The Evolution of Workplace Learning

Back in 2009, Dr. Tony Karrer predicted that Workplace Learning Professionals would morph into “management consultants”.

At the time, my reaction was “I dunno – that term seems so charged.” 

I think of the overpriced “consultants” that have invaded more than one of my corporate environments because decision-makers won’t listen to people from within the organization. (It means more if they are spending thousands of dollars for the same advice.) 

I think of the management gurus who tell us how to play nice with others, climb the corporate ladder, and win friends and influence people.

Dr. Karrer talked about how the definition of “management” will change.

11 years later, much of what Dr. Karrer wrote about is still true.

We’re still grappling with push vs. pull.

We’re still grappling with the notion that learning is always happening, not just in the classroom.

For those of us with time in the Workplace Learning trenches, our bread-and-butter is making change stick. Or…it should be.

It is NOT the development of courses – classroom, blended, online, or any combination of such.

It’s not even in the implementation ceremonies that mark projects.

11 years later, I find myself as a Change Management consultant.

It doesn’t feel like a very dramatic change – That’s what we (Workplace Learning experts) should have been doing this entire time. Behavior change.

Our jobs are changing and it is becoming progressively clearer that we are becoming “knowledge gardeners” and change managers.

Thinking about the tools I’m building and the programs I’m developing today – 11 years later, this is how my career has evolved.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but in all of the places I’ve worked the training department(s) have been in the unusual position of being able to touch and connect across all departments in an organization. As a result, training departments are in a great position to connect people, synthesize disparate processes and share information.

We talk about creating learning environments.

We talk about breaking down organizational barriers.

Maybe that’s where we need to focus our energies. Creating and cultivating learning environments. Not just tools – LMS, tutorials, courseware, etc. The material remains of information. The “activities” of learning.

We also need to help create a cultural environment. All of our materials are (supposedly) built with attitude and behavior shift in mind – why not direct those skills towards broader cultural purposes?

I’m still helping people get the information they need. Encouraging people within any organization or group I work with to talk to each other and share what they know. Facilitating learning when they need and want it (preferably in much smaller chunks than they are getting now). 

Those things have not changed over the years.

Those of us in the trenches of change – the project managers, developers, designers, business analysts, and trainers – need to gain familiarity with all of the tools that will help make change stick, not just the ones specific to our specialties.

We’re being asked to enlarge our toolkits – and determine wise and best use of our tools.

We’re being asked to combine what works across specializations to find what most effectively creates the results we want in the context we are in.

Using whatever our favorite tool is across all problems can only take us so far.

I don’t have any prediction for how my career will change over the next 10 years. I’m somewhat shocked (and partially dismayed) that much of what Dr. Karrer and I wrote 11 years ago has proven to be so evergreen.

What I do know is that today’s environment requires me to learn personal agility, discernment, and vision-setting. I need to learn and practice relationship building and safe space creation.

I need to continue being a catalyst for change.

What about you?

Fast Zebras

Almost 10 years ago, Harvard Business Review introduced the idea of “Fast Zebras.”

A fast zebra is someone who is singularly focused on achieving performance results, knows how the organization can both hinder and help, and charts their course accordingly. In particular, they are wise about when to use the formal and rational elements of organization (such as hierarchy, processes, and monetary rewards) and when to use the informal and emotional elements (including values, networks, and feelings about the work).

Jon Katzenbach, How “Fast Zebras” Navigate Informal Networks

I’m somewhat surprised that the idea of “fast zebras” didn’t get more traction.

My suspicion is that “Fast Zebras” threaten organizational hierarchies and, ultimately, leave hostile environments.

Environments often have effective antibodies to rogue elements like “Fast Zebras.”

The concept was also marketed towards organizational leaders. In my experience, most “Fast Zebras” can be found lurking within your line staff.

The project managers, organizational trainers, senior engineers, and business analysts who have worked on many projects, have cultivated strong relationships throughout the organization, and know where the bodies are stashed.

People in hierarchical positions of power, particularly in deeply conservative organizations, often need to maintain the hierarchy. Middle and senior managers are often hamstrung by having to “keep appearances” among their peers and seniors. These individuals are quickly reminded about their “place” and attempts to go around the formal hierarchy are ruthlessly punished. The punishment is often covert and long-lasting.

