Monday, 24 October 2011


Back in the summer I posted a light-hearted series of articles inspired by Susan’s and my many happy days in the African bush during the long part of our lives we lived in South Africa.  The series is not yet complete…… 

With apologies to my good friends, the vendors and some consultants in the e-learning industry!

They look like something from the dinosaur era.  They are largely solitary or at most associating in small family groups.  They have only the elephant as a natural enemy.  Their horn is erroneously highly valued as an aphrodisiac, which means they are highly prized and sought after by hunters. Saner mortals get incredibly excited when they see one. The black rhino is dangerous because it is short-sighted  – easily provoked and very aggressive. Its white cousin is bigger, more benign, but just as capable of causing incredible mayhem and damage. They are thick-skinned.  And in species survival terms, they are successful. 

I am not an expert, but I have sat for many hours watching them.  What do I recall? 

·         They certainly don’t normally do it – communities that is for they mostly walk alone

·         They aren’t a peer species – a strict hierarchy is evident on those few occasions where groups are together. And there is little that is more awe-inspiring than to see an adult bull rhino on the charge after a cow who has in some way broken the rules

·         They are fiercely territorial – and will kill intruders of their own rare species to defend territory

·         Their learning is very directed, with mothers taking great, protective care to teach and shield their babies

·         The learning curve is long – the young stay with their mothers for years before venturing away on their own

·         They do things the same way they have for all those millions of years – at least that is what it appears on the outside

·         They don’t seem to take much notice of what is happening around them – why should they?  They survive well and, poachers apart, have few threats to their well-being

·         They have for millions of years been on an evolutionary route to nowhere – but somehow they survive – perhaps because of their great size

·         In the face of poaching, the conservators who love them have gathered round to protect them and ensure their survival – driven on by fear of the potential horror of a world without them 

So why did I mention my friends, the vendors and some consultants in e-learning? 

In a world in which change is happening fast – as it is in the battle for survival that all wild-life has– I see many vendors exhibiting some rhino-like characteristics. 

The basic need to survive in business seems for many to obscure the fact that the world around them is changing – and moving away from what was once their security. 

No longer does the world at large want courses whether online, or face to face, bespoke or generic as it is increasingly influenced by the social media driven shift towards individuality, self-learning, experiential discovery and a regaining of the power of conversation in community.  But many are still rushing headlong down the rapids to find ever quicker ways of cooking up a new dish to satisfy eager managerial mouths seduced into thinking that “training will fix the problem”. 

Gone are the days of command and control when L&D could dictate a syllabus or curriculum to line, aided by weak senior authorisation that failed to see the hazards of the “mandatory” training  intervention. Business leaders now look at the value add and the costs of L&D – and the evidence of their conclusions is clear in the declining budgets that are repeatedly and depressingly reported.  

Business is too fast and too focused now on changing to survive to have time for obsessive recording and measuring of everything that moves and changes, so the LMS is waning.  But many of its suppliers cling on – adding clever desktops and other functionality (that rightfully belong with the IT department and with business processes) – in a bid to extend their existence. 

Hierarchical and autocratic control is challenged everywhere in our lives, at work, at home and in the wider national and world environments in which we live.  Networked, information driven, collaborative and at the same time individual, we have moved as a global society that does not want prescription, one size fits all solutions, or above all being told what is good for it in the way people learn as they live and work.  The world has become a global social learning environment in which informality, mutuality and collaboration are the energising concepts. 

The vendor community (with its consultants) is rightly admired and respected by its clients for its past assistance and current ability to create ever more clever products.  Why then does it seem to try now to hold back the tsunami of change to an informal, collaborative, networked, more individually directed culture that is sweeping through our world, fuelled by the very tools and platforms that built the industry?  To hear of a vendor telling a client that “it is too soon to engage in social learning, we will help you with that transition over a 5 year period” is about as savvie as Canute sitting on the seashore and daring the waves to come in! 

The hi-jacking and distortion of words and concepts – and their reinterpretation in forms developed out of an inward self-preservation interest – performs no service of trust to those clients for whom the vendors vie so territorially and aggressively.  Trying to stifle insight about the implications of global sociological shift and to shield clients on whom the industry depend from understanding the change is a kind of censorship and misinformation that in our modern investigative society will soon be seen to be hollow.  It will be swept away like the debris of those terrible waves. There needs to be an understanding that it is not just from the viewpoint of L&D that the SoMe tsunami can be seen – other business functions are also aware of it! 

