Wednesday, 24 August 2011


Jonathan Miles post “A group of would be friends” ( reports a Twitter discussion last week that hinged around reasons why people do not engage with learning.  Jane Hart (@c4lpt) believes it is to do with people not being interested in their jobs, so why should they be interested in learning?  Jonathan was asked to tell his story, which is what his post is about – a great example of a community beginning to thrive when it began to build on its humanity.  Jane is clearly right, but her response, quoted by Jonathan, is only part of the story.

I have discussed before on this blog that the activity of learning is fundamental to our humanity.  It is the core activity that equips us first for survival and eventually for whatever prosperity and fulfilment of our potential that comes our way.  We are, by nature, curious beings who experience, reflect and re-model our behaviour in a continuous and progressive loop. 

During my early career as Trainer in a high powered science research environment I was once involved in an experiment to try to determine how creativity gets lost in our make-up as we grow up.  At what stage in life and what was the cause for the natural inquisitiveness and creativity with which we are born becoming so muted? Why is it that many of the proud products of the education and training system and of our childhood and adolescent lives have lost the ability to notice what is going on around them, to analyse and reflect on it and to make plans to succeed in the environments in which they find themselves? 

The shocking answer from that experiment was that the blockages begin to appear very early in life and are already well and truly evident by the age of about 7.  Parental behaviour, societal norms, schooling systems (thanks Roger Schank for crusading on this point!) and everything surrounding young lives seems to conspire to knock out of them the ability to think out of the box and conceive the extraordinary.  I remember a colleague of mine expressing huge indignation that her child’s teacher had forbidden the telling of fairy stories in infant school “How dare they” she screamed “deny my child the ability to fantasise and to dream?” 

So what’s this got to do with non-engagement in learning in the workplace or in college and university?  If we have become used to not learning and our environment makes no distinction between those who learn and those who don’t, what incentive is there for people to re-awaken their fundamental and in-born skill?  If the person who learns gets the same reward as the person who “is just here for the beer” then what is the point, where is the stimulus. 

I want to combine the hypothesis that learning is part of our humanity, and couple that with the oft quoted premise that the successful organisation of the next decade is the one that can harness the knowledge and skills of the people who work within it. Surely then it is important for organisations, their business leaders, their HR and L&D functions to find ways of enticing, encouraging and supporting their people to learn and to perform better. 

Jane says quite correctly that if people don’t care, they won’t learn.  Jonathan says what many of us experience repeatedly – that even good programmes fall flat and people do not engage.  The story in his post then goes on to exemplify what I believe lies at the centre of this problem.  If the environment is not right, then however good the programme, however strong the incentive, however powerful the individual urge to learn, it will not happen.  Get it right and remarkable progress is made. 

Dick Beckhard’s famous so-called Change Equation ( provides the clue.

D x V x F > R

Three factors must be present for meaningful organizational change to take place. These factors are:
D = Dissatisfaction with how things are now;
V = Vision of what is possible;
F = First, concrete steps that can be taken towards the vision;

If the product of these three factors is greater than
R = Resistance,
then change is possible. 

In a situation where people are not learning and don’t care about their jobs, something has to happen to alter the situation to prevent a slow and terminal decline in the individual’s capacity and that of the organisation to perform. Beckhard’s Change Equation says that change is dependent on three factors that must all be present for anything to happen – and that the combination of the three must be strong enough to overcome the emotional resistance to change that is a part of the nature of every human being.  Therein lies the paradox.  We are all programmed to learn, but at the same time our security needs make us resistant to take risk and to explore once we have a place of safety in our lives. 

A dissatisfaction with where we are now, a vision of a better place somewhere out there, and some idea of how to get from the unpleasant now to the better future are the components. 

How does this apply to L&D and to our learning communities? 

·         Complacency and too great a comfort with our current skills levels, our performance and a lack of ambition, if not challenged in an environment that is supportive but firm (tough love) lead to switch off and entrenchment – and rejection of anything to do with learning and trying to do things better

·         A failure to describe, in ways that are easily understood and which excite, that a future that involves learning and change and that will offer more than the monotony and hopelessness of the current situation, is sure to prevent people even looking at the possibility that with a bit of effort there might be something better out there.

·         Presenting those who we seek to assist with methodologies, platforms and content that are alien to their lifestyles, are inconvenient, not timed to be relevant, and which lack support in applying new knowledge (whether from manager, coach, subject matter expert, mentor, or work colleagues) is not the way to re-kindle the desire for learning, difference, change and improvement. 

