Speed to Proficiency     Creating a sustainable competitive advantage

Archive for November 2015


There’s “stuff” and there’s “conversations about stuff.” And it’s the conversations that are the heart of collaboration.

A few years ago, we were helping a F500 customer develop their Vice President’s Leadership Program. It used an action learning model, and featured a 9-month project where each team would brief the company’s executive committee on their recommendations for new markets.

Collaboration between team members was essential – and the ability to collaborate was in fact one of the desired outcomes of the program.

Teams brainstormed on ideas. They divided up research tasks and reported results back to the group. They decided on a new market together. They determined how this would be presented to the executives and once again divided responsibilities for the creation and delivery of the presentation.

However, the team members were distributed across North America! The could only meet face to face three times during the nine months due to travel restrictions, and one of those meetings was to make the presentation.

How did they work together? They used three tools: The telephone for synchronous conversations, WebEx for synchronous meetings, and a robust discussion forum for doing the work. Individual topics within the forum organized their collaboration:

  • A topic for general conversations
  • A topic for maintaining records of meetings
  • One topic for each research area
  • One topic for follow-up ideas and discussions about the market area they finally chose
  • One topic for each section of the report, where drafts were posted, read by others, and comments made

We can characterize this collaboration as consisting of conversations for action around shared content. But the heart of the collaboration was not the documents (the content). Brainstorming, decision making and planning were done via conversation. Documents were the result. In fact, even the preparation of documents was conversational in nature, as drafts would be prepared, discussed, reviewed, and enhanced.

Having run a 100% virtual company for 15 years and launched any number of online business communities of various types, I have come to believe that conversations for action are at the heart of collaboration, not shared documents that anyone can edit and comment on. I’ve also come to believe that synchronous technologies are great for meetings, but fundamentally, meetings are not where the work or collaboration happens. They are bookends that frame the work. The majority of collaboration in distributed teams happens asynchronously, and the right tools need to be available for this. More on these tools in another post.

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spam-smallI was reading some posts in LinkedIn and ran across one on how to use LinkedIn groups to add value to your business. Written by a marketer for other marketers, one of the things the author recommended was scheduled auto-postings in groups. I find this practice disgusting and I have zero respect for companies that promote and use it.

Companies and their shills using these techniques are ruining LinkedIn’s communities. In community after community, marketing spam takes the place of interpersonal interaction – i.e., the essence of what communities were designed to be and promote.

The original notion of these communities is that they would offer venues for (in my case) Learning and Knowledge Management professionals to exchange ideas, share knowledge, and build professional networks. This is the essence of this type of this type of online social network – or as LinkedIn prefers to call it, community.

And there’s nothing wrong with building your reputation by participating in such communities; and there’s nothing wrong with offering resources to others. Unfortunately, that becomes a slippery slope.


I’m currently participating in half a dozen great discussions in LinkedIn groups, several of which I started. I’ve started some with a simple question. I’ve started others with a controversial position or question that is then backed up with a blog post; however, I try to ensure that people can discuss the topic without having to read the supporting post.

There’s a middle ground that I also participate in occasionally, posting a link to a webinar. I’m conflicted about this, because it doesn’t really promote community, and I do it only when (a) I am at the top or near top in being a group contributor, (b) 75% or more of the other recent posts are links out with no discussion, and (b) most importantly, I am offering the webinar primarily for the professional development of attendees and not simply to sell some product or other. But as I say I’m conflicted, and I respect the communities that disallow such posts.

The posts that I abhor are ones that

  • Are click bait, the purpose of which is simply to get you to click on their link
  • Are dishonest, with titles that promise or suggest the author is taking a substantive position on a professional issue and wants to start a discussion, but are then thinly veiled ads for their LMS or eLearning production services
  • Are not even authored by the poster, who is usually a director of marketing at the company
  • Are posted, presumably by an auto-poster, in scores of groups over and over, or better yet
  • Are posted multiple times – one after the other – in the same group.

I counted 40 posts in a row in one LinkedIn community by the same person – all click bait for a product pitch.

It’s the tragedy of the commons, and if these auto-posted click baits aren’t reined in, fewer and fewer professionals will come to LinkedIn communities that aren’t tightly moderated. It’s a disgusting marketing practice that people use to selfishly put themselves and their product promotion ahead of everyone else.

As a consultant, one thing I’m trying to do is to make note of companies that I see doing this over and over, and ensuring that when I help implementors to choose vendors, I specifically mention this type of practice and companies that do it to them.

How does everyone else feel about this? What do you recommend doing about it?

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collideI wrote a blog post called News Flash: A LOT of work is boring the other day. A colleague responded and said, “Hopefully the boring task is connected in some way to a greater purpose, such as to one of the missions or goals of the company.”

