux #taxonomy
    5. Ontology. This is the workhorse of describing relationships among abstract words, ideas, objects or topics. Requires more rigor, but it’s often worth it. Useful in framing complex domains or topics. Similar constructs sit at the core of conventional design methods.

    Yes, there’s a lot to this. That’s why its hard. And why its important that we get it right.

    Do you want to help fine tune the above definitions?  Watch for these definitions in wiki format, so we can work together toward a baseline of semantic concepts for virtual collaboration. If you already know of one, super, let’s not reinvent it ..

    Meantime, let’s focus more on what it takes to be understood. It can make our days go so much faster. I’ll try to hold up my end. Will you?

    In a virtual world, what do we mean by “Community”?

    Back in the day, when tribes were really tribes, the most critical need within a community was survival. Separating from the group introduced risk. Staying close improved your chances. In some ways, little has changed. These conditions seem strangely familiar.

    No wonder an emotional connection often exists among the people and places of our local communities.

    Borrowing from the anthropology books, the community of practice (“CoP”) concept emerged. It was coined by Lave & Wenger in the early 1990’s to reflect the tendency for professional groups to form based on common interests, independent of local boundaries. With a gradual introduction of work group and email technology, geographic constraints diminished. Knowledge Management (KM) brought recognition that groups in remote places could collaborate.

    Today, social media dramatically improves on that capability, serving to amplify, accelerate, and even multi-thread interactions. But there’s a need to strike a balance between capability and usability. For a virtual community to survive, some key ingredients are required:

    1. A common, stated purpose (affinity).
    2. An aligned culture that values participation, cognitive diversity and discovery.
    3. Strong, cohesive relationships, built via engagement, trust and mutual respect.
    4. Support from authoritative external leaders (if applicable), and (at least) rudimentary governance.
    5. Awareness of diverse contexts (recognizing differences across functional silos, or along social vs. commercial, or local vs. global dimensions). This implies an ability to manage your mental filters.
    6. Semantic clarity.
    7. Strong connection (or access), providing intuitive ways for members to interact.

    Virtual communities cut across traditional geographic, social and political boundaries; membership in many groups is possible. This allows cultures to mix. With increased interdependence comes new complexity. So it’s a mistake to believe virtual communities work just like the local ones. In the physical world, we had nonverbal cues; getting our bearings involved our ‘line of sight’. Now, we must rely on our ‘line of thinking’. And that can change quickly.

    If a traditional community gives us a social context and a sense of place, a virtual community gives us optional contexts, diverse ways to view a problem and its solutions.

    It’s more capability, with a price .. it takes more rigor to drive it.

    Social media is just a platform, the next set of tools. The hard work of change remains. Is our culture more aligned with a race to the future? Or is our desire for stability prompting us (even subconsciously) to cling to the past?

    I’m an optimist, but many take the latter perspective. For the ultimate answer, I’m holding on to the complexity view: the optimal solution is likely someplace in the middle.

    The Problem with “Social” in Social Media (the case for ‘New Media’ and the semantics of 2.0)

    The other day, I had an epiphany.

    In one window, I’d been watching a series of tweets on how State CIO’s put collaborative tools at the bottom of their 2010 technology priority list, even though their top 3 strategic goals included better management of labor costs, workforce optimization, sharing of work .. in a nutshell: productivity.

    In another window, I’d watched die hard SMCHAT members bemoan the boss who wouldn’t let them communicate via blogs, for fear they were wasting time. Forget the great ideas and potential innovations that were emerging.

    Finally, the last straw: several high ranking execs were talking strategy, and one of them referred to the corporate adoption of SM, aka Enterprise 2.0 (#E20), as “Facebook behind the firewall.”

    That’s when I snapped, so to speak.

    From here out, I’m calling it facebook syndrome. You may know someone who has it too. It assumes social media is just about planning parties and swapping pictures, and it definitely doesn’t help with management buy-in.  In fact, there are two working definitions of social. One connotes entertainment, and another, the one we’re talking about for Government 2.0 (#GOV20) and E2.0 and any serious commercial application is about building new work groups; facilitating new engagement for problem-solving; driving better partnerships; enabling culture change; and, quite literally, unlocking innovation.

    Let’s change the game. Let’s rally around a new name .. like “new media” perhaps? .. for commercial applications. And to sell it, let’s demonstrate a basis for measuring actual productivity gains, showcasing the people working closely together on shared problems that only recently had never met.

    Watch people get excited about coming to work again.

    It’s not social media that we’re chasing. It’s the networked learning organization. To get beyond images of wedding crashers, the solution language needs to reflect the mission.