Individual contributors have a great oppotunity.

We are not entirely beholden to the structure.

We are beholden to results and getting the job done.

In many instances, we need to work around the structure to get work done.

As one of my project management colleagues not-so-gently reminded the Mucky Muck as he wrongly chided the line staff about not working across silos, “If I don’t work across silos, I can’t get anything done.”

Every other line staffer in the room nodded in agreement.

One of the engineers chimed in – “Your problem with silos is with the management. We work together all the time. Heck, half the time we don’t even talk to our managers because then we’d have to wait for the silos to work.”

The project manager and engineer are the “Fast Zebras.”

Are you?

How Our Attention Gets Hijacked

We are easily manipulated into compliance with someone else’s demands.

Robert Cialdini, Regents’ Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University, identified six principles that, when used deftly, can cause an individual to say “yes” to a request:

  • Reciprocation
  • Consistency
  • Social Proof
  • Liking
  • Authority
  • Scarcity

Think about the number of people taking up residence in your inbox right now. Take out the people you know – co-workers, clients, potential clients, and people contacting you for help. 

If your inbox is anything like mine, what is left is a collection of people who asked for my email in exchange for information – a PDF, or video access, maybe even a book (Reciprocation).

They then use this email to send me more email – sometimes multiple times a day (Consistency).

Occasionally, they will send a testimonial about their work and how awesome they are (Social Proof).

Most of them write in a friendly, conversational tone (Liking).

Many of them will have letters behind their names or may have held important jobs at prestigious organizations.  Barring that, they will share brand-name organizations and important individuals they have worked with (Authority).

These emails contain a call to action that expires at a random time to encourage me … strongly … to ACT NOW!!!! (Scarcity).

This dynamic occurs regularly in daily life.

  • Have you ever performed a favor that you don’t want to do to Reciprocate for something they did for you in the past?
  • Did you ever do a task because the requestor Consistently hounded you about it?
  • Have you ever found yourself chanting at a sporting event, rally, or all-hands meeting (Social Proof)?
  • Have you ever done something for someone simply because they asked, and you like them (Likability)?
  • Do you have a boss that leverages Authority to get you to participate in a project you have no interest in? 
  • Have you ever scrambled to get a report done because a client set a tight deadline (Scarcity), then that same person didn’t even look at your deliverable until 2 weeks later (if at all)?

Cialdini observed that these techniques tend to trigger automatic behavior patterns in people. These patterns, Cialdini noted, “tend to be learned rather than inborn, more flexible than the lock-step patterns of the lower animals, and responsive to a larger number of triggers.”[1]

We have these automatic patterns because we are looking for the shortcut. 

“You and I exist in an extraordinarily complicated environment, easily the most rapidly moving and complex that has ever existed on this planet. To deal with it, we NEED shortcuts (emphasis his). We can’t be expected to recognize and analyze all the aspects in each person, event, and situation we encounter in even one day. We haven’t the time, energy or capacity for it. Instead, we must very often use our stereotypes, our rules of thumb, to classify things according to a few key features and then to respond without thinking when one or another of these trigger features is present.”[2] 

Robert Cialdini, On Influence

Others who are clear on their intention can leverage this to their own benefit. The amount of information noise we grapple with makes us less likely to have both the desire and the ability to analyze information or requests very carefully.[3] 

Skillful manipulators know that we are working in an environment of information overload, and often help to CREATE that overload. That overload reduces our desire and ability to discern what is important to us and whether what is being asked of us is in our best interest.

The best way to fight back is to define for ourselves our values and vision.


[1] (Influence, Kindle loc 295)

[2] (Influence, Kindle loc 362-368)

[3] (citation: Epley, N. and Gilovich,T, (2006), The anchoring-and-adjustment heuristic: Why adjustments are insufficient, Psychological Science, 17, 311-318; Petty & Wegener, (1999), The elaboration likelihood model: Current status and controversies. In S. Chaiken & Y. Trope (Eds.), Dual process theories in social psychology, pp 41-72. New York: Guilford.  As cited in Influence)

What Are You Amplifying?