Just as the in-company L&D professional has to recognise the giant wave of the communication revolution, and to work with the line to interpret it and help employees use it to business advantage, so too the vendor industry and its consultants have a duty to do the same for the hand that feeds them.  Those that do will survive.  Those that look inward and persist in building self-preservation strategies will surely go the way of all businesses that fail to understand and adapt to their changing environment. 

The rhino survives, just, but plods its own singular path seemingly oblivious to what is happening around it.  Our modern world and the world of learning is one that calls for rapid adaptation, change and collaboration.  It is one in which survival for client and vendor alike will depend on facing the facts of the changing landscape honestly and collaboratively. 

We must all work together to ensure we discharge our common duty – to help every individual to learn to the best of their ability and to fulfil their life potential.

Monday, 17 October 2011


During the two weeks I’ve been quiet on this blog I’ve had a chance to take stock of where those of us in the Working Smarter and social learning space are positioned. There have been some superb conversations, especially last week’s #realwplearn on the subject of online communities and how they can be supported.  The discussion lasting a whole hour had not one mention of courses, structure or measurement!  The folks in the #chat really got stuck into understanding what communities are, their role in the workplace and what is needed for them to succeed. 

"Community" is becoming a buzz word and we need to be careful that, like so many other terms, it is not corrupted to acquire a compromised understanding that is at variance with the real meaning of the word. Vested interests have a track record of hi-jacking words, often blocking the way to insight and change. 

Vlatka Hlupic writing in “Leadership”  ( says The need for a new mindset and leadership skills has never been more urgent, but translating it into action remains a challenge for many…… I see evidence pointing to a community-based, collaborative approach where leaders eschew formal power, delegate responsibilities rather than tasks, relax their control and empower employees to make decisions on the basis of their knowledge, skills and experience rather than on their formal position in the organisational hierarchy. 

In response to a thread in the Social Learning Community I wrote: 

“L&D in most organisations faces a huge task to regain its rightful place at the table as a key resource towards performance improvement. To do so it must be characterised by a sensitive supportive culture, offering assistance based in understanding of the organisation and its people needs. Anything prescriptive will not work and will be washed away in the tsunami that is the social media revolution - which L&D does not own and in which it needs to recognise it has to fight for its own survival.” ( 

The point is that the operational side of our organisations is waking up to the need for change, driven by economics and in some cases by dawning of the power of the wirearchy and collaborative connection to create business improvement.  In some places L&D has woken up to the same thing and is working hard to establish for itself a place to stand in support of those new ways of working.  What L&D has to be careful of is sliding back into its all too frequent mindset of trying to tell the business what is good for it. L&D’s insight is great, but any insight is frequently more powerful to the one who has it than to those to whom it is subsequently exposed! 

L&D has to have a genuine change of culture, and mindset, something that is far removed from anything associated with tell, structure or direct.  Memories are long and people are adept at detecting a wolf in sheep’s clothing!  Vlata again, in the same post ……. it is important that organisations change their culture on a sustainable basis. To do that, they must change their mindset and distribute authority and decision making on the basis of knowledge and skills rather than on formal position in the organisational hierarchy.
They also need to support self-organisation in informal networks and communities of interests, encourage collaboration, knowledge sharing and experimentation with ideas. Last but not least, developing a caring culture based on trust and transparency is also an important part of this strategy, which can make a significant impact on staff engagement, productivity and overall performance of an organisation.”
How well put! I referred earlier to the tsunami that is the Social Media revolution.  Embracing the tools, seeing their potential for helping people learn, being able to devise new super-smart, sophisticated learning aids such as the emergent “Virtual Experiential Manipulations” talked about by Steve Wheeler, are all great.  Becoming Learning Champions who take the time and trouble to lock the office door and get out into the business and understand it in order to be able, and earn the right, to suggest ways of solving problems that come from the L&D environment is all very well. 
If our behaviour and the language we use is not in keeping with the new world that Vlata describes and which others like the Internet Time Alliance are trying to interpret for us, then L&D will indeed be swept away, identified as non value-adding and irrelevant to a modern world.
Our new world has choices about how organisations and individuals learn – and the L&D function is only one of them!