In L&D in-house trainers. vendors and educators have become extremely clever at devising content and packaging it in ways which from an academic perspective are ground breaking and worthy of great praise. Every day my mail is full of new offerings incorporating every new tool, application and gismo that can be imagined. But if they are not used in an environment in which the individual is comfortable and is motivated to try them out, embrace them and apply the learning they can undoubtedly generate, then it is like having a magnificent space satellite without a rocket to put it into orbit.  It is worthless. 

Our role in L&D must be to partner with our organisation leaders and managers to create that environment in which people will see a world of possibilities.  Then we have to show the skill and sensitivity to encourage people through the workplace networks and communities of which they are part, and through the learning communities we initiate, foster and invite them to join, to take some steps to try for themselves what might be out there for them.   

That’s hard enough on a face to face basis and requires the focussed efforts of everyone who influences the workplace environment.  For it to succeed with the online communities that are now part of our social world and are rapidly becoming our working world requires us to plan carefully for those communities and to show great skill in making them places that are personal, warm, welcoming and supportive.  Organisation culture, learning platforms, hardware and software accessibility, technical support, personal encouragement and forward thinking stimulation of the communities are all part of the job of the Learning Leader in our new and incredibly exciting world. 

There is every reason to be optimistic that the tools we now have at our disposal can make a real difference if we are able to ignite the spark that lights the desire to learn in those around us.  The good news is that the availability of the wirearchy, the social media and its empowerment of people to social learning and working smarter makes it a responsibility of everyone and a possibility for everyone – not just the L&D function. 

Jonathan’s story is an inspiring one of taking some small steps and seeing some unexpected and extraordinary results – thank you for sharing it!

Friday, 19 August 2011


– Is management an old paradigm in modern learning?

Social learning, where there is no hierarchy, peer learning, learning communities, communities of practice, SoMe based groups on all the various platforms – dominantly characterised by informality and mutuality.  But we still talk about “management” of communities! Why? 

What are we meaning when we talk about “management” of communities?  Most of the discussion comes from within formal organisations – whether it be school, college, university, not for profit, company, professional organisation or wherever, so are we getting hooked on a word that belongs in that formality. At the same time the world that we are striving to create and in which we increasingly operate is characterised by a lack of structure, rules, hierarchy, procedures and all the other things that are taught in “management” courses and written about in the myriad of textbooks that line the shelves. 

“Management” speaks of transaction, organising, leading controlling and all those words of its paradigm.  Is that what we experience and aim to foster in our various communities – the ones we choose to join, learn from and enhance by our own sharing and insight?  Is that what we seek to foster in the communities we create, nurture and whose participants we help and encourage to walk through Alice’s Looking Glass and experience the incredible world of social learning? 

I don’t think so.  Therefore why have we allowed ourselves to describe what we do in our communities as “managing” them? 

Yes, of course there is a need to provide boundaries, guidance, assistance, and occasionally to ask participants to respect the norms and scope of the community, but our role in L&D is of a far higher order and more subtle and sophisticated than mundane “management” of the interaction in the community. 

So what are we really talking about when we speak of “managing communities”.  Facilitation covers part of it, helping people to join, embed, contribute and learn from them by doing whatever it takes to enable each person to self-learn and self-regulate within the bounds of the community.  But that is only part of it.  My feeling is that community leadership describes the role better and I want to explore  that a bit. 

Experience of communities tells me that left to themselves they will eventually pass their maturity, their sell by date, and soon afterwards exceed their use by date. People get bored if things are left to themselves. Energy and the unspoken compulsion to do something to help eventually peters out and apathy and non-involvement sets in.  It happens in every kind of community to which we belong, virtual or face to face.  If there is no leadership, there is no purpose, growth in content depth and fellowship declines, vision dies, commitment falls and eventually the inevitable happens.  In the 21st century we don’t seek to revive it, we discard it and create something new – and in doing so we risk losing what is actually of huge value. 

What then are the characteristics of community leadership that might be considered? 