What are you amplifying?

All that is “wrong” with the world?

All that is “right”?

All that you want?

All that you don’t?

Oneness or separation?

Love or hatred?

Joy or sorrow?

It’s become clear, to me at least, that it’s time to become mindful and careful about what we are amplifying.

We have been seeing it in the conversations around Facebook, “fake news” and “deep fakes.”

We see it in our Amazon experience.

We see it in the ads that are served to us as we surf the Net.

Each time you click something, buy something, watch something, pause on something – you are amplifying.

Artificial intelligence and quantum computing algorithms begin to shape your world based on what you are paying attention to.

Complicating matters, we are hard-wired to focus on the dangerous and negative. Marketers and those who wish to spread their message know this and act accordingly.

We’re easily manipulated, even when we are doing our best to be mindful.

Think about a time that was traumatic and dramatic.

Now try to remember a time where all was well in your world and everything was peaceful.

How quickly did you remember the trauma and the drama?

How hard was it to remember a peaceful time?

Think about the news? How much of it is trauma and drama?

How much of it is positive?

So much is competing for our attention and doing so in ways that are noisy and negative. Our brains like that.

We are going to keep being fed the noisy and negative – because that is what we are amplifying.

What do you want to do to break the cycle? Change what gets amplified?

What we pay attention to is going to shape our world.

What world do you want to live in?


Resources:

I find that when a topic begins to cross my path repeatedly, it’s time to pay attention. Quantum computing, recently, has been that topic.

What makes Quantum Computing so interesting, and scary, is that it potentially takes information and either amplifies or cancels it. We are seeing this work in current AI algorithms using binary (classical) programming and current technologies.

Introduction to Quantum Computing (Lynda.com – non-affiliate link, 60 minutes) This is the Lynda.com tutorial that got me thinking about Amplification. Mid-way through, one of the experts mentioned waves, troughs, and how they amplify and cancel each other. She mentioned that this concept is being leveraged in Quantum Computing and AI applications.

The Grand Challenge and Promise of Quantum Computing (GoTo 2019, 45 minutes) A clear explanation of what quantum computing is and potential applications.

Tristan Harris – How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds (Medium article) Tristan Harris was a technology ethicist at Google. He describes the “behind the scenes” of how technologies are being leveraged to take over our attention.

What is Your Relationship to Your Environment?

I find that there are 4 dominant approaches:

Appease the Environment – The assumption here is that the environment is hostile and unpredictable. The best way to cope is to appease whatever “God” controls your environment. (ie: your boss and/or other people in a position of power; any higher power – gods, goddesses, spirits, etc)

Control the Environment – Most leadership training is about “controlling your environment.” Evaluating the environment so you can change it – ideally so that it works the way YOU want it to. Process improvement and system thinking approaches tend to fall into this category. The implicit assumption is that your way is the right way.

Become One With the Environment – This approach deals with the tension between what is best for the environment that surrounds you and what is best for you. It helps to know exactly what you are “becoming one with.” Most people who talk about “becoming one” approach it with an idealized vision of what the environment they are working with is (or should be – which starts sneaking into “control.” It’s good to have this idealized vision. It’s also good to be realistic about what you are working with right now. Sometimes, the best option is to go find an environment that best matches you and will help you thrive.

Get Perspective On the Environment – This approach aims to gain perspective, then optimize.

Key questions – What are we trying to accomplish? What does the environment look like right now? Is there enough within that environment where we can accomplish those goals – or do we need to set either preliminary goals OR set entirely new goals? What are the components within that environment that we can optimize so that it works for EVERYONE within that environment and still achieve our goals? What do we need to “weed”?

This approach reminds me of permaculture. Permaculture aims to use the environment you find yourself in and grow plants that will work best in that environment.

Depending upon your goals (such as – “I want a vegetable garden”), you plant seeds.

There are parts of your environment you can’t control – such as the weather.

There are other parts that you can – such as the seeds you plant

Some vegetables will thrive in your environment. For example, I live in Virginia. Lettuce does well here in the spring. If I were in the tropics, lettuce is do-able but more challenging. Lettuce (particularly varieties such as Iceberg) will bolt or rot in the heat and humidity.

