Collaborative Learning 2013: In Search of Common Ground

In my last post on Collaborative Learning, I pondered synergies among practice areas that had traditionally been hallmarks for how we learn. Public Education quickly came to mind.  So did Higher Learning. But what about the commercial space?  Organizational Development (OD) and Knowledge Management (KM) have staked claims to learning too.  And don’t all entrepreneurs, especially in social change spaces, seek to discover ‘what is possible’?

I’ve been in at least 4 Twitter chats on this topic since that original post in December, and had a highly energized conversation every time. We’ve answered the question at a high-level:  YES, there should be synergies across practices.  The many comments on the previous post supported this, and provided numerous sources and examples from personal experience. Thank you Blake Melnick, Jon Husband, Bas Reus and Kira Campo for those contributions.

There’s something to be said about how we, as learners, can learn differently (and perhaps better) in groups with other people, as opposed to learning alone.  A solo effort might involve a book, a teacher, or a computer screen, but in all cases, the learner is generally on their own to discern the material, with only an instructor and visual content (words, pictures) to guide their learning.

Collaborative learning means learning in groups or teams, deriving deeper insights from discussion, alternative perspectives, and open dialog.

Call it social learning if you like.  That’s an interesting frame all it’s own, with important implications for social media, many of them covered in an excellent book, The New Social Learning by Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner.  In fact, by reading this blog post, you and I are using social media to connect the dots on this thinking, with the potential of further engaging in collaborative research ..

But as you will see in our framework, many more factors will influence our success, extending beyond social technology.  Areas like intention, culture, and our ability to think deeply in a variety of modes come into view.  We’re not just talking left-brain vs. right-brain here (though that enters in .. see Iain McGilchrist on RSA for a fascinating update).  We’re talking about critical thinking, empirical thinking, and design thinking, 21st Century frames from the 3 high-order Learning Dimensions in Bloom/Anderson.

From ECODNA 2009 - a discovery thread (detail)

From ECODNA 2009 – a discovery thread (detail)

In our 2/18 #CDNA chat, the group weighed-in in favor of a “spiral” path, not following rows or columns.  Is this possible?  How would be able to keep our bearings?  We’ll be discussing it at hashtag #CDNA on 2/25 at 8pET.  Watch for the transcript.

To get you thinking, the image at left is an excerpt from ECODNA, a reference framework which evolved via Twitter chat in October 2009, part of the genesis of #ECOSYS.

I hope and believe we can bring new energy on “learning to learn” in every direction possible .. the workplace, the classroom, and our daily lives.  We solve problems every day. That means we tap our ability to summon the right solution, or to call up the right set of factors to determine a new solution.  Are we successful?  Sometimes.  But I contend our ability to make sense of the 21st Century is going to be ever more difficult.  The problems are more complex and intertwined.  We will need both the rigor and depth that comes with “learning to learn” at a new level.

The commercial and education implications are significant.

In 2013 at hashtag #cdna we’re going to fill in the blanks on this framework.  At hashtag #ecosys (explained in the ECOSYS blog) we’re exploring Learning Models.

No high stakes testing or forced curricula in sight, folks.  We’re using collaboration to get to the next level of results.  Would love your thoughts as comments here or online using Twitter.  For a deeper dialog, stop by our new Collaborative Learning community at G+.

Don’t look now.  We’re learning to learn as we speak.

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.


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. 


Organization Culture: Barriers to 2.0 Adoption

CARY, NC. January 2010, by

How would you define organizational culture?  I’m finding it’s an increasingly important question.

To interact and function in the digital 2.0 World (Knowledge Economy, Flat World, 21st Century: choose your paradigm), it’s become critical that leaders understand the internal dynamics of the teams they are leading. How will an organization play in the new world? How will it connect? Drive value? Compete?

An org chart might show us structure and intent, but to truly grasp how decisions are being made, we need to understand the organization’s culture – a task that’s easier said than done. Ask enough people and you might get a sense of it, but its dimensions and reach can remain elusive.

Conceptually, org culture might be framed like this:

A complex, loosely-defined amalgamation of beliefs and behaviors of a group of people that yields significant influence on what actually gets done.

Peter Drucker called the topic “amorphous” (literally, without shape) because it defies the crisp definition that most in management prefer. Personally, I think it will likely fall more in the domain of leadership, aligned with Grace Hopper’s pithy: “You manage things, but you lead people.”