·         Community hygiene
·         Ultimate guardianship of the scope
·         Assurer of the community norms – ensuring mutual respect is observed
·         The human face – welcoming, assisting, encouraging, thanking, linking
·         Inspirer – providing new avenues of thought to be explored
·         Informer – sharing observation, knowledge and insight including that gathered from outside the community
·         Coach and helper – providing technical assistance, content explanation 

Does any of that require an appointed role or a designated accountability?  A definition of leadership that I have always found useful is 

·         Seeing what needs to be done
·         Being prepared to stand up for it
·         Carrying other people with you 

In our connected world in which structure and hierarchy become increasingly irrelevant this kind of leadership is part of the mutuality and the responsibility that should be in all our minds when we create, enter and take part in communities. 

Our role in Learning and Development? To spot and to fill the gaps that the community has not realised or is unable to fill for itself – a servant role that at the same time nourishes, challenges and nurtures with the intent of enhancing the capacity, motivation and capability of everyone in the community.  

Let’s therefore talk more about Leadership in communities and what that means and leave behind the “M” word that belongs in a passing world.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Do online communities depend on digital skills for their success?

Back now from an absolutely stunning holiday in Iceland - for those of you able to get there! it is a must! But more of that in another post.......

My work on behalf of my African client has repeatedly brought up stark contrasts in the development of learning between Africa and the northern hemisphere environments. It has also highlighted the massive differences between the supposedly more sophisticated and emerging economy of South Africa, the continent's apparent powerhouse, and the creativity in the use of technology enabled solutions evidenced in some of the world's most poverty stricken and least developed places. One of the consistent themes in all those situations is the degree of digital skill available to learning professionals in seeking to help their clients - whether executives of a European corporate, students in a South African university or a pregnant lady in rural Tanzania.

A new post about the levels of digital awareness, skill and patterns of usage in the UK's massive Open University suggests that the dominant factor amongst its students is nothing to do with age, and even the hardware and platforms employed are secondary to the student's motivation.

"What the researchers do find interesting and worthy of further study is the correlation – which is independent of age -- between attitudes to technology and approaches to studying. In short, students who more readily use technology for their studies are more likely than others to be deeply engaged with their work.
“Those students who had more positive attitudes to technology were more likely to adopt a deep approach to studying, more likely to adopt a strategic approach to studying and less likely to adopt a surface approach to studying.” (
Cheryl Brown and Laura Czerniewicz ( found that only 22% of students entering university in South Africa were computer illiterate, but that virtually all of them were mobile literate. So what is the meaning of digital literacy? The reason is that computer access (whether desktop or laptop) is very restricted in poor communities and bandwidth costs restrict things even further. Students therefore use the medium that is available to them and which they can afford. There are many good examples in South Africa of creative use of the social media in back-channels to supplement both face to face and formal learning presented through mobiles. In South Africa there is a high penetration fo Smart phones, especially amongst young people.
In East Africa, where there is virtually no access outside the commercial and urban world to computers and where Smart phones are economically out of the reach of a large proportion of the population, there are amazing examples of simple mobile telephony being harnessed as a cheap, easy to use and accessible means of delivering learning.
The Open University study shows a different picture if looked at in the light of computer versus mobile literacy, with the younger generations using more mobile technology than their older counterparts, but not necessarily from the basis of skills - rather more about the natural medium each group uses in which to communicate.
What is apparent in all three of the scenarios is that
  • Students commitment to learning is the dominant motivating factor - overcoming apparent shortcomings in both technology and skills
  • Provided there is accessible technology, access and content - students will adapt and learn
Terrie Lynn Thompson's work at the Digital Opportunity Trust shows the same kind of conclusions from a global study (
What Terrie Lynn's post goes on to illustrate is that some simple re-arrangement of curriculum and presentation can give great advantages in the take-up and application of formal learning
So how does this apply to online communities?
For me, the lessons are clear. It starts with the motivation to learn. Whether it is
  • the frequently seen situation of several students to a desk, sharing a pencil and a single sheet of paper in a rural African school, but with the guidance and leadership of a committed, enthusiastic teacher who inspires the student
  • 100 children in East Africa gathered around a single TV to watch a virtual classroom maths lesson, guided by a teacher to answer questions after the broadcast
  • Mastercard's phenomenal take-up rate of their leadership programme once htey opened it to all employees globally in real time that entailed people around the world logging in at all hours of the day and night
  • the student back-channel using Twitter to help one another understand a face to face university lecture
  • a British primary school class of 9 year olds creating their own Facebook community to provide excellent homework responses on a mutual help basis (much to the chagrin of the teacher who was initially outraged by perceiving that the kids were simply copying!)
  • Telecomms artisans and technicians using mobile phones and YouTube to record their experiences real time to help their colleagues learn
  • learning professionals coming together through informal and open access communities to share experience, ask questions and explore issues eg
the medium is secondary to wanting to learn. In seeking to develop learning communities that work we need to be conscious of what is possible in terms of platforms and media - and to choose from those that are possible, ones that will make the intended participants feel comfortable and empowered.
Recent posts about the accuracy and relevance of Prensky's 90:9:1 participation model then become irrelevant other than as guideline. London Business School's study of the highly successful Capgemini consulting company's Yammer community indicates a 98% lurking population, which on analysis is made up of professional consultants using the community simply to access high quality information posted by their colleagues and the company's thought leaders (amounting to about 0.03% of the community). Paul Schneider's post ( suggests that Prensky may be out of date as the digital community has developed as a concept, suggesting rather a 70:20:10 model. Again what is clear to me is the need for relevance and appropriateness - choosing a medium which works for the content it is designed to encompass, the skills and comfort levels of the participants, and the accessibility of the technology.
These are challenges indeed for the modern learning professional seeking to help those s/he works with to work smarter. These are just some of the things we need to be as Champions in a world of Social Continuous learning