Perhaps I’m just in a weird mood this morning, but that got me thinking. In that other post, I took the example of claims processing as a fairly boring task. In this case, the company’s communications department could weave together a narrative that by processing claims quickly and accurately, they are helping suffering claimants get on with their lives.

Unfortunately, in this case, the SVP of Learning that insurer once said to me, very frankly, that claim adjusters are trained to find any reason they can to deny or limit the payout on a claim. When you think about it, that makes sense if the purpose of the claim process may be to add to short-term shareholder value by limiting the amount the company has to pay out. But it may not sit well with the individual claim adjuster or processor. So trying to motivate the person to learn by appealing to underlying values may be a losing proposition.

Is this an isolated example, or do many workers face situations where their personal values are not in sync with what constitutes doing the job “well” in the eyes of the line of business owner? Ignoring sick cattle in a slaughterhouse… Passing a weld or seal in a space shuttle that is marginal…  Denying a claim because of the letter of the law… Not reporting violations of civil liberties because it would buck the system… Working on a research grant that obviously has a political agenda…

What does this semi-rant have to do with learning and development? I guess it’s this. Often I read descriptions of motivating employees for training that seem aspirational in nature, and don’t match with the reality I see day to day. In my original post, for example, I suggested that the claim adjuster’s job was boring, and this needed to be taken into account in creating a training and development program. Now I’m also suggesting that talking about how important this job is may not be a “fix” for this, as it calls into question underlying values and may provoke an internal response of “bullshit.”

I guess my conclusion is that if we use interventions that rely on the internal desire of employees to be all that they can be and that assume that they are as motivated as we senior level consultants are, we may be fooling ourselves.

Or perhaps I just put too little sugar in my coffee this morning. What do you think?

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boring-smallMy great grandfather made bricks every day. My grandfather held down three jobs to put mom through college. My dad worked at a civil service job he cordially hated – when he had a heart problem that permitted a medical retirement, he refused to have a retirement ceremony – he never went back in the building.

Most of the claim processors I train do not get a tremendous amount of personal satisfaction from their work. They don’t get a lot of pay for it, either. Work is something they do for eight hours to pay the rent, so they can then live their lives.

I’d even hesitate a guess that there are a lot more workers like this than there are workers in fulfilling, interesting, high paying jobs within most enterprises.

It’s weird to me that in the learning field, we talk so much about knowledge workers, about creating positive attitudes towards ones job, about making content that is compelling and interesting. We talk about Enterprise 2.0 and the flattening of the organization. About collaboration and knowledge sharing.

Since the 70’s, we’ve been bombarded with “find your dream,” “follow your passion,” and somehow led to believe that fulfillment and financial sustainability will follow.

We don’t talk about my dad. We don’t talk about the claim adjusters I train. I believe that thinking about these folks and their phenomenal world has gotten way too little attention in our field.

How should this influence our practice?

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assimilateOne of the primary things I think about in designing learning experiences is the word assimilation. Assimilation is a term popularized by the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, and refers to the process of digesting information or experiences to incorporate them into our existing cognitive structures. I like the word digest, because – like with food – we must actively chew the information up in order for our minds to digest it; otherwise, most of the nutrition is lost and the majority of the new information simply eliminated (so to speak).

Assimilation is an active experience – in fact, it’s the psychological reason why we need to have learners actively involved in the learning process.

Without it, instruction is only broadcasting content and hoping learners absorb it.

And hope is not a method.

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electronic-coach-smallSometimes I see “coaches” in higher-end eLearning modules. For instance, there may be some circles with pictures of “coaches” in them. Each coach is there to answer a question. That answer may be text, or a talking head video that allows you to spend two or three minutes listening to what you could have read in 20% of that time.

Using them makes me think of talking to a brain-dead Siri. They are a failed attempt to simulate a live human interaction with another live human being. And honestly, I don’t see the point.

Why are they there? I guess that the answer is that it makes the eLearning more “interactive.”

Interactive. That’s an interesting word. It used to mean people interacting with people. Now it refers to people interacting with computers – or computers interacting with each other, I suppose.

The thing that’s missing with these electronic pseudo-coaches is a human interaction where you ask the coach a question and you receive an adaptive answer to your question. Then you ask another question and what ensues is, well, a dialog.

Enough with the pseudo-coaches. If the question is important enough to post a stock answer, then build it into the eLearning module. There’s no reason you need to have a fake coach answering a pre-programmed question. It’s a parody of a human interaction does not really humanize the situation. All it does is to allow you to market your product in a different way.

Worse, by suggesting that you’ve built coaching into the product, it might appear to the uninitiated that you’ve checked of the coaching checkbox, so nothing further needs to be done, and perpetuates the myth that all training can be done via eLearning modules.

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