Social Learning, Collaboration, and Team Identity

March 4, 2010

Harold Jarche recently offered a framework for social learning in the enterprise in which he draws from a range of colleagues (Jay Cross, Jane Hart, George Siemens, Charles Jennings, and Jon Husband, all members of the Internet Time Alliance) to outline how the concept of social learning relates to the large-scale changes facing organizations as they struggle to manage how people share and use knowledge.

Harold’s overall framework comes down to the following insight,

Individual learning in organizations is basically irrelevant because work is almost never done by one person. All organizational value is created by teams and networks. Furthermore, learning may be generated in teams but even this type of knowledge comes and goes. Learning really spreads through social networks. Social networks are the primary conduit for effective organizational performance…Social learning is how groups work and share knowledge to become better practitioners. Organizations should focus on enabling practitioners to produce results by supporting learning through social networks.

Indeed, Jay Cross suggests that the whole discussion needs framing in terms of collaboration, and I tend to agree. Yet, saying social learning occurs largely through collaboration means delving into the subtleties of how social networks relate to the organizing work of project teams as well as to their performance. After all, much of the work done in Enterprises involves multidisciplinary teams, often spread across departments, operating units, and locations.

One of my earlier posts posed the question Who’s on Your Team? to highlight the importance of social networking to establishing team identity and enhancing knowledge sharing across distributed, multidisciplinary teams. Its focus was on the importance of social software applications in the Enterprise to the ability of distributed project team members to recognize who is on their team at any point in time, and who isn’t. Organizational analysts refer to the challenge of establishing team identity as a boundary definition problem for teams, when members are spread across large distances whether geographic or cultural in nature.

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Empathy and Collaboration in Social Business Design

August 27, 2009
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Source: David Armano "Social Business by Design"

My first corporate position carried the title Methods Analyst, working for a large billing center serving a telephone company. One of my main tasks in that role involved learning how other employees performed their work and documenting it. On each project I typically spent several hours observing people work (what some today call rapid ethnography or guerilla ethnography) and then did in-depth interviews of the people I observed. Usually, at the end of my observation, I took responsibility for doing the work for a brief time under their watchful eye. In some sense you could say my work required me to continuously cross train in other people’s work, analyze the process, and write it up in a technical document.  The main insight I took away from that experience was an appreciation for the importance played by empathy in effective collaboration.

First off, collaboration isn’t just about people sharing information to achieve common goals. Collaboration is about people working with other people to achieve common goals and create value. Advocates of Enterprise 2.0 sometimes make the fundamental mistake of arguing that collaboration is really only about achieving business goals, leaving the implication that incorporating social software into the work flow of organizations is sufficient. Even though goal-orientation is a big part of collaborating, collaboration requires more to achieve goals effectively. It requires shared experience. As Dev Patnaik and Evan Rosen recently noted, empathy and collaboration go hand in hand.

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Scalable Learning and Learnscapes in Social Business Design

August 10, 2009

 learnscapeAbout a month ago I read What Would Andrew Do?, an unbook by Jay Cross and friends. I’ve mentioned Jay’s work in previous posts dealing with elearning 2.0 and collaboration in informal learning. In particular, its important to remember that focusing on informal learning doesn’t mean we must disregard the relevance of formal learning because learning is never 100% formal or informal.

However, the term scalable learning probably does require a bit of clarification. After all, isn’t elearning supposed to scale to the size of the learning group and remain available when they need it, where they need it, as long as they are connected to the Web? Well, yes–and it does pretty much. Nevertheless, instructional designers too often fail to incorporate emergent learning requirements of the organization, the enterprise, into  their learning architecture largely because the approaches used to evaluate learning content (whether elearning, blended, or instructor-led) do not incorporate assumptions about the larger ecosystem’s need for the co-creation of knowledge.

The concern for whether the learner is exposed to every thread of content in every course, and assessed for mastery of the information, tends to predominate design thinking about learning, and for compliance training sometimes this is required.  However, too often, instructional design fails to focus on whether the learning scales to support the learner’s ability on-the-job to recognize a problem as a particular kind of problem, much less provide the ability to find the learning content that provides a solution.

I don’t intend to delve here into the minutiae of distinction possible between types of learning. Suffice it to say that when a learning architecture supports all types of learning along the range of formal, non-formal, and informal experience, it must design formal learning in small enough chunks to serve as resources for non-formal and informal learning activities. It also means that the knowledge created using non-formal learning (whether mentored or accomplished in collaboration with peers), or informal learning taken on its own, needs to become a performance resource in developing new formal learning content.

Jay contends that the performance challenges facing organizations are most aptly conceptualized as a learnscape, a concept initially articulated by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid. In the August 2009 issue of Chief Learning Officer magazine, Jay offers the following synopsis.