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Even Porcupines do it! - An example of Social Learning "Just in Time"

I am going on holiday for a week or so tonight with my wife to celebrate our recent 40 years of happy marriage, so there will be a liitle while before my next post.  Thanks for your interest in my Insights into Communities in social learning.  Before I go.......

I just love this little story, a perfect example of social learning that occurs out of peer experience and common necessity:

It was the coldest winter ever. Many animals died because of the cold.  The porcupines, realizing the situation, decided to group together to keep warm.  This way they covered and protected themselves; but the quills of each one wounded their closest companions.  After a while, they decided to distance themselves one from the other and they began to die, alone and frozen. 

So they had to make a choice: either accept the quills of their companions or disappear from the Earth.  Wisely, they decided to go back to being together.  They learned to live with the little wounds caused by the close relationship with their companions in order to receive the warmth that came from the others.   This way they were able to survive.  

Moral of the story: The best community relationship is not the one that brings together perfect people, but when each individual learns to live with the imperfections of others and can admire the other person's good qualities.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Even the trees do it! Collaboration and learning in a complex communications world

Over the past few posts I have been writing about online communities needing to understand the need for, and to create within them the same kinds of behaviour that enable the face to face networks in which we live our lives to succeed. I have tried to draw parallels between the lovely community where I live, and those precious online meeting places where I experience so much common interest, desire to share and to help.

I have been alluding to the fact that any community to which we belong has some kind of structure and norms that it follows.  Whether the elephants or something else, communication seems to be essential to everything living in order to establish mutual support, safety and above all the learning that allows us to progress. 

Professor Sir Paul Mellars, Professor Emeritus of Prehistory and Human Evolution at the Department of Archaeology, Cambridge University, has recently written about why the Neanderthals were overtaken by the modern human. He says:

“Whether humans also possessed more highly developed brains and associated mental capacities than the Neanderthals still remains a matter of intense debate, but experts have pointed to their sophisticated cave paintings and use of spears for hunting as evidence of their innovations.

........In any event, it was clearly this range of new technological and behavioural innovations allowed the modern human populations to invade and survive in much larger population numbers than those of the preceding Neanderthals across the whole of the European continent.” 

What this says to me is that humans developed and embraced a new form of communication that was previously primitive, unsophisticated, or maybe even missing in other societies (communities) that existed at the time.  Their discovery and exploitation of visual symbols became a new focus, a new means of spreading information and learning, a new way of passing on ideas and recording information.  That is what enabled them to develop and become the dominant species – they learned how to collaborate to mutual benefit.  

Is that so different from the change we are now experiencing with the development of social media?  The point is that it was embraced and developed to become a highly potent tool in the kitbag that enabled the success and prosperity of our ancestors.  

Written language, the printing press, radio, TV and so on provided further step changes in the way we communicate with one another.  Now we are in the digital age of the social media and virtual communities.  Why is it that we are so suspicious of them when the history of our race has been bound up with discovering, exploiting and developing ever more sophisticated ways of communicating and spreading learning?   