What is your default?

Does your default change based on your context?


Don Beck and Chris Cowan’s Spiral Dynamics has shaped my thinking around “fit your solution to the environment you find yourself in” vs. “solve the problem”

Two books provide excellent examples of “fitting your solution to your existing environment”:

  • Memenomics – Said Dawalbani’s analysis of the evolution of economies. Beautifully written and thought-provoking.
  • Spiral Dynamics in Action – A series of case studies for applied Spiral Dynamics. The Case Studies focus on national-level solutions, but there is much here that we can pull for smaller-scale efforts.

Links are Amazon affiliate links. I earn a few cents if you purchase through these links. Thank you for supporting my work.

We are ALWAYS Learning

The discussion of “Learning Organizations” and their various consultant-defined flavors is starting to get to me.

We are ALWAYS learning.

Each time I talk to a person, I am learning something.

Each time I step into a meeting, I am learning something.

Each time I enter an environment, I am learning something.

But am I learning what you WANT me to learn?

When I talk to you – am I learning that you are a jerk?

When I step into a meeting – am I learning that my ideas aren’t valued because I am not one of the ‘chosen ones?’

When I enter your environment, am I learning that your environment is hostile?

Is this your intent?

If you want people to learn that you are a jerk, that their ideas have no value, and that your environment only works for a select few – great!

Call it “selective,” “exclusive,” or whatever floats your boat. At least be honest and clear about your intent. Be mindful that this is what you WANT people to learn about you and your organization.

The question is not “How do I develop a ‘learning organization.’ “

The question is “What are people currently learning, do I need to change it, and what do I need to do to best support what I want people to learn?”

Please stop treating it as something separate and apart from day-to-day life or as something special.

We are ALWAYS learning.

Are we learning what you want us to learn?

The Myth of “Fearing Change”

I hear so much noise about how “people fear change” and “people don’t want to change.”

I don’t think that’s true.

They just don’t want to be herded through YOUR change.

They don’t want you inflicting your change onto them.

The people you are trying to lead aren’t stupid.

When I hear resistance, I hear variations of the following:

  • I don’t see what’s in this for me OR I see how this will hurt me.
  • You have not provided enough time or support to guide me through this.
  • I don’t feel like I can succeed with the way your change is structured.
  • Your expectations for what this change is going to do for us are unrealistic.
  • Your change is disconnected from the vision/values you claim to espouse.

I’ve witnessed individuals make dramatic changes very successfully.

Pivoting to new careers, building new skills, developing creative solutions, adapting to new environments and requirements.

They do these things often in spite of “leadership” and the systems in which they work.

Workers seem to be more adaptive and optimistic about the future than their leaders recognize. The conventional wisdom, of course, is that workers fear that technology will make their jobs obsolete. But our survey revealed that to be a misconception. A majority of the workers felt that advances such as automation and artificial intelligence would have a positive impact on their future. In fact, they felt that way about two-thirds of the forces. What concerned them most were the forces that might allow other workers—temporary, freelance, outsourced—to take their jobs.

https://hbr.org/2019/05/your-workforce-is-more-adaptable-than-you-think

The authors of this Harvard Business Review article found that the lower-income and middle-skilled workers they surveyed had a more nuanced perspective of the forces changing the economy and the workplace, and their role in it, than their managers did.

What the workers are looking for is support and guidance to prepare for future employment. They are looking for environments where they can learn and grow. They understand the necessity of change and of learning.

The workplace offers opportunities to embed learning into the day-to-day.

This can be done through project selection and design, work assignments balancing the skill of the employee and the complexity of the task, incorporating regular performance and learning reflection opportunities at key milestones, and opportunities to discuss organizational strategy and share perspectives.

There’s no big, new systemic change involved here. It’s all things we are already doing (or trying to do). We work on projects. We perform tasks. We have performance reviews (either formally or informally). We discuss strategy and share perspectives (both horizontally and vertically).

The shift is in perspective.

Do you see the people you lead as people or as a “resource” to be “maximized?”

I suspect that if you see people as a “resource” – any talk of “how to make my employees more adaptable” is a waste of time.