Learnscapes are the factory floor of knowledge organizations. The “scape” part underscores the need to deal at the level of the learning environment or ecology…The “learn” part highlights the importance of baking the principles of sound learning into that environment rather than leaving it to chance.

 John Hagel sees learnscapes as part of a global transformation of industrial society that he, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison call the Big Shift: the move from institutions designed for scalable efficiency to institutions designed for scalable learning. Hagel’s thinking is relevant since, as I explain below, Jay uses the Push/Pull distinction to demarcate formal and informal learning. The basic insight is conveyed by Hagel, Brown, and Davison in their thoughts on Measuring the Big Shift:

Companies must move beyond their fixation on getting bigger and more cost-effective to make the institutional innovations necessary to accelerate performance improvement as they add participants to their ecosystems, expanding learning and innovation in collaboration curves and creation spaces. Companies must move, in other words, from scalable efficiency to scalable learning and performance. Only then will they make the most of our new era’s fast-moving digital infrastructure.

The participants that Hagel, Brown, and Davison refer to consist of consumers, customers, partners, and employees using social media to talk about, talk to, and engage the products and services, i.e. brands, that an enterprise markets. Don’t misunderstand the focus on performance in the discussion of scalable learning. It isn’t about the traditional focus on efficiency, pursuing ever leaner processes for the sake of officially recognized best practices. Rather, the focus is on creating the knowledge needed to adapt to emergent challenges and manage the flow of that adaptation through the enterprise’s ecosystem. For learning architecture it begins with understanding the importance of keeping the focus on distinctions between push and pull learning.

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Social Business Design: Insights from HP’s WaterCooler

July 15, 2009
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Social Media Snake Oil?

Does your organization approach using social media in its business as something to fear or as something to evangelize? Several recent observers note that incorporating social media into business involves changing the culture underlying communication patterns and decision-making in many large organizations.

Amber Naslund, for instance, tells us that adopting social media means changing the mindset on how to do business. In particular, she says using social media in business means “giving your customers a visible, valuable say in how you do things, and having the faith that doing that is just good business.” On the other hand, Caroline Dangson, of IDC contends enterprises aren’t yet sold on social media and that “there are executives still fearful of the transparency that comes with the social media spotlight.” Specifically, Caroline says that,

Corporate culture has everything to do with adoption of social media. I believe the number one factor preventing full adoption of social media is the lack of executive trust in employees. This culture is about control and creates a workplace of silos. This type of workplace is not set up to be social and the silos are barriers to worker productivity.

So, here social media sits, between fear and faith. Needless to say, the truth about social media’s implications for business design lies somewhere in the middle. The fact of the matter, as Todd Defren tells us, is that we need to begin seriously discussing “how Social Media Thinking will impact the greater whole of the company.”

As noted in an earlier post, keeping in mind the distinctions between formal, process-oriented organization and informal, practice-based organization is crucial in thinking through the collaborative challenges posed by social software for enterprises and designing for the experiences supported. We can learn a bit about the complexity of the challenges involved by considering a recent framework offered on social business design by the Dachis Corporation team and discussing the way it relates to a recent report on an experiment in enterprise social media at the Social Computing Lab of HP Laboratories.


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Social Business Design and Multichannel Team Collaboration

July 7, 2009

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David Armano recently asked the question, Is the Hub and Spoke Model Adaptable? Anyone who ever worked on a project team in a large organization, especially corporate enterprises, probably recognizes the hub and spoke team design depicted in the graphic above. In this post I take a closer look at the hub and spoke design’s purpose in hierarchical, bureaucratic, organizations–the kind associated with industrial society. Our next post discusses how David answered his question and what an adaptable hub and spoke model implies for social business design.

Project management, typically consisting of one or more team leads clustered in the hub, considers the failure of any spoke’s functional work practices to align with approved best practices as evidence of process ignorance, a failure of competence in following the detailed process requirements in the team’s project plan, not a failure of the organization’s adaptive capability. The hub and spoke model’s basic idea is that a matrix-organization, consisting of cross-functional project teams, optimizes the traditional hierarchical organization by adding increased flexibility in responding to market demands for innovation in products and services, and maintaining adherence to a standard management process. However, as Rob Cross and Robert Thomas observe in their recent book, Driving Results Through Social Networks,

…most projects and processes are enabled by productive networks that form among some (but not all) team members in combination with relationships that bridge to key resources and expertise outside of the team.

In other words, much of the collaborative effort going into innovation projects also involves social networks that aren’t part of project teams. Instead, these networks emerge from relationships with others in the enterprise, or from outside friends and associates. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that some research into geographically distributed teams shows that on average, only 75% of the employees on any given distributed team agree about who is, and who is not, on their team. The challenge increases in importance as project teams form and disband more rapidly to manage risk and opportunity, thereby increasing the already fuzzy distinctions of formal organization, i.e. official teams, and informal organization, i.e. social teams.