Regardless of how you try to frame it or categorize it, two key questions emerge. Can culture be overtly changed? Many, especially academics, say ‘no’. But can culture be influenced? That’s a topic of some very interesting debate and the subject of this series.

I’ll concede now, I’m not an expert but I’m a practitioner and a survivor. I’ve written vision statements in attempts to shape culture, and I’ve been stymied by mandates from above that were rendered impossible by the forces of culture. At one time or another, we’ve all worn cultural handcuffs.

Series Framing. In the weeks ahead, I’ll post on the many aspects of culture using this outline.

  1. Org Culture: Dimensions. (ref: Schein) 1/25/10
  2. Org Culture: 4 Structural Forces. (ref: Handy) 3/02/10
  3. Org Culture and Complexity: Useful Patterns. (ref: HSDI: Eoyang, Halladay, Nations) 3/20/10
  4. Culture Change in Government. (ref: Eggers/O’Leary and B.Noveck) 3/21/10
  5. Org Culture: Interventions. (ref: Kotter) 4/10/10
  6. It Takes a Village: Insights on Culture and Community in Local Government 9/10/10
  7. Collaborative Culture: Insights from Peter Senge 1/11/11
  8. in response to Tara Hunt post started 11/17/12

I’ve touched base with colleagues in OD, KM & GOV2.0. Several are planning to post insights via comments.

This will be collaboration from the outset.

Barriers to 2.0. Getting at culture has been on my mind since 1989. At the time, a few short years out of college, I recall rifling through Rosabeth Kanter’s classic Change Masters, hoping to unpack my first run-in with hierarchy, silos and cultures of control.

I asked, “Isn’t there a better way?”

Ah, the innocence of youth.

In the years since, I’ve tried to follow Kanter’s advice. Sometimes my interventions, at once brave and naive, have actually worked. But 20 years later, I’m still in chorus with my colleagues, still reciting that same old question.

The Trouble with Silos. As we’ll see in coming posts, silo thinking and cultures that favor stability work against the innovative forces of “2.0”. Innovation is being held hostage on an increasing number of fronts. Silo’s are designed for specialists, driving to standards and removing variance. That often means collaborative behaviors are counter-culture.

It’s a challenge of immense proportions. Let’s try to find some answers.

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:


    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.


    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.


    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.”


    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.

    Insights from 10/15 NC Inmagic Session

    Recently, I had the chance to speak with a group of NC-based Inmagic customers. The crowd was packed with experienced KM practitioners, many with library science backgrounds. While framing a “knowledge renaissance” might have sounded ambitious in other venues, with this audience, it was time to swing for the fences.


    I’d laid out the core themes in a prior post, but as with any productive collaboration, new ideas can emerge when people come together with different perspectives, applying alternative contexts to old problems, or approaching issues in unexpected ways. This Inmagic session was no exception.

    Here are some of the takeaways:

    1. People produce knowledge, not process or technology; as ‘knowledge workers’, they do this by applying context to raw information; metadata (via tagging) continues to be a primary means
    2. Due to the flood of electronic content, the workload of knowledge workers is ever increasing
    3. Finding and keeping track of authoritative SME’s (subject matter experts) has become increasingly difficult
    4. Meaningful relationships are essential elements of collaboration and community
    5. Engagement (rather than passive participation) is required
    6. Understanding complexity is a key building block in the evolution of learning organizations
    7. Social media is unlocking many doors to knowledge worker collaboration, but proliferation of niche SM tools remains a challenge; vendors are making headway as they work toward the needed integration, a key factor in Enterprise 2.0 enablement
    8. Learning and innovation share common threads (discovery, visualization, vetting of alternative solutions), prompting the question: are ‘learning’ and ‘innovation’ really the same thing? or perhaps driven from the same cognitive skill base?
    9. There is a new imperative to foster “cultures of learning”.

    If you’ve followed my last few posts in this thread, you may note the evolution on the ‘cultures of learning’ concept. I now see it as a required baseline. Culture has always been an important factor. But for me, the ‘learning’ imperative emerged during the preparation of the deck and the discussions that followed.

    So our session proved the point: we can always learn .. if we dare to listen, and to keep an open mind.


    Here’s a look at the slides.

    Thanks again to my hosts at Inmagic and the KM practitioners they assembled. Together, we shed some new light on the path to Enterprise 2.0, the future of KM, and the steps to achieve a Knowledge Renaissance.