There are times when I feel that a change –resistant L&D function has become an evolutionary cul-de-sac, doomed to eventual extinction.  But that is not right! Yes, there is frustration from those (myself included) who see the potential of our new means of communication and collaboration for exploding the impact that learning can have on the organisations and communities in which we are involved. But there is movement – a growing understanding, hotly and passionately debated around how to harness and use the power which many people see in advancing learning through the use of technology.  It is only those who will not see that in the end will be left behind. 

That may seem a bit far-fetched – but look at this… 

The pattern of life is a network pattern. The individual links in the network of life, of course are strands of DNA. But without the network of connections linking DNA and our cells, those individual strands are useless.

The pattern of intelligence also is a network pattern. The network pattern of neurons in our brain provides the pathways for human intelligence function.

Social systems of course operate as networks as well. Human society has always functioned as networks. Not surprisingly, organizations, as social networks also follow the network pattern of life. True, we have imposed a hierarchical network structure on certain relationships that we call the organization chart, but the work depends as much or more on the informal networks

In addition, as living networks, companies and business webs engage in more than material exchanges - they also engage in cognitive exchanges. Sustainable business success depends on exchanges of information, knowledge sharing, and open cognitive pathways that allow good decision making. These exchanges not only have value, but are essential for the success of the enterprise, so they must also be considered as economic exchanges.

Modelling business as value networks brings us one small step closer to the reconciling our business and economic models with the fabric of society and the web of life” (

Then I came across this fascinating post about the way even trees do it!  

“Graduate student Kevin Beiler has uncovered the extent and architecture of this network through the use of new molecular tools that can distinguish the DNA of one fungal individual from another, or of one tree’s roots from another. He has found that all trees in dry interior Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. glauca) forests are interconnected, with the largest, oldest trees serving as hubs, much like the hub of a spoked wheel, where younger trees establish within the mycorrhizal network of the old trees. Through careful experimentation, recent graduate Francois Teste determined that survival of these establishing trees was greatly enhanced when they were linked into the network of the old trees.Through the use of stable isotope tracers, he and Amanda Schoonmaker, a recent undergraduate student in Forestry, found that increased survival was associated with belowground transfer of carbon, nitrogen and water from the old trees. This research provides strong evidence that maintaining forest resilience is dependent on conserving mycorrhizal links, and that removal of hub trees could unravel the network and compromise regenerative capacity of the forests.” (Suzanne Simard

Yes, even amongst trees there is a need to preserve established behaviours and linkages! 

In pursuing my love of the African bush and my understanding of it I learned that some trees when “attacked” by browsing antelope, such as the kudu, rapidly excrete distasteful tannins to deter the attacker – and at the same time discharge chemicals into the air that, carried downwind, warn similar trees of the proximity of a hostile species – and guess what? Those trees increase the amount of tannin in their leaves in order to deter the antelope searching for more palatable food! 

Throughout living organisms communication exists as a defence mechanism. As humans we have the ability to develop and exploit new ways of communicating – and to absorb them into the complex range of communities in which we live.  

So there’s the clue! Our early ancestors lived in single communities, or at most in loose and transient associations of small groups. The trees and the ecology of the bush are relatively static and with a very slow rate of change.  We live in a world of increasing change and where the overload of possibilities for communication is exhausting us. 

This is scary!

It comes from Nova Spivack’s post Sharepocalypse Now: Why Social Media Overload Means New Opportunities for Startups (

It is a graphic to show just how complex our communication world has become. 

“It’s a perfect storm: A massive expansion of networks on which to share and track information, but all the while, its users have less and less energy to make choices. The result will be a lot more confusion and noise. 

Writing about a recent conference she attended Jenny Mackness says  

"There was an expectation that we would share our experience of communities of practice with a view to learning from each other. However, whilst the sharing was easy enough, the understanding of where people were coming from was more difficult. Participants came from very different backgrounds" ( 

Where is all this leading?  In our online communities we need to be very clear about purpose, channels of communication and the behaviours that will take with us all who we seek to incorporate, include and invite in our learning and exploration. 

In my last post I drew lessons from the elephant herd that is focussed specifically on ensuring that the little ones learn and are protected as they do so. 

Surely that’s our role in leading L&D forward?  In helping people to learn we have an obligation to help them to experience what the world has to offer as mechanisms. We have to assist them in exploiting the full potential of those mechanisms so that all of us learn together – that way we all prosper! 

In our virtual communities we have to take as much care for the individual as we do when we meet people live.