Ross Mayfield summarized the point well in the following observation:

Process is “how work should be done.” And Practice is “how work is actually done.” When process fails (exceptions), people use practice to fix things. When process doesn’t exist, practice fills the void. While people don’t realize it when they engage in practice, they actually are tapping into community — an informal social network within or beyond the enterprise to discover expertise and get things done. The problem is that we haven’t had the tools to support good practice. The problem is that we haven’t developed the group memory around practice that creates institutional leverage. In fact, we still design organizations to prevent practice and cultures that hoard knowledge and communities. 

I suggest that the real value of social business design comes from the promise it holds for enabling management practices to develop to deal with the following fact:  Social networks do not respect organizational walls, they never did.

Shared experience, not just shared information, is fundamental to the social networks underlying collaboration and innovation. Many, if not most, employees don’t only need to get to know one another through reputation systems, like who people tag as possessing expertise. As Thomas Vander Wal continues to point out, comfort with one another is needed to develop a shared experience that encourages the open sharing of information.  

Collaboration means getting to know that other employees possess expertise on this or that topic, but also developing comfort with one another by sharing significant symbols relating to self, family, friends, and social activities, thereby understanding one another as people. Shared experience with co-workers and customers is a key factor in innovative business practices. It is especially important to multichannel collaboration.

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Social Business, the Golden Rule, and Open Empathy Organization

May 20, 2009

empathyI first took real notice of the term “social business” in a post early this year over at Peter Kim‘s blog. The concept of social business is not limited to those enterprises seeking to “generate social improvements and serve a broader human development purpose,” though these are certainly admirable goals. Rather, social business is increasingly discussed as a frame of analysis for considering the business implications of  large numbers of people using web 2.0 technologies, especially social media, within corporate enterprises as employees, or outside them as customers.

Channels, policies, processes, touch points and transactions are increasingly viewed as parts of the social experience organizations use to engage employees in collaboration, and customers in conversation. The common goal of the discussion involves transforming business practices to incorporate social relationships into the value proposition to customers and other stakeholders.

My recent reading of Wired to Care by Dev Patnaik (with Peter Mortensen) provided some basic insights for me in thinking about the development of social business practices. I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the intersection of experience design and organization. The book explores the concept of empathy in a manner that speaks to the social business discussion by pointing out that the result of a transformation is more than adoption of new technologies such as social media.

Wired to Care offers an approach to organizing business as well as creating design insights on how to engage customers to improve products and services. One of my earliest posts on Skilful Minds, Break the Golden Rule with Customer Dialogue Support, offered the following observation,

Many “customer care” approaches call for treating customers the way you’d like to be treated—the so-called Golden Rule. Treating customers the way we, as service providers want to be treated implies that we inherently know what’s best for them. A customer dialogue approach alternatively assumes that customers know, or can quickly learn, what’s best for them as individual customers. We need to treat customers the way their actions indicate they want, not the way we would want to be treated as a customer.

Reading Wired to Care persuaded me that my previous point only moved the discussion a part of the way to an understanding of the nuances of the Golden Rule for business. Wired to Care offers an interesting point of view on the limitations inherent in the traditional understanding of the Golden Rule, while contending that a full appreciation of it reveals truths about us as individuals, and our relationship to organizations, whether as employees or customers. It outlines three levels of the Golden Rule:

  1. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” — the most basic level with limited efficacy unless people share the same view of the world
  2. “Do unto others as they would have done to them” — requires increased empathy to distinguish the wants and needs of individuals
  3. “Do unto each other as we would have done unto us” — provides for empathy by focusing on “how we’d all like to be treated, inside the company and out,” yet also recognizes that good business practice might additionally require treating people “better than they expect to be treated”

Dev contends that the third level of the Golden Rule provides a basis for integrating empathy into the everyday practices of organizations. Though he does not use the term social business, Dev’s analysis offers a foundational strategy for implementing social business through the concept of an Open Empathy Organization.

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Brand Experiences are for Employees and Customers

April 6, 2009

cem_puzzleThe topics discussed at Skilful Minds fall in a range of challenges involved in translating strategic business goals, and the complex needs of people, into exceptional experiences, for employees who provide products and services and those who consume them, whether the latter are customers, users, learners, or just plain people. Commentators and practitioners of experience design tend to focus on the latter while largely ignoring the former. A few recent posts by influentials speak directly to these concerns and merit specific attention for their insights into experience design and brands.

The underlying theme is that brands are not simply about the way customers view products and services. The way employees engage customers in the design, development, and delivery of those products and services is also crucial to brands. However, exhorting employees to live the brand and talk customer-centricity is a prescription for failure when isolated from transformational changes to a company’s engagement with